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Pale Fire - Nabokov 2013 > Discussion - Week Two – Pale Fire - Commentary, Canto One and Two, p. 71 – 222

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William Mego (willmego) | 119 comments Week two, I hope people have just been saving up their comments through week one!

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Jim | 3056 comments Mod
Wow! Okay so Kinbote reveals his proclivities and probable insanities from the very first of his commentaries. He sends us into the interior of the poem to see another mention of the waxwing - not that strange in itself - but then redirects us to the lengthy commentary for line 998 where he reveals what a big hard-on he had (has?) for his impotent gardener. TMI right from the start!

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Zadignose | 444 comments I'm really liking the book now. It must be said this is a nutty nutty book. By the end of the foreword and the poem, I was expecting the book to get pretty strange. Instead it went from mildly strange to full out madness very quickly.

In some ways Nabokov seems to be taking the kind of madness that is present in a Gogol short (The Nose, the Overcoat, but especially Diary of a Madman) and developing it on a larger scale (could there really be such a thing as a novel-length Diary of a Madman?).

It's amazing how the "commentary" on the poem is a total failure at actually commenting on the poem. I'm entertained in equal parts by Kinbote's pathetic obsessions/delusions and by his total incompetence in interpreting/understanding the poem he purports to illuminate.

Very funny, to me, was the comment to Line 316: "The Toothwart White haunted our woods in May." Kinbote completely fails to understand that poets sometimes place an adjective after a noun... and so he gets hung up on the grammar of "White" as a noun. He can't see the obvious that Shade meant "White Toothwart," but instead sees it as some incomprehensible or obscure reference to cabbage butterflies or something.

In a similar vein, Commentary to Lines 120-121: "five minutes were equal to forty ounces, etc." Kinbote shows he's incapable of simple algebra, and doesn't consider it worth his energy to even try understanding the point at which the author is getting at, without quibbling over numbers he can't grasp and then getting diverted once again on his own personal tangent.

Yet he insolently criticizes (in Line 71 commentary) a rival commentator for such a trivial "error" as improper capitalization (referring to the bird species Bombycilla shadei as Bobycilla Shadei, in contradiction to the style that requires the "specific name" within a species to use lowercase... a detail which, of course, Nabokov is sure to be aware of, but quite capable of poking fun at as a triviality). In the same note, Kinbote hypocritically indicates that he knows that in a commentary such as this "placid scholarship should reign," but he's the least capable of placid scholarship of any commentator I've encountered.

His rivalry and spitefulness towards Sybil is also a constant source of amusement.

One must wonder, while going, to what extent Kinbote identifies himself with the king Charles the Beloved. (I half expect, a la Gogol: "To-day is a day of splendid triumph. Spain has a king; he has been found, and I am he. I discovered it today; all of a sudden it came upon me like a flash of lightning."). Anyway, he relates details of King Charles Xavier's life that no one but the King himself could know... but then he does this for other characters too, and sometimes he seems to make a clear distinction between himself and the king... hmmm...

(Speaking of the king, what sometimes wonderful and sometimes terrible and perverse fantasies he entertains! A chute to deliver him from bed to swimming pool, hidden passageways within cupboards, leading to theater stages... and entire heaps of sexually abused boys, literally tossed aside into a filthy vestibule!)

Meanwhile, in some ways, this book has been a test for me. It kind of goes against my nature to imagine a book can be great if I'm not taken with it very quickly. A book which seems to be 1/3 setup is an alien creature to me. In contradiction to the group name Brain Pain, and the reading habits of many members, I personally almost never push myself to keep reading a work in the hope that it will pay off in the end so long as I'm willing to work at it. Most of the great books that I love, though others may view them as difficult reads, are not difficult to me because they engage me quickly. But this time the experiment seems to be paying off. Largely, I think, because it's ultimately a fun and playful approach to literature, not a heavy riddle which, if you don't appreciate it, it is implied that you didn't "get it."

But then, I dunno... can't ultimately appraise until completing it, and actually I usually find that it takes a few weeks after finishing a book for me to come to terms with what I really think of it... and looking back at on-the-run commentary, I question my own initial impressions.

Jane from B.C. (janethebookworm) | 4 comments I am very much enjoying this wacky,wacky read. I have decided to read the commentary straight though and not jump back and forth to other commentary notes or even the poem as direct by our dillusional Dr. Kinbote. As Kinbote's interpretation of Shade's poem is so off the mark, I feel that I just want to ride along in his crazy world and see where it goes.

I still chuckle at the instructions that he gave the reader in the final paragraph of the Forward:

"....[the] notes, in conformity with the custom, come after the poem, the reader is advised to consult them first and then study the poem with their help, rereading them of course as he goes through his text, perhaps after having done with the poem, consulting them a third time as to complete the picture."

This is a much more enjoyable read than I expected.

message 5: by Sosen (last edited Sep 03, 2013 04:31PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Sosen | 38 comments Zadignose wrote: One must wonder, while going, to what extent Kinbote identifies himself with the king Charles the Beloved. (I half expect, a la Gogol: "To-day is a day of splendid triumph. Spain has a king; he has been found, and I am he. I discovered it today; all of a sudden it came upon me like a flash of lightning."). Anyway, he relates details of King Charles Xavier's life that no one but the King himself could know... but then he does this for other characters too, and sometimes he seems to make a clear distinction between himself and the king... hmmm...

Yes, Kingboat Kinbote seems to take the life of this King Charles way too personally. At some point it occurred to me that he is the king. However, I also like the suggestion that, in his madness, he's simply getting himself confused with the king - thus the long, highly detailed descriptions of the king's escape.

First, Gradus is described as both the man who killed John Shade, and the man who was tasked to kill the king. Of course, that may be misinformation from Kinbote; but if it's true, it can't be a coincidence. Second, neither Charles seems to be particularly influenced by womanly charms. But, again, the king's sexual preferences could have been imagined by Kinbote.

I'm enjoying this more with each page. I'm really excited to learn more about the connections between all of the characters: Kinbote, Shade, Gradus, and the King. From what I've heard about this book, I'm guessing Nabokov only tells us so much.

William Mego (willmego) | 119 comments I'm exhausted from moving an entire library book sale from my garage to the site of the sale, so just a quick note tonight, with more specific challenges to be posted tomorrow, but I promised a while back a map...with trepidation I must deliver...

Our Commentator has, up to this point, proved a funny and ill-focused scholar, easily distracted at best, but quickly we're faced with the possibility of his being totally insane. The level of sexual comments, the constant references to young men of his acquaintance, such as ping-pong and chess partners, roomers, etc, as well as the stories told of the King in his land, point to all kinds of conclusions. However, are we to believe that our King Charles the Beloved even exists in this literary world? More patient minds than I have drawn a map of Zembla from the descriptions given during the various notes to arrive at this available :

[a link for those with browsers who cannot see the image inline: ]

After seeing the *ahem* clearly sexualized land in question, we have to wonder if even that is a figment of his intensely sexual imagination...or is it? In the wonderful, playful way only Nabokov can, a map of Novaya Zemlya will confuse us. So if we recall the two Russians searching the palace for the Crown Jewels, it's pointed out that Russia is a neighbor to Zembla. So is this instead a version of a real place? A madman's dream? Nabokov leaves us wondering.

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Zadignose | 444 comments Well, especially as Wikipedia indicates that Novaya Zemlya is also known as "Nova Zembla," especially in Dutch... well it seems a plausible inspiration/source.

As far as the priapic map, the artist's rendition has perhaps taken some liberties.

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Jim | 3056 comments Mod
Zadignose wrote: "As far as the priapic map, the artist's rendition has perhaps taken some liberties..."

Yes, the island probably isn't that long....

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Zadignose | 444 comments lol

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Zadignose | 444 comments By the way, anyone want to guess at the meaning of "BIC language," or "BIC country"? BIC doesn't seem to be a commonly used acronym for anything, though it's uncommonly used for pretty much everything that starts with the initials B-I-C. It's not a language code, or not a likely one (ethnologue uses it as a code for a moribund language of Papua New Guinea).

Obviously it could be a pure invention, but it's rather remarkable how he throws it in there as though it were a commonplace... of course, he does the same thing with Zembla and Zemblan so...

William Mego (willmego) | 119 comments So some of the difficulty people have with Pale Fire stems from it's construction. Perhaps people who enjoy chess problems, as the author did, will find some close similarities. Anyone who has delved into chess problems know that they have little to do with situations that arise in an actual match, but with fascinating, beautiful, elegant, even philosophic questions that arise from these carefully composed situations. I quote from "Synthesizing Artistic Delight: The Lesson of Pale Fire" by Brian Walter
available at
Near the beginning of his longest note to the poem “Pale Fire,” commentator Charles Kinbote strikes an analogy that resonates throughout Nabokov’s work, likening Charles the Beloved's predicament to "what a composer of chess problems might term a king-in-the-corner waiter of the solus rex type" (Pale Fire 118-9). This description constitutes the most important link between Nabokov’s 1962 novel and the last major work of Russian fiction that he undertook, in 1940, but never finished: an aborted novel that would ultimately survive only in the form of two stories, one of which, entitled “Solus Rex,” prompted Nabokov to explain the term in a brief prefatory note by quoting Blackburne's Terms & Themes of Chess Problems (London, 1907): "'If the King is the only Black man on the board, the problem is said to be of the 'Solus Rex' variety'" (Russian Beauty 140). Like the fateful chess piece who, bereft of all his defenders, must exit the last file and move out onto the board in a desperate attempt to prolong his life and achieve a stale mate, the last king of Zembla will soon forsake his palace for exile, knowing that his enemies will be stalking him to the end. Kinbote finds the analogy so apt, in fact, that he later suggests "Solus Rex" as a fitting title for the poem he thinks he has inspired (PF 296).

Among several other things, then, Pale Fire images the novel as a chess problem, a comparison that applies to much of Nabokov’s work.1 As is often the case, Nabokov anticipated and defined an approach that critics would find useful in the illumination his work, describing the intricate process of solving one of his chess compositions in terms that lend themselves quite well to the reader's experience of Pale Fire:

I remember one particular problem I had been trying to compose for months . . . It was meant for the delectation of the very expert solver. The unsophisticated might miss the point of the problem entirely, and discover its fairly simple, 'thetic' solution without having passed through the pleasurable torments prepared for the sophisticated one. The latter would start by falling for an illusory pattern of play based on a fashionable avant-garde theme . . . which the composer had taken the greatest pains to 'plant' . . . . Having passed through this 'antithetic' inferno the by now ultrasophisticated solver would reach the simple key move . . . as somebody on a wild goose chase might go from Albany to New York by way of Vancouver, Eurasia and the Azores. The pleasant experience of the roundabout route (strange landscapes, gongs, tigers, exotic customs, the thrice-repeated circuit of a newly married couple around the sacred fire of an earthen brazier) would amply reward him for the misery of the deceit, and after that, his arrival at the simple key would provide him with a synthesis of poignant artistic delight. (Speak, Memory 291-2)

Walter goes on to develop that theme in more detail, but for me, I think you can encapsulate almost all you need to know about HOW to read Pale Fire from this quote from Speak, Memory - which if MY memory serves, is the next read on the Spotlight? I remember it most for the staggering beauty of the initial page - The ire some have for it is understandable. It's almost superhumanly difficult in today's world to slow down and consider not only reading a book like this, but as Nabokov is to have said many times to his students,

“Curiously enough, one cannot read a book; one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, and active and creative reader is a rereader.”

― Vladimir Nabokov, Lectures on Literature

William Mego (willmego) | 119 comments Zadignose wrote: "By the way, anyone want to guess at the meaning of "BIC language," or "BIC country"? BIC doesn't seem to be a commonly used acronym for anything, though it's uncommonly used for pretty much everyth..."

It seems that in the translation of Pale Fire into Russian made by Vera Nabokov she has footnoted "BIC" as "Behind the Iron Curtain."

Cited by Donald Barton Johnson on the NABOKV-L listserv:

Sosen | 38 comments I barely noticed this: In the footnote to lines 403-404, Kinbote criticizes Shade for synchronizing John and Sybil watching TV with their daughter's last hours. Of course, throughout the book, he weaves the writing the poem with the approach of Gradus. Subtle!

Also, there seems to be some kind of continuing play of words going on, perhaps between masculine/feminine forms.

I think I can confidently say that most of this book is going quite a ways over my head.

William Mego (willmego) | 119 comments It's the end of the week, I'll finish off this week with my own notes from the commentaries from Canto 1 and Canto 2, and lead off tomorrow with the next thread and my notes for the remainder of the work...I've been trying to find if one thing I noticed is anywhere else, or if I might have found one of those plums....I doubt that, but I'm unable to find it elsewhere..

So by his note for line 12, Kinbote has clearly lost the plot, or rather, he's choosing a different one, and within another note or two, we're faced with the true details about Gradius, or Jack Grey. Note yet another clue about Zembla in the note to line 12, the neighbor "Sosed", itself a Slovene/Russian word for neighbor.

by line 39-40 he's dwelling on Timon, the Shakespeare from which the title is drawn, and I suspect contains multiple levels of reference. After examining the portion of the play from which the title "Pale Fire" was drawn from, I didn't feel as though I found any real clues. But from "Timon of Athens" we can guess a little: Shakespeare's play can be read as a cycle of theft, self-interest, and usury. From 39-40 Kinbote says:
"The sun is a thief: she lures the sea and robs it. The moon is a thief: he steals his silvery light from the sun. The sea is a thief: it dissolves the moon."

Clearly (IMO) Conmal's translations of Shakespeare is meant to be poor, and an extension of the idea of commentators doing disservice to the original works, but is this "deliberate" mistranslation a clue? If Shade has robbed the title from the Sun that is Shakespeare, then has Kinbote stolen from Shade, and as the actual Shakespeare puts it,
The Sea's a thief, whose liquid surge resolves the Moon into salt tears"

Kinbote can certainly be considered to have dissolved Shade, and salt tears will flow.

Aside from the obvious "Con Mal" pun, Brian Boyd and others observe the possible connection to Grand Duke Konstantin Konstaninovich Romanov, which for those interested, can read here:

By the end of the note to line 62, we're given a real clue about Kinbote, in that he interprets the note shoved into his pocket while he demonstrates Zemblan wrestling holds (homoerotic, a constant theme with Kinbote) as pertaining to his mental health, instead of his breath, which we can assume more or less safely (I hope).

Since this has gotten long, I'll stop here with the note for line 109, "Iridule", which is one of several words coined by Nabokov. Both the author and his wife had synesthesia, an interesting book about Nabokov and synesthesia is excerpted here:
To the New York Times on the occasion of his birthday in 1971 he complained that it, amongst other words were not in the dictionary he lugged with him to the south of Portugal (
The link on synesthesia contains a link to the forEward written by Boyd, which contains the following quote:
"(His wife later explained "iridule" to a curious reader: “We have often had the occasion to watch it at Telluride [Colorado, in 1951]. It is single [i.e. not a double rainbow, like the "Twinned Iris" of the previous line], fairly rarely seen and most attractive.”)

More tomorrow...

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Zadignose | 444 comments Constant word coining is an entertaining, though of course sometimes confusing element of Nabokov's writing generally.

Thanks for the tip RE "BIC," by the way.

I guess I'm not supposed to comment on the last part of the book yet, so without spoiling anything I'll just say that the book overall made a convert of me. It's pretty much a laugh-a-minute book throughout the final two thirds. It's still an odd and risky move for the author to have put so much into the setup of the book.

The frequent homosexual innuendo was another element the author played for maximum value, with such indirect comments about "two amusing, very amusing, sailors." etc.

It's interesting that in discussion of Lolita, Nabokov was accused of being a vicious homophobe. Perhaps he was, I don't know. But it's interesting that, when he writes about sex abuse of minors, some suppose he's a pervert himself, or an apologist for perverts, and yet in a modern era where homophobia is taboo (replacing homosexuality, which was once taboo), Nabokov is supposed to be a homophobe, despite writing a homosexual protagonist. In other words, it seems he's always supposed to be the monster; whenever he approaches a controversial subject, there will always be critics who suppose he stands on the wrong side of the issue. Whereas it seems to me that he doesn't write didactically, and doesn't represent an ethical judgment at all.

William Mego (willmego) | 119 comments Somehow with him it's charming instead of annoying to claim irritation that Webster's doesn't contain a bunch of words you made up. Anybody else it's just arrogant pique.

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