Brian Boyd responds to Maurice Couturier

[Editor's note: This message, reproduced here with author Brian Boyd's permission, was originally posted to NABOKV-L, the Electronic Nabokov Discussion Forum, on April 16, 1998, in response to Maurice Couturier's essay "'Which is to be master' in Pale Fire," also available in Zembla.]

In response to Maurice Couturier’s “‘Which is to be master’ in Pale Fire,” may I point out that I find his reports of my previous theory of Shadean authorship of Pale Fire unrecognizable (“According to Boyd’s theory, Kinbote’s extraordinary saga is Shade’s bloated metaphor of his daughter’s pathetic misery and hopeless attempts to gain access to an intangible reality”), and his criticism of my use of manuscript evidence misleading and condescending (“Boyd states somewhat naively that ‘Nabokov decided not to divulge Pale Fire’s secret.’ But is that really what Nabokov was doing? Was he not rather playing another of his little mask games, as he did in peppering his books with anagrammatic doubles? . . . David Lodge pointed out that this was a clear case of intentional fallacy”: is it not more naïve to suppose that, because Nabokov is often ironic, irony should become the default mode in reading him than to determine the presence of irony according to context? and does invoking the intentional fallacy—which really amounts to nothing more than not putting excessive weight on authorial statements of intent outside a work (as if one should ever put excessive weight on any evidence)—not ignore the considerable body of argument in favor of intentionalism in discussions of interpretation in philosophy of language and esthetics over the last dozen years?).

There are indeed telling arguments against the Shadean hypothesis, but it needs a little more attention to the text and a little less reliance on a convenient but rather rusty critical cannon to take decisive aim against Shade-as-author. (For some of them, see my forthcoming “Shade and Shape in Pale Fire,” Nabokov Studies 4, 1998, and Nabokov’s Pale Fire: The Magic of Artistic Discovery, 1999.)

Maurice Couturier concludes by talking of the “near-paranoia, widespread among Nabokovians” in their desire to understand a “tightly-constructed text.” We all attempt to understand each other all the time, and that means using whatever we can, the language, the form, the context, including our knowledge of the speaker or writer. The attempt can be difficult and contentious, especially when we think the meaning matters, but there is no more “paranoia” in trying to get at Nabokov’s meaning than in trying to get at anyone else’s. Nabokov’s very habit of preparing a succession of discoveries for his readers has the consequence that different readers will make somewhat more, somewhat fewer, somewhat different discoveries, in a somewhat different sequence from others, rather like people encountering their world. What is tyrannical or paranoia-inducing about that? After talking about some of the metaphysical implications I found in the Shadean interpretation (which arise out of Shade’s and Nabokov’s metaphysics, not mine), Professor Couturier claims that “the Shadeans unconsciously allow their own metaphysical preconceptions . . . to dictate their interpretations of the novel. . . . the exegetes . . . do not, properly speaking, interpret the text; they analyse it more or less scrupulously according to their own metaphysical or aesthetic preconceptions.” I know what Shade’s and Nabokov’s metaphysical “preconceptions” are, but does Professor Couturier have the least notion of what mine are? On the other hand, I do know something of his aesthetic preconceptions, and wish he would not express his belated discovery of the inadequacies of Barthes’s characteristic exaggeration in “The Death of the Author” by way of a sensationalism of his own in talk of tyranny and paranoia.