Pale Fire and The Prisoner of Zenda
an exchange between Neil Hornick and Brian Boyd

10th March 2005

Dear Professor Boyd,

Prompted by a recent BBC radio adaptation of Pale Fire, I decided that a rereading was long overdue (I'd read it for the first and only time way back in 1968), to be followed by an immersion in your book about the novel, given to me by a friend (who works at the London Review of Books) at about the time that it first came out. I've also since reread the relevant sections of two other books I have about Nabokov--the pioneering Stegner and Field critical studies from the 1960s.

Of course, rereading Pale Fire has been a wonderful experience. And reading Nabokov's Pale Fire: The Magic of Artistic Discovery has also been very rewarding in the way it opens up dimensions of the novel that I'd either completely overlooked or only dimly perceived. For that I'm truly grateful. Admittedly, some of your argument toward the end of Part Three is so intricate and dense that you lost me, and I'm not sure that I agree with all your ingenious conclusions; but it's certainly fascinating and thought-provoking stuff. By the way, did you ever consider producing the book in the form of an annotated version of the text, thus adding a second interpretative voice to Kinbote's? That would have been drolly Nabokovian.

Obviously, there's a lot more one could say about your interpretation but I'll try to confine myself to a couple of minor reservations and one big expression of bafflement. For all I know, some of this has been well aired in the Internet debate since your book came out, but I haven't plugged into that, nor do I intend to (life's too short) so I offer these comments in the hope that it won't seem to you like chewing old meat.

A couple of reservations:

Firstly, I think you tend to underestimate or underemphasize how much Shade and Kinbote represent two sides of Nabokov himself. Yes, you acknowledge the Nabokovian artistry of Shade. But I can see much of Nabokov's own fastidiousness, pedantry, loftiness, asperity and sense of exile in the commentary of Kinbote--or "V. Botkin," émigré Russian academic. In other words, as well as everything else that he is and represents, Kinbote is also a figure of authorial self-parody.

Secondly, I'm disappointed that you cast no light on the presence in the novel of the hero of a previous work, Professor Pnin, formerly of Waindell College. I also grew restless for something on "Hurricane Lolita" until you eventually made reference to it on p. 239. By the way, if I remember correctly, there really was a hurricane named Lolita.

The origins of Zembla

What really prompted me to write to you, though, is my bafflement at a crucial omission from your learned commentary. You tweak out--very convincingly for the most part--allusions to Shakespeare, Goethe, Browning, Scott, Swift, Eliot, Pope, Hardy, Conan Doyle et al. But there's not a single mention of what is arguably the primary source of, and influence on, Kinbote's Zembla fantasy: Anthony Hope's popular novel of 1893, The Prisoner of Zenda.

Never mind the obvious resemblance (so to speak) of the word "Zembla" to "Zenda." Kinbote's narrative is steeped in the paraphernalia of Hope's (oft-filmed) romantic adventure yarn, with its stalwart hero, an English gent called Rudolf Rassendyll, holidaying in "Ruritania" and helping to foil an evil plot against the threatened King Charles of Zenda, of whom he's the exact double, by impersonating him at his coronation. The novel also includes a secret passage, scenes of romantic renunciation and probably much else of relevance besides. Nabokov tips us a particularly broad wink in Pale Fire when his "King Charles the Beloved," accosted by pursuers as he makes his escape, pretends to be "an English tourist."

At one point you state that Kinbote shows imagination in inventing the Zembla story. I wouldn't deny that completely, but his story isn't as imaginative as all that. In addition to Kinbote's other character flaws, even his fantasy life has been filched--not merely from a genre of corny romantic derring-do but from a specific late-Victorian popular novel based on a doppelgänger premise.

Mind you, this only goes to support your argument that the Zembla epic was only concocted after Kinbote moved into Judge Goldsworth's place. "From Amber to Zen" (see p. 98 in your book) provides another telltale corroboration that Nabokov was well-acquainted with Hope's novel and wanted the connection to be noticed. Because if "Amber" refers to Forever Amber (featuring Charles II) then you don't have to bother with the ingenious but somewhat far-fetched Salinger allusion--"Zen" must refer principally to The Prisoner of Zenda, a more suitable companion piece in being a work of romantic fiction, albeit a more highly influential one, if only in introducing the word "Ruritanian," now irreplaceable shorthand for a certain genre of escapist dramatic-operatic-exotic fluff (cf. the operettas of Rudolf Friml, Ivor Novello, Noël Coward et al).

And if you're still in any doubt, there's a reason why Kinbote's rival for influence over Shade is called Hentzner. In The Prisoner of Zenda, the main henchman of King Charles's arch-enemy is ... Rupert of Hentzau ... who, by the way, was played by James Mason in the 1952 film version, the very same actor who was Stanley Kubrick's choice for Humbert Humbert in his film of Lolita. Not that he was the only British actor to appear in two Nabokov-related movies. Peter Sellers played Quilty in Kubrick's Lolita and both king and commoner in the 1979 version of The Prisoner of Zenda.

Of course, the Zenda connection doesn't of itself dislodge the main thrust of your argument. But surely it calls for a readjustment of the "texture" of interpretation of Nabokov's marvellous novel.

To my continuing amazement, I find that neither Stegner nor Field mentions Zenda in their own books. In fact, Stegner is well off-course when he refers to the Zembla story as "an Arabian Night's tale"; though he deserves credit for discerning the significance of the life-after-death theme. He is also critical of the novel for not yielding any apparent "moral truth" (Escape into Aesthetics, pp. 131-132)--but that charge is something I think you succeed in refuting, apart from the fact that moral truth self-evidently seeps from every pore of the novel.

I haven't read anything else about Pale Fire apart from the three books I've mentioned and newspaper/magazine reviews of Nabokoviana. But, amazing as I find the omission of Zenda from consideration in your own book, I'd find it even more amazing if no critical study of the novel has alluded to it in the years since Andrew Field's His Life in Art was published in 1967. As a specialist in Nabokov's life and work, you'd be in a much better position to know whether or not that's the case. So I'm very curious to know whether you've come across the Zenda connection anywhere, either before or since publishing Nabokov's Pale Fire.

With thanks again for your stimulating book and very best wishes from darkest London,

Yours sincerely,

Neil Hornick

Dear Neil,

Thanks very much for your letter and your kind remarks about my book.

I agree with you that I could have made more of K and S as self-parodies.

As for The Prisoner of Zenda, I have mentioned it in discussing Pale Fire, though not in the book on the novel. In the biography, in the chapter on Pale Fire, I write: "To the magic strangeness of Zembla, Nabokov adds the Ruritanian romance of revolution, the King's escape, his stumbling flight through the mountains." (VNAY, 429) That's all I say. At that stage I don't think I had read The Prisoner of Zenda (except perhaps in a retold comic or prose version I dimly suspect in my past), but I did read it before writing the book on Pale Fire and didn't feel there was anything to add.

Nevertheless you have certainly connected the dots better than I did in "from Amber to Zen," since the Charles II of the one and the King Charles of the other clinch the identification much more neatly than my Salinger suggestion. And the Hentzau-Hentzner connection is also no doubt intentional, if not quite so neat (so as to avoid disclosing the secret too obviously, I presume).

As you say, this Amber to Zen link (and what a beautiful one, given all the other A-Z plays in the novel, and the exactness of the King Charles doubling of two popular novels) strengthens still further my argument that the Zembla fantasy has arisen only since the move to Judge Goldsworth's.

I cannot recollect where else I have seen The Prisoner of Zenda discussed in relation to Pale Fire. Nowhere at any length, as I recall.

Congratulations on your find and thanks (spaspo filmal, as we say in Zemblan) for drawing it to my attention.

Brian Boyd

Dear Brian,

Many thanks for your tolerant and interesting response. I'm rather gratified to find that I may have made some small contribution to Nabokov studies as he is certainly one of my favourite authors--though whenever I read him the bloody man does have an unfortunate tendency to make various other writers I've admired look puny in comparison.

With best wishes,

Neil H

Dear Neil,

On checking my own copy of Pale Fire, with its multiple marginalia, I note that Charles Nicol, in Nabokov Studies 6 (2001): 223, in a review of my book, also pointed out the Zenda: referring to my Salinger guess for Zen, he writes: "I suggest that this latter is instead a reference to The Prisoner of Zenda, Anthony Hope's delightful novel about a king and his double in an imaginary European kingdom; there is no reason to point to Salinger, while the Zen of Zenda is completed in the name of Queen Blenda." Your other points have certainly made me think more about the Zenda connection, both by your linking it with my argument and by the details from the novel you reminded me of (I must have been looking for very specific things when I read Hope's book, and have taken in too little else).

I will certainly credit you if I revise the Pale Fire book some day (as I'd rather like to: I have at least one chapter to add), since I would also look at The Prisoner of Zenda again (and even Forever Amber). I love Pnin's reappearance in Pale Fire, by the way, but it just didn't seem to link to my argument, which was taking quite long enough!

Best wishes,


Dear Brian,

Many thanks for your further notes on Pale Fire, etc. Very interesting--especially Nicol's observation that "Blenda" completes the allusion--something I'd missed. What's so impressive is the way Nabokov not only imports associative allusions into his names: the names themselves embody the actual process (I believe there's an actual grammatical term for this but it escapes me). Thus "Zembla" not only links with and sounds rather like "Zenda"--it also embodies and expresses the idea of resemblance; and "Blenda" embodies the idea of blending. It still beats me how a bloody foreigner was able to burrow so deeply and wittily into the language.

I look forward to seeing the revised version of your book. Don't leave it too long.



Neil Hornick is a former folk singer and performance artist, who now runs "Reading and Righting," a literary consultancy and editing service, under the pen-name of "Robert Lambolle."

Brian Boyd is Distinguished Professor of English at the University of Auckland, New Zealand and the author of many works on Nabokov, including Nabokov's Pale Fire: The Magic of Artistic Discovery.

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