The Legible Tale of A Stranded Spirit,
Quite the Bloodline:
--or, most gloomily--
An Incurable Case of Enlightenment in the Face of Nabokovian Fate
by Josh Kaplan
"Yesterday I was a dog. Today I'm a dog. Tomorrow I'll probably still be a dog. There's just so little hope of advancement."
"That trite little whimsy about characters getting out of hand; it is as old as the quills. My characters are galley slaves."
"The more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates."
"I've no general ideas to exploit, I just like composing riddles with elegant solutions."
We must be careful never to fall too deeply into one reading of a text. If we do, we risk getting swept off in a swift current, unable to reach land until the author spits us out at the river's mouth, wet, bedraggled and with a bump on a knee. Then again, at least we're at the beach. This is especially the case with Nabokov. In fact, Nabokov is even more peculiar than most, his texts are the type that make us walk back up the river and jump in again; they yield more when we reread or entertain different readings--they make you go as far as to commit to a specific reading, constantly force you to reevaluate your path, and, eventually, change your mind all together. As such, I'm here to offer one such reading of an especially interesting, off-the-beaten-path area of Nabokov's novel, Pale Fire. In this essay I address the mysterious existence of a V. Botkin within the text, drawing on Michael Wood, Brian Boyd, and D. Barton Johnson's writings and putting in a little legwork of my own, establishing further this Botkin's true identity as the narrator, Charles Kinbote. I don't presume that this is the right conclusion, the only conclusion, or even a conclusion you'll like, but I do know that the evidence below begins to add up. The accumulation of all this evidence led me to begin identifying Kinbote-Botkin with the author himself, Nabokov. This is where things get interesting, the current picks up. In light of my findings, I propose that Botkin, acting as both the real narrator and, at least, Nabokov's toehold into the novel, derived a sense of agency from his strange predicament, which ultimately delivers considerable clout to the possibility that Nabokov embedded so many hints in the story to make a statement: within the world of fiction, authorial power carries with it a dark fate. But now I'm ahead of myself, we must backpedal and reorient ourselves; this story begins in the Index.
D. Barton Johnson was the first author to seize upon Pale Fire's index as a key to unlocking the "identity of the narrator," which he argues, "lies in an anagram" whose clues are found in the index (60). Even a cursory investigation of the index belies its derangement at the hands of Kinbote. Of note is the fact that "The Commentary's ineptly maintained 'official' viewpoint that Kinbote and the king are separate people is largely dispensed with in the index," and this duality of identity is universally accepted to stem from the same center--Kinbote (61).
Johnson's hunt for Kinbote's underlying identity settles on the index entry of a "Botkin, V., American scholar of Russian descent" (Pale Fire 306). He dissects the accumulation of peculiarities in Botkin's index entry, exposing the link between Kinbote and Botkin, and making a strong argument--one I am inclined to support--for Kinbote's true identity as V. Botkin. Ultimately, Johnson feels that "Within the world of Pale Fire, V. Botkin is the source from which all else flows" (72). We will see that Botkin is the conduit for an underground stream from our world, too; he is the point from which Nabokov emerges into the novel. Johnson notes that Nabokov "has a penchant for incorporating himself into his novels, sometimes by description, sometimes by initials, and often by anagrams such as Vivian Darkbloom, Baron Klim Avidov, Blavdak Vinomori, or Adam von Librikov" (72). Indeed, Nabokov is a fan of word games. Johnson, knowing this, feels that because "the name Botkin contains the N, B, O, K of Nabokov" and denotes the only Index entry with an initial--"an initial that could be either the V of Vladimir or the final V of Nabokov"--places V. Botkin closer to Nabokov than do either of his guises, Kinbote or Charles the Beloved (72). Johnson's belief that the foreword, commentary and Index stem from Botkin makes sense when we realize that he is the narrator, and even more sense when Nabokov's identity within Botkin is elucidated--Botkin's agency in the text is augmented by contact with the font of the novel.
Michael Wood, writing nearly a decade after Johnson, is not as ready to pounce on the Kinbote-Botkin link as Johnson or I am. Convinced that Johnson's solution is too restrictive, he cautions, "we shall not get very far through merely reductive readings, by tagging what we think is real… the real is not an explanation, it is a (disputed) territory" (179). Certainly, the nature of Nabokov's fiction is such that "tagging" any aspect is difficult. Wood is convinced that "if Kinbote is Botkin we can't place the narrative at all… The material will have been radically redrafted, but still seems to rely on, to allude to, a substratum of 'fact'" (178). More important than this snag is Wood's inability to dismiss the Kinbote and Botkin associations despite wishing they are simply a "lure" (178). He admits, "Botkin is the static in Kinbote's story, the buzz and the hum of repression, the self Kinbote has buried... Botkin's role in the novel is... to remind us, eerily, that Kinbote's self is invented, precarious; that it has a past" (178). Like Johnson, Wood recognizes some sort of relation between Kinbote and the mysterious Botkin, but Wood is content with gesturing towards the connection, pointing out that in Nabokov's world it is best left unresolved, and continuing with his argument, which takes him elsewhere. I don't consider my findings to be the reading of the text, but their existence, whether intended by Nabokov or not, is a facet of Pale Fire whose worth is more audible with every new revelation. What that value is, we shall see.
Happily, before moving on, Wood strikes upon two instances that begin to connect our "American scholar of Russian descent" to a role much more substantial than a mere "static" reminder; they lend themselves to Johnson's thesis, as well as my own. In response to John Shade's description of madness in the novel, in which he says, "one should not apply [madness] to a person who deliberately peels off a drab and unhappy past and replaces it with a brilliant invention," Kinbote adds, "We all are, in a sense, poets" (Pale Fire 238). Wood correctly identifies Kinbote's comment as an allusion to Kinbote's "secret, royal life," but, also--more interestingly, notes that it "pathetically and perhaps unintentionally [alludes] to [Kinbote's] continuing construction of his initial mask. Botkin is the past Kinbote has peeled off" (179). Johnson agrees, and adds the interesting possibility that the comment by Shade refers to Botkin: "Botkin/Kinbote obtusely fails to realize that he is the topic of conversation," while the "reader naturally assumes that Shade's comment refers to Kinbote's royal delusion... it is equally probable that it refers to Botkin's delusion that he is Kinbote" (71; Boyd concurs on this point, 72). This idea is supported by Johnson's observation that such a pattern, where a character "acts and writes from within his delusional persona," is a common one in Nabokov's works (71). As such, it is not surprising that Botkin is seen in the commentary and Index. The sense throughout is that Kinbote's peeling off of Botkin is incomplete, allowing Botkin to still appear within the text, whether intentionally included by Kinbote or slipping past his efforts to exclude him, or when brought up by another character
Wood has found one such unintentional appearance of Botkin, in the commentary for line 615 of the poem. Kinbote's list of paired languages belies "Someone's mind [that] is both gibbering and haunted... and it looks like Botkin's, the creature beneath the floor of Kinbote's double fiction" (185). As Wood says, "The list is apparently meaningless, and bears no relation to the line it is supposedly commenting on... the pair English and Russian appears four times and all the others only once, and... the other languages mentioned, after the (in context) obvious Zemblan, circle closely around Russia until they find a release in a transcontinental shift," just as Botkin would have if he emigrated from Russia (185). This characterization of Botkin as still existent somewhere "beneath" Kinbote's consciousness, added to his description as a peeled-off past, represents Wood's implication--deliberate or not--of a larger responsibility for Botkin, which takes shape as examples of Kinbote's inability to remain in control of his repressed identity break the surface.
The passage of the poem that sets "Someone's" mind a-gibbering contains some resonances of Botkin and his embedded role. The passage reads:
Line 615 is the specific phrase that Kinbote seizes upon in the commentary, which causes his mask to slip, revealing Botkin. But the entire passage is dark and disturbing, and Botkin's appearance hinges on the surrounding lines, too. These lines are crowded with words and phrases like "exile," "dying," "revolving," "from the outside," "like dark hands from the past," "death," "conjures," "wrench," and "rift," which convey a strong sense of the (temporary?) loss of separation between some inner and some outer, something that has suffered a division of itself. It is as if this "exile"--Botkin--is "reaching" back "from the outside," "from the past," provoking the two tongued jabber--ultimately, as we have seen, Russian and English, the languages of our "American scholar of Russian descent." The effect of these words is intensified further by the use of "suffocates" and "The nebulae dilating in his lungs," both of which add to the anxiety induced by the passage. The "bits of colored light" that reach like "dark hands from the past / Offering gems" speak to Botkin's initial transformation to become King Charles--hence the gems, who in turn has hidden himself as Kinbote. The last two lines, lines 18 and 19, leave us--and Kinbote, of course--focused on Kinbote's fundamental conflict: he must choose between le grand néant, literally the great naught--nothing, suicide, perhaps demotion to the hopeless life of Botkin; or he can choose continuing imagination, new growth of sorts, a new sprout from an old potato. Kinbote's past, in the face of this blend of lexis, would certainly lead to introspection, stress and, evidently, a Botkin sighting.
What, then, of these Botkin echoes in Shade's work? Since single-author theories remain so controversial, let's not forget Nabokov. Perchance Nabokov had Shade write this passage as a latent clue for us to track down his presence in Botkin. If so, this passage and its reverberations can be seen as a communiqué of sorts between Nabokov and Botkin--author drawing out his creation from behind the mask it has created. Like Wood, Brian Boyd teases out some attractive tidbits on his way to arguing a very complex, "synthetic" reading of Pale Fire (247). Some of the most interesting pieces of information Boyd provides have to do with extra-textual links between Botkin and Nabokov. He contributes, "'Botkin' is indeed a Russian name, and, like 'Nabokov,' a distinguished one," and proceeds to relate three significant Botkins (one a royal family doctor shot along w/ Tsar Nicholas II & family; one a writer, translator, & friend of Turgenev; one a prominent civic figure in Russian émigré Berlin of the 1920s) to Nabokov's father, V. D. Nabokov (the most prominent figure in "liberal émigré organizations until he was shot in another aftershock of the Russian Revolution") (91). These parallels show that Nabokov has drawn upon his own background in choosing a character as the door for him to enter the novel. It is as if Botkin, by sharing connections with Nabokov's parents, is related to Nabokov.
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