A Delineation of Botkin's Role in Pale Fire, & His Fate Beyond
by Josh Kaplan
page two of five

Nabokov's relative--Botkin--is most prominent within the unpredictably large Index entry for "Botkin, V." (Pale Fire 306). As Boyd points out, the Index is the only place where Kinbote has complete control (63). He uses that freedom to noisily dismiss individuals he doesn't like (for example, Prof. C.'s mention under Kinbote's entry is followed by "not in the Index" in parentheses), add to his Zemblan theme (Johnson notes that of the eighty-eight entries, sixty-five refer to people or places related to Zembla), and satisfy his ego (by listing sixty-seven entries under Kinbote, and another twenty-one under Charles II, while Shade, the author of the work being edited, receives only forty-six entries, "almost all of which in fact feature Kinbote rather than the poet") (Johnson 61-62). In light of all this, Botkin's entry is especially interesting:

Botkin, V., American scholar of Russian descent, 894; king-bot, maggot of extinct fly that once bred in mammoths and is thought to have hastened their phylogenetic end, 247; bottekinmaker, 71; bot, plop, and botelďy, big-bellied (Russ.); botkin or bodkin, a Danish stiletto (306).
The existence of the entry is peculiar because Kinbote has allowed entries for only five people from New Wye: the three Shades, Botkin, and himself (Boyd 62). Why is this Botkin worthy of such recognition when, in the commentary, he is only referenced while so many 'on stage' characters are left out?

Two more eccentricities of this entry are that it is the only one with a first initial, and, as Boyd points out, it is the sole entry whose notes are referred to "in back-to-front order, starting with 894, then 247, then 71, then the kind of etymological glosses to explain a name that we would expect at the start of an entry" (91). We'll leave the initial issue for later and work through the commentary references in the order they are given. For the moment, these "glosses" seem harmless enough; Kinbote, the expert on surnames, suggests possible roots or cognates for 'Botkin.' The two Russian words do not appear in the commentary, but the third, "Botkin or Bodkin, a Danish stiletto," despite lacking a page reference, appears in the text: when killing oneself, "a gentleman should use a brace of pistols, ...or a bare botkin (note the correct spelling)" (220). Previous to this statement, Kinbote assures us that he is "choosing these images rather casually," and, if we are smart, we will see through his feigned airiness and pay that much more attention to what he says. He is careful to "note the correct spelling," which, it turns out, is not correct after all. But, more importantly, note that despite assuring us of the correct spelling in the commentary, in the index entry Kinbote allows for either "botkin or bodkin." Since this discrepancy is so subtly emphasized but unlikely to have occurred by chance, from here on out we will be paying careful attention to both spellings of botkin.

The description of botkin as a Danish stiletto points us to a passage in Shakespeare's Hamlet, where we see an ominous usage of the word (spelled with a "d" incidentally) that relates to Kinbote's dilemma: "who would bear the whips and scorns of time,… When he himself might his quietus make / With a bare bodkin... / But that the dread of something after death, / ...puzzles the will...?" (this excerpt from Boyd, 63, originally from Hamlet, 3.1.69-79). Kinbote's decision to face death or the "whips and scorns of time" as a fake is embedded in this quote, as if he would like to end the whole Kinbote issue, but dreads that "something after death" waits: either the unknown--naught, or a life relegated to "a bare" Botkin's mind-numbing (will-puzzling?) existence, devoid of fantasy.

The Oxford English Dictionary's two primary definitions for bodkin are "a short pointed weapon; a dagger," or, similarly, "a small pointed instrument... used for piercing holes in cloth." In light of Nabokov's covert hints to pay attention to spelling--thereby allowing for these definitions, it seems that Botkin is the instrument Nabokov uses to pierce the material of the novel without causing any snags or runs that would give away his presence too easily, allowing his entry into the text to remain stealthy. And it may also be that the "something" Kinbote senses after death, something he can't quite fit his mind around, is a continuing existence not only as Botkin, but also as Nabokov.

In our search for new holes signifying Nabokov's presence in the text, we might consider the oddly ordered textual instances referenced in Botkin's Index entry. The first, being the last example in the commentary, is for line 894 of the poem. The phrase Kinbote has fastened upon for the commentary is, not surprisingly, "a king" (264). Thus, before we look any further, "king" indicates the amalgamation of Kinbote, his supposed identity as King Charles II, and Botkin. In addition, we have been directed here by an entry under "Botkin, V." in the index, and the passage in the commentary is about Kinbote; the implication is that Botkin is Kinbote.

In the commentary about the line, Kinbote dives into his own autobiographical information from the outset and is soon relating how "some busybody" or "one of the clubwomen" would inevitably inquire whether he knew how much he "resembled that poor unfortunate monarch" (265). He brushes past these inquiries but has a trickier time throwing a "visiting German lecturer" off his trail. He mentions, by way of an explanation (one whose effect is to gain our attention for its irrelevancy, and fails to satisfy the visitor), "that, in fact, the name Zembla is a corruption not of the Russian zemlya, but of Semblerland, a land of reflections, of 'resemblers'" (265). Our focus is drawn to the unnecessary inclusion of "zemlya," no one questioned where the name Zembla was derived. The incongruity of this comment, under the circumstances, is significant enough that both Boyd and Wood note there is a real life Nova Zembla, more commonly called by its more contemporary Russian name, Novaya Zemlya. Wood even mentions the fact that while the Novaya Zemlya is not overly reminiscent of the Zembla of the novel, it does have a "Nabokov's River" running through it, owing to Nabokov's great-grandfather's exploration of the area (176). Kudos to Wood for this tidbit, as it throws Nabokov himself into the family tree as great-grandfather, and accordingly Botkin is the grandfather, Kinbote, the father, and King Charles, the son. Thus, all four identities have been referenced in the first two pages of the note, however faintly.

Nova Zembla is highlighted again in the course of the conversation, when Professor Pardon asks Kinbote, "'I was under the impression that you were born in Russia, and that your name was a kind of anagram of Botkin or Botkine?'" To which Kinbote answers, "'You are confusing me with some refugee from Nova Zembla' [sarcastically stressing the "Nova"]" (267). That refugee could very well be Botkin, seeking refuge in the form of Kinbote, or, better yet, Nabokov, a true émigré from Russia (Nova Zembla). A general confusion of Nabokov and Botkin in instances such as this is becoming more pronounced. Although this patent comparison of Kinbote to Botkin (& Nabokov) is rejected by Kinbote, it is supported by his own Zemblan commentaries, where a number of "anagrammatically transposed names" are seen: "Campbell/Beauchamp, Radomir/Mirador, Odon/Nodo, etc." (Johnson 69).

Shade, in response to Kinbote's answer, asks, "Didn't you tell me, Charles, that kinbote means regicide in your language?" (267). Kinbote replies that, "Yes, [it means] a king's destroyer," and then he admits--parenthetically--his wish to explain that "a king who sinks his identity in the mirror of exile is in a sense just that" (267). Another reading of this note--nearly the reflected reading--is that it refers to an exile sinking his identity in that of a king, which speaks to Botkin and Nabokov's presence. Botkin sinks his identity in King Charles as Kinbote, and, as we are seeing, Nabokov does the same thing in Botkin. If we could see Kinbote's likeness in the mirror of exile, it would show us Botkin's shadowy complexion, and, conceivably, the emerging face of Nabokov.

The second entry under Botkin, V. also refers to Kinbote, the King, and Botkin using a word, this time less obliquely. The entry refers to line 247 of the poem, which is about Sybil, John Shade's wife. The note in the commentary reports how Kinbote (again, Botkin's Index entry sends us to a Kinbote story!) always tried to be nice to Sybil, but she, from the beginning, "disliked and distrusted" him (171). He laments that in public she would call him "an elephantine tick; a king-sized botfly; a macaco worm; the monstrous parasite of a genius" (171-2). Out of all these rather creative insults, Kinbote chooses "king-bot" as the descriptor for his Index entry, a word that can "anagrammatically refer equally well to either Kinbote or Botkin" (Johnson 69). He also leaves off "-sized" and "fly," or fly-sized--which may be closer to his true amount of royalty, leaving a verbal cognate for Kinbote and an easily pulled-out reference to Botkin. The first two index entries under V. Botkin "both specifically point out the anagrammatic relationship between the two names" (Johnson 69). Nabokov is again highlighting word composition, and, in these first two entries, the permutations possible between the names he gives his characters.

The focus remains on names in the third entry, which is for bottekin-maker, referring to the commentary for line 71 of the poem. The word Kinbote has picked to expand upon is "parents." This can refer to our Nabokov-Botkin-Kinbote-King lineage, but there is a subtler, more substantive, cue for a connection between Botkin and Nabokov buried in the passage; in a discussion of family names arising from the mention of an origin for Shade's mother's maiden name, Kinbote adds, off the point, "Other names derive from professions such as Rymer, Scrivener, Limner (one who illuminates parchments), Botkin (one who makes bottekins, fancy footwear) and thousands of others" (100). Boyd notes that Botkin "is drawn from a different lexical layer, is casually dropped in among those of a literary nature, and the etymology given is wrong" (79). Why has Botkin been forced into this note, referenced in his Index entry, and given an incorrect etymology? The answer is not an obvious one, Johnson didn't catch it, but, luckily, Boyd did. This note talks about Shade's mother's maiden name. Boyd brings to the surface the fact that Nabokov's mother's maiden's name is Rukavishnikov, "which we could gloss 'one who makes rukavitsy [gauntlets-Boyd's note], fancy handwear'" (270). Now, the reason for the forced insertion of Botkin into the passage, and, as Johnson said, the incorrect etymology supplied for Botkin has a purpose: to connect Botkin to Nabokov, feet to hands. Our takeaway from this link is that someone has been dressed up, decorated-disguised; that someone is Kinbote, a dressed up version of Botkin, who in turn is an even more elaborately masked identity of Nabokov.

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