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

Intriguingly, the most obvious reference to Botkin in the text is the one not listed under his Index entry. While it does not add anything to our search for Botkin-Nabokov ties, it does lend credence to Johnson's observation that Botkin is acting and writing "from within his delusional persona" as Kinbote. It occurs in the commentary for line 172 of the poem, where Kinbote recounts some journal entries he made of Shade speaking, one reads:

Speaking of the Head of the bloated Russian Department, Prof. Pnin, a regular martinet in regard to his underlings (happily, Prof. Botkin, who taught in another department, was not subordinated to that grotesque "perfectionist"): 'How odd that Russian intellectuals should lack all sense of humor when they have such marvelous humorists as Gogol, Dostoevski, Chekhov, Zoshchenko... (155).
This instance is especially startling; Wood asks, "Whose happiness is this?" (177). The answer that satisfies Johnson and Boyd, but, sadly, not Wood, is--as we expect--that "Botkin is in fact Kinbote himself" (as Boyd puts it, 91), or, equally, "that Shade, his poem, and his killer are all real, as is V. Botkin, a drab Wordsmith faculty member, who creates a new identity for himself as the exotic Zemblan exile, King Charles the Beloved, who is passing himself off as Charles Kinbote" (Johnson 71). The previous evidence given, with this example piled on-left out of the Index because Kinbote didn't see it, or, more closely, didn't want us to see it, goes a long way towards proving Botkin's role behind, beneath and between the surface fabric of the text. Botkin's hidden agency supports our deduction that he is Nabokov's dagger, selectively piercing the material of the text, allowing Nabokov to satisfy his penchant for writing himself into his works, and, in the process, gaining some of Nabokov's authorial command.

Now that Botkin's agency has been further established, identifying interactions between Nabokov and him is more manageable. One possible example of Nabokov speaking to Botkin (unbeknownst to Kinbote, or Botkin for that matter) is seen in Canto Three, where the couplet for lines 557-558 has an appealing commentary note. The lines read: "How to locate in blackness, with a gasp, / Terra the Fair, an orbicle of jasp" (54). Their note says, simply, "The loveliest couplet in this canto" (228). Why has Kinbote fastened upon this simple rhyme as his favorite in the canto? One answer is that the embedded Botkin allusions embedded by Nabokov speak to him subconsciously. The couplet is found within this interesting passage:


While snubbing gods, including the big G,
Iph borrowed some peripheral debris
From mystic visions; and it offered tips
(The amber spectacles of life's eclipse)--
How not to panic when you're made a ghost
Sidle and slide, choose a smooth surd, and coast,
Meet solid bodies and glissade right through,
Or let a person circulate through you.
How to locate in blackness, with a gasp,
Terra the Fair, an orbicle of jasp.
How to keep sane in spiral types of space.
Precautions to be taken in the case
Of freak reincarnation: what to do
On suddenly discovering that you
Are now a young and vulnerable toad
Plump in the middle of a busy road,
Or a bear cub beneath a burning pine,
Or a book mite in a revived divine (53-4).
Botkin's transformation to Kinbote is referenced in the first few lines. Iph, or if, the unknown--possibility, seen borrowing "some peripheral debris / From mystic visions," is reminiscent of Botkin's identification of a future for himself, which caused him to use his knowledge of Zembla--that land peripheral to Russia--to create a new identity. This new life ultimately eclipsed his own, as in "The amber spectacles of life's eclipse". Indeed, Boyd credits his continued reference to Kinbote as 'Kinbote' in his text, even after noting his true identity as Botkin, because "[Botkin] places his new identity so squarely over the old" (Boyd 92). This metaphor is apt; like Botkin, an eclipsed object is only seen where it peeks around the edges (92).

Immediately after this echo of Botkin's situation we are reminded of one of the problems he faces, "How not to panic when you're made a ghost," forced to live somewhere outside of Kinbote's fantastical reality of sorts. Botkin's choice to "let a person circulate through" him denotes his creation of Kinbote, whose name, when formed into a circle, is literally the same as Botkin(e), just begun at a different point along the circle:

(move clockwise, start at arrow)

Beneath this allusion is the reference to Nabokov's own entrance into the novel, as he circulates through Botkin (but we've already seen, and will see further, that this relation is much more complicated than a cyclical one).

Directly following the allusion to Kinbote and--less obviously--Nabokov, comes the "loveliest couplet." In this context it might deal with our surprise in realizing the extent of Botkin's role in the novel. "How to locate in blackness, with a gasp" is exactly our feeling upon finding, "underneath the floor of Kinbote's double fiction," in that dark space between the surface of the story and Nabokov, the reality hidden at the base of Kinbote's fantasy. "Terra the Fair" represents Botkin; it is a dressed up version of terra firma, ground, the floor of the story, the soil upon which Kinbote has constructed his airy world. Meanwhile, an "orbicle of jasp" is literally a small, round orb or globe--a small world--made of precious stone. This phrase doubles the effect of Terra the Fair, speaking to Botkin's world. The fact that two separate references to Botkin are made within the same couplet also leaves room for one of them to refer to Nabokov; for example, if Botkin is Terra the Fair, Nabokov is the orbicle of jasp, discovered buried in the dirt. Kinbote's delineation of this couplet as the loveliest was not random--his pride and personality do not allow for careless affection. Either this couplet is just that nice, or maybe his description resulted from Botkin's lingering influences, or Nabokov's desire to draw our attention to the complexity of the world he has created.

The couplet did draw my attention elsewhere, back to a line from Canto Two: "Life is a message scribbled in the dark" (41). Its meaning, previous to our analysis of the "loveliest couplet" passage, was relatively indiscernible. It can now be read a few different ways, all of which support our argument. Life may refer to the story itself, scribbled by Kinbote. The message could be the hints scribbled by Botkin, or Nabokov, whose elucidation literally gives life to the obscured identity they reveal; Botkin and Nabokov's insertion into Kinbote's commentary (or, in Nabokov's case, the poem itself) is a message that gives the scribbler life within the text. Point taken.... The couplet, which clued us in to the hidden message referenced earlier in the poem, is directly succeeded by another "how to" line, this time "How to keep sane in spiral types of space." These "spiral types of space" have a similar effect (allusion to Kinbote-Botkin-Nabokov bond) as the "Again one spirals from the tuber's eye" line discussed earlier, which occurs roughly a page later in the poem. The passage ends by proposing the possibility that reincarnation does not always go as expected, and perhaps this is Botkin's problem as well, having been reincarnated--to some degree--as an uppity delusional named Kinbote.

Nabokov's decision to write himself into the text is supported by a third, more colloquial, OED definition for bodkin. It is the most vital meaning in support of Johnson's claim, Wood's guarded, inadvertent acknowledgement, and Boyd's agreement that Botkin is the source from which the novel flows. Perhaps the reason Botkin's Index entry is in reverse order is that we would not be equipped to use this definition, or even pick up the signal to look for it, until we have waded through each entry in the commentary and then come to the "etymological glosses." Bodkin can also be defined as "A person wedged in between two others where there is proper room for two only," especially in a phrase such as "to ride or sit bodkin." Wow. Consider: typically, a text has an author and a narrator, as at first seems the case in Pale Fire. They are all there seems to be room for in the story--Kinbote is overbearing as it is. But, Nabokov has stuck Botkin between himself and Kinbote as the true reality beneath the work, as a connection between the two, and--most importantly, as the dagger he uses to pierce the substance of the text without drawing attention to his presence. Attempts to incorporate himself into Kinbote without a Botkin would have been speedily detected by readers, and--what's worse--would have been somewhat typical; authors often make their narrators the closest character to their true identity. Botkin, riding bodkin, is the extra step many readers miss as the true narrator, and, even more so, as the character nearest the author. As we've seen, nothing is typical in Pale Fire.

There might be another way to use this definition of bodkin to support our contention in this essay that Botkin is Nabokov's toehold into the novel. It stems from the first Index entry for Botkin, V., but has been left till now, when our certainty of the Kinbote-Botkin duality is strong, the Botkin-Nabokov relationship has moved out of obscurity and is beginning to hold water, when we can afford to balance out on a limb, in hopes of grasping a fruit that hangs far away from the trunk of the text. It may be coincidental, knowing Nabokov, it may very well be intentional. Either way, its existence is remarkable, and speaks to both the premeditated and unplanned traits of an author that get incorporated into the nearest character. So, pull out a file now (because this fruit is reached by the accumulation of clues, the path itself is a bit difficult to stumble upon), label the file "BOK," or perhaps "Out On A Limb," "How Does Nabokov Do It?" or "Nose Bridges, Rivers, and Anagrams" (you'll see why soon enough), and off we go....

Recall that in our analysis of the commentary for line 894 of the poem, which was referenced in Botkin's index entry, our attention was drawn to two different answers Kinbote supplies in denial of his two other identities (King Charles and Botkin). Each response does not directly answer the question asked, and each acts to refocus our attention--directly or by way of a bit of research--on the Russian Nova Zembla, or Novaya Zemlya.

The first instance of this refocusing occurs when Kinbote responds to the visiting lecturer's awe at his resemblance to King Charles by "negligently" observing that "all bearded Zemblans" resemble "one another--and that, in fact, the name Zembla is a corruption not of the Russian zemlya, but of Semblerland" (265). This is odd: the mention of zemlya is utterly extraneous in the context of the question. As stated, Michael Wood took this as a cue, and looked up zemlya; he found that "There is a Novaya Zemlya in the atlas, an island not a peninsula; ...It does have a 'Nabokov's River'" (176). File that away, and also take note that, strangely enough, the first instance of brackets, ostensibly as a means of clarification, is found in the lecturer's response, "Ah, yes, but King Charles wore no beard, and yet it is his very face! I had [he added] the honor..." (265). These brackets are also superfluous; they do not clear anything up. From here on out in this section, Kinbote uses brackets in excess, to add small, extra details to the conversation. We might note Johnson's report that "Nabokov is very fond of inserting important information in his novels in the form of parenthetical references," or we might already have read Nabokov's works such as The Defense or Ada, in which this phenomenon can be observed (70; also footnote 34, page 77). Additionally, add to the file the fact that besides the "upper part of the face," the traits the lecturer seizes upon as evidence of Kinbote's similarity to the King are "the eyes, yes, the eyes, and the nose bridge" (265). Eyes are a common enough feature to compare, but a nose bridge? Hmmm...

Professor Pardon supplies the question that elicits our next example of incongruous--yet extremely useful--information when wonders aloud to 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?" (267). Kinbote replies, "'You are confusing me with some refugee from Nova Zembla' [sarcastically stressing the 'Nova']" (267). Kinbote's response sidesteps the question, answering it indirectly. It also serves as the second allusion to Russia, and a more direct instance of "stressing the 'Nova'." In case we missed the clue to look for Novaya Zemlya a page earlier, we can't miss this use of its old name.

It is clear from this mounting, unexplainable evidence that something is afoot, but exactly what still remains imperceptible. We know Nabokov uses parentheses, so maybe brackets as well, to deliver important information. Kinbote, in his answer to Pardon, claims that he is being confused with a refugee from Nova Zembla. He also mentions Russia twice in this note, Nova Zembla once, and even directs us to Novaya Zemlya, which has a Nabokov's River flowing through it. But, like Wood says, Novaya Zemlya is an island, not a peninsula like Zembla. There are two islands in the book, they are mentioned in Kinbote's account of the King's escape from Zembla: "Nitra and Indra, (meaning 'inner' and 'outer'), two black islets that seemed to address each other in cloaked parley, were being photographed... by a Russian tourist" (145). There is a shadow of Botkin and Nabokov here, in the mention of "black" (remember "jasp" and "blackness"), "cloaked parley" (think hidden communication) and the "Russian tourist." We also have more allegedly unnecessary information, the meaning of Nitra and Indra, given to us in parentheses--perhaps something is there.

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