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

In the note for line 894, Kinbote uses brackets extraneously, and it is in one such set of brackets that he has stressed the Nova in Nova Zembla. Casting about for some sort of pointer, maybe we should look to Nabokov himself for help. After all, he is a refugee from Nova Zembla (Russia). And, interestingly enough, his name includes the word Nova. We know of Nabokov's penchant for word games--Kinbote-Botkin being a tremendously mild example of their complexity. Let's see what's left of Nabokov if he leaves his Russia behind, like a tourist or refugee:


Before we tackle this onomatopœic 'bok', what do we make of Nova's positioning within Nabokov? It is well supported in the text. Nova, which we might take to signify Nova Zembla, has a Nabokov's River running through it... this is literally what we see when we separate Nabokov as follows: (NA)BOK(OV). Also, the 'inner' and 'outer' of Nitra and Indra, as well as the third definition for bodkin, support this sort of demarcation, as do "the eyes, yes, the eyes" [visually: (the eyes) yes (the eyes)] and the inclusion of the uncommon "nose bridge" [Nova is the bridge, bok is the nose; incidentally, the combination of "the eyes, yes, the eyes" with "nose bridge" yields a face, perhaps Nabokov's: (eyes) nose (eyes)]. By the way, I was encouraged in my adventure when I found this possible reading of "the eyes, yes, the eyes," for it literally contains "yes" three times. Professor Pardon's question as to whether Kinbote is "a kind of anagram of Botkin or Botkine" also resonates [(Botkin) or (Botkine)]. The meaning of Nitra and Indra can also be applied directly to Nova itself, showing how to break it apart: Nova can be split up as inner and outer parts, N(OV)A, which are then affixed to bok to give the sort of effect that is echoed by the examples discussed above, (outer)bok(inner) = (Na)bok(ov). Finally, if we remember the relation between Botkin and Nabokov's mother's maiden name, fancy foot coverings and fancy hand coverings, we see yet another clue to isolate bok: both refer to extremities, or, more exactly, the relation is in the extremities, and Nova, in addition to being the word that links Nabokov to Nova Zembla, is literally the extremities--the hands, or feet (or hands and feet)--of Nabokov (Na---ov).

Most importantly, what do we make of this leftover bok? The only incidents worth examining where it is seen in the text are within the names of two Index entries and scrambled within the names of Botkin and Kinbote. We have this curious entry: "Kobaltana, a once fashionable mountain resort near the ruins of some old barracks now a cold and desolate spot of difficult access and no importance but still remembered in military families and forest castles, not in the text" (310). Curious indeed, why would Kinbote include a spot of "no importance" that is "not in the text" in his cherished Index? Johnson supplies the necessary clarifying information: "Nabokov gives the game away in an interview with Alfred Appel. Kobaltana is the taynik" (63). The taynik referred to is another index entry, part of a cyclical game Kinbote has constructed in the Index, where the entry for Kinbote's cherished Crown Jewels cross references, telling us to "see Hiding Place"; which in turn says see potaynik; this finally leads us to "Taynik, Russ., secret place; see Crown Jewels," completing the circle. Thus, Kobaltana is the hiding place for the Crown Jewels.

Knowing how much delight Kinbote derives from this secret, it is likely that Nabokov took some care in naming the hiding place. Kobaltana is a conjunction of our mysterious bok in reverse and "altana." One possible root for altana is Utana, the place where Kinbote writes the commentary. But there is a better relation: in the same way that Botkin "stands closer to Nabokov than [does] his creation Charles Kinbote or Charles the Beloved," altana is nearly atalanta, the type of butterfly (Vanessa atalanta) that alights on Shade's shoulder when he walks unknowingly to his death. In fact, the Russian word for butterfly, babochka, contains bok. The butterfly is also featured in the poem multiple times, and it is common knowledge in the world of literature that Nabokov considered himself a lepidopterist. Indeed, Boyd devotes the ninth chapter of his text to the Vanessa atalanta in Pale Fire, identifying it as one of the most important symbols in the text. Furthermore, Nabokov's love of butterflies has caused it to become a representation of himself within his works. Clearly, our mysterious bok's attachment to such a derivative as altana is remarkable.

The other index entry of interest that contains bok is "Sudarg of Bokay, a mirror maker of genius, the patron saint of Bokay in the mountains of Zembla, 80; life span not known" (314). Not only is Sudarg the reverse of Gradus, but he is also a mirror maker. The effect, due to bok's proximity, can be paralleled by reflecting bok to kob, which is visually reminiscent of Botkin and Kinbote. The reference to line 80 of the poem takes us to the middle of a Kinbote discourse about Zembla, where the King awakes to find Fleur "standing with a comb in her hand before his--or rather, his grandfather's--cheval glass, a triptych of bottomless light, a really fantastic mirror, signed with a diamond by its maker, Sudarg of Bokay" (111). Of note is the confusion of "his" and "his grandfather's," as this relation alludes to the lineage we've established--only here Kinbote and the King are referenced as the same person; Nabokov could be the grandfather (so it's his "really fantastic mirror"), Botkin, the father, and Kinbote, the son. Our find, bok, has led us to another link between the three. The "triptych of bottomless light" has the same effect. By describing it as a triptych, Nabokov is communicating the fact that it is one mirror made of three different panels. Thus, if one stands in front of it, there are three primary images, one in each panel of the mirror. This visually echoes the three-part division of (Na)bok(ov) into Nova and bok (bok by this point can be seen as both bok and kob, or Botkin and Kinbote), not to mention the lineage just reemphasized. And speaking of bok, it's high time we figured out why it is so important. The answer lies in the last instances of bok we have left to discuss: Botkin and Kinbote.

Let's see what is left if we take Nabokov's River--the author's presence--away from Kinbote and V. Botkin (the V in the Index entry was included for some reason, as yet unknown-perhaps this is it, let's throw it into the mix):


Since we also know that Kinbote and Botkin are in fact the same person, let's combine these letters and look for some underlying meaning:


We are left with INTEVTIN, or, the very much more exciting: INVENT IT. At last, the relationship between Kinbote, Botkin and Nabokov is given a most encouraging vote of confidence. The fact that V. Botkin's entry is the only one with an initial now makes sense. Perhaps this little quest is justified, some may argue otherwise. Regardless, there are an excess of clues, I assuredly have not found anywhere near all of them, and those of us who have read a few Nabokov works know that it is rare that we discover something without finding that Nabokov was there first, waiting for us to catch on; still, while it may have arisen by chance, this deeply camouflaged instruction from Nabokov to Botkin is remarkable--and perhaps even more fascinating because we don't know if it is just there by chance, kind of like the mountain-fountain or korona-vorona-korova misprints mentioned in the text.

Invent it. The key to finding that phrase was the middle of Nabokov's name. Just as Botkin is the middle, literally the one riding bodkin, of the Kinbote-Botkin-Nabokov line. Nabokov, by naming Botkin as he did and instilling the idea of Kinbote in him, gave Botkin a direct command or subliminal prod. The implication of this find purports to be that Kinbote, and, by extension, all the grandeur of Zembla and King Charles the Beloved, is a fantasy. This lends credence to a peculiarity of Kinbote's (really Botkin's) that both Wood and Johnson detected in the final passage of the commentary; the commentary ends:

Well, folks, I guess many in this fine hall are as hungry and thirsty as me, and I'd better stop, folks, right here.... God will help me, I trust, to rid myself of any desire to follow the example of two other characters in this work. I shall continue to exist. I may assume other disguises, other forms, but I shall try to exist. I may turn up yet, on another campus, as an old, happy, healthy, heterosexual Russian, a writer in exile, sans fame, sans future, sans audience, sans anything but his art. I may join forces with Odon in a new motion picture: Escape from Zembla (ball in the palace, bomb in the palace square). I may pander to the simple tastes of theatrical critics and cook up a stage play, an old-fashioned melodrama with three principles: a lunatic who intends to kill an imaginary king, and a distinguished old poet who stumbles by chance into the line of fire, and perishes in the clash between two figments. Oh, I may do many things! History permitting, I may sail back to my recovered kingdom, and with a great sob greet the gray coastline and the gleam of a roof in the rain. I may huddle and groan in a madhouse. But whatever happens, wherever the scene is laid, somebody, somewhere, will quietly set out--somebody has already set out, somebody still rather far away is buying a ticket, is boarding a bus, a ship, a plane, has landed, is walking toward a million photographers, and presently he will ring at my door--a bigger, more respectable, more competent Gradus (300-1).
We are surprised by Kinbote's loss of control in the first sentence as he lapses into what must be the casual, Americanized voice of Botkin, and then startled again when he recovers his stiff, pretentious royal tone and concludes the commentary in this way, conveying a sense of self-awareness not usually seen in literature. It is as if Botkin, writing from within his delusion, imagines himself capable of composing his own future, of being free to author other works. Perhaps all he ever needed to cause Kinbote to exist was the stimulus Nabokov delivered: invent it. Johnson writes, "There is some reason to think that Botkin is vaguely aware of his status as author-persona.... Nabokov's anagrammatic persona may undertake new roles. V. Botkin awaits new lexical playing fields" (73). Boyd concurs, the "paragraphs of the last note tilt and twist in a series of unstable surprises, as Kinbote seems either to lose control completely ('Well, folks, I guess many in this fine hall are as hungry and thirsty as me, and I'd better stop, folks, right here') or to see through the mirages of his madness glimpses of unexpected, inadmissible truths, not only that he is mad, but that he is invented" (61). But it is Wood who grants the most:
This is to say, perhaps, that the voice we hear at the end of Pale Fire is no longer just Kinbote's. He has attracted to himself, in the last paragraph, not only the identity of Nabokov (an identity of Nabokov), but something like the braveries of fiction itself, a form of freedom no earlier character in Nabokov attains. When previous characters in Nabokov discover they are characters in a novel, they think of themselves as authored, their lives scripted, written from elsewhere. Kinbote sees himself not only as a character in a novel but as the potential author of other works of fiction. He also seems to know, as Joyce's Molly Bloom does ('Jamesy, let me up out of this'), whose fiction he is in. If he manages to avoid suicide ('God will help me, I trust, to rid myself of any desire to follow the example of two other characters in this work'--not people in this world, we note, but 'characters in this work', the novel that his edition of Shade's Pale Fire has become), he expects to 'assume other disguises, other forms'.... He will hang on to his fantasy, or he will have to let it go.... What matters is not what happens but what might happen, the multiple chances, the darkness confronted but not, for the moment, embraced (203-5).
And it is Wood who appears to strike most closely to the truth. It is a tribute to Nabokov that all three of these scholars arrived near the same conclusion without discovering the spur for it all, the 'invent it' command. Looking back again to the Index entry for Sudarg, its final phrase, "life span not known," now relates to Botkin in light of this realization that his life is not limited by the boundaries of Pale Fire. As a result of Nabokov weaving himself into Botkin, he gave Botkin a sense of the greater reality entertained by "Nabokov as Nabokov often seems to have thought of himself," as "the fictional creation of someone who might in turn be fictional" (Wood 204). This sense of awareness Nabokov passed on to Botkin suggests that the dim, gray reality behind Kinbote's imagined world--Botkin's life--has its own reason for pride: an ability to create as he knows he was created. Botkin triumphs--lives on--regardless of Kinbote's fate. Nabokov is a generous and caring creator.

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