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

Or is he? While Botkin triumphs regardless, Nabokov will not let us leave without reminding us whose world Botkin is ultimately in. In one of the quotes I prefaced this essay with he describes his characters as "galley slaves." Knowing this, I propose that there is at least one point that may be weighty, which I would argue throws the whole matter back towards the irresolvable, 'untaggable' world of Nabokov's fiction. If so, it proves, despite Botkin's freedom and awareness of his existence independent of the text, that he is still trying to escape his reality, perhaps hoping at last to enter the world of his creator, Nabokov, or, if that should prove impossible, commit "the one sin that ends all sins" (222).

In the commentary to line 991 of the poem, Kinbote at last gets his hands on the completed poem, which he imagines will bring notoriety to his created world. He immediately wanders off in a passionate discourse on the wonder of reading. This dissertation ends abruptly when, because of the poem he is carrying, Kinbote finds himself "enriched with an indescribable amazement as if informed that fireflies were making decodable signals on behalf of stranded spirits, or that a bat was writing a legible tale of torture in the bruised and branded sky" (289). This is certainly a rare, curiously dark form of wonder to be struck with when finally "holding all Zembla pressed to [his] heart" (289). But it turns out it is not entirely inimitable, for a similar case of awe, only with a grimly Nabokovian twist, torments the unnamed young man who never actually appears 'on stage' in Nabokov's short story, "Signs and Symbols" (in another instance in the text Nabokov's short story, "The Vane Sisters," is alluded to, as Boyd explains, p. 213-4). I propose that this young man's predicament may be the future for Botkin, whose sickness is just now, near the end of the text, advanced enough to become visible even in his projected persona. It makes sense that when Kinbote finally obtains the poem, when his heart is racing, blood coursing and head swimming, when he's weak with anticipation, that the sickness emerges from Botkin's world into Kinbote's. The young man in the story (a stirring, threatening, haunting story at that) is in a mental asylum--one of the fates Kinbote offers as a possibility in his final paragraph ("I may huddle and groan in a madhouse"). This young man has been diagnosed with a "system of delusions" known as "referential mania," a form of sickness where "In these very rare cases the patient imagines that everything happening around him is a veiled reference to his personality and existence" ("Signs and Symbols" 595). Ring any bells?

Botkin's Kinbote guise has caused the disease lying dormant within him, put there by Nabokov, to become malignant. But it seems to be a different strain: "[the young man] excludes real people from the conspiracy--because he considers himself so much more intelligent than other men" ("Signs and Symbols" 595). Kinbote's strain of the disease causes him to believe something slightly different: that everyone around him is subject to his referential mania, actors within his drama. The ending has already been scripted: "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." The attributes Kinbote offers as possibilities to the actions of the fireflies and the bat smack of the "Clouds in the staring sky [transmitting] to one another, by means of slow signs, incredibly detailed information," the "Phenomenal nature" which "shadows [the young man] wherever he goes" ("Signs and Symbols" 595). The actions speak of misery; the "stranded spirits" could include poor Botkin, the bat's "tale" is his biography. Sadly, the young man cannot handle such conspiracies; he repeatedly tries to kill himself.

In related news--perhaps Kinbote's most direct reference to his multiple personalities, he belies Botkin's strained condition: Kinbote is talking about Death; he says, "that slave--not only to 'fate' and 'chance'--but also to us ('kings and desperate men')" (Pale Fire 241). He references (in parentheses again!) himself--the King, and his use of 'men' as opposed to 'man' is a reference to both Charles Kinbote and his true identity as Botkin, both of whom are "desperate."

Kinbote's desperation and fascination with ending it all--his resignation to such an ending, is palpable throughout the text. Both Botkin's constructed mask and his own hidden identity are in need of the same solution as the young man (albeit for different reasons). Nabokov knows it, for he pinpointed it in "Signs and Symbols." The young man and Botkin are both in search of the same thing: each wants to "tear a whole in his world and escape" ("Signs and Symbols" 595). If the voices are attracted to Botkin, it is not in spite of, but because of his desperation to escape his world through participation in something new--a new reality or fantasy, or, at the least, an escape into le grand néant.

Kinbote writes, "I may assume other disguises, other forms, but I shall try to exist. I may turn up yet." Do we believe him? Perhaps. He has my sympathy. But as a character created by Nabokov, his destiny is not his own. Consider:

Lolita dies in childbirth, Humbert in prison. Adam Krug in Bend Sinister dies in a burst of gunfire and madness, the author twitching him out of pain in the dimension of words. Cincinattus C. receives a similar benefaction at the moment of his beheading. Sebastian Knight's father dies as a result of wounds received in a duel, his mother from a rare disease, Sebastian himself dies young from the same disease. Luzhin in The Defence throws himself out of a window to his death (Wood 203).
Why should Botkin escape Nabokovian fate? Finality, it seems, remains to Nabokov to impart. But there is an exception, Professor Pnin, protagonist of Nabokov's Pnin, pops up a couple times in Pale Fire; perhaps this will be closer to Botkin's fate, he will live on in new works by his creator. Somehow, I doubt it; Botkin is not interested in waiting for further name games and nudges to create. Nabokov has imbued Botkin with authorial power, but he did not alter his plight as a character. Pnin wasn't granted that freedom, but his existence is easier for it. Botkin, caught in that dusk between Pale Fire and the daylight of our own world, is perhaps more unfortunate than any other of Nabokov's characters, for, as Maurice Maeterlinck puts it, "all our knowledge merely helps us to die a more painful death than animals that know nothing." In other words, it is exactly Botkin's position, aware of his fate and his freedom, that makes his unattainable desire to escape his middle world that much more painful, and his future that much harder to stand. This is why his last attempt to hope--the last paragraph of the commentary--concludes so ominously, focusing at the end on "a bigger, more respectable, more competent Gradus."

These are all reasons that Wood's identification of Botkin (Boyd & Johnson don't go far enough) as having "attracted to himself... something like the braveries of fiction" is ultimately too zealous, too open-ended and optimistic. Don't get me wrong; Wood is right about Nabokov when he says, "The magician's doubts are inseparable from his successes. They are his successes, they sustain the magic that seems to make them vanish" (235). Nabokov is certainly not the grim author some may think. He is capable of leading his readers through the entire range of emotions, and is careful never to completely resolve his selected doubts. My reading is one of many possible ones; the case will never be closed; there's always hope. But, while doubt and alternative readings remain, the evidence amassed is significant, and the dice seem more likely to be fixed against Botkin than for him. Wood's "What matters is not what happens but what might happen, the multiple chances, the darkness confronted but not, for the moment, embraced" no longer applies. Botkin is indeed aware of his multiple chances to "do many things," but Nabokov's permeation of his psyche also caused "the darkness confronted" to metamorphose into Botkin's very world; it embraced him. Looking back, it seems I had at least one thing wrong: Nabokov is Terra the Fair, Botkin the orbicle of black. Damned never to ascend to the level of Nabokov, it is that much harder for Botkin to continue because he realizes it. I fear that when Botkin sheds Kinbote his desire to light another pale fire in his twilight world will not rekindle; the light of Pale Fire will be his final sunset.

If so, then Nabokov's comment on authorship resonates, too: by its nature, authoring a work brings with it the fear that you, too, could be authored. It demands a complete reevaluation of our own world. The very act of creation is self-referential; by creating we risk bringing the whole thing down around our ears, discovering that we live in Zembla or New Wye; that we are Botkin. Knowledge itself is a risk, fiction only a reprieve, a possibility. There is also a sense of bravery, that by conceiving we dare to realize our fate, remind ourselves that our day is ever waning....

Works Cited:

"bodkin." Oxford English Dictionary. Ed. J. A. Simpson and E. S. C. Weiner. 2nd ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989. OED Online. Oxford University Press. October-January 2002-3. http://dictionary.oed.com/cgi/entry/00024413

Boyd, Brian. Nabokov's Pale Fire: The Magic of Artistic Discovery. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999.

Johnson, D. B. "The Index of Refraction in Pale Fire." Worlds in Regression: Some Novels of Vladimir Nabokov. Ann Arbor: Ardis Publishers, 1985: 60-77.

Nabokov, Vladimir. Pale Fire. New York: Random House, Inc., 1962.

Nabokov, Vladimir. "Signs and Symbols." The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995: 594-599.

Wood, Michael. "The Demons of our Pity: Pale Fire." The Magician's Doubts: Nabokov and the Risks of Fiction. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994: 173-205, 235.

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