Bourne, Bourn, Bourneville, Berne, Bernville: Sightings from a Doomed Expedition

In a talk I gave for a panel on the 50th anniversary of Pale Fire, I compared the reader of PF to an explorer who, despite not always finding what he set out to find, nevertheless discovers all sorts of interesting vistas and species that, while not strictly relevant to his goal, may still be enriching. At the panel, I talked about my research into the poet (yes, poet) Edsel Ford, part of whose poem “The Image of Desire” appears in Kinbote’s note to line 603. Here I am going to offer another example of what I call “education-by-Nabokov”–the kind of literary sleuthing that often takes one through the hinterlands of unimagined landscapes.

As any “expert solver” of PF will tell you, one of the frustrations and delights of the novel is that it requires one to pursue vast, wide-ranging sources and allusions that fall well beyond the bounds of common literary knowledge. In this example, then, I want to note a collection of oddities picked up along the way–oddities that together form a strange phonetic web of (non)sense. In no particular order:


In the Nabokov archive of the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library, there exists a large binder of Nabokov’s unpublished notes (I think the binder is labeled “Notes on Various Subjects”). In this binder is a notecard on which Nabokov scribbled mostly verbatim notes from DJ West‘s 1954 book Psychical Research TodayVN seems to have been particularly interested in the chapter three, “The Psychology of Mediumship,” which contains several accounts of people diagnosed with secondary personalities.  In an article for the Nabokov Online Journal, Tiffany DeRewal and I explain why we believe one particular case, that of Ansel Bourne, is relevant to PF. Ansel Bourne (whose story, by the way, inspired the main character’s name in Robert Ludlum’s Bourne books) was perhaps the most famous case of multiple personalities from the late 19th century. He was examined personally by William James, who wrote about him extensively in his Principles of Psychology. West describes his story this way:

A case of this kind was Ansel Bourne, an American preacher.  He was a rather unhealthy man who had since childhood suffered from depressed moods. When he was sixty-one, he lost his sense of identity, wandered off into a distant town, and set up as a store-keeper under another name. After six weeks he suddenly reverted to his old self and came back home.

In the article, in which we assert that Kinbote can be seen as a secondary personality of John Shade, we explain the connection between Bourne’s story and that of Shade:

Could it be that the story of Bourne — a 61-year-old man who lost his identity, became another, and wandered west to a far-off town — inspired Nabokov to create John Shade, another 61-year-old man who, we assert, loses his identity, becomes another, and wanders west to Cedarn? The connections between Bourne and Shade, in addition to their age, are notable. Richard Hodgson detailed Bourne’s case in his study “A Case of Double Consciousness” (1891). According to Hodgson, Bourne, like Shade, suffered from strange fits as a child: “[H]e had been subject to the ‘blues’ since childhood. . . . These would sometimes last a few hours, sometimes a week. Occasionally, at such times, when walking, he would find himself two or three miles away from where he had last noticed himself as being.” Bourne’s wife likewise revealed that “Bourne had had several ‘fainting fits’ in the course of his life.” One of these fits took place in 1857. According to a pamphlet cited by Hodgson, Bourne was struck deaf, dumb, and blind; however, “[h]is mind was perfectly alive all of the time. . . . About him all was silent as though there were neither a God, nor life, nor motion in the whole wide universe. This silence was as though the soul had been cast into a deep, bottomless, and shoreless sepulcher, where dismal silence was to reign eternally.”

This experience sounds not unlike John Shade’s childhood fit: “And then black night. That blackness was sublime. / I felt distributed through space and time.” Even the diagnosis of Bourne’s condition mirrors that of John Shade. Hodgson believes that Bourne’s fits “suggest that Mr. Bourne has been subject to some form of epilepsy, and that during his eight-week absence in 1887 he was suffering from a post-epileptic partial loss of memory.” Hodgson concludes, quoting J. Hughlings Jackson, that “after the fit, he was a different person, although in the same skin; or, as the popular phrase is, the post-epileptic patient ‘was not himself.’” Kinbote’s own thoughts about Shade’s childhood fits seem to mirror this diagnosis: “It must have been with him a mild form of epilepsy, a derailment of the nerves at the same spot, on the same curve of tracks, every day, for several weeks, until nature repaired the damage.”

I could go on, but if you are interested, please follow the link to the article!


In the Index, Kinbote, in the entry for Botkin, includes the following note: “botkin or bodkin, a Danish stiletto.” This is a clear reference to Hamlet’s most famous soliloquy and its reference to a “bare bodkin” (3.1.84). But the following lines of the soliloquy seem equally relevant to PF, and particularly to Kinbote’s narrative and plight:

When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of? (3.1.83-90)

Hamlet’s agony is shared by Kinbote, certainly, but the scenario here (death as undiscovered country) is neatly mirrored/reversed by Kinbote’s story, since he is himself an exile from an undiscovered country (Zembla) into whose bourn (boundaries) he, the traveler, cannot return. In a sense, then, he is trapped between the twin bourns of Zembla and the afterlife.


In Kinbote’s note to line 691, he mentions the “alert doctor, who as I well know once confused neuralgia with cerebral sclerosis.” It is an open question whether “cerebral sclerosis” is a reference to the specific name of a condition (like neuralgia) or a more general designation that could refer to any number of mental disorders. (It’s interesting that in Nabokov’s original handwritten manuscript of the novel, he wrote “cerebrosclerosis” instead. He apparently changed this during his revision of the typescript.) Most critics seems to have taken cerebral sclerosis in the more general sense, as a kind of clinical reference to the biological causes of Kinbote’s insanity. But this ignores the fact that cerebral sclerosis was, at one time, the preferred term for a specific set of conditions. The definitive article, titled “Cerebral Sclerosis,” was authored by Alfred Walter Campbell (n.b., Walter Campbell is the name of King Charles’ tutor!) and appeared in the British journal Brain in 1905.  In the article, Campbell details the various forms of the disease, including one known as tuberose sclerosis, or, formally, Bourneville’s disease, named after the doctor who first described it in 1880. Now known as tuberous sclerosis, this form of the disease is typified by potato-like masses (thus, tubers) in the brain, epileptic-type fits, and facial angiofibromas. For more on this disease, see here. The link between these symptoms and PF is tenuous at best, but in addition to the Walter Campbell coincidence, one might also recall John Shade’s fits, and, more striking, his references in Canto Three to the “grand potato” and “the tuber’s eye.”  But that is not so much the point as the very fact that one does not have to search very far when investigating cerebral sclerosis before one comes across Bourneville, our third entry in the curious collection.


My colleague James Ramey published a wonderful article in Comparative Literature Studies back in 2003, titled “Parasitism and Pale Fire‘s Camouflage: The King-Bot, the Crown Jewels and the Man in the Brown Macintosh.” While investigating the botfly, to which Sybil compares Kinbote, he reveals that the maggots of the Dermatobia hominis are called, in Brazil, “berne.”

Image source: Wikipedia


I have always been interested in tracking down Nabokov’s sources. Sources are different from allusions insomuch as there is no reasonable expectation that the reader should know the source of this or that image. But I find great delight in discovering Nabokov’s traces in a scholarly book on Italy or an Icelandic epic or, in this case, a news wire report from the late fifties. In Canto Three, John Shade writes about the unseen powers who control our fates, “Causing a chunk of ice formed on a high- / Flying airplane to plummet from the sky / And strike a farmer dead…”  Not the most felicitous piece of verse, and so specific, I thought. There must be something behind it.  So this led me to learn all kinds of things about the history of mysterious falling ice. I knew that Nabokov began collecting many of the source materials for PF in 1957, when he was still at Cornell, so I did a keyword search in the newspaper archives for that year, and sure enough, there was just such an incident, very like the one described in John Shade’s poem. On July 31, 1957, newspapers around the country carried several different wire reports relating the experience of Edward Groff, a farmer from Bernville, Pennsylvania, who while standing in his field narrowly missed being struck by two large chunks of ice. The report goes on to say that State Police “theorized that the ice may have fallen from a cargo plane or a plane engaged in cloud seeding.” See here (bottom left) for an example of the wire report.

So here we have our whole collection: Bourne, bourn, Bourneville, berne, Bernville. I titled this post “a doomed expedition,” for the simple reason that I don’t think there is anything to be made of this coincidence, at least as it relates to the interpretation of PF‘s narrative. And yet, and yet, I feel strangely enriched by the process of digging and finding and storing away these odd and various ephemerae. As I pointed out in my panel discussion,

Rather than cast all of these discoveries aside in favor of a purely utilitarian drive towards our goal, I would suggest that by recording (if only privately) and storing up the knowledge we gain through our adventures, we are in fact taking part in the greater revelation that John Shade so esteems in his third canto: “Not text, but texture; not the dream / But topsy-turvical coincidence, / Not flimsy nonsense, but a web of sense. . . . Some kind / Of correlated pattern in the game.”

This is one of the special pleasures of reading Nabokov, the paradoxical sense that though his novels are often regarded as cold, insular, and over-determined, the more one delves into them, the more deeply we are drawn into the world beyond the bourn of the novel’s pages.

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One thought on “Bourne, Bourn, Bourneville, Berne, Bernville: Sightings from a Doomed Expedition

  1. Jerry Friedman says:

    That’s especially one of the pleasures of reading Pale Fire. All the webs of sense, whether the Nabokov wove them or the reader, and in the former case, whether the reader sees the intended pattern or not–they all at least connect with Shade’s admirable or comical epiphany. The same is probably true of “Signs and Symbols”.

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