Tag Archives: Pale Fire

The Strange Case of Nabokov and W.F. Kirby

One of the perils and pleasures of Nabokov research comes from dipping a toe into what appears to be no more than a puddle, only to find a much deeper cavern lurking beneath the small ripples of the surface. This is one such case:

In Pale Fire, Kinbote’s note to line 79 gives us a line from Shade (“The evening is the time to praise the day”) which Kinbote asserts was inspired by his recitation of

…a charming quatrain from our Zemblan counterpart to the Elder Edda, in an anonymous English translation (Kirby’s?):

The wise at nightfall praise the day,

The wife when she has passed away,

The ice when it is crossed, the bride

When tumbled, and the horse when tried.

Though the Zemblan Elder Edda is fictional, the Kirby to whom Kinbote refers is a real man and a real translator, W.F. Kirby, though Kirby’s major work of translation was the Finnish epic The Kalevala, not the Elder Edda. Complicating things further, the Zemblan quatrain actually seems be a reworking not of Kirby’s work but of Olive Bray’s 1908 translation of Strophe 81 of the Havamal, a portion of the Elder Edda. It reads:

Praise the day at even, a wife when dead,

a weapon when tried, a maid when married,

ice when ’tis crossed, and ale when ’tis drunk.

So Nabokov, via Kinbote, has here constructed a rhyming English version of Bray’s English translation, in the guise of Kirby’s English translation of a Zemblan work akin to the Old Norse Elder Edda. Got it?

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Infernal Sacraments

Much of my Nabokovian work has been devoted to annotating sources and allusions related to Pale Fire. I have posted many of these to the Nabokov listserv over the years, but I am going to reconstitute some of them on this blog from time to time. Today’s entry falls more in the source category, as opposed to an allusion. Explain. When VN uses an allusion to some other literary work or historical incident, he wants us to recognize it and make something of the connection. Sources are different in that they lie more or less hidden behind the process of composition, and the author does not expect us, or require us, to recognize them or make sense of their connection to the text at hand. Nevertheless, source work can be revealing insomuch as it provides context for the sourced material and may help us understand some of the unstated elements that undergird an author’s use of the material.

That said, I am not today going to undertake a full-scale source study but will instead simply lay out a couple of source passages for the reader’s delight and edification. Here we go:

Passage from Pale Fire (n. 171)

When the fallen tyrant is tied, naked and howling, to a plank in the public square and killed piecemeal by the people who cut slices out, and eat them, and distribute his living body among themselves (as I read when young in a story about an Italian despot, which made of me a vegetarian for life).

Passage from John Addington Symonds’ Renaissance in Italy: The Age of Despots (1885)

Dattiri was bound naked to a plank and killed piecemeal by the people, who bit his flesh, cut slices out, and sold and ate it–distributing his living body as a sort of infernal sacrament among themselves.

In this case, then, Nabokov cannibalized from Symonds a passage on cannibalism. I’m tempted to think VN was cognizant of the irony, but given that he plundered all kinds of passages from various writers, it’s hard to assign any particular intent to this one, despite the felicitous intersection of process and subject.

While not as definitive as the previous example, I can’t help thinking that the following passages are likewise linked.

PF (n. 62):

Everybody knows how given to regicide Zemblans are: two Queens, three Kings, and fourteen Pretenders died violent deaths, strangled, stabbed, poisoned, and drowned, in the course of only one century (1700-1800).


No one believed in the natural death of a prince: princes must be poisoned or poignarded. Out of thirteen of the Carrara family, in little more than a century (1318-1435) three were deposed or murdered by near relatives, one was expelled by a rival from his state, four were executed by the Venetians. Out of five of the La Scala family, three were killed by their brothers, and a fourth was poisoned in exile.

This passage from Symonds appears just a page prior to the cannibalism reference. I have not read all of the Symonds, but what I have read is highly entertaining. I can see why VN was drawn to it. Symonds himself, by the way, seems to have been a mix of equal (or, who knows, unequal) parts John Shade and Charles Kinbote.

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“Pale Fire” the Poem, Day-By-Day

In this data visualization, I have constructed a table showing the date of composition for each line of the poem, “Pale Fire.” I am speaking here of Nabokov’s composition of the poem, not John Shade’s. I had to make things very small in order to allow the viewer to take the whole thing in at a glance, but that seemed the most helpful way to view it. If you are interested in knowing the exact lines and dates, go to the link below the picture. Drag a box around any of the segments and a menu box should appear that shows the underlying data. I am interested in creating some sort of animation that would show all the pieces falling into place, but I do not yet have the skill to manage that. If anyone has any suggestions, I would be happy to hear them.

PF Poem Day By Day


“Pale Fire” the Poem, Day-By-Day

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Paratexts Gone Wrong

Today in my Intro to English Studies course we are talking about paratexts, the materials that surround the text (front and back matter, illustrations, book design, advertisements, etc.) but are not part of the text proper. Nabokov, as we know, was fascinated by paratexts. He liked to include sham versions of them within his novels (John Ray Jr.’s foreword in Lolita, Kinbote’s foreword, commentary, and index in PF, the editorial interruptions in Ada) and penned a number of authentic prefaces and afterwords, as well. Sometimes he intruded into the publisher’s paratext, as in the Putnam’s first edition of Pale Fire, where, as James Ramey has shown, he hid the crown jewels of Zembla, represented by a black crown on the title page, just below the author’s name and just above the Putnam’s logo.

When it came to cover illustrations, Nabokov strongly preferred plain text on a simple background to any kind of representative image of characters or situations, and the publishers of his first editions largely adhered to his wishes. Later editions, however, were beyond Nabokov’s control. In Lolita: The Story of a Cover Girl (Print Books, 2013), John Bertram and Yuri Leving present a brilliant overview of the ways book designers have molded, and been molded by, the public’s image of Lolita (the character). Also be sure to check out Dieter Zimmer’s web gallery of Lolita editions from around the world.

For all the egregious distortions and vulgarities apparent on the covers of books, we should not forget the damage that can be done by the blurbs and summaries on the back cover. One of the worst is from the 1989 Vintage paperback of Despair. (The whole Vintage 1989 reissue was, by the way, a design nightmare: awful photographs, ugly colors, inaccurate lepidoptera, etc.) The description reads thus:

Extensively revised by Nabokov in 1965–thirty years after its original publication–DESPAIR is the wickedly inventive and richly derisive story of Hermann, a man who undertakes the perfect crime: his own murder.

Immediately below this we find a blurb from Newsweek:

“A beautiful mystery plot, not to be revealed.”

But of course, one of the main elements of that plot–an element that is not fully revealed until quite late in the novel–is Hermann’s plan to murder his alleged double, Felix, and collect the insurance money. So the Vintage description does, in fact, reveal an essential element of the plot that Newsweek says should not be revealed!

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Pale Fire Month-By-Month

One of my ongoing projects involves an analysis of the composition and revision of Pale Fire. The holograph (handwritten) manuscript of PF resides in the Library of Congress and is now accessible to scholars on microfilm via interlibrary loan. I was lucky enough to visit the LOC back before the manuscript was photographed, and I have to say that while the increased access afforded by microfilm is wonderful, the quality of the images (especially to one trying to decipher cancellations and scrawled variants) does not approach the originals. The few photocopies that I was able to make of the original cards are much clearer than the .pdf downloads I obtained from the machines at the LOC. All that aside, I have been interested in developing a series of strictly data-based visualizations that would show Nabokov’s pace and method of composition. I have a ways to go in terms of my knowledge of data visualization, but I did find a handy, free program called Tableau that allowed me to create the bar graph below. The graph is organized by month and shows the volume of dated notecards VN produced during the composition of the novel. I should note that only about half of the cards in the manuscript are dated, so this chart does not present a complete view of novel’s composition.  Below the chart is a link to a more dynamic version of the data, which allows you to click on the bars and see the underlying data from the original Excel sheet.

Pale Fire by Month


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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.

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