Writing Sample

Scraps Derived from Authentic Poems: Literary Forgery and the Structure of Pale Fire

A proper summary of Pale Fire’s authorship theories might well require a book-length treatment. For my purposes—namely, demonstrating that literary forgery provides one of the novel’s pervasive motifs and a clue to how the poem relates, or fails to relate, to its commentary—it will suffice to mention some of the major schools. Shadeans, represented first by Andrew Field, take a dim view of an insane man (Kinbote) creating a sane one and assume that Shade must have authored the poem and the commentary (gaining some traction with the help of lines 949-950: “Man’s life as commentary to abstruse/Unfinished poem”). Anti-Shadeans like Page Stegner choose to disregard Kinbote’s admission that he is a “miserable rhymester” and point out that if Kinbote invented Gradus and Zembla, he might just have easily created Shade and his poem.(1) Robert Alter sees no reason to “doubt the existence of the basic fictional data” (2) and chooses to assume the existence of a separate Shade and Kinbote; but, as Maurice Couturier mentions, this is a description of the text, not an interpretation (and a minority view, as well).(3) Bryan Boyd’s contribution to Pale Fire criticism twists each of these theories to suggest that Hazel and John Shade influence the writing of both poem and commentary after their respective deaths.(4) Finally, D. Barton Johnson detects the shadowy presence of a V. Botkin (and his anagrammatical relationship with Kinbote) and concludes that “Charles Kinbote” himself may be another level of fiction.(5)

What these interpretations of Pale Fire hold in common is their central belief in the existence of some kind of literary hoax within the novel, perpetrated by either a character or by Nabokov himself in his role as author/narrator. The identity of the author changes, but the pattern remains: one person or character tries, and perhaps succeeds, in passing his work off as the contribution of someone else. This is not a new or unexpected motif for a Nabokov novel—his “impersonation” of John Ray, Jr., PhD, is only the most famous example on a list that includes The Real Life of Sebastian Knight and Ada—but Pale Fire’s status as literary found object about another literary found object suggests that there is something particularly significant about the brand of artifice created by its structure and the truth claims that it may invoke.(6)

Where and why does this overtone of literary hoax and forgery continually suggest itself to Pale Fire’s readers and critics? Kinbote’s foreword almost immediately concerns itself with establishing a kind of authenticity (identified here as “completeness” as a final draft) for John Shade’s found poem and thus Kinbote’s role as official commentator on the final masterpiece of a dead poet; possessing almost immediate reason to doubt his reliability both as a scholar and a narrator, the particular index of authenticity Kinbote uses (recourse to his alleged data obtained at through personal interaction with Shade and the poet’s informing him that “Pale Fire” is finished on the night of July 21, just before Shade dies), when produced in tandem with our estimation of Kinbote as both scholar and narrator, obtained through clues planted as early as the second paragraph of the foreword, is meant to strike us as suspect. Even beyond his general unreliability, Kinbote admits to making substitutions of his own in the “variants” reproduced in his commentary, listing them in the Index as “K’s contribution.” As the authorship theories mentioned here attest, assessment of Kinbote’s role in relationship to the poem has led to the supposition that he has gone farther than making a few emendations: rather, he is sole author of “Pale Fire,” or, alternately, that his unreliability and tendency towards a kind of particularly inept forgery, one which does not seek to hide its existence but rather veritably shouts it to even the most casual reader, is Shade’s joke on his biographers and scholars of his poems.

Nabokov, fortunately, has left a trail of clues contained not necessarily within Pale Fire itself, but in the broader “reference library” (Priscilla Meyer's coinage) of his non-fiction. The typical intertextual reading, the universality of which is merely reflected by Pekka Tammi’s assumption at the beginning of an essay on Pale Fire that “the humorous disproportion of commentary and text” was inspired by Nabokov’s translation of Eugene Onegin (1964), paints Charles Kinbote, putative narrator, as a kind of Nabokovian double of Nabokov himself.(7) Like other Nabokovian doubles, he is both an imitation and an inverted extreme, who, instead of tracking down every allusion to its source (Nabokov’s project in Onegin), misses even the most obvious allusions and substitutes for them his own, possibly invented, autobiography. In fact, the context of literary hoaxing and forgery suggests that Nabokov may have had in mind a different scholarly work altogether, undertaken at roughly the same time and in the same spirit (disproportion of text and commentary, to borrow from Tammi) as Onegin: Slovo o polku Igoreve, translated by Nabokov as “The Song of Igor’s Campaign” (1960).

Meyer, one of the handful of critics to make this connection already, establishes the link by dint of a single word found in both the Slovo and Pale Fire. In his note to line 681 (“Gloomy Russians spied”), Kinbote provides the following genealogy for Charles II/himself:

When I was a child, Russia enjoyed quite a vogue at the court of Zembla but that was a different Russia—a Russia that hated tyrants and Philistines, injustice and cruelty, the Russia of ladies and gentlemen and liberal aspirations. We may add that Charles the Beloved could boast of some Russian blood. In medieval times two of his ancestors had married Novgorod princesses. Queen Yaruga (reigned 1799-1800) his great-great-granddam, was half Russian; and most historians believe that Yaruga's only child Igor was not the son of Uran the Last (reigned 1798-1799) but the fruit of her amours with the Russian adventurer Hodinski, her goliart (court jester) and a poet of genius, said to have forged in his spare time a famous old Russian chanson de geste, generally attributed to an anonymous bard of the twelfth century.(8)

Meyer writes: “The word iaruga appears three times in the Song: it is Old Russian for ‘ravine’ and, Nabokov says, a ‘comparatively rare word.’ By using it, Nabokov forces us to connect Pale Fire with The Song of Igor's Campaign via his commentary, for unless we are Slavists with volume three of Sreznevskii's Dictionary of Old Russian in hand, we have no hope of identifying the reference.” (9)

There are in fact other and more substantial reasons to view the similarly structured Slovo (foreword, poem, commentary) as Pale Fire’s real double, and these reasons relate to the disputed nature of both texts and their connection with forgery. Defining what “forgery” means in the context of Pale Fire requires a longer look at Nabokov’s concept of authenticity, which we see in its clearest form in his commentary to the Slovo, but also reflected in the text of Pale Fire.

This passage from Pale Fire cited above is as good an introduction as any to the Slovo’s long and contentious history—a history to which “Igor’s” disputed parentage refers. Discovered by Count Aleksey Musin-Pushkin in 1800, bound up in a bundle of manuscripts from a monastery in Iaroslavl’, and published in a first edition riddled with “improvements” made by its first editors according to the conventions of late-eighteenth-century literary style, the Slovo is a poem written to commemorate a minor event in the Ipatevskaya Chronicle, Prince Igor Sviatoslavich’s failed campaign against the Polovetsians in 1185.(10) The twelfth-century manuscript itself was purportedly lost during Napoleon’s 1812 sack of Moscow before anyone other than Musin-Pushkin and his small cadre of literary collaborators were able to view it, a fact which has only fed rumors that the original “manuscript” from which the editio princeps was printed never existed in the first place. Hodinski, also identified in Kinbote’s index as “Hodyna,” a bard who makes a brief appearance in the Slovo in an apostrophe evoking a greater age of heroism (and more refined aesthetic sensibility) preceding the era to which the actual author of the poem belongs. Hodinski/Hodyna in Pale Fire is both implicated in Igor’s disputed parentage and as the actual forger of a twelfth-century manuscript which first appeared, like the Slovo, around 1800.

The ostensibly casual use of “chanson de geste” invokes, on the other hand, the bitterly contentious fray which Nabokov’s translation of the Slovo entered even before its publication. Roman Jakobson’s La Geste du Prince Igor appears by name in Nabokov’s commentary to the Slovo only once, in note 18 to the foreword, as part of the genesis of the 1960 translation: in his first version, Nabokov had “followed uncritically Roman Jakobson’s recension as published in La Geste du Prince Igor,” but grew dissatisfied not only with Jakobson’s Russian segmentation of the text but also with “Jakobson’s views.”(11) The content of those views, to which Nabokov refers obliquely here and more explicitly later, is further explicated in the history of La Geste, which was primarily writtenin answer to French Slavicist Andre Mazon’s attack on the authenticity of the Slovo (which Nabokov also has occasion to mention in his commentary). Mazon’s view, that the Slovo was “une oeuvre récente en forme de pastiche”(12) originating in the same eighteenth-century milieu of nationalism and Romanticism which produced James Macpherson’s Ossian forgeries, received a curt “Malheureusement, Mazon n’a étudié ni la littérature de la question, ni la matière elle-même” in response, accompanied by liberally mixed arguments ad hominem and philological. (13) Jakobson and Nabokov had originally planned (with Mark Szeftel) a joint translation of the Slovo, but Nabokov asked the publisher to release him from this contract, citing in a letter to Jakobson his “little trips to totalitarian countries.”(14) The foreword to the Slovo, and the general fact that belief in the authenticity of the twelfth-century manuscript tended to break down along Russian/non-Russian lines, indicates that the disagreement was more than political. Nabokov’s defense of the authenticity of the poem, undertaken on very different grounds from the philological ones employed by Mazon and Jakobson alike, excludes nearly as much as it includes. One of the objects in this former category is “the Marxist scholastics and nationalistic emotions which tend to transform modern essays on The Song into exuberant hymns to the Motherland” and his disinterest in considering “The Song as a corollary of history or a birch-stump speech,” both of which he saw represented everywhere in Jakobson’s campaign.(15) Nabokov’s prioritization of the artistic elements of the Slovo, and rejection of the nationalistic defense, is the link between his two commentaries, and this link is refracted through the lens of forgery.

The elision of art and nationalism is, of course, precisely Kinbote's act in Pale Fire, and the origin of both the novel's central joke and most intricately rendered conflict: the battle between John Shade's intensely personal meditations on mortality and Kinbote’s concerted effort to unearth in the poet's eschatology the national epic of a lost Zembla. But Kinbote represents more than one kind of bad reader, as we realize when we place these two works—Pale Fire and Nabokov’s Slovo translation—“in adjacent positions on a comfortable table” (24). There is perhaps no more exuberant hymn to the Motherland than Kinbote’s, but the specific nature of his mistakes as a scholar relate as well to the limits of scholarship that Nabokov identifies with Mazon: not that he believes the work a “pastiche” of recent assemblage, but that his assessment of the Slovo as a work “factice, incohérente et médiocre” places him firmly in the ranks of “people who do not understand art.” (16) Mazon utters this unforgivable remark in the process of contrasting the Slovo unfavorably to the Zadonshchina, an undisputed product of the fourteenth century said to have been influenced by the Slovo and therefore in a position to provide evidence of the latter's earlier origins--which Mazon calls “toujours sincère” in comparison to the artistically complex Slovo. (17) If the Slovo reflects a later stage of Slavic letters than the Zadonshchina, the eighteenth-century Slavic Macpherson who composed the Slovo must have seen the Zadonshchina before it was officially published in 1843. This is Mazon's view of the relationship between the two.

It is, ironically, the very artistic complexity of the Slovo which convinces Nabokov of the latter’s authenticity: it is inconceivable to him that the Slovo was composed “around 1790 by an anonymous poet endowed with a degree of genius exceeding in originality and force that of the only major poet of the time (Derzhavin).”(18) This shifts the burden of proof “onto the frail shoulders of insufficient scholarship,” which cannot do any substantial damage to his thesis that the “subtle balance of parts” is the “lucid work of one man, not the random thrum of a people [or] the gradual accretion of lumpy parts which is so typical of folklore.”(19)

It should by now strike us as significant that Nabokov invokes the context of the Slovo in a novel of and about very insufficient scholarship. Presented with ample opportunity to devote his commentary to “the art of transition and preparation,” “the ample surgings of interlinked themes,” “elements of inner unit such as intonational refrains,” and “recurrent types of metaphor” that appear frequently in “Pale Fire” the poem, Kinbote rejects the importance of these elements and chooses regression (or digression) to his own history.(20) In his foreword, this is primarily to his personal history with Shade. Faced with defending the “authenticity” of the poem he possesses (which, in this case, means completeness as composed by Shade, wherein the last line of the 999-line poem is equivalent to the first line), he begins a defense of “Shade’s combinatorial turn of mind and subtle sense of harmonic balance” which would not “deform the faces of his crystal by meddling with its growth” that ends in the assertion that while this should be “enough” for any reader, he also “had the dramatic occasion of hearing my poor friend’s voice proclaim on the evening of July 21 the end, or almost the end, of his labors” (15). The latter argument undermines the perfectly valid former argument in a particular way: using Kinbote's version of the “hard data” of the poem's composition to bolster what is, in many ways, the most intuitive aesthetic point about “Pale Fire”--that the poem's unity relies upon the last line's equivalence to the first line.

Kinbote’s mistakes in the direction of peculiar scholarship are more soundly connected still with the evocation of the Slovo’s authenticity debate. This requires us to turn again to Hodinski, Igor’s father and hence Charles II’s ancestor, who appears in an earlier note (to line 12) associated with “the Zemblan variants, collected in 1798…of The Royal Mirror, an anonymous masterpiece of the twelfth century” (74). The association with glass and mirrors, and their centrality to Zembla (glossed as “this crystal land” in the same note) and Zemblan lore is immediately recognizable, but noting a further connection between Kinbote and his ancestor yields more precise information about what, exactly, is being mirrored. Kinbote begins this note by offering up a variant in a “disjointed, half-obliterated draft”: “Ah I must not forget to say something/That my friend told me of a certain king” (74). While an astute reader might notice well before the note to line 550 (“debris”) that the iambs fall in the wrong places to a native speaker of English, all doubts about the variant’s authorship are eliminated in Kinbote’s confession about line 12: “Conscience and scholarship have debated the question, and I now think that the two lines given in that note are distorted and tainted by wistful thinking. It is the only time in the course of the writing of these difficult comments, that I have tarried, in my distress and disappointment, on the brink of falsification. I must ask the reader to ignore those two lines (which, I am afraid, do not even scan properly). I could strike them out before publication but that would mean reworking the entire note, or at least a considerable part of it, and I have no time for such stupidities” (227-228). Like Hodinski, Kinbote moves from collector of variants to creator of variants as the poem and his commentary progress. And as the Index reveals, his confession of scholarly malfeasance in line 550 is incomplete: three additional variants are identified as “K’s contribution” (314). The function of The Royal Mirror of Zembla is the transformation of collector to creator: in other words, from scholar to forger.

Proving this requires us to once again consult our reference work to Pale Fire, the commentary to the Slovo. Nabokov is compelled to argue twice against the thesis of a “Russian Macpherson,” a forger masquerading as a mere collector of ancient verses.(21) To contend with the oft-noted parts of the Slovo which include “poetical formulas strikingly resembling” Macpherson’s poems, supposedly collected in the Scottish countryside but actually authored by Macpherson, Nabokov resorts to the highly counterintuitive position that it is not inauthenticity in the Slovo that is to blame, but that “Macpherson’s concoction does contain after all scraps derived from authentic ancient poems.” Meyer points out the invocation of the Scottish context in Hodinski’s part of the note to line 12 via the figure of “Angus MacDiarmid,”(22) but what does this mean for Hodinski’s place in the commentary, and, by extension, for Kinbote’s? One of his variants does indeed contain a scrap from an ancient authentic poem, the Icelandic Edda: “The evening is the time to praise the day,” which is not, in fact, a “charming quatrain from our Zemblan counterpart of the Elder Edda” but a close paraphrase of the actual text itself. (“Praise the day in the evening, a wife when dead, a weapon when tried, a maid when married, ice when ‘tis crossed, and ale when ‘tis drunk” as compared to Kinbote’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.”[107])(23) Earlier on, Kinbote specifically turns down an invitation to speak to club of the “certain ferocious lady” on “The Hally Vally,” a corruption of the title of a “Finnish epic” that is almost certainly the Kalevala, also derived from authentic scraps of ancient poems, but, although to a lesser extent than Macpherson’s work, modified by its collector. Kinbote, like Nabokov, accompanies his story of exile with maps of his homeland. Nabokov's translation of the Slovo, following an established tradition in Slovo scholarship and translation, contains not only a proper genealogical table of Prince Igor's origins but geographical representation of Igor's campaign outside the boundaries of Rus'; Kinbote draws a map of the palace grounds and Onhava and pleads with Sybil Shade in the commentary to “to send it, well packed, marked not to be bent on the wrapper, and by registered mail, to my publisher for reproduction in later editions of this work” (111). And, finally, there are the broad similarities between Kinbote’s story and Igor’s: both princes flee from enemies amassed (at least at first) in the outskirts of their respective kingdoms. Kinbote is indeed deriving scraps from authentic poems in his role as collector/creator of spurious variants, if only accidentally.

What might these elements of literary history, parody (possible self-parody) of the scholarly enterprise, and Nabokov's authenticatory aesthetics illuminate about the relationship between John Shade's poem and its commentary? One of the most curious aspects of Kinbote’s inventions—authentic or not—is that they, unlike the insertions of Macpherson, et al., never touch the original. Always perfectly obvious when they appear, and carefully delineated in the Index or confessed in future notes, they confine themselves to Kinbote’s eccentric scholarship and take trouble to announce their presence. Markers beyond the bibliographical include the simple content of Shade’s poem, carefully distinguished by the “array of animals” and plants that give the Slovo’s circumstances “a touch of local reality” and authenticity for Nabokov; Kinbote, on the other hand, conspicuously disparages Shade’s fascination with the local flora and fauna because it takes time away from his Zemblan theme (168). This suggests by way of analogy to the Slovo that Shade’s poem is the authentic output of a lone artist with “a singular freedom of thought” and an appreciation for “vibrant contrast…a percipience of sensuous things.” In other words, Shade’s reflections are directed to an outside world through the data of sensory detail and reflected back in a process that might well contain exactly the magic Kinbote attributes to him in the foreword: “perceiving and transforming the world, taking it in and taking it apart, re-combining its elements in the very process of storing them up so as to produce at some unspecified date an organic miracle, a fusion of image and music, a line of verse” (27). Kinbote’s profound dearth of interest in the natural world is both reflective and emblematic of his unwillingness to interact with any entity outside of his own refracted consciousness, even when it comes to scholarship, the ostensible point of his commentary. Lacking a library, he is unable to identify the source of “pale fire” when the very translation he needs rests in his pocket. “Such humdum potterings,” he says of looking up a reference to the newspaper article that provides the misprint which serves as inspiration for lines 747-803 of Canto III, “are beneath true scholarship” (256).

And once again we find ourselves at Nabokov’s commentary to the Slovo and its particular definition of “authenticity,” set in opposition to “insufficient scholarship,” onto whose “frail shoulders” the burden of proof is shifted by Nabokov’s aesthetic arguments about origins.(24) Kinbote’s scholarship is worse than most, and clearly intended parodically, but it should remind us that truth for Nabokov did not lie in the philology of Mazon and Jakobson (both of whom are parodied in Kinbote) or in any kind of traditionally-defined “scholarship” at all. The note in the commentary (Line 681: “Gloomy Russians spied”) which already unites the Slovo and Pale Fire also ties together several disparate themes—from Marxist scholastics and nationalistic emotions to forgery and the futile quest for a treasure analogous to the philological search for the Slovo’s origins. The conspicuously Soviet Russian experts Andronnikov and Niagarin, described as “waxworks” themselves and hunting for the Zemblan crown jewels, are sent through the infinite regress that characterizes all of Kinbote’s commentary back to the note to line 130, where they are fooled by Eystein’s trompe l’oeil and “its weird form of trickery,” in which real objects are hidden among the merely represented ones (130). Ignoring the artistic clues (pictured on top of the bronze box they are about to crack is a “beautifully executed, twin-lobed, brainlike, halved kernel of a walnut” [131]) and the very concept of artistry itself, they find nothing inside the box except the broken bits of a nutshell. Their quest acquires an additional layer of futility from our knowledge that we are ourselves viewing a piece of art, and that the crown jewels are “cached in a totally different—and quite unexpected corner—of Zembla” (244) which happens in this case to be the Index—along with the commentary, the only “real” part of Zembla. The final connection between scholarship and the quest for the crown jewels is made by a loop (Crown Jewels --> Hiding Place --> potaynik --> taynik --> Crown Jewels) that recalls the closed nature of Kinbote’s personal universe, which accesses truth—artistic truth—only accidentally. Andronnikov’s and Niagarin’s task is not meaningless because it is a search for what is hidden, but because it commences in the first place. It ignores the trompe l’oeil (the art) in favor of a search for valuable outside of art.

“Insufficient scholarship” is, in both the Slovo and Pale Fire, improper attentiveness to art qua art. The metaphor and specter of literary forgery, raised by Kinbote’s scraps derived from authentic poems (the sum of which form the kind of pastiche that Nabokov thought it was “no great sin” to associate with the Slovo) and invoked again through the connection to Nabokov’s commentary to a possible forgery of which he undertakes a very pointed defense, serves as a very specific kind of red herring. It is, in the case of the philology of Jakobson and Mazon, a search for time and place independent of aesthetic considerations—and in Jakobson’s case, as in Kinbote’s, the quest is tied to a nationalistic purpose. For Nabokov, this is an inverted direction: good art betrays its origins in its artistic qualities. When Kinbote pauses to consider “Pale Fire” at all, it is usually through the lens of assigning time and place to Shade’s composition, and, hence, providing legitimacy to his project and his role as the only commentator with direct access to its creator; Nabokov’s one “eerie doubt” about the Slovo’s authenticity—“we are forced, first, to assume that at a singularly precise point in historical reality, namely in the early summer of 1187, somewhere in Kievan Russia a person describes a series of events which started only two years before and are still in a state of live flux and formlessness”—is, in the end, left unresolved.(25) The structure of Pale Fire, found object of found object, is constructed as distraction from art considered as art: by deliberately shrouding the poem’s provenance in the insufficient scholarship of its commentary, Nabokov lays a trap for the scholar unwilling to consider the aesthetic qualities of John Shade’s poem.

(c) Shannon Chamberlain, 2007