When I read Pale Fire for the first time during a seminar on literary forgeries, I failed to follow narrator Charles Kinbote’s—as it happened, excellent—advice. I did not “eliminate the back-and-forth leafings by either cutting out and clipping together the pages with the text of the thing, or, even more simply, by purchasing two copies of the same work which can then be placed in adjacent positions on a comfortable table” because, like all Nabokov novices, I did not simply fail to buy into the game: I barely recognized that the game existed. Accustomed to polemics and satires by three years in an Early Modern Europe history and literature concentration, I thought I already knew what I needed to know about Kinbote as a scholar—from his lodgings beside the amusement park to his too ardent protestations about his quality as commentator on a poem which seemed curiously absent from his preface—and took his admonition as yet another scarcely concealed dig at pride or greed, as incompatible with real scholarship as his digressions on noise, ping pong, and some imagined “Zembla.” The seminar's consensus, that Kinbote had forged the entire text, including the poem he attributes to John Shade, seemed somehow beside the point. There was also the simple matter of its structure—a found document of a found document—which was deeply resonant with the presentation of both early novels and eighteenth-century forgeries to the public. But this connection was simultaneously vague and complex, and, before the end of the class, I failed to solve that everlasting problem of literary geekdom—what in the world is going on in Pale Fire?—to my satisfaction.
I graduated a month later with a summa cum laude thesis on the economic discourse of Antichrist in the Tudor and Jacobean periods, but instead of pursuing this project immediately to graduate school, I took several years off to work, by day, in higher education, and by night with the questions that Pale Fire and the literary forgery seminar had raised in my mind. In particular, I found K.K. Ruthven's argument in Faking Literature, that forgery was persecuted with zeal because the “real thing” was itself suspiciously connected with rhetoric and persuasion, an intriguing gloss on the questions the seminar had raised in my mind. I read Nabokov's infamous version of Eugene Onegin, his translation of “The Song of Igor's Campaign,” and Boyd's Nabokov's Pale Fire: The Magic of Artistic Discovery side by side, and, at last, understood the value of Kinbote's advice the first time I followed one thread from foreword, to commentary, to poem, to index, and then (I'm not sure Nabokov would have entirely approved) to Boyd. I found puzzling references in Pale Fire to “The Song of Igor’s Campaign” and the forged Finnish Kalevala, as well as structural and plot symmetries in Kinbote’s attempt to translate the intensely personal lyric into a kind of nationalist epic. I knew then that my interest was in novels written the way that Pale Fire was written: as false documents and false commentaries, pretending to be other than what they were.
Understanding, too, that I would need a different kind of preparation for the kind of multilingual and pan-historical work I wanted to do, I took advantage of employment at the University of California, San Diego to take classes on Russian literature and make the acquaintance of the Formalists, who in turn led me to Bakhtin, Frye, Booth, and the other twentieth-century critics who established the subfield of narrative theory in an attempt to get the very thing which my inquiry into the status of certain eighteenth- and nineteenth-century forgeries had destabilized: the concept of fiction. Knowledge of French and Italian proved necessary but not sufficient for my purposes; by combining private tutoring with an extension school class, I was able to compress a year of college Russian into two quarters and enroll in Second-Year Russian this fall, along with a single-author class on—in a moment of personal poetic symmetry reminiscent of the final line of Pale Fire—Nabokov. A love for this single novel had led me through the history of narrative theory in twentieth and twenty-first centuries, from Propp's early attempts to write a taxonomy of the Russian folk tale, to N. Katherine Hayles' My Mother Was a Computer: Digital Subjects and Literary Texts, which regards the input of print text into digital and hypermedia forms as nothing less than translation, and proposes that truly digital texts—conceived and created as such—will look and behave in a fundamentally different manner than their ancestors in dead tree. (After some thought about the implications of this statement, I've chosen to regard Pale Fire as a hybrid. I’m not, therefore, violating my own standards by creating a hypertext version of it for my Nabokov classmates this fall which attempts to preserve what a book historian would call the bibliographic markers, while at the same time taking advantage of hypertext links to read the book in the way that its narrator suggests, albeit without the use of scissors and tape, which is, frankly, a good way to destroy not one but four copies of Pale Fire.)
It is the negotiation between form and content which serves as the nexus of many interests: print and digital technology, narrative technique and structure, framing devices, and, finally, literary forgery. My dissertation plan is to examine these topics through the lens of a history of verisimilitude. Although the origins of the novel have been mapped and disputed in bitter succession for several decades, few have seriously examined the near simultaneous development of the eighteenth-century novel, which nearly always presented itself as something else (a ‘history,’ an overheard anecdote, found documents, a collection of letters, and translation) and some of the most infamous literary forgeries in history: Chatterton’s ‘finds’ at Saint Mary Redcliffe, Macpherson’s ‘translated’ Ossian ballads, and, only a few decades later, the Czech Kralovedvorsky and Zelenohorsky poems employed by the pan-Slavicist Vaclav Hanka to foment national identity. While Ruthven’s Faking Literature spends a lamentably short chapter on the manner in which the unstable relationship between literary devices meant to fake a kind of reality and ‘genuine’ literary forgeries work together to create the very concept of literary crime, I propose to examine, in at least one chapter of my dissertation, the influence of literary forgery on framing devices and verisimilitude, with special consideration given to the nationalist contexts in which many of these eighteenth-century forgeries were conceived.
Although comparative projects are by their nature ambitious, the historical and topical range of my interest in formal literary devices compels me to extend my research into contemporary literature, particularly as it relates to the influence of hyper and digital media on verisimilitude. This is ground that Hayles and a few others have only begun to tread, and I take her exhortation, at the end of the introduction to My Mother Was a Computer, as a call to arms for any aspiring academic working on the formal elements of literature: “Needed are new theoretical frameworks for understanding the relation of language and code; new strategies for making, reading, and interpreting texts; new modes of thinking about the material instantiation of texts in different media; and new ways to put together scientific research with cultural and literary theory.” In working on these elements, I hope to decouple the idea of “verisimilitude” from the nineteenth-century realist novel, demonstrating that while reader expectations about the nature of verisimilitude and the devices used to create it may have changed, the desire for it remains. In the modern period, I believe this will entail a kind of immersion experience of literature, where websites and multimedia reinforce the experience of reading, or perhaps even serve as the primary type of “reading” that we do. During this phase of my project, I would again resort to the useful lens of literary scandal—authenticity in memoirs, for instance—to show how the instant availability of information has transformed our experience of reading and the kind of “truth” we seek from it. Later stages of this project might show how digital and hypermedia have transformed the concept of intertextuality by actually linking—not merely alluding—to the sources they hope to recall to the reader, and how writers write for an audience with information perpetually at its fingertips. While avoiding a deterministic argument about the relationship between medium and content, it is ultimately my goal to read how we read, and how we will read. The idea that connects this past, present, and future is not only a study of verisimilitude, but the theoretical notion that studying deviation from the norm (what readers consider forgery, fakery, and other manifestation of literary crime) helps one define exactly what that norm is.
In my day job—advising UCSD's graduate students on how to find graduate fellowships and how to approach the blank page of an application—I’ve always stressed the importance of explaining away academic gaps, false leads, and missteps before they have the chance to become problems (instead of mere interesting digressions). In looking back at my own academic trajectory, I lack the good explanations that I help my students write: uncertain where my interests fit into the general field, and lacking the knowledge of narrative theory to make the connection between interests that seemed (and still seem, on occasion) wildly strewn across the academic map, I took classes until I found what sparked. I would have disputed, at one point in my life, that digressions form the substance of our own personal narratives, and provide that element--texture, perhaps--which lends an aura of authenticity to otherwise straight and uncomplicated progressions to our ends. My study of verisimilitude now informs me that digression—encounters with people, facts, and ideas that have no direct bearing on the plot—is one of the many ways that authors breathe reality into story. Thank you for your consideration.