Pale Fire Stanza + Commentary

Lines 115-120: The wall of sound, crickets

Oh how astutely my interlocutor observed the ceaseless, sonorous mating calls of those vile beasts! Often, upon crossing that faithful wooden bridge to nowhere – just south of the hiking trail we used to frequent behind Wordsmith – he would point out some trivial (and frequently, I must admit, impossibly boring) fact regarding this aphid or that anthropoid, which I would counter with the most ecstatically vivid anecdotes of our King’s bucolic springtime exploits in our now shared heliotrope kingdom come, Zembla.

Our poet seems to have crossed out, in his draft, 5 lines initially meant to clearly replace the (clearly superior) verses found in the Fair Copy as a direct thematic continuation of the preceding couplets:

A spiral of tints from cadmium red

‘Not ellipses, but helices!’ he said;

Mr. O. Zero, that elephantine scholar

(Who knew unadulterated dolor)

120 Pointing to that iridescent opal.

Why Shade chose to keep these uncharacteristically illegibly written verses I cannot fathom, considering their complete irrelevance to our beautiful Zemblan reveries that he so passionately, so intently conveyed in those other drafts which a certain Anti-Karlist prophetess prevented from being expressed in the Fair Copy.

After spending dozens of hours searching through each and every entry beginning with “O” in the New Wye directory that I happened to have brought with me to my present dwellings, I was finally able to uncover the identity of Mr. O. Zero, who turned out to be an female elderly pediatrician residing just north of the Wordsmith libraries. I have not been able to deduce why Shade would mention Mr. Zero, let alone dedicate a whole stanza to her chromatopsic preferences. Aside from certain simplistic stylistic tricks that betray the subtle beauty of the rest of his verse, such as the rather unamusing doubling of the form of the capital “o” and zero, there does not seem to be any stylistic nor contentual significance to this draft whatsoever.

If it were up to me, I would have obviously nudged Shade away from wasting his time (or espace de papier) on this rather kitsch description of celestial bodies. Alas, my position as annotator binds me to faithfully reproducing all aspects, both disappointing and charming, of his magnum opus into this edition.

Pale Fire Stanza

The cobalt butterfly flew
Its tinted shadow a divine clue
For fathers to face death and doom
Shade’s shade now suffocates my room

Line 1: The cobalt butterfly

Nymphalis Conopia Zemblari, colloquially called Zemblan Frostwing, is a well-known species native to the mountain ranges in the east of my great land. Although information is listed in many tourist brochures, Historia Zemblica offers the most comprehensive account of our cobalt friend’s habitats.

Line 3: For fathers to face death and doom

An unmistakable reference to our dear exiled king, Zembla’s father.

Line 4: Shade’s shade

Alliteration: the occurrence of the same letter or sound at the beginning of adjacent or closely connected words. John’s writing was always packed with linguistic tricks like these.

Kamil’s Stanza

Golden liquid spreads gently on the fire

While my mother screams over the sound of a cursed lire

Shall I see my mother face the wrath of the hounds?

Or will I decided to run with her and loose fifty pounds?

Let it be known that life is agony– pure and simply

Nothing more that a salmon gnarled by a ferocious grizzly

( would be placed between line 588-589)

Liquid A state of matter that plagued the gentle living of our dear Shade. Liquid brought down the royal linages of the Kingdom of Zembla. Liquid– special liquid– alcohol– alcoholism.

Mother screams Our poet has a way in incorporating existential dread within his work. When looking at marginal notes present, we see a list of various phrases describing vocal expressions: yells, yawns, yodels, and screams. Screams seemed to encapsulate the agony best.

Grizzly. Many grizzly bears inhabit the border between Zembla and Finland. While our dear King Charles escaped the wrath of the revolutionaries, fellow Karlists used trained grizzly bears to protect the King and his entourage as they passed the Lishrashmankha passage.






Pale Fire Stanza and Commentary Assignment

She had strange fears, strange fantasies, strange force

Of character-as when she spent three nights

Investigating certain sounds and lights

In an old barn.  She twisted words: pot, top,

Spider, redips…

Lines 347-348: She Twisted Words (45)

One of the examples her father gives is odd.  I am quite sure it was I who one day, when we were discussing “mirror words,” observed (and I recall the poet’s expression of stupefaction) that “spider” in reverse is “redips,” and “T.S. Eliot,” “toilest.”  But then it is also tre that Hazel Shade resembled me in certain respects. (193)

Pale Fire Stanza

I stood stunned to silence, young and afraid
A haze of death—a strange draw to night’s shade
Ghosts of times past I wish I could befriend
I felt as though a candle at wick’s end

Between lines 176 and 177

Line 178: night’s shade

The poisonous purple flower, one drop can kill. Atropa belladonna. I knew a dame in Zembla named Bella.

Pale Fire Stanza Assignment

Pale Fire Stanza and Commentary

And so transcended this earth, my tender mockingbird
Who with her absence the preterists stirred
My morose, and dingy cygnet a wood duck would never be
And the grey, bent watchman the gentle charwoman could not free

First line: The narrator refers to birds quite a bit in the poem, both literally and through the characterization of his parents as ornithologists/’preterists’, specifically ‘tender mockingbird’ (line 422, pg. 48)

Second line: After discussing his parents jobs and interests, the narrator defines the term ‘preterists’ as ‘one who collects cold nests’, so I chose to include the mention of the ‘preterists stirring’ to refer to how those who collect ‘cold nests’ now have the chance to collect the narrator’s daughter’s empty, and cold absence, which in a way resembles a nest since she was often characterized in a bird-like way (line 79, pg. 35)

Third line: The narrator compared his daughter’s beauty to the ugly duckling, saying she would never be pretty; specifically calls her a “dingy cygnet” (line 318, pg. 44)

Fourth line: There is a consistent theme of time and space in the poem, and the narrator refers to both Father Time and Mother Time a couple of times. Father Time was described as the watchman who couldn’t save the narrator’s daughter before she drowned herself. Further, the narrator’s daughter once played Mother Time in a play, but as a “charwoman”—like a janitor—who was old, “bent”, and purposefully ugly (line 312, pg. 44 “charwoman” and line 475, pg. 50, “watchman”)

Pnin and Vladimir Vladimirovich

While reading Pnin, I think it’s easy to forget that the narrator of the novel is not Pnin but Vladimir Vladimirovich. In this sense, Vladimirovich writes about Pnin’s life as though he were always present and even inside Pnin’s own head. I tried to find all instances of Pnin and Vladimirovich actually being in contact directly or indirectly:

Vladimirovich first meets Pnin after visiting Pnin’s ophthalmologist father, Dr. Pavel Pnin, since a piece of dust had become lodged into his eye. Dr. Pnin brought Pnin into his office and congratulates him for getting an A in algebra.

Five years later, Vladimirovich meets Pnin again at his play.

Vladimirovich and Pnin meet again in Paris where Pnin is an “erudite young author of several admirable papers on Russian culture.”

Vladimirovich and Pnin meet several more times, but Pnin denies it. In fact, Vladimirovich says that “[Pnin] said he vaguely recalled my grandaunt but had never met me. He said that his marks in algebra had always been poor and that, anyway, his father never displayed him to patients; he said that in Zabava (Liebelei) he had only acted the part of Christine’s father.” Vladimirovich writes this off as “nothing more than good-natured banter, and everybody laughed; and noticing how reluctant he was to recognize his own past, I switched to another, less personal, topic” (180).

Vladimirovich also had an affair with Liza, Pnin’s ex-wife. Also, in Chapter 6 Vladimirovich wants to buy the house that Pnin is renting. And Vladimirovich takes his job at the college.

It’s clear after reviewing their actual encounters that Vladimirovich is literally rewriting and supplanting Pnin’s life.

Pnin, Don Quixote, and Authorial Cruelty

It seems to be somewhat of a consensus in the critical literature on Pnin that the book constitutes, at least in part, Nabokov’s response to Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote. Nabokov lectured on the book, but didn’t seem to like it much, finding it not “humane,” and disapproving of the cruelty Cervantes inflicts on the titular character: “a whole section of the lectures is given over to literally scoring (as in tennis) the Don’s cruel humiliations.”

Pnin, much like the hidalgo, is subject to a not insignificant amount of suffering; “Pnin” even bears a passing resemblance to “pain.” What I have trouble understanding is why Nabokov, if he didn’t take to Cervantes’ authorial cruelty, would craft a story in which the main character never wins, as it were in terms of tennis points. Pnin takes the wrong train, arguably brings the wrong lecture to Cremona, is misunderstood as a freak, betrayed by his protector, and kicked out of Waindell by a man who in the past has humiliated him (and this list is not exhaustive).

In my mind, the differences in the two authors’ approaches may lie in the affect they create in their readers. Cervantes, at least in Nabokov’s view, engenders a cruel mockery of his protagonist on the part of his readers. In contrast, although Pnin is humiliated time and time again, the reader cannot help but have great affection for him. He is comical and out of place, but sweet, smart, sincere, and caring at the same time. Additionally, the ending of the book seems to be relatively happy, with Pnin and the dog, one of the beings he selflessly cares for, finally becoming free.

I think such questions are interesting, especially in light of the fact that Nabokov has been known to be cruel, at times, to his characters, but perhaps much more so to his readers (in his creation of hermeneutic performance anxiety). Is Nabokov kinder to his readers in Pnin than in a novel such as Lolita?

Link to a Kirkus review of Nabokov’s lectures on Don Quixote: