Pale Fire Line 1000 Commentary

“Where were the battlements of my sunset castle? Where was Zembla the Fair? Where her spine of mountains? Where her long thrill through the mist? And my lovely flower boys, and the spectrum of the stained windows, and the Black Rose Paladins, and the whole marvelous tale? Nothing of it was there! The complex contribution I had been pressing upon him with a hypnotist’s patience and a lover’s urge was simply not there. Oh, but I cannot express the agony! Instead of the wild glorious romance—what did I have?”

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.

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.

The Gun

“There, snugly wrapped in a white woolen scarf, lay a pocket automatic: caliber .32, capacity of magazine 8 cartridges, length a little under one ninth of Lolita’s length, stock checked walnut, finish full blued. I had inherited it from the late Harold Haze, with a 1938 catalog which cheerily said in part: “Particularly well adapted for use in the home and car as well as on the person.” There it lay, ready for instant service on the person or persons, loaded and fully cocked with the slide lock in safety position, thus precluding any accidental discharge. We must remember that a pistol is the Freudian symbol of the Ur-father’s central forelimb.” (p. 216)

A few things jump out at me in this description. First, the length of the gun is in units of Lolita, as though she herself were an object or reference point. Next, the gun is inherited from Harold Haze, Lolita’s biological father. Third, the gun is well adapted for use in the home: Clare Quilty’s mansion and on the person: a double meaning of physically on a person such as in Humbert’s pocket throughout the latter half of the novel and on the person Clare Quilty. Also present is a reference to an accidental discharge (nasty Nabokov). There’s also a reference to Freud, and I can only imagine what “central forelimb” is referring to, especially in relation to another reference to a father, the Ur-father, which maybe has  something to do with this (so there are two references to a father in the description of the gun).

The Defense Movie Adaptation

I tried to watch this adaptation starring John Turturro. I really did. It was just bad. Really bad. I wonder what Nabokov would have thought of it. I really would have liked to see a way more abstract movie that involved trippy portrayals of Luzhin’s mind, but this just felt like a period drama romance that made all the wrong moves.


From Chapter 1, page 17

“No I’d better tell him myself,” replied Luzhin senior uncertainly to her suggestion. “I’ll tell him later, let him write his dictations in peace. ‘Being born in this world is hardly to be borne,'” Luzhin senior dictated steadily, strolling back and forth about the schoolroom. “Being born in this world is hardly to be borne.” And his son wrote, practically lying on the table and baring his teeth in their metallic scaffolding, and simply left blanks for the words “born” and “borne.”

The Passenger Locomotive Mystery Trope

This weekend I was binge watching a TV show called Inside No. 9 (great show I highly recommend checking it out, particularly the episode A Quiet Night In). Anyways, one of the episodes was called “La Couchette” which was set on a sleeper train in France. The characters sleep in beds on top of another in one of the carriages and someone is murdered. This got me thinking about stories like Murder on the Orient Express and Strangers on a Train and subsequently The Passenger which we read. The Passenger was written by Nabokov years before these other stories, and had a lot of prescient statements about them including the overused method of trying to “produce an impression of inexpectancy by means of the most natural denouement” when speaking of a good twist. I haven’t really looked much further into the origins of these train tropes, but again it seems really interesting to me that he wrote the story towards the beginning of his career and before a lot of the more famous stories of the like were published.