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.

van Gogh’s ‘Arlésienne and Lolita

“The front hall was graced with door chimes, a white-eyed wooden thingamabob
of commercial Mexican origin, and that banal darling of the arty middle class, van Gogh’s ‘Arlésienne.'” (pg 24)

LArlésienne: Madame Joseph-Michel Ginoux (Marie Julien, 1848–1911)

Apart from most likely being an apt description of the middle class’s inexplicable obsession with Van Gogh’s works (even the most ‘banal’ ones), Nabokov’s reference to Arlésienne is also enlightening in light of two facts (both gathered from Wikipedia):

  1. Arlésienne is also a name of a 1869 play. Because the title character is never shown in the play, Arlésienne is used in modern French to describe a person who is prominently absent from a place or a situation, especially in the plot of a literary work – much like the noted absence of Charlotte’s (and women in general) inner life from the plot.
  2. Arlésienne was painted after a handsome European lodger, Gaugin (an impressionist painter) started staying with Mme Ginoux, and ‘charmed’ her into having her portrait painted – we can see HH and Charlotte’s relation further mirrored here.

Invitation to a Beheading as a roman a clef

While doing research on Invitation, I came across this really cool academic paper that essentially asserts that it can be read as a roman a clef of Socrates’s life. A roman a clef is a ” novel about real life overlaid with a facade of fiction” (quote from wikipedia) – in this instance, the novel is said to parody Socrates’s final days, which are chronicled in Apology by Plato.

The paper – –

The Death Masque of Socrates: Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading



Some Lolita Resources

I just found these useful resources:

1- A complete map of HH & Lo’s journey made by the German translator of Lolita, Dieter  E. Zimmer. The level of detail on this website is astounding – he not only maps out all of the real locations but also finds the real world analogues of fictional locations and details the correspondence. There are hyperlinks for the two parts on the link below, along with a chronology of Lolita and images from the real locations:

2. This second is just an online pdf copy of Lolita, which might be helpful for digging through the text for specific references

Here’s just the map from the 1st website:

Lolita Map

Hope this helps someone out!

Theatricality and the removal of the Moon as a prop

“A blunt knock-knock-knock came from somewhere off to the left as they were descending Steep Avenue. Knock-knock-knock.

“The scoundrels,” muttered M’sieur Pierre. “Didn’t they swear it was all done?”

At last they crossed the bridge and started uphill. The moon had already been removed and the dark towers of the fortress blended with the clouds.” (Nabokov, 190-191)

Luzhin’s books

“On the other hand, there were two books, both given to him by his aunt, with which he had fallen in love for his whole life, holding them in his memory as if under a magnifying glass, and experiencing them so intensely that 20 years later, when he read them over again, he only saw a dryish paraphrase, an abridged edition, as if they has been outdistanced by the unrepeatable, immortal image that he had retained. ” (pg. 33)

The Frustration of Description: An Ode to Qualia

In phenomenology, a field of philosophy that concerns itself with the nature of conscious experience, one of the most seminal concepts has been that of qualia. Though often described rather vaguely as the ‘redness of red’ or ‘what it’s like’ to have an experience, qualia is in actuality a very precise construct that describes the aspect of conscious experience that cannot be communicated, described, or reconstructed through any information about the experience (besides the experience itself). The seemingly infinite complexity and multi-dimensionality of any given experience, from the coarseness of a streetcar conductor’s hands to the wonderfully alluring, phantasmagoric shadow-play of icicles, appears to elude lossless compression through self-expression.

Nabokov’s constant dissection of the minutiae of everyday experience, whether through the intensely evocative, multi-sensory imagery that characterizes the descriptions of his often rather perceptive narrators (e.g. The Vane Sisters, The Passenger, A Guide to Berlin, etc.), or through his extensive usage of metaphors, reflects a tacit understanding of the physical boundaries that restrain his prose as an author. It could even be argued that the prevalent meta-fictive awareness motif in his stories is a rebellion against the constraints of his medium as an artist – a very sophisticated one to say the least. For Nabokov does not merely break the fourth wall as other artists tend to or mock the reader a la ‘Jack the Fataliste’, but he rather acknowledges the many layers of creation, recreation, and creative imagination that is at the heart of any literary engagement: First the creation of the fictional universe by the author (in the image of the real world that the author undeniably bases their creations off of), then the initial reconstruction of the scaffolding of the universe by the reader upon first reading. Further readings only serve to flesh out and color the recreation of the recreation, exploring the variegated sensations provided to the reader by the author and generating new ones to fill the blanks inevitably left out by the author.

Practical considerations (such as readers often not having infinite time to engage with a text) aside, the precise conceptual cause of this inevitability is the aforementioned concept of qualia, and I find Nabokov’s engagement with this concept in his short stories utterly fascinating.