Monday, May 03, 2010

Ploughing old Zembla

The last text that I ever taught at Texas A&M, if you are curious, was Pale Fire. My students resisted it, or it resisted them, but ending with Nabokov’s 1962 novel, written as a “commentary to abstruse Unfinished poem,” gave me an unexpected chance to deliver a summa.

Everyone knows the basic outline of the novel. Charles Kinbote, a professor at Wordsmith College, rents a house next door to the poet John Shade. They strike up a friendship—of a sort. The true extent of the friendship is unclear, because as a “certain ferocious lady at whose club [he] had refused to speak” informs him in the Foreword, Kinbote is quite insane. Probably an “American scholar of Russian descent” named V. Botkin, he believes that he is really Charles Xavier the Beloved, the last king of Zembla (reigned 1936–1958), who was deposed by a revolutionary coup and is now living in disguise in the U.S.

When Kinbote comes into possession Shade’s last poem upon the poet’s death, he is disappointed. On afternoon walks together, he had “mesmerized” and “saturated” Shade with the dashing and heroic romance of Zembla, pressing it upon him “with a drunkard’s wild generosity.” And when he learned that, after several fallow years, Shade had begun a new poem, a long narrative poem, Kinbote was excited: “I felt sure that he would recreate in a poem the dazzling Zembla burning in my brain.” Instead he finds that “the final text of Pale Fire has been deliberately and drastically drained of every trace of the material [he] contributed.” The only mention of Zembla was in a line in which Shade describes himself while shaving:

And while the safety blade with scrape and screak
Travels across the country of my cheek,
Cars on the higheway pass, and up the steep
Incline big trucks around my jawbone creep,
And now a silent liner docks, and now
Sunglassers tour Beirut, and now I plough
Old Zembla’s fields where my gray stubble grows,
And slaves make hay between my mouth and nose.
Although the finished poem is beautiful—“Shade could not write otherwise than beautifully,” Kinbote allows—Pale Fire is “void of my magic,” he laments, “of that special rich streak of magical madness which I was sure would run through it and make it transcend its time.” But when he rereads it with greater care and lesser expectation, Kinbote begins to discover “echoes and spangles of my mind, a long ripplewake of my glory.”

And so he decides to write a commentary, “an attempt to sort out those echoes and wavelets of fire, and pale phosphorescent hints, and all the many subliminal debts to me.” Shade’s 999-line autobiographical poem, turning on his daughter’s suicide and her parents’ desperate grief, is wrestled away from its author to become, via the magical madness of interpretation, a secretive and esoteric romance about “the darkening dunes of a fabulous kingdom” bordering Russia, which only the “scurrilous and the heartless” say does not exist. Shade’s poem, in Kinbote’s hands, is all about Kinbote.

The effect is a familiar one in literary criticism, if never dramatized to such horrific effect. Even J. Hillis Miller, in defending deconstructive interpretation from the accusation of being parasitical upon the literary text, does not deny its dependent status; he merely denies that any kind of interpretation whatever is any less dependent. But the text stands apart: “The poem in itself,” he writes in his well-known essay “The Critic as Host,” frequently reprinted, “is neither the host nor the parasite but the food they both need. . . .” It is “broken, divided, passed around, consumed by the critics canny and uncanny who are in that odd relation to one another of host and parasite.”[1]

Perhaps it is true that every later critic of Nabokov’s novel is parasitical upon Kinbote’s commentary, and perhaps it is even true, as Miller goes on to say, that any poem is “parasitical in its turn on earlier poems,” but neither truth undercuts Nabokov’s critique of critics who feed their reputations and obsessions off the carcass of literary texts they themselves seek to destroy (or “deconstruct”).

And that Pale Fire is such a critique is established by Nabokov’s allusion to the only other mention of Zembla in English literature. As Kinbote grudgingly reports, Shade scribbled a marginal note, citing Pope’s Essay on Man (1733), II.217–30, as his source for the name of Zembla:   Vice is a monster of so frightful mien,
As, to be hated, needs but to be seen;
Yet seen too oft, familiar with her face,
We first endure, then pity, then embrace.
But where th’extreme of vice, was ne’er agreed:
Ask where’s the north? at York, ’tis on the Tweed;
In Scotland, at the Orcades; and there,
At Greenland, Zembla, or the Lord knows where.
No creature owns it in the first degree,
But thinks his neighbour farther gone than he;
Even those who dwell beneath its very zone,
Or never feel the rage, or never own;
What happier nations shrink at with affright,
The hard inhabitant contends is right.
For Pope, in other words, Zembla represented the Far North of vice, sparsely inhabited. Those who dwell at the extreme latitudes contend that their rage is right, thinking that their neighbor is much “farther gone,” if not completely gonzo. (Shortly before his death, Shade confided to his next-door neighbor: “I think I guessed your secret quite some time ago.”)

In geographical actuality, Zembla is the subarctic archipelago of Novaya Zemlya (Russ., “new land”), where the Soviets tested nuclear weapons starting in 1954. But Shade is ploughing “Old Zembla’s fields where [his] gray stubble grows.” This is a second allusion, which Kinbote mangles, saying that A. E. Housman “says somewhere (in a foreword?) exactly the opposite” of what Shade is saying.

In a lecture at Cambridge in 1933, later published as “The Name and Nature of Poetry,” Housman writes: “Experience has taught me, when I am shaving of a morning, to keep watch over my thoughts, because, if a line of poetry strays into my memory, my skin bristles so that the razor ceases to act.” He advances this physical reaction in defense of his view that writing poetry is “less an active than a passive and involuntary process,” even a “natural secretion.” Shade is not so much saying the opposite (just a few lines earlier, in fact, he had said that the “sudden image, the immediate phrase” makes “the little hairs all stand on end”) as he is entering into league with Housman—not a parasite upon the earlier images and phrases, but a fellow inhabitant of Old Zembla, the ancient realm of poets (Pope dwells there too), who feign “notable images of virtues, vices, or what else.”

New Zembla—Kinbote’s kingdom—is the realm of vice (for Pope) or madness (for Nabokov), where the self-regarding interpreter “intercoils” himself, in Kinbote’s own words, with “the innocent author,” and strangles him. How, then, a student asked, are we to write about Nabokov without becoming Kinbote? The answer, I replied, is not to submerge the author in ourselves, but perhaps to submerge ourselves in the author.

[1] J. Hillis Miller, “The Critic as Host,” Critical Inquiry 3 (1977): 445–46.


Gilion at Rose City Reader said...

A wonderful essay about -- if I had to pick -- my favorite work of fiction.