Nabokov’s Selling Out!

Hey everyone,

I hope that your week has been going well! My thesis is in… so I am not necessarily a basket case anymore. Hooray for that!

We started this Monday’s class by noting that next week, 4/10, we will be meeting at the JFK library from 2:30 to 4:30. Bring your love for Hemingway because they have some of the best Hemingway archives in the world… found this out from one of my most beloved professors in undergrad. I personally cannot wait to see them! Also everyone should be very excited to read Hemingway’s “A Very Short Story” which comes from his In Our Time collection, and its brilliant and lovely and all things wonderful. Before next class however, you should email Alex a 250-word summary of what you are considering doing your digital exhibition on. Good luck to all of you in finding interesting works to showcase.

Alex then went over a brief biography of Nabokov where we learned that he was born in St. Petersburg, his father was assassinated, and he moved to the U.S. at the very onset of WWII. He taught locally, and published Pale Fire in 1962. Alex (and Duncan White, by the way) failed to mention that Nabokov was also obsessed with butterflies, which I believe to be an incredibly telling influence in the production of Pale Fire. (Just thought I’d mention that).

Next, we discussed our own readings of the novel. The strategies we used, the order in which we read the sections (if we read it by sections at all). Alex pointed out that most of us hadn’t read the index even though he had specifically told us to read everything. I guess that some of our reading habits are just too difficult to break. We also decided that many of us were resistant readers because we had refused to read the novel the way in which Kimbote (or Nabokov) had told us to. I was very interested in our distinction between docile and resistant readership, and what that means especially in light of the history of the book. When we speak of the ways that title pages or covers are going to impact the way we read things are we speaking of docile readership? How are these things going to impact resistant readership then?

At the next part of class we split into groups to discuss the four sections of the novel. We each picked specific passages that we thought were reflective of the aims and decisions of the poem, and then shared them with our classmates. We discussed a number of interesting things, I had jotted down in my notes the way that Nabokov hated Freud but continually refers to him or references his theories e.g. when he has Kimboth fetishize the notecards upon which the fictional poem “Pale Fire” is written. (Duncan White later told us that he thought Nabokov doth protest too much in his resistance to Freud’s theories on the human psyche). We tried to solve the riddle of the italics, but again, as Duncan White noted later, the book seems to tempt the reader into this very trap of overreading. We examined the index which contained a self-referential, ever-repeating loop of entires—and from this we gathered that Pale Fire encourages a sort of textual assembly, but it is an assembly which does not make sense.

We then skyped with Duncan White who told us about his most recent project on Nabokov wherein he hopes to demystify his genius. In regards to our interests, his book sounds like it acts as a historicist insertion that seeks to provide contextual clues as to why Nabokov wrote Pale Fire when he did. White noted that Nabokov was constantly struggling against his own marketable value, and might have written Pale Fire in response to Lolita’s runaway success. One metaphor I thought particularly funny was when White noted that “like a rock band, Nabokov did not want to sell out”. We discussed the various ways in which Pale Fire seems to contain an anxiety about a madman Kimbote taking over our text. Nabokov, preceeding Barthes, still seems to have believed in the control of the author, although death appears to Nabokov as being principle threat. Lastly, White asked us if we felt that the poem was actually a good poem, which I find to be a fascinating question because I don’t actually believe it is. However, we feel about that though, White told us that “Pale Fire” the poem had been published in the past sans its commentary—which seems to be completely missing the point of the whole exercise.

For the last period of class, we worked on annotating the first few paragraphs of the forward in the novel. For next class, we are to have annotated and commented upon the other person’s annotations that we received when it was passed back randomly. I hope everyone got interesting annotations! See you all at JFK!

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9 thoughts on “Nabokov’s Selling Out!

  1. Thanks so much, Jay, for this lively and enthusiastic run-down of the class discussion and activities. I’m especially intrigued by your mention of the importance of Nabokov’s interest in butterflies for Pale Fire. I had heard that he identified one particular type of butterfly, and identification that I think still stands, but I’m curious about how this relates to the novel.

  2. Glad you’re not a basket case anymore!

    I even felt anxiety while reading the commentary, like the whole thing was going to blow up in the end. It’s interesting to me that the poem would be published without the entire commentary because you would imagine editors and publishers would “get it.” I actually really enjoyed the poem, but it’s a lot more boring on its own. And like you said, it’s totally missing the point. I think the text speaks for itself that way.

  3. The thing about Nabokov being interested in butterflies sounds really interesting and I’d love to know more about it. I had never heard that before. I also agree that publishing the poem without the commentary was a weird choice. Granted, it is a good poem, but on its own I can’t see it having the same impact as it does with the commentary. I have to imagine that the poem alone wasn’t flying off the shelves. Additionally, I also agree that publishing just the poem really defeats the purpose of the work. Nabokov probably wouldn’t have been very keen on that idea either because given the specific instructions for how to read the book, there was clearly a way he wanted people to experience it and the poem alone doesn’t seem like it would fit in with his wishes for how the text should be handled.

  4. This is a great blog post! I had no idea about the butterflies, but it makes so much sense thinking back on the novel. Little fun facts like that really help to bring a sense of life to authors long dead, much like how Frankenstein was written during a volcanic winter.

    One thing I don’t think I’m clear on is this “over-reading” idea. It makes sense that you could go looking for content in places where there is none. But in a work like Pale Fire, the author clearly put a great deal of thought into the prose, and the structure of the prose, so I don’t think over-reading is possible in a novel like Pale Fire. You could definitely over-read something like the Hunger Games or Harry Potter, but works that have ascended to the literary canon will always be ripe for analysis. Just my $0.02.

  5. Jay I love your comment about being surprised at White’s question about whether or not we liked it: “Lastly, White asked us if we felt that the poem was actually a good poem, which I find to be a fascinating question because I don’t actually believe it is.” I found this to be interesting too! In our literature classes we so rarely are asked if we “like” something anymore. It is all about analysis, which is perhaps more important but there is a really interesting school of thought about reader’s emotions for literature and whether or not they matter. So I think it’s interesting we were both caught off guard for that question!

  6. Hi Jay,
    I too found White’s question rather interesting. I think, though, whether or not we enjoyed Pale Fire (whether or not we think it’s a good poem), and whether or not we take Nabokov’s feelings about Freudianism into account, we can agree that it is an interesting artifact. It’s clear that Nabokov’s aim was to 1. Challenge the linearity of the book-reader interaction, and 2. challenge the very idea of a “book”. So much is clear from the commentary, the out-of-order sequence of the text, and of course the instructions that we get on “how to read” Pale Fire.
    My favorite example (though this probably applies to most –if not all– of the commentary and index pieces) is the commentary on lines 39-40 and 962. The commentary says that when reading those lines “one can’t help recalling Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens…” What’s funny about this note is that first: The average reader may not have heard of Timon of Athens. (No matter how familiar one might be with Shakespeare. The average non-Shakespeare scholar may have read or attended the famous Tragedies, some of the Comedies perhaps.But who’s even heard of Timon?!!) I certainly hadn’t until Fall 2016 when I had to read it for a class. Second: It invites and encourages the reader to look through Timon of Athens (introducing, though not for the first time, the idea of intertextuality) only to then tell the reader at around 962 that though the title “Pale Fire” came from that play, anyone who reads Timon of Athens will not be able to find the phrase “Pale Fire” or any equivalent thereof within the text of the play. In fact, the commentary challenges us to try!
    So, I wonder what the point of commentary is? More specifically, what’s the point of evoking texts, authors, idea that you’re only going to knock down and demolish in the end? How does the relationship between Pale Fire and the texts it references function to amplify/transform our reading experiences?

  7. Jay,

    Thanks for the run-down of the flow of class from Thursday! I was intrigued by the historicist bent of White’s research as well. What is striking, particularly in light of the recent bent towards “new” historicism, is that White’s research is largely focused on how Nabokov’s work emerged as a response to its own time, i.e. it is “old” historicism in this sense. I’d be interested to think how Nabokov’s work worked reciprocally with the period of its production. As you point out, subsequent thinkers won out, and the author did die in the end (although, last week’s discussion suggests we are still being haunted by their ghosts) – clearly, Nabokov did not have much effect in this regard – but it would be interesting to think him in light of the cold war, perhaps alongside other emigre artists like Rachmaninov, Solzhenitsyn, etc. to consider how these artists were politicized, and what effect this had on the reception of their art, as well as, how they themselves worked with and against the baggage that came along with this, and whatever effect it may have had on public perceptions of Soviet dissidents. This is somehow bound up with Nabokov’s desire to divorce himself from the political. As I had mentioned in class, White seems to have mapped Nabokov over Kinbote’s commentary and the poem. Given Nabokov’s new critical bent (the desire to think the text as a work of art independent of political concerns), this is troubling for anyone who is coming at the novel from a contemporary cultural studies background, as questions of support and subversion of political powers is often at the heart of such a line of inquiry. However, White’s work strikes me as metafictional in the sense that he is taking part in the scholarship that the novel is attending to, and attempting to read into it in ways which are at once in harmony and at odds with what seems to be some of its critique. Again, thanks for the post. This is not posting.

  8. Great summary of class, Jay, appreciate it!

    I have to say that for me, the highlight of the class session was listening to Duncan White and hearing his perspective on some of the questions we were entertaining. For me, it is always a humbling experience to hear from someone that is as well versed as he was in this subject, as it makes me wonder if we all have the potential to find that one subject that we can become an endless well of knowledge about. His answers to our questions were helpful in resolving questions I had started formulating in my mind as we listened,

    Also, his question about whether or not we actually liked the poem was very intriguing. At first, I was a bit nervous to even entertain such a thought: clearly this text is important enough that I should like it, right? But as that question was given voice, I felt a bit relieved in knowing that it was okay to not like a poem that is central to such an important work in the history of books.

  9. I really like how in depth you went into your discussion on Nabokov, especially with the little bit about the butterflies, I’m curious to know what other things you found out about him that Prof Mueller and Prof White didn’t discuss. Pale Fire itself was pretty interesting to me, and the first time I read it I didn’t do anything that Prof Mueller said and so I went back a second time and read every piece of text to get a full grasp on the book (I didn’t read the index though). The workshop was pretty cool as well, going back and looking at other student’s work and commenting on it myself gave me a lot of insight into how other people read this text. I’ve never read anything like Pale Fire before, but this section of the clsss might’ve given me reason to give it a try in the future.

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