Unmistakable Resemblence in Nabokov's Pnin and Pale Fire

One of the structural problems that presents itself in Pnin is the narrator's participation in the story he is telling. The first six chapters are told by an apparently omniscient narrator, though there are instances in his discourse which tell us he is a fellow Russian emigre and acquaintance of Timofey Pnin. The seventh chapter, however, completely changes the manner of narration as the narrator becomes the primary character. Now we see instances of Pnin in a narration about his own experiences, while previously we could only see instances of the narrator in the narration of Pnin's experiences.

This structural problem makes itself evident in the narrator's "picture of the Pnin flat that probably corresponds to reality" (Pnin 176). The final paragraph of that section provides a description which helps the reader understand both the situation and structure of the narrative:

"From the end of the corridor there came a steady smell of hashed-cabbage pie, and through the open door of the schoolroom I could see a map of Russia on the wall, books on a shelf, a stuffed squirrel, and a toy monoplane with linen wings and a rubber motor." (177)

In situational terms, the narrator is describing the Pnin flat, but he admits that "perhaps because on my visits to schoolmates I had seen other middle-class apartments" (176) this image may, at best, be tangled with other scenes of his memory, and at worst be a complete invention. The scene of Pnin's schoolroom is remembered, though, as "distinctly" as "his crew cut, his puffy pale face, his red ears." But if Pnin denies the A+ in Algebra, how many other details might be invented? A squirrel image which "probably corresponds to reality" raises the issue of the other squirrels in the narrative. Their "fantastic recurrence" (119) leads the reader to doubt the narrative is an objective retelling of actual events, especially since Pnin is the only person in the narrator's world who could attest to the squirrels of his childhood fever, the water fountain, and so on. The squirrels seem, here, to be tangled with the narrator's dubiously accurate first memory of Pnin. The narrator is presenting a world which does not "correspond to reality" because Nabokov is wants to distinguish the reality the narrator exists in from the reality he presents.

Along with some limited and probably inaccurate memories, the material the narrator presents must have been relayed to him by others: Liza in Paris, fellow emigres at Cook's Castle, and colleagues at Waindell College all told him their stories of events in Pnin's life. Nabokov dramatizes the sort of caricature possible in these stories with Jack Cockrell's cruel imitations of Pnin, "one of the greatest, if not the greatest, mimics of Pnin on campus" (36). In the final pages of the book, we are shown that all of the private events of Pnin's life must be invented, as well, because the narrator no longer has access to Pnin.

So if the description of Pnin we read must be rife with Cockrell's caricature and the narrator's invention, then the Pnin who inspired those stories must be, inside this book, an equally real but distinctly different person. To the narrator, the Pnin constructed by his personal fiction eclipses the actual Pnin. When, in the conclusion, the narrator's last glimpse of Pnin is followed by Jack Cockrell's retelling of the Cremona Women's Club incident, the eclipse becomes complete, because we leave the as he narrator is on the verge of constructing the beginning of the story we're reading right now. While the narrator tries to created one Pnin with language, Nabokov has created two.

Kinbote, the author of the commentary for Pale Fire, has inadvertently revealed enough details for the reader to know that, in the Zembla-less world of John Shade, he is the insane alter-ego of Professor Botkin, who "deliberately peels off a drab and unhappy past and replaces it with a brilliant invention" (238). We can show that "invention" creates, in the novel, another consistent world. On page eighty, Kinbote misquotes Shakespeare's Timon of Athens when he translates a Zemblan translation back into English:

The sun's a thief, and with his great attraction
Robs the vast sea: the moon's an arrant thief,
And her pale fire she snatches from the sun:
The sea's a thief, whose liquid surge resolves
The moon into salt tears [...]

Timon of Athens (Act IV, Scene III)

The sun is a thief: she lures the sea
and robs it. The moon is a thief:
he steals his silvery light from the sun.
The sea is a thief: it dissolves the moon.

Pale Fire (80)

This mistranslation grows in significance when, later, Kinbote cannot discover the Shakespearean source of Shade's title "Pale Fire." Shade reused Shakespeare's imagery from Timon's "pale fire" passage in the variant draft of lines 39-40. The original quotation makes perfect thematic sense when considered in terms of the whole novel: the "pale fire" stolen in Timon directly corresponds to a poem called "Pale Fire" stolen in the novel, and the sun/moon opposition of Timon corresponds to the Shade/Kinbote opposition. When Kinbote remarks that, had he found the quotation, "my luck would have been a statistical monster" (285), the reader, aware of the misquotation's thematic significance, should realize statistics are not at work here. Nabokov is bringing our attention to just how real Zembla is.

In situational terms, we can understand both why Kinbote would have a copy of Timon (it is of thematic interest to him as a recluse in his "Timonian cave" (308)) and how he found the passage in his Zemblan edition (Shade's deliberate allusion to that passage in his draft) But Kinbote's focus on the passage, completely missing a what a good reader would not, draws attention to the larger structural problem: where does the material of the Zemblan translation come from? Such a book could not physically exist in the cabin in Cedarn, Utana, if Zembla is (as we know) an invention. The misquotation lacks Shakespeare's imagery so severely that it must come from the Zemblan edition written by Kinbote's Uncle Conmal, the man whose command of English is represented in his mot "I am not slave! Let be my critic slave" (286).

If Zemblan vest pocket editions can be present in Kinbote's cabin, we can separate two apparently consistent worlds. Shade, Professor Botkin, and the Wordsworth faculty exist in a reality where Shade is shot by Jack Gray and Botkin gets his hands on the poem. Kinbote, the assumed name of Charles Xavier The Beloved, Last King of Zembla, exists in a reality which includes Zembla and the entire royal intrigue as told in the commentary. What Nabokov is doing with this apparent incongruity is dramatizing insanity by having Kinbote exist simultaneously as the insane Professor Botkin in one world, and an ex-king in another. Insanity allows interfaces between the two worlds. Botkin was once insulted by Gerald Emerald, Kinbote describes an Emerald-like leader of the Shadows in Geneva. Botkin occasionally interacted with (and more often, watched through his window) his neighbor John Shade, Kinbote is Shade's Boswell. Kinbote defends the consistency of his world with the paranoia we encounter anytime his story can be contradicted by someone in the sane Botkin world. Kinbote is as an insane man who has created a complex and rather brilliant fantasy world in his head, but Nabokov presents that fantasy world as equally real to the world of John Shade. This echoes the way John Shade, in lines 71-74 of "Pale Fire," in some sense really has "a thousand parents" because he "tried so often to evoke them." Kinbote has evoked Zembla the same way, so he can also call it real.

In Pale Fire, Nabokov chose to dramatize insanity this way in order to demonstrate what Kinbote calls "the miracle of a few written signs being able to contain [...] new worlds with live people, speaking, weeping, laughing" (289). The miracle of Pnin is demonstrating two "live" Timofey Pnins. In Pale Fire, Nabokov ups the artistic ante by using Kinbote's commentary to create not one but two worlds, each filled with "live" people. The Zemblan world of Pale Fire has the same status as the narrator's Pnin in Pnin. A man, with "a few written signs," transforms a fantasy world into a story containing that whole world: Pnin's narrator, Kinbote, an Vladimir Nabokov all perform this "miracle."