Books

10.13.13

Pale Fire and the Cold War: Redefining Vladimir Nabokov’s Masterpiece

A new literary biography of the Lolita author argues that his most enigmatic novel is a sly commentary on the Cold War, writes Michael Weiss.

As Edward Snowden sat weighing his fortunes in the transit zone of Sheremetyevo Airport last July, a man called Anton Bakov created a minor news item in Russia for offering to bestow a singular form of asylum on the fugitive NSA contractor. As URA.ru, a Russian news agency, put it, Bakov is a “Urals genius of political creativity... who has proclaimed himself prime minister of the Russian Empire of the North Pole and Antarctica,” a country that “does not have diplomatic relations with any state or, according to Bakov, need them.” It is “open to Russians but for various reasons not included within contemporary Russia.” One reason might be that the country does not actually exist on any map. It’s the product of the prime minister’s own mind and only represented on an intriguing website where the curious will discover that the Russian Empire, geographically situated in the noncontiguous regions of the north and south poles, is a constitutional monarchy meant to be the “successor” to the great dominion once ruled by Peter the Great. There’s even a Star Wars-themed promotional video.

Sadly, the one Russian who would have delighted most in this fantasy, particularly the way in which manic invention bleeds into international politics, is a St. Petersburg genius of literary creativity who’s been dead for 36 years.

In Pale Fire, Vladimir Nabokov invited his reader to question the reliability and sanity of his narrator, Charles Kinbote, the self-described exiled king of a land called Zembla who has claimed the role of annotator of a dead poet’s final masterpiece, which Kinbote has stolen.

All of Nabokov’s novels feature what he called “plums” but might also be thought of as Easter eggs: hidden allusions or jokes or legends for working out what it was that the great Russian had in mind with the use of a date, a name, or a metaphor. Nothing in Nabokov is ever wasted, yet much can be missed, especially upon the first reading, which is why he thought that books could only be “re-read.” For instance, how many will have noticed that a scientist named Sig Leymanski, with his “anagram-looking name,” featured in a science fiction story contained within Ada, or Ardor, one of the later, longer novels, is de-scrambled as Kingsley Amis? And Leymanski’s character, we’re further informed, is derived in part from the hamfistedly named “Dr. Froid,” a figure mentioned in passing in Ada proper. We know that the inventor of psychoanalysis, that “Viennese witchdoctor,” ranked only with Dostoevsky in the Nabokovian catalogue of comic intellectual or literary horrors. So this is how the old devil took oblique revenge on Amis’s review of Lolita, a pan justified by the book’s fundamental flaw that “so far from being too pornographic, it is not pornographic enough.”

Kingsley’s son Martin, himself a flame-tender of Vladimir Vladimirovich, once described Finnegans Wake as “700-page crossword clue and the answer is ‘the.’” That easily makes Pale Fire advanced Sudoku, only with no discernible answer or even a definitive proof of its own fictive reality. Critics have spent the last 50 years trying to de-puzzle a book that is divided between a 999-line poem in four cantos, ostensibly about a celebrated American poet’s bucolic remembrances and the death of his daughter, and the extensive footnotes to the text which are written by an eccentric foreigner who believes the poem is really a tribute to his homeland and his own fall from regal glory.

Fifty years is long time to wait for a decryption device but one has been furnished by Andrea Pitzer, the author of the The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov, not just one of the most beguiling literary biographies to come out in years but also a first-rate addition to the groaning shelf of Nabokov studies.

The “secret” here isn’t in the life, which scholars have done to death already and which the man himself did twice (Conclusive Evidence and Speak, Memory); it’s in how the life slyly crept its way into the margins or subtexts of the work. How could it not given that that life was lived as a serial witness to every kind of 20th century atrocity? The Nabokov family were, famously, Constitutional Democratic refugees from the Bolshevik seizure of power in 1917, and Nabokov’s famous father, Vladimir Dmitrievich, was later shot by a czarist loyalist. Vladimir and his Jewish wife Vera (to whom he dedicated all of his books) escaped the Nazi occupation of France, if not quite the last vestiges of global anti-Semitism. Nabokov’s brother-in-law was then implicated as a Russian Nazi collaborator in Europe. Finally, his gay younger brother Sergei died under dire circumstances in Hitler’s Neuengamme concentration camp. “This lost, forgotten, and sometimes secret history,” Pitzer writes, “suggests that behind the arts-for-art’s-sake facade that Nabokov both cultivated and rejected, he was busy detailing the horrors of his era and attending to the destructive power of the Gulag and the Holocaust in one way or another across four decades of his career.”

Detailing the detailing is no easy task for a biographer given her subject’s well-known abhorrence of “didactic” novels which traffic in big ideas or opine sententiously on world events. “[A]ll art is deception,” he liked to say, when not mercilessly mocking those critics who came sniffing around oeuvres with pedantic intention. Literary biographies, Nabokov told Alfred Appel, his former student and a non-Kinbotian annotator of Lolita, “are great fun to write, generally less fun to read.” The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, the first novel he wrote in English, and the title of which is clearly echoed in The Secret History, is a parody of the deceptiveness of the genre.

Yet Pitzer’s biography is fun to read because it shows how an ardent anti-Sovietchek, ever eager to an end a friendship or dismiss a celebrated new Russian writer for real or perceived sympathies with Moscow, simply could not keep his strong opinions to himself. And Pale Fire is the Rosetta stone of this investigation because Pitzer persuasively argues that Nabokov’s most enigmatic novel is really a sly commentary on the Cold War, with Kinbote playing the part of not a lunatic pretender to a phantom throne but a lunatic former zek of one of Lenin’s most notorious labor camps, later the site of one of the largest nuclear tests in history.

“I was at Georgetown School of Foreign Service during the last years of the Soviet Union’s existence,” Pitzer told me in a phone interview. “One of the things I studied was nuclear negotiations and treaties. Reading Pale Fire, I recognized the terms from that ear and thought perhaps the book was more of a Cold War novel than I realized. Going back, I realized it was much more than a Cold War novel.”

To understand Pitzer’s codebreaker, one needs to first know a little something about the code. The trap-door plot in Pale Fire, as relayed by Kinbote, includes a Bolshevik-style revolution that overthrows the happy reign and unhappy ouster of King Charles II, and culminates in his subsequent flight to the United States, whereupon he takes on the false identity of a professor at Wordsmith University in the leafy hamlet of “New Wye, Appalachia” (good luck finding that on a map either). It is here that Kinbote, an awkward foreigner with a fondness for ping-pong and pederasty, meets John Shade, a Robert Frost-like poet in winter, who, unlike the rest of Wordsmith’s faculty and Shade’s own wife Sybil, takes an amused liking to the emigre. Yet Kinbote never quite reveals his “true” identity to his would-be Boswell, recounting instead the rise and fall of “Charles the Beloved” to Shade as if Kinbote were only a loyal subject rather than the sovereign in disguise. The novel’s climactic end -- or rather the commentary’s -- sees the narrator tracked down at his new home by an assassin named Gradus (a.k.a. “Leningradus”) who has been selected by a cabal of committed “anti-Karlists,” the party of the new Zemblan government, to finalize their revolution with the murder the head of the ancien regime. Except that Gradus misses Kinbote and mortally wounds Shade.

This, at least, is what we’re meant to sign off on by our dubious commentator and narrator who, by his own admission in the foreword, is often taken for a madman. As with Lolita, the first pages of which announce the death in childbirth of “Mrs. Richard Schiller” (nee Dolores Haze), we’re instructed how to read Pale Fire properly at its outset: in this case, with a police interrogator’s skepticism.

Among the questions that are never definitively answered are the following. Is Zembla a real country in the made-up world of the novel or is it, like Bakov’s Russian Empire, the yield of one man’s colorful imagining? In a letter sent to Nabokov’s publisher before Pale Fire was released, Vera refused to allow that Zembla was “non-existent.” Rather, she wrote, “Nobody knows, nobody should know—even Kinbote hardly knows—if Zembla really exists.” And where, exactly, are the Zemblan “crown jewels” to which our narrator repeatedly refers because his totalitarian successors never successfully chivvy them out of their undisclosed hiding place in the Zemblan palace, which becomes King Charles’ temporary prison?  In the appendix to Pale Fire, which of course constitutes part of the novel itself, the entry for “Crown Jewels” leads to another entry for “Hiding place,” which leads to “Potaynik” (the Zemblan word for “secret place”), which leads to “Taynik” (the Russian word for it), which leads back to “Crown Jewels” -- an infinite regression loop, in other words, and one of Nabokov’s parting tricks. Finally, what is Kinbote’s “extraordinary secret,” which he claims Shade came close to figuring out? Superficially this would seem to mean his identity as the last king of Zembla, but it could also refer to his tortured proclivity for “faunlets” (the male version of nymphets, of which Lolita is the most recognized specimen), or to something else entirely.

In an interview he gave to the Herald Tribune after Pale Fire’s publication Nabokov flat-out stated that Kinbote was insane and had actually committed suicide just before he was able to complete the last entry in the Index: the one for Zembla. This was no accident.

And in one of the first reviews of Pale Fire, and probably the most adulatory, Mary McCarthy connected Kinbote’s homeland to “Nova Zembla, a group of islands in the Arctic Ocean, north of Archangel,” and to a passing reference from Alexander Pope’s Essay on Man denoting the unexplored polar north: “At Greenland, Zembla, or the Lord knows where.” (Pope’s poem also makes mention, as Kinbote informs us, to “lunatic a king,” an allusion we’re told was scrubbed from an earlier draft of Shade’s poem.)

In fact, Nova Zembla once had a “king,” albeit an unintended one. There were three Dutch voyages to the Arctic archipelago in the 16th century. As Pitzer notes, “the first found luck, the second misfortune, and the third an equal measure of both.” All were led by William Barents, he of the famous strait, who sought to find a shorter trade route from Europe to China. Wrong turns, man-hungry polar bears and ice traps impeded his plan. In May 1596, his expedition ran aground on the northern edge of Nova Zembla, and his ship was destroyed by moving glaciers. Barents and his men fashioned a cabin out of driftwood and spent the winter there, emerging finally on Twelfth Night, January 5th, 1597, where they celebrated at an frozen banquet and drew straws to be the first king of Nova Zembla, “an imaginary monarch,” Pitzer writes, “in a land of ice and death, a ruler over hope and despair, a king of nothing.”

Madmen pretending to be monarchs is a theme as old as Russia herself, and Nabokov had a few false starts getting back to folkloric basics, beginning in 1940 with a project called Solus Rex, his final, abandoned fiction written in his native language. He tried again in 1957, writing to his Doubleday editor Jason Epstein that he’d like his next novel to be about a northern king from the Old World who flees to America and causes problems for the Kennedy administration. It wasn’t until he finished his exhaustive 1,300-page translation and annotation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, however, that Nabokov set to work in earnest. He first completed the 999-line poem “Pale Fire” before he got started on the prose, which he got about halfway through before he and Vera moved into what would be their final residence: the Montreux Palace Hotel on Lake Geneva. It was 1961, the year the Berlin Wall went up, American and Soviet tanks squared off at the demarcation line separating the free world from the Eastern bloc, and Khrushchev began detonating thermonuclear bombs at Nova Zembla.

Nabokov had already heard of the islands years earlier; they were going to play a bit role in his 1957 project proposal to Epstein; and in 1959, a cousin had written informing him that their great-grandfather, may have been the reason that a Nabokov River ran through the Arctic region. But for Pitzer, the true codebreaker was the Western press:

“During his daily reading of the New York Herald Tribune in Switzerland, [Nabokov] would have seen more than a dozen front-page stories mentioning Nova Zembla. Nova Zembla appeared on maps in newspapers around the globe, with fall-out patterns noted. Debates over safe radiation levels continued. Milk was tested to see if children should still drink it, and at the Twenty-Second Party Congress in Moscow Khrushchev announced plans to detonate a 50-megaton hydrogen bomb. The UN took up the issue, and after long debates, finally passed a resolution imploring the Soviets not to explode the monster device.”

Khrushchev did it anyway, on October 30, when he dropped Tsar Bomba, a weapon of mass destruction so gigantic, parts of the aircraft’s fuselage had to be removed to carry it. When the device went off, registering an explosion ten times more powerful than all the bombs used in World War II combined, it destroyed buildings in a 75-mile radius, fractured glass 500 miles away, and, as Pitzer observes, “[t]race levels of radiation crossed the continent to the Nabokovs’ suite in Montreux.”

The Soviets stopped setting off nukes at Nova Zembla after that, owing to international pressure. Several weeks later, Nabokov delivered the manuscript for Pale Fire. But for this Russian author there simply was no moral equivalence between superpower proliferation efforts. Nabokov was a deeply conservative cold warrior who loathed Lenin, whom he compared to “the pail of the milk of human kindness with a dead rat at the bottom,” and followed “that line of conduct which may be the most displeasing to the Reds and the Russells,” meaning Bertrand, then president of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Pale Fire is festooned with atomic references and a mockery of peaceniks. As portrayed by Kinbote, Shade’s politics are quite obviously Nabokov’s own. Deleted lines of “Pale Fire” are said to include:

“An age that thinks spacebombs and spaceships take
A genius with a foreign name to make,
When any jackass can rig up the stuff;
An age in which a pack of rogues can bluff
The selenographer; a comic age
That sees in Dr. Schweitzer a great sage.”

Notes of Nabokov’s own politics and worldwide fame are even struck synchronously as in this strophe which made it into Shade’s final version:

“It was a year of Tempests: Hurricane
Lolita swept from Florida to Maine.
Mars glowed. Shahs married. Gloomy Russians spied.”

“Kingsley Amis’s said that Lolita’s fundamental flaw was that ‘so far from being too pornographic, it is not pornographic enough.’”

Kinbote at one point refers to a Wordsmith physics professor, a “so-called Pink, who believed in what so-called Pinks believe in (Progressive Education, the Integrity of anyone spying for Russia, Fall-outs occasioned solely by US-made bombs, the existence in the near past of a McCarthy era, Soviet achievements including Dr. Zhivago, and so forth).” (Nabokov hated Pasternak’s masterpiece, though it’d be churlish to suggest that this was only because it nudged Lolita out of the top spot on the bestsellers’ list in 1959. He rather unfairly thought the book so ponderous and pedestrian as to have likely been written by Pasternak’s mistress, while Vera called it fodder for “pro-Commie” idiots, a judgment that no doubt would have surprised Soviet cultural commissars at the time who banned Dr. Zhivago.)

The only reference to the real Nova Zembla in Pale Fire occurs when Kinbote is mistaken by an American history professor for another man born in Russia named either Botkin or Botkine, a less artful anagram, one admits, than Sig Leymanski. Kinbote says Professor Pardon is “‘confusing me with some refugee from Nova Zembla’ [sarcastically stressing the ‘Nova’].”

So was Nabokov, ventriloquizing through his unhinged and untrustworthy narrator, drawing a distinction between the real Arctic wasteland from a made-up kingdom, or was he conflating the two places? He’d later admit that Professor Pardon was correct, furnishing another plum: Kinbote was Botkin/Botkine.

As it happens, several more plums are buried throughout the text as mundane references to the New York Times, including a story about Khrushchev canceling a trip to Scandinavia to visit Zembla instead and embrace its people as “fellow countrymen” in ich-bin-ein-Berliner fashion. The canceled trip did happen and was written up in the Times on July 21, 1959, the day that Gradus reads about it -- albeit in distorted through Kinbote’s narrative prism -- shortly after arriving in New York City where he closes in on the fugitive king’s New England hideaway.

In that same interview he gave to Alfred Appel (in 1967) Nabokov confessed that “[i]n common with Pushkin, I am fascinated by fatidic dates.” For Pitzer, the Grey Lady’s recurrence throughout the novel -- and the matching of real-world events with their fictional counterparts -- offers proof that Nabokov was indeed influenced by global headlines, and not just those that crossed his desk as he burned through the final proofs of Pale Fire. One headline, decades earlier, must have struck him with the force of Tsar Bomba.

In 1955, about two years before he began the initial work on the book, a story appeared in the Times about John Noble, an American who had survived World War II in Germany only to be arrested by the Soviets, then sent to Buchenwald (now a Russian-run detention for POWs), before finally being dispatched to a coal-mining labor camp north of the Arctic Circle called Vorkuta. According to Noble’s recollection in the Times, the absolute worst place that zeks of Vorkuta believed they could wind up was a whispered-about colony called Nova Zembla, “from which there is no return.” Noble’s account, serialized over the course of three days, became a bestselling memoir, I Was a Slave in Russia.

It wasn’t the first time the newspaper had written about Nova Zembla. The earliest reference to the camps on the Arctic island chain was on August 28, 1922 in an article entitled, “Exiled Russians to Leave This Year,” which ran in both the New York Times and the Times of London. The Russians in question were Socialist Revolutionaries and some of the first political criminals sentenced by the new regime, along with artists and intellectuals who hadn’t found favor in Lenin’s workers’ state. March 28, 1922 was the date that Vladimir Dmitrievich met a czarist loyalist’s bullet in Berlin, the first city of the Nabokov family’s exile from St. Petersburg. What is the likelihood that his son, assuming he read of the plight of non-Bolshevik revolutionaries five months to the day of his Vladimir Dmitrievich’s murder, wouldn’t have registered the calendric symmetry with a sense of frisson?

Stories about the early victims of Bolshevik terror weren’t confined to obscure news items; they ran all over Europe and the United States and even appeared, on August 30, 1922, in Rul, then the largest Russian-language newspaper printed in Germany, with which Nabokov was intimately acquainted: Not only had it published some of his apprentice work, but Rul was co-founded by Vladimir Dmitrievich.

“Within the camps, inside Russia, and across Europe and America,” Pitzer writes, “Nova Zembla had been feared as the cruelest outpost of the camp system, a place of terror for all of Vladimir Nabokov’s adult life.” Nearly forty years later, he’d given it fabulist expression in one of his greatest works of art, by making his “paranoid, broken narrator [hail] from a nightmare corner of the Gulag.” And that Pale Fire came out in 1962, the same year as a new Russian novelist and survivor of the gulag made his literary debut with A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, is another fatidic coincidence worthy of Pushkin.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s biography stalks Nabokov’s chapter by chapter in The Secret History, culminating in the most famous lunch meeting that never was, when the newly exiled Solzhenitsyn and his wife Natalia, for reasons unknown, turned their car around in Montreux in 1974 and never showed up to dine with Vladimir and Vera at the Palace Hotel’s Salon de Musique. Characteristically, Nabokov had derided Solzhenitsyn as another third-rate Soviet scribbler; he also suspected the former zek of possible KGB ties until the publication of The Gulag Archipelago dispelled all doubts about Solzhenitsyn’s importance as a dissident. Now a Nobel laureate, the younger Russian enormously admired the older emigre and even advanced his name for the same Swedish prize, a laurel that would elude Nabokov for the rest of his life.

So what does the reader, now racing frantically to poem and commentary in search of Soviet prison references, find by way of corroboration upon a re-reading Pale Fire?

Pitzer mentions the “frozen mud and horror” in Kinbote’s heart, as well as the “tale of torture written in the bruised and branded sky,” which he’d hoped would amount to the allegory of Zembla that Shade told in his epic poem. Furthermore, I discovered that Shade refers to the act of shaving as ploughing “Old Zembla’s fields where my gray stubble grows, / And slaves make hay between my mouth and nose.” Upon Gradus’ arrival in New York, on July 20, 1959, the assassin checks into a seedy hotel and goes to bed in “striped pajamas--the kind Zemblans called rusker sirsuker (‘Russian seersucker suit’),” which sound a lot to me like a Nabokovian euphemism for an inmate’s uniform. (In the Nazi-run Neuengamme concentration camp, where Vladimir’s brother Sergei perished, part of the inmates’ hodgepodge attire consisted of rectangular cloth cut-outs known as “Russian socks.”)

Once the Sovet state archives were opened in the 1990s, Pitzer concludes, the historical record of Nova Zembla was shown to be a shade more complicated than either the Times or John Noble had supposed. There were no wartime files about mining or camp operations on the main islands despite rumors and legends to the contrary. Moreover, the actual site for a prison colony was not located on the archipelago’s northernmost islands but on its southernmost. More portentous for Nabokov, if only he could have known it in 1961, was the fact that in 1922 the Socialist Revolutionaries do not appear to have been sent to Nova Zembla at all; they were most likely sent to Solovki, another frozen island chain and one to which Solzhenitsyn had paid ample attention in the second volume of The Gulag Archipelago. It was here, in this dreaded White Sea colony, that the Stalinist novelist Maxim Gorky paid a visit in 1926 and then returned to Moscow to write of how impressed he’d been by the spectacle civilized Soviet rehabilitation—this in spite of ridiculous Potemkin efforts to cover up the rampant starvation and illness, and Gorky’s being told by a child-prisoner of the gruesome tortures dispensed there when dignitaries weren’t in attendance. Solovki, as it turns out, is also where the Bolsheviks went looking for the czar’s hidden Imperial treasures in an excavation campaign reminiscient of the anti-Karlists.

So here, then, were the “crown jewels” all along: not the gems of the Zemblan monarchy, much less those of the Romanovs. They were the Russians of the liberal tradition, the true heirs to the country hijacked by tyrants. As the Times put it on September 1, 1922, the Communists were hunting for baubles but they were “throwing into the Arctic Sea or over Soviet borders a culture more precious than the wealth of those hoarded jewels,” that is, the poets and painters and philosophers of a Russia that never would be, men like Nabokov’s father and friends, without which the new Russian nation was bound to become a giant, “shut-off Nova Zembla.”

And here’s Kinbote’s “extraordinary secret”: he is Nabokov’s haunted and broken and imaginative chronicler of Soviet terror.