Dear Dr. Meyer,
My name is Vladimir Mylnikov. I am currently teaching Russian at Inner Mongolia Teachers University in China. I have been working on Nabokov’s writing for about five years. Last year I defended a candidate dissertation in Comparative Literature at Volgagrad Pedogogical University, which included his novel Pale Fire. I have read your works on the novel and admired them a lot, especially Pale Fire as Cultural Astolabe: The Saga of the North.
I am sending a brief critique for your motif bank. I would appreciate any comments and suggestions from you.
A and Z of Zembla
The last item in the Index of “Pale Fire ” stands for Zembla – a distant northern land and for several reasons it requires special attention . Taking it from the point of semantic position, Zembla is quite different from the other items put in the Index . While being one of the major themes in the novel and to a certain extent a key word in the plot construction , it appeared in the Index without any numerical reference, in spite of the fact that Zembla is very often mentioned in the commentary as well as in the Index. This , so to say,strangness, is deepened by the fact that practically all other items in the Index , including even the smallest ones ,are numbered. This refers the reader back within the poem or commentary. Moreover, a great majority of the items in the Index are devoted to the Zembla theme. However, Zembla stands alone and does not refer the person back into the book rather it is as if reaching Zembla is the achievement of the book in its whole. Once the reader attained Zembla they have achieved the book.
Another peculiarity of Zembla [apart from its basic meaning and thematic aspect] is that the word Zembla begins and ends with last and first letters of the alphabet – Z and A .This detail could be ignored if the motif of Alphabet would not have had its place and sense in the novel. Furthermore, this motif suggests an additional meaning to “Pale Fire ” and reveals some hidden ideas. The alphabet ,as a phenomenon, I think, should be understood as alpha and omega of the logos reality, which comprises a world of words or simply – literature. Alphabet is the base, the foundation , the pattern of all constructive elements of the written world.
The motif of alphabet begin to appear at the beginning of the commentary. Not by chance it is put in the connection with the literary associations and connotations. The commentator, Charles Kinbote, while talking about Johns Shade’s killer Jacob Grades in the notes on lines 17 mentions thematically related places ,Zembla and Appalachia, which also confine the textual space of the poem within the letters of the alphabet Z and A . Further, it is also brings to mind the idea of the interdependence of such categories as “beginning” and “ending”. The above mentioned places determine the “route “, which the readers should accomplish with the character. The transition from Zembla to Appalachia is presented in terms of a literary journey. Kinbote says:” We shall accompany Grades in constant thought, as he makes his way from distant dim Zembla to green Appalachia, through the entire length of the poem, following the road of its rhythm, riding past in a rhyme, skidding around the corner of a run-on, breathing within the caesura, swinging down to the foot of the page from line to line as from branch to branch, hiding between two words [see note to line :596], reappearing on the horizon of a new canto, steadily marching nearer in iambic motion, crossing streets, moving up with his valise on the escalator of the pentameter…”. Thus, such words as rhythm, rhyme, run-on, caesura, canto, iambic motion, pentameter quite obviously show that the movement from Zembla to Appalachia[from Z to A] is taking place in the reality of the letters.
A few pages later [note to lines 47-48] the motive of alphabet gains more development. Kinbote, while talking about the house he used to live in, gives the names of Judge Goldsworth’s daughters in the alphabetic order :Alphina, Betty, Candida, Dee. At the same time when he mentions the judge’s wife and her intellectual interests , the motive of the alphabet again is presented in the context of literary connection. Here we have : “Judging by the NOVELS in Mrs. Goldsworth’s boudoir, her intellectual interests were fully developed, going as they did from Amber to Zen [italics are mine].Further, while interpreting the line 62, Kinbote mentions in one connection Judge Goldsworth’s alphabetic family and the “northern distant land”, again the reader meets one more literary allusion – Heliotropium turgenevi.
Thus, the motif of the alphabet is depicted in the strict correlation with the categories of space or place : land [Zembla ], place [ Appalachia],house of judge Goldsworth, boudoir Mrs. Goldsworth as well as with the literary connotations.
One more argument supporting the suggestion that semantic meaning of the word Zembla must include the idea of the alphabet comes from the Russian version of the book. The last item in the Index appeared as ” iacheika iashmy” – the words which should correspond to Zembla [the last item in the English version].Indeed, they perfectly do, despite that their meaning is totally different from Zembla. But both words begin and end with the last and the first letters of the Russian alphabet -IA and A , and from the point of the form they are absolutely identical with the word Zembla. In the English version ” iacheika iashmy” appears as “an orbical of jasp” though not in the Index but in the poem, when the poet is meditating about Terra the Fair. This transplantation took place because of the discrepancy between Latin and Cyrillic alphabets and the translator , to a certain extent, had to sacrifice the meaning to the form. Actually, we do not know for certain that the poet , when he is talking about Terra the Fair , really means or hints to Zembla. But again ,in terms of the form accordance , the words ” iacheika iashmy” and Zembla are utterly identical. Finally, I think there is no need to argue that the form as a constructive element in “Pale Fire ” does not only contain or convey the meaning but also functions as the meaning itself.