If I have given the impression of an agon, or struggle, between Nabokov and Shakespeare, then the picture is incomplete.
Let’s return to W.H. Auden, who said that Shakespeare holds the enviable position of being all but anonymous: this, he said, all true artists must desire, so that the reader’s interest is directed solely at the work. Auden emigrated to the United States in 1939, one year prior to Nabokov. Like Nabokov, he had outlived the period of high Modernism, with T.S Eliot, Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis at its cultural and political centre. After the war, that centre shifted to the United States, where aesthetic autonomy was championed, and sometimes funded, against totalitarianism (with Moscow looming large behind it).
Auden, now an English emigrant living in the States, had in the past adopted in his poetry a range of systems and ideologies to frame his understanding of world events. Auden’s biographer, Edward Mendelson, says that Auden’s systems ranged from Greek mythological structures to the inexorability of Marxist social forces, to the unconscious struggle of the Freudian ego and superego. Eventually he would return to a fuzzier form of Anglo-Catholicism: the sect and church of T.S. Eliot. Mendelson suggests that Auden was searching for order and significance in history that he could not find in the crises of his own life and times. He was playing the long game.
Nabokov, who loathed Freudianism and Marxism, could not be further from Auden in his tastes. Yet here we see a similar process occurring. Auden sought impersonal systems of personal restraint, partly as a rejection of the Romantic individual which he blamed for the rise of Fascist leaders in the 1930s. Nabokov, on the other hand, alarmed by the new politics of the masses, by systematising ideologies, sought refuge in the greatness of the individual artist. The greatest of these was Shakespeare.
In the 1960s, after the wild success of Lolita – ‘Hurricane Lolita,’ as he refers to it in Pale Fire – the Nabokovs were able to retire from teaching (yes, both of them: Vera delivered lectures when Vladimir was ill). Alongside his voluminous translation of Eugene Onegin (1964), Nabokov would seek to arrange, as it were, his own place in the canon. He would achieve this with his enormous talent, but also with self-publicity, the weight of his authority on taste (how many students has he discouraged from reading Dostoevsky, Mann, Faulkner?), and through a careful protection of his published writings.
I say ‘alongside,’ his translation of Onegin, but Nabokov’s self-fashioning ran through every vein of his written works during that decade. In volume three of the translation, there is a lengthy passage in which Nabokov gives an account of the iambic tetrameter in English prosody. By the seventeenth century, ‘in the hands of some performers of genius, [it] becomes capable of elaborate music while treating frivolous as well as metaphysical themes’. Shakespeare is then given as an eminent example of this achievement. However, not long after this period, the metre becomes associated with ‘boisterous and obscure topical satire, the dismally comic, mock-heroic poem, the social allusion sustained through hundreds of rhymed couplets’. Nabokov calls this a disaster, but it does not occur to Nabokov or interest him that the English Civil War irrupted during this period. What he sees is a kind of falling off from the proper subjects of the true artist. He also takes the chance to sneer at the ‘mental archness’ of T.S. Eliot, for Nabokov the heir of this lamentable departure from the apolitical, high aesthetics of the Elizabethans, who were more congenial to his own identity as an author.
The ideal artist, with his Shakespeare in his DNA, is also present in Nabokov’s fiction. John Shade, the deceased poet in Pale Fire, is in part Nabokov’s surrogate (with traces of Robert Frost). The editor of ‘Pale Fire’, Charles Kinbote, reprints one of Shade’s earlier poems, ‘The Nature of Electricity’:
‘And maybe Shakespeare floods a whole
Town with innumerable lights,
And Shelley’s incandescent soul
Lures the pale moths of starless nights.’
Shade, as the next verse makes clear, would join this poetic tradition, which illuminates the world like a natural force. Kinbote adds in his commentary that the Earth would ‘vanish like a ghost’ if electricity were removed from the universe. For Nabokov, it seems, the heritage of great art, which he sees himself belonging, to reaches a cosmological significance, beyond the topical and the social.
In opposition to the artist was the murky applications of Freudianism and its reference to primitive mythologies. ‘There is nothing more tedious,’ he wrote in his lecture on James Joyce’s Ulysses, ‘than a protracted and sustained allegory based on well-worn myth’. If, for the Freudians, Greek mythology provided a key to the arcane workings of the psyche, for Nabokov it was an outright infringement on his autonomy as an author; the Freudians had no business systematising the freedom of the mind.
But Nabokov was interested in memory and the repressed just as much as the Freudians, but he held the romantic belief that it was ultimately mysterious to us, only to be glimpsed at through flashes of genius. In Pale Fire, one of his most remarkable achievements, it is Shakespearean lore which provides the key to something touching the author’s personal pathos.
Shakespearian allusions allow to the reader to enter a new level of understanding within the novel, and without the knowledge of the editor Charles Kinbote. Unable to find the phrase ‘pale fire’ in his Zemblan translation of Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens, Kinbote cannot decipher the implication of the phrase: that he is the moon, the ‘arrant thief’ snatching ‘pale fire’ from John Shade’s ‘sun’.
But this joke should leave us feeling eerie. John Shade is dead: why is his title so knowing? How was he aware that Kinbote would steal his poem and write its commentary?
Perhaps, then, there is a third author at work. The oddly prevalent word ‘bodkin’ in the novel (spelled also as ‘botkin’), the small dagger Hamlet famously suggested could quickly end his life, prepares us for the brief appearance of Professor Botkin, who taught Russian and was happily not ‘subordinated’ to Professor Pnin. Why ‘happily’? What is Kinbote, who tells us this, even interested?
Kinbote is later approached by another professor at the Faculty Club, who is under the impression that Kinbote was not born in Zembla (sembla, semble, resemble – ‘a land of reflections,’ as Kinbote calls his former kingdom) but in Russia, and that his name is an anagram of ‘Botkin or Botkine’.
All of which Kinbote strenuously denies. But the close reader now surely believes that the whole thing is a hoax. There is no John Shade; there is no Charles Kinbote: thanks to the subtle Shakespearian clues, we may conclude that work has been fabricated by a Russian émigré teaching at an American college. Just who is Professor Botkin?
According to Nabokov’s biographer, ‘S.D. Botkin’ was the name of a distinguished Russian émigré who became the head of various émigré organisations in Berlin, just after the assassination of Nabokov’s father. Vladimir Dmitrievich Nabokov was shot by a Fascist. Like John Shade’s assassin, this Fascist got the wrong man. If Pale Fire touches upon this tragedy in Nabokov’s life, then there surely is a great sadness at the heart of it. But in order to reach it one must decipher the meanings behind carefully placed Shakespearian clues. These serve as a guide through the bewildering maze of the Pale Fire, while alluding to the cost of Nabokov’s own personal crises.
Nabokov, describing his mother’s emigration to Prague after the revolution:
‘As a company of traveling players carry with them everywhere, while they still remember their lines, a windy heath, a misty castle, an enchanted island, so had she with her all that her soul had stored’ (Speak, Memory, p.29).
Much like those players, Nabokov carried with him everywhere the lines of Shakespeare, not only across borders but also across time and space. Jonathan Bate, one of our best critics of Shakespeare, tells us that whenever a Romantic poet referred to the Bard, he indicated an attempt to ‘annihilate’ the earthly entanglements of the self and achieve a Shakespearian objectivity over the poem. With Nabokov, we see the persistence of this ideal in the twentieth century, an age of extremes, revolutions and total war, mass displacement, death-camps, new world orders. For so long as Shakespeare’s works remained timeless and universal, literature and memory retained their transcendent qualities for Nabokov, above and beyond the nightmare of history.