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  • Queer, Queer Vladimir
  • Steven Bruhm

When the BBC asked Vladimir Nabokov in 1968 what authors had influenced him most, he responded, “I’d much prefer to speak of the modern books I hate on first sight: the earnest case histories of minority groups, the sorrows of homo-sexuals, the anti-American Sovietnam sermon . . .” (Nabokov 1973, 116). With an uncharacteristic flourish of generalizing, Nabokov groups together what had by then become a familiar coupling of Cold-War villains: minorities, homosexuals, and communists. But what troubles Nabokov most is not the existence of various political interest groups—he makes much in Strong Opinions and Speak, Memory of his lack of interest in matters political—but that such interests are cast into fictive discourse: “case histories,” “sorrows” and “sermons” employ narratives that indulge and promote their authors. Like Alfred Kazin, ‘for whom the love that dared not speak its name’ in the nineteenth century “cannot, in the twentieth century, shut up” (quoted in Sklepowick 1977, 525), Nabokov signals his disdain for the narcissistic indulgence of homosexual and political narratives. Viewed through this lens, then, his 1962 Pale Fire would appear to be a parodic romp across the phobic landscape of Cold-War America, in that Charles Kinbote, the novel’s exiled king and homosexual commentator, gives us precisely that earnest case history, and does so with a narcissistic self-promotion that reaches almost demonic proportions in Nabokov’s hands.

Such a diagnosis of narcissism, at any rate, is made by Nabokov’s critics: they find Charles Kinbote an “incurable pederast and lunatic,” a “narcissist and madman” whose “invulnerable egotism and megalomania” (Haegert 1984, 405, 415) characterize “a boringly tenacious pedant with homosexual urgencies” (Galef 1985, 427), and whose “rampant homosexuality, . . . mad egocentricity . . . [and] preposterous unreliability” (Boyd 1991, 426) refract and distort John Shade’s poem, upon [End Page 281] which he is commenting. Indeed, the only thing more painful than the homophobia of Pale Fire is the license it has given critics to volley diatribes against the purported apposition between Kinbote’s homosexuality and his madness, an apposition conveniently coalescing in the term “narcissist.” And as I shall discuss momentarily, this equation of narcissism and homosexuality has been, at least since Freud, a central trope in the diagnosis and persecution of the Western gay man. Nabokov, it would seem, wreaks his revenge on those “earnest case histories” and “sorrows of homosexuals” by casting them in a narrative whose narcissistic self-delusion is so palpable and parodic.

The critical evidence for and condemnation of Kinbote’s narcissism is his egomaniacal “misreading” of Shades poem; Kinbote, like Narcissus, sees the world entirely through the lens of his own desires. For some weeks, Kinbote had been feeding Shade the story of the land of Zembla, a pre-revolutionary utopia over which Charles the Beloved (Kinbote in earlier days) presided as king. After a revolution instigated by the Shadows, Charles flees to New Wye, Appalachia, where he suspects that he is hunted by the assassin Jacob Gradus. In his version of the story, Gradus attempts to murder him, but shoots Shade instead. (Actually, Shade is shot by Jack Grey, an ex-con who mistakes the poet for Judge Goldsworth, who had sent him to prison.) Upon Shade’s death, Kinbote finds the poem on which Shade had been working, but it contains nothing of the history he had been giving Shade over the past weeks. Kinbote complains,

Where was Zembla the Fair? Where her spine of mountains? Where her long thrill through the mist? And my lovely flower boys, and the spectrum of the stained windows, . . . and the whole marvelous tale? None of it was there!

(Nabokov 1962, 296)

As Shade lies dead, Kinbote bewails the lack of his life-story in the poem, and then writes that story through paranoid and intrusive endnotes. For Kinbote, the poem becomes a carefully crafted account of the commentator’s life-story, of “the underside [End Page 282] of the weave that entrances the beholder and only begetter, whose own past intercoils there with the fate of the innocent author” (17). Like the mythical Narcissus, this “beholder and only begetter” is unable to distinguish self from other. Indeed, “without my...

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