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Nabokov’s ‘great gay comic novel’


By Edmund White 


I  never met Vladimir Nabokov face to face, though I exchanged phone calls and letters with him. My psychiatrist encouraged me to visit him in Switzerland, but I was too afraid that I would quickly sabotage close-up whatever good impression I might have managed to create long-distance. As an editor at the American Saturday Review, I had orchestrated a cover story dedicated to Nabokov on the publication of his novel Transparent Things (1972), and sent Antony Armstrong-Jones to take a portfolio of photographs, including one that showed the novelist dressed as Borges in a poncho. (My boss had wanted to send a great artistic photographer such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, but I believed Nabokov would be more amused by Armstrong-Jones, the Earl of Snowdon, who had been married to Princess Margaret since 1960 and was, I guessed, more polished than the austere French genius. The two men got along famously.) Nabokov wrote a short piece on “Inspiration” for us, which I illustrated with a reproduction of “Pygmalion and Galatea” by Jean-Léon Gérôme, a big bad nineteenth-century painting of the infatuated sculptor embracing his creation as she turns from marble to flesh, feet last.

A number of tiny errors, typographic and even grammatical, had crept into Nabokov’s text. I had the copy set twice in print, my version and his, and sent them both by overnight express. He wired back, “your version perfect”. In the Nabokov “number” I included rather grudging essays by Joyce Carol Oates, William Gass and Joseph McElroy – and of course my own ecstatic response.


Montreux on Lake Geneva, where Nabokov lived in the
hotel Montreux Palace from 1960 till his death in 1977


A few months later, I sent him galley proofs of my own first novel, Forgetting Elena. Nabokov sent me a note in response: “This is not for publication but my wife and I enjoyed your novel in which everything is teetering on the edge of everything”. (I later found this same “teetering” image in his evocation of a passenger’s point of view from inside a train leaving the station.) I couldn’t believe my good luck in gaining this endorsement from my favourite author, someone who was dismissive of Conrad, Dostoevsky, Faulkner and Balzac – even if I had to keep quiet about it. (Three years later Gerald Clarke, the biographer of Truman Capote, interviewed Nabokov, who in an unguarded moment revealed that I was his favourite American writer. He even tried to convince McGraw-Hill to take a look at my new manuscript, then titled “Woman Reading Pascal”, but without success. It remains unpublished.)

Nabokov’s masterpiece, of course, is Lolita, which finds a way of renewing the exhausted nineteenth-century tradition of the novel that analyses the passions (Adolphe, Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary) by re-creating it through the eyes of a criminal paedophile, in accordance with Nabokov’s doctrine that a novel should explore, not the genus or the species but an aberrant variety. Lolita is romantic and funny and perverted. But I have recently re-read Pale Fire (1962) which is, I realize only now, the great gay comic novel, an equally funny and sometimes tender portrait of a homosexual madman, Charles Kinbote. Kinbote (or Botkin) claims to have been the king of the “distant northern land” of Zembla who, deposed by revolutionary forces, has made another life teaching in an American college. The whole prose component of the book is his “scholarly” commentary on a 999-line poem by his neighbour, the venerable John Shade. The poem is actually an elegy to the poet’s dead daughter, but Kinbote is convinced it is about him and his flight from his captors.

Nabokov may have been inspired by his own four-volume translation and annotation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, which he had been working on for years. Repeatedly, in the notes to Onegin, he tells the story of his own family and their lost Russian estates. It must have struck him that the self-serving scholarly annotations were funny and ripe for self-satire.

Kinbote’s mad “notes”, far from commenting on Shade’s poem, trace out a mini-biog­raphy of Kinbote. And that biography, real or delusional, is the picture of an unrepentant homosexual, sensual, guilt-free, tirelessly on the make. In the 1950s, gay men were portrayed in fiction and films as lonely phantoms – sad and colourless – or sometimes as instant villains (see Norman Mailer’s essay, “The Gay Villain”, 1954). Nabokov, by contrast, depicts Kinbote as lustful, entitled, screamingly absurd.

"They both were in a manly state, moaning like doves."

Kinbote is always drooling over some handsome lad and, as king (Charles the Beloved II), he usually has his way with them, even in a water closet: “the recent thrill of adventure had been superseded already by another sort of excitement. They locked themselves up. The tap ran unheeded. Both were in a manly state and moaning like doves”. What is perhaps the funniest scene involves a putative assassin, Gradus, and a lad named Gordon. Since this is a moment completely imagined by Kinbote (and, by any standard, not observed), the king’s imagination runs wild. He “dresses” the comely Gordon in one clichéd gay outfit after another. At first the tanned fifteen-year-old (“dyed a nectarine hue by the sun”) is in a “leopard-spotted loincloth”. Then he is “wreathed about the loins with ivy”. A second later he is fellating “a pipe of spring water” and wiping his hands “on his black bathing trunks”. Next, he’s magically “striking his flanks clothed in white tennis shorts” before that image dissolves into a “Tarzan brief” that is “cast aside”. Nabokov has plundered the full wardrobe of period gay porn.

Stranded now in a small American college town, Kinbote takes in a “dissipated young roomer”, whom he later calls “drunken, impossible, unforgettable”. When a rumour springs up that Kinbote is given to a “persecution mania”, he ascribes the gossip to “certain youthful instructors whose advances I’d rejected”. (As if.) One of the liberal gazettes in Zembla dubs the capital city “Uranograd”. The king, when still a prince of seventeen, dances in “masques with boy-girls and girl-boys”. The prince goes to “a formal heterosexual affair, rather refreshing after some previous sport”. When he dances with a pretty girl, Fleur – “pretty but not repellent” – he “hardly squirmed at all when she stroked his hand or applied herself soundlessly with open lips to his cheek”, nor did she “seem to mind when he abandoned her for manlier pleasures”. An American medium, channelling his dead mother, fruitlessly begs him “to renounce sodomy”. When he returns to his chambers “lying all over the painted marble and piled three or four deep were his new boy pages, a whole mountain of gift boys from Troth, and Tuscany, and Albanoland”.

When the Soviets take over his kingdom, he refuses to abdicate and remorselessly looks through field glasses at “lithe youths diving into the swimming pool of a fairy tale sport club”. Even when held captive, the king “kept in touch with numerous adherents, young nobles, artists, college athletes, gamblers, Black Rose Paldins, members of fencing clubs, and other men of fashion and adventure”. Of his youth we learn that “in those days growing boys of high-born families wore on festive occasions – of which we had so many during our long northern spring – sleeveless jerseys, white anklesocks with black buckle shoes, and very tight, very short shorts called hotinguens”. At twelve, Prince Oleg in the “mist of the bathhouse” reveals “bold virilia [that] contrasted harshly with his girlish grace. He was a regular faunlet”. Eventually Kinbote and Oleg are allowed by the authorities “to share the same bed”. When Oleg returns, “He carried a tulip. His soft blond locks had been cut since his last visit to the palace and the young Prince thought: Yes, I knew he would be different. But when Oleg knitted his golden brows and bent close . . ., the young Prince knew by the downy warmth of that crimson ear and by the vivacious nod . . . that no change had occurred in his dear bedfellow”. Even as Oleg and Charles escape the castle, the king is looking at his “shapely buttocks encased in tight indigo cotton”.


"Hs bold virilia contrasted harshly with his girlish face."


There are plenty of hints that Kinbote (the King, Charles) is demented or that “reality” itself is disputable. The absurd Kinbote – obsessed with his own royal story – is fantastically unaware of John Shade’s reluctance to waste time with him and especially of the scorn of Shade’s wife’s, whom Kinbote in return loathes when he isn’t condescending to her. Kinbote is the well-observed gay outsider of the past – lecherous, self-important, obsessed with fantasies of aristocracy, impervious to the subtleties of the heterosexual world around him. He would be despicable if his very earnestness and naivety were not so touching. His reckless “scholarship” must have been especially amusing to Nabokov (in particular, to Nabokov the lepidopterist, his failure to identify even the most ordinary butterflies). But Kinbote shares Nabokov’s distaste for Soviet brutes and his narrow but deep human sympathies.

At the time of the novel’s publication, many gay men were vexed by the satirical portrait, though now it seems perfectly acceptable. Gay critics are no longer prospecting for positive role models. What we have instead in Kinbote is a compendium of “period” gay images. The “Baron” (a fake title) Wilhelm von Gloeden’s staged photographs of Sicilian boys with cracked feet, peasant tans, hunger-bloated stomachs and coarse faces, wearing ancient Greek togas and laurel wreaths and holding papier maché lyres; Prussian porn and English gentlemen’s proclivities for willing, paid guardsmen; the aesthetes of Oscar Wilde’s day (a single tulip); the gay son of a famous womanizing king (Mad Ludwig and his royal father, lover of La Belle Otéro); the tennis champion Bill Tilden, whose spectacular playing made him famous in the 1920s – and whose paedophilia landed him in prison; “scoutmasters with something to hide”; idyllic romances with athletes and shepherd boys in the style of A. E. Housman, whose Shropshire Lad Kinbote admires above all other poems except for Tennyson’s equally fruity In Memoriam; the sailors so sought after as “rough trade” (non-reciprocating, drunk, heterosexual bullies): all are evoked here, a catalogue of male homosexual desire through the ages.

Nabokov took an entomologist’s delight in observing grotesqueries, but he could not resist lending Kinbote, at least in dreams, a little heterosexual tenderness for his Queen Disa, living in exile on the Riviera. At Edmund Wilson’s urging Nabokov read Our Lady of the Flowers by Jean Genet and admired the writing, but was mystified as to why Genet wrote about men of all things. Even the misogynistic Kinbote thinks of Disa at night:
This love was like an endless wringing of hands, like a blundering of the soul through an infinite maze of hopelessness and remorse. They were, in a sense, amorous dreams, for they were permeated with tenderness, with a longing to sink his head onto her lap and sob away the monstrous past. They brimmed with the awful awareness of her being so young and so helpless. They were purer than his life. What carnal aura there was in them came not from her but from those with whom he betrayed her – prickly-chinned Phrynia, pretty Timandra with that boom under her apron – and even so the sexual scum remained somewhere far above the sunken treasure and was quite unimportant. He would see her being accosted by a misty relative so distant as to be practically featureless. She would quickly hide what she held and extend her arched hand to be kissed. He knew she had just come across a telltale object – a riding boot in his bed – establishing beyond any doubt his unfaithfulness . . . . One might bear – a strong merciless dreamer might bear – the knowledge of her grief and pride but none could bear the sight of her automatic smile as she turned from the agony of the disclosure to the polite trivialities required of her. She would be cancelling an illumination, or discussing hospital cots with the head nurse, or merely ordering breakfast for two in the sea cave – and through the everyday plainness of the talk, through the play of the charming gestures with which she always accompanied certain readymade phrases, he, the groaning dreamer, perceived the disarray of her soul and was aware that an odious, undeserved, humiliating disaster had befallen her, and that only obligations of etiquette and her staunch kindness to a guiltless third party gave her the force to smile . . . .
This is possibly Nabokov’s most lyrical tribute to a disappointed woman, but does it suit Kinbote’s character? Or is it Nabokov (who was unfaithful to his beloved wife Vera) expressing his own repentance for his extramarital affairs? Or is it Nabokov peeping through a mask and making his character more sympathetic, as he does more than once with Humbert? Nabokov knew that a long novel cannot be devoted to an entirely hateful character, and Kinbote has many redeeming qualities including an endearing narcissism, a strong libido, a vivid imagination and a poetic sense – even if this last tends to the kitschy.

Nabokov had a gay brother, Sergei,who died at the hands of the Nazis, and a gay maternal uncle, “Uncle Ruka”, who left him a large house and estate, which he possessed only briefly before the October Revolution. These relatives must have made him somewhat uneasy, since he believed homosexuality was inherited (in the past an eccentric opinion, but now a fairly mainstream theory), though a more libertarian position would be: you have a right to be whatever you are, no matter the cause; even searching for a “cause” is reactionary. Nabokov had a rare capacity for imagining himself into the minds of outsiders. A paranoid outsider is a particularly good subject for a novel, since a paranoid organizes all the world’s unrelated facts and random impressions around one central, focusing obsession. Kinbote sees himself as a monarch in exile threatened by an assassin, real or imagined, and he is determined to tell his story before he is killed. As it happens, perhaps the killer is Kinbote himself and the victim, Shade, who tells “Kinbote’s story” only according to the demented man’s scholarly annotations. As the novel winds down we discover that Shade’s killer might actually be an escaped madman named Jack Grey. Of course Kinbote thinks he was the intended victim and “Jack Grey” an identity that Gradus, the would-be regicide, had assumed. Fortunately for Kinbote and his delusions, Grey commits suicide before he can be interrogated. (Nabokov’s own father, a liberal Democrat, was assassinated in Berlin in 1922 by a misguided Russian monarchist while saving the life of the intended victim.)

Nabokov liked to play with shadow lives – “creative autobiography”, we might call it. Look at the Harlequins! features a satanic writer who really is a paedophile – a playful confirmation of some people’s worst suspicions about the author of Lolita. Humbert traverses the United States and teaches at a dowdy American university, as Nabokov did. Glory (1932; published in English translation, 1971) recounts the implausible return of its hero, whose history otherwise resembles Nabokov’s, to Russia, just as Ada (1969) tells of a parallel universe in which Russia and America are parts of the same country. Hermann, the principal character in Despair (1934; 1965), imagines he is the double of another man, but in fact they in no way resemble each other. The plot of this novel, too, recounts a misfired murder. Nabokov returned several times to the theme of the false doppel-gänger, a parody of the despised Dostoevsky’s The Double, not to mention his Notes From the Underground.

"400 favorite catamites."

Even the index to Pale Fire is funny, and camp. We are told of a cordoned-off section of the royal picture gallery that “contains the statues of Igor’s 400 favourite catamites”. In the entry for Kinbote himself we discover inconsequential mentions of “his boyhood in Cedarn and the little angler, a honey-skinned lad, naked except for a pair of torn dungarees, one trouser leg rolled up . . . but then school started or the weather changed”. No matter that the little angler has never been mentioned until now. Kinbote also cites his loathing for a person who “makes advances and then betrays a noble and naïve heart, telling foul stories about his victim and pursuing him with brutal practical jokes”. Marcel is dismissed as “the fussy, unpleasant, and not altogether plausible central character, pampered by everybody in Proust’s A la Recherche du Temps Perdu”. Under “Odon”, who is identified as the actor who helps the king escape, the very last index entry is, “ought not to marry that blubber-lipped cinemactress, with untidy hair”. Finally we are told of “Uran the Last Emperor of Zembla, reigned 1798-1799; an incredibly brilliant, luxurious and cruel monarch whose whistling whip made Zembla spin like a rainbow top”.

This piece appeared first in the Times Literary Supplement. Lustspiel will soon post three short (and particularly gay) fragments from Pale Fire.

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