A Fictional Vehicle for Literary Debate:
On John Burt Foster's Reading of Nabokov's Pale Fire
by Jaimie Crawford
John Burt Foster in his article "Not Eliot, But Proust: Revisionary Modernism in Nabokov's Pale Fire " identifies PF as a "fictional vehicle for [Nabokov's] views on the modernist canon." Foster's article is important not only as a record of Nabokov's intertextuality, "his appropriation of many different modernist voices," but as a testimony of the "richness of response" which occurs when literary criticism functions inside the structure of a novel(53). In his scanning of the novel's every crevice for allusions to Proust and Eliot, Foster makes two mistakes: 1)he loses sight of the versatility in PF which he earlier esteems, and 2)because of its reliance on Nabokov's stated opinions regarding Proust and Eliot, Foster's essay evolves from a reading of PF into a manipulative pro-Proust, anti-Eliot argument.
Foster's brief introduction utilizes a single piece of evidence, a "scurrilous wordplay" in anagram-attacks of Proust and Eliot ("stupor" and "toilet"), to reveal an "irreverence seeming to justify" Nabokov's reputation as a postmodernist. Foster continues by contrasting this postmodernist reputation with Nabokov's deep admiration for modernism and, specifically, his notorious "modernist canon which emphatically excluded Dostoevsky, Mann, Pound, and Eliot"(53-4). Before beginning a close reading of the text, Foster quite brilliantly touches upon Nabokov's use of intertexuality to respond to modernism: "like Bakhtin, he treats the novel as a forum for competing discourse systems...in sophisticated yet specific prose (according to Foster, a specificity influenced by Proust)"(52). Hennard, in "Playing a Game of Worlds" explains, "PF questions the literary historian's drive to distinguish modernism and postmodernism as separate modes of writing"(300). Disappointingly, Foster pays false homage to this use of "displacement which enables Nabokov to critique the tradional mode of borderline thinking [eg: modernism vs. postmodernism, Proust vs. Eliot]"(Kristeva 298). In lieu of accepting Nabokov's many "voices", the remainder of Foster's article coerces the reader's involvement in an argument countering Eliot's "high modernism" (ambiguity) with Proustian aesthetics (particulars).
As Foster tracks Nabokov's condemnation of Eliot, he loses sight of other intentions of the text and manipulates Nabokov's "adoption of" the Bakhtinian observation: "that the ideological becoming of a human being...is the process of selectively assimilating the words of others"(52). Nabokov's genius does include the mingling of voices, but the primary ones are not Proust and Eliot. Nor are they Coleridge and Wordsworth, as Philip Sicker in "PF and Lyrical Ballads" implies (306). "The double-voiced text," iterates Hennard, "celebrates the advent of error as the only certainty"(313).
The first half of Foster's article postulates that Nabokov abhors Eliot's royalism, literary image, Anglo-Catholic spirituality, and ambiguity--traits exemplified (according to Foster) in the trace evidence of three words in PF (46:11. 364-74): "grimpen," "chtonic," and "sempiternal." Foster mentions Nabokov 's praise of Peter Lubin for "his absolutely dazzling scholarship" in the discovery of these three words in Eliot's Four Quartets, and from this praise concludes the following: Hazel Shade's story radically transforms "grimpen," "chtonic," and "sempiternal", defined as "a topographical term which anglicizes Dante's journey through a dark wood," "the soul's alienation from a scholastic God," and "a disruption of the natural time cycle through spiritual insight," respectively, into tangible clues about Hazel's death (55-6). Thus, Shade "cannibalizes" Eliot's language to make it serve his own purposes (just as Foster does Nabokov's). Hazel's death will occur where? in a "grimpen"(Foster cannot resist having some fun with this word's associations); why? due to her "chtonic" isolation: dateless weekends and a scholarly introversion; when? "sempiternally" in an eerie burst of "black spring" in midwinter (56-59).
After a comprehensive analysis of Eliot's obscure, spiritual language and Nabokov's manipulation of this language, Foster comes to this conclusion: "PF seeks to create a fictional world of correlated pattern... Hazel's narrative will move forward with gathering momentum...the reader can look back and recognize Eliot's words as an omen"(57). However, in grasping at PF's "expressive power of the narrative method rejected by Eliot"(59), Foster falls into Hazel's "grim pen of fate"; his implication that Nabokov hid three words as serious clues, "an omen" to Hazel's death (a farce itself) contradicts the elusive nature of PF as a parody of the traditional linear thought process. As Boyd (in the spirit of Kristeva) affirms, "the unfortunate image of a road to which the mind has become accustomed (life as a journey) is a stupid illusion...it is not Nabokov's text, but texture which is important"(308-9).
Foster predictably embodies in the second half of his article a "Nabokov: pro-Proust" argument and affirms that Nabokov, as well as Shade, would like to have "talks in cypress walks" with Proust in his afterlife. Foster offers Botkin's disparate images of the "asparagus dream of art"(representing the cloud-like generalities of Eliot) and the "spider (Nabokov supposedly associates this insect with Proust) of snobbery" as support for his premise that Proust is the primary model for Nabokov's aestheticism. To illustrate this relationship, Foster links "social cruelty" surfacing as prejudice in Proust's Recherche with Hazel's social ostracism. The jovial young Negro who "significantly appears on TV at the moment of Hazel's death" (49-50: 11. 470-47) Foster uses as both a red herring and a catalyst to his conclusion: initially, Foster proposes that the Negro who "raises his trumpet" is akin to Proust's degraded kitchen maid; finally, he admits "the black man is not, as Botkin's note suggests, a hapless victim," but Louis Armstrong, a paragon of individual art triumphing over social cruelty (62-4). Thus, Hazel's unhappy life mirrors her father's boyhood except that Shade (like Armstrong and Nabokov) has been sustained by an artistic gift, while Hazel, who boasts no unique talent, has not.
Foster is most captivating when he focuses on this elusive nature of PF and the many voices of its text-- Nabokov's ability to "stress art's power to make individuality prevail"(64), but he is compelled to conclude with the issue at hand, Proust vs. Eliot, and the reader is left with Foster's perception of Nabokov's answer to the type of limited argument Nabokov would bitterly scorn: "Proustian aestheticism counters Eliot's high modernism"(65).
Boyd, Brian. "Nabokov the Writer." Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years. New Jersey: Princeton, 1990. 306-320.
Connolly, Julian W. Nabokov's Early Fiction: Patterns of Self and Other. Cambridge: Cambridge, 1992.
Foster, John Burt Jr. "Not T.S. Eliot, But Proust: Revisionary Modernism in Nabokov's Pale Fire." Comparative Literature Studies 28 (1991): 51-66.
Hennard, Martine. "Playing a Game of Worlds in Nabokov's Pale Fire." Modern Fiction Studies 40 (1994): 299-318.
Rampton, "The Last Word in Nabokov Criticism." Cycnos 10 (1993): 159-65.
Sicker, Philip. "Pale Fire and Lyrical Ballads: The Dynamics of Collaboration." Papers of Language and Literature 28 (1992): 305-318.
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