Nabokov’s Pale Fire: Summary, Analysis, and Harry Potter Borrowings

Many previous posts have traced some of the influence of Vladimir Nabokov on the works of J.K. Rowling. In an attempt to supplement those posts, I will provide a summary of Nabokov’s Pale Fire, along with a brief interpretation. By tracing the plot elements of the book, I hope to demonstrate some of the common techniques of writing common to Nabokov and Rowling. I will conclude with a brief list of elements, whether of direct plot, symbol, or structure, that I see as borrowed by J.K. Rowling from Pale Fire.

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Vladimir Nabokov

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Is Vladimir Nabokov Credence’s Father?

J. K. Rowling is a big fan and serious reader of Vladimir Nabokov. For all the times she has said he is — with Austen and Collette — one of her three favorite writers, “the writer I really love,” and to read about his influence on her work (e.g., cryptonyms, literary alchemy, ring composition, the-dead-who-never-leave-us, etc.) read Harry Potter and Lolita: J. K. Rowling’s ‘Relationship’ with Vladimir Nabokov (Names, Politics, Alchemy, and Parody) and Harry Potter and Lolita: Rowling’s Rings and Vladimir Nabokov’s Story Mirrors (The Alchemy of Narrative Structure).

Nabokov is a big deal in Rowling studies and, with the exception of Collette, the most neglected author among Rowling’s essential influences. Just as a ‘for instance’ of this, go ahead and seach the internet for possible meanings of Credence’s supposedly ‘real name, ‘Aurelius.’ You won’t find a single reference to the author from whom Rowling almost certainly found the name ‘Grindelwald’ (read Pale Fire, my favorite Nabokov novel and many say his best, and you’ll find it, trust me). But Nabokov wrote a short story called ‘The Aurelian’ in 1930, the translation into English was published in November, 1941, and you can read it in The Atlantic Magazine online archives.

It is the story of an older lepidopterist and struggling shopkeeper in Berlin who has dreamed since he was a child of traveling the world to see the butterflies he loves in their native surroundings.

Although once or twice he had had the chance to switch to a more profitable business—selling cloth, for instance, instead of moths—he stubbornly held on to his shop as the symbolic link between his dreary existence and the phantom of perfect happiness. What he craved for, with a fierce, almost morbid intensity, was to net himself the rarest butterflies of distant countries, to see them in flight with his own eyes, to stand waist-deep in lush grass and feel the follow-through of the swishing net and then the furious throbbing of wings through a clutched fold of the gauze.

Why is he an “Aurelian”?

[Paul] Pilgram belonged, or rather was meant to belong (something—the place, the time, the man—had been ill-chosen), to a special breed of dreamers, such dreamers as used to be called in the old days ‘Aurelians’—perhaps on account of those chrysalids, those ‘jewels of Nature,’ which they loved to find hanging on fences above the dusty nettles of country lanes.

What possible meaning could this have for Credence Barebone, the man Gellert Grindelwald tells us is really ‘Aurelius Dumbledore’? I think we’re meant to think of chrysalis, the transformation of pupa to butterfly here, a completely natural and wonderfully miraculous metamorphosis akin to alchemical magic of lead being changed into gold. Paul Pilgram’s sad fate, though, as well as his name, suggests that Credence’s end will not be majestic if his heart is not right.

Do read the whole thing and let me know what you think. ‘The Aurelian’ is a small jewel from Nabokov, a fellow lepidopterist who found himself essentially trapped in Berlin in 1930, and, given the Russo-American novelist’s outsized influence on Rowling, the short story might be a pointer to Credence-Aurelius’ fate.

7 Reasons Rowling Deserves Nobel Prize (2) CSL’s Poeima: Genre and Influence

Vladimir Nabokov, the writer Rowling says “I really love,” was a native-born Russian and a formalist obviously influenced by Russian formalists. In yesterday’s first point of formalist criticism in explanation of why Rowling merits a Nobel Prize, I shared the formalist distinction of syuzhet and fabula, artistic narrative versus basic story or plot, and its relevance in appreciating Rowling’s ouevre. Nabokov made the same formalist distinction in English about the subject of literary study, syuzhet, with an emphasis on “structure and style” as the beginning and end of a serious reader’s work.

M. H. Abrams wrote that the “focus on the formal patterns and technical devices of literature to the exclusion of its subject matter and social values”  is why the Formalists were labelled as such by their critical opponents (Glossary of Literary Terms, p 107). Nabokov lectured on literature at Cornell University and his talks there as well as the interviews he gave and the books he wrote all speak to his having shared this Formalist view.

He described his course, Literature 311-312, Masters of European Fiction, for example as “among other things, a kind of detective investigation of the mystery of literary structures” (Lectures on Literature, p xxx). He notes as he begins his discussion of Dickens’ Bleak House that form equates to subject matter in the best writing.

What do we mean when we speak of the form of a story? One thing is its structure, which means the development of a given story, why this or that line is followed; the choice of characters, the use that the author makes of his characters; their interplay, their various themes, the thematic lines and their intersection; the various moves of the story introduced by the author to produce this or that direct or indirect effect; the preparation of effects and impressions. In a word, we mean the planned pattern of a work of art. This is structure.

Another aspect of form is style, which means how does the structure work; it means the manner of the author, his mannerisms, various special tricks; and if his style is vivid what kind of imagery, of description, does he use, how does he proceed; and if he uses comparisons, how does he employ and vary the rhetorical devices of metaphor and simile and their combinations. The effect of style is the key to literature, a magic key to Dickens, Gogol, Flaubert, Tolstoy, to all great masters.

Form (structure and style) = Subject Matter: the why and the how = the what. (Lectures, p 113; emphasis added)

A student in Nabokov’s last class at Cornell, John Updike’s wife, remembers his “central dogma” was “Style and structure are the essence of a book; great ideas are hogwash” (Lectures, p xxiii). Our principal pleasure in reading the best fiction, Nabokov declared, is the fruit of our ability in re-reading to “keenly enjoy – passionately enjoy, enjoy with tears and shivers – the inner weave of a given masterpiece” (Lectures, p 4). In our seven point apologia for taking Rowling seriously as a writer we wil be returning again and again to just this focus on the syuzhet “inner weave” of structure and style in its various forms.

Today I want to discuss a point that C. S. Lewis makes in his critical work as formalist about poeima, his Greek equivalent I think for the Russian syuzhet

A work of literary art… both means and is. It is both Logos (something said) and Poeima (something made). As Logos it tells a story, or expresses an emotion, or exhorts or pleads or describes or rebukes or excites laughter. As Poeima, by its aural beauties and also by the balance and contrast and the unified multiplicity of its successive parts, it is an objet d’art, a thing shaped so as to give great satisfaction. (Experiment in Criticism, p 132; cited by Schakel, The Longing for a Form, p xv).

This “shaping” is largely a consequence of Forma or Form, usually capitalized by Lewis, which Schakel defines as “literary ‘kind,’ almost ‘genre’.” Lewis in his Preface to Paradise Lost wrote:

Every poem has two parents — its mother being the mass of experience, thought, and the like, inside the poet, and its father the pre-existing Form (epic, tragedy, the novel, or what not) which he meets in the public world. By studying only the mother, criticism becomes one-sided. It is easy to forget that the man who writes a good love sonnet needs not only to be enamored of a woman, but also to be enamored of the Sonnet (Preface, p 3; cited by Schakel, p xi).

Literary artistry, in other words, is largely an author’s appreciation for and command of the the particular forms of literature, the genre rules, standards, and commonplaces. Rather than restricting the expression of a poet, novelist, or playwright, the form focuses and reveals the inspiration, the materia of any work; the form is the essential complement to the matter of the story.

It would, in my opinion, be the greatest error to suppose that this fertilization of the poet’s internal matter by the pre-existing Form impairs his originality…. Materia appetit forman ut virum femina. The matter insides the poet wants the Form: in submitting to the Form  it becomes really original, really the origin of great work. The attempt to be oneself often brings out not only the more conscious and superficial parts of a man’s mind; working to produce a given kind of poem which will present a given theme as justly, delightedly, and lucidly as possible, he is more likely to bring out all that was really in him, and much of which he himself had no suspicion (Lewis, Preface, p 3; Schakel, p xii).

To understand why Rowling deserves a Nobel Prize, especially from a Formalist’s perspective, necessitates discussion of her relationship with genre and the specific forms of story with which she engages and within which her stories are told. Here are three quick points that demonstrate Rowling’s creative genius and syuzhet with respect to story-types she loves and adapts to her purposes.

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Harry Potter and Lolita: Rowling’s Rings and Vladimir Nabokov’s Story Mirrors (The Alchemy of Narrative Structure)

VVN1I promised in the postHarry Potter and Lolita: J. K. Rowling’s Relationship with Vladimir Nabokovto discuss the structure of Lolita in relationship to Harry Potter’s story scaffolding. I deferred it from that first JKR/VVN post because it was already over-crowded with discussion of names, alchemy, politics, and, most important, parody. As I hope you’ll agree after reading this piece below, the ‘parallelism parallel’ between the two authors is significant, fascinating, and even a revelation of sorts of the alchemical aim of their artistry.

Rowling may have drawn her ring writing artistry from a variety of sources: her training in Classics, reading in Scripture, familiarity with Inkling literature, even a close study of Robert Louis Stevenson or Jules Verne’s popular adventures. Today I will argue that, though these sources are possibilities, the most likely single source of Rowling’s structural wizardy is the work of Vladimir Nabokov.

Nabokov wrote eighteen novels. The only one Rowling has mentioned specifically in interviews is Lolita so today I will confine my discussion to Nabokov’s most famous work. This will involve, of course, discussion of what happens in that story, which is as close as I’m coming to a ‘spoiler alert’ for a book published sixty years ago and considered Western canon for half a century.

CirclesWe’ll test whether Nabokov was a ring writer in five steps derived from the qualities Mary Douglas tells us to look for in a ‘ring composition’: first, the latch of beginning and end, second, a story-turn, third, parallels side to side, fourth, rings inside the rings and other self-referencing, and last, a comparison with Rowling’s story and series structures. That ‘last’ will include my conclusions about why Nabokov worked-in the mirroring he has into Lolita and if Rowling’s meaning is similarly buttressed by her own ring work.

The Latch: Lolita’s Prologue and Part 2, Chapter 36

A look at Lolita’s table of contents reveals that it is made up of a foreword written by psychologist John Ray, Jr., a Part 1 of thirty-three chapters, and a Part 2 of thirty-six chapters, both of which are first person narratives that were written by Humbert Humbert in fifty-six days while awaiting his trial for murder. There is no epilogue or afterword, if every edition published since the early sixties does include Nabokov’s short essay ‘On a Book Called Lolita’ after the novel’s close.

The first tell-tale sign of a traditionally crafted story is how well the beginning and end match up. Lolita’s foreword and chapter 36 have six points of correspondence that latch the story’s circle tightly together at the close. [Read more…]