Portrait of Samuel Johnson
Portrait of Samuel Johnson

Samuel Johnson and Vladimir Nabokov seem diametrically opposed. The quintessential Englishman, the epitome of the eighteenth-century “Age of Johnson,” favored lofty abstractions, moralistic content and elaborate Latinate style. Modern readers often assume that his works are impenetrable: his criticism misguided, his poetry prosaic, his essays didactic. Nabokov, by contrast, is the embodiment of the witty, urbane, and cosmopolitan modern writer. An uprooted victim of violent revolution, a scientist and scholar, he wandered across two continents and wrote, in two languages, subtly sophisticated, exquisitely stylish, and teasingly elusive books. Yet Nabokov perceived the greatness of and was strangely drawn to Johnson, whose appearance, character, and writings profoundly influenced the creation of his tragi-comic masterpiece, Pale Fire (1962). Nabokov’s cunningly covert allusions to Johnson provide an intellectual context for John Shade’s life and art, make the vague outlines of his character more vivid and distinct, and add depths of interest and meaning to the novel.

The epigraph from James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson (incorrectly cited by his narrator, the pedantic Charles Kinbote, as the Life of Dr. Johnson) immediately alerts readers to Johnson’s monumental presence in the novel. The epigraph relates how Johnson told his friend Bennet Langton, whom Johnson first met when the tall, scholarly young man was an undergraduate at Oxford, that a crazy gentleman had been shooting cats: “then in a sort of kindly reverie, he bethought himself of his own favourite cat and said, ‘But Hodge shan’t be shot; no, no, Hodge shall not be shot.’” Johnson fed his beloved cat with oysters that he personally fetched from the fishmonger.

Nabokov is the embodiment of the witty, urbane, and cosmopolitan modern writer.

Hodge inspired the appearance of two cats in Pale Fire. A black cat comes with Kinbote’s rented house but Kinbote, unlike Johnson, reveals his defective character by neither loving it nor maintaining its proper diet: “it was a likable little creature but after a while its movements began to grate on my nerves and I farmed it out to … the cleaning woman.” When the depressive Kinbote considers committing suicide by gently rolling off a roof top, he notes that “a cat may be trusted to flash out of the way” and shan’t be hurt. Jakob Gradus, who accidentally murders Shade, is, like the shooter of cats in the epigraph, both mad and violent. But Kinbote, a hodge-podge of confused identities, shall not be shot.

Gradus is named after a once-famous book. The Gradus ad Parnassum (steps to the Muses), a dictionary of prosody and poetical phrases used in English schools to teach Latin versification, suggests not only the Latin poets who were widely translated in the eighteenth century and inspired a great deal of Augustan verse, but also the carefully planned steps that lead Gradus to kill the poet Shade. Though Shade’s murder was no doubt inspired by the assassination of Nabokov’s father, which also took place on July 21, it would remind most readers of the more famous assassination of Leon Trotsky by a Stalinist agent, who pursued him to Mexico City, on August 20, 1940.

John Shade is the son of Samuel; Samuel Johnson’s name suggests that he’s the son of John. Shade’s middle name, Francis, was the name of Johnson’s black servant, Francis Barber, a freed Jamaican slave. Johnson educated Francis, or Frank, the name of Kinbote’s publisher. Johnson also paid for Barber’s apprenticeship and, after he’d run away to sea, secured his release with the help of Tobias Smollett. Francis, who married and had a son named Samuel, was the main beneficiary of Johnson’s will.

Shade, describing his own physical appearance, tells Kinbote, “I have been said to resemble … Samuel Johnson.” Both Johnson and Shade are physically unattractive and plagued by chronic illness. Johnson had a series of debilitating diseases: asthma, scrofula, convulsions, palsy, dropsy and gout. The unhealthy Shade calls himself “asthmatic, lame and fat.” Kinbote, referring to Johnson’s slightly older contemporary, the satiric artist William Hogarth, and to Shade’s secret drinking habit, emphasizes the Johnsonian contrast between his decaying body and brilliant intellect. Kinbote calls Shade “a fleshy Hogarthian tippler” and describes “his misshapen body, that gray mop of abundant hair, the yellow nails of his pudgy fingers, the bags under his lusterless eyes.”

“I can’t drink a little, child, therefore I never touch it. Abstinence is as easy to me, as temperance would be difficult.”

Anatomizing Johnson’s repulsive physical defects, Boswell noted that the scars from the abscesses of his infantile scrofula (tuberculosis of the cervical lymph nodes) were “deeply visible” and that he “often had, seemingly, convulsive starts and odd gesticulations, which tended to excite at once surprize and ridicule.” Fanny Burney, another intimate friend and close observer, recorded the rolling and twitching motions from what has recently been diagnosed as Tourette’s Syndrome: “He has almost perpetual convulsive movements, either in his hands, lips, feet or knees, and sometimes all together.” At first sight, Hogarth thought Johnson was actually an idiot. Shade, aged sixty-one and not as far gone as Johnson, has a disheveled “jerky shuffle” as well as “a wobbly heart, a slight limp, and a certain curious contortion in his method of progress.”

Despite these formidable disabilities Shade, like Johnson, has “an inordinate liking for long walks.” When Johnson’s young friends Bennet Langton and Topham Beauclerk knocked on his door at three in the morning to “see if they could prevail on him to join them in a ramble,” Johnson—who later strolled through Scotland with Boswell—eagerly agreed: “What, is it you, you dogs! I’ll have a frisk with you.” In a similar fashion, Shade enthusiastically tells Kinbote, “Let’s go for a good ramble tonight.” Variations of Johnson’s Rambler, the title of his most impressive moral essays, echo through the novel. Kinbote comes from a northern country called Zembla, a near anagram and near homonym for the Rambler. In the 1950s Nash Motors made a Rambler car, and Kinbote twice mentions that he has a “powerful Kramler.”

The characters of Johnson and Shade also have striking similarities. Both men married young and adored their wives. Johnson described his bitter years as a Grub Street hack in the Life of Savage (1744) and Shade alludes to Johnson—Kinbote’s notes also need annotation—when he writes of “the prosemongers of the Grubby Group.” Both men have (or have had) drinking problems. Boswell suppressed an account of Johnson’s all-night drinking bout with Cornelius Ford in Birmingham. Johnson told the Bluestocking Hannah More: “I can’t drink a little, child, therefore I never touch it. Abstinence is as easy to me, as temperance would be difficult.” His insatiable appetite for tea—as many as sixteen cups at a sitting, consumed till four in the morning—failed to compensate for the loss of alcoholic conviviality.

Shade’s surreptitious drinking is a recurrent leitmotif in the novel. On the day they first met, Kinbote writes, “I saw the old chap pop into a liquor store… . A comfortable burp told me he had a flask of brandy concealed about his warmly coated person.” When Sybil Shade invites Kinbote to their house, she explains: “Have a drink with us … or rather with me, because John is forbidden to touch alcohol.” But Shade cunningly evades this prohibition. As Kinbote spies on him with binoculars, he sees Shade take a “bright goblet of liquor” from a filing cabinet, drink to stimulate himself at his lectern and then hide the telltale bottle behind Dante’s bust on the bookshelf. Ignoring Sybil’s caveat, Kinbote dangerously tempts Shade, who’s recovering from a heart attack, with libations of Tokay. The poet, escaping from the vigilance of his wife, all-too-eagerly accepts. “Well did I know,” Kinbote confesses, “he could never resist a golden drop of this or that, especially since he is severely rationed at home.”

Shade’s daughter Hazel’s obsessive investigation of poltergeists corresponds to Johnson’s sometimes credulous investigations of supernatural phenomena: premonitory voices and the fraudulent Cock-Lane Ghost. Johnson and Shade have the same impressive intellect, prismatic conversation, and gruff “dignity of the heart.” Most importantly Shade, like Johnson, is an unusually kind man who has deep sympathy for the poor, the unfortunate, and the outcast. Miserable people always had a claim on Johnson’s compassion: his pathetic household dependents and black servant as well as beggars, whores, slaves, hunted animals, homeless children, French prisoners of war, jailed debtors, and condemned convicts. Most of Johnson’s contemporaries felt more abhorrence than tenderness for the starving masses, but he believed that “a decent provision for the poor is the true test of civilization.” His own early poverty made him identify with the oppressed and inspired a lifelong effort to alleviate their sufferings. Boswell reported that he placed pennies in the hands of children sleeping in the streets and “frequently gave all the silver in his pocket to the poor.” When asked why he gave charity to beggars, he said that it enabled them to survive and continue to beg. Kinbote mentions that Shade was always “very kind to the unsuccessful” and that the core of his ethics was the concept of “pity.” Though Nabokov does not give specific examples, he uses Johnson’s humanity to give weight to Shade’s compassion.

Shade’s saturnine temperament also derives from Johnson. Explaining the essence of his character, Johnson told Boswell that he had inherited “a vile melancholy” from his father, “which made him mad all his life, at least not sober.” His chronic depression was closely connected to his religious beliefs and to the obbligato of sadness that echoes through his works. He concentrated intently on the Four Last Things—Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell—and was terrified of death and damnation. When a friend innocently asked what he meant by “damned,” Johnson replied, with frightening directness: “Sent to Hell, Sir, and punished everlastingly!”

When composing his poetry, Shade seems “more forlorn than pensive.” In his “Pale Fire,” Shade—whose name is an anagram for Hades, the abode of the dead—wants to know “for sure what dawn, what death, what doom/ Awaited consciousness beyond the tomb.” In that poem he “surveyed” (a word borrowed from the second line of Johnson’s major poem, “The Vanity of Human Wishes”) “death’s abyss” and—more sceptical yet more positive than Johnson—concludes his third canto by affirming: “I have returned convinced that I can grope/ My way to some— to some—‘Yes, dear?’ Faint hope.” The Nabokov scholar Brian Boyd noted that Nabokov, like Shade, “dedicated his art and his life to exploring and fighting death’s abyss.”

Nabokov borrowed from Johnson when describing how Shade wrote poetry with unusual speed. Speaking of “The Vanity of Human Wishes,” Boswell exclaimed that “the fervid rapidity with which it was produced, is scarcely credible. I have heard him say, that he composed seventy lines of it in one day, without putting one of them upon paper till they were finished” in his mind. Shade, in a similar feat, wrote, with shrewd Johnsonian wit and common sense, 230 lines of Canto Two in less than twenty-four hours. Shade also writes in heroic couplets and likes parody. Johnson parodied Bishop Thomas Percy’s Hermit of Warkworth by writing: “I put my hat upon my head/ And walk’d into the Strand/ And there I met another man/ Whose hat was in his hand.” Shade confesses, “I have a certain liking, I admit,/ For Parody, that last resort of wit.”

When Johnson published “London” anonymously in 1738, Alexander Pope, the leading poet of the time, famously predicted that the author “will soon be déterré” (discovered). Johnson’s Pope was the last and best of The Lives of the Poets (1781). Shade has also written a book on Pope whose title, Supremely Blest, comes from the “Essay on Man.” In that poem, Pope ironically compares the transmutations of an alchemist and a poet: “The starving chemist in his golden views/ Supremely blest, the poet in his Muse” (II.270). Kinbote explains that Shade’s “book is concerned mainly with Pope’s technique but also contains pithy ‘observations’ [another word from the first line of Johnson’s “Vanity”] on ‘the stylized morals of his age.’” In this poem Pope refers to Boswell’s country and to what Kinbote calls his “distant northern land”: “In Scotland, at the Orcades; and there,/ At Greenland, Zembla, or the Lord knows where” (II.224). Shade’s poem is filled with echoes of Pope. In line 831, for example, the intimate command, “‘Darling, shut the door,’” alludes to the colloquial injunction in the first line of the “Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot” (1735): “Shut, shut the door, good John! fatigued, I said.”

Shade confirms his descent from the Augustans, who loved to inhale powdered tobacco, by asserting, “Personally, I am with the old snuff-takers.” When he seeks relief from the intense pressures of poetic composition and entertains some academic guests, he considers the evening “devoted to what his favorite eighteenth-century writers have termed ‘the Bustle and Vanity of the World.’”

There are several subtle allusions, apart from references to the Rambler, to Johnson’s works. Johnson, almost single-handedly, published the first important Dictionary of the English Language in 1755. Shade, equally devoted to dictionaries, “kept a Bible-like Webster open at M.” That letter, halfway through the alphabet and conveniently dividing the two open halves of a massive tome, is also the Roman numeral for the final, unwritten line of his poem. Like the last sentence of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, the last line of Pale Fire circles back and connects to the first line: “slain” rhymes with “lane.”

Kinbote, using several multilingual puns, alludes to the Happy Valley in Rasselas (1759). He rejects the invitation of a ferocious clubwoman and refuses “to speak on the subject of ‘The Hally Vally’ (as she put it, confusing Odin’s Hall [Valhalla] with the title of a Finnish epic [Kalevala].” In one of the most savage couplets in “Vanity,” Johnson foreshadowed Shade by alluding to the fact that Jonathan Swift went mad at the end of his life. Swift’s mercenary servants then exhibited him, drooling like an idiot, to the gaping public: “From Marlb’rough’s Eyes the Streams of Dotage flow,/ And Swift expires a Driv’ler and a Show.”

Johnson inspired many aspects of Shade’s life and gave depth to his art.

In one of his finest variant lines Shade, echoing Johnson, mentions writers who sank into senile imbecility before reaching the “Strange Other World”: “And minds that died before arriving there:/ Poor old man Swift, poor - - - - -, poor Baudelaire.” Kinbote wonders what the dash might stand for, but doesn’t suggest any possibilities. Nabokov challenges the curious reader to complete the line. Three mad poets with monosyllabic surnames were born between Swift and Baudelaire. Smart (Johnson’s friend) alliterates with Swift; Clare provides an internal rhyme with Baudelaire. Kleist would add a German to the Englishman and Frenchman, and suggest the suffering of Christ.

Just as Johnson inspired many aspects of Shade’s life and gave depth to his art, so the figure of Boswell influenced the character of Kinbote—a pale flickering imitation of Shade’s incandescent flame. Indeed, Kinbote makes the comparison explicit. Kinbote, like Boswell, is a strenuous stenographer. In his black pocketbook he jots down “among various extracts that had happened to please me (a footnote from Boswell’s Life of Dr. Johnson [sic]) … [and] a few samples of John Shade’s conversation.” Like Boswell, Kinbote identifies with his subject and gets “accustomed to another life’s running alongside” and often colliding with his own. Boswell was thirty-one years younger than Johnson, Kinbote seventeen years younger than Shade, and both have possessively filial feelings toward their heroes and alter-egos. Boswell was an insatiable fornicator, Kinbote is a secret pederast. Boswell’s psychopathology included obsessive gambling, drinking, priapism, and voyeuristic attendance at public executions. Kinbote is a classic case history of pathological monomania, delusions, and paranoia.

Like Boswell, Kinbote questions, pursues and even spies on his subject, vividly remembering and precisely recording Shade’s conversations. Boswell deliberately drew Johnson’s fire in order to create memorable scenes and hounded him with probing questions. Provoked by these irritating inquiries, Johnson exploded with: “I will not be put to the question. Don’t you consider, Sir, that these are not the manners of a gentleman? I will not be baited with what, and why; what is this? what is that? why is a cow’s tail long? why is a fox’s tail bushy? … You have but two topicks, yourself and me. I am sick of both.” Kinbote actually bursts into the room while Shade is shaving in his bath. Boswell managed to lure Johnson to his native Scotland and both wrote books about their journey. Kinbote draws Shade’s attention to his native country and supplies him with a lot of material about Zembla, which Shade firmly rejects.

When thinking of Johnson, Boswell felt a contagion of desire. Kinbote, ineluctably drawn to Shade “under the incubus of curiosity,” drenches “every nerve … in the romance of his presence.” Sybil Shade, far less tolerant than her husband of his aggressive intrusions, calls Kimbote “the monstrous parasite of a genius.” Boswell was intensely jealous of Johnson’s friends and consistently denigrated his rival biographers: Sir John Hawkins, Fanny Burney and especially Hester Thrale. Kinbote is jealous of Sybil and goes berserk at the very thought of the academic intrigues of Professor Hurley’s despicable little clique. He is furious that their vindictive and grossly misleading obituary does not contain “one reference to the glorious friendship that brightened the last months of John’s life.”

Pale Fire reveals how profoundly Nabokov identified with the character of Samuel Johnson.

Boswell shared Johnson’s vile melancholy, chronic depression, and deep-rooted guilt. When he confessed his agonies, Johnson felt threatened and warned him to “make it an invariable and obligatory law to yourself, never to mention your own mental diseases.” Kinbote, in a lucid moment, describes himself as “a desponder in my nature, an uneasy, peevish, and suspicious man.” Like Boswell and Johnson (who often quoted Richard Burton’s “be not solitary, be not idle”), Kinbote can’t bear solitude and laments “the depths of [his] loneliness and distress.”

Pale Fire reveals how profoundly Nabokov identified with the character of Samuel Johnson. Thinking of Johnson’s lifelong struggles to overcome degrading poverty, physical disease, and mental torment, Thomas Carlyle praised his personal heroism and exclaimed: “Shall we not say, of this great mournful Johnson, that he guided his difficult confused existence wisely; led it well, like a right-valiant man?” Brian Boyd’s summation of the essential character of Nabokov clarifies the striking parallels—“crystal on crystal”—between Johnson and Shade’s creator: “For Nabokov, the ability to show ‘staunch kindness’ to others in the midst of one’s own private agony is the highest of ethical principles.”

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 24 Number 9, on page 31
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