An Explanation of the Title Zemblan Grammar

The ridiculous title of this blog, Zemblan Grammar, is, of course, a reference to Vladimir Nabokov’s 1962 novel, Pale Fire.  The novel consists of a poem, also entitled “Pale Fire,” by the fictional poet* John Shade and an introduction and line-by-line annotation of the poem by the fictional critic** Charles Kinbote.

[*Please allow me to mention how much joy I get from thinking about the phrase “fictional poet”: a lot.  A fictional poet from poetic fiction!]

[**A fictional critic from critical fiction!]

As readers of the novel know, Kinbote is an erratic, excentric, probably insane character who purports to be the exiled King Charles the Beloved of Zembla (heir to King Alfin the Vague), now living in hiding in the United States.  Both he and Shade are professors at the fictional Wordsmith College in the fictional town of New Wye, Appalachia.  Throughout the novel, the annotations Kinbote makes to Shade’s poem quickly become fixated on his own tale of flight and exile, doing less to illuminate Shade’s manuscript than to spin a dubious narrative web of Kinbote’s own construction.

The common reading of Kinbote, the land of Zembla, and the Zemblan language is that these are all markers of fantasy and untruth — fiction, lies, fabrications, funhouse-like constructions of illusion, and even the delusions of madness. Thus, to propose a grammar of the Zemblan language would be a delusional act of futility, impossibility, and total irrelevance.

Total irrelevance! I could stop there and likely still offer a reasonable description of this blog, but, just for laughs let’s look at a few examples of the Zemblan language that have come to us via Kinbote’s annotations:

First, a Zemblan translation of the opening couplet of Goethe’s “Erlkönig”:

The original German:

Wer reitet so spät durch Nacht und Wind?
Es ist der Vater mit seinem Kind.

And the Zemblan:

Ret woren ok spoz on natt ut vett?
Eto est votchez ut mid ik dett.

The language is mostly a mash-up of Russian, Germanic/Scandinavian, and Anglo Saxon, partly intelligible by cognates and partly just fun wordplay.  A few of my favorite Zemblan words are: crapula (hangover), muderperlwelk (an iridescent cloudlet) and alfear (uncontrollable fear caused by elves).

Nabokov’s joy in linguistic games and experimentation is one of the things that draws me to his writing, but there’s certainly not enough here for me to construct a grammar of the stuff.  (Perhaps a real linguist could get a start, but that’s not really my domain.) The language is, for the purposes of the book, merely a fictional construction with no real significance. It’s a novelistic illusion.

The novel itself, though, is about illusion — so perhaps this warrants a deeper look.  Zembla might easily be conflated with the Russian island of Novaya Zemlya.  Kinbote, however, clarifies its true origin: “The name Zembla is not a corruption of the Russian zemlya, but of Semblerland, a land of reflections, of ‘resemblers’.”  It is a semblance, then.

Likewise, the first stanza of Shade’s poem explores the territory of reality and semblance:

I was the shadow of the waxwing slain
By the false azure in the windowpane;
I was the smudge of ashen fluff — and I
Lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky.
And from the inside, too, I’d duplicate
Myself, my lamp, an apple on a plate:
Uncurtaining the night, I’d let dark glass
Hang all the furniture above the grass,
And how delightful when a fall of snow
Covered my glimpse of lawn and reached up so
As to make a chair and bed exactly stand
Upon that snow, out in that crystal land!

For the bird outside the window, illusion presents a dangerous temptation — the waxwing is slain, after all.  Is it also so for the poet-observer inside? I’ve always found the realm of illusion in Nabokov to be a powerful dimension of artistic generation and regeneration — to return to the excerpt from the poem above, it is the place where the waxwing “live[s] on, [flies] on, in the reflected sky,” party both to the tableau of illusion being described and to the poem’s space of literary production.

While a Zemblan Grammar is no doubt a grammar of illusion and irrelevance or a mapping of the delusions of madness, a more charitable explanation might be that the attempt to plot out the movements of the conjurer is at minimum an attempt to understand those movements, to learn them, to use them. The former explanation comes the closest to what Zemblan Grammar is; the latter is more like a momentary trick of the light.


  1. I haven’t read the book (or any of Nabokov’s works for that matter, I know, I know…) but I’m curious as to why you use “regeneration” rather than “resurrection”? To me, it appears that there’s a religious theme behind that excerpt – in particular it seems to be replete with the ideas of the soul and afterlife. However, I’ve only got about a dozen lines to go by, so it’s hard to establish context.

    Additionally, there’s an abundance of “glass imagery” in there: “windowpane”, “smudge”, “reflected”, “dark glass”, “crystal”. Does this theme run throughout his work?


  2. C – No, thank YOU! Also, you haven’t forgotten — it’s much easier when it is a fun assignment for your blog. Here: I assign you to critically analyze that annoying flier (which you were going to do anyway, so…).

    J – Well, resurrection is almost too religious. Plus, it has that more specific meaning of “bringing back to life something that was dead,” whereas regeneration is more similar to “creating again” or “bringing into being again,” which I think are both closer to what I see overall. Beyond that bird, I mean. And re the glass items, he does use those a lot! He likes images of light, reflection, and refraction, and has some really wonderful comments about prisms, mirrors, windows, and glass spheres in a lot of texts.


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