A Singularly Tasteless Device

I shouldn’t be surprised that no one ever told me there is a character named “Professor Hurley” in Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire. He appears only eight times, and his first name is never given. Plus the book is fiction, so there is no reason to suspect a real person like me, Brian Hurley, could have a connection to Nabokov’s Professor Hurley. In fact the narrator of Pale Fire claims to abhor the idea of turning real people into fictional characters.

The plunging of a real person, no matter how sportive and willing, into an invented milieu where he is made to perform in accordance with the invention, strikes one as a singularly tasteless device. (Pale Fire, p. 236)

Of course this is a notoriously unreliable narrator. If Charles Kinbote—a liar, hypocrite, and lunatic who believes he’s the true king of an imaginary land called Zembla—speaks out against something, you can almost be sure he’s guilty of it. Throughout Pale Fire he makes bold accusations and offers only flimsy apologies when his lies are exposed.

I wish I had read Pale Fire sooner. I might have recognized the setting: Wordsworth University in New Wye, Appalachia, USA. Of course the university, the town, and the state are fictional. But Nabokov leaves plenty of clues about their precise location. When Gradus leaves New York City to assassinate the Zemblan king, the only available train

left at 5:13 am, dawdled at flag stations, and took eleven hours to cover the four hundred miles. (PF, p. 277)

Later, the police determine that Gradus

had been given a lift, all the way from Roanoke. (PF, p. 284)

If you travel 409 miles from New York City to the Appalachians, you end up 55 miles outside of Roanoke in Lexington, VA. That’s where Washington and Lee University is located. I know this because my grandfather was a professor of American Studies there from 1957 to 1966. His name was Earl Hurley.

Here is a photo of Earl Hurley in 1965. Pale Fire was published in 1962. This is the closest photo I could find. Earl is pictured in Minnesota, where his brother Terry lived.

Professor Hurley in Pale Fire is Charles Kinbote’s main rival in the quest to secure a posthumous manuscript by the famed (fictional) poet John Shade. Kinbote takes a dim view of “Prof. Hurley and his clique” (PF, p. 14). He claims to be surprised when John Shade’s widow

suddenly shot me a wire, requesting me to accept Prof. H. (!) and Prof. C. (!) as co-editors of her husband’s poem. (PF, p. 18)

But any discerning reader can see that Professor Hurley is the rightful literary executor.

With commendable alacrity, Professor Hurley produced an Appreciation of John Shade’s published works within a month after the poet’s death. It came out in a skimpy literary review, whose name momentarily escapes me. (PF, p. 100)

The “skimpy literary review” that Kinbote describes may be The Paris Review, to which my grandfather contributed a few pieces of criticism. It’s convenient that Kinbote forgets the name of such a prestigious publication.

Professor Hurley does more than provide a foil for the antihero of Pale Fire. He also provides a home. Kinbote refers to the Hurleys when he writes

the Shades had rented a little ranch some friends of theirs, who were going elsewhere, had at Cedarn in Utana on the Idoming border. (PF, p. 182)

Kinbote, the weasel, contrives to rent a cabin nearby so he can continue to stalk John Shade while he’s staying with the Hurleys. Of course there is no such place as Cedarn, Utana, or Idoming. But there is a place called Teton, Idaho, on the Wyoming border. I know this because my family owns some property there.

Here is a photo of our family reunion at the cabin in Teton in 2010. That’s me near the center, resting my chin on a fist.

Kinbote goes back to his cabin near the Hurleys’ ranch to write his commentary on John Shade’s poem. He doesn’t seem to enjoy the landscape.

The mountain slope is dry and drear, and the Hurleys’ tumble-down ranch, lifeless. (PF, p. 183)

This is bullshit, of course. Idaho near the Wyoming border is beautiful. Here’s a photo of me, talking on a cell phone, in Grand Teton National Park. Our property is just over those mountains.

If I had read Pale Fire before going, I might have avoided that silly hat, which strikes me as being far too similar to the ridiculous “Tirolese garb” (PF, p. 183) that Kinbote wears when he tracks down John Shade in Cedarn.

A final reference to Professor Hurley in Pale Fire mentions

a big Summer School party at the Hurleys’, to which one of my ping-pong table partners, a pal of the Hurley boys, had taken me. (PF, p. 237)

Now there can be no doubt. Earl Hurley had three sons (including my father Tom) who were called the Hurley boys. They were infamous in Lexington for their roughhousing ways. Nabokov would have met them in 1951, when he traveled from Cornell, where he was teaching, to Washington and Lee on a lecture tour. There has never been any mention of Nabokov in my family.

I wish someone had told me there was a fictional Professor Hurley in Pale Fire because Nabokov’s son, Dimitri, died last week. Dimitri was Vladimir’s literary executor. I could have written to him, asking about the Appalachian college and the cabin in the Tetons and how to safeguard your family from collapsing into fiction.

– Brian Hurley


Filed under Hooray Fiction!

2 Responses to A Singularly Tasteless Device

  1. Brian Hurley

    Page numbers refer to the 1989 Vintage edition of Pale Fire. None of the family stuff is true, though.

  2. Pingback: Fiction Advocate: “Nabokov Stole my Grandpa to Make Pale Fire” « TRADE PAPERBACKS

Leave a Reply