Saturday, January 07, 2006

Mark Thwaite interviews Peter Davidson

at ReadySteadyBook about his amazing-sounding book The Idea of North, something I think I must get as soon as possible. First they talk about the "real" north--the "sophisticated urbanity which can coexist with remoteness" in the far north of Scotland, say, or Norway--and then Thwaite asks Davidson about Zembla. This is Davidson's answer:

Zembla is an imaginary Scandinavian/Russian kingdom, the obsessionally-detailed fantasy of the delusional narrator of Nabokov's Pale Fire, who believes that he is the ex-King of Zembla, exiled in the United States. Of course the strategy of the novel is that it makes the northern fantasy land much more real, more detailed and more interesting, than the �real� reality of the American college town where the action takes place.

Zembla even has a language: made up, of course, but historically credible as a marginal Scandinavian tongue. I live in a household much given to languages, and we realised that Nabokov has given enough hints in the novel that (a crazy thing for any sane adult to do) you can even guess what the Zemblan word would be for things that aren't mentioned in the novel at all.I was just wondering this morning how many people worldwide who know a bit about the history of language have walked into Nabokov's trap and started inventing more Zemblan, beguiled by the remembered Zembla of the novel which is so concentrated, so persuasive, that it is almost possible to treat it (in however sophisticated a game with words) as real.

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