Nobody does a madman like Vladimir Nabokov. In Lolita, in Laughter in the Dark (reviewed here), and certainly in Pale Fire, Nabokov revels in the voices of those who inhabit a space where reality blurs: voices that are by turns disconcerting, obnoxious, hilarious, provocative, and altogether intoxicating.
Pale Fire, which Nabokov published in English in 1962, is set up like a work of literary criticism: the poet John Shade has met an abrupt and bloody death, and the 999-line title poem is his last work. Charles Kinbote is his bookish admirer who sublet the home next door to Shade in New Wye, a college town in Appalachia. It is Kinbote whose voice overlays Pale Fire: he writes a Forward, a Commentary of eyebrow-raising length, and an Index to accompany the publication of Shade's final poem, which is written in four cantos. We increasingly understand that he has also made changes to the poem itself, which Shade wrote as an autobiographical piece, despite Kinbote's hopes that he would have written something quite different; Kinbote has, we see, elbowed his way into being a main character in both "Pale Fire" and Pale Fire.
These final lines from the Forward seem to articulate the idea that the novel hinges on (emphasis is mine):
Let me state that without my notes Shade's text simply has no human reality at all since the human reality of such a poem as his (being to skittish and reticent for an autobiographical work), with the omission of many pithy lines carelessly rejected by him, has to depend entirely on the reality of its author and his surroundings, attachments and so forth, a reality that only my notes can provide. To this statement my dear poet would probably not have subscribed but, for better or worse, it is the commentator who has the last word.
Oct. 19, 1959, Cedarn, Utana
While Kinbote does not realize it, the Shakespearean reference of the title of both the poem and novel reveals the dubiousness of his over-taking. The phrase comes from the play Timon of Athens: "The moon's an arrant thief, / And her pale fire she snatches from the sun" (Act IV, scene 3). It is a wonderful Nabokovian wordplay to make the character named "Shade" the sun in this adapted metaphor.
What a strange man Kinbote is! He is a gay bearded vegetarian who has found himself as an ex-pat in middle America, where he endures insufferable academic colleagues, makes permanent changes to the house he is staying in for a few months, solicits the gardener, and regularly pulls his binoculars on the Shades to better spy on them.
In a deft and subtle unfolding, Nabokov allows us to see that a man who might at first seem merely eccentric actually is quite deranged. (I should note that I bristled a bit at characterization: I wondered if Nabokov made Kinbote a gay man and a vegetarian as a way to underscore him as being insane or "perverse," which is irritating to say the least.) At the same time, Nabokov keeps us unsettled enough to be unable to dismiss entirely Kinbote's understanding of reality. From his telling, Kimbote is the last king of Zembla, "a distant Northern land," also known as Charles Xavier (yeah, I thought of X-Men too), or King Charles the Beloved. He is in exile, and the Zemblan man who kills Shade actually intended to assassinate him.
A great deal of this appears to be nonsense: and yet, in the reality of the novel, it is difficult to be sure of anything. It is unclear that the land of Zembla does not, in fact, exist. Perhaps it does indeed? The sheer preponderance of detail about Zembla that Kinbote lays on, including Zemblan language, history, and customs, makes us question if perhaps there isn't more truth than it might seem. Maybe... Or perhaps Zembla is a pseudonym for another country? There is a clue in the reference to Zembla in Alexander Pope's "An Essay On Man", which Kinbote explicitly cites:
In the end, I think Nabokov is at play with the idea of "farther gone" in his rendering of Kinbote, conflating physical distance (real and imagined, cultivated and accidental) with the "place" of reality to illustrate the relativity, or inexactness, of both notions: a particularly potent idea for the story of a poet who uses an old-school literary form to relay his biography; and for the literary enthusiast who wishes his own "truth" to be told through the artful (and I mean "artful" in both its meanings) form of poetry.
... there is actually a Nova Zembla, a group of islands in the Arctic Ocean, north of Archangel. The name is derived from the Russian Novaya Zemlya, which means 'new land.' Or terre neuve, Newfoundland, New World. Therefore Appalachia = Zembla.
I'd argue that the alphabetical symmetry (A-Z) is further evidence that this is what Nabokov had in mind. And in a totally speculated aside, I wonder if Kinbote's endless reflections on the landscape and culture of this north country didn't at all parallel Nabokov's own daydreaming as he composed this book: not all that long before Pale Fire was published, Nabokov left America for Bern, Switzerland, where he lived until the end of his life in 1977.
The engine of the novel, the sheer genius of it, is how Nabokov builds suspense in this unconventional, non-linear form, where the narration takes place after the gun has been shot. Most of this is built through our curiosity about what, exactly, happened; our search for how much Kinbote has overlayed his reality on the reality that Shade intended as an autobiographical poem (written, incidentally, in iambic pentameter and heroic couplets by an author who is working in his third language). But it also happens in quiet ways: an extended endnote will parenthetically note an upcoming -- "(for example, the weak lines 627-630)" -- which keeps the reader looking forward, quite literally.
Nabokov's deadpan humor also keeps the reader moving. Academia, literary self-importance, seduction, the art of literature, authorship: these are all sent up with scathing wit. Kinbote's snide little asides that condemn Sybil Shade, John's wife, in panderingly civilized language had me laughing out loud. As well, Nabokov makes little insider nods along the way that crack a smile in the reader: a reference to the real-life Hurricane Lolita, for example, and mentions of Professor Pnin.
I'd like to close this meandering meditation on a brilliant book (albeit, a gimmicky one) with more from Mary McCarthy. She goes at length in delineating Nabokov's use of twinning and mirroring in Pale Fire, so I feel it is well-suited to share the opening and closing of her review.
Pale Fire is a Jack-in-the-box, a Faberge gem, a clockwork toy, a chess problem, an infernal machine, a trap to catch reviewers, a cat-and-mouse game, a do-it-yourself novel. It consists of a 999-line poem of four cantos in heroic couplets together with an editor's preface, notes, index, and proof-corrections. When the separate parts are assembled, according to the manufacturer's directions, and fitted together with the help of clues and cross-references, which must be hunted down as in a paper-chase, a novel on several levels is revealed, and these "levels" are not the customary "levels of meaning" of modernist criticism but planes in a fictive space, rather like those houses of memory in medieval mnemonic science, where words, facts, and numbers were stored till wanted in various rooms and attics, or like the Houses of astrology into which the heavens are divided.
In any case, this centaur-work of Nabokov's, half-poem, half-prose, this merman of the deep, is a creation of perfect beauty, symmetry, strangeness, originality, and moral truth. (Anna's aside: would any book reviewer risk citing 'moral truth' nowadays?) Pretending to be a curio, it cannot disguise the fact that is one of the very great works of art of this century, the modern novel that everyone thought dead and that was only playing possum.