"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

April 23, 2012

"Pale Fire" (1962) by Nabokov (Book review)

Academic publications usually boast a foreword, notes and an index, trappings that are a publisher's nightmare when publications are meant for a wider public. So it is all the more admirable that Vladimir Nabokov published a novel (in 1962, in the U.S.) that consisted not only of these three elements, but also included a 999-line poem. In fact, the poem could even stand on its own as a musing on nature and mortality. But the foreword, notes and index give it real interest, for it is in these that a suspenseful novel is hidden.

Foreword, notes and index are purportedly written by a man who calls himself Charles Kinbote, a recent immigrant and lecturer at a northeastern American university. He tells about his brief friendship with his neighbor, John Shade, a colleague at the same university and above all, a poet. Shade was murdered just as he had almost finished the present poem (an autobiographical work in four canto's) and Kinbote has absconded with this final opus, to make it fit for publication. The poem, called "Pale Fire," was written in manuscript on a series of index cards (as Nabokov himself used to write his novels), and follows after the foreword.

As soon as we read the commentary, we notice that it is not a true commentary on difficult passages in the poem at all. The German word "hineininterpretieren" comes to mind: the commentator forces an interpretation on the reader, which clearly has no relation with the poem. That interpretation is the story of Charles the Beloved, the last King of Zembla who has been dethroned by a revolution and fled his palace and country with grave danger for his own life. Commentator Kinbote wants us to believe that that story is "hidden" in the poem (and especially in the discarded lines he quotes now and then). Already early on, we also get the idea that the heavily bearded Kinbote himself is in fact that King in disguise, now seeking a safe haven in the U.S. He desperately wanted the great poet John Shade to make his life story known to the world. John Shade politely listened to Kinbote's stories, but never used them, and his wife Sibyl positively disliked the immigrant who always seemed to be stalking them.

Another grave thing becomes clear in the notes: a killer called Gradus has been sent by the new regime to murder Charles the Beloved. He is coming gradually closer and closer to the campus. But Gradus is a blundering idiot and in the finale, which is both comical and tragic, he shoots the wrong man, the poet. Kinbote flees to a cheap motel in the American West where he madly scribbles his annotations, trying to prove that the poem is after all about himself, the former King of Zembla.

The book contains many layers as is usual with Nabokov. For example, there is a strong hint that the murderer Gradus is in reality one Jack Grey, a madman escaped from a nearby asylum. Charles Kinbote himself may also be a delusional madman - there is a hint in the index that he is Botkin, an American scholar of Russian descent. In other words, he may have fabricated the story about operetta-land Zembla. And so on...

One thing is certain: Pale Fire is a satire on literary criticism - all too often literary critics interpret things into novels that the author has never consciously thought about. In a way, that has also happened with Pale Fire (the subject of more than 80 academic articles and studies), only look at the fierce discussion that various critics have had about the narrator of Pale Fire: do both Shade and Kinbote exist in the world of the novel, or has Shade dreamed up his own commentator - perhaps even from beyond the grave? Or is it the other way round, and is Kinbote (Botkin) a madman who is entertaining us with his lunatic fantasies?

(In my view, such surmises goes too far. After all, it is Nabokov who has created both Shade and Kinbote/Botkin, and therefore they both exist in the world of the novel. There are also clear echoes from Nabokov's own life as a refugee from the Soviets, and immigrant in the U.S. who taught for many years Russian at small colleges; and above all, Nabokov's father was also murdered by mistake - when trying to shield a liberal politician from a far-right Russian activist).

But then again, there is nothing wrong with this game and Nabokov has on purpose hidden what he called "plums" in the novel to tease the critics. Pale Fire is a masterwork that cries out to be read many times over.

Some notes of my own:
  • The title "Pale Fire" is based on Shakespeare (Timon of Athens): "The moon's an arrant thief, and her pale fire she snatches from the sun." This line is usually read as a metaphor for creativity and inspiration. But on a lower level, Kinbote is the thief who has stolen Shade's poem and uses it for his own purposes. 
  • Note the mirrors and shadows in the poem, present from the start: "I was the shadow of the waxwing slain / in the bright azure of the window pane." 
  • It is possible to read Pale Fire in a linear manner, but you can also each time jump to the commentary when reading the poem. It is a novel crying out for a hyperlink treatment!
  • Geographical names in the book are mostly fictional, not only the obvious Zembla (a small country subservient to the Soviet Union, so perhaps one of the Baltic countries), but also in the U.S., like the university town New Wye where Shade and Kinbote live and work.
  • Shade's poem is autobiographical. Canto 1 includes his early encounters with death; Canto 2 is about his family and the suicide of his daughter; Canto 3 focuses on Shade's musings on the afterlife, culminating in a "faint hope" in higher powers; Canto 4 concentrates on the creative process - Shade sees poetry as a means of understanding the universe.
  • Kinbote tells three stories in his foreword/notes: (1) that of his interactions with his neighbor Shade in New Wye, (2) that of Charles the Beloved, the deposed King of Zembla (himself), and (3) that about the assassin Gradus.
  • The adventure of the escape of the King of Zembla owes a small debt to The Prisoner of Zenda.
  • The poem "Pale Fire" is the best poem ever written by a fictional author.
Review by Mary McCarthy, one of the earliest and deepest ones. Criticism at Zembla, the web site of the International Vladimir Nabokov Society. Contains a time line of Pale Fire and many essays, also on other works by Nabokov.