Caveat: Not only am I going to talk about what happens in Nabokov’s Pale Fire, I’m going to talk about my reactions to it — reactions that you may possibly not have if you read this post first. If you haven’t read Pale Fire, I cannot possibly urge you more strongly to read it before you lose any more time. It’s dazzlingly brilliant, beautiful, witty, original, serious. It blew me right out of the water.
Reading Pale Fire put me in mind of a Calder mobile. It is exquisitely crafted, perfectly balanced, and each piece is dependent on each other piece: if you touch one part, another part will spring away, another toward you. A breath of wind brings something else into your peripheral vision, spinning brightly.
The book begins with a Foreword, written by the odd but charming Charles Kinbote, who has managed — at what personal cost! — to obtain a manuscript of genius: the last poem of John Shade. He tells a good story of his developing friendship with Shade, and the treacheries of the academic community after Shade’s death. What follows is the 999-line poem itself, “Pale Fire,” four cantos of rhymed-couplet autobiography: Shade’s childhood, his daughter Hazel’s suicide, his own musings on death and the afterlife. Frankly, it feels like an interruption. Where’s my story? But I’m a good-natured reader. I get through the poem, not much deterred, and find my way back to Charles Kinbote’s annotations, the Commentary that follows the poem.
And there’s my story! I found it! This is the exciting and sometimes titillating tale of a deposed king, Charles Xavier Vseslav of Zembla, caught, imprisoned, and escaped. (It’s also extremely funny, the way Kinbote intrudes himself and this story on a commentary that’s supposed to be about Shade’s poem.) Fifty pages farther in, and I’m fairly sure I know Kinbote’s secret; a little while more, and I’m pretty sure Shade knew it, too, though to be honest, Shade doesn’t figure very largely in the narrative, except to be bitterly reproached for not having written the poem Kinbote wanted him to write, the epic saga about the Zemblan king.
But wait. How does Kinbote know so much about Gradus, the approaching regicide? And there are some inconsistencies here: I’ve never heard of Zembla. This man isn’t a king. He’s crazy. And so when John Shade is killed (by Gradus? no, surely not) I’m scrambling. Shade was the sane one all along! The Index only confirms it: almost every entry about Shade, John (S) actually has to do with the narcissistic K. It’s all gone, the whole story, and I’m left gasping and laughing.
This work is a masterpiece of cleverness. Structurally, I’ve never read anything quite like it, half poem and half prose. There is dazzling mirror-play: words and names reversed; the name of a colleage at the university re-used, quietly, backward, in a story about Zembla. (I will say that I know I did not catch the half of these references; this will take re- and re-reading.) It shimmers with wit, and the long, slow reveal of the real Charles Kinbote is brilliantly done, the unreliable narrator taken beyond its loveliest, extremest possibility. It is — I don’t want to use the word satire, because that can sometimes be so shallow — it is a commentary on academia, and the obsessive insertion of personalities into texts, but it is also an affirmation of close reading. We never would have read John Shade’s poem so carefully, and more than once, if it were not for Charles Kinbote. It is full of treasures, including some I didn’t find (where are the Crown Jewels?)
But after the dazzling, stupendous flash of all this wit and brilliance and originality, after I closed the book, there was a slow afterimage of deep seriousness. (I was the shadow of the waxwing slain.) To go back to my image of the Calder mobile, there is a point of balance without which the entire work might fall apart, or be only a delicious puzzle, or disappear up its own fundament. In the center of Pale Fire, there is “Pale Fire,” and in the center of “Pale Fire” there is someone we almost forget until the book is over: Hazel Shade, who commits suicide out of sheer unhappiness. “A blurry shape stepped off the reedy bank/ Into a crackling, gulping swamp, and sank.” How could I have forgotten? Well, Nabokov let me forget, with my cooperation, between Charles Kinbote who thought nothing of Hazel’s death, and John Shade who never forgot it. When everything else in the book turns out to be pulled out of a hat, that beauty, and that pity, remain.
I’m still not over this book, with its virtuosity and its creative power. After I finished it, I couldn’t stop thinking about it for days. It’s the best book I’ve read for years. The only other thing I’ve read by Nabokov is Lolita, and that was twenty years ago or more, when I wasn’t the reader I am now. I see humbly that I must begin again.