Pale Fire

Pale FireAt the end of his introduction to John Shade’s poem “Pale Fire,” Charles Kinbote advises readers to read his commentary on the poem before reading the poem itself, and then to consult the commentary while reading the poem, and then to reread the commentary after finishing the poem.

Let me state that without my notes Shade’s text simply has no human reality at all since the human reality of a poem such as his (being too 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.

Sensing that Kinbote was not to be trusted, I went ahead and read Shade’s 999-line poem without Kinbote’s assistance. It’s a nice enough poem, sometimes sad and sometimes lovely. Kinbote’s notes, however give it an entirely new life as Kinbote uses the poem as a launching pad for his own stories, one in which he and John Shade are close friends and another in which a dethroned king of a nation called Zembla escapes from prison and is pursued by an assassin.

Kinbote and Shade are in reality characters created by Vladimir Nabokov for his 1962 novel Pale Fire. The book comprises Kinbote’s introduction, Shade’s four cantos of poetry, Kinbote’s extensive and rambling commentary, and an index in which Kinbote’s own entry fills more than two pages and Shade’s barely more than one page.

At first, reading Kinbote’s commentary is a little like reading an extremely far-fetched close reading. The words gradual and gray bring to Kinbote’s mind a man named Jakob Gradus, or James de Gray. Kinbote acknowledges that Shade knew nothing of Gradus when he wrote his poem, but that doesn’t stop Kinbote from sharing a brief biography of the man and details on his movements throughout the commentary. As a reader, Kinbote sees what he wants to see. He tells us that he urged Shade to write about his beloved homeland, Zembla, and even though Shade’s domestic and autobiographical poem mentions Zembla only once, in passing, Kinbote looks for hints of it everywhere. His readings are obviously strained and implausible, but I had to chuckle at how easy it can be to fall into Kinbote’s way of thinking. We bring to literature our own perspectives and often see what we want to see in the books we pick up.

Gradually, however, Kinbote’s quirky readings start to feel sinister. He writes in the introduction that Shade scholars didn’t want him to edit the poem and taunts them for their misunderstandings of Shade’s work. Is this just scholarly infighting, or is there more going on? As Kinbote writes of his friendship with Shade in the commentary, that friendship with Shade seems more and more one-sided, with Kinbote’s expectations appearing much too high for a relationship that may be little more than neighborly and collegial cordiality. So why is he editing this poem?

Despite his declaration in the foreword that Shade’s poem needs his commentary, Kinbote’s story would have no venue for existence if Kinbote didn’t have Shade’s poem to build on. Kinbote needs Shade. Perhaps Kinbote believed that Shade was writing about Zembla and is trying to make the poem fit his desired interpretation—the interpretation that must be true if his friendship with Shade is true. Nabokov keeps you on your toes about the connection between the two men and their writing, to the point where you start to forget what is real. Kinbote’s story imbues Shade’s fate with meaning that it wouldn’t otherwise have. His story is the one you want to believe, even if you can’t.

Pale Fire is a dizzying accomplishment, with all the components intricately stitched together in way that I suspect only becomes more complex and rewarding on second and third readings. Jenny, who has become a massive Nabokov fan, read and reviewed it back in 2011, and she had me read it this year. I’ve been meaning to try Nabokov again after a moderately successful attempt at Lolita back in college. (I say moderately successful because I liked reading it and found it fascinating to study but didn’t entirely grasp it without a lot of professorial support—and even then I didn’t entirely grasp it, it’s more like I grabbed a tenuous hold on it.) I’m glad to have finally taken another look at his work, and I’m sure there will be more in my future.

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14 Responses to Pale Fire

  1. Thanks for this post. I started reading Pale Fire in the past, and for some reason gave up (I’ve enjoyed everything else by Nabokov so far). Perhaps Kimbote put me off – reading your post has made it seem likely!

    You’ve made the poem sound great, however, so I’ll try and give it another go. Nabokov’s a great author, and I loved reading his memoir “Speak, Memory”.

  2. vicki (skiourophile / bibliolathas) says:

    I’ve only recently read Lolita, after putting it off for many, many years. I am keen now to read more Nabokov, but this perhaps is a little too hard core!

    • Teresa says:

      It really isn’t as complicated as it sounds. You can just about read the commentary on its own, although seeing how Kimbote makes tenuous connections with the poem is part of the fun.

  3. “One cannot read a book: one can only reread it,” Nabokov said, describing, of course, his own books. Even your summary will be different upon rereading, so intricate is this book.

    vicki – Ada is the hardcore Nabokov novel. This one is a pussycat, friendly, purring,yet secretly a killer.

    • Jenny says:

      Ada is hardcore! Which is to say, absolutely fantastic, if much too large in scope and structure for my tiny, tiny brain.

    • Teresa says:

      I’m sure this book would be a different experience every time, just knowing where it ends up would transform the whole experience.

  4. Jenny says:

    I’m so glad you liked this! None of his works are anything like the others (at least so far), so I can’t compare it, but this one stands out as a dazzling, coruscating, witty puzzler, such zany fun to read and then serious and compassionate after it’s closed. What a novel.

    • Teresa says:

      That more serious turn is a nice surprise, since it’s so unserious throughout (at least throughout the commentary), but there’s some neat stuff to chew on about the way we make meaning of our lives and the way we understand ourselves and others.

  5. Sarah C. says:

    This was the first Nabokov novel I read and I was totally hooked. Lolita (which I read second; I can’t believe it was only last year I read this – I feel like it’s a part of me now) is so stunning, but I worry that these two are his best and that the rest won’t compare. I have Pnin and Ada, so I’ll see. (And I thought it was Charles Kinbote, not Kimbote).

    • Those two are his best, yet others will compare. Invitation to a Beheading, The Gift, Speak, Memory, Pnin, at least – compare away. Also <Signs and Symbols," "The Vane Sisters," "Spring in Fialta" – this list could go on for a while. The little book on Nikolai Gogol.

      What I am trying to say is: don't worry.

      • Sarah C. says:

        Oh, that’s nice to hear! After those two Nabokov rocketed to my top-5 author list, so it’s nice to think I have so much more of his to look forward to!

    • Teresa says:

      I think Pnin will be my next; I gather that they’re all so different from each other that they end up being great in different ways.

      And yikes! You’re right! It is Kinbote. Somehow, my eyes just saw that n as an m and it stuck in my head that way. I’m fixing it now.

      • Sarah C. says:

        :) It’s a strange enough name to be easily mistake-able. And how do we even pronounce that name anyway?

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