At 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.