In form alone, Pale Fire offers an accurate reproduction of a lengthy critical study on a major poem. Our author Charles Kinbote has prepared a full commentary on the posthumous final work of poet John Shade. Kinbote, we soon learn, was a friend and neighbor of the recently deceased Shade, and acrimonious though his present relationship may be the Shade estate, he is pressing on with his mission to publish and explain the piece for the world. The poem itself is included in full, 999 lines of lyricism in four cantos. But the poem is merely a jumping point for Kinbote’s Foreward followed by his full Commentary that takes up the bulk of the book. He will often use a word or a phrase to launch into all sorts of unrelated musings that go on for pages regardless of any relationship to the actual text. His notes in the Commentary are dizzyingly self-referential; the first note actually directs us to one of the last for further explanation (“but a young New Wye gardener, in whom I was interested (see note to line 998) helped me…”), tempting the conventional reader to commit a great literary sin by skipping to the end of the book. Should we follow Kinbote’s advice? And what does the gardener have to do with the poem?
We soon realize that Kinbote is quite the odd character himself, even for a literary critic. He concludes one of the first paragraphs of the introduction with a non sequitur: “There is a very loud amusement park in front of my lodgings.” His Foreword will veer off into all sorts of personal ramblings, setting the tone for the even wilder abstractions that will comprise the majority of his Commentary. A close reader will discover that some these personal reminiscences are perhaps more revealing than Kinbote intends: “From the second story of my house the Shades’ living room window remained clearly visible so long as the branches of the deciduous trees between us were still bare, and almost every evening I could see the poet’s slippered foot gently rocking.” Kinbote, a visiting professor at Wordsmith College in New Wye, strikes up a friendship with the famous poet-in-residence but his doting neighbor act soon becomes intrusive, particularly to Mrs Shade. He inquires locally about the location of their family vacation, musing upon his intention to burst upon them unannounced; he spies on a birthday celebration with extensively detailed analysis; and even the very commentary itself seems to exist in defiance of the widow’s wishes.
Kinbote is a clever sort of lunatic, with a narrative voice that is rich with detail and sharp turns of phrase. But it’s hard to imagine Nabokov writing any other way – we recall Humbert Humbert’s engagingly literate depiction of his degeneracy or the mischievous faux-biographer of Sebastian Knight. Kinbote is a similar enigma: patently isolated and socially inept, he is nonetheless insatiably curious to the point of invasion. He’s a babbler, a gossiper, though his own secrets (some of which are only disclosed subtly) are not immune to rumor. There’s almost a proto-Gonzo element to way he injects himself into his analysis, the way he’s always at the center of every inflated tale. Ultimately, he’s an egotist, more concerned with his own legacy and reputation that any aspect of real scholarship or actual analysis of the poem itself. This is most comically evident in the index (presumably penned by Kinbote himself) in which his own entry plays a central role: “Kinbote, Charles, Dr, an intimate friend of S, his literary adviser, editor, and commentator…his interest in Appalachin birds 1; his good natured request to have S use his stories, 12; his modesty, 34…” Pale Fire certainly has the oddest, funniest index that I’ve ever encountered in literature.
The first layer of Nabokov’s complex satire soon becomes apparent. The critic has completely invaded the artist’s life, literally spying into his home and practically appropriating his work. The poem itself is secondary to the analysis, this accumulation of anecdotes and stray personal details that are supposed to pass for scholarship. Literary criticism routinely pours on the prejudice and tangential blabbering through pages and pages that ultimately tell us more about the critic than the work itself. But this is more than just interpretation or appropriation of the art; this is about the invasion into the life of the artist. We might consider the salacious biography that sells more copies than the artist’s own work, though that level of criticism is actually too easy, too conventionally erudite for Nabokov’s sharper sense of satire. Pale Fire forces us to consider: what if that biography is the more enlightening document? Which is more real? Poem and commentary, artist and critic – these notions are completely upended in this novel.
But Kinbote’s real delusions are even more epic in scope than the average biographer. He incorporates into the commentary two bizarre tales: the life story of Charles Xavier, the last king of Zembla, and Jakob Gradus, the assassin sent to the United States to murder him. These elements raise the bar on the absurdity and only serve initially to further confuse the reader. Long sections delve deeply into the king’s childhood and escape, while others offer a strangely detailed description of Gradus’s journey, even at one point chronicling the assassin’s bout with indigestion. The king is a pampered, effete young man who shares more with Kinbote than a predilection for homosexuality; he supposedly resembles Kinbote, with his long beard giving him away to a faculty member. So is Kinbote really the exiled king? Does Zembla even exist? We may refer again to the index, in which the Charles Xavier Vseslav entry is tagged mysteriously, “See also Kinbote.” And what of Gradus? He seems to be a fanciful rendering of Jack Grey, an escaped mental patient whom Kinbote has appropriated into his own wild tale.
The connecting element – and ultimately the victim of more than one crime – is John Shade. Somehow, a picture of the poet emerges from Kinbote’s fractured narrative. An aging celebrated resident of the community, he seems content with his relatively quiet life in the suburbs near the college. More revealing is the poem itself, which Kinbote oddly instructs us to ignore in spite of his supposed celebration of the poet’s work. The poem tells of a man searching through questions of love, death, philosophy, and family. He is not a religious sort but his own mortality finds him confronting spiritual issues. Most significant: his daughter committed suicide by drowning herself in a lake. But these issues exist just under the lyrical surface, touched upon with mannered poetic agility, and the poem itself, though pretty and evocative at times, is rigidly structured. Shade is a decent man and talented poet, but he seems far too conventional for Nabokov’s tastes; thus we have Kinbote’s mad commentary forming the bulk of the text and the real wild spirit of the novel.
Then again: we may consider the possibility that Shade has actually invented Kinbote and his tales. Some evidence for this theory exists in a couplet in the poem itself (“Man’s life as commentary to abstruse/Unfinished poem. Note for further use”). Mary McCarthy’s famous essay “A Bolt From The Blue” argued that Kinbote was in fact the professor V. Botkin, a relatively minor character who is regarded as something of a madman by the community. There is considerable evidence that Kinbote’s madness prevents him from being fully aware of his ill reputation; at one point he recalls finding a note in his pocket after “wrestling” with some students: “You have hal……s real bad, chum,” which he interprets as hallucinations rather than halitosis. Or we can consult again the index, in which we find the phrase “king-bot” in professor Botkin’s entry. Nabokov’s biographer Brian Boyd offered a marked change in his own interpretation by later suggesting a ghostly connection between Kinbote and Shade’s dead daughter. A New York Observer essay amplified this by esoterically associating the name Hazel Shade with Lolita‘s protagonist, though the “Hazel” and “Haze, L” similarity suggests one too many trips to our indexes.
Thus Pale Fire is so rich in its satirical puzzle that its reach has extended into the community that its form lampoons. That is to say that criticism of the book has taken on a Kinbotian life of its own. The text not only invites but positively basks in all of its various puzzling elements. This is the next layer of Nabokov’s satire, though by this point it may not be advisable to keep track lest we get caught up in McCarthy’s thicket of “But the real, real story, the story underneath…” It is not even the story but the explanation that attracts the critics, just as it is not the poem but the commentary that so consumes Kinbote. Pale Fire may be seen as the most meta-fictional of novels in the way it has inspired its readers to attempt the same act of critical misconduct as its mad narrator.
I’m not as interested in solving the puzzle itself but I do think these endless analyses suggest a certain cycle. Recall that Gradus (or Grey?) murders Shade, mistakenly we presume, as Kinbote manages to escape with the manuscript in tow. The artist has been murdered by the argument, as it were. So Kinbote, by waxing poetically through the course of his Commentary, anticipates the same fate for himself: “…he will ring at my door – a bigger, more respectable, more competent Gradus.” It is a cycle, all of this criticism, in which the critic is always – consciously or not – trying to eclipse the work of his peers and perhaps even the artist himself. At one point Kinbote appropriates a relevant “translation” from Shakespeare’s Timon Of Athens: “The sun is a thief: she lures the sea and robs it. The moon is a thief: he steals his silvery light from the sun. The sea is a thief: it dissolves the moon.” Therein is the process of inspiration and criticism, and the endlessly predatory relationship between them.
Pale Fire is a gift to every literary obsessive, passionate critic, puzzle aficionado. It employs a labyrinthine design that requires multiple reads to unravel, though as we have seen, even highly respected critics have disagreed or even changed their own opinions of the novel over time. But it’s a fun read, probably Nabokov’s most concise yet lyrical work. It’s very funny too, and I suspect that Nabokov revelled in the comically subtle characterization of Kinbote’s madness. I think he also would have appreciated (though guardedly and perhaps contentiously, as was his way) all of the ongoing arguments and analyses of his great puzzle, that succession of Kinbotes following his bearded lunatic into the critical breach. And when in doubt, check the index.