‘Pale Fire’ is a novel regarding the poem ‘Pale Fire’ by John Francis Shade which he composed in heroic couplets, consisting of four cantos and 999 lines. The novel contains a commentary written by Shade’s editor, Charles Kinbote, who also provides a foreword as an introduction before the poem proper. Kinbote’s following commentary, annotations and analysis provide a glimpse into the creation of ‘Pale Fire’ as well as the personal events that inspired Shade to produce such a remarkable and sensitive work. With Kinbote as our trusty guide we discover the hidden meanings waiting to sprout within the text once the light of his clarity of thought reveals the spuds of truth buried within. Sure, this editor and academic might be writing this in a wretched motor lodge (a typical Nabokovian locale) with an amusement park both inside and outside his head, but this Kinbote guy seems to really know what he’s talking about. Although how does he know Canto Two, that “shocking tour de force”, is my favourite?
So we plunge with Kinbote into the wild world of ‘Pale Fire’ until we are left reeling with vertigo. There is so much to say about Vladimir’s Nabokov’s ‘Pale Fire’. It is utterly intimidating in scope and complexity, but “a commentator’s obligations cannot be shirked” so I’m going to give it a shot. I shall do this by listing pertinent and interesting moments, including their relevant page numbers, in the novel as opposed to an overall analysis. Sure, this might seem like a lazy cop-out and simply a list of bullet points but when you realise that it will allow both those familiar with the work to glean valuable insights as well as those who have never read ‘Pale Fire’ to taste a flavour of the work without having the plot spoiled for them then I’m sure you will agree it is far from lazy but actually a feat that can only be described as “intellectually dazzling”.
Just how dense is ‘Pale Fire’? Well, for example, the opening line of Shade’s poem reads –
“I was the shadow of the waxwing slain
By the false azure of the window pane;”
Now, a large number of waxwings (a small bird) are called “irruptions” which is also a term meaning to rush in violently (like a certain Gradus?). Not only that but, considering the events in Zembla (how does Nabokov always come up with words that are such fun to say?), crowds of people can irrupt in fervours of spontaneous patriotism. ‘Irruption’ can also means an invasion and considering the waxwing is a Russian bird could this be an invasion to overthrow a Tsar… or a Zemblan King?
So already in the very first half a line of the poem we have three (or more) possible hidden layers and levels. And it’s not just the layers in the sentence itself but how those layers possibly relate back and forth (like a two way mirror resulting in not only doubling but quadrupling?!!?) to Kinbote’s reading and his commentary. So there are three (maybe four) layers that get mirrored into 6 (maybe 8) and then, potentially, 12 (or 16)? Then there’s the references to Shade himself (“shadow”) and to Icarus (a recurring motif and a doomed, creative waxwing himself). It’s all rather complex but don’t worry — only another 998 and a half sentences to go.
And Nabokov consistently, brilliantly and seemingly effortlessly sustains this across the entire poem finding hidden jewels of interpretation and meaning in every single word. The only question is just how meaningful is the meaning and does it matter, even if reflected? Yet reflections are deceptions and aren’t we all, ultimately, destroyed by an illusion in the end?
To add to the fairground insanity of it all Nabokov’s narrator, much like in ‘Lolita’, might not have the most cohesive mind, so Nabokov breaks up thought and this breaking is emphasised by us having to flip back-and-forth throughout the book as we compare commentary to poem, interrupting the usual, continual flow of reading; we are literally destroying the narrative cohesion with our own hands before our eyes. Indeed, there is much fracturing and breaking throughout the novel, whether it is Kinbote’s mind, Shade taking the world apart in the destructive act of creation or Gradus and his feeble attempts at auto-dismantilisation. How to make sense of this? I am confident that my powers of interpretation, as well as my mental faculties, are as robust as Charles Kinbote’s so let’s crack on!
Notes on ‘Pale Fire’ written in an unacceptably noisy cafe and, hence, under great psychological duress –
P. 18 — “powerful red car”. This is one of the great gags running throughout the novel — that Kinbote always refers to his car as “powerful” (it also throbs and throbbing is always popping up in Nab’s prose). Much like Humbert Humbert we are dealing with a character with delusions of grandeur as well as Nabokov up to his usual trick of undercutting exaggerated self-aggrandising for a joke. Although Nabokov needs to be careful as constantly puffing the ego only to repeatedly puncture it is the refuge of the linguistic and comedic scoundrel.
P 61. “Eschatological shock”. Bang! Right from the beginning of the commentary — a jolt. This book does have a knock-out ending so it might as well set it up from the start.
P 62. “Crystal Land” — Okay, so regicide, someone called Gradus and a Zemblan King are all being referred to right off the bat. Did Kinbote read the same poem as us? Personally, I thought ‘Pale Fire’ was an intimate, domestic poem about shattering family loss. Maybe Kinbote just has greater insight than we do and he is an academic after all. Either way, the motif of crystals, crystal growth and its accompanying morphology has been introduced. Why? Is the poem itself a crystal, one whose growth has been interfered with by the surreptitious insertion of an external tale so it develops into something different from its natural schematic? Much like Gradus flying bat-like across the sky, crystals will always be a constantly present motif.
P 63. “Dear Stumparumper” — After a nod to Finnegan’s Wake we have a word to wrap our tongue around, like a multi-coloured boiled sweet that Nabokov kindly pops in our mouth.
P 64. Degree — de Gray — Vinograd — Vinogradus — Gradus. A gradual Soviet interference in the growth of Gradus’ name? Still no mention of Shade’s family though.
P 89. Queen Blenda’s death. At first glance this Queen of Zembla might seem to be quintessentially Zemblan or Russian, yet she is called ‘Blenda’ and knowing Nab’s love of sundry Americana, his patronising linking of the female with domesticity plus his naughty wit, her name is also pronounced ‘Blender’. She’s both Queen of Zembla and a kitchen appliance.
P. 91 — “the weak gleam of a moonbeam”. This exquisitely lovely nocturnal scene reveals sensuality and more mirrors — “a secret device of reflection gathered an infinite number of nudes in its depths.” This is also the “pale fire” the Moon has stolen from the Sun.
P. 96 — “King in a corner”. A Zemblan Revolution and a trapped Royal! This is a chess game?
P. 98 — “Blawick (Blue Cove). A seemingly innocuous word — “Blawick” — but one that takes on more depth if I pronounce it with a Zemblan accent — “Blawick”. The difference, as you notice, is striking.
P. 110 — “Never before has the inexorable advance of fate received such a sensuous form”. Is there the spectre of Thanatos, the Death Drive, propelling events here as much as an airplane or the “sweep of a verse”?
P. 112 — “Odon”. Also mirrored as Nodo. More word play etc, although the most outrageous example of unrestrained linguistic lust might be “didactic katydid”, which is either sublime or worthy of incarceration.
P.116 — The King and the reflected King in the mountains. A beautifully written scene that takes the breath away. The flow of words here, the coalescing of images, is gorgeous.
P 129 — “where like Martians the martinis and highballs cruised.” Seen through a window the drinks at the party move like spaceships, and what a wonderful image it is of cocktail glasses floating through the room, as well as another chance for alliteration. Once again Nab’s love of “sundry Americana” is revealed. This is, after all, a land where the snacks are “technicolored” and also, seemingly, endowed with the capacity of flight.
P. 132 — “Spacetime itself is decay.” Gradus and his impotent inevitability. Gradus is, in my opinion, one of the best baddies in literature even though he is a total, ineffectual idiot (he couldn’t even castrate himself successfully after several attempts). Yet, like the best menacing presences (such as Godzilla), it is his “approach” and the way Nabokov describes the approach of Gradus that is thrilling. Gradus — gradual decay — blue/gray. Movement and colour again combine.
P. 138 — “Red Admirable”. It wouldn’t be a Nabokov novel without a butterfly joke, would it?
P 140 — “Line 286: A jet’s pink trail above sunset fire.
I, too, was won’t to draw my poet’s attention to the idyllic beauty of airplanes in the evening sky.”
And Nabokov does the same to us as I know, for one, that there is no more a lovely sight than that of a coral-coloured contrail against a blue firmament which is darkening towards space.
P — 146 “John’s grin.” Like in Lolita, Nab writes about a deluded lover. However, notice again that here we have another mirror, this one filled with the colours pink and mauve by demons it has summoned. What is this distrustful beauty in reflections we are constantly being warned against?!
P — 152. “The Haunted Barn”. The scene at the haunted barn is written as a film script. Did all author’s in the 50s and 60s secretly long to be screenwriters?
P. 155 — Rats and a Bishop. Was Pynchon influenced by this for ‘V’?
P. 161 — “quark”. Nab might as well use this word as he has referenced Joyce (again) only five pages earlier.
P. 165 — Bum sex?
P. 174 — A tragic and horrific event is dealt with supreme flippancy! Nabokov is a malicious and sadistic prick… and I still laugh every time I recall this page.
P. 175 — a “bare Bodkin”. Has something just been unclothed and (unknowingly?) revealed to us as to who the real author might be here?
P. 175 — “I am choosing these images rather casually” declares the author. No he’s not! These are some of the most carefully chosen images put to prose! Do you have to undercut everything you do, Nabokov? Still, it’s funny as hell.
P. 179 — “Independence Day in Hades”. A great title for a concept album by Slayer.
P. 180 — “’One can know what God is not; one cannot know what He is’”. Are we doomed to only ever perceive “reality” by its reflection? That we shall, forever, be denied direct contact and that this is the root of our despair?
P. 184 — Hotel Lazuli — the stone lapis containing the hue of Royal Blue.
P. 188 — “ping-pong”. Another ‘Lolita’ reference?
P. 191 — Storm Lolita — Kinbote states that why Shade chose to give the hurricane this name is not clear? What is clear is the grin on Nabokov’s face writing that self-referential sentence.
P. 199 Gradus tried to castrate himself several times… unsuccessfully. He can’t even cut his own cock off! Is this Nabokov taking away the sting of death and making it as pathetic as possible? Nab is never letting us forget that Death is inescapable but there seems to be a witty reassurance that there might not be, ultimately, anything to fear.
P 204 — Amazingly it takes Nab until page 204 until he submits explicitly to the obvious that we’ve all been waiting for: the Zembla/resemblance gag (another pun finally sprouting?). What a tease!
P. 219 — Gradus’ plane flying into the Sun. Another Icarus ref?
P. 223 — Gradus and emerald merging again.
P.227 — “Immortal imagery”. Is it all about reading? Is fiction the life beyond death Nabokov desires? “If we awake one day, all of us, and find ourselves utterly unable to read?” Again “Blue magic” — the royal, lapis-like act of writing (and reading)?
P. 227 — “the fireflies making decidable signals on behalf of dead spirits” — “bat was writing a legible tale of torture in the bruised and branded sky.” Once again it seems blue magic is connected to language, reading and poetry. Press it to your heart, dear reader, and gasp.
P. 232 — “Blended” and “sundry Americana”. Again, the linking of the Queen of Zembla with American kitchen appliances.
P. 232 — Ah ha! Has Kinbote just smashed himself against his own false azure? Is his mountain actually a fountain? Either way, the result is one of the greatest, funniest gags in literature.
In conclusion, isn’t that the point of the book? That we are all smashing ourselves against Nabokov’s “false azure” that he has invented? Does a book give the “illusion of continued space” much like a window? Is this a book that we, the reader, are bashing our heads against in an attempt to enter? Is that what reading is? An act of insanity? The book is already fracturing before our eyes and by our own hands anyway.
Or maybe I’m just reading too much into all this, projecting too many reflections. But, ultimately, it doesn’t matter. After all, “It is the commentator who has the last word”.