Pale Fire is the epitome of post-modern fiction. It is also [as William Boyd described] one of the most extraordinary and brilliant novels ever written, let alone in the twentieth century.
‘Pale Fire’ consists of a 999-line poem of four cantos written in heroic couplets (although the couplets are enjambed rather than self-contained), the last work of an American academician (in the Wordsmith college in New Wye, Appalachia) and a poet of moderate reputation called John Shade. The poem, titled ‘Pale Fire’ (taken from an obscure Shakespearean play, ‘Timon of Athens’) is preceded by a foreword and followed by a long series of explanatory notes (abounding in cross references) by one Dr. Charles Kinbote, a refugee professor from a country called Zembla (which, we learn is situated north of Russia), a colleague and neighbour of John Shade. The novel ends with an exhaustive index, also prepared by Kinbote. This is what Mary McCarthy described as the ‘ground floor’ of the novel. We also learn, early in the story, that John Shade was murdered by a killer who is considered to have been escaped from the local lunatic asylum, and who, according to Kinbote, has used a number of aliases such as Jack grey, Jack Degree, Jacques de Gray, James de Gray; his real name may have been Jacob Gradus. Kinbote has obtained legal permission from Shade’s widow, Sybil, and is editing the manuscript and preparing his commentary in hiding, away, he declares, from the machinations of rival Shadians. This is the first indication that things may not be how they appear on the surface.
As the novel progresses, the ‘piano nobile’ (to borrow another phrase from McCarthy’s celebrated review, which went a long way towards promoting the novel in the USA upon its publication), becomes apparent. As Kinbote explicates ‘Pale Fire’, the reader begins to wonder whether he isn’t projecting the troubled history of his country of origin, Zembla, in particular the life and times of its last ruler who, as it happens, shares his first name with Kinbote, onto his interpretation of Shade’s poem. Shade’s poem is an emotional, elegiac and above all autobiographical work, with musings on death and loss and redemption, in part inspired by the death of his fat, plain daughter (who probably killed herself after she was spurned by a blind date); Kinbote, however, plunges deeper and deeper into his personal tale of Zemblan manners and intrigues in his scholium. The doubts disappear when Kinbote lets it be known that he believes that the Zemblan stories with which he has tirelessly regaled Shade during their five-month-acquaintance were the inspiration behind ‘Pale Fire’. The reader also becomes aware that Kinbote had the rather disturbing habit of spying on his neighbour (ostensibly to check on the progress of Shade’s poem in which he had personal interest); that Shade’s wife treated him with a mixture of wariness and dislike; that he was loathed by other academicians on the campus—Kinbote reports in the foreword an exchange with a friend of the Shades, who tells him that she finds him a remarkably disagreeable person and, ‘exasperated by my polite smile’, adds: ‘What’s more, you are insane.’—; and that he is most probably a homosexual and pederast. The second story, the ‘piano noble’ of the novel, is the real story, or so it seems almost until the end. In his commentary, Kinbote tells the story of Charles Xavier, or Charles the Beloved, the poetry-loving last King of Zembla, who loved the ‘laddies rather than ladies’, and who was removed from the throne by the Russian (read Communist) backed local Extremists. With the help of the loyalists, who call themselves ‘Karlists’, Charles escapes from Zembla and makes his way to America. The Extremists then rope in Jacob Gradus, a member of the Extremists’ party that has usurped power in Zembla. Gradus leaves Zembla, Kinbote informs us, on the day John Shade begins writing what would turn out to be the last poem of his life. The reader gradually becomes aware, by degrees, of that which is lying subjacent to Kinbote’s highfalutin prose: he is Charles the Beloved; or he thinks he is Charles the Beloved. And, as observed by the disapproving faculty member, he is insane. He has deluged John Shade (who, the reader realises, has tolerated him out of pity) with fantastical stories of his delusional world, and, while interpreting what is clearly an autobiographical poem, is prone to see his fantasy world reflected in it. Shade gets killed, according to Kinobote, by Gradus—but is he really Gradus; can Kinbote be trusted in anything that he says?—because he is the wrong man at the wrong place at the wrong time—Gradus has come to assassinate Kinbote a.k.a. Charles the Beloved, and the bullet that pierces Shade’s heart is meant for Kinbote. But then, if the killer is not what the deluded Kinbote thinks he is, then who is he? Is he the madman he confesses to the police to be, who has escaped from the local asylum, and has randomly killed Shade, who happens indeed to be the wrong man at the wrong time in the wrong place, but not in the way Kinbote imagines it? And who is Kinbote? What is his real identity? Could he be Professor Botkin, or Botkine (the anagram of which is Kinbote), a refugee professor who teaches in the Russian department and imagines himself to be the exiled king of Zembla? It is little wonder that ‘Pale Fire’ has spawned a plethora of interpretations and reviews speculating on the identity of Kinbote, and, by extension, the narrator.
Devilishly clever, Pale Fire works like a complex chess problem (at one point, the narrator even alludes to the ‘solus rex type’ of chess problem, one of the many clues Nabokov throws at the readers early on). Just as in the solus rex, the king on the run might be outnumbered but is not always disadvantaged, and the novel ends in a kind of draw, which is often the endpoint of a chess game with this problem.
Like many of Nabokov novels, ‘Pale Fire’ crackles with erudition, linguistic dazzle, and deadpan, wicked wit. Indeed the whole novel, from its ponderous foreword to the deadpan index—with line-by-line commentary annotated with fragments of arcane learning—from lepidopterology to Preterism —is one gigantic spoof, a farce; Nabokov is taking great delight in pulling the reader’s leg (assuming of course they will get or be willing to share the joke). Take the poem, for example. As one critic observed, it is not a bad poem, but not terrifically good either. With its conversational bend (and also because of enjambment) it does not read like a poem, even. When the reader plows through the poem (the best way, I found, was to read portions of the poem together with the relevant—in a manner of speaking—bits of the scholium, which means you have to endure the annoyance of going backward and forward all the time; alternatively, you can read the whole poem first, make your own interpretations, and then read Kinbote’s commentary) he cannot but help noticing the disparity between the poem’s merit and the pedagogic reverence, albeit misplaced, of the commentary; it is a carefully built up farce. What about Zembla, the imaginary country Nabokov has invented? What might be the inspiration behind it? There is actually a group of islands, controlled by the Russians, called Novaya Zemlya, known in English (and Dutch) as Nova Zembla, in the Arctic ocean, in the extreme North-East of Europe. It was apparently, a sensitive military area during the decades of the Cold War and the Russians had military presence there. It is possible that Nobokov, a Russian émigré, knew of Nova Zembla. However, it is also possible that through Zembla Nabokov is acknowledging his debt to Alexander Pope, an eighteenth century English poet and one of the most celebrated exponents of heroic couplets. The word ‘Zembla’ can be found in Pope’s ‘Essay on Man’ (Epsitle 2), where it signifies the land of the polar star:
‘But where the extreme of Vice was ne’er agreed.
Ask where’s the North? At York, ‘tis on the Tweed;
In Scotland, at the Oroades, and there,
At Greenland, Zembla, or the Lord knows where;
No creature owns it in the first degree,
But thinks his neighbour farther gone than he.’
The murdered John Shade, incidentally, is an expert on Pope and has written a book on Pope titled ‘Supremely Blest’. Whatever might be the inspiration behind Zembla, Nabokov goes about giving shape, colour and contours to this mythical country with great delectation; the invention of Zemblan words, technically neologisms, and explanations, for the benefit of English readers, of their English counterparts—all done with deadpan seriousness—is a remarkable sleight of hand. In addition to the Nabokovian linguistic pyrotechnics (the novel overflows with words such as ‘skoramis’, ‘pudibundity’, ‘fackeltanz’, ‘ancillula’, and ‘enceinte’, which would send many scurrying to the OED), the novel pullulates with references to culture, nature or literature. There are innumerable figurative allusions to the Greek mythology, nature, classical literature, and, of course, Shakespeare. Why, some characters from Nabokov’s own oeuvre, such as professor Pnin, make a guest appearance. Ferreting out these hidden references adds to the enjoyment of the novel. The novel is like a literary game show with secret passages, revealing doors and oblique clues (which, admittedly, very few other than the most anally retentive would be able to piece together). However, if, like me, you are not a person of what Charles Kinbote would describe as broad culture, you would still be able to enjoy the novel for its inventiveness and linguistic brilliance.
There is only one word to describe Pale Fire: brilliant; it is not just clever writing and devices; it is 24 carat gold. It may be ostentatious, but it is high-octane genius. I have never read anything like it. How does one describe a novel whose story takes place almost entirely outside of its own text? All literature, it can be argued, is an art of manipulation, and in ‘Pale Fire’ that sense is very strong. Mary Mccarthy described ‘Pale Fire’ as an ‘infernal machine’, a ‘trap to catch reviewers’, a ‘do-it-yourself-kit’, and a ‘cat-and-mouse game’. To these one can add: a self-contained puzzle that reforms itself just when you think you have cracked it; it is the literary equivalent of Maurits Eschar’s impossible structures. An ingenious masterpiece.