Shade and Shape in Pale Fire*
by Brian Boyd

. . . which, I hope, sufficiently approximates the text,
or is at least faithful to its spirit
--Pale Fire, Note to Lines 39-40

For those who have been following the story so far: this will not lead where you expect.

Setting out the Problem

The longest-running and the fiercest disagreement in the interpretation of any of Nabokov's works has been over the internal authorship of Pale Fire.1 Nabokov wrote the novel in 1960-1961, and published it in 1962, but Charles Kinbote signs the Foreword on October 19, 1959, after having also written the Commentary to John Shade's 999-line poem, "Pale Fire," which he reports was composed between July 2 and July 21, 1959. Kinbote has evidently also compiled the Index. In the fictive world where Kinbote can sign his Foreword in "Cedarn, Utana," there seems no doubt about who wrote what in this annotated edition of Shade's magnum opus.

Nevertheless since shortly after publication of Pale Fire readers have proposed that these attributions are perhaps as deceptive as the novel's characters and events. Jakob Gradus, the stalker of the former Charles II of Zembla, seems likely to be no more than a fantasy superimposed on the real Jack Grey by Kinbote, who thinks he is the Zemblan king but is probably not, and may in fact be a Russian scholar named Vseslav Botkin. That much readers can suspect or even deduce on a first or second reading.2 But after more prolonged immersion in Pale Fire some critics have suggested that Shade seems in fact to have written the entire volume, not just the poem; others have argued instead that Kinbote wrote it all, poem included; still others maintain that Nabokov undermines the apparent dual authorship but deliberately leaves attributions unresolved, so that while there is evidence that either Shade or Kinbote could have written the whole, the reader, like someone looking at the perceptual psychologists' pet image, now sees duck, now rabbit, but cannot settle on a single stable response.

In Shakespeare attribution studies, those who question the integrity of some of the canonical plays are called "disintegrators." Curiously, for readers of Pale Fire, most Shakespeare scholars now accept recent evidence that Timon of Athens contains scenes written by Christopher Middleton;3 most Nabokov readers on the other hand reject with disgust and exasperation the claims of the "integrators" of Pale Fire. For even most advanced readers of the novel its integrity and its consummate formal harmony come solely from Nabokov, while the comedy and pathos of its disintegratedness, so essential to its effect, derive from the absurd breach between Shade's contribution and Kinbote's.

An often intense debate about who wrote what in Pale Fire has recently (December 1997-January 1998) broken out in the Nabokov discussion group on the internet, NABOKV-L, and has drawn on and added to the published critiques.4 Of the integrators, Shadeans dominate. The case for Shade as sole author was first made by Andrew Field in 1967 (291-332) more arguments were added by Julia Bader in 1972 (31-56); I added more in Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years in 1991 (425-56) and still more in a long contribution to the internet discussion (22 December 1997), but others like Gennady Barabtarlo (242 and NABOKV-L, 9 January 1998), Chris Ackerley and Sergey Il'yn have also taken up the Shadean cause in print or on screen. The first Kinbotean was Page Stegner (1966), but he offered no arguments beyond the colorfulness of Kinbote's fancy (if Kinbote could invent flamboyant Zembla, he could surely invent pallid Appalachia). He has had more support among readers new to Pale Fire than old hands, although there are critics like Pekka Tammi and Charles Nicol who argue that the equivocal overlaps between poem and commentary can be accounted for by Kinbote's more-or-less consciously reflecting "Pale Fire" in the mirror-world of his Zembla.5 Among those who opt for the fundamental undecidability of the authorship are Alvin B. Kernan (101-26) and Brian McHale (18-19).

The majority who oppose single authorship includes Robert Alter (184-217), Ellen Pifer (110-18) and David Lodge (161-64). Dmitri Nabokov joined the internet discussion with his recollection that his father thought the idea that either Shade or Kinbote could have invented the other barely less absurd than the idea that each could have invented the other, but since in one of his own manuscripts Nabokov ascribes the Index to Shade (who would therefore have to be still alive after his reported death) (see Boyd, VNAY, 445 and note 21 below), even that does not settle the matter.

Shade as sole author of Pale Fire is not my idea, but I have made the most detailed case for it, both in VNAY and in the internet discussion, where it has often been referred to as if it were just my argument. I now want to reject the Shade-as-sole-author hypothesis--to reaffirm his death and the separate reality and authorial role of the person who signs himself Kinbote--and to offer an entirely different hypothesis, one which I think should appeal to all sides. Not that I have sought to compromise or retreat: as I wrote on the internet discussion, what would be needed to supplant the Shadean hypothesis would be one that explained more of Pale Fire, not one that explained less and overlooked the peculiar pressure the novel exerts towards a deeper accounting for the hum of half-heard harmonies behind its flagrant discords.

In the recent NABOKV-L discussion (8 Jan 1998), Ellen Pifer cited her 1980 citation of Robert Alter's "eminently sensible" 1975 comment: "This novel is not a Jamesian experiment in reliability of narrative point-of-view, and there is no reason to doubt the existence of the basic fictional data--the Poem and its author, on the one hand, and the mad Commentary and its perpetrator, on the other, inverted left hand" (Pifer 187n. 15; Alter 186). Alter's remark is indeed sensible, but like so many of those made against the Shade-as-author position, it also runs the risk of stopping discussion and inquiry short. The closer we attend to Pale Fire, the more it provokes us into explaining the strange resonances between two minds and worlds that seem as remote from one another as Shade's and Kinbote's. The novel is indeed no Jamesian experiment in narrative reliability, but it is an eminently Nabokovian exercise in readerly discovery, and in the surprises that can leak out from another realm.

Those who have argued against Shade as sole author have rarely paid sufficient heed to the astonishing pressure of significance that wells up as echoes between part and part accumulate, to the way, in Alvin Kernan's words, that "everything in the `plexed artistry' of the novel seems to lead on to everything else and to tease us with the possibility of a completely articulated structure which if understood will allow us to fly through the barrier of the text into a meaning beyond."6 (Only Kernan's "tease"--natural enough for someone who believes that the novel sets up an undecidable choice between Shade or Kinbote as sole author--strikes me as wrong.) Those who have argued for Shade, on the other hand, myself included, have been so struck by the need to respond to the tantalizing mystery of the novel's covert coherence and its promise of radical revelation that they have overlooked the objections to the Shadean position that to anti-Shadeans seem so obvious and undeniable as to be positively perverse to dismiss (we will return to those objections, some of which are indeed decisive, shortly).

I would now like to propose another reading, which avoids the objections to the Shadean solution, explains much more of the novel, and accounts both for its overtone of provocation and promise and for the pressure so many have felt towards positing either Shade or Kinbote as sole author.

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Notes

*Copyright © 1997 Board of Trustees of Davidson College. This article, which originally appeared in Nabokov Studies #4 (1997), is reprinted here by kind permission of the author and the editors of Nabokov Studies. This material may not be duplicated or used in any way without prior permission.

1. New York: Vintage, 1989 (a corrected version of the first edition, New York: Putnam, 1962). All citations will be in the form F, P.xxx, C.xxx, I (for Foreword, Poem, Commentary and Index) plus page number. Further corrections and annotations are added in Vladimir Nabokov, Novels 1955-1962: Lolita, Pnin, Pale Fire, Lolita: A Screenplay, ed. Brian Boyd (New York: Library of America, 1996).

2. Mary McCarthy reread the novel to write her celebrated review, "A Bolt from The Blue," expanded in "Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire," where she identifies Kinbote as Botkin and Gradus as Grey.

3 .Most of Act III proves to be Middleton; "pale fire" is safely Shakespearean.

4. The debate began on 15 December 1997 and lasted into February 1998, with after-shocks as late as April.

5. D. Barton Johnson, Worlds in Regression, 60-77, is both anti-Shadean and anti-Kinbotean but a semi-Botkinian. Indicating Botkin as the "real" person behind Kinbote, he asks: "Is Botkin perhaps a Wordsmith faculty member who is writing a novel about the entirely fictional characters Kinbote, Shade and Gradus? The idea would be attractive were it not that Botkin and Kinbote are almost certainly the same person. More plausible is that Shade, his poem and his killer are all real as is V. Botkin, a drab Wordsmith faculty member" (70-71); but he adds: "Within the world of Pale Fire, V. Botkin is the source from which all else flows" (72).

6. In Bloom 122. As an example of the way anti-Shadeans can overlook the covert correspondences between part and part, let me cite Pifer: "The tenuous relationship between Shade's poem and Kinbote's Commentary, which has disturbed many of the novel's readers, . . ." (117). But it is not the tenuous relationship between the parts that disturbs: that is perfectly understandable as a product of Kinbote's insane egotism, and has troubled no one. What has perturbed some readers is the intimacy of the relationship between part and part, when on the surface they indeed appear utterly remote.

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