Shade and Shape in Pale Fire
by Brian Boyd
page two of nine

Discovering Pale Fire

Let us move forward slowly. In the reading I now propose, the situation as deduced by alert first- or second-time readers remains intact.

Within the world of the novel, Shade is perfectly real, and almost everything we hear about him is true, except for what Kinbote's comically transparent biases distort: Shade's inordinate fondness for Kinbote, his being inspired by Kinbote, and his being henpecked and censored by his wife. Shade is indeed shot and killed after finishing the 999th line of his poem, which probably does need just one more line. His shameless neighbor spirits away the manuscript of the virtually completed poem, hoping it will contain the glorious adventures of Charles II of Zembla, which he has been relentlessly pressing on Shade, but he finds instead that the poem is Shade's wry and tender account of his own life, an autobiography, not a heroic biography.

Kinbote thinks he is Charles II, and he thinks he is a Zemblan, Charles Kinbote, hiding his real and royal identity; but in all probability he is actually Vseslav Botkin, a Russian émigré, whose paranoia is edging him towards suicide. All the same, the book is so steeped in Zembla that it is never quite resolvable whether it exists or not within the world of the book, so that a scene like Shade's public defence of Kinbote from identification as the ex-king of Zembla may or may not blur the reality of what has happened in New Wye. But one thing seems certain: the person who shot Shade was not Jakob Gradus, a Zemblan Shadow, but Jack Grey, an American declared insane in a trial presided over by Judge Goldsworth, whom he thinks he is aiming for when he shoots Shade.

This is the level which most good readers appreciate as Pale Fire unfolds, except perhaps that they might not feel sure about identifying Botkin as the person behind Kinbote and might not see that he will succumb to his strong temptation toward suicide.7 The novel must therefore work well on this level, and the experience of readers and the evidence of critiques like those of Robert Alter, Ellen Pifer and Michael Wood (173-205) show that it does.

In fact it works on an astonishing number of levels. Through the power of Shade's poem it builds up a memorable and poignant picture of the poet's dedication to his craft, his decades-long attempt to explore in his art the meaning of his life in a world shadowed by death. Throughout the poem, from the impact of its opening image, Shade exploits the tension between himself as stay-at-home poet and the endless unknown that he suspects surrounds him. What he feels as his best clue to the beyond is his sense of the infinite possibilities of design present everywhere, his confidence in a harmony behind things that his own work can reflect, even in a world where his daughter has recently taken her own life.

Poem and commentary interact in a complex interplay of simultaneous and successive ironies. We respond first to the outrageous comedy of the disjuncture between poem and ostensible annotation, which manages to be at once a barbed satire, a harmonious and multifaceted revelation of character and a resonant moral critique. Despite Kinbote's deep if uneven knowledge of English poetry and his moments of subtle sensitivity, his commentary for the most part is a wild intensification of the worst imaginable excesses of scholarship, from failure to understand the obvious (baseball and basketball as cricket and football), through idleness and wilful imposition, the self-serving insistence on one's own themes at the expense of the writer's, to the delusion that the work owes its value or even its very existence to one's own contributions. What could seem exaggerated, insistent or shallow in another context here functions as a natural, vivid and hilarious result of Kinbote's overweening vanity. It also has a universal moral resonance. Kinbote thinks himself devoted to Shade and Shade's poem ("Such hearts, such brains, would be unable to comprehend that one's attachment to a masterpiece may be utterly overwhelming" [F, 17]), yet he cannot make the effort to understand the particulars of Shade's imaginative world (words, things, customs, allusions, intentions), so that his performance as editor becomes an exact image of all moral myopia, all failure to make the effort to respect the sheer difference of another individual.

When he outrageously imposes on Shade's helpless poem the Zembla story he had wanted Shade to commemorate all along, Kinbote unwittingly stands as a crazy image of shameless egocentricity, but his Zembla offers its own rich satisfactions: the crisp hue of its cloudless skies; its shimmering, teasing relation to the world we know from life (Scandinavia, Novaya Zemlya, Russia), language (Germanic and Slavic) and literature (Zenda, the Scarlet Pimpernel, countless adventures of flight); its eclectic and limpid exoticism and skewed sexuality; and the witty structural reversal it allows the novel by surrounding the prosaic realism of the poetry not with dry scholarship but with fabulous romance.

Despite the contrast between the strangeness of Zembla and the familiarity of New Wye, Kinbote also adds a touch of romance even to his account of New Wye, as he tries to evoke the radiance of his relationship with Shade. But we soon start to see we must read New Wye in another light than Kinbote's. Where he thinks he presents in himself an entrancing image of urbanity and adventure, we enjoy his contributions for the peerless portrait of insufferable and uncontrolled vanity, a portrait of self-delight as rich as Malvolio's and all the more absurd for coming from his own pen. So much of our pleasure in reading Kinbote's Foreword, his Commentary and his Index comes from seeing the endless ways in which he discloses his egotism, in his scholarship, in his dealings with others in Appalachia, in the way it shapes his vision of Zembla. Yet from as early as Kinbote's "and damn that music" (F, 15) we also begin to detect a desperation lurking beneath his immense self-satisfaction, a loneliness and helplessness and fear that drive him to invent Zembla to compensate for all that his life lacks and to foist his invention upon the man who can immortalize it all, John Shade.

Throughout the commentary there runs a peculiar dynamic of discovery. We have to unearth level after level about the "real" Kinbote: first that he is Charles II, and that he is a homosexual and a pedophile, and then that his conviction he had become Shade's closest friend and deepest inspiration is sheer illusion, and that his elaborate account of the pursuit of Gradus has no basis except in fantasy, and that the entire story and the very existence of Zembla may therefore be illusory. As we recognize the pervasive unhappiness and paranoia behind his images of triumph, we may also strongly suspect that he will commit suicide once the book is published, his Zembla is immortalized and his incognito divulged.

In a sense there is also a rather different dynamic of discovery in Shade's poem: the dread of the disclosure that hangs over the Shades the night their daughter dies, the contrasting promise of revelation that fills Shade in his near-death experience, the apparent confirmation of that in Mrs Z.'s vision, the deflating recognition that this confirmation was a false hope, and yet the possibility of a deeper discovery in the irony of that very disappointment. Yet Shade's final confidence in the "web of sense" he discerns in what might seem "flimsy nonsense," the sense of pattern in "the verse of galaxies divine" that makes him

reasonably sure that we survive
And that my darling somewhere is alive,
As I am reasonably sure that I
980 Shall wake at six tomorrow (P, 69)
again proves displaced when he is killed shortly after all but finishing his greatest work. The final discovery for the reader is the discrepancy between on the one hand Shade's resolute attempt to make sense of his life and on the other the senselessness of his death, the work of a madman which robs him not only of his life but even of his work, as Kinbote steals his manuscript to roll up each of its index cards into a new telescope to train on Zembla. Shade is not even left with his death, since Kinbote steals that by inventing Gradus as someone in pursuit of not Shade or Goldsworth but himself.

Despite Shade's confidence in a benevolent design behind things, despite Kinbote's radiant remembrance of things Zemblan past, what begins in brightness seems to end in darkness. Shade tries to compensate for the limitations of his life through the control of his art; Kinbote responds to the anguish of his isolation through the removal of restraint that his madness allows. Both end up dead, one killed, the other taking his own life once his panegyric to himself has been preserved in print. Yet somehow as we read through the Index it is the radiance and the comedy, not the loss, the terror and the tragedy, that remain.

On this level Pale Fire is already a work of extraordinary richness, for its interlocking stories and its stories-within-stories, for the vividness of its characters and the contrasts between them, for its interplay of realism and romance and its amalgam of satire, comedy, farce and tragedy, for the control Nabokov manages to retain through the chaos of Kinbote's manic self-obsession. Nabokov makes Kinbote not only extreme, not only one of the most vivid portraits ever made of human vanity, of its absurd comedy and the tragedy of the solitude it leads to, but also someone who stands for us all, for the urge we all have to have our life preserved, known and valued for the color it has for us, for the centrality it inevitably has in our scheme of things, and the impossibility of fulfilling that urge without imposing ourselves on others and denying them their centrality to their experience.

Pale Fire is a complex study of the relationship between life and art and death. In Shade's poem and Kinbote's commentary, Nabokov treats art as the essence of our human urge to make sense of our lives, to find a shape and permanency to resist the accident and transience of life. In the echoes of his own losses, real and feared (his father's assassination, bizarrely reflected in Shade's death;8 his loss of Russia, seen in the distortive mirror of Kinbote's Zembla; his apprehension for his daredevil son, inverted in Hazel's death and Shade's attempt to transmute that into art),9 Nabokov expresses his own weightiest feelings through airy invention.

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7. Some readers think that Nabokov's declaration that Kinbote "certainly" committed suicide "after putting the last touches to his edition of the poem" (Strong Opinions 74) is unwarranted by the novel. Michael Wood calls this "authorial trespassing, and we don't have to pay attention to it" (186), but as I show in Nabokov's Pale Fire: The Magic of Artistic Discovery, the evidence of the text does converge on suicide, if not conclusively, at least as a very probable inference.

8. For details that connect Shade's death and V.D. Nabokov's, see Brian Boyd, Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years (VNRY), 189-93 and VNAY 455-56. Priscilla Meyer makes much of V.D. Nabokov's death in her extremely erratic Find What the Sailor Has Hidden: Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire, but has no sense of the limits of meaningful association.

9. Robert Alter, "Autobiography," 136-37, was the first to suggest this theme.

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