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


Because Pale Fire offers so much already--and of course much more could be said of its limpid inventions and implications--many astute readers like Alter and Pifer feel there is no need to explore further. Yet in doing so they forget the experience and overlook the texture of Pale Fire, the sheer number of its pointed interconnections that seem to intimate a revelation just ahead, to dangle before us what Kernan identifies as "the possibility of absolute meanings if only we could follow and assemble the myriad of resemblances which look like clues to an absolute meaning" (Bloom 114). Pale Fire's echoes and patterns, and especially what Bader calls "all these 'subliminal' connections between the poem and the commentary" (37) can seem about to converge, to interlock, to fit together into a key that will open a door we still cannot see.

Shade says in "Pale Fire" that he has dedicated his whole life to fighting the "inadmissible abyss" of death (P.179, 38), and he has done this through his art, through the exercise of his imagination. At the beginning of poem he imagines projecting himself beyond the death of a waxwing that has knocked itself out on his window, projecting himself into the azure world beyond:

I was the shadow of the waxwing slain
By the false azure in the windowpane;
I was the smudge of ashen fluff--and I
Lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky.
And from the inside, too, I'd duplicate
Myself. . . .
At the end of the poem, Shade compares his confidence in the design of things, in a life after death, to his confidence that he will wake up the next morning, but within a few minutes of setting down the last lines of his poem he is killed. According to Kinbote the killer is a Shadow, a glassmaker, whose birthday, strangely, we can discover to be the same day as Shade's and Kinbote's (C.181, 157-61, C.949/2, 275). Kinbote describes himself as a King whose coat of arms includes a waxwing-like bird (C.1-4, 73); the name of the person who kills Shade, Jakob Gradus, when reversed as if in a mirror reads Sudarg of Bokay, a "mirror-maker of genius" (I, 314), whose sky-blue mirrors surely reflect the indelible mirror images in the poem's opening lines. Something odd is happening.

During the poem, discussing his time at a lay Institute of Preparation for the Hereafter, Shade says that in death he is "ready to become a floweret / Or a fat fly, but never, to forget." (P.523-34, 52-53) Now Sybil Shade calls Kinbote "an elephantine tick; a king-sized botfly; a macaco worm;10 the monstrous parasite of a genius" (C.247, 171-72), while Botkin in the index is "American scholar of Russian descent . . . ; king-bot, maggot of extinct fly that once bred in mammoths and is thought to have hastened their phylogenetic end." (I.306)11 Kinbote is flamboyantly homosexual, or what his most homophobic foe calls "Quite the fancy pansy" (C.894, 268); of all the flowers and "flowerets" in the English language there are only two that end "-et," "bluet" and the much more common "violet," which happens to be the first rhyme-word of the first couplet in the verse paragraph that includes "floweret" (also placed as the first rhyme-word of its couplet). In Ada, Nabokov has Van pointedly and vindictively associate the names of violets (pansies) with the homosexual Captain Tapper (I.42; 304-06, 600) and clearly in Pale Fire too he has gone to a great deal of trouble to associate Shade's "ready to become a floweret / Or a fat fly, but never, to forget" with the homosexual Kinbote, that "king-sized botfly" so desperate that the world shall never forget his "Zemblan" past.

Now readers like Ellen Pifer prefer not to treat Nabokov's novels as puzzles, yet Nabokov himself has famously compared the relationship between the author and the reader of a novel to the relationship between the composer of chess problems and the hypothetical solver,12 and interconnecting details like those just noted in Pale Fire have evidently been designed to catch our eye, provoke our curiosity and invite our explanation--since they cannot be accidental--of their purpose. Pifer argues eloquently for Nabokovian values, for detail, and memory, and curiosity, and imagination, but if these things are important, why is it that details that we remember relate to other details in curious ways that prompt some imaginative response on our part are not also important? Overlooking the riddling problems Nabokov's works pose will not make them disappear, though it may cause what makes him unique start to fade.

The shadow-Shadow, waxwing-silktail, reflection-mirror echoes seem to reflect purpose, not chance, and perhaps Shade's purpose. For Shade begins his poem by showing himself projecting himself imaginatively beyond death: perhaps the wax-wing image is a key to the Kinbote story; perhaps Shade has not died but has instead invented Kinbote and commentary and killing. After all, he declares in Canto 3 of the poem, after discovering that what he had thought was the corroborating "fountain" in Mrs Z.'s near-death experience was in fact a "mountain":

all at once it dawned on me that this
Was the real point, the contrapuntal theme;
Just this: not text, but texture. . . . (P.806-08, 62-63)
If Shade were to publish not only his own poem but also what seems to be someone else's unrelated commentary, texture would dominate over text; his projecting himself into the shadow of the waxwing, into the azure, would be a perfect prefiguration of his projecting himself into Zembla, that cloudless "land of reflections" (C.894, 265).

Yet according to the story he is killed. But of course the hypothesis that he had invented the commentary requires that the killing too would be fictional, requires that if he is to imagine himself dead and inhabiting as it were Kinbote's soul, the life of someone who is a mirror-inversion of himself (exile rather than stay-at-home, lonely homosexual rather than happily married man, vegetarian rather than meat-eater, bearded rather than clean-shaven, left- rather than right-handed, and so on), then he must indeed seem dead.

Nevertheless arguments against the Shadean hypothesis rule out this solution. The objection that probably lies behind the strong aversion of most anti-Shadeans to the Shadean hypothesis is that Shade has never previously shown himself capable of sustained fictional invention: marvelous images, perhaps, like the waxwing, or Shakespeare's spirit lighting a whole town, but never characters or elaborate plots. If Shade is sixty-one, and as able to construct stories as elaborate as the Shadean hypothesis would require, why has he never written fiction before?

But writers can of course discover their talents late; Sterne was forty-six when he swerved aside from sermons to Tristram Shandy. Perhaps a more potent argument, advanced by David Lodge, is that as a novelist himself he cannot imagine Shade transmuting into poignant autobiographical art the tragedy of his daughter's death only then to offset it against the crazy invention of Kinbote (162-64). In Pale Fire Nabokov himself of course transforms his own father's killing into the shambolic farce of Shade's death, and in the margins of his autobiography he turns his father's death into a kind of cosmic chess game; although he does not himself combine the two strategies in one work, in The Gift he has his narrator Fyodor set his tender evocation of his own father's life and death beside his scornful, mocking, parodic account of Nikolay Chernyshevsky's life and death. Yet Lodge's argument still has its force.

Still more forceful is D. Barton Johnson's point that whoever writes the commentary knows Russian, and we have no evidence that Shade knows the language (66-68). In the internet discussion I counterargued: "This kind of argument could be used to prove Nabokov couldn't have written either Pale Fire or Ada, since there is no evidence, outside the Zemblan of Pale Fire and the Dutch in Ada, that he knew any Scandinavian languages or any Dutch: it is very possible for an inventive wordsmith with a particular purpose to do enough poking into another language to play a little with its lexicon." Yet although there is actually little connected Russian in the commentary (the longest such passage, "Khrushchev's" reported "Vï nazïvaete sebya zemblerami, you call yourselves Zemblans, a ya vas nazïvayu zemlyakami, and I call you fellow countrymen!" [C.949/2, 274], could be understood by a first-year student of Russian, although such a student would be much less likely to invent such a pun), some of the play on isolated words demands a sophisticated knowledge of the language: taynik (hiding place), for instance, might be found in an English-Russian dictionary, but the old form potaynik would not (I, 314, 312).13 According to the story, Kinbote does know Russian, even if he is genuinely Zemblan; and Botkin, who seems to stand behind him, is of course a Russian by birth. Kinbote or Botkin seems a much likelier author of the Commentary and Index than Shade.

Where Johnson approaches Nabokov's works as puzzles, Pifer skirts the puzzles to fasten on character and conduct. Her resolute humanism has its power, and in fact provides the decisive grounds for rejecting the Shadean solution. As she argued in support of Lodge's anti-Shadean stance at the 1995 Nabokov conference in Nice, Shade would have to be very immodest, in a way that seems uncharacteristic of him, to construct a Kinbote who writes passages like this: "I experienced a grand sense of wonder whenever I looked at him, especially in the presence of other people, inferior people. This wonder was enhanced by my awareness of their not feeling what I felt, of their not seeing what I saw, of their taking Shade for granted, instead of drenching every nerve, so to speak, in the romance of his presence." (F, 27) The whole contrast between Shade's modesty and kindness and Kinbote's immodesty and blind self-obsession would be undermined by a Shade who covertly presented his modesty as one of the positive poles of the story. Kinbote repeats three times (F, 22; C.47-48, 92; C.949/2, 280) that Main Hall on Wordsmith campus has been renamed after Shade's death "Shade Hall," a curious and indeed unimaginable kind of hubris for the normally modest Shade to display if he has merely invented his own death.

And if he had invented his own death--and this explains the outrage the Shadean idea provokes--how much would the novel lose! I was once so fascinated by the increase in Shade's powers that this reading would imply, by the sense that he all but transcends his situation through the deceptive might of his art, that, like other Shadeans, I was ready to overlook what it would mean for his world.

If Shade feigns his death, and yet survives in New Wye, he will become an object of bemused curiosity--the national papers will descend on a well-known poet who has so elaborately faked his own death--so that come publication day his composing the poem and commentary will have served nothing like the purpose of transcendental probe the Shadean theory posits: he will only find himself entangled in the gossipy nets of others. A Shadean reading of the plot, if pursued to its end, lapses into muddle. So would Shade's plan--which would be enough to make Shade desist.

This objection and others assume that in a Shadean reading Shade and New Wye are more or less as they are in the text: Pale Fire minus only Kinbote, Zembla, and Gradus. But in fact if Shade invents Kinbote, Zembla, and his own death, he must also be radically reinventing his real life--since Kinbote seems, at least on the surface, a real part of Shade's last few months--to the point where New Wye, Wordsmith, and even Hazel's death become dubious. The crux of the Shadean reading is that Shade as sole author seems to be trying to cope as inventively as he can with the fact of death, but neither death nor life, neither his own or Hazel's, is left with enough existence to need to be coped with.

We need another solution.

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10. The larva of a botfly.

11. Chris Ackerley first drew my attention to this echo.

12. Speak, Memory 290 (hereafter SM); Nabokov corrects the phrasing of this idea slightly in Strong Opinions 183 (hereafter SO).

13. Vladimir Alexandrov deals with two other twists on Russian words difficult for a non-expert in his Nabokov's Otherworld, 210-11.

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