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


If the eerie echoes between poem and commentary cannot be explained as the work of Shade, could Kinbote have written both parts? According to the first level of the story, he certainly has the imagination to invent the outlandish world of Zembla; why could he not also add the plainer world of Appalachia?

But Pale Fire quickly rules out the possibility of Kinbote as sole author. The never-modest Kinbote declares himself capable "of imitating any prose in the world (but singularly enough not verse--I am a miserable rhymester)" (C.991, 289), an admission borne out by the woeful meter and rhyme of the variants he tries to fabricate. If he could write Shadean verse he would have no need whatever to implore Shade to commemorate Zembla in verse; he could simply do the job himself, and all his desperation, all his ridiculous pride in imagining himself the intimate and the inspiration of a poet of Shade's standing, would vanish. Kinbote is far too self-centered and too misogynistic to want to imagine the happily married John and Sybil Shade, and he knows too little of America to do so, unless he arranges jokes like "Frankly I too never excelled in soccer and cricket" (C.130, 117) at his own expense--something this conceited and touchy commentator would never do. The scholar who has the impetuosity and minimal self-control to write "There is a very loud amusement park right in front of my present lodgings" (F, 13) has neither the skill at verse, nor the interest in others, nor the discipline, nor the slightest shadow of a motive, to invent a John and Sybil Shade who would only distract from the glory of Charles II.

A subtler and more plausible explanation involving a reduced but still key role for Kinbote has been advanced by Pekka Tammi (Problems of Nabokov's Poetics, 197-221, "Pale Fire," 571-86) and Charles Nicol (23 Dec 1997). Perhaps the uncanny coincidences between poem and commentary could be explained by Kinbote's deliberate attempt--after he discovers that the long poem Shade has been at work on is not at all the epic of Charles II he had expected--to fabricate a close relationship between what he can find in the poem and his Zembla.

To some extent Kinbote plainly does seek to intensify the connections between poem and commentary. When he writes "The poor poet had now been turned over and lay with open dead eyes directed up at the sunny evening azure" (C.1000, 295) there can scarcely be any doubt he means to recall the memorable "azure" of the poem's second line.14 When he recollects seeing Shade burn a whole stack of superseded drafts "in the pale fire of the incinerator" (F, 15) he evokes the poem's title, and also his own thesis that despite the poem's undeniably not being about Zembla, it would have been much more so had a jealous Sybil not censored these incinerated early drafts: "I realize only too clearly, alas, that the result, in its pale and diaphanous final phase, cannot be regarded as a direct echo of my narrative." (C.42, 81) He even says "My commentary to this poem, now in the hands of my readers, represents an attempt to sort out those echoes and wavelets of fire, and pale phosphorescent hints, and all the many subliminal debts to me." (C.1000, 297) The added joke here is that in this most elaborately artful echo of the poem's title, he fails to realise he is also echoing the source of Shade's title, which he has not bothered to identify:

I'll example you with thievery:
The sun's a thief, and with his great attraction
Robs the vast sea; the moon's an arrant thief,
And her pale fire she snatches from the sun;
The sea's a thief, whose liquid surge resolves
The moon into salt tears.
(Timon of Athens, 4.3.435-40)
The "wavelets" in his last note contains a ripple from Timon, without his knowing it, just as his admission that he has in many cases "caught myself borrowing a kind of opalescent light from my poet's fiery orb, and unconsciously aping the prose style of his own critical essays" (C.42, 81), which follows the passage referring to the "pale and diaphanous final phase" of the poem, echoes even more closely the source of Shade's title, not directly or consciously, but by way of the very passage Shade raids--which Kinbote has just quoted in another connection in the previous note (C.39-40, 80), in a Zemblan version which lacks the phrase "pale fire" but continues to reverberate in his mind.

The subtler of these echoes of the poem's title, then, are jokes at Kinbote's expense, and the more overt ones are undisguised if not inelegant allusions, wistful toyings with Shade's title, as if to say: "I offered you Solus Rex, and you gave me Pale Fire. Look what I can do with your title. Why couldn't you have made more of my far more fascinating memories?"

But apart from these few reflected gleams of the poem's title, Kinbote has no reason to maximize the links between Zembla and Shade's poem. He had wanted, had desperately wanted, Shade to write his story in verse, but Shade did not, and his own professed and demonstrated ineptitude at writing verse means he cannot alter the fact and rewrite the poem as he wishes. As a result his only option is to record his urging his Zemblan lore on Shade and his bitterness on discovering it had not been used. He wants us to feel his pain at the betrayal:

We know how firmly, how stupidly I believed that Shade was composing a poem, a kind of romaunt, about the King of Zembla. We have been prepared for the horrible disappointment in store for me. Oh, I did not expect him to devote himself completely to that theme! It might have been blended of course with some of his own life stuff and sundry Americana--but I was sure his poem would contain the wonderful incidents I had described to him, the characters I had made alive for him and all the unique atmosphere of my kingdom. I even suggested to him a good title--the title of the book in me whose pages he was to cut: Solus Rex; instead of which I saw Pale Fire, which meant to me nothing. I started to read the poem. I read faster and faster. I sped through it, snarling, as a furious young heir through an old deceiver's testament. Where were the battlements of my sunset castle? Where was Zembla the Fair? Where her spine of mountains? Where her long thrill through the mist? And my lovely flower boys, and the spectrum of the stained windows, and the Black Rose Paladins, and the whole marvelous tale? Nothing of it was there! The complex contribution I had been pressing upon him with a hypnotist's patience and a lover's urge was simply not there. Oh, but I cannot express the agony! (C.1000, 296)
Since he cannot fabricate a Zemblan poem himself, his one alternative position is to claim that Shade's poem would have had more of Zembla if he had been free to write as his friendship for Kinbote prompted:
Gradually I regained my usual composure. I reread Pale Fire more carefully. I liked it better when expecting less. And what was that? What was that dim distant music, those vestiges of color in the air? Here and there I discovered in it and especially, especially in the invaluable variants, echoes and spangles of my mind, a long ripplewake of my glory. (C.1000, 297)
Always jealous of Sybil's closeness to Shade, he concocts the theory that she censors the Zemblan elements out of his poem, and he manufactures the Zemblan variants in proof (C.42, 81). His fabrications are hilariously clumsy and inept, implausible in their alleged place in the poem, clunky in rhythm and sublimely banal in rhyme, and even at this low level sometimes too difficult for him to make the effort to fill out what seems a plausible line (see the variant at C.130, 118). The first forged variant, "Ah, I must not forget to say something / That my friend told me of a certain king" (C.12, 74), which licences the whole Zembla theme in the Commentary, is later embarrassedly retracted, although Kinbote does not return to excise the lines ("I could strike them out before publication but that would mean reworking the entire note, or at least a considerable part of it, and I have no time for such stupidities" [C.550, 228]), since that would in effect remove his pretext for mentioning Zembla at all. His other few Zemblan variants are half-proudly identified in the Index as "K's contribution," but confirm that he knows and admits, outside of the transparent fiction that the variants are Shade's, that there is no evidence at all that Shade ever planned to write the poem Kinbote wanted about Zembla. The most he can claim is that "the sunset glow of the story acted as a catalytic agent upon the very process of the sustained creative effervescence that enabled Shade to produce a 1000-line poem in three weeks." (C.42, 81)

The hypothesis that Kinbote is responsible for the subtle subliminal links between poem and commentary--as opposed to the wonderfully unsubtle variants--would require either that he has adapted the Zemblan material he now recounts in order to fit Shade's poem better, or that Kinbote has infiltrated into his Commentary covert verbal associations other than his explicit sad caressing of Shade's title.

The first option makes no sense and contradicts the evidence. If he had adapted the Zemblan story to the poem, he would not now be able to make so much of his disappointment at the disparity between them, and he would not have needed to concoct his variants. Besides, the account of Zembla must be basically in place--its blue atmosphere, the tunnel, the escape over the mountain--for Kinbote's pride in the story's glamor and his persistence in thrusting it before Shade to establish the situation on which everything else in the novel rests. Even Kinbote's relationship with Disa, which it has been suggested might be his creative response to the portrait of Sybil in the poem, (Nicol 23 December 1997) must in fact be something he has described in detail to Shade before he sees a word of the poem, since after he sums up this part of his story, he reports: "When in the course of an evening stroll in May or June, 1959, I offered Shade all this marvelous material, he looked at me quizzically and said: 'That's all very well, Charles. But . . . [h]ow can you know that all this intimate stuff about your rather appalling king is true?'" (C.433-34, 214) If Kinbote were inventing, he would surely not have Shade say "your rather appalling king": he can see nothing appalling in the king's behavior.

The firm outline and the bright tint of what he evokes for Shade as "our blue inenubilable Zembla" (C.991, 288), then, must be securely in place before Kinbote ever sights Shade's azure imagery. Kinbote has not refashioned his Zembla to bring it in line with Shade's poem.

The other option, that Kinbote has deftly stitched poem and commentary together with gossamer verbal threads, does not in fact account for such key connections as that between Shade's "ready to become a floweret / Or a fat fly" and Sybil's calling Kinbote "a king-sized botfly" and seems utterly at odds with all Kinbote's practice. Because of his overblown egotism, he lacks self-control ("and damn that music!," "Dear Jesus, do something" [C.47-48, 93]), and when he does something he considers subtle he wastes no time in drawing it proudly to our attention. He reports with pleasure: "I contented myself on my way out with pulling Gerald Emerald's bowtie loose with a deft jerk of my fingers as I passed by him" (F, 24); he repays the Shades' not inviting him to Shade's birthday party by directing Sybil to an "impossibly rude" allusion to Proust, smugly adding "I am a very sly Zemblan" (C.181, 162). When he tries for an unusual stylistic effect in his commentary, he cannot refrain from pointing it out and even claiming it as unprecedented: "It is probably the first time that the dull pain of distance is rendered through an effect of style" (C.47-48, 92); "Never before has the inexorable advance of fate"--of Gradus, that is--"received such a sensuous form" (C.131-32, 136).

For the most part Kinbote is simply so entranced by the picture he has built up of himself as Charles II that he reverts to it shamelessly on the least occasion. Shade mentions "parents," and after a half a paragraph on Shade's parents, grudgingly lifted from Prof. Hurley's obituary, Kinbote devotes six pages to Charles II's father and mother (C.71); Shade writes "one foot upon a mountain," and Kinbote seizes the chance to spend ten pages reliving his own escape over the Bera range (C.149). Kinbote stuffs Zembla into the Commentary without apology or craft, simply because he cannot help it, and not as part of some subtle argument that the Poem and Commentary are deeply interfused. He admits frankly, plaintively, insistently that there is nothing of his Zembla in the poem, except--to allow some suggestion that Shade was deeply moved by his story--in his grossly concocted variants.

Kinbote lacks the restraint, the modesty and the motive to establish the silent signals connecting poem and commentary that trouble and tantalize the attentive reader. We need another solution. Let us think.

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14. As Tammi notes ("Pale Fire" 586 n45), there is no reason to imagine, as Alexandrov supposes (209-10) that Kinbote "does not notice" the echo.

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