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

Toward a Solution

If Kinbote, or the Botkin standing behind him who imagines he is Kinbote and therefore Charles II, has pressed his story on Shade as something he must transpose into verse, the Zemblan parts of the commentary cannot all be Kinbote's response to his reading of "Pale Fire." Fleur de Fyler's languid sexual siege, Charles II's escape through the tunnel and over the mountains and his Côte d'Azur meeting with Disa are central to the saga Kinbote offers Shade before he ever reads the poem. Without his compulsion to fill Shade with his story, and his disappointment at not finding it in the poem, most of the dynamics of the Kinbote-Shade relationship, the most important human relationship in the book, would vanish.

But almost half--forty per cent--of the Matter of Zembla concerns not the king's escape but the assassination attempt against him. All that, all the Gradus material, all the Shadows, all the Niagarin and Andronnikov and Izumrudov material--must be new, must have been added to the escape story since Shade's death.

The man who kills Shade appears to be Jack Grey, escapee from an Institute for the Criminally Insane who wanted to kill the judge who sent him there. Kinbote claims to have heard from Grey that he is really Jakob Gradus, Shadow and would-be-regicide, but his virtually self-refuting evidence ("I did manage to obtain, soon after his detention, an interview, perhaps even two interviews, with the prisoner" [C.1000, 299]) carries no conviction whatever in the face of the coherence of the Jack Grey story. But the Gradus story swells in Kinbote's mind until it expands the Zembla theme to fill almost half of the Commentary.

Despite Kinbote's integrating the Gradus story into the Commentary from the first, it must all be a recent invention. Before Kinbote's interview or interviews with Grey, if it or they ever took place, there is no indication in either the Zemblan escape story or even in his account of his night terrors in New Wye that he had had any notion that there existed such a group as the Shadows. In all the Zemblan story that he thrusts upon Shade, there is never any hint of an assassination threat, never a modulation from the key of triumph.

Yet it is precisely the story of Gradus's pursuit, not the escape story, that is most uncannily resonant with the poem, what he has added to the Matter of Zembla since Shade's death, not what he had tried to have Shade immortalize in verse: Gradus as a "shadow" who kills Shade in the note to line 1000, "I was the shadow of the waxwing slain," Gradus as glass-maker and his reflection as Sudarg of Bokay, "mirror-maker of genius."

What is particularly striking about the Gradus material is the manner of its presentation, the fact that it is so elaborately and insistently counterpointed with Shade's composition of the poem: "We shall accompany Gradus in constant thought, as he makes his way from distant dim Zembla to green Appalachia, through the entire length of the poem, . . . steadily marching nearer in iambic motion . . . moving up with his valise on the escalator of the pentameter . . . while Shade blots out a word" (C.17 and 29, 78); "the force propelling him is the magic action of Shade's poem itself, the very mechanism and sweep of the verse, the powerful iambic motor" (C.131-32, 136). This becomes particularly strange when we note that "Gradus," according to Nabokov's dictionary, Webster's Second, is short for Gradus ad Parnassum, "title of a dictionary of prosody, poetical phrases, etc., once used in English schools as an aid in Latin versification; hence [not cap.], any similar dictionary designed to aid in writing Greek or other poetry."

And stranger still if we note that Gradus ad Parnassum is also the title of Johann Fux's 1725 treatise on counterpoint, which laid the basis for musical counterpoint over the next two centuries. Now Shade's poem is itself an example of literary counterpoint, in several ways: on the verbal level, in the counterpointing of sound and sense; on a narrative level, in the synchronization of Hazel's last night out and her parents' night at home; and on the level of idea and intention, when, after the "fountain"/"mountain" disappointment, Shade writes:

But all at once it dawned on me that this
Was the real point, the contrapuntal theme;
Just this: not text, but texture; not the dream
But topsy-turvical coincidence,
810 Not flimsy nonsense, but a web of sense.
Yes! It sufficed that I in life could find
Some kind of link-and-bobolink, some kind
Of correlated pattern in the game,
Plexed artistry, and something of the same
Pleasure in it as they who played it found. . . . (62-63)
Kinbote particularly admires and singles out for praise Shade's verbal counterpoint, what he sometimes calls Shade's "combinational turn of mind" (F, 15) or his "special brand of combinational magic" (C.727-728, 253): "A third burst of contrapuntal pyrotechnics" (C.734-735, 254), "an apotheosis crowning the entire canto and synthesizing the contrapuntal aspects of its 'accidents and possibilities'" (C.830, 262).

Unlike the rest of the Commentary, which is characterised by Kinbote's opportunistic seizing on chance words ("I could make out": "By the end of May I could make out the outlines of some of my images in the shape his genius might give them" [C.42, 80]; "often": "Often, almost nightly, throughout the spring of 1959, I had feared for my life" [C.62, 95]), the Gradus theme is carefully orchestrated throughout the Commentary. Gradus's pursuit of the King is synchronized with Shade's composition of the poem; his image becomes less and less distant, and Kinbote's narrative access to him more and more complete, as he approaches the scene of the killing, so that by the time he is flying to New Wye from New York, Kinbote can take us even into Gradus's "magenta and mulberry insides, and the strange, not so good sea swell undulating in his entrails." (C.949/2, 278) Why can someone whose self-control is so often vulnerable ("amusement park," "and damn that music," "Dear Jesus," pulling Gerald Emerald's bow-tie, hurtfully thrusting at Sybil that passage from Proust, desperately prowling around the Shade house at night, bursting into tears on the phone) shape his commentary with such care in this one respect? And why is the shaping so insistently associated with Shade's composition of the poem? Why is it so emphatically in the counterpoint singled out as the hallmark of Shadean style?

Why too, for that matter, is Shade so pointedly gray? In the time covered by the novel, he is sixty and sixty-one, and it is only natural that he has gray hair, but there is something less than casual about the "abundant gray hair" (F, 20) of "my gray-haired friend" (F, 28), whom Kinbote addresses as "you bad gray poet, you!" (C.12, 74) and whom he describes, at the very moment he is shot at by Grey or de Grey, as "gray-locked" (C.1000, 294). Why does Shade not only have the same birthday as Gradus or de Grey, but also a name that can mean the same as Gradus's other alias, Degree? Why all this on top of the identification of the man who kills Shade as a shadow, when Shade has written "I was the shadow of the waxwing slain," or on top of Jakob Gradus's trade as a glass-maker, and his mirror-reversed image as a "mirror-maker of genius," maker of mirrors of a special sky-blue tint that seem to reflect directly the azure reflections of the opening of Shade's poem?

Jakob Gradus seems a fantasy Kinbote constructs, after Shade dies, out of the name and deed of Shade's killer, Jack Grey. Kinbote of course wants to make this murderer part of his Zemblan world, and has no interest whatever in linking him with Shade: the whole point of the forty-plus pages he devotes to Gradus is that Gradus was out to get him, not Shade or Goldsworth.

In view of the fact that the correlations cannot reflect Kinbote's intentions, and in view of the fact that only the Gradus elements of the Zembla story unmistakably form in Kinbote's mind after Shade's death, in view of the extraordinary association of Shade and someone as unlike him as Gradus, in view of the fact that only the Gradus parts of the Commentary exhibit a conscious control and craftsmanship that is alien to Kinbote's usual practice but exactly reminiscent of Shade's, I suggest that we are invited to see here that Shade's shade, his ghost, influences Kinbote's paranoia in such a way that his developing fantasy that Jack Grey was a regicide from Zembla, not an escapee from a local Appalachian asylum, takes shape as the Gradus story, and then through Shade's unrecognized guidance is shaped into a complex narrative counterpoint to the composition of the poem.

Such a solution to the problems posed by the intricate interplay of poem and commentary would seem extraordinary were it not for Shade's and Nabokov's preoccupation with the afterlife,15 and for parallels within the novel and outside. Kinbote obtains access to Hazel's notes from the haunted barn, and despite his own sense of the all-important urgency of deciphering the message that she spells out with the help of the ghostly light on the barn wall, he can find no sense whatever, nothing "that might be construed, however remotely, as containing a warning, or having some bearing on the circumstances of her soon-coming death." (C.347, 189) But from our vantage point we can discern a message in the line Hazel takes down on her pad ("pada ata lane pad not ogo old wart alan ther tale feur far rant lant tal told" [C.347, 188]), a message to Hazel to tell her father ("pada": pa, da, padre) not to go across the lane to old Goldsworth's, as an atalanta butterfly dances by, after he finishes "Pale Fire" ("tale feur"), at the invitation of someone from a foreign land who has told and even ranted his tall tale to him.16 We can decipher the message warning of Shade's death, of course, only after his death. Kinbote observes that "The barn ghost seems to have expressed himself with the empasted difficulty of apoplexy" (C.347, 189), but he does not realize that it is the spirit of Shade's Aunt Maud, always so fond of "images of doom" (P.89, 36), who shortly before she dies has a stroke that seriously interferes with her speech (P.196-208, 40). Just as Maud's predilection for images of doom, and her corrupted speech, are reflected in her warning and undeciphered by Kinbote, so Shade's characteristic fondness for combinational magic and counterpoint, especially in his last poem, seems to find its unrecognized outlet in the Gradus parts of the Commentary.

Apart from all the specific connections between Shade and Gradus, Nabokov offers other hints to this reading in the commentary, where for instance in glossing "stilettos of a frozen stillicide" Kinbote recalls having encountered this word (which means, according to Webster's Second, "a continual falling or succession of drops; now esp., the dripping of rain water from the eaves; eavesdrop") "for the first time in a poem by Thomas Hardy" (C.34-35, 79). The Hardy poem is "Friends Beyond," in which the speaker tells of those resting in the local cemetery:

They've a way of whispering to me--fellow-wight who yet abide--
In the muted, measured note
Of a ripple under archways, or a lone cave's stillicide:
"We have triumphed: this achievement turns the bane to antidote,
Unsuccesses to success. . . ." (I: 78-79)
Since Kinbote is unable, as usual, to remember exactly where a particular poet used a particular word, Nabokov can refer us here, behind Kinbote's back, to another work in which a mortal speaker communicates with the beyond. Behind Kinbote's back, because unlike Hardy's speaker, Kinbote remains unaware of the communication, unaware that his Gradus fantasy is as it were "S's contribution" to the Commentary, as his own fabricated variants are "K's contribution" to Shade's poem. Kinbote then closes his note, with his habitual compulsiveness--and perhaps with the wry help of his own "friend beyond"--with a suspicion of Gradus: "We should also note the cloak-and-dagger hint-glint in the `svelte stilettos' and the shadow of regicide in the rhyme." (C.34-35, 79)

The idea that Shade from beyond the grave helps Kinbote add the Gradus elements to his other Zemblan material will also seem less extraordinary to the reader who knows Nabokov's story "The Vane Sisters," where the ghosts of two dead women dictate the narrator's actions and words without his recognition, even though his text expresses explicitly his frustrated attempt to discern some glimpse of the sisters beyond death, or Transparent Things, where the ghost of one of the characters who dies during the course of the book tells the whole story and welcomes the hero over the threshold of death in the last line, or Ada, where a covert pattern of Lucette and letters hints at Lucette's kindly intervention from beyond in Van and Ada's lives, and her continuous inspiration as they write their collaborative memoir (see Boyd, Nabokov's Ada, 179-205 and 224-25).

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Notes

15. Véra Nabokov singled out potustoronnost' (the beyond) as VN's main theme in her introduction to Stikhi [3]. I treated the theme at length in "Nabokov and Ada" and in Nabokov's Ada: The Place of Consciousness, and in the two volumes of the biography. William Woodin Rowe's Nabokov's Spectral Dimension is vulgar and almost always unjustified spook-spotting; Vladimir Alexandrov, Nabokov's Otherworld, introduces aspects of the topic well but often pushes associations too far.

16. Nabokov offered a similar decoding to Andrew Field, 26 September 1966, (Boyd, VNAY, 454), and Véra Nabokov did the same for Igor Yefimov, 8 July 1980 (Vladimir Nabokov Archive, Berg Collection, New York Public Library) and Gennady Barabtarlo (Barabtarlo 207-08).

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