Shade and Shape in Pale Fire
In Pale Fire the process of discovery awaiting Shade and the reader retraces the spiral that runs through all Nabokov's metaphysics and his art, his lifelong image for the opening out of all closed circles into dimensions of ever greater freedom. Nabokov adapts the terms of the Hegelian dialectic so that the first, inner arc of the spiral represents the thesis, which then turns into an ampler arc curving back the other way, the antithesis, which evolves into a still more encompassing arc, the synthesis, which becomes in turn the thesis of a new series.24 In Pale Fire, Shade's positives form the first, thetic arc, the serene confidence at the end of his poem in his waking up tomorrow, in his surviving beyond death, in the harmony of galaxies divine. The second arc, the antithesis, the negative counter-curve, corresponds to his murder, his uncompleted poem, his travestied life and work and death. In his famous discussion of the chess problem in Speak, Memory, Nabokov describes how in this antithetical stage he entices the would-be-expert solver towards a "fashionable avant-garde theme," and the same stratagem recurs here in Pale Fire, in the savage irony, the metaphysical debunking, as Gradus's and Kinbote's mayhem undercuts the poem's order.25 In the third arc the poem continues from line 999 to line 1000 by spiraling back to the beginning, in a sustained explosion of positive ironies that suggests an afterlife might transform even what looks like maximum meaninglessness into a synthesis of radiant sense. Within Shade's life, his confidence in the beyond could never be justified. But from the outside, it is perhaps the very frailty and unfinishedness of mortality that allows for the munificence of the pattern that he can see from beyond.
The confidence that through one's art one can understand the design hidden behind life and death might be completely misplaced, or true in a way more astounding than one could possibly imagine. Nabokov admits that his own confidence, ampler even than Shade's, could be just as misplaced. Yet the very possibility of design as concealed, as complex and as utterly transfiguring as all that he packs into the small compass of Pale Fire suggests that it could indeed be possible there is deliberate design behind our world that we cannot yet see.
Some readers still read Nabokov only as far as his negative irony, his ability to deflate, to register disappointments, humiliations and horrors, the kinds of thing they think prove scorn and Schadenfreude his natural key. As his Hermanns and his Humberts and his Paduks and his Graduses indicate, Nabokov is anything but blind to the darkness in life. But readers who stop there, and think that he stops there, in modernist irony or in a post-modernist abîme, miss what matters most to him: his positive irony, his attempt to encompass all the negatives, as he suspects life itself does, and to reverse their direction in the mirror of death. The search for that possibility is what makes Nabokov different, and what makes him write.
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24. For the spiral, see SM 275, for its aesthetic application, SM 291-92, for its metaphysical invocation, SM 301. For an extended discussion of Nabokov's metaphysics in terms of the spiral, see Boyd, Nabokov's Ada, 49-88.
25. SM 291. Ackerley discusses the chess problem and Nabokov's description of it, and applies it to a Shadean reading of Pale Fire. He comments: "Pale Fire is not a novel based on any `fashionable avant-garde theme' of polysemous meaning infinitely deferred" (94). Quite right, although Nabokov in 1961 could have hardly anticipated the deconstructionist dogma that would become so fashionable fifteen years later. But he did know the twentieth-century fashion for mordant metaphysical scepticism.
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