"Which is to be master' in Pale Fire*
by Maurice Couturier

It would be tedious to tabulate all the theories about who invented whom in Pale Fire; I propose simply to summarize the best known and to pinpoint their respective flaws, the question being, as Humpty Dumpty puts it, “Which is to be master?”

Mary McCarthy’s critical response to the novel came very early--almost too early in the opinion of Frank Kermode: “The age is grown so picked that the toe of the critic comes so near the heel of the artist, he galls his kibe.”1 She was so well acquainted with Nabokov that she plays the novel’s game more or less according to his rules, that is by pitting one intratextual author against the other without ever deciding which comes first and without trying to prove that one might have invented the other. Her main purpose is to annotate the novel and to draw the reader’s attention to the red and green pattern, the chess game strategy, and the intertextual references, stating almost helplessly at one point that “Pale Fire is a Jack-in-the-Box, a Fabergé gem, a clockwork toy, a chess problem, an infernal machine, a trap to catch reviewers, a cat-and-mouse game, a do-it-yourself novel.”2 She does not interpret the novel, strictly speaking, but seeks to establish its “human interest”: “Nabokov’s tenderness for human eccentricity, for the freak, the ‘deviate,’ is partly the naturalist’s taste for the curious. But his fond, wry compassion for the lone black piece on the board goes deeper than classificatory science or the collector’s choplicking. Love is the burden of Pale Fire, love and loss.”3 The last sentence does not really follow logically from what precedes it: McCarthy seemed to fear that the game might be deemed gratuitous unless it served a humanist purpose of some kind.

After some additional comments on the novel's philosophical dimension, on “Nabokov’s pantheism,” she reverts at the end to her annotations, lamenting the fact that she has “not been able to find, in Shakespeare or anywhere else, the source of ‘pale fire.’”4 To mitigate her frustration (or to hide her embarrasment?), she supplies her own references, mentioning for instance that a “Helena Rubinstein product is called Pale Fire.”5 Her enthusiastic peroration about this “creation of perfect beauty, symmetry, strangeness, originality, and moral truth” reads as a desperate attempt to conceal her frustration at being unable to identify the source of the title. In the French translation of her article, which appeared in 1964, she finally provides the Shakespearean reference as well as adding a few more annotations of her own.6 To cover up her initial failure to identify Timon of Athens as the source of the title, she boldly pursues her thematic quest, suggesting that the textual web of the novel is so intricate that no one will ever be able to fully disentangle the threads, and thank goodness, for as a result the text will remain an endless source of aesthetic and intellectual pleasure.

Robert Alter adopts a similarly ludic view of the novel in his excellent essay “Nabokov’s Game of Worlds”, claiming that “[t]his is not a Jamesian experiment in reliability of narrative point-of-view, and there is no reason to doubt the existence of the basic fictional data.”7 Like McCarthy, he subscribes more or less fully to the reading contract proposed by Kinbote or Botkin and makes no attempt to free himself from the black box of the text: he undertakes to describe the text rather than to interpret it. This is obliquely an admission of helplessness, as is Julia Bader’s claim that “the novel does not force us to choose between the poem and the commentary. In their different ways, each artwork is interesting and beautiful.”8 This open-minded stance does not prevent her, however, from reminding the reader towards the end of her study that “the poem is completely self-contained and self-explanatory, while the commentary, as it stands, does not make sense without the poem.”9

In a 1976 article, written at a time when I was heavily influenced by the French structuralists, especially Roland Barthes, I followed a similar line with a slightly deconstructionist slant: I added a few annotations of my own and played with the mirror games suggested by the text, taking Shade’s poem and Kinbote’s commentary on trust, as it were, deciding that the figure 8, consisting of two interconnecting circles, was the structuring figure of the text, of what Barthes calls the “hyphos”: “metaphorically speaking, I would say that the text is the tiny point where both circles meet, or ‘the bamboo bridge’ which I have been constructing through my signifying practice in order to connect two apparently unrelated tales.10 In my theory of the “hors-texte” I was already hinting at a reader-oriented but conflict-based theory of the novel: “The ‘hors-texte’, when viewed in the artistic perspective of Kinbote, does not dwarf the creativeness of the new writer (‘tout a été dit, on arrive trop tard!’), it serves as a warning to prevent the new writer from treading on someone else’s ground, or from palely reflecting the glowing glory of his predecessors.”11 Retrospectively, I consider this statement a pompous dodge, since it partly contradicts the incipit of my article in which I (mis)quote McNab saying (in French): “My only purpose in writing is to gag God.”12 I was already aware of “Nabokov’s tyranny” but was not yet ready to expound it as a structuring principle of the novel.

As early as 1966-67, a number of critics began to raise with some insistance the question of who invented whom in Pale Fire, Page Stegner suggesting that Kinbote authored both the poem and the commentary and Andrew Field undertaking to show that, on the contrary, Shade had authored the whole thing. Stegner takes some precautions, saying that it is “possible, perhaps probable, that Gradus and Shade are as much figments of Kinbote’s imagination as Charles the Beloved and the far-distant land of Zembla.”13 Despite Kinbote’s confession that he is “a miserable rhymester,”14 Stegner thinks that the demented commentator could have created a “fictitious poem”--whatever that is.15 His theory is largely based on his belief that a novel’s value depends on its human interest, as the following passage from his book suggests:

Until it can be demonstrated that Pale Fire does deal in some way with moral truth or valid experience, I can admire the poem and the language and humor of Kinbote’s commentary, and be amazed by its complexity, but I must remain skeptical about its greatness and, in fact, its durability. The form of the novel and the dependence of the content on the form give me the uneasy feeling that a resurrected Luzhin wrote it, and that the obsession of the conscious artist with technique and gamesmanship is overwhelming the compassion and humanism of the man behind the mask.16

Many critics, like Cloyne,17 felt that Nabokov had overdone it this time and had merely performed an unsurpassed narrative stunt, but one that was devoid of aesthetic and/or philosophical value. It was tempting, in such cases, to claim that Kinbote, a mad megalomaniac, had authored not only the commentary but the poem as well.

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(This text was meant to be part of an essay on "Nabokov's Near-Tyranny" to be published in a forthcoming book edited by Julian Connolly. It had to be jettisoned when the essay threatened to become too long.)

1. “Zemblances,” New Statesman, 9 November 1962, p. 671.

2. “A Bolt from the Blue,” New Republic, CXLVI (June 4, 1962), p. 21

3. Ibid., p. 26.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. “Pale Fire,” L’Arc, #24 (spring 1964), p. 21.

7. Partial Magic: The Novel as a Self-Conscious Genre (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975), p. 185.

8. Julia Bader, Crystal Land (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972), p. 53.

9. Ibid., p. 55.

10. “Nabokov’s Pale Fire, or the Purloined Poem,” Revue Française d'Etudes Américaines, no. 1 (April 1976), p. 68.

11. Ibid., p. 69. This, I now see, is strangely reminiscent of what Michel Foucault wrote in a 1969 article I had not read at the time, “What is an Author?” See my later book, La Figure de l’auteur (Paris: Ed. du Seuil, “Coll. Poétique”, 1995), pp. 7-24 passim.

12. Ibid., p. 57.

13. Page Stegner, Escape into Aesthetics (New York: Dial Press, 1966), p. 129.

14. Pale Fire, p. 289.

15. Stegner, p. 130.

16. Ibid., pp. 131-2.

17. George Cloyne writes: “Yet Mr. Nabokov is stretching his ingenuity rather than his wit. Where his book comes to life is in brief moments of irritability; he is a master of the small cruel flash.” “Jesting Footnotes,” The New York Times Book Review, May 27, 1962, p. 18.

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