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

Andrew Field, convinced that in this novel “Nabokov has given us the best and truest allegorical portrait of the ‘literary process’ that we have or are likely ever to get,”18 chooses to consider Shade the primary author, adopting a kind of Cheshire Cat line of reasoning: “There are many compelling logical reasons to place John Shade before Charles Kinbote. A sane man may invent an insane character, and we call him an artist; an insane man who invents a perfectly sane character is also an artist, but ipso facto no longer insane in the way that Kinbote is.”19 This makes sense only if we take it for granted that Kinbote is a real person and not a fictional character and that he is indeed insane. Another difficulty which troubles Field is that Shade, a ‘normal’ heterosexual, could have invented a pervert such as Kinbote; he ultimately arrives at an explanation which really does not explain anything: “There is, when one thinks of it, a valid psychological connection with John Shade after all. Pale Fire depends centrally on mirroring, and just as one’s image is reversed in a mirror, so it is quite logical that a poet who is unquestionably ‘sexually normal’ should have an inverse subconscious world in which perversion runs rampant.”20 It may be optically logical, but is it psychologically, or even poetically, so? Field’s theory of sexual identity is somewhat primitive, to say the least. In The Life and Art of Vladimir Nabokov, he explains that Nabokov had been petted by his homosexual uncle, “the bottom-feeler,” suggesting that there may have been a homosexual streak in him as in other members of his family.21 This does not lead him to change his view of the novel, however, since he writes that “Kinbote’s Zembla is a homosexual fantasy, but it has no connection with the John Shade we know from the poem.”22

Nabokov’s second biographer, Brian Boyd, though elsewhere highly critical of Field, adopts a similar Shadean view of Pale Fire, claiming confidently that “Nabokov has built Shade up in such a way as to leave no doubt that his poet could have conceived the idea of hiding behind his commentator’s mad mask.”23 He raises a number of arguments in favor of this theory, pointing out that Shade is a specialist of eighteeenth century literature and of Alexander Pope, who mentions Nova Zembla, and that Kinbote confesses to being “a miserable rhymester” and therefore couldn’t have written the poem or invented Shade. The most apparently decisive argument is, of course, the poem drafted by Nabokov and attributed to Shade in which the poet claims to have written the index:

Nobody will heed my index,
I suppose,
But through it a gentle wind ex
Ponto blows.24
The verse appears in the manuscript of a preface to the revised edition of Speak, Memory, but not in the final printed text; Boyd states somewhat naively that “Nabokov decided not to divulge Pale Fire’s secret.”25 But is that really what Nabokov was doing? Was he not rather playing another of his little mask games, as he did in peppering his books with anagrammatic doubles? At the 1995 Nabokov conference in Nice, novelist David Lodge pointed out that this was a clear case of intentional fallacy: “This interpretation seems to me a classic instance of the intentional fallacy as defined by Wimsatt and Beardsley in their famous essay, namely that it is a mistake to judge or interpret a literary text by seeking evidence of the author’s intentions outside the text.”26 Even if Nabokov meant to say what Boyd contends, and there is no evidence that he did, we have no more reason to believe him here than we do anywhere else.

Lodge raised another strong argument against Boyd’s thesis, claiming that he couldn’t see himself doing what Shade is supposed to have done, that is writing “a transparent autobiographical poem about coming to terms with one of the most painful and tragic events that can happen to a man, the suicide of his own child, and then attach[ing] to it a comic, ironic and satirical fiction, in the form of a commentary on his own poem.”27 This reads as an oblique rebuttal of Boyd’s argument that “[i]n creating Kinbote’s desperate loneliness, Shade attempts to express the hope that even within the loneliness and despair that drove Hazel to her death there may have been something to match the private, magical radiance that Zembla has within Kinbote’s mind.”28 According to Boyd’s theory, Kinbote’s extraordinary saga is Shade’s bloated metaphor of his daughter’s pathetic misery and hopeless attempts to gain access to an intangible reality, as in the barn scenes for example. But considering the megalomaniacal digressiveness of the commentary, its obsession with homosexuality and its grim humor, would not this interpretation amount to saying that Shade had been so ravaged by his daughter’s suicide that he had foundered into sheer madness? Boyd overlooks this possibility, suggesting, on the contrary, that “[i]n creating Kinbote, Shade can also mimic the role of the gods, wielding over an imagined world the sort of control he supposes some higher force may exercise over his own life.”29

The “higher force” mentioned here is obviously metaphysical in nature, but towards the end of his analysis Boyd begins to wonder whether it might not be the tutelary author himself: “The more autonomy we see in Shade the artist, the less distinct become the outlines of Shade the man. He begins, in other words, to grade into Nabokov.”30 He does indeed, but this discovery does not lead Boyd to reassess his overall view of the novel, to realize, for instance, that his courageous attempt to get out of the black box of the text has led him to confuse the narrator with the author, despite their many differences. Vladimir Alexandrov shares his views in this respect: “Shade is second only to Fyodor in The Gift in the extent to which he embodies Nabokov’s own view about such topics as memory, writing, fateful patterning in life and art, the correlation of disparate and seemingly unrelated phenomena, intuitions about a transcent otherworld, nature and artifice, perceptual acuity, perspicacity, and their relation to good and evil.”31 This interpretation seems to settle the matter once and for all: Shade is a projection of the author himself, Kinbote a lame caricature, and the poem takes precedence over the commentary, which turns out to be a lengthy, but gratuitous, joke. This interpretation proposes an easy way out of the black box, but it does little to account for the complexity of the text as a whole; the latest spate of exegeses on the Internet32 reveals that few critics can accept it. The author himself, judging by Dmitri Nabokov’s contribution to the debate, would have shrugged it off with a chuckle.

[Editor's Note: Brian Boyd has allowed Zembla to append a response to Maurice Couturier’s article, which he sent to NABOKV-L, the Electronic Nabokov Discussion Forum, on April 16, 1998.]

All the Shadean interpretations of Pale Fire are based on the assumption that Nabokov fully controls his text and knows he can exactly and enduringly manipulate his reader. In the paragraph following the passage quoted above, Boyd writes: “Like Shade, Nabokov wishes to express in terms of fiction what he cannot express directly in a sober account of his own life: a confidence that through the magic mirror of his art he can somehow resolve the mystery of death that must otherwise remain impenetrable in life.”33 This passage contains many interesting levels of modalization, from “sober account,” to “confidence,” to “wishes to express in terms of fiction,” and eventually to “must otherwise remain impenetrable in life,” a “must” which implies the existence of a higher, metaphysical law, that of death, the only law the author is unable to ignore, Boyd intimates. It seems to me that the Shadeans unconsciously allow their own metaphysical preconceptions and their preoccupations with the “human interest” factor, which they rashly attribute to the author himself, to dictate their interpretations of the novel. Conversely, one might wonder whether Page Stegner’s unfavorable criticism of the book was not due to the fact that he gave precedence to Kinbote over Shade. The exegetes on both sides remain prisoners of the black box: they do not, properly speaking, interpret the text; they analyse it more or less scrupulously according to their own metaphysical or aesthetic preconceptions, according also to what they know or think they know about the author’s expectations and values.

The deconstructionist view of the novel would consist in saying that only the text matters, and that any attempt to relate it to the author is epistemologically irrelevant. As far as I know, no one has yet proposed such a sweeping deconstructionist interpretation, perhaps because the text is so complex and so baffling that even a deconstructionist would reasonably fear becoming Nabokov’s dupe. To claim that the author is dead and that the text is up for grabs, as Roland Barthes did in his celebrated article, does not help much when one is confronted with such a tightly constructed text, which burdens every critic with the same question: where do I stand as regards Shade, Kinbote and eventually the author? It is this near-paranoia, widespread among Nakokovians, which led me to speak of “the tyranny of the author” in my 1993 book. I was reacting not so much against interpretations like those tabulated above as against French post-structuralism and American deconstructionism, insisting upon the many markers of over-determination in Nabokov’s text, and therefore on the countless elements which contribute to creating this near-paranoia. In my penultimate paragraph, I admit that I have been unable, for the most part, to escape the black box of the text: “Our alienation is obvious, but it would not occur to us to deplore it, for it allows us to rise, temporarily at least, to a certain level of artistic excellence. Nabokov offers talent, imagination and pleasure to those who consent to obey the law of his text. No matter how much we resent his arrogance, his objurgations and his interdicts, we willingly surrender to his desires, for they kindle our own with an exceptional new vigor.”34 This was, of course, partly an acknowledgement of defeat.

(© 1998 Maurice Couturier. More anon in my forthcoming essay "Nabokov’s Near-Tyranny.")

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Notes

18. Nabokov: His Life in Art (Boston: Little Brown, 1967), pp. 316-7.

19. Ibid., p. 317.

20. Ibid., p. 309.

21. The Life and Art of Vladimir Nabokov (New York: Crown Publisher, 1986), p. 38.

22. Ibid., p. 343.

23. Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years (London: Chatto & Windus, 1991), p. 443.

24. Ibid., p. 445

25. Ibid.

26. David Lodge, The Practice of Writing (London: Secker & Warburg, 1996) p. 162. This may also be read as a fiction writer’s attempt to prevent the reader from meddling with the real author.

27. Ibid., p. 163.

28. Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years, p. 449.

29.Ibid., p. 451.

30. Ibid., p. 455.

31. Nabokov’s Otherworld (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991), p. 187.

32. Posted in recent months to NABOKV-L, the Electronic Nabokov Discussion List.

33. Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years, p. 455.

34. Nabokov, ou la tyrannie de l’auteur (Paris: Ed. du Seuil, “Coll. Poétique”, 1993), pp. 399-400.


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