Genius and Plausibility: Suspension of Disbelief in Pale Fire
by J. Morris


The reader's suspension of disbelief in the stylistic prowess of first-person narrators is, throughout much of fiction's evolution, a necessary prerequisite to reading a work rightly. We do not pause to wonder how Nick Carraway, a bond trader, manages to write as well as F. Scott Fitzgerald, nor do we question 17-year-old Holden Caulfield's extraordinary voice and narrative savvy. This acceptance of way-better-than-average literary accomplishment on the part of narrators who are not supposed to be writers is merely one of the many meta-conventions of fiction, by which readers agree to abide.

Does this convention hold, though, in the case of Charles Kinbote, the first-person voice in Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire? Significant interpretative questions hinge on this point, yet it is difficult to resolve satisfactorily.

I want to explore three critical approaches to the novel, and to the suspension-of-disbelief issue, before offering my own. I will also try to adduce VN's position. Such a concern for the author's views may be derrière-garde, but so be it: All who take umbrage at "privileging" author over text may now leave the virtual room.


Three intelligent critiques of Pale Fire raise the question of Kinbote's1 literary style, while drawing different interpretative conclusions.

Richard Rorty, in "The Barber of Kasbeam: Nabokov on Cruelty" (reprinted in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, Cambridge University Press, 1989), sees Kinbote as one of a trinity of Nabokovian narrators--the others are Humbert Humbert and Van Veen--who share a common characteristic: "[T]hey write as well as their creator at his best" (CIS, 158). Rorty quotes VN's well-known epitaph for Humbert ("a vain and cruel wretch who manages to appear 'touching'") and suggests that Humbert "manages it because he can write as well as Nabokov can" (CIS, 158). Rorty couples Kinbote with Humbert in this regard: "[L]ike Kinbote, Humbert is exactly as good a writer, exactly as much of an artist, capable of creating exactly as much iridescent ecstasy, as Nabokov himself" (CIS, 159).

Whether VN intends these narrators to be seen as writing as well as himself, Rorty does not explicitly say. It seems likely that Rorty thinks so, though, for he views VN's fiction as a deliberate exploration of the relation between literary genius and cruelty. He believes VN knew that literary gifts have no "special connection with pity and kindness" and that, the better the writer, the more prone he or she may be to the excesses of "a special sort of cruelty" (CIS, 168). Such writers may be "masters of imagery who are content to turn the lives of other human beings into images on a screen, while simply not noticing that these other people are suffering" (CIS, 157).

Concerning Pale Fire, Rorty's main argument is that, in Shade and Kinbote, VN has contrasted two literary types: the "tender," curious, humane poet (but a second-rate poet, as we shall shortly see), and the cruel, obsessed "genius-monster" who notices only what he wishes to notice, who is rendered utterly incurious by his obsessions, but who nonetheless can create a literary "ecstasy" denied the poet. (Rorty also has much to say, much of it interesting, about Shade and Kinbote as possible reflections of VN's own inner contrasts and anxieties, but these speculations are beside the point here.)

This contrast naturally entails a view of the relative merits of Shade's and Kinbote's literary productions. Rorty is unambiguous: "[M]ost nonobsessed poets are, like Shade, second rate" (CIS, 159). He calls Kinbote "a much better writer" than Shade (CIS, 158), "much more imaginative" (CIS, 164). Given that Rorty puts Kinbote's literary skills on an exact par with VN's, it is no surprise that Rorty also finds Shade second rate in comparison to his creator: "Shade's poem about the death of his daughter is not nearly as good a poem as Pale Fire is a novel. That is because the rest of the novel, Kinbote's commentary, gives us something Shade could not--it surrounds the ordinary suffering of an elderly mortal man with glimpses of Zembla, glimpses of what Humbert Humbert called 'a paradise whose skies were the color of hell-flame'" (CIS, 164). In short, "it is the counterpoint between the poem and the commentary which makes the poem itself memorable" (CIS, 164).

Rorty takes it for granted that we may legitimately treat Kinbote as an "actual" writer, a narrator whose literary gifts we must weigh in order to fully appreciate the author's intentions--unlike, say, Nick Carraway or Holden Caulfield. He accepts Shade as an actual poet, as well, so the merit of the poem "Pale Fire" also becomes interpretatively relevant. It is important to keep this in mind as we turn to a second, more complicated exegesis of Pale Fire, that of Brian Boyd.


Brian Boyd is in the interesting, perhaps unique, position of having offered what appeared to be a definitive interpretation of a major novel, only to recant it in favor of a decidedly different reading that may well prove equally definitive. I believe that both his interpretations of Pale Fire deserve discussion here, on equal footing, and despite his disavowal of the earlier one. To prevent more confusion than is inevitable, I will refer to the first Boyd reading as "Boyd I," the second as "Boyd II," and treat "Boyd I" in the eternal present tense.

For Boyd I (in Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years, Princeton University Press, 1991), the key to understanding Pale Fire involves a deduction he believes VN wants us to make: that John Shade is himself the author of both poem and commentary. There is no "Charles Kinbote," not even reduced to a Russian scholar named Botkin; the events at Wordsmith College recounted in the commentary are non-events made up by Shade, who, ex hypothesi, did not die: he lives on, as author of, in fact, Pale Fire the novel.

If this view is true (and Boyd I makes a detailed and persuasive case), the issue of the respective literary abilities of VN, Shade, and Kinbote becomes vexed. The question, "Ought the good reader suspend her disbelief in Kinbote's ability to write as well as VN?" now metamorphoses into a question about whether Shade, aging poet and first-time novelist, needs to have the benefit of our suspended disbelief. However, if we put aside the intellectual vertigo which the metamorphosis invites, we can see that the question has not, at bottom, changed. We are still asking whether the literary prowess of a narrator in a novel should be overlooked, or made part of that novel's interpretation. What may have changed is the answer--for Shade is a very different character from Kinbote, and indeed, the sense in which he is a "narrator" has also altered. But let us follow Boyd's thread through the labyrinth of Pale Fire a bit further.

Unlike Rorty, Boyd rates the poem "Pale Fire" highly: "Tender, brave, wise, and witty, the poem builds its lucid lines into the shapeliest of structures with all the assurance of a masterpiece" (VN:TAY, 439). After praising its "clarity," "surprise," and "visual and aural trouvailles," he concludes that "English poetry has few things better to offer than 'Pale Fire'" (VN:TAY, 440).

What, then, prompts Shade to write a "commentary" to his masterpiece? The persona of Kinbote allows him "to express what he cannot express directly in his own voice" (VN:TAY, 446): to enter completely a different mind, to explore in imagination the transcendence of death, and to "express the hope that even within the loneliness and despair that drove [his daughter] Hazel to her [self-inflicted] death there may have been something to match the private, magical radiance that Zembla has within Kinbote's mind" (VN:TAY, 449).

Boyd I does not take seriously, as Rorty does (and as Boyd II, for the most part, does, as we shall see), the idea that a Kinbote could have produced the commentary to "Pale Fire." To Rorty, Kinbote is the "much more imaginative" writer; but to Boyd I, "Shade embodies the imagination at its best, able to break free of the narrow confines of self; Kinbote's deranged mind represents the imagination not as escapee but as jailer, herding everything he sees into the dungeon of his own crazy ego" (VN:TAY, 435). Thus we see how neatly Boyd I's conflation of Kinbote into Shade solves, at one level, the suspension-of-disbelief problem: There is no need to believe that a mad scholar, of whatever nationality, "really" wrote the prose of Pale Fire. What we must instead believe is that a poet of rare talent did so.

Is this plausible, or must we still overlook the unlikelihood that John Shade possessed VN's genius? Boyd notes that "as a writer and an academic, Shade is of course accustomed to polished prose as well as verse--Kinbote even admits to 'aping the prose style of [Shade's] own critical essays'--and to the quirks of criticism so absurdly parodied in Kinbote" (VN:TAY, 444). But "polished prose" is not the same thing as genius, and Boyd acknowledges that Shade "begins . . . to grade into Nabokov" (VN:TAY, 455). Boyd goes on to draw interesting conclusions about the relation of Shade, and the events in Pale Fire, to VN's life, but like Rorty's similar speculations, they are beside the point here. The relevant question is, rather, Can we believe that Shade "grades into Nabokov" stylistically, to the extent that he writes poetry, and especially prose, as well as his creator? Or must we suspend our disbelief, as we would for more traditional narrators?

Boyd I is no more troubled by this question than is Rorty. Rorty, as we saw, takes it for granted that Pale Fire plays by different rules than most fiction, and that therefore the issue of Kinbote's literary skill is interpretatively relevant. Boyd I also takes this for granted, with the difference that, in his view, it is Shade's literary skill which we must reckon into our interpretation. Neither critic thinks it necessary to suspend disbelief in the ability of these fictitious authors to write as well as Vladimir Nabokov.


In "Shade and Shape in Pale Fire" (first published in Nabokov Studies #4, 1997 and reprinted electronically in Zembla), Brian Boyd sets out a new way of reading Pale Fire. He posits, and argues with his customary clarity and wealth of textual evidence, that Kinbote is after all a "real" character (that is, not invented by Shade), but that Shade (who is indeed murdered) survives as a spirit after death and influences Kinbote's commentary in a number of complex and significant ways. The result is that Kinbote is no longer really in control of what he is saying--nor even, perhaps, of how he is saying it. Rather, Shade casts a long shade indeed, adding to what Boyd II calls "the Matter of Zembla" all the Gradus material, and all of the intricate counterpoint between poem and commentary as far as it reflects the approach of Kinbote's fantasized assassin.

Two things must be said to counteract an initial impression of outlandishness. The first is that Boyd II provides innumerable insights, both small and large, to lend credence to the notion of Shade's survival and influence. Furthermore, his examination of the Gradus subplot reveals a world of new material that enriches any reading of the novel. My summation cannot hope to do justice to what is, right or wrong, a brilliant exegesis. The second is that VN, of all authors, would be extremely likely to concoct just such a scenario. Boyd II assembles evidence from VN's corpus to demonstrate that survival after death was a constant literary and metaphysical preoccupation for VN, a preoccupation we should be unsurprised to find continued in Pale Fire.2 So, with Boyd II, we have Kinbote as the author of Pale Fire's prose--the person whose literary skills we must decide either to weigh or to disregard--but he is also an unwitting mouthpiece for the author of Pale Fire's poetry. The question we now have to ask is this: How plausible is it that Kinbote, with Shade's help from beyond the grave, could produce prose of Nabokovian genius? Does the assistance of Shade make Kinbote any more likely a genius-author? Before we attempt an answer, we should look a little more closely at exactly what contribution Boyd II believes Shade makes to Kinbote's commentary. In particular, we must ask whether Shade makes Kinbote a better writer, stylistically.

The answer would appear to be no. Boyd II is clear that Shade's posthumous contribution affects the commentary's content (via the introduction of Gradus) and its construction (through elaborate contrapuntal interweaving of the Gradus theme with Shade's poem), but not the style itself. "Style," of course, is a vague and somewhat arbitrary noun. It cannot be properly separated, past the level of sentences, from either content or construction. Yet when we pose the question of "genius," it cannot be ignored either. Any reader of Pale Fire who admires the book at all, admires its wit, its fantasy, its astonishing evocations of Zembla--all of which are successful because of the lucid, passionate prose in the commentary, and none of which, on Boyd II's view, can really be attributed to Shade's shade. "Shade helps Kinbote . . . to become as much of an artist as he can, to impose a much tighter form than he can manage anywhere else on the obsessions filling his mind," says Boyd II. Fair enough--but those obsessions have already been given a style, if not a form, by Kinbote himself, that is marvelous to read. So, fundamentally, the Boyd II view of this question is no different than Rorty's. Charles Kinbote writes as well as VN, with or without Shade's help. And Boyd II, like Rorty and like Boyd I, takes for granted that this is possible, that no suspension of disbelief is required.

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1. A close reading of the novel reveals the likelihood that "Kinbote" is in fact Vseslav Botkin, an insane Russian scholar, and "Zembla" a cracked mirror of his vanished homeland. An even closer reading suggests that the poet John Shade may have invented, or supernaturally influenced, both these personae. These interpretations will be discussed in the pages that follow; however, since most criticism of Pale Fire employs the name "Kinbote" to refer to the first-person voice, I shall follow this convention for clarity's sake.

2. I can also refer the reader to my own article, "The Gliding Eye: Nabokov's Marvelous Terror," forthcoming in The Southern Review, Winter 1999, which covers similar ground.

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