Genius and Plausibility: Suspension of Disbelief in Pale Fire
At this point, it will be helpful to see whether VN himself provided any information that might assist us in determining how we should view the quality of Pale Fire's prosody and prose.
What was VN's evaluation of Shade's poem? It is important to notice that, if the poem is indeed second rate, Shade's ability to write as well as "Kinbote" looks much less likely. True, dissatisfaction with the poem could be considered part of Shade's motivation to "transcend" it, to create a commentary that manages to express what the poem could not. But motivation and ability are not the same thing. It is implausible that a truly second-rate poet could have produced the "Kinbote" commentaries, however motivated he may have been to do so. If it was VN's intention that we accept this, then we must judge the novel, in this respect, a failure.
I do not believe, though, that VN considered "Pale Fire" to be second rate. I believe he thought highly of the poem as a technical construction, and esteemed many of its tropes. But his opinion of it overall was probably less enthusiastic than Boyd's. He intended Shade to be a good poet, but not a great one, in part because he himself could not impersonate poetic greatness. The following arguments support this view.
VN chose to read a sizable section of Canto Two (the passages recounting Hazel Shade's death) at the Poetry Room of the Harvard College Library in April 1964. He also permitted the reading to be recorded and distributed. It is probably unnecessary to convince my readers that VN was, to draw it mildly, a man of considerable self-regard and self-satisfaction. His conviction (by no means unfounded) of his pre-eminent place in literature is too well known to require citation. Would such a man offer his audience at Harvard--and posterity, through the recording medium--a section of a poem he'd intended to be obviously second rate, the unsatisfactory production of a character whom he did not choose to endow with his own poetic gifts? Surely the answer must be no. VN wrote as well as he knew how in "Pale Fire," and expected the poem to please his listeners and readers.
But how well was that? What, exactly, did VN think about his own poetic gifts?
In his introduction to Poems and Problems, VN declares that "I began to exude" a " steady mass of verse" in Russian as a young man, "and continued to do so, with monstrous regularity, especially during the twenties and thirties, then petering out in the next two decades, when a meager output of a score or so hardly exceeded the number of poems I wrote in English" (Poems and Problems, 13). He further says of these Russian poems that, from the late thirties on, he experienced "a sudden liberation from self-imposed shackles, resulting both in a sparser output and in a belatedly discovered robust style" (PAP, 14).
Of his poems in English, "there is not much to say. . . Somehow they are of lighter texture than the Russian stuff, owing, no doubt, to their lacking that inner verbal association with old perplexities and constant worry of thought which marks poems written in one's mother tongue. . ." (PAP, 14).
These comments, taken together, form a surprisingly modest self-evaluation from this immodest man. VN appears to be saying that his early Russian poems are at best second rate, written as they were in "self-imposed shackles." The later Russian poems exhibit that missing "robust style," but constitute a "meager output." And the English poems lack, for VN, the "inner verbal association" he requires of first-rate poetry--the full engagement with language itself, we might say. This last self-criticism may give us pause, since VN's prose can hardly be said to suffer from any such lack. Was VN groping for a way to explain what may be, in the end, unexplainable?--the reasons why a particular writer may have a brilliant gift for prose, but not for poetry. Certainly the history of literature suggests that the two gifts are not readily transferable, and not often shared in the same degree by a single writer.
Returning to "Pale Fire," we know that VN considered its 999 lines "the hardest stuff I ever had to compose" (Strong Opinions, 55). He also referred to John Shade as "by far the greatest of invented poets" (SO, 59)--but since the italics are VN's, we may read a certain joshing equivocacy into the statement. (Can any "invented" poet be great? And after all, the competition among invented poets is not keen, the candidates being few.) But one will search in vain for any direct statement from VN as to the ultimate literary value of "Pale Fire." His reading of part of Canto Two at Harvard thus must serve as an indirect statement: It was a poem he was proud of, and was willing to record for the ages. We may also guess that he was especially proud of Canto Two, since he has Kinbote, in addressing the reader of Pale Fire's foreword, sneeringly refer to it as "your favorite" (PF, 13). Naturally Kinbote would dislike it, since it contains the emotional heart, or heart-break, of the poem, and of Shade's own life--none of which interests the Great Beaver at all.
But there is a striking fact about the "Pale Fire" recording: VN abridges the section he reads. He begins with line 294 ("She might have been you, me, or some quaint blend:") and recites the text without interruption until the middle of line 400 ("Just going home.") He skips the next fifteen and a half lines, in which Shade and Sybil turn on the television, and resumes at line 417 ("I went upstairs and read a galley proof"). The next section skipped is lines 429 through 442 (the "kind of travelog" on television). We are then given lines 443 through 460. VN now skips a scant two lines, 461 and 462. These lines are obscure, but seemingly refer once again to television programs the Shades do not wish to watch. ("Thunder above the Jungle. 'No, not that!'/Pat Pink, our guest. Antiatomic chat.") Finally, VN reads from line 463 to the end of the canto at 500.3
I am going to draw a conclusion from these abridgements: VN did not regard "Pale Fire" as a masterpiece. He rated some parts, and some lines, to be more pleasing or effective than others; he felt free to cut the poem, to tailor it, as it were, for the occasion. Only the omission of lines 461 and 462 might be regarded as a necessary concession to a listening audience, for they are admittedly difficult to grasp aurally. All the other abridgements excise perfectly comprehensible passages. By leaving them out, VN has chosen to speed the narrative flow of the excerpt. But one does not do this to a masterpiece. Can we imagine VN chopping and changing his beloved Eugene Onegin for the aural consumption of his audience?
He did not, we know, treat the prose of Pale Fire in this way. The same Harvard reading includes an excerpt of some seven and a half pages from the novel's foreword (19-26). In presenting it, VN makes several small alterations so as not to baffle readers unfamiliar with the novel. Typical of these changes is his omission of the phrase "or now Shade Hall, alas" in describing Wordsmith's Main Hall, as well as his deletion of Kinbote's references to lines of the poem. Otherwise, with one exception, he reads the pages unabridged. (The exception: Kinbote is remarking on his reasons for not telling Shade, at the gathering of "rubicund convives" at the faculty club, how much he admires the poet's work. VN deletes the final clause: "lest a serious discussion of literature degenerate into mere facetiation" [PF, 21]. Perhaps VN felt that "mere facetiation" is--with apologies to Polonius--"an ill phrase, a vile phrase," especially when read aloud .)
Each reader will draw her own conclusions about the status of "Pale Fire" as poetry, but I would argue for the position I have adduced for VN: There is much to admire in the poem, not a single sloppy or silly line, many superb passages, several moments that are undoubtedly "great" (the opening twelve lines, and the "Maude Shade was eighty" lines [195-208], which form an unforgettable sonnet)--but its four cantos do not overall constitute a perfect, and perfectly organic, construction. You can skip parts of it without great harm, as VN in fact did. Canto Three, in particular, canters along with admirable narrative verve, but lacks both poetic and emotional resonance.
Suppose, then, that VN knew this. He knew he had written a poem that was as good as he could make it, but he did not rank himself among the great poets. By knowingly transferring his own poetic status to Shade, he allows two things to happen: First, we good readers can take "Pale Fire," and its putative author, quite seriously. VN fully intends us to see "Pale Fire" for what it is: a good poem by a good poet, lacking genius. No suspension of disbelief is necessary. Second, we can understand how John Shade would wish to go himself one better, to construct something new under the sun that achieves the greatness forever out of reach of his poetic abilities. But those abilities are strong enough to make the commentary seem like a plausible accomplishment; John Shade is by no means a second-rater.
VN himself tells us little about his views concerning the literary status of the commentary. Nor did he ever make a direct claim that Shade created Kinbote.4 Indeed, he kept up a playful belief in Kinbote's self-descriptions whenever he discussed the novel. In an interview reprinted in Strong Opinions, VN makes reference to "the American poem discussed in the book by His Majesty, Charles of Zembla" (SO, 55). (A few lines later, in a description of the Montreux Palace gardens where VN wrote much of Kinbote's prose, there is an unnecessary and highly suggestive reference to a "weeping cedar, the arboreal counterpart of a very shaggy dog." Was VN hinting that "the book by His Majesty" is, under that designation, a shaggy-dog story?) In another interview, he talks about "the day on which Kinbote committed suicide (and he certainly did, after putting the last touches to his edition of the poem)" (SO, 74). Here VN is accepting with mock deference Kinbote's own notion that he produced a publishable "edition of the poem." Finally, in introducing his excerpt from the foreword at the Harvard reading, VN says that "it describes the narrator's friendship with the poet Shade." One senses again the tongue firmly in the cheek, for "the narrator's friendship" is all in Kinbote's mind, as the excerpt makes hilariously plain.
Now these references, taken at face value, are consistent with a face-value reading of the novel, a reading in which Kinbote, however self-deluded, is not Shade--but they are also, I believe, consistent with VN's well-known gamesmanship, his desire not to show how the trick is done. Shade may still be VN's nominee for the mind behind Kinbote.
Such authorial coyness prevents us from getting a good fix on VN's opinion of Shade/Kinbote's prose. But there is no reason to think that, for VN, its quality differed significantly from his own prose. Indeed, our own evaluation tells us as much: In terms of its sensibility, its style, its themes, the commentary is Nabokovian prose. Whoever wrote it, that person has, quite simply, revealed himself to be a literary genius--if we decide not to suspend our disbelief.
3. For what it's worth, VN also changes three lines slightly. "She twisted words" (347) becomes "She turned back words"; "which made/Her almost fetching" (360-61) is rendered as "which made/Her look almost fetching," a change which alters the scansion of line 361; and "'Are we quite sure she's acting right?' you asked" (448) becomes "'Are you quite sure...'" (my italics). The first change is probably a deliberate improvement made by VN; the second may be one as well--or it may be, as the third alteration almost certainly is, a slip of the none-too-facile Nabokovian tongue. As the accompanying notes to the Harvard recording state, "Versions of poems read by Mr. Nabokov do not represent definitive texts"; I only note these variations here out of a mild mania for annotative completeness.
4. According to Boyd (VN:TAY, 445), the original version of VN's foreword to Speak, Memory contained this: "As John Shade says somewhere: 'Nobody will heed my index, I suppose/But through it a gentle wind ex Ponto blows." Boyd I tells us that VN "decided not to divulge Pale Fire's secret" (the reference to "my index" lets the cat out of the bag) and omitted this passage. Boyd II argues, not unreasonably, that the passage is also consistent with his new reading: "[I]f it is Shade's shade shaping only aspects of the Index, Nabokov would have reason both to call the Index Shade's and then, realizing that this might confuse, to decide not to attribute the quatrain to Shade."
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