Genius and Plausibility: Suspension of Disbelief in Pale Fire
by J. Morris
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Suppose that, unlike Rorty and Boyd, we take a step back and ask, On what grounds might Pale Fire invite the good reader to treat Shade and/or Kinbote as serious authors, that is, authors who within the context of VN's fictional world are really supposed to be able to write superbly? Are there any bases for dropping the suspension-of-disbelief convention?

Two such bases may be relevant, I believe: first, the occupations and putative abilities of the authorial character(s), together with the careful "frame" VN provides to account for the texts of Pale Fire as actual written documents; and second, the added richness and emotional depth that is given to Pale Fire if we accept John Shade as a genius, whether incarnate or ghostly.5 A narrator's history--his or her "back-story," to borrow a term from film--is one of the main reasons why, in more traditional fiction, we are forced to suspend disbelief in his or her narrative prowess. Most first-person narrators simply do not come equipped with resumes that would plausibly permit them to write as well as their creators. But John Shade is a famous poet, and his work is taken seriously in the world of Pale Fire. On the other hand, as Shade himself says, his reputation follows "one oozy footstep" behind Robert Frost's (Pale Fire, 48). Kinbote, too, after praising "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," rather maliciously points out that "With all his excellent gifts, John Shade could never make his snowflakes settle that way" (PF, 204). These text-based reservations, coy though they may be, form part of the basis of Rorty's derogation of "Pale Fire" as poetry. (Only a small part, however; in the main, Rorty simply does not care for the poem, and expects the reader to feel the same way.) Boyd does not address them. But, as we have seen, a consistent and plausible case can be made that Shade is a fine poet who has written a fine poem. What we know of John Shade the man, including his reputation, is an excellent match with the literary qualities we discover in "Pale Fire."

When we turn to the commentary, though, the issue of plausibility is most certainly raised, no matter whether we say, with Rorty, that Kinbote is the author or, with Boyd I, that it is Shade's impersonation or, with Boyd II, that it is a kind of unearthly collaboration. Charles Kinbote, if he exists, is either a deposed Zemblan monarch, an insane Zemblan scholar, or an extremely insane Russian scholar. None of these back-stories seems likely to produce the astonishing literary gifts apparent in the commentary. Now John Shade, to be sure, is a slightly more plausible genius. Even so, we would have to view his masterpiece, Pale Fire, as a first novel springing de novo from the soul of an aging, possibly second-rate, poet. Such things happen, but they are not automatically believable.

Similarly, one could imagine Shade improved, as it were, by death: From his new, highly privileged perspective, he may be able to shape both text and texture at a level of accomplishment that was impossible to him in life. Boyd II expresses this well, calling Shade's new perspective "a much deeper awareness, from the other side of the mirror, of the 'combinational delight' behind things." Does this add up, though, to genius at the level of sentences, of style? Perhaps; we are free to imagine that survival after death does all sorts of good things to the survivor's talent. But Boyd II never maintains, as we have seen, that the Shade-supplied material is in fact better written than Kinbote's solo contributions. In fact, to separate the material of the commentary so crudely (this is Kinbote, this is Shade) amounts to a misreading of Boyd II's case. He argues at all times for influence, not ghost-writing, and influence furthermore at the macro-level, so to speak. Shade does not line-edit Kinbote's sentences. Boyd II does not ask us to accept Shade as the author of Pale Fire.

So we return to Boyd I as the only reading that posits Shade as a genius-author of Nabokovian versatility. And thus far, that reading could be said to strain credibility, while not precisely shattering it.

We must also consider the care with which the provenance of the texts that comprise Pale Fire is accounted for--the "frames" they are given. In many traditional fictions, the first-person voice is seen to have produced a text, but no account is given of how. Indeed, this is one more element the reader is asked to ignore. Usually it is not even clear that a genuine, written-down text has been produced--save for the (dubious) evidence of the novel in hand. Thus, in our original examples, there is no real account in The Great Gatsby of Nick Carraway's having written down his narration. He makes a brief, early reference to Gatsby as "the man who gives his name to this book," but Carraway's authorship of "this book" never comes up again, and the reader accepts the sole reference as a token nod to a conventional fictional strategy: the narrator as author of a "book" which falls into no conceivable real-life category. (As a memoir it would be libelous and unpublishable.) Similarly, The Catcher in the Rye is not offered as a manuscript written by Holden Caulfield. We instead imagine Holden telling his tale out loud to "us," visitors at the hospital in which he is recuperating from the events of the novel. Such a circumstance is, again, politely ignored by the good reader; we do not even pause to note the unbridgeable gap between a 17-year-old's psychotherapeutical talk-sessions and the polished performance Salinger gives us through Holden's voice. The gap is simply not interpretatively relevant.

Pale Fire is hardly the first novel to alter this convention, to provide a "frame" for its narrative existence. Alongside the tradition of unexplained first-person voices, there is an equally robust tradition of novels-as-journals, novels-as-letters, novels-as-confessions, even novels-as-novels. VN himself, in Lolita and later in Ada, frames his narrative accounts with a careful back-story to explain their existence. Humbert Humbert has written his confession in jail, awaiting trial; the manuscript comes to us courtesy of the "suave" John Ray Jr., Ph.D. (who doesn't appear to notice that this "white widowed male" has produced, against all odds, a literary masterpiece). Ada's provenance is revealed indirectly, and a little less specifically: nonagenarian Van is writing the manuscript--with Ada's lively cooperation--as the last project of his long life, and presumably intends to publish it, complete with the final suggested blurb and the reprint of his The Texture of Time which forms part of the new book.

In Pale Fire, the frame is elaborate. It is also highly relevant to the themes of the novel, in a way that most such frames (including those employed in Lolita and Ada) are not. For the question of just how texts come to be written and presented to the public is a central thematic concern in Pale Fire, and both Shade and Kinbote demonstrate--indeed, live out--different variations on this theme. The theme does not surface at all in Lolita, and not materially in Ada. So we ought to be alerted that the normal suspension of disbelief may itself be suspended in a novel that is, to a significant degree, about the inspiration, interpretation, and publication of texts.

Since the frame of Pale Fire may well be an instance of its themes, let us try to specify just what that frame is. We can first describe it a la Rorty, then a la Boyd I, and then a la Boyd II. The Rorty version (also, we may suppose, the face-value version) goes like this: John Shade has written a poem, "Pale Fire." Upon completing it, save for the final line, he is murdered by an escaped lunatic who mistakes him for the judge who sentenced him to prison. Shade's colleague, Charles Kinbote (who may or may not be the exiled King of Zembla), rescues the manuscript, persuades Shade's widow to appoint him its literary executor, leaves New Wye and, in a noisy motel room in the western state of Utana, writes a commentary to the poem. We can surmise, as VN did, that Kinbote also died upon completion of his work--a suicide overcome by paranoia and Sehnsucht.

The Boyd I version of the frame would be considerably simpler: John Shade, a poet, conceives of a new literary form: "Man's life as commentary to abstruse unfinished poem" (PF, 67). Pale Fire, the novel, is that very text: a poem featuring autobiographical incidents from Shade's life, coupled with a fantastic "commentary" that creates another, entirely false persona.

Boyd II harks back to Rorty: we have Shade the poet, Shade murdered, Kinbote absconding with "Pale Fire." The difference is that Kinbote's commentary (still produced in that noisy motel room) is now shaped by Shade's shade. Probably it would be wrong to call this a change of frame; the frame is essentially unaltered from the Rortian, face-value reading, but the contents of the frame, the picture itself, is seen in a radically different light if we accept Shade's participation in the commentary.


There is, however, a fourth description of the frame: Vseslav Botkin, a deluded Russian refugee professor, imagines himself to be Kinbote, and . . . does what, precisely? Here we have a serious hitch for the Rortian interpretation, and the Boyd II view. Neither can make easy sense of the textual evidence that Kinbote is really Botkin.

The problem lies in the relationship between Shade and Kinbote/Botkin if, following Rorty and Boyd II, we view Kinbote/Botkin as an existing personage and not a creation of Shade himself. Thorny questions abound: Is it Botkin with whom Shade is friendly, Botkin who flees to Utana with the manuscript of "Pale Fire"? Would that mean that all of Shade's and "Kinbote"'s give-and-take about Zembla recounted in the commentary is false? Has Botkin translated whatever actual relationship he had with Shade into a fictional version? Are we to understand that Botkin urged Shade to write a poem about Russia? That he wished to show him a photograph of the Royal Palace in Moscow? et cetera. These suppositions rob Pale Fire of much of its magic, and much of its integrity as a narrative. They are one trapdoor too many.

Oddly, Boyd I does not speak to this question, though for me it is the strongest evidence of all that Shade is the sole author of Pale Fire. Boyd II ignores it as well; Botkin appears to have no role at all in this interpretation. At several points, Boyd II uses the locution "stands behind" to describe Botkin's relation to Kinbote. But he does not appear to realize that this phrase needs a good bit of unpacking. "The book is so steeped in Zembla," he acknowledges, "that it is never quite resolvable whether it exists or not within the world of the book, so that a scene like Shade's public defense of Kinbote from identification as the ex-king of Zembla may or may not [my italics] blur the reality of what has happened in New Wye."

This permanent uncertainty will not do, I would suggest. A decision really needs to be made among three alternatives:

1) There is no "Zembla" in the world of Pale Fire, no magazine articles about it, no acceptance of it in conversation among faculty members. Botkin is confabulating when he describes Shade's relationship with him in regard to "Zembla," for the place exists nowhere save in Botkin's fantasies, which he does not share with Shade or anyone else. We must substitute "Russia" for "Zembla" whenever the latter appears in the text in order to understand what Botkin and Shade are really talking about--if, indeed, they talk about anything at all.

2) Zembla is a real place in the world of Pale Fire, and Kinbote is saying and doing all the things he claims, except that he is known as Vseslav Botkin, i.e., Zembla is real but "Charles Kinbote" is not on the faculty of Wordsmith. The confabulation in the commentary consists in the use of the name "Charles Kinbote."

3) Zembla is real, and so too is Kinbote, in the sense that "Kinbote" is a sustained delusion of a Russian faculty member, which delusion is inexplicably tolerated at Wordsmith, and encouraged by Shade. Botkin lets it be known that he is "really" Charles Kinbote, who is "really" the exiled King of Zembla.

I do not see much to choose from, frankly, among any of these alternatives. None of them makes a great deal of sense. All of them require tedious confabulation on the part of Botkin. They require not merely a suspension of disbelief in authorial prowess, but a more radical suspension of disbelief in the entire ground-situation of the book. To put it another way: Botkin and Kinbote are mutually exclusive personalities, in any believable "world." You can't have the Great Beaver in all his double-ping-pong-tabled glory, and at the same time maintain that, in some unspecifiable way, he is Vseslav Botkin. This can only happen on paper, not in any real world that would interest a good reader.

However, the question of what "happens on paper" is precisely the fascinating question in Pale Fire, and Kinbote-as-Botkin is perfectly plausible if we see the entire work as Shade's--a work that indeed "happens on paper" and nowhere else. The reduction of Kinbote to Botkin is one more mirror in Shade's funhouse of self-reflections. It is also a most revealing one: Shade does not re-imagine himself solely as a Zemblan with a "magical radiance" contained within his mind. In addition, he creates an entirely pathetic, and pitiable, alternative: an anguished Russian exile who invents not only his monarchy, but Zembla itself. This distinction between a magical nostalgia and pure invention is central to Shade's grief. He fears that his dreams of immortality for himself and Hazel may more closely resemble those of a Botkin than a Kinbote.

It is this fourth frame for the texts of Pale Fire that we should, I believe, accept as VN's intended one, despite Boyd II's ingenious reinterpretation. Shade has written every word of the novel, inventing both Kinbote and Botkin in the process. So we can return to our original question: Does this frame, and the back-story qualifications of John Shade, justify abandoning the meta-convention of suspended disbelief in Shade's ability to produce Pale Fire?

If the answer is yes, we must also take into account the second possible basis for an affirmative reply: whether we can produce a richer and more satisfying interpretation of the novel. In particular, we must ask what Shade's promotion to prose-writer of genius would accomplish, in terms of our appreciation of the themes of Pale Fire. What might VN be trying to say--about art, about personal transcendence, about survival after death--through the device of anointing John Shade with his own genius?

I have argued that, in terms of both back-story and frame, we are on solid ground in suspending our disbelief in a "real" author. If ever a novel invited us to take a character seriously as a genius-author, Pale Fire is that novel. And by identifying Shade as that author, we nominate the only character who can plausibly--that is, without suspension of disbelief--write both poem and commentary. Furthermore, we give Shade-the-novelist license to shape his fictional world in a way that can include Vseslav Botkin, a persona incompatible with any "real" Charles Kinbote.

Lastly, the identification of Shade as sole author gives Pale Fire an additional layer of richness, complexity, and optimism. For on this reading John Shade does transcend himself. His first-rate poetic gifts have blossomed into something stranger, bolder, more beautiful. It requires a Kinbote--a mirror-image, a not-Shade--to evoke Zembla's "magical radiance," to free Shade from the sad, philosophical acceptance of tragedy that marks his poetry. Is this madness, wishful thinking? Shade acknowledges this possibility as well, by prompting us to see poor Botkin as the source of the Zembla legend. Above all, Shade's commentary is a slap in the face of non-being, a refusal to accept the limits of mortality. His attempts to fathom Hazel's death have proved, in real life, hopelessly inconclusive. So Shade explores "on paper" what it would mean to "duplicate myself," to have, as Kinbote so proudly asserts, the last word.

And by doing so, something marvelous happens to him. "On paper" is precisely where Shade finds what he seeks. Reaching in imagination for one kind of eternity (personal survival after death), he writes Pale Fire and grasps another--the immortality of genius. One very much wants to believe in this; I think VN did too; I think he wanted it for himself. John Shade is a decent, likeable man, and a serious writer. He has suffered the loss that VN feared most: the death of his only child. So his creator decides to show him mercy, to smile upon him. VN cannot give him back Hazel, but he can give him Pale Fire. Why should the aging poet not, just once, be granted immortality?--the permanent Onhava where great writers, along with aurochs and angels, will surely live on in the reflected sky of their art.

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5. It is also relevant to note VN's interest, as demonstrated in at least two other novels, in creating characters who may also be genius-authors. This is a complex subject, the full discussion of which would constitute an essay in itself. Briefly, we can point to The Gift and Ada as novels that offer narrators who are also writers--writers, furthermore, to whom VN gives a future and a past, respectively, of great literary success. Thus we may plausibly read the texts of those novels as examples of the prowess that could earn this success. Given VN's interest in creating such characters--characters who mirror to a greater or lesser extent VN's view of his own genius--the narrator of Pale Fire, if he is indeed a genius-author, would not be the only one within the Nabokovian corpus. (I exempt Lolita from this category. There is no textual evidence that Humbert Humbert was ever a writer of any particular literary skill. His "manual of French literature for English-speaking students" does not sound like genius-work.)

Works Cited

Boyd, Brian. "Shade and Shape in Pale Fire." Nabokov Studies #4, 1997, reprinted in Zembla, 1998.

_________. Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991.

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. 1925. New York: Scribner, 1953.

Haviaras, Stratis, and Michael Milburn, eds. Vladimir Nabokov at Harvard. Cassette tapes. Cambridge: Harvard College Library, 1988.

Nabokov, Vladimir. Pale Fire. First edition. New York: Putnam, 1962.

________. Poems and Problems. 1970. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1981.

________. Strong Opinions. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1973.

Rorty, Richard. "The Barber of Kasbeam: Nabokov on Cruelty." Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

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