Synthesizing Artistic Delight:
The Lesson of Pale Fire

by Brian Walter

[Note: This article is accompanied by "A Guide to Kinbote's Commentary."]

Near the beginning of his longest note to the poem “Pale Fire,” commentator Charles Kinbote strikes an analogy that resonates throughout Nabokov’s work, likening Charles the Beloved's predicament to "what a composer of chess problems might term a king-in-the-corner waiter of the solus rex type" (Pale Fire 118-9). This description constitutes the most important link between Nabokov’s 1962 novel and the last major work of Russian fiction that he undertook, in 1940, but never finished: an aborted novel that would ultimately survive only in the form of two stories, one of which, entitled “Solus Rex,” prompted Nabokov to explain the term in a brief prefatory note by quoting Blackburne's Terms & Themes of Chess Problems (London, 1907): "'If the King is the only Black man on the board, the problem is said to be of the 'Solus Rex' variety'" (Russian Beauty 140). Like the fateful chess piece who, bereft of all his defenders, must exit the last file and move out onto the board in a desperate attempt to prolong his life and achieve a stale mate, the last king of Zembla will soon forsake his palace for exile, knowing that his enemies will be stalking him to the end. Kinbote finds the analogy so apt, in fact, that he later suggests "Solus Rex" as a fitting title for the poem he thinks he has inspired (PF 296).

Among several other things, then, Pale Fire images the novel as a chess problem, a comparison that applies to much of Nabokov’s work.1 As is often the case, Nabokov anticipated and defined an approach that critics would find useful in the illumination his work, describing the intricate process of solving one of his chess compositions in terms that lend themselves quite well to the reader's experience of Pale Fire:

I remember one particular problem I had been trying to compose for months . . . It was meant for the delectation of the very expert solver. The unsophisticated might miss the point of the problem entirely, and discover its fairly simple, 'thetic' solution without having passed through the pleasurable torments prepared for the sophisticated one. The latter would start by falling for an illusory pattern of play based on a fashionable avant-garde theme . . . which the composer had taken the greatest pains to 'plant' . . . . Having passed through this 'antithetic' inferno the by now ultrasophisticated solver would reach the simple key move . . . as somebody on a wild goose chase might go from Albany to New York by way of Vancouver, Eurasia and the Azores. The pleasant experience of the roundabout route (strange landscapes, gongs, tigers, exotic customs, the thrice-repeated circuit of a newly married couple around the sacred fire of an earthen brazier) would amply reward him for the misery of the deceit, and after that, his arrival at the simple key would provide him with a synthesis of poignant artistic delight. (Speak, Memory 291-2)
Similarly, Nabokov's intricate compositions welcome the cooperative reader who will follow the 'false' leads simply for the pleasure of the chase. Nabokov’s ideal reader, in fact, will consent to join Kinbote in a circuitous dance around Pale Fire. And if the analogy holds true, then the pliant reader will reap the benefit of a new found “ultrasophistication" and in the "synthesis of poignant artistic delight" that results from the process. Brian Boyd has taken this cue to detail the benefits of chasing Kinbote's digressions faithfully, showing how the reader in fact gains useful knowledge by following his maddening detours.2

The design of Pale Fire thus assigns enormous responsibility to the reader. If Shade's poem comprises the thesis, and Kinbote's commentary represents its infernal antithesis – the underworld subtext Nabokov offers the reader as a byway to understanding not Shade's poem, but the work overall – then it is only by virtue of the reader's efforts to extrapolate a novel from Pale Fire's tenuously connected parts that the work can achieve synthesis. The novel, then, comes to comprise an intricate, extended commentary on the nature of reading – the "interpretive process whereby as readers we attempt to organize literature's irreducible anomalies into recognizable wholes," in John Haegert's useful terms (Haegert 422). But the point of that commentary seems not to be simply the "inadequacy of our responses, [the exposure of] our nostalgic need for unity and our desire to fashion a consistent totality out of its mutually discrepant parts" (Haegert 421), but also the way in which we as readers can overcome the inadequacy of our responses, the way in which we develop the attributes and sensibilities of Nabokov's ideal reader under the novel's careful, clever tutelage.

Key in this educational process is the reader's response to Kinbote's unavoidable unreliability as narrator and annotator. As Jean Walton puts it, "Insofar as Kinbote bears many of the marks of the classically 'unreliable narrator,' I think that the novel solicits us to read through his narrative" (Walton 100). But despite its sound advice, this description does not make a strong enough case for the grand dimensions of Kinbote's unreliability. In comparison, for example, to two of Nabokov's other notoriously unreliable narrators, Despair's Hermann and Lolita's Humbert Humbert, Kinbote in Pale Fire raises narrative unreliability to virtual impenetrability, the novel's structure vividly reproducing the traits of his madness. Kinbote finally seems designed to test one of his author's favorite characterizations – the welcome, even defining duplicity of the artist:

Literature was not born the day when a boy crying wolf, wolf came running out of the Neanderthal valley with a big gray wolf at his heels: literature was born on the day when a boy came crying wolf, wolf and there was no wolf behind him. That the poor little fellow because he lied too often was finally eaten up by the real beast was quite incidental. But here is what is important. Between the wolf in the tall grass and the wolf in the tall story there is a shimmering go-between. That go-between, that prism, is the art of literature. ("Good Readers and Good Writers" 5)
In the insistent fantasist Kinbote, Nabokov finds his most cloying analog for the "wolf-boy" ("Good Readers" 5). The resemblance springs not only from the paranoid, suicidal Kinbote's penchant for sensing a wolfish assassin in the rattle of a window or the stray shadow in Judge Goldsworth's yard, but still more importantly from his nature as the desperately creative, once-sheltered child, living in the go-between of his fantasy identities – the mask of Charles Kinbote, Shade's neighbor and confidant, barely concealing the mask of Charles the Beloved, last king of Zembla, both of which masks cover over the face of Vseslav Botkin, professor of Russian at Wordsmith University.3 What Kinbote says of Shade – "His whole being constituted a mask" (25) – applies more aptly to the annotator himself.

The layering of Kinbote's personae sets Pale Fire in dialogue with modernity's long-running fascination with the artist's masks. Commonly, the mask is a defense against misreading, a shield raised to protect the artist's privacy from the unreliable public. Nietzsche describes the mask as the mark of a profound spirit evading cursory, misinterpretable communication: "Every profound spirit needs a mask: even more, around every profound spirit a mask is growing continually, owing to the constantly false, namely shallow, interpretation of every word, every step, every sign of life he gives" (Nietzsche 51). In "The Critic as Artist," Wilde's Gilbert characterizes masks not merely as a useful fiction for the personality, but, further, as a prerequisite to the artistic revelation of truth: "Yes, the objective form is the most subjective in manner. Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he will tell you the truth" (282).

What distinguishes Nabokov's use of Kinbote from these understandings of the mask is that Nabokov allows no essence – no fundamental, revelatory 'truth' – to be discerned beneath his annotator's masks. From Wilde's stance in particular, this distinction is crucial. Celebrating art's subjectivity, Wilde characterizes the mask as a conduit for the artist's personality, a necessary means for the self's expression – the permeable cloak of personal truth. Wearing the mask of Gilbert or Henry Wotton, Wilde is free to voice the paradoxes of aestheticism, safely circumscribed character providing a convenient vessel for decadent dogma. The mask finally serves to reassure the audience of a verifiable reality underlying the appearance, to point to the presence of an author beneath the disguise. But this is not the case with Nabokov's Kinbote, whose masks serve just the opposite purpose – discomfiting Pale Fire's reader, confounding a sense of narrative reality. Both author and narrator make it easy to penetrate the mask of Kinbote to see Charles II, but instead of heightening the reader's sense of truth, this permeability weakens it, offering up the more fantastic, the least likely of the personae as the 'real' one. The existence of Vseslav Botkin beneath both these masks only complicates the reader's ability to fabricate a level of narrative reliability.

As a result of the narrator's multiple guises, a significant portion of Pale Fire criticism is predicated simply on the question of narrative responsibility: to whom, critics debate, is the text attributable? Pekka Tammi has usefully summarized three key positions in this ongoing debate about the "primary 'author' of [Pale Fire's] embedded fictions": (1) Kinbote/Botkin is responsible for the entire text, having created Shade and his poem as well as the foreword, index, and commentary; (2) Shade is responsible for the entire text, having created the scholastic apparatus as well as the annotator for his own poem; and (3) both the above "solutions are valid to a degree, . . . the novel retain[ing] a basic ambiguity between them" (Tammi, "Pale Fire" 575-6). That evidence is plentiful for either of the first two solutions finally underscores the truth of the third: the novel maintains a crucial, unresolvable narrative ambiguity regarding the identity of its fictive author/s.

Penetrating Kinbote's masks leads the reader then not to an unmistakable image of the author's truth, but rather to an image of the reader's methods for deriving truth. Kinbote serves not only as the work's narrator, but as its guardian, the figure planted between the reader and the text to ensure that the reader will take a proper, generously reconstructive approach. The narrator's digressive, self-serving methods serve to wring from the reader an unusually self-conscious effort to acquire the various facets of the novel. The subtitles Nabokov chose for his course on European masterpieces, "How to be a Good Reader" or "Kindness to Authors,"4 could serve the same function for Pale Fire, a novel narrated chiefly by a professor of literature conceived to extract the kindness of close, careful, indulgent attention from his readers.


"Curiously enough, one cannot read a book: one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader."
– Nabokov, "Good Readers and Good Writers" (3)

Throughout his work, Nabokov glorifies impractical kindness as a sign of the highest, most humane nobility. In the lecture notes published as "The Art of Literature and Commonsense," Nabokov relates heroism to irrationality: "I take my hat off to the hero who dashes into a burning house and saves his neighbor's child; but I shake his hand if he has risked squandering a precious five seconds to find and save, together with the child, its favorite toy" (373). Such a hero finds in Nabokov not only an admirer, but a colleague, a fellow-worshiper at the altar of imagination.

The reader who applies these principles of heroic irrationality to Pale Fire earns similar acknowledgement from the author. In fact, such a reader will find easier and easier passage as the commentary proceeds. A minute plotting of Kinbote's references reveals that the frequency of the commentator’s jumps declines drastically in the latter stages. Whereas 24 of Kinbote's first 40 notes direct the reader to other annotations, only 18 of the remaining 91 divert his follower from a straightforward, note-by-note progression. Breaking the patterns down still further, 37 of the 42 notes that re-route the reader occur within the first 80 entries of the commentary; only five of the final 51 distract the reader from the novel's gathering climax (please see the companion piece, "A Guide to Kinbote's Commentary"). To the reader who successfully negotiates the labyrinth of digressions in the early portions of the commentary, Nabokov offers increasingly easy passage as a subtle reward, seemingly, for the patience and industry of the reader.

If the chess-problem model holds, then the reader who has turned several circles with Kinbote around his commentary should carry into the final notes an 'ultrasophistication,' a perceptiveness, not to be gained otherwise. This, in fact, turns out to be the case. Several of the reference patterns in Kinbote's commentary show Nabokov's great care, even affection, for the reader who accepts his unstable narrator at face value and consents to trail a ribbon through the offered labyrinth.

In one of the most telling examples, Nabokov offers important clues to the third layer of the annotator's identity as Vseslav Botkin – a matter of both sufficient importance and obscurity that the author evidently toyed with external means of revealing it. Quoting from Nabokov's diary "some phrases [drafted] for possible interviews," Boyd shows the author's concern with this extra narrative difficulty of Pale Fire: "'I wonder if any reader will notice the following details: 1) that the nasty commentator is not an ex-king and not even Dr. Kinbote, but Prof. Vseslav Botkin, a Russian and a madman . . .'" (The American Years 709). But if this important subtext is obscure, Nabokov has nevertheless embedded clues to it within Kinbote's commentary. In the note to line 71, for example, Kinbote includes a learned digression on surnames, beginning with an explanation of “Lukin,” the maiden name of Shade's mother:

Lukin comes from Luke, as also do Locock and Luxon and Lukashevich. It represents one of the many instances when the amorphous-looking but live and personal hereditary patronymic grows, sometimes in fantastic shapes, around the common pebble of a Christian name. The Lukins are an old Essex family. Other names derive from professions such as Rymer, Scrivener, Limner (one who illuminates parchments), Botkin (one who makes bottekins, fancy footwear) and thousands of others. My tutor, a Scotsman, used to call any old tumble-down building 'a hurley-house.' But enough of this. (100-101)
To the reader who pushes straight through the text, declining to follow Kinbote's directions to jump to other notes, this casual digression can hardly seem too significant – apparently nothing more, in fact, than yet another instance of the commentator's self-indulgence. The reader will almost certainly have forgotten this sidebar by the time he or she reaches, more than 100 notes later, the pendent discussion among Wordsmith faculty in which Kinbote is confronted with blunt questions about his scholarly study of surnames:5
Professor Pardon now spoke to me: 'I was under the impression that you were born in Russia, and that your name was a kind of anagram of Botkin or Botkine?'
Kinbote: 'You are confusing me with some refugee from Nova Zembla' [sarcastically stressing the 'Nova'].
'Didn't you tell me, Charles, that kinbote means regicide in your language?' asked my dear Shade.
'Yes, a king's destroyer,' I said (longing to explain that a king who sinks his identity in the mirror of exile is just that).
Shade [addressing the German visitor]: 'Professor Kinbote is the author of a remarkable book on surnames. I believe [to me] there exists an English translation?' (267)
In light of this discussion, Kinbote's earlier digression on surnames – particularly its explanation of 'Botkin' – takes on suspicious significance, clearly a clue to the professor of Russian lurking within the anagram, kinbote. The problem for Nabokov (and the reader) is that it would be unrealistic to expect the reader at this late point in the text – reading the 116th of 131 notes overall – to recall the earlier digression in any useful detail.

Thus, Nabokov contrives instead to send Kinbote's reader to this faculty discussion before the digression on surnames is reached in the note to line 71 (the 14th note overall). The third branch of the note to line 12 has, in fact, already referred the reader to the note to line 894 – providing the reader with one of the important clues necessary for the detection of Botkin's mask (see Figure 1 below).

Figure 1
(For an explanation of the reference pattern diagram, see "A Guide to Kinbote's Commentary.")

But again, only the reader who consents to follow the digressive annotator will glean this hint to the depth of his delusions.
Because the diversions in the early portions of the draft serve particularly to underscore Kinbote's self-absorption and consequent unreliability, their prevalence foregrounds the reader's response – compliant or resistant – to Kinbote. As Marilyn Edelstein has pointed out, "on the very first page of the foreword the reader realizes that [Kinbote's] work is not going to be an objective apparatus criticus" (Edelstein 213); hence, the jumps challenge the reader to disregard the obvious – Kinbote's tendency for extreme, off-putting self-indulgence – in favor of the commentary's careful interlacement of narrative lines. It is not simply a question of stripping away the disguise of Charles Kinbote to expose Vseslav Botkin, as it is possible to read the novel quite profitably without ever gleaning this knowledge. Still more fundamentally, Nabokov seems to be challenging his audience to examine the reasons for reading this book at all. Instead of concealing the derivative, fragmented character of the editor and his apparatus, Nabokov emphasizes it.

The reader's compliance, then, in following Kinbote cannot imply ignorance of Kinbote's frustrating unreliability as editor, but rather the ability (and the willingness) to enjoy the hall of mirrors that comprises his commentary. But this understanding raises another fundamental problem: given the barriers Nabokov has set up between self-absorbed Kinbote and the reader's sympathy, why does Kinbote's work (which, on the whole, Pale Fire must be adjudged, the annotator's 'critical' apparatus overwhelming Shade's poem) hold the attentions of any reader at all? Further, why would Nabokov emphasize Kinbote's repulsive traits – his self-absorption and his extreme editorial unreliability – when the full effect of the novel is clearly, crucially enhanced by the reader's willingness to follow the digressions with some faithfulness?

Here again, Nabokov's figure of the wolf-boy as the original author proves useful. The myth does not require us to believe the boy who cries wolf, but rather that we recognize and admire the creative impulse that turns us, if only momentarily, into attentive auditors. So, by foregrounding Kinbote's exaggerated unreliability as a narrator, Nabokov makes the act of reading Pale Fire a justification of his most incorrigibly delusive of wolf-boys. Successfully traversing this text signals the reader's recognition – and, at least to some degree, the reader's endorsement – of one of the most cherished elements of Nabokov's program: the figure of the artist as a lovable, mischievously creative cheat.

Kinbote's characterization finally makes Pale Fire a greater authorial risk even than Lolita. Although no American publisher would initially accept Humbert's memoir because of its controversial subject and narrator, that narrator still makes a far more obvious (and troublingly persuasive) appeal to the sympathies of his audience than does the mad and maddening Kinbote. If, as Richard Rorty has argued, it is possible to see Humbert and Kinbote as partial self-portraits of Nabokov,6 it is still more tempting to see them as before-and-after resemblances – the success of Lolita acting as the pivotal event between. As has been well-documented, Nabokov's life changed rapidly and radically in the years between Lolita's publication in America in 1958 and the appearance of Pale Fire in 1962. Financially independent for the first time since his family's exile from Russia in 1919, Nabokov gave up all teaching duties, relocated from the U.S. to Switzerland (permanently, as it turned out), and even gave up writing short fiction altogether – not only an important source of supplemental income during his years in America, but also, to American readers, the main source of his literary reputation before the watershed novel. It is reasonable, then, to see the increasing structural and linguistic complexity – even opacity – of both Pale Fire and the subsequent Ada as at least partially the results of the author's newfound independence – Lolita having secured both his reputation and livelihood. After Lolita, Nabokov needed readers less, but, because of the earlier novel's success, could count on their attentions far more than ever before.

Pale Fire issues a challenge to Nabokov's reader, particularly the reader who picked up Lolita looking for cheap thrills rather than art. With Humbert holding the reins, legions of new readers jumped on Nabokov's bandwagon; replacing Humbert with Kinbote, giving the madman license to strike the most haphazard of narrative routes, the author challenges the reader to hang on for a surprisingly wild ride, the road from foreword to index insanely diverted to run through Kinbote's distant northern land.


When we read a book for the first time the very process of laboriously moving our eyes from left to right, line after line, page after page, this complicated physical work upon the book, the very process of learning in terms of space and time what the book is about, this stands between us and artistic appreciation. When we look at a painting we do not have to move our eyes in a special way even if, as in a book, the picture contains elements of depth and development. The element of time does not really enter in a first contact with a painting.

– Nabokov, "Good Readers and Good Writers" (3)

For this defining combat between the narrative artist and time, Nabokov finds in the structure of Pale Fire his most useful weapon. The textual labyrinth functions to transform narrative into image, to remove – as much as possible – the element of time from the process of physically, visually absorbing the story. Even if the reader ignores Kinbote's digressions, choosing to push 'straight' through, Pale Fire is not so much read as it is accumulated, its diffuse narrative lines only gradually, in fits and starts, gathered into some semblance of a coherent image. Nabokov simply disallows the conventional beginning-middle-end pattern in Pale Fire, disallowing as well, then, any directly chronological understanding of the events described.

But for Pale Fire to remove the element of time from narrative art at all, Nabokov must have the reader's consent to a difficult alliance, negotiated by the most opaque of narrative proxies. Only the reader's affirmation of Kinbote in all his daunting digressiveness fulfills the novel's design. And this affirmation exacts an important moral concession from the reader: the implicit justification of Kinbote's unremittingly selfish and subjective imagination. The reader who would condemn Kinbote is forced to condemn himself. The reader's subjectivity, Pale Fire finally teaches, matches even Kinbote's. Clearly, then, it is in the reader's best interests to agree with Shade in his sympathy for Kinbote, for sympathy with the narrator justifies the otherwise indefensible act of reading this shamelessly, confrontively self-indulgent novel.

This intention, however, leaves Nabokov open to the charge that he has extended his haughty authorial overlordship beyond the boundaries of the book to annex the reader. Nabokov did not hesitate to stake a tyrant’s claim within the worlds he created: "[T]he design of my novel is fixed in my imagination and every character follows the course I imagine for him. I am the perfect dictator in that private world insofar as I alone am responsible for its stability and truth" (SO 69). But does he also play obtrusive, capricious deity to his readers? To this further charge, it would seem, Nabokov would just as gladly plead guilty. The crusade for art's moral freedom requires specially-molded recruits: "Indeed, of all the characters that a great artist creates, his readers are the best" (Nabokov, "Russian Writers, Censors, and Readers" 11). Nabokov's reader must be both willing and able to contribute to the process of artistic creation, to pull an oar with his other characters.

With Pale Fire, the chaotic course Nabokov has plotted for the reader compels the external cooperation necessary to reconcile the novel's competing narratives. But the novel finally repays the reader's conscription by creating in him or her the most agile, the most versatile, the best of Nabokov's best creations. To the reader who allows Kinbote to de-familiarize the act of reading, the work promises a blissful re-familiarization, a renewed appreciation of the gift of literary art:

We are absurdly accustomed to the miracle of a few written signs being able to contain immortal imagery, involutions of thought, new worlds with live people, speaking, weeping, laughing. We take it for granted so simply that in a sense, by the very act of brutish routine acceptance, we undo the work of the ages, the history of the gradual elaboration of poetical description and construction, from the treeman to Browning, from the caveman to Keats. What if we awake one day, all of us, and find ourselves utterly unable to read? I wish you to gasp not only at what you read but at the miracle of its being readable (so I used to tell my students). (PF 289)
With Pale Fire, Nabokov allows his reader – ever the artist's student – to gasp at him or herself for mustering the resources required to read this miraculously unreadable novel.

Sources Cited

Alexandrov, Vladimir E., ed. The Garland Companion to Vladimir Nabokov. New York & London: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1995.

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

Edelstein, Marilyn. "Pale Fire: The Art of Consciousness" in Nabokov's Fifth Arc, eds. Rivers, J. E. and Nicol, Charles. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982. 213-23.

Gezari, Janet. "Chess and Chess Problems" in Alexandrov. 44-54.

Haegert, John. "The Author as Reader as Nabokov: Text and Pretext in Pale Fire." Texas Studies in Literature and Language 26, no. 4 (1984). 405-24.

Nabokov, Vladimir. "The Art of Literature and Commonsense." Lectures on Literature. 371-380.

_______. "Good Readers and Good Writers." Lectures on Literature. 1-6.

_______. Lectures on Literature. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Publishers, 1980.

_______. Pale Fire. New York: Vintage Books, 1989.

_______. "Russian Writers, Censors, and Readers." Lectures on Russian Literature. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1981. 1-12.

_______. Speak, Memory. New York: Vintage Books, 1989.

_______. Strong Opinions. New York: Vintage International, 1990.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil, translated by Walter Kauffman. New York: Vintage Books, 1966.

Rorty, Richard. Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Tamir-Ghez, Nomi. "The Art of Persuasion in Nabokov's Lolita" in Poetics Today 1 (1979). 65-83.

Tammi, Pekka. "Pale Fire" in Alexandrov. 571-86.

Walton, Jean. "Dissenting in an Age of Frenzied Heterosexualism: Kinbote's Transparent Closet in Nabokov's Pale Fire" in College Literature, vol. 21, no. 2 (June 1994). 89-104.

Wilde, Oscar. "The Critic as Artist." Oscar Wilde, ed. by Isobel Murray. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989. 241-297.


1. Janet Gezari lists several comparisons of Nabokov's work to chess problems, including the author's general comment that "each of his books reveals the same preoccupation with solving a 'literary chess problem'" (Gezari 44).

2. See Boyd's essay on Pale Fire in The American Years, especially pp. 425-7. For an analysis of Boyd's reading method, see Section II below.

3. Among others, both Mary McCarthy and Boyd have discussed the evidence pointing to the Kinbote-Botkin slippage, Boyd quoting Nabokov's confirmation of this double-layer to the commentator’s fantasy identities (see below).

4. See "Good Readers and Good Writers" (1).

5. All bracketed insertions in this quotation are Kinbote's.

6. See Rorty, pp. 156-167, especially pp. 161-162.

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