Pale Fire, by Vladimir Nabokov
Pale Fire, the Magic of Artistic Discovery, by Brian Boyd

Journey Through Zembla

“I was the shadow of the waxwing slain

by the false azure in the windowpane…”

One can travel in a new land, learning the ways and customs and language, exploring new geography and history and wildlife. In general, as I write about Costa Rica, this is my theme. However, last summer, David and I made another journey, in its own way as intense and awesome as traveling itself, through the novel Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov, guided by Brian Boyd, in Nabokov’s Pale Fire: the Magic of Artistic Discovery . Now David and I had each read Pale Fire before, and in fact I have read many Nabokov novels, considering him one of my very favorite authors. I remembered the lines above, the start to the poem which lies at the core of Pale Fire, because the poem itself is beautiful and compelling, “a poem in heroic couplets, of 999 lines, divided into four cantos”, and I had rather glossed over the rest of the book, which includes a Foreward, Commentary, and Index.

Wrong Wrong Wrong!

Bad Mistake!

I missed the point completely! This is the problem with being a speed reader, a consumer of fiction rather than a digester of fiction. Boyd says that Nabokov’s favorite figure was the spiral, and that he designed his works to be read in ascending awareness, from the first approach to the work (a good read) to a difficult deconstruction and analysis of the work (a chess puzzle or puzzles awaiting solutions) and finally a “thetic” awareness of the work as a whole, including pleasure in the sheer glory of the language and the absurdity and complexity of the plot, above and beyond the solutions to the problems, questions, and jokes that Nabokov embeds in his novels. Apparently Nabokov said that the only good readers are re-readers, and so, abashed, we read and re-read and re-read Pale Fire, out loud and over the course of two full months, finally feeling we had done penance and justice to Professor Nabokov. We read aloud from Washington to Oregon, down to Tuolmne Meadows and Yosemite National Park, and back to Washington via Crater Lake, Smith Rock, and the Warm Springs Reservation. Even after that long trip, we had a month to go to finish this project. 

Let me explain. Each part of Pale Fire from Foreward to the final words of the index, “Zembla, a distant northern land” is a necessary component to the novel. The central poem is lovely and compelling and funny and courageous, but it is not the point! Pale Fire has at least (or maybe more) voices, two complete and distinct narratives that at first glance seem orthogonal, but ultimately they collide in a tragic moment of absurdity and tragedy. The first and easier voice is that of the poet, John Shade, apparent author of the poem, Pale Fire. The poem is autobiographical, the meditation of a middle aged and sedentary faculty member of an imaginary university resembling Cornell (where Nabokov taught), but located somewhere in northern Appalachia (New Wye). Shade is meditating on life and death, especially the death by suicide of his young daughter Hazel. His own life seems staid and secure, as he lives in the house in which he grew up, he has been married to Sybil Shade for many years, and other than childhood fits of epilepsy and one episode of fainting, perhaps a TIA or cardiac event, he is certain that he will age quite normally.

Wrong. Shade is also wrong. He is wrong because an extraordinary character, part myth, part reality, a ridiculous detestable narcissistic pederast lunatic has rented the house next door to his, and this absurd neighbor hijacks Shade’s life and even his final poem. Charles Kinbote, aka Charles the Beloved, author of the Foreward, Commentary, Index, and perhaps parts or all of the poem, has got to be one of the most intricate and hilarious character in modern literature. We don’t know who Kinbote really is, but he thinks he is the exiled King of Zembla, a mysterious northern land somewhere near Russia, and he thinks he is being stalked to be murdered by radical Extremists who have taken over his country. Kinbote reflects every single thing in Shade’s poem back to himself and his flight from Zembla and his pursuit by one Jakob Gradus, whose sole life purpose is to exterminate him.

As it turns out, Shade is the one who is murdered, by accident, by an escaped felon with a grudge against the judge who is Kinbote’s landlord. There is no Gradus, only Jack Grey. Shade was shot by accident, and Kinbote lives on, stealing Shade’s poem from his dead body and then escaping to the American West, to an imaginary place in Utah or Colorado (Utana) where he writes his Foreward, Commentary, and Index, and then perhaps commits suicide. Or maybe not.

Kinbote embodies pathological narcissism. One could even coin a verb, to kinbote, meaning to steal someone else’s life, lifework, and thunder, to hijack someone else’s being. Psychiatry and psychology students should read Pale Fire if only to begin to grasp the depth of narcissistic personality disorder.

Some say that perhaps Pale Fire is the first truly postmodern novel. It can be envisioned as a hypertext, each phrase and sentence leading the reader into literary references (Timon of Athens for example), literary criticism (barbed attacks on T.S. Eliot), and history. Brian Boyd as actually published another of Nabokov’s novels, Ada or Ardor, as a hypertext with the appropriate linkages,

“I was the shadow of the wazwing slain

By the false azure in the windowpane;

I was the smudge of ashen fluff – and I

Lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky.”

This is Nabokov. He, himself, lives on, flies on, in majestic literature that compels and challenges readers, until the end of this bout of civilization. Nabokov scholars post on Nabokov-L, a listserve for the literati, where multilingual scholars debate the fine points and jokes within these books. Thank you, Professor Boyd, for helping humble readers to begin to appreciate The Master Joker.

1. Nabokov, Vladimir, Pale Fire, G.P. Putnam, New York, 1962

2. Boyd, Brian, Nabokov's "Pale Fire": The Magic of Artistic Discovery, Princeton University Press, 2001. 

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