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Nabokov's Tour de Force
on October 1, 2000
Pale Fire is the name of a 999-line poem in four cantos by the "distinguished American poet" John Shade, published posthumously in a lovingly prepared edition with a foreword and detailed commentary by the Zemblan literary scholar Charles Kinbote. Pale Fire is also the name of the novel by Vladimir Nabokov in which the poem is written by Shade and annotated by Kinbote, who are Nabokov's creations. The novel is actually written in the form of poem and scholarly apparatus, not omitting a thorough index. It is a perfect and perfectly original union of form and meaning. It is also wickedly, outrageously funny.
The poem itself is a complicated, beautiful, mysterious achievement. It reveals the character of John Shade so completely and movingly that we have to keep reminding ourselves that it was actually written by Nabokov, himself. The poem is the heart of the novel, literally and figuratively, although the commentary no doubt constitutes the most interesting reading. Pale Fire is Shade's final work; possibly his greatest work. It is the product of every thought and experience in a long, thoughtful life, and it also contains that entire life: childhood, adolescence, marriage, fatherhood, old age and death. The title refers to the "pale fire of time," and is taken from a poem by Yeats and not from Shakespeare, as Kinbote confidently suggests. Or is Nabokov simply leading us on a merry chase? Better check Timon of Athens to be sure.
And Kinbote is frequently wrong in his confident suggestions in the commentary. He identifies allusions where none exist; fails to recognize those that are actually there (he is writing his notes in a remote cabin in the Rockies and complains that he has no books to check his references), and suggests interpretations which are clearly, hilariously, wrong. The hapless Dr. Kinbote has got it into his head that Pale Fire (the poem) is really about himself, and his commentary is an audacious attempt to demonstrate this.
So, almost ignoring what is actually present in the poem, he proceeds through the commentary to give a detailed history of his own life and times, often revealing far more than he really means to do. And it turns out to be quite a good story, because Kinbote, a native of the remote northern European country of Zembla, has had quite an adventurous past. It is only a pity that it is quite irrelevant to Shade's poem. Kinbote just happens to be a man who doesn't do anything by halves; even the most innocuous phrase of the poem is "demonstrated" to be a cryptic reference to some event in Kinbote's life. Pale Fire is nothing if it is not great fun.
But Pale Fire is not merely amusing and inventive. Kinbote's commentary seems to be everything literary criticism should not be; but it is actually only an extreme, exaggerated version of what literary criticism truly is. Kinbote attempts to rewrite Shade's poem in his own image and likeness, but this is true to a greater or lesser extent--or a more or less subtle extent--of every critic, amateur or professional.
Pale Fire is thus a complex, and ultimately rather touching, demonstration of the way people have of reading their lives into books and reading books into their lives, like Kinbote. (And also, the way we have of writing our lives into books and writing books into our lives, like Shade.) It is an affirmation of the power of literature, of the power of books to help us make sense of our lives, and of the impossibility of distinguishing precisely where art ends and life begins. To quote John Shade:
I feel I understand/ Existence, or at least a minute part/ Of my existence, only through my art,/ In terms of combinational delight;/ And if my private universe scans right,/ So does the verse of galaxies divine/ Which I suspect is an iambic line.
Almost every reader can remember that one particular novel, poem or play that seemed to have been written for him and him alone. The one the reader took so personally, it changed his entire outlook on life and which even now he cannot discuss rationally or impartially. Every passionate reader knows of just such a book or even books. So, perhaps we should spare one or two sympathetic thoughts for the poor, but smitten, Dr. Kinbote even as we laugh uproariously at his well-intentioned mistakes.