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Nabokov's "Pale Fire"

Nabokov's "Pale Fire": The Magic of Artistic Discovery

Copyright Date: 1999
Pages: 320
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  • Book Info
    Nabokov's "Pale Fire"
    Book Description:

    Pale Fireis regarded by many as Vladimir Nabokov's masterpiece. The novel has been hailed as one of the most striking early examples of postmodernism and has become a famous test case for theories about reading because of the apparent impossibility of deciding between several radically different interpretations. Does the book have two narrators, as it first appears, or one? How much is fantasy and how much is reality? Whose fantasy and whose reality are they? Brian Boyd, Nabokov's biographer and hitherto the foremost proponent of the idea thatPale Firehas one narrator, John Shade, now rejects this position and presents a new and startlingly different solution that will permanently shift the nature of critical debate on the novel. Boyd argues that the book does indeed have two narrators, Shade and Charles Kinbote, but reveals that Kinbote had some strange and highly surprising help in writing his sections. In light of this interpretation, Pale Firenow looks distinctly less postmodern--and more interesting than ever.

    In presenting his arguments, Boyd shows how Nabokov designedPale Firefor readers to make surprising discoveries on a first reading and even more surprising discoveries on subsequent readings by following carefully prepared clues within the novel. Boyd leads the reader step-by-step through the book, gradually revealing the profound relationship between Nabokov's ethics, aesthetics, epistemology, and metaphysics. If Nabokov has generously planned the novel to be accessible on a first reading and yet to incorporate successive vistas of surprise, Boyd argues, it is because he thinks a deep generosity lies behind the inexhaustibility, complexity, and mystery of the world. Boyd also shows how Nabokov's interest in discovery springs in part from his work as a scientist and scholar, and draws comparisons between the processes of readerly and scientific discovery.

    This is a profound, provocative, and compelling reinterpretation of one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2319-2
    Subjects: Language & Literature
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Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents (pp. ix-x)
  3. Acknowledgments (pp. xi-2)
  4. Introduction (pp. 3-14)

    Vladimir NabokovʹsPale Fireinvites readers to discovery in a way no other novel does, and for that very reason it can excite readers like no other book. Witness the breathlessness of Mary McCarthyʹs renowned, much-reprinted review: ʺPale Fireis a Jack-in-the-box, a Fabergé gem, a clockwork toy, a chess problem, an infernal machine, a trap to catch reviewers, a cat-and-mouse game, a do-it-yourself kit. . . . This centaur-work of Nabokovʹs, half-poem, half-prose, this merman of the deep, is a creature of perfect beauty, symmetry, strangeness, originality, and moral truth.ʺ¹ Because it invites us to discovery,Pale Firealso...

  5. PART ONE THESIS:: READING Story as Discovery
    • 1. Foreword (pp. 17-24)

      If you have not readPale Fire, read it before reading on. You will not be able to unlock all its surprises, but you should not risk having sprung for you here what you could have had the pleasure of finding for yourself.

      Pale Fireconsists of four parts—a Foreword, signed Charles Kinbote; the long poem ʺPale Fire,ʺ by John Shade; Kinboteʹs line-by-line Commentary to the poem; and his Index.¹ One of the many jokes of this very funny novel is that when we reach the end of the Foreword, we do not know which way to continue. But...

    • 2. Poem (pp. 25-36)

      John Shadeʹs ʺPale Fireʺ opens with an extraordinary series of images whose initial impact lingers in the mind as it expands in implication throughout the poem:

      I was the shadow of the waxwing 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.

      As we learn more about Shadeʹs lifelong attempt to understand a world where life is surrounded by death, we realize the full resonance of these opening lines: that he is projecting himself in imagination into the waxwing, as if it were somehow...

    • 3. Commentary (pp. 37-62)

      Martin Amisʹs observation that Nabokov ʺdoes all the usual things better than anybody elseʺ applies with special force to one of the mostunusual things ever twisted into a tale, the Commentary that occupies most ofPale Fire. More than two hundred pages of line-by-line annotations might seem a disastrous recipe for narrative, yet Nabokov here tells three colorfully contrasting stories, one homely, one exotic, one splenetic—Kinboteʹs intimate friendship with Shade in New Wye, Charles IIʹs escape from Zembla, and Gradusʹs pursuit of the disguised king—that converge to a climax right in the final note. He simultaneously invents...

    • 4. Index (pp. 63-66)

      After the wild wobbling of Kinboteʹs world at the end of the Commentary, he establishes a tighter control than ever in the Index. Here at last he has no competition: no other voice can be heard, no other reality can press for recognition, he can sum up his world just as he sees it. The orderliness of the alphabetic sequence highlights the rigorous coherence of his Zembla, almost seeming to verify its validity and refute our recent dismissal, until we remember that it confirms only the relentless method of his particular madness.

      With the voice of others suppressed, the Index...

    • 5. Pale Fire (pp. 67-74)

      Each part ofPale Firehas its own charm, issues its own challenges, and constitutes a natural phase in a consistent story, but why ever did Nabokov choose to write a novel in the form of a foreword, poem, commentary and index? One answer obvious from outside the novel is that its design owes much to Nabokovʹs translation of and commentary to the greatest of Russian poems, Alexander Pushkinʹs verse novelEugene Onegin(1823–31), which he worked on between 1949 and 1957.¹ In published form, Nabokovʹs prefatory matter occupies 110 pages; his translation of Pushkinʹs poem, 240; the commentary,...

  6. PART TWO ANTITHESIS:: REREADING In Search of the Story Behind
    • 6. Intrusions of the Real: Shade (pp. 77-88)

      If a first reading ofPale Firebegins with the joke of ʺa poem in heroic couplets, of nine hundred ninety-nine lines,ʺ the joke has a far bitterer new twist as we begin to reread. We now know why Shade never had the time to adjust the last draft verse paragraph, with its ʺdevastating erasures and cataclysmic insertions,ʺ or to find a way to round the poem out to line 1000: he was killed before he had the chance to finish the dayʹs revisions. He dies an utterly senseless death, victim of the would-be revenge of the madman Jack Grey,...

    • 7. Excursions from the Real: Kinbote (pp. 89-106)

      Kinbote sees all too little of the world around him, and yet we have to see most ofPale Firethrough his eyes. We can make out how much is false in his image of himself—his conviction that he is Charles the Beloved, say, or that he was the intended target of the bullet that killed Shade—but can we ascertain how much is true?

      Explaining the chess problem inSpeak,Memory, Nabokov compares the ʺantitheticʺ stage of approaching a solution to ʺa wild goose chase . . . from Albany to New York by way of Vancouver, Eurasia...

    • 8. Problems: Shade and Kinbote (pp. 107-126)

      As we rereadPale Fire, as we see how part and part correlate, or as we detect a problem that prompts us to look elsewhere, we make discoveries of all kinds, perhaps about Shade and the sources and end of his world, or about Kinbote and the sources and end of his. We encounter problems one of the two writers poses, or problems they try to solve, but in the very act of resolving some, we often become aware of others that had escaped us before or had remained below the threshold of recognitionasproblems.

      Some problems are local....

    • 9. Transformation (pp. 129-148)

      To solve problems in Nabokov, as in chess or life, it often takes a swerve of thought, a knight move of imagination. Let us for the moment set aside the problem of the echoes reverberating betweenPale Fireʹs poem and commentary and of who might be responsible for them, and focus on one pattern wecanfollow through, and in fact cannot help finding more insistent the more we reread.

      Early in Canto Three, after recounting Hazelʹs suicide in Canto Two, Shade reports on the Institute of Preparation for the Hereafter and the possibility or impossibility of meeting in death...

    • 10. From Appalachia to Zembla: A Woman Spurned (pp. 149-172)

      The experience of the Institute of Preparation for the Hereafter prepared Shade only to expect nothing in the here-and-now:

      when we lost our child

      I knew there would be nothing: no self-styled

      Spirit would touch a keyboard of dry wood

      To rap out her pet name; no phantom would

      Rise gracefully to welcome you and me

      In the dark garden, near the shagbark tree.

      From our position, knowing of Maudʹs message in the Haunted Barn, knowing of Hazelʹs manifestation as aVanessa atalantaas her mother stands ʺnear the shagbark treeʺ at the end of the poem, Shadeʹs confident dismissal...

    • 11. ʺPale Fireʺ: Origins and Ends (pp. 173-187)

      The evidence Nabokov conceals withinPale Firesuggests that Hazelʹs spirit somehow inspires Kinbote with the idea of Zembla, because she senses an affinity with him, because she wants to offer him an imaginative consolation for his anguish and loneliness, and because she can turn Zembla into a chance both to express and to ironize her own experience as a woman spurned. Her hidden role suddenly explains the peculiar harmony between her humiliations in New Wye and Kinboteʹs imagined triumphs in Zembla that we may have felt all along but never quite brought into focus. Yet it still does not...

    • 12. ʺA Poem in Four Cantosʺ: Sign and Design (pp. 188-206)

      If Hazel helps foster Kinboteʹs fantasy, from the Alfin who flies into a wall to the ʺZembla, a distant northern landʺ that ends the Index, and if she provides the cue for the alpha and the omega, the waxwing and theVanessa, in Shadeʹs poem, does not the very possibility of any such direction from the beyond diminish the freedom of the mortal mind? Nabokov takes good care to suggest this need not be the case. That Kinboteʹs vainglorious Commentary serves his own inflated sense of himself requires no proof. That Shadeʹs poem bespeaks his own vision in his own...

    • 13. From Zembla to Appalachia: The Contrapuntal Theme (pp. 207-232)

      It is little wonder thatPale Fireripples with echoes if Hazel has reflected and reversed her own experience, as recorded at the tragic center of ʺPale Fire,ʺ into Kinboteʹs Zembla, and shaped Zembla in turn so as to inspire her father. Yet there are many echoes within the novel—perhaps the most resonant of all—that remain unaccounted for.

      When he prepares multiple problems for his readers, partly intersecting, partly independent, Nabokov cannot know which problem any individual reader will solve first.¹ As it happens, this next solution was the first I arrived at after rejecting the Shade-as-sole-author hypothesis,...

    • 14. ʺPale Fire,ʺ Pale Fire, pale fire: The Spiral Unwinds (pp. 233-246)

      InPale Firethe process of discovery awaiting the Shades and the reader retraces the spiral that Nabokov describes inSpeak,Memory.¹ John Shadeʹs positives form the first, thetic arc, the serene confidence at the end of his poem in his waking up tomorrow, in his surviving beyond death, in the harmony of galaxies divine. The second arc, the antithesis, the negative counter-curve, corresponds to his murder and its consequences, his uncompleted poem, his travestied life and work and death. In his discussion of the chess problem inSpeak,Memory, Nabokov describes how in this antithetical stage he entices the...

  8. Conclusion (pp. 247-262)

    Nabokov designedPale Fireso that we make discoveries at every phase of reading, so that the interplay of problems and promise keeps luring us on to still more sweeping surprises. He manages to incorporate an unparalleled succession of readerly vistas into a work accessible and enchanting even on a first encounter. But the generosity of his method is more than a matter of method, for it reflects the generosity of his metaphysics, his hunch that the world itself sets before us the possibility and the pleasures of endless discovery, inexhaustible excitement, which far from stopping even at death might...

  9. Notes (pp. 263-290)
  10. Bibliography (pp. 291-298)
  11. Index (pp. 299-303)