I have returned safely and without sunburn from a three-day music festival in Austin, Texas. The weather was perfect, the bands were great, and I ate way too much festival food for way too much money. Basically I did exactly what I set out to do.
As promised I will revisit Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire. My professor and class mates were able to shed a little more light on this complex novel. What follows are the holes that we were able to fill in as a class.
It was discussed that this novel can be seen as a brilliant satire on what we all do as scholars, i.e. we read way too much into something that should just be appreciated for it beauty and artistry. The foreword even makes a great parody of the arrogance of the literary scholar. On one level, Kinbote reads “Pale Fire” the poem as a veiled story of his life, but any objective reading would prove Kinbote to be a fool. It is a book about reading and how we read. Nabokov did believe that literature was to be enjoyed and that we must “read with our spine and not with our skull.” He had no interest in using literature to promote any political cause or understand society better.
There is the theme of couples. The 999 line poem is written entirely of heroic couplets. Of course, for it to be completely successful, the poem would then have an even number of lines. The story is supposed to be that Shade was killed before the last line for the poem was completed. However, the last line does rhyme with the very first line, causing this sort of cyclical masterpiece. Nabokov did believe that reading was not about getting to the last page, but about the journey. Also, both Shade and his wife are troubled when their daughter, Hazel, cannot successfully “couple” with a male. In fact, she eventually kills herself after a failed attempt to “couple” on a blind date. There is also a large amount of tension in the Shade household due to Kinbote’s constant intrusions not allowing Shade and his wife to just be a couple.
The story also has a sense of paradise lost, as do a lot of Nabokov’s novels. Kinbote has lost the paradise of Zembla forever. He was the king, and now he must not go back. He even has an assassin come after him after he has fled. Kinbote has lost his throne, his home, and even his freedom as he tries to start a new life somewhere else. Also, Shade has lost his daughter to suicide, and a large amount of the poem “Pale Fire” is about her death and his thoughts on whether or not there is an afterlife, and if there is, is there any way we can communicate to those on the other side while still alive on this earth.
The names of the characters are also not at all by accident. “Kinbote” in Zemblan means regicide. Kinbote, who is the real King Charles of Zembla, now goes by the name Kinbote and in effect kills himself. The name “Shade” goes along with the notion of a pale fire. Shade could just be a double for Kinbote, a pale imitation, like a reflection in the mirror is just a “pale fire” of our real selves. Also, the name Gradus means shade in Zemblan, and he often goes by the name of Jack Grey. And the poem is full of references to shadows, mirrors, reflections, etc.
Another theme is Kinbote’s obviously lack of ability to grasp certain cultural references in Shade’s poem due to the fact that he was not raised in America. There are a couple of references to baseball, but Kinbote fails to recognize any of them. With the first reference, he believes is has something to do with a Keats poem, and with the second, he only mentions soccer and cricket.
As mentioned under theme, many of Nabokov’s stories have a sense of paradise lost. Nabokov’s family was exiled to Europe from their home in St. Petersburg, Russia after the Bolshevik revolution. In Speak, Memory, Nabokov describes his childhood in St. Petersburg as very near perfect. Everything is described to be very idyllic and comfortable. He was forced out of that and moved to England where he would receive his degree at Trinity College at Cambridge. From there he would rejoin his family in Germany, and then later move to France. He was then forced from France during World War II and fled to America, where he lived until after the success of Lolita made him financially independent and he moved to Switzerland, where he would remain until his death. So not once, but twice, was Nabokov forced from his home due to war and conflict.
Here I thought I would just list several of the theories that different scholars and critics have offered as a way to read Pale Fire.
1. Shade is a figment of Kinbote’s imagination. Kinbote gave the poem he himself wrote a fake author so that he could provide commentary on his own poem. This would make sense of when Kinbote claims that the poem has no reality on its own. Also, on page 299, Kinbote tells of how he basically bribed Gradus into admitting that he killed Shade, thus forcing him to become this character.
2. Kinbote is a creation of Shade. Again, so the Shade can write a commentary on his own poem and put two works into one. *Something interesting that supports both 1 and 2 is the fact that the two characters share a birth date.
3. Kinbote is a deranged biographer, much like James Boswell was for Samuel Johnson. The epigraph at the beginning of the book is a quote from Boswell’s biography on Johnson. Boswell pestered Johnson for years to be able to write his biography and Johnson kept refusing. Eventually, Boswell wrote the biography anyway. Kinbote maybe could not wait for Shade to die so he could write the biography, so he killed him.
4. Kinbote’s commentary on “Pale Fire” is really just a long suicide note, and Kinbote kills himself after he finishes it.
5. Kinbote is simply a lunatic. He is definitely the classic unreliable narrator. And he could be just imagining that all of this is about him, despite the actions of the other characters suggesting that it isn’t. At one point in the commentary, he even admits to fabricating lines that he put into the poem and then falsely attributes to Shade (P. 227-228). The note he put in about these lines is actually extremely long and detailed, but he made up the lines and now wants us to ignore the commentary after we have read it.
6. The reader really can’t say whether or not “Pale Fire” is a great poem. Because of Kinbote’s unreliability, we do not know how much he has given or taken away from Shade’s original.
*Just one last special note about the index. The longest entry in Kinbote’s index is his own entry. A real scholar providing commentary on a work would be self-effacing. Kinbote is the opposite, and makes his presence felt throughout the book.
Also, look up the entry for “word golf.” I think you will be pleasantly surprised…or frustrated.
There now, I feel much better about this book. Next week I will discuss a play that is on the M.A. exam list as optional, but I actually did not choose it. We have gone over Harold Pinter’s “The Homecoming” in class, and since I have the notes for it, I figure I would go ahead and post about it.