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on 22 October 2007
At its simplest, Pale Fire is an examination of the 999-line poem in four cantos, 'Pale Fire' by respected Zemblan scholar Charles Kinbote, a friend of the recently deceased poet, John Shade. The novel becomes less simple when we realise that John Shade is a fictional poet, that Zembla may or may not exist, and that our friend Charles Kinbote is either the King of Zembla or insane, or perhaps both.
The novel opens, appropriately, with an introduction to the text about to be studied. Kinbote goes to great lengths to assure us that his land of Zembla and his 'great secret' are a major theme of the poem. He also repeatedly affirms his friendship with Shade, though the remainder of the text allows a severe amount of doubt as to the strength of their relationship.
John Shade, poet par excellence, is presented as an earthy, ugly man. Kinbote tries to exalt him to a higher plan at times, though textually we only ever see Shade for what he is - a poet, a great poet perhaps, but a poet. He isn't a God of letters or the Saviour of a nation, he is a man. But Kinbote has this to say of Shade's creative process: 'I am witnessing a unique physiological phenomenon: John Shade perceiving and transforming the world, taking it in and taking it apart, re-combing its element in the very process of storing them up so as to produce at some unspecified date an organic miracle, a fusion of image and music, a line of verse.'
Once the introduction has cleared, we are able to read the poem itself. It is 999 lines long: 166 for Canto One, 334 for Canto Two and Three, and 165 lines for Canto four. Kinbote tell us that the poem should in fact be 1,000 lines, with the first line of the poem repeated as the last, '...and would have completed the symmetry of the structure, with its two identical central parts, solid and ample, forming together with the shorter flanks twin wings of five hundred verses each, and damn that music.'
We are told in the introduction that the poem is about Zembla, which means that when we read Pale Fire, we are searching for references and commentary on this (presumably) mythical country. Canto One and Two incite doubt, Canto Three assures us, and Canto four confirms that there will be no references to Zembla. From the first, we are unsure of our narrator.
To the meat of the text, then. Kinbote offers to explain verses and lines, sometimes in great detail. A number of these are purely literary in explanation. He locates references, comments upon the language used (both negatively and positively), and generally acts as a normal editor would. These comments are usually clever, accurate and informed.
But the bulk of the text comes from Kinbote's other comments. As we know from the introduction, Kinbote is desperate to prove a link between the poem and himself. He is so certain of his great friendship with Shade that surely it must be inspired by his majestic Zembla? A word ('Today' on one occasion, 'parents' on another) can spark a multi-page discourse on Zembla, on Kinbote, on the perceived connections. As we read, it becomes clear the lengths that Kinbote must go to prove any connection at all. At first, this seems the enthusiastic ramblings of a friend, but as we read, it becomes clear that Kinbote is not quite sane. He spies upon Shade, he creates connections that aren't there, he believes everything is stronger than it is. Why, we are unsure. Is he a fan, become obsessed with his favourite poet?
A third story - and we are crowded with them, it seems - is that of Gradus, a man hired to assassinate the deposed Zemblan King. As the analysis of the poem approaches an end, so to does Gradus come closer to finally killing Shade. This is not a spoiler - we are told from the start that Gradus killed Shade. But what we don't know is the motive. Was it to kill the King? Or was it case of mistaken identity with a Judge? Again, we are unsure, because Kinbote is so unreliable.
I say unreliable, yet he is reasonably consistent within himself. Zembla is an astonishing construct, with history, geography, culture and customs. Add to that the fact of Kinbote working at a university teaching Zemblan, and we remain unsure as to the truth of, well, everything.
So, a detective story. It is horribly complicated, yet at the same time completely straight forward. All of the plot lines begin at the start of the novel and are resolved in a straight forward manner. Kinbote does not reveal himself to be the exiled King at first, but that is a simple matter of reading between the lines - he goes to no real effort to hide the fact. And Shade is dead, we know that from the start. No, the 'detective' aspect of Pale Fire is that we don't know what to believe. There are multiple interpretations for everything, but the only detailed interpretation we have is Kinbote's, and his is so fantastic that it should be automatically discredited. Yet we cannot, due to the sheer confidence with which he tells his story.
A word on the poem. It is by turns beautifully written and evocatively plotted. The Second Canto deals with Shade's daughter's death, and is very sad. The language is impeccable, as all poems must be. 'How to locate in blackness, with a gasp, Terra the Fair, an orbicle of jasp' is lovely.
Similarly, the rest of the novel crackles with inspired description and wordplay. Nabokov is known for his love of language, it is quite astonishing to realise that English was his second language. We have such gems as 'Would he have crept, pistol in hand, to where a sun-bathing giant lay spread-eagled, a spread eagle of hair on his chest?'.
There is a lot to consider with Pale Fire. The beauty of the novel is easy to enjoy, and the plot, for what it is, works. The greatest enjoyment comes from the mystery of what is real and what is not, but a side entertainment is certainly available in the form of Kinbote's literary criticism, some of which is biting. We may assume that this is Nabokov speaking, as he was known for his harsh judgment on literature.
To end, Pale Fire is complicated and complex, but the rewards are great. If the idea of a novel wrapped around the analysis of a poem is not appealing, then stay away. But if beautiful language, wonderful prose and excellent literature is to your taste, by all means, read Pale Fire.