Pale Fire: A Primer
Or, Yet Another Remisreading.
An ongoing academic debate (or circular reasoning amongst turtlenecked acolytes) revolves around the 'internal authorship' of Pale Fire. This concoction consists of the poem "Pale Fire" by John Shade (a Popean scholar), in 4 cantos (documenting his early life, his daughter Hazel's truncated life, investigation into afterlife, and final ruminations on life), bracketed by a preface, commentary and index attributed to Charles Kinbote, who to all appearances hijacks the poem in order to lay out his own sordid and deluded tale, about the abdication and exile of Zemblan king Charles II. This poses unique danger to prospective critics, whose efforts are hilariously lampooned (with reference to Pope's Dunciad) for usurping (and exiling) the author and expropriating his text; nonetheless, many spiral around Pale Fire like moths. The following summarizes this debate, but shall remain mercifully light on close reading.
On first impression (which is, oddly, what the First Edition proclaims itself), Kinbote is an expatriate scholar, unfamiliar with American customs and mores; on closer inspection, he suffers from paranoid delusions of grandeur, and may actually be an anagrammatic academic from another department. But Kinbote possesses so much privileged knowledge about his subject that critics proposed that either Shade made up Kinbote as an excuse to adumbrate his poem, or that Kinbote invented Shade as a vehicle for his story. (History of this back-and-forth available at the aptly named Zembla website.) Nabokov's best biographer, Brian Boyd, stepped in it, suggesting Shade influenced Kinbote from beyond life's pale, then revised his view in Nabokov's Pale Fire: the magic of artistic discovery to incorporate spectral influence from Hazel. Whether or not one accepts his thesis (which, while supportable, I think is overstated and too tightly wrapped, but then, Boyd graciously cited my NYT bookchat in a follow-up Nabokov Studies article for pointing out, in support of his thesis, that 'Vanessa' points to "The Vane Sisters", a prior short story with acrostic ghosts), the book is valuable for its identification of sources in Pope and Eliot (Four Quartets as well as The Waste Land) and subreferences to e.g. Goethe, even teasing significance from seeming throw-away lines ("Here Poppa pisses" plays on Robert Browning's Here Pippa Passes, but I suspect The Ring and the Book also has some oblique relevance). Not exhaustive (but nothing is), and with amendment welcomed.
And through the flowing shade and ebbing light
A man, unheedful of the butterfly--
Some neighbor's gardener, I guess--goes by
Trundling an empty barrow up the lane.
with its attendent commentary showing Shade exhibiting symptoms of stroke externally, shambling heavily, stumbling ... much as in Canto IV, Shade's speech degrades ("Now I shall speak ...") while his shaving cream becomes rather gory. Kunin's analysis ties this to RLStevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to argue that this stroke unleashes a previously repressed monstrous, perverse aspect of Shade's personality (his muse a versipal), and suggests that Kinbote's notes are composed not in Cedarn, Utana, as stated, but in institutional settings to which Shade is remanded. While this sketch cannot do justice to her, I find this argumentation less convincing, and prefer to think that rather than some latent identity surfacing, Kinbote constitutes a reconstruction of identity eradicated by the stroke, making use of whatever shards and fragments of memory scattered by the trauma can be reassembled. I further think that this occurs not in objective time, but within Shade's shattered consciousness, much as occurs on Owl Creek Bridge (which pulls the reader up short simultaneously with Peyton Farquhar). (Why C1000 to a 999-line poem? Why are the Crown Jewels in Kobaltana, "not in the text"?) This also temptingly ties to the sea-change undergone by Timon of Athens, the title's purported source, and to the career of a garden-variety poet, Andrew Marvell, upon whom I shall expound in a subsequent post.
But to the larger context: While Kunin prefers her 'solution' to Boyd's, I prefer to keep them in suspension. The textual evidence for both are strong, and they may operate in complementary rather than contradictory fashion, leaving the question of an afterlife up in the air in the same way that Melville's The Confidence-Man (the closest precursor to Pale Fire, with a similar density of allusion) leaves unresolved the ambiguities of faith. The focus upon internal authorship as the defining issue to sharp resolution, the key to the puzzle, the light at the end of the tunnel, detracts from a full appreciation of the design.
* Kunin also later helped elucidate another authorial controversy (sparked by Michael Maar) by providing a translation (.doc) of von Lichberg's older Lolita story.