Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

Zembla

Zembla (zehm-BLAH). Imaginary country located somewhere near Russia that is the homeland of the literary scholar Dr. Charles Kinbote. The name “Zembla” comes from the real Russian island of Nova Zembla, in the Arctic, whose name means “new land.”

Nabokov also plays on the similarity of the sound of “Zembla” to such English words as “assemble,” “emblem” and “resemble,” which relate to one of the novel’s most important themes: art as a mirror to reality. However, it is a curious sort of mirror, one that not only reflects but also distorts, refracts, and multiplies. Zembla is a distorted mirror image of the mundane world that Kinbote is forced to inhabit. In the normal world Kinbote is a lonely, obscure, closeted homosexual. In Zembla, he is King Charles the Beloved, whose sexual orientation is regarded as proof of manliness, not as a shameful secret. (The novel Pale Fire itself is formed of a similarly distorted reflection—John Shade’s poem and Kinbote’s commentary on it, a pale and distorted reflection of the original.) In this ideal, “crystal land,” art and science flourish under King Charles’s rule, and even taxation becomes “a thing of beauty.”

Zembla is not simply Kinbote’s escapist fantasy. It has a complex—if invented—history that reads something like a parody or distorted mirror image of Russian history. Like that of the historical Russia, Zembla’s aristocracy falls to revolution, and the idyllic Zembla becomes populated by characters such as the assassin Jakob Gradus, who typifies Nabokov’s conception of the Soviet mind-set: low, vulgar, and incompetent. Unlike Russia’s czar, King Charles...

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Pale Fire Literary Techniques

There are three parallel lines of plot in Pale Fire, which follow the three major characters: Shade, Kinbote/ Charles the Beloved, and...

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Pale Fire Literary Precedents

Pale Fire is extraordinarily difficult to classify and even harder to compare to other works of literature. It is perhaps Nabokov's...

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Pale Fire Related Titles

Like Pale Fire, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941) has as its central theme the search for identity and the interpenetration of...

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Pale Fire Bibliography

(Great Characters in Literature)

Bader, Julia. Crystal Land: Artifice in Nabokov’s English Novels. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972. The discussion of Pale Fire is extensive and insightful, concentrating upon the novel as imaginative experience.

Boyd, Brian. Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years and Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1990, 1991. This two-volume biography is absolutely essential not only for its information about Nabokov’s life but about his life’s relation to his art.

Dembo, L. S., ed. Nabokov: The Man and His Work. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1967. This early collection of articles on Nabokov introduced many of the ideas that later critics would continue to discuss. Excellent article by John O. Lyons on Pale Fire.

Rampton, David. Vladimir Nabokov: A Critical Study of the Novels. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984. Although Rampton limits his discussion to a few novels, his concentration upon content is a good antidote to the many formal approaches to Nabokov.

Roth, Phyllis A., ed. Critical Essays on Vladimir Nabokov. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984. Comprehensive, very helpful selection of articles on Nabokov. Pale Fire is treated in several of the essays.