Pale Fire is undoubtedly Nabokov’s most challenging novel. It opens with a self-indulgent “Foreword” by one Charles Kinbote and continues with a long poem (also entitled “Pale Fire”) by his late friend and colleague John Shade, a professor at a northeastern college and a poet somewhat in the mold of Robert Frost. A wayward, extended “Commentary” and a brief “Index,” both by Kinbote, conclude the novel.
Shade’s poem is written in 999 lines and divided into four cantos. An autobiographical rumination on death and the possibility of life after death, it reaches a poignant apogee in describing the suicide of Shade’s beloved but ungainly daughter Hazel. In his “Foreword,” however, Kinbote argues that the poem is actually “about” something else, and encourages readers to consult his “Commentary” before studying the poem. Kinbote has been regaling his patient friend with absurd stories involving the exiled king of Zembla, Charles the Beloved. Although there is an arctic island called Nova Zembla, there is no country called Zembla outside Kinbote’s imagination. Yet Kinbote is convinced that Shade has incorporated Kinbote’s stories into his poem, and proves it, at least to his own satisfaction, in his bizarre notes.
It may seem obvious that Kinbote is mad, although it is possible to determine from his remarks the general course of events and the particulars of his friend’s fate. Having finished (or nearly finished) “Pale Fire,” Shade visits Kinbote and, mistaken for the judge from whom Kinbote rents his house, is shot and killed by an escaped criminal named Jack Grey. Believing that Kinbote has heroically tried to save her husband’s life, Shade’s widow Sybil gives Kinbote permission to edit and publish her husband’s last poem.
The levels of possible interpretation of Pale Fire are multitudinous and extend far beyond the subject matter of Shade’s poem. Charles the Beloved may well be Kinbote’s alter ego, but on the other hand Kinbote may actually be the Russian-American scholar V. Botkin mentioned in the “Index.” In addition, the mysterious Zemblan revolutionary Jakob Gradus discussed in Kinbote’s “Commentary” may be Jack Grey.
Pale Fire takes its title from William Shakespeare’s play Timon of Athens (pr. c. 1607-1608, pb. 1623): “The moon’s an arrant thief,/ And her pale fire she snatches from the sun.” Nabokov’s treatment of stolen identity (and thus stolen meaning) is audacious, although the success of Pale Fire is open to question. Some critics greeted Pale Fire with extravagant praise, but many readers have found Kinbote, who occupies center stage throughout most of the novel, insubstantial and unsympathetic—a monomaniac defined entirely by his obsession.
Pale Fire purports to be a scholarly edition of the poem Pale Fire by the American poet John Shade. There is, as part of the novel, an editor’s foreword, then the poem itself, followed by five times as many pages of editorial commentary as there are pages to the poem, and finally an index. The editor, Charles Kinbote, was a one-time colleague of Shade at Wordsmith University in New Wye, which is in Appalachia. Kinbote tells a story, or rather a number of stories, all by indirection—for there is no simple “and then” of events in the novel.
The primary story is realistic, introduced by Kinbote in the foreword and carried on in the rest of the editorial apparatus and in Shade’s poem. In the poem, an autobiographical meditation written in loose, rhymed couplets, Shade recounts not only his own life and his love for his wife, Sybil, but his daughter’s life and death. His daughter was an unattractive, intelligent girl, too sensitive for the world, who ended up, probably, killing herself. Kinbote may actually have been named V. Botkin—and he probably is quite mad. Newly arrived as a teacher at Wordsmith, he rents the house of Judge Goldsworth, next to Shade’s house. Kinbote does not fit well into the academic world....
(The entire section is 1,250 words.)