Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


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...

(The entire section is 698 words.)