Pale Fire is Nabokov’s most intricate, ingenious, and controversial novel, extravagantly lauded by some of his critics and assailed as coldly concerned with only technique and gamesmanship by others.
The book begins with a brief foreword written by an academician, Dr. Charles Kinbote, who introduces a 999-line poem in heroic couplets, “Pale Fire,” composed by the prominent American poet John Francis Shade, who has recently died. After the poem’s text, Kinbote engages in more than two hundred pages of line-by-line interpretations. The book ends with the requisite index.
A homely man who resembles Robert Frost, Shade teaches at Wordsmith College in New Wye, Appalachia. Specializing in the poetry of Alexander Pope, Shade creates a masterpiece that is closer to William Wordsworth’s pastoral themes. (Wordsmith is a combination of two poets’ names: Wordsworth and Oliver Goldsmith.) The card game in Pope’s spirited satire The Rape of the Lock (1712) is ombre, which is the French word for shade, or shadow. In Pale Fire, John Shade turns out to be the trump in Kinbote’s bizarre game.
Kinbote describes himself as an émigré scholar who has fled his native country of Zembla. In the index, he defines Zembla as “a distant northern land” near Russia. Pope mentions it in his Essay on Man (1733): “At Greenland, Zembla, or the Lord knows where.” A group of islands, Novaya Zemlya, exists in the Arctic Ocean, north of Archangel. Kinbote has lived next door to John and Sybil Shade, in a house he has rented from Judge Goldsworth, of the law faculty, who is away on a sabbatical. At the time Kinbote is writing his commentary, however, he has left Appalachia and is living in a small southwestern town. Shade has been killed by a man named Jack Grey, and Kinbote has gone into hiding to edit, with the widow’s permission, the poet’s manuscript for publication.
Kinbote, however, is a victim of brilliant delusions. He believes himself to be an intimate friend of Shade, although they met rarely and Sybil Shade detests him for his snooping on the family with his binoculars. In his commentary, Kinbote strongly suggests that it was he who had provided the poet with the inspiration and subject of his final work. He twists Shade’s verses to suit his grandiose needs and narrates,...
(The entire section is 953 words.)