Pale Fire

My cheek has been bruised by my tongue, there is so much play and word frolicking and hide-and-go-seeking in this. There’s a whole section on Word Golf, for petesake, including a couple entries in the Index. For the uninitiated, this book is made up of four parts: Foreword (by Charles Kinbote), Pale Fire the poem in four cantos, 999 lines (by John Shade), Commentary (by Kinbote), and Index (by Kinbote). In Kinbote’s hands, Shade’s poem is overshadowed (!) by Kinbote’s own story, that of the Zemblan king in exile living as a neighbor to Shade for half a year, and the man called Gradus on the exiled king’s trail to assassinate him. The poem takes up 36 pages, Kinbote takes the remaining 266 pages.
How is it possible that a non-native English speaker has such a vast vocabulary that I must needs have a dictionary nearby to discover the meaning to words such as scholium (explanatory notes on a text), sempiternal (everlasting), chtonic (spirits of the underworld), glacis (gradually decreasing slope), acclivity (gradually increasing slope), nictitation (blinking rapidly, a tic), enceinte (pregnant), revanch (revenge). He even includes “lemniscate” as a word to be explained in the commentary (a plane curve generated by the locus of the point at which a variable tangent to a rectangular hyperbola intersects a perpendicular from the center to the tangent).

The poem: Pale Fire

A delightful work, one worthy of memorization by those with more dedication than me. There are great lines like “She called you a didactic katydid,” “and all tomorrows in my funnybone.” In the poem, Shade reveals his childhood, his daughter’s suicide, his love of wife Sybil, his creative process.
One of my favorite sections:

I was the shadow of the waxwing slain
By feigned remoteness in the windowpane.
I had a brain, five senses (one unique),
But otherwise I was a cloutish freak.
In sleeping dreams I played with other chaps
But really envied nothing – save perhaps
The miracle of a lemniscate left
Upon wet sand by nonchalantly deft
Bicycle tires.

A section that collapses the poem and commentary down into two lines:

Man’s life as commentary to abstruse
Unfinished poem.
Note for further use.

The commentary notes “If I correctly understand the sense of this succinct observation, our poet suggests here that human life is but a series of footnoes to a vast obscure unfinished masterpiece.”


Kinbote reveals himself quickly as a unique editor, suggesting in paragraph two that Canto Two is “your favorite”, and in the next paragraph telling us “There is a very loud amusement park right in front of my present lodgings.” Seeds of a madman planted on page one of the work. Kinbote uses the Foreword to explain his relationship with Shade and how he came to edit this work.


Normally, explanatory text for a work focuses solely on the work itself. But Kinbote takes this opportunity to tell his own story, the exiled king of Zembla, which he had been pouring into Shade’s ear during their nightly strolls in hopes of having it immortalized by a Shade poem. He frequently goes on tangents then draws up short, “enough of this”, or says that he hopes the reader has enjoyed this note.
The comment to lines 47,48 is particularly humorous, detailing the house that Kinbote is renting from Judge Goldsworth and the specific instructions left by the Judge on taking care of the place, feeding the cat, moving the curtains to not sunbleach the furniture. “A description of the position of the sun, daily and seasonal, was given for the several windows, and if I had heeded all this I would have been kept as busy as a participant in a regatta.”
The note for line 181 also includes a hilarious backhanded attack on Sybil:

“Speaking of novels,” I said, “you remember we decided once, you, your husband, and I, that Proust’s rough masterpiece was a huge, ghoulish fairy tale, an asparagus dream, totally unconnected with any possible people in any historical France, a sexual travestissement and a colossal farce, the vocabulary of genius and its poetry, but no more, impossibly rude hostesses, please let me speak, and even ruder guests, snobbishness repeated and expanded to an unsufferable length, adorable seascapes, melting avenues, no, do not interrupt me, light and shade effects rivaling those of the greatest English poets, a flora of metaphors, described – by Cocteau, I think – as ‘a mirage of suspended gardens,’ and, I have not yet finished, an absurd, rubber-and-wire romance between a blond young blackguard (the fictitious Marcel), and an improbably jeune fille who has a pasted-on bosom, Vronski’s (and Lyovin’s) thick neck, and a cupid’s buttocks for cheeks; but – and now let me finish sweetly- we were wrong, Sybil, we were wrong in denying our little beau ténébreux the capacity of evoking ‘human interest’: it is there, it is there – maybe a rather eighteenth-centuryish, or even seventeenth-centuryish, brand, but it is there. Please, dip or redip, spider, into this book [offering it], you will find a pretty marker in it bought in France, I want John to keep it. Au revoir, Sybil, I must go now. I think my telephone is ringing.”

For the rest, the main takeaway is the thousands of words dedicated to telling the story of King Charles & Zembla, but parceling out tiny bits on Shade. As we get closer to the end of the poem, we see Gradus in New York City, flying to New Wye, staking out Kinbote and accidentally killing Shade, then sitting on Kinbote’s porch and sharing a glass of water with the gardener who beaned him with a spade. Jack Grey/Gradus admits to being an escapee from an insane asylum and is whisked back there. After a few interviews with Kinbote, Grey kills himself in his cell.
Questions swirl around who Kinbote is -> Botkin -> Nabokov. Nabby himself loved to utilize index cards with his writing. Overall, this is a great work; not an easy read, but a fun one if you’re up for all of Nab’s games and tricks.