Pale Fire

Pale Fire

Infobox Book
name = Pale Fire

image_caption = First US edition of "Pale Fire"
author = Vladimir Nabokov
country = United States
language = English
genre =
publisher = G. P. Putnam's Sons
release_date = 1962 (corrected edition first published by Vintage International, 1989)
pages = 315
isbn = ISBN 0-679-72342-0 (Vintage)

"Pale Fire" (1962) is a novel by Vladimir Nabokov. The novel is presented as a poem titled "Pale Fire" by John Shade, a fictional author, with an introduction and commentary by a fictional friend of his. Together these elements form a narrative in which both authors are central characters.

The novel's unusual structure has attracted much attention, and it is often cited as an important example of metafiction.Fact|date=March 2008 "Pale Fire" has spawned a wide variety of interpretations and a large body of written criticism. The Nabokov authority Brian Boyd has called it "Nabokov's most perfect novel". [cite book | last = Boyd | first = Brian | authorlink = Brian Boyd | year = 2002 | title = Nabokov's World. Volume 2: Reading Nabokov | chapter = Nabokov: A Centennial Toast | editor = Jane Grayson, Arnold McMillin, and Priscilla Meyer (eds.) | pages = p. 11 | publisher = Palgrave | id = ISBN 0-333-96417-9]

Plot summary

Starting with the table of contents, "Pale Fire" is presented as the publication of a 999-line poem in four cantos ("Pale Fire") by a famous American poet, John Shade. The poem digressively describes many aspects of Shade's life. Canto 1 includes his early encounters with death and glimpses of what he takes to be the supernatural. Canto 2 is about his family and the apparent suicide of his daughter, Hazel. Canto 3 focuses on Shade's search for knowledge about an afterlife, culminating in a "faint hope" in higher powers "playing a game of worlds" as indicated by apparent coincidences. Canto 4 offers many personal details on Shade's daily life and creative process, as well as some thoughts on his poetry, which he finds to be a means of somehow understanding the universe.

The poem appears with a Foreword, extensive Commentary, and Index by Shade's self-appointed editor, Charles Kinbote, Shade's neighbor in the small college town of New Wye. According to Kinbote, Shade has been murdered. Kinbote has acquired the manuscript, including some variants, and has taken it upon himself to oversee the poem's publication, telling readers that it lacks only one line.

Kinbote's Commentary takes the form of notes to various numbered lines of the poem. Here and in the rest of his critical apparatus, Kinbote explicates the poem surprisingly little. Focusing instead on his own concerns, he divulges pieces of what proves to be the plot, some of which can be connected by following the many cross-references. Thus the narration is highly nonlinear. (The book has been cited by Ted Nelson as an archetypal proto-hypertext.Fact|date=March 2008) Kinbote tells his own story, notably including what he thinks of as his friendship with Shade. He also tells the story of Charles Xavier Vseslav, also known as Charles II, "The Beloved," the deposed king of the "distant northern land" of Zembla who picturesquely escaped imprisonment by Soviet-backed revolutionaries. Kinbote repeatedly claims that he inspired the poem by recounting Charles's escape to Shade and that possible allusions to Charles, and to Zembla, can be detected in Shade's poem and especially in rejected drafts. However, no comprehensible reference to Charles is to be found in the poem. A third story told by Kinbote is that of Gradus, an assassin dispatched by the new rulers of Zembla to kill the exiled King Charles. In the last note, to the missing line 1000, Kinbote narrates how Gradus killed Shade by mistake.

The reader soon realizes that Kinbote himself is Charles Xavier, living incognito—or, though Kinbote builds an elaborate picture of Zembla complete with samples of a constructed language, that he is insane and that his identification with Charles is a delusion, as perhaps all of Zembla is.

Nabokov said in an interview that Kinbote committed suicide after finishing the book. [cite book | last = Nabokov | first = Vladimir | title = Strong Opinions | year = 1973 | location = New York | publisher = McGraw-Hill | page = p. 74 | id = ISBN 0-679-72609-8 (Vintage reissue, 1990)] The critic Michael Wood has stated, "This is authorial trespassing, and we don't have to pay attention to it," [cite book | last = Wood | first = Michael | title = The Magician's Doubts: Nabokov and the Risks of Fiction| year = 1994 | publisher = Princeton University Press | page = 186 | id = ISBN 0-691-00632-6 | accessdate = 2006-09-28] but Brian Boyd has argued that internal evidence points to Kinbote's suicide.cite book | last=Boyd | first=Brian | year=2001 | title=Nabokov's "Pale Fire": The Magic of Artistic Discovery | publisher=Princeton University Press | url= | id=ISBN 0-691-08957-4] One of Kinbote's annotations to Shade's poem (corresponding to line 493) addresses the subject of suicide in some detail.

Explanation of the title

As Nabokov pointed out himself,cite news | first = Maurice | last = Dolbier | title = Books and Authors: Nabokov's Plums | work = The New York Herald Tribune | page = 5 | date = June 17, 1962] the title of John Shade's poem is from Shakespeare's "Timon of Athens:" "The moon's an arrant thief, / And her pale fire she snatches from the sun" (Act IV, scene 3), a line often taken as a metaphor about creativity and inspiration. Kinbote quotes the passage but does not recognize it, as he says he has only a Zemblan version of the play, and in a separate note even rails against the common practice of using quotations as titles.

Some interpreters have noted a secondary reference in the book's title to "Hamlet", where the Ghost remarks how the glow-worm "'gins to pale his uneffectual fire" (Act I, scene 5). [cite book | last = Grabes | first = Herbert | year = 1995 | chapter = Nabokov and Shakespeare: The English Works | editor = Vladimir Alexandrov (ed.) | title = The Garland Companion to Vladimir Nabokov | publisher = Garland Publishing, Inc | pages = 509–510 | id = ISBN 0-8153-0354-8 See also references therein.]

Initial reception

The editor of a book of Nabokov criticism states that "Pale Fire" excited as diverse criticism as any of Nabokov's novels. [cite book | last = Page | first = Norman (ed.) | year = 1982 | title = Vladimir Nabokov: The Critical Heritage | publisher = Routledge and Kegan Paul | pages = p. 29 | edition = 1997 | isbn = 0415159164 | url = | accessdate = 2008-01-19] Mary McCarthy's reviewcite journal | last = McCarthy | first = Mary | authorlink = Mary McCarthy (author) | title = A Bolt from the Blue | journal = The New Republic | date = June 4, 1962 Revised version in cite book |author= Mary McCarthy |title=A Bolt from the Blue and Other Essays|accessdate=2006-09-25 |year=2002 |publisher=The New York Review of Books |location=New York |id=ISBN 1-59017-010-5 |pages=pp. 83–102] was extremely laudatory; the Vintage edition excerpts it on the front cover. [The quotation is "a creation of perfect beauty, symmetry, strangeness… one of the very great works of art of this century".] She tried to explicate hidden references and connections. Dwight Macdonald responded by saying the book was "unreadable" and both it and McCarthy's review were as pedantic as Kinbote.cite journal | last = Macdonald | first = Dwight | authorlink = Dwight Macdonald | date = Summer 1962 | title = Virtuosity Rewarded, or Dr. Kinbote's Revenge | journal = Partisan Review | pages = pp. 437–442 Partially reprinted in Page "op. cit.", pp. 137–140] Anthony Burgess, like McCarthy, extolled the book, [cite news | last = Burgess | first = Anthony | authorlink = Anthony Burgess | date = November 15, 1962 | title = Nabokov Masquerade | publisher = Yorkshire Post Partially reprinted in Page "op. cit.," p. 143.] while Alfred Chester condemned it as "a total wreck". [cite journal | last = Chester | first = Alfred | authorlink = Alfred Chester | date = November, 1962 | title = "Pale Fire," by Vladimir Nabokov | journal = Commentary Reprinted in cite book |last = Chester | first = Alfred | year = 1992 | title = Looking for Genet: Literary Essays and Reviews | publisher = Black Sparrow Press | isbn 0876858728 Quoted by Page, "op. cit.," p. 29.]

Some other early reviews were less decided, praising the book's satire and comedy but noting its difficulty and finding its subject slight [cite journal | last = Steiner | first = George | authorlink = George Steiner | title = Review of Pale Fire | journal = Reporter | date = July 7, 1962 | pages = pp. 42, 44–45 Partially reprinted in Page "op. cit.," p. 140.] [cite news | last = Dennis | first = Nigel | authorlink = Nigel Dennis | date = November 11, 1962 | title = It's Hard to Name This Butterfly! | publisher = Sunday Telegraph | pages = p. 6 Reprinted in Page "op. cit.," pp. 142–143.] or saying that its artistry offers "only a kibitzer's pleasure".cite journal | last = Kermode | first = Frank | title = Zemblances | date = November 9, 1962 | journal = New Statesman | pages = 671–672 Reprinted in Page, "op. cit.," pp. 144–148] MacDonald called the reviews he had seen, other than McCarthy's, "cautiously unfavorable".

In the 1980s, after Nabokov's reputation was rehabilitated in the Soviet Union, the novel was translated into Russian by his wife Véra, its dedicatee. [cite book | last = Boyd | first = Brian | title = Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years | location = Princeton, New Jersey | publisher = Princeton University Press | year = 1991 | pages = p. 662]


Some readers concentrate on the apparent story, focusing on traditional aspects of fiction such as the relationship among the characters. [ cite journal | last = Alter | first = Robert | title = Autobiography as Alchemy in "Pale Fire" | journal = Cycnos | volume = 10 | year = 1993 | pages = 135–41] [cite book | last = Pifer | first = Ellen | title = Nabokov and the Novel | location = Cambridge, Mass. | publisher = Harvard University Press | year = 1980 | pages = 110–118] They may make a case that Kinbote is parasitic on Shade, or that Shade's poem is mediocre and Kinbote, the inventor of Zembla, is a true genius.Fact|date=February 2007 In 1997, Brian Boyd published a much-discussed studycite journal | last = Boyd | first = Brian | authorlink = Brian Boyd | title = Shade and Shape in "Pale Fire" | journal = Nabokov Studies | volume = 4 | date = 1997 | url = | accessdate = 2006-09-26] arguing that the ghost of John Shade influenced Kinbote's contributions. He later expanded this essay into a book, in which he also argues that Hazel's ghost induced Kinbote to say things to Shade that inspired Shade's poem.

Other readers see a story quite different from the apparent narrative. "Shadeans" maintain that John Shade wrote not only the poem, but the commentary as well, having invented his own death and the character of Kinbote as a literary device. According to Boyd, Andrew Field invented the Shadean theory [cite book | last = Field | first = Andrew | title = Nabokov: His Life in Art | location = Boston | publisher = Little, Brown | year = 1967 | pages = pp. 291–332] and Julia Bader expanded it; [cite book | last = Bader | first = Julia | title = Crystal Land: Artifice in Nabokov's English Novels | location = Berkeley | publisher = University of California Press | year = 1972 | pages = 31–56] Boyd himself espoused the theory for a time. [cite book | last = Boyd | first = Brian | title = Vladimir Nabokov: the American Years | url = | accessdate = 2006-09-25 | year = 1991 | publisher = Princeton University Press | pages = pp. 425–456 | id = ISBN 0-691-06797-X] "Kinboteans", a decidedly smaller group, believe that Kinbote invented the existence of John Shade. Boyd credits the Kinbotean theory to Page Stegner [cite book | last = Stegner | first = Page |title = Escape into Aesthetics | location = New York | publisher = Dial | year = 1966] and adds that most of its adherents are newcomers to the book. Some readers see the book as oscillating undecidably between these alternatives, like the Rubin vase (a drawing that may be two profiles or a goblet).cite book | last = Kernan | first = Alvin B. | title = The Imaginary Library: An Essay on Literature and Society | location = Princeton | publisher = Princeton University Press | year = 1982 Reprinted as "Reading Zemblan: The Audience Disappears in "Pale Fire" in cite book | last = Bloom | first = Harold (ed.) | year = 1987 | title = Vladimir Nabokov | location = New York | publisher = Chelsea House | pages = 101–126 | id = ISBN 1-55546-279-0] [cite book | last = McHale | first = Brian | title = Postmodernist Fiction| location = London | publisher = Routledge | pages = 18–19 | year = 1987 | id = ISBN 0-415-04513-4] [See also [ the archives of NABOKV-L] for December 1997 and January 1998. That mailing list contains many discussions of "Pale Fire."]

Though a minority of commentators believe or at least accept the possibility that Zembla is as "real" as New Wye, [cite book | last = Tammi | first = Pekka | year = 1995 | chapter = "Pale Fire" | title = The Garland Companion to Vladimir Nabokov | editor = Vladimir E. Alexandrov (ed.) | publisher = Garland Publishing | pages = pp. 571–585 | isbn 0-8153-0354-8] most assume that Zembla, or at least the operetta-quaint and homosexually gratified palace life enjoyed by Charles Xavier before he is overthrown, is imaginary in the context of the story. The name "Zembla" (taken from "Nova Zembla", a former anglicization of Novaya Zemlya) may evoke popular fantasy literature about royalty such as "The Prisoner of Zenda", [cite web | last = Hornick | first = Neil | coauthors = Boyd, Brian | date = March 10, 2005 | title = "Pale Fire" and "The Prisoner of Zenda" | url = | accessdate = 2008-01-19 An exchange from NABOKV-L.] signaling that it is not to be taken literally.Fact|date=February 2007 As in other of Nabokov's books, however, the fiction is an exaggerated or comically distorted version of his own lifeFact|date=September 2007 as a son of privilege before the Russian Revolution and an exile afterwards, [Nabokov, "Speak, Memory"] and the central murder has resemblances (emphasized by Priscilla Meyercite book | author = Meyer, Priscilla | title = Find What the Sailor Has Hidden: Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire | year = 1989 | location = Middletown, Conn. | publisher = Wesleyan University Press | id = ISBN 0-8195-5206-2] ) to Nabokov's father's murder by an assassin who was trying to kill someone else.

Some readers, starting with Mary McCarthy and including Boyd, Nabokov's annotator Alfred Appel, [cite book | last = Appel| first = Alfred Jr. (ed.) | year = 1991 | title = The Annotated Lolita | location = New York | publisher = Vintage Books | id = ISBN 0-679-72729-9 Appel's annotations to "Lolita" also address "Pale Fire", and "in place of a note on the text", Appel reproduces the last two paragraphs of Kinbote's foreword, which discuss poetry and commentary.] and D. Barton Johnson, [cite book | last=Johnson | first=D. Barton | title=Worlds in Regression: Some Novels of Vladimir Nabokov | year = 1985 | location = Ann Arbor, Mich. | publisher=Ardis | id = ISBN 0-88233-908-7] see Charles Kinbote as an alter-ego of the insane Professor V. Botkin, to whose delusions John Shade and the rest of the faculty of Wordsmith College generally condescend. Nabokov himself endorsed this reading, stating in an interview in 1962 (the novel's year of publication) that "Pale Fire" "is full of plums that I keep hoping somebody will find. For instance, the nasty commentator is not an ex-King of Zembla nor is he professor Kinbote. He is professor Botkin, or Botkine, a Russian and a madman." The novel's intricate structure of teasing cross-references leads readers to this "plum". The Index, supposedly created by Kinbote, features an entry for a "Botkin, V.," describing this Botkin as an "American scholar of Russian descent"—and referring back to a note in the Commentary on line 894 of Shade's poem, in which no such individual is directly mentioned but a character suggests that "Kinbote" is "a kind of anagram of Botkin or Botkine". In this interpretation, the "Gradus" who kills Shade is an American named Jack Grey who wanted to kill Judge Goldsworth, whose house "Pale Fire's" commentator—whatever his "true" name is—is renting. Goldsworth had condemned Grey to an asylum from which he escaped shortly before mistakenly killing Shade, who resembled Goldsworth.

Still other readers de-emphasize any sort of "real story" and may doubt the existence of such a thing. In the interplay of allusions and thematic links, they find a multifaceted image of English literature, criticism, literary idolatry,Vintage edition of "Pale Fire," rear cover copy, 1989] politics, or some other topic.

Allusions and references

Like many of Nabokov's books, "Pale Fire" alludes to others. "Hurricane Lolita" is mentioned, and Pnin appears as a minor character. There are many resemblances to "Ultima Thule" and "Solus Rex", [Boyd (1999) reviews the resemblances.] two short stories by Nabokov, which were to have been the first two chapters of a novel in Russian that he never continued. The placename Thule appears in "Pale Fire", as does the phrase "solus rex" (a chess problem in which Black has no pieces but the king).

The book is also full of references to culture, nature, and literature. Some have been greatly emphasized by critics; others may be trifles. Many feel the book is more enjoyable if the reader deciphers or pursues these references independently.
*Maud Bodkin
*"The Brothers Karamazov"
*Robert Browning, including "My Last Duchess" and "Pippa Passes" (inspired in a wood near Dulwichcite journal | last = de Vries | first = Gerard | year = 1991 | title = Fanning the Poet's Fire: Some Remarks on Nabokov's "Pale Fire" | journal = Russian Literature Triquarterly | volume = 24 | pages = 239–267] )
*Cedar, including a colloquial American meaning, juniper
*Ben Chapman (baseball). The newspaper headline "Red Sox Beat Yanks 5–4 On Chapman's Homer" is genuine.cite book | last = Boyd | first = Brian | year = 1996 | title = Nabokov: Novels 1955–1962: "Lolita / Pnin / Pale Fire" | publisher = Library of America | editor = Vladimir Nabokov | isbn = 1883011191]
*Charles II of England
*Charles VI of France, known as Charles the Well-Beloved and Charles the Mad
*Disa (orchid) and the butterflies "Erebia disa" and "E. embla" (which may lead to Disa and Embla)
*T. S. Eliot and "Four Quartets"
*"Der Erlkönig"
*Thomas Flatman
*Edsel Ford (poet) and the poem "The Image of Desire"cite journal | last = Roth| first = Matthew | year = 2007 | title = Three Allusions in Pale Fire | journal = The Nabokovian | volume = 58 | pages = 53–60]
*"Forever Amber"
*Robert Frost
*Oliver Goldsmith
*Gutnish language
*Thomas Hardy and the poem "Friends Beyond"
*Bret Harte and his character Colonel Starbottle
*Hebe and the poem "Vessenyaya Groza" ("Spring Thunderstorm") by Fyodor Tyutchev [cite web | last = Dolinin | first = Alexander | date = 1995-12-12 | title = Re: Library of America queries (fwd) | work = Post to NABOKV-L | url = | accessdate = 2008-09-28]
*Sherlock Holmes and "The Adventure of the Empty House" [cite book | last = Sisson | first = Jonathan B. | year = 1995 | chapter = Nabokov and some Turn-of-the-Century English Writers | editor = Vladimir E. Alexandrov (ed.) | title = The Garland Companion to Vladimir Nabokov | publisher = Garland Publishing | pages = p. 530 | isbn 0-8153-0354-8]
*A. E. Housman, including "To an Athlete Dying Young"
*"In Memoriam A.H.H."
*"Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde"
*Samuel Johnson, James Boswell, Boswell's "Life of Johnson" and Hodge
*James Joyce
*The "Konungs skuggsjá" or "Royal Mirror"
*Jean de La Fontaine
*Franklin Knight Lane
*Angus McDiarmid or MacDiarmid, author of "Striking and Picturesque Delineations..." [cite book | last = McDiarmid | first = Angus | year = 1815 | title = Striking and picturesque delineations of the grand, beautiful, wonderful, and interesting scenery around Loch-Earn | publisher = John Moir | url = | accessdate = 2008-09-28]
*The Magi, including Balthasar and Melchior
*Novaya Zemlya
*"On First Looking into Chapman's Homer"
*"Papilio nitra" (now "P. zelicaon nitra") and "P. indra"
*Edgar Allan Poe and the poem "To One in Paradise" (for the phrase "Dim gulf")
*Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift
*Marcel Proust
*Red Admiral
*Alberto Santos-Dumont
*Walter Scott, including "Glenfilan, or, Lord Ronald's Coronach", "The Lady of the Lake", and " The Pirate"
*Robert Southey
* "Speyeria diana" and "S. atlantis" (fritillaries)
*Thormodus Torfaeus
*Whites (butterfly)
*Word golf
*William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, including "Kubla Khan"
*Lev Yashin


External links

* [ Summary of a radio adaptation of "Pale Fire"] broadcast in 2004 by BBC Radio 3
* [ Nabokov Library] - "Pale Fire" and other works by Nabokov
* [ For Nabokovians] at [ Zembla] . Clicking on "Criticism" will reach a page with a chronology of "Pale Fire" and many essays about it, along with other writing on Nabokov's works.

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