Pale Fire
by Vladimir Nabokov
Vladimir Nabokov led a life of exile and
tactical retreat, one that spanned three
continents and a half-dozen nations. The
Nabokov family was forced to flee the author's
native St. Petersburg
following the Bolshevik
revolution. They lived
briefly in Crimea, then
Britain, where the future
novelist studied at Cam-
bridge, before moving
to Germany. In 1922,
Nabokov’s father was
assassinated in Berlin
by Tsarist supporter
Piotr Shabelsky-Bork, although he was not the
intended target—an event echoed in scenes of
violent, mistaken death in the author's later
work. Nabokov remained in Berlin for 15
years, but left for France in 1937, and moved
on to the United States in 1940. Here he taught
at Wellesley, served as curator of lepidoptery at
Harvard University's Museum of Comparative
Zoology  and wrote his best known novels, the
Lolita and Pale Fire.  The financial
security produced by
Lolita’s unexpected
bestseller status allowed him to retire to the
Montreux Palace Hotel, where he resided for
the rest of his life, continuing to write such
seminal works as
Ada and the memoir Speak,
Essay by Ted Gioia

Readers who encountered Pale Fire when it was
first published in 1962 no doubt marveled over its
unrelenting cleverness. Here was a novel that was
as smartly structured as a chess problem, as tightly
written as one of those arcane
crossword puzzles for professional
lexicons. Only a spoilsport—in
this instance, Trotskyite-turned-
anarchist critic Dwight McDonald,
who pilloried it as "unreadable"
at the time—would demur. I am
more aligned with Mary McCarthy
who, writing in
The New Republic,
Pale Fire as "one of the great
works of art of the century." With
the passage of time, we can see that
Vladimir Nabokov not only constructed a work
of genius, but anticipated virtually all of the main
themes of the post-modern novel in this multi-
layered conundrum of a book.

Indeed, if this work had come out in, say, 1992, one
might suspect that it was intended as a
parody of the
textual deconstructions of the late 20th Century. Yet
when Nabokov was first planning
Pale Fire during the
period from 1956 and 1958, Jacques Derrida was still
employed teaching the children of military personnel,
Paul De Man was working on his Ph.D, and the term
"deconstruction" was used only in the demolition
business.  Thus it is more accurate to see Nabokov as
responding to the intensely close readings of text
popularized by the practitioners of so-called
Criticism, (today it would be called old criticism) still
in ascendancy during the 1950s and 1960s, and poking
gentle fun at specific literary models, such as T.S.
Eliot’s accompanying notes to "The Waste Land," in
which the dividing line between poetry, biography
and theory were deliberately blurred.

Pale Fire is ostensibly the text of a poem of the same
name by John Shade, with introduction and
commentary provided by Charles Kinbote, as well
as a supplementary index. A tragic human interest
angle:  shortly after Shade finished the composition
of his 999 line poem, on July 21, 1959, he was
murdered, apparently by an escapee from an institution
for the criminally insane.  In the aftermath of the
crime, Shade’s neighbor Kinbote undetook to publish
and explicate his friend’s final work.

Then again, almost ever one of these "facts" is open
to second-guessing and dispute, and as the reader
progresses through the novel—either moving
sequentially through the pages, or moving back and
forth between poem and notes—a range of alternative
interpretations emerge. The neighbor Kinbote, for
example, might really be an exiled Zemblan king,
better known as Charles the Beloved, or perhaps a
mad Russian professor—Nabokov, in an interview,
nudged readers toward the latter interpretation—but
another reading, also with some backing from the
author, dispenses with Kinbote entirely, and makes
him a construction of Shade.  

By the same token, the murderer might be Jack Grey.
Or he could be Zemblan Jakob Gradus. Or it is
possible that there is no murder whatsoever, and
that Shade has concocted the whole thing—a strange
but quite plausible solution to the whole puzzle. And
what a wonderful post-modern mystery Nabokov
would have constructed if, in fact, there were no
body, and Shade not quite a shade!

A half-century after this book first appeared, we have
grown familiar with many of its conceits. The text-
within-a-text, the unreliable narrator and his self-
contradicting narrative, the jockeying for position
between a story and its interpretation, the characters
who seem to compete with the author for control of
the book—these have become trademarks of the post-
modern tendency in fiction. Yet has anyone done
them more persuasively than Nabokov in this
Chinese puzzle of a book?  

Ted Gioia writes on music, literature and popular culture.
His  latest book is
Love Songs: The Hidden History, published
by Oxford University Press.

Publication date of this essay: August 23, 2011.
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Further Clues:

"Freeing 'Pale Fire' from Pale Fire" by Ron Rosenbaum
(and see response here)

Vladimir Nabokov and Lionel Trilling in TV Discussion

Mary McCarthy's Review of Pale Fire from The New Republic

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