By Vladimir Nabokov
Pale Fire is a Jack-in-the-box, a Faberge gem, a clockwork toy, a chess problem, an infernal machine, a trap to catch reviewers, a cat-and-mouse game, a do-it-yourself novel. It consists of a 999-line poem of four cantos in heroic couplets together with an editor's preface, notes, index, and proof-corrections. When the separate parts are assembled, according to the manufacturer's directions, and fitted together with the help of clues and cross-references, which must be hunted down as in a paper-chase, a novel on several levels is revealed, and these "levels" are not the customary "levels of meaning" of modernist criticism but planes in a fictive space, rather like those houses of memory in medieval mnemonic science, where words, facts, and numbers were stored till wanted in various rooms and attics, or like the Houses of astrology into which the heavens are divided.Pale FirePrelude
That is the plot's ground floor. Then comes the piano nobile. Kinbote believes that he has inspired his friend with his tales of his native Zembla, of its exiled king, Charles the Beloved, and the Revolution that started in the Glass Works; indeed, he has convinced himself that the poem is his poem - the occupational mania of commentators--and cannot be properly understood without his gloss, which narrates Zemblan events paralleling the poet's composition. What at once irresistibly peeps out from Kinbote's notes is that he himself is none other than Charles the Beloved, disguised in a beaver as an academic; he escaped from Zembla in a motor boat and flew to America after a short stay on the Cote d'Azur; an American sympathizer, a trustee of Wordsmith, Mrs. Sylvia O'Donnell, has found him a post on the language faculty. His colleagues (read "mortal enemies") include--besides burly Professor Hurley, head of the department and an adherent of "engazhay" literature--Professor C, a literary Freudian and owner of an ultra-modern villa, a certain Professor Pnin, and an instructor, Mr. Gerald Emerald, a young man in a bow tie and green velvet jacket. Meanwhile the Shadows, the Secret Police of Zembla, have hired a gunman, Jakob Gradus, alias Jacques d'Argus, alias Jacques Degre, alias Jack Grey, to do away with the royal exile. Gradus' slow descent on Wordsmith synchronizes, move by move, with Shade's composition of Pale Fire; the thug, wearing a brown suit, a trilby, and carrying a Browning, alights on the campus the day the poem is finished. In the library he converges with Mr. Gerald Emerald, who obligingly gives him a lift to Professor Kinbote's house. There, firing at the king, he kills the poet; when the police take him, he masks his real purpose and identity by claiming to be a lunatic escaped from a local asylum.
This second story, the piano nobile, is the "real" story as it appears to Kinbote of the events leading to the poet's death. But the real, real story, the story underneath, has been transpiring gradually, by degrees, to the reader. Kinbote is mad. He is a harmless refugee pedant named Botkin who teaches in the Russian department and who fancies himself to be the exiled king of Zembla. This delusion, which he supposes to be his secret, is known to the poet, who pities him, and to the campus at large, which does not--the insensate woman in the grocery store was expressing the general opinion. The killer is just what he claims to be--Jack Grey, an escaped criminal lunatic, who has been sent to the State Asylum for the Insane by, precisely. Judge Goldsworth, Botkin's landlord. It is Judge Goldsworth that the madman intended to murder, not Botkin, alias Kinbote, alias Charles the Beloved; the slain poet was the victim of a case of double mistaken identity (his poem too is murdered by its editor, who mistakes it for something else). The clue to Gradus-Grey, moreover, was in Botkin's hands when, early in the narrative, he leafed through a sentimenta album kept by the judge containing photographs of the killers he had sent to prison or condemned to death: " . . . a strangler's quite ordinary-looking hands, a self-made widow, the close-set merciless eyes of a homicidal maniac (somewhat resembling, I admit, the late Jacques d'Argus), a bright little parricide aged seven. . . ." He got, as it were, a preview of the coming film--a frequent occurrence in this kind of case. Projected onto Zembla, in fact, are the daily events of the campus. Gradus' boss, Uzumrudov, one of the higher Shadows, met on the Riviera in a green velvet jacket is slowly recognized to be "little Mr. Anon.," alias Gerald Emerald, alias Reginald Emerald, a teacher of freshman English, who has made advances to (read in reverse "had advances made to him by") Professor Botkin, and who is also the author of a rude anonymous note suggesting that Professor Botkin has halitosis. The paranoid political structure called Zembla in Botkin's exiled fantasy--with its Extremist government and secret agents--is a transliteration of a pederast's persecution complex, complicated by the "normal" conspiracy-mania of a faculty common room.
But there is in fact a "Zembla," behind the Iron Curtain. The real, real story, the plane of ordinary sanity and common sense, the reader's presumed plane, cannot be accepted as final. The explanation that Botkin is mad will totally satisfy only Professors H. and C. and their consorts, who can put aside Pale Fire as a detective story, with the reader racing the author to the solution. Pale Fire is not a detective story, though it includes one. Each plane or level in its shadow box proves to be a false bottom; there is an infinite perspective regression, for the book is a book of mirrors.
Shade's poem begins with a very beautiful image, of a bird that has flown against a window and smashed itself, mistaking the reflected sky in the glass for the true azure. "I was the shadow of the waxwing slain/ By the false azure of the window pane." This image is followed by another, still more beautiful and poignant, a picture of that trick of optics whereby a room at night, when the shades have not been
drawn, is reflected in the dark landscape outside.
"Uncurtaining the night I'd let dark
Hang all the furniture above the
And how delightful when a fall of
Covered my glimpse of lawn and
reached up so
As to make chair and bed exactly
Upon that snow, out in that crystal
"That crystal land," notes the commentator, loony Professor Botkin. "Perhaps an allusion to Zembla, my dear country." On the plane of everyday sanity, he errs. But on the plane of poetry and magic, he is speaking the simple truth, for Zembla is Semblance, Appearance, the mirror-realm, the Looking Glass of Alice. This is the first clue in the treasure-hunt, pointing the reader to the dual or punning nature of the whole work's composition. Pale Fire, a reflective poem, is also a prism of reflections. Zembla, the land of seeming, now governed by the Extremists, is the antipodes of Appalachia, in real homespun democratic America, but it is also the semblable, the twin, as seen in a distorting glass. Semblance becomes resemblance.
"But where the Extreme of Vice was
Ask where's the North? At York,
'tis on the Tweed;
In Scotland, at the Oroades, and
At Greenland, Zembla, or the Lord
No creature owns it in the first
But thinks his neighbor farther gone
Pope is saying that vice, when you start to look for it, is always somewhere else--a will-o'-the-wisp. This somewhere else is Zembla, but it is also next door, at your neighbor's. Now Botkin is Shade's neighbor and vice versa; moreover, people who live in glass houses.... Shade has a vice, the bottle, the festive glass, and Botkin's vice is that he is an invert, i.e., turned upside down, as the antipodes are, relative to each other. Further, the reader will notice that the word Extreme, with a capital (Zemblan Extremists) and the word degree (Gradus is degree in Russian), both occur in these verses, in the neighborhood of Zembla, pre-mirroring Pale Fire, as though by second sight. Reading on, you find (lines 267-268), the following lines quoted by John Shade in a discarded variant:
"See the blind beggar dance, the
The sot a hero, lunatic a king . . . "
The second line is Pale Fire in a nutshell. Pope continues (lines 269-270):
"The starving chemist in his
Supremely blest, the poet in
Supremely Blest is the title of John Shade's book on Pope. In this section of the poem, Pope is playing on the light and shade antithesis and on what an editor calls the "pattern of paradoxical attitudes" to which man's dual nature is subject. The lunatic Botkin incidentally, playing king, inverts his name.terre neuveEt in Arcadia ego
The complementary color to green is red. Zembla has turned red after the revolution that began in the Glass Factory. Green and red flash on and off in the narrative like traffic signals and sometimes reverse their message. Green appears to be the color of death, and red the color of life; red is the king's color and green the color of his enemies. Green is pre-eminently the color of seeming (the theatrical greenroom), the color, too, of camouflage, for Nature, being green at least in summer, can hide a green-clad figure in her verdure. But red is a color that is dangerous to a wearer who is trying to melt into the surroundings. The king escapes from his royal prison wearing a red wool cap and sweater (donned in the dark) and he is only saved by the fact that forty loyal Karlists, his supporters, put on red wool caps and sweaters too (red wool yarn--yarn comes from Latin "soothsayer"--is protective Russian folk magic) and confuse the Shadows with a multitude of false kings. Yet when the king arrives in America he floats down with a green silk parachute (because he is in disguise?), and his gardener at New Wye, a Negro whom he calls Balthasar (the black king of the three Magi), has a green thumb, a red sweater, and is seen on a green ladder; it is the gardener who saves the king's life when Gradus, alias Grey, appears.
Now when Alice went through the looking-glass she entered a chess game as a white pawn. There is surely a chess game or chess problem in Pale Fire, played on a board of green and red squares. The poet describes his residence as "the frame house between/ Goldsworth and Wordsmith on its square of green"; the Rose Court in the royal palace in Onhava (Far Away), the Zemblan capital, is a sectile mosaic with rose petals cut out of red stone and large thorns cut out of green marble. There is much stress, in place descriptions, on framing, and reference is made to chess problems of "the solus rex type." The royal fugitive may be likened to a lone king running away on the board. But in problems of the solus rex type, the king, though outnumbered, is, curiously enough, not always at a disadvantage; for example, a king and two knights cannot checkmate a lone king--the game is stalemated or drawn. All the chess games played by characters in the story are draws. The plot of the novel ends in a kind of draw, if not a stalemate. The king's escape from the castle is doubtless castling.
Chess is the perfect mirror-game, with the pieces drawn up confronting each other as in a looking-glass; moreover, castles, knights, and bishops have their twins as well as their opposite numbers. The piece, by the way, called the bishop in English, in French is "le fou" or madman. In the book there are two opposed lunatics at large: Gradus and Kinbote. The moves made by Gradus from the Zemblan capital to Wordsmith in New Wye parallel spatially the moves made in time by the poet toward the completion of his poem; at the zero hour, there is a convergence of space and time. What is shadowed forth here may be a game of three-dimensional chess--three simultaneous games played by a pair of chess wizards on three transparent boards arranged vertically. A framed crystal land, the depth-echo of the bedroom projected onto the snow.
The moves of Gradus also hint some astrological progression. The magnum opus of old John Shade is begun July 1, 1959, at the dead center of the year. The poem is completed (except for the last line) the day of Gradus' arrival, July 21, on the cusp between Cancer and Leo. Botkin arrived at Judge Goldsworth's "chateau" on February 5, 1959; on Monday, February 16, he was introduced to the poet at lunch at the Faculty Club; on March 14, he dined at the Shades', etc. The fateful conjunction of three planets seems to be indicated, and the old astrological notion of events on earth mirroring the movements of the stars in the sky.
The twinning and doubling proliferate; the multiplication of levels refracts a prismatic, opaline light on Faculty Row. Zembla is not just land but earth--"Terra the Fair, an orbicle of jasp," as John Shade names the globe; a Zemblan feuilletonist had fancifully dubbed its capital Uranograd--"Sky City." The fate of Charles the Beloved is a rippling reflection of the fate of Charles II of England on his travels, of Bonnie Prince Charlie and of the deposed Shakespearean rulers for whom streets are named in Onhava--Coriolanus Lane, Timon Alley. Prospero of The Tempest pops in and out of the commentary, like a Fata Morgana, to mislead the reader into looking for "pale fire" in Shakespeare's swansong. It is not there, but The Tempest is in Pale Fire: Prospero's emerald isle, called the He of Divels, in the New World, Iris and Juno's peacock, sea caves, the chess game of Ferdinand and Miranda, Prospero's enchantments, his lost kingdom, and Caliban, whom he taught language, that supreme miracle of mirroring.
Nature's imitations of Nature are also evoked-echo, the mocking-bird perched on a television aerial ("TV's huge paperclip"), the iridescent eyes of the peacock's fan, the cicada's emerald case, a poplar tree's rabbit-foot--all the "natural shams" of so-called protective mimicry by which, as Shade says in his poem, "The reed becomes a bird, the knobby twig / An inchworm and the cobra head, a big / Wickedly folded moth." These disguises are not different from the exiled king's red cap and sweater (like the markings of a bird) or the impersonation of an actor. Not only Nature's shams but Nature's freaks dance in and out of the lines: rings around the moon, rainbows and sun dogs (bright spots of light, often colored, sometimes seen on the ring of the solar halo), the heliotrope or sunturner, which, by a trick of language, is also the bloodstone, Muscovy glass (mica), phosphorescence (named for Venus, the Morning Star), mirages, the roundlet of pale light called the ignis fatuus, fireflies, everything speckled, freckled, curiously patterned, dappled, quaint (as in Hopkins' poem, "Pied Beauty"). The arrowy tracks of the pheasant, the red heraldic barrings of the Vanessa butterfly, snow crystals. And the imitation of natural effects in manufactures: stained glass, paperweights containing snowstorms and mountain views, glass eyes. Not to mention other curios like the bull's eye lantern, glass giraffes, Cartesian devils. Botkin, the bearded urning, is himself a prime "freak of Nature," like Humbert. And the freakish puns of language ("Red Sox win 5/4 on Chapman's Homer"), "muscat" (a cat-and mouse game), anagrams, mirror-writing, such words as versipel. The author loves the ampersand and dainty diminutives ending in "let" or "et" (nymphet). Rugged John Shade is addicted to "word-golf," which he induces Botkin to play with him. Botkin's best scores are hate-love in three (latelave-love), lass-male in four (last-mastmalt-male), live-dead in five. If you play word-golf with the title words, you can get pale-hate in two and firelove in three. Or pale-love in three and fire-hate in three.
The misunderstandings of scholarship, cases of mistaken word-identity, also enchant this dear author. E.g., "alderwood" and "alderking" keep cropping up in the gloss with overtones of northern forest magic. What can an alderking be, excluding chief or ruler, which would give king-king, a redundancy? "Erie" is the German word for alder, and the alder tree, which grows in wet places, has the curious property of not
rotting under water. Hence it is a kind of magic tree, very useful for piles supporting bridges. And John Shade, writing of the loss of his daughter, echoes Goethe's "The Erl-King."
"Who rides so late in the night and
It is the writer's grief. It is the wild
March wind. It is the father with
Now the German scholar. Herder, in translating the elf-king story from the Danish, mistook the word for elf (elle) for the word for alder. So it is not really the alderking but the elf--or goblin-king, but the word alder touched by the enchanted word elf becomes enchanted itself and dangerous. Goethe's erl-king, notes Kinbote, fell in love with the traveler's little boy. Therefore alderking means an eerie, dangerous invert found in northern forest-countries.
Lakes--the original mirrors of primeval man--play an important part in the story. There are three lakes near the campus. Omega, Ozero, and Zero (Indian names, notes Botkin, garbled by early settlers); the king sees his consort, Disa, Duchess of Payn (sadism; theirs was a "white" marriage) mirrored in an Italian lake. The poet's daughter was drowned herself in Lake Omega; her name (". . . in lone Glenartney's hazel shade") is taken from The Lady of the Lake. But a hazel wand is also a divining-rod, used to find water; in her girlhood, the poor child, witch Hazel, was a poltergeist.
Trees, lakes, butterflies, stones, peacocks--there is also the waxwing, the poet's alter ego, which appears in the first line of the poem (duplicated in the last, unwritten line). If you look up the waxwing in the OED, you will find that it is "a passerine bird of the genus Ampelis, esp. A. garrulus, the Bohemian waxwing. Detached from the chatterers by Monsieur Vieillot." The poet, a Bohemian, is detached from the chatterers of the world. The waxwing (belonging to the king's party) has redtipped quills hke sealing wax. Another kind of waxwing is the Cedar Waxwing. Botkin has fled to Cedarn. The anagram of Cedarn is nacred.More suggestively"porte etroite"
This is no giggling, high-pitched, literary camp. The repetitions, reflections, misprints, and quirks of Nature are taken as signs of the presence of a pattern, the stamp or watermark of a god or an intelligence. There is a web of sense in creation, old John Shade decides--not text but texture, the warp and woof of coincidence. He hopes to find "some kind of correlated pattern in the game, / Plexed artistry, and something of the same / Pleasure in it as they who played it found." The world is a sportive work of art, a mosaic, an iridescent tissue. Appearance and "reality" are interchangeable; all appearance, however deceptive, is real. Indeed it is just this faculty of deceptiveness (natural mimicry, trompe l'oeil, imposture), this power of imitation, that provides the key to Nature's cipher. Nature has "the artistic temperament"; the galaxies, if scanned, will be an iambic line.
Shade, as an American, is naturally an agnostic, and Kinbote, a European, is a vague sort of Christian who speaks of accepting "God's presence--a faint phosphorescence at first, a pale light in the dimness of bodily life, and a dazzling radiance after it." Or, more concessively, "Somehow Mind is involved as a main factor in the making of the universe." This Mind of Kinbote's seems to express itself most lucidly in dualities, pairs, twins, puns, couplets, like the plots of Shakespeare's early comedies. But this is only to be expected if one recalls that to make a cutout heart or lacy design for Valentine's Day all a child needs is a scissors and a folded piece of paper--the fold makes the pattern, which, unfolded, appears as a miracle. It is the quaint principle of the butterfly. Similarly, Renaissance artificers used to make wondrous "natural" patterns by bisecting a veined stone, an agate or a carnelian, as you would bisect an orange. Another kind of magic is the child's trick of putting a piece of paper on the cover of a school book and shading it with a pencil; wonderfully, the stamped title, Caesar's Gallic Wars, emerges, as though embossed, in white letters. This, upside down, is the principle of the pheasant's hieroglyph in the snow or the ripple marks on the sand, to which we cry "How beautiful!" There is no doubt that duplication, stamping, printing (children's transfers), is one of the chief forms of magic, a magic we also see in Jack Frost's writing on the window, in jet trails in the sky--an intelligent spirit seems to have signed them. But it is not only in symmetry and reproduction that the magic signature of Mind is discerned, but in the very imperfections of Nature's work, which appear as guarantees of authentic, hand-knit manufacture. That is, in those blemishes and freckles and streakings and moles already mentioned that are the sports of creation, and what is a vice but a mole?
Nabokov's tenderness for human eccentricity, for the freak, the "deviate," is partly the naturalist's taste for the curious. But his fond, wry compassion for the lone black piece on the board goes deeper than classificatory science or the collector's choplicking. Love is the burden of Pale Fire, love and loss. Love is felt as a kind of homesickness, that yearning for union described by Plato, the pining for the other half of a once-whole body, the straining of the soul's black horse to unite with the white. The sense of loss in love, of separation (the room beyond, projected onto the snow, the phantom moves of the chess knight, that deviate piece, off the board's edge onto ghostly squares), binds mortal men in a common pattern --the elderly couple watching TV in a lighted room, and the "queer" neighbor watching them from his window. But it is most poignant in the outsider: the homely daughter stood up by her date, the refugee, the "queen," the bird smashed on the window pane.
Pity is the password, says Shade, in a philosophical discussion with Kinbote; for the agnostic poet, there are only two sins, murder and the deliberate infliction of pain. In the exuberant high spirits, the wild laughter of the book, there is a cry of pure pain. The compassion of Nabokov stops violently short of Gradus, that grey, degraded being, the shadow of a Shade. The modern, mass-produced, jet-propelled, newspaper-digesting killer is described with a fury of intimate hatred; he is Death on the prowl. Unnatural Death is the natural enemy of the delicate, gauzy ephemerids who are Nabokov's special love. Kinbote makes an "anti-Darwinian" aphorism: "The killer is always his victim's inferior."
But except for the discussions between the poet and his neighbor and Kinbote's theological justification of suicide, the book is quite free of religion--a remarkable achievement for a work that plays on traditional associations. How was it possible to avoid the Holy Rood, the Trinity, the Harrowing of Hell, the Resurrection, etc.? Among the myriads of references, there seem to be only two to Christian legend: the oblique one to St. Peter as gatekeeper of Heaven and the chess-jesting one to the Black King of the Magi. The book is obstinately, adamantly secular. It flies this fact gallantly like a Hag of difference. The author's attitude toward the mystery of the universe is closer to the old botanist's wonder than to the modern physicist's mysticism. His practical morality, like Kant's, seeks to reconcile the Enlightenment with universal maxims of conduct held as axioms. Nabokov's pantheisn:i contains Platonic gleams: Kinbote's "phosphorescence"recalls the cave myth. Kinbote reverts to this notion when he concedes in his final remarks that Shade's poem, for all its deficiencies, has "echoes and wavelets of fire and pale phosphorescent hints" of the real Zemblan magic. This madman's estimate is also the author's apologia for his own work, in relation to the fiery Beyond of the pure imagination--Plato's Empyrean, the sphere of pure light or fire. But Plato's Empyrean is finished, a celestial storehouse or vault of models from which the forms of earthly life are copied. In Nabokov's view (see Shade's couplet, "Man's life as commentary to abstruse I Unfinished poem. Note for further use"), the celestial Poem itself is incomplete.
I have not been able to find, in Shakespeare or anywhere else, the source of "pale fire." In the commentary there is an account of the poet burning his rejected drafts in "the pale fire of the incinerator." An amusing sidelight on the question may be provided by the word ingle, used by Kinbote to mean a catamite or boy favorite, but which also means blaze, from the Gaelic word for fire. A Helena Rubinstein product is called Pale Fire. I think too of the pale fire of opals and of Wordsworth, one of the patron saints of the grotesquely named Wordsmith College: "Life like a dome of many-colored glass / Stains the pale radiance of eternity." Whether the visible world is a prismatic reflection of eternity or vice versa is perhaps immaterial, like the question of which came first, the chicken or the egg. In the game of signaling back and forth with mirrors, which may be man's relation with the cosmos, there is perhaps no before or after, only distance--separation--and, across it, the agitated flashing of the ART semaphore.
In any case, this centaur-work of Nabokov's, half poem, half prose, this merman of the deep, is a creation of perfect beauty, symmetry, strangeness, originality, and moral truth. Pretending to be a curio, it cannot disguise the fact that it is one of the very great works of art of this century, the modern novel that everyone thought dead and that was only playing possum.
By Mary McCarthy