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Pale Fire: The Magic of Artistic Discovery
Brian Boyd
Princeton University Press
320 pp.



Re-Reading Nabokov

Let’s face it. First-rate readers don’t give a damn about improving themselves. That’s not why they read. They read for pleasure, and that’s why they are such good readers. Vladimir Nabokov was born to play before such an audience. He is a magician, a puzzle maker, an acrobatic linguist, a storyteller, and he always has three or four balls in the air at once. Keep your eye on one hand for too long and you will miss that special bit of business going on in the other. There’s no time to be bored.

Brian Boyd’s Pale Fire: The Magic of Artistic Discovery is for the first-rate reader. Besides offering a brilliant interpretation of what many consider to be Nabokov’s finest novel, Boyd offers insights even for those who may be immune to Nabokov’s magic (and a sad lot they must be, but that’s just my opinion). Why bother to look beneath the surface of a work of fiction? Where’s the reward in reading closely about a world invented by somebody else?

Nabokov is Boyd’s subject, but the master surely would appreciate the clever and even courageous way this New Zealand scholar addresses why we should care about any difficult work of fiction—not just Pale Fire, which is perhaps as complex as any novel ever written.

Nabokov is often trounced as an intellectual snob, a literary mandarin. With his complex plots and prose that draws on French, English and Russian (just to name three), he delights in laying traps for the unwary reader because he wants to prove his superiority. So the argument runs. In truth, as Boyd demonstrates, Nabokov is the most charitable of authors. He always gives the reader more than one path to his destination. In Nabokov’s teaching days, Boyd relates, he told his students: "Curiously enough, one cannot read a book; one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader."

Boyd contrasts Nabokov’s attitude toward the reader with James Joyce’s, whose Ulysses and Finnegans Wake stand for many readers as monuments to perplexity. "Writing for the professors he wanted to keep busy for a thousand years, or for the ideal reader with the ideal insomnia," Boyd writes, "Joyce does not compromise the density" of his work. "Nabokov, by contrast, writes with an acute awareness of the range and capacity of his readers, whom he thinks…’the most varied and gifted in the world.’ He handles story and style at a swift pace, and though he often issues brief local challenges, he allows us easily to pass them by and to enjoy the imaginative leaps that we can make."

Nabokov "spaces and grades his challenges," Boyd notes, "so that we can solve enough to want to look out for more….until we are well on our way to becoming expert solvers."

Pale Fire is a poem within a novel, or a novel within a poem, depending on how you look at it. At its heart is a 999-line poem by John Shade, a professor at a college in "New Wye, Appalachia, U.S.A." who, we are invited to believe, walks just "one oozy footstep" behind Robert Frost. The poem is presented in full. It is then annotated by a madman. Charles Kinbote is a professor and admirer of the poet who believes he is king of a "remote northern land" called Zembla. Much of the work’s appeal lies in trying to distinguish what is "real" from what is the product of Kinbote’s derangement. Kinbote would have us believe that he has escaped from a coup in Zembla during a series of sensational adventures straight out of a boy’s book (in, fact, he cannot conceal a certain overfondness for little boys). The mad king tells us that he has come to New Wye to be close to Shade, his favorite poet, and to play Boswell to Shade’s Dr. Johnson, whom he resembles closely. (One scene, in which Shade is "slightly rolling in his armchair as wont to do when about to deliver a pronouncement," is a wonderful parody of Life of Johnson.)

Kinbote seeks consolation in his exile, and surcease from the loss of his sanity, by enumerating his Zemblan adventures to the bemused and sometimes impatient poet. Kinbote hopes that Shade will tell his story and put "the battlements of my sunset castle" into a poem. But the poet is shot to death by a would-be Zemblan regicide—or is he a garden-variety crook who mistakes the poet for the judge who sent him to prison? At any rate, Kinbote carries off the manuscript and is stricken to find that the poem contains none of "the wild glorious romance" of his beloved homeland. He seizes the opportunity to tell his story in the cracked commentary.

Since Pale Fire was published in 1962, readers have been debating a battery of critical interpretations. Was John Shade an invention of the mad scholar Kinbote, or was Kinbote a figment of the poet’s mind? For years, Boyd argued that the poet must have invented the king. While the mild-mannered Shade could have invented Kinbote, Boyd and others reasoned, Kinbote could never have dreamed up the unassuming, and at first glance colorless, Shade. But Boyd has changed his mind.

Pale Fire, Boyd now argues, is really a ghost story. Look again at the famous first lines of the poem:


I was the shadow of the waxwing slain

By the false azure in the windowpane;

I was the smudge of ashen fluff; and I

Lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky.


The hapless bird, killed by a window, seems transformed into a ghost as it flies on into the glass's reflection. Already, the theme of an afterlife, of dying and then crossing over into another world, is set. Boyd argues that throughout Pale Fire, the dead are giving signals to the living.

Shade, in his poem, writes movingly of his daughter Hazel, an ugly and sullen girl with a fascination for seances and other efforts to communicate with the dead. Hazel, dumped on her first date, steps onto the thin ice of a lake (another thin membrane, permeable as the azure in the windowpane turns out to be) and drowns. Boyd asserts that the spirit of Hazel—she is, after all, a Shade!—asserts herself in Kinbote’s world. She takes an interest in her father’s eccentric neighbor because he admires her father and, more importantly, because his madness makes him susceptible to signals from other worlds. Thus Kinbote’s vision of Zembla is guided by "tender ghosts humoring a lucky mortal," in Nabokov’s words. Her motive, Boyd suggests, is to inspire her father to finish a last great poem before his death, which she foresees.

This oversimplifies what must be one of the most complex plots conceived. The fun of Boyd’s book, aside from the clarity of his writing, is his deft demonstration of how an attentive reading of Nabokov pays off, in this work or any other. It seems this master of complexity has a simple message: Curiosity is always rewarded. Marvels unfold for the reader who pays attention, looks closely, reads and re-rereads.
In his cracked commentary, Kinbote quotes another poem by Shade that pulls this thesis together:


The dead, the gentle dead—who knows?—

In tungsten filaments abide,

And on my bedside table glows

Another man’s departed bride.


And maybe Shakespeare floods a whole

Town with innumerable lights,

And Shelley’s incandescent soul

Lures the pale moths of starless nights.


Like the radium face of a wristwatch charged in a table lamp’s pale fire, Kinbote becomes infused with an artist’s vision of the world. He offers a tale told not by an idiot but by a sublime artist.

One of the joys of reading Nabokov is that he too charges us with the electricity of discovery. Reading Pale Fire, the first-rate reader will know just how Kinbote feels when he tucks the manuscript of Shade’s great poem under his arm and absorbs a bit of its fire:


For a moment I found myself enriched with an indescribable amazement as if informed that fireflies were making decodable signals on behalf of stranded spirits, or that a bat was writing a legible tale of torture in the bruised and branded sky.


We can thank Boyd, first-rate reader and writer that he is, for helping us to decode the signals from Nabokov’s world.

—Review by Arthur Alexander Parker

Posted February 1, 2003


About the Authors

Vladimir Nabokov was born in 1899 to a patrician Russian family.  After studying at Cambridge University and living in Paris, he moved to the U.S. and taught Russian literature at Cornell University until the success of his novel Lolita (1955) allowed him to retire.  Among his other books are Invitation to a Beheading, Pale Fire, The Gift and Speak, Memory. He died in Switzerland in 1977.

In addition to Pale Fire: The Magic of Artistic Discovery, Brian Boyd is the author of Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years and Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years.



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