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
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."
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."
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
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.)
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.
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
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.
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
And maybe Shakespeare
floods a whole
Town with innumerable
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
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.