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Pale Fire

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. 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".

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.) 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. The critic Michael Wood has stated, "This is authorial trespassing, and we don't have to pay attention to it, but Brian Boyd has argued that internal evidence points to Kinbote's suicide. 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, 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).

Initial reception

The editor of a book of Nabokov criticism states that Pale Fire excited as diverse criticism as any of Nabokov's novels. Mary McCarthy's review was extremely laudatory; the Vintage edition excerpts it on the front cover. 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. Anthony Burgess, like McCarthy, extolled the book, while Alfred Chester condemned it as "a total wreck".

Some other early reviews were less decided, praising the book's satire and comedy but noting its difficulty and finding its subject slight or saying that its artistry offers "only a kibitzer's pleasure". 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.


Some readers concentrate on the apparent story, focusing on traditional aspects of fiction such as the relationship among the characters. 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. In 1997, Brian Boyd published a much-discussed study 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 and Julia Bader expanded it; Boyd himself espoused the theory for a time. "Kinboteans", a decidedly smaller group, believe that Kinbote invented the existence of John Shade. Boyd credits the Kinbotean theory to Page Stegner 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).

Though a minority of commentators believe or at least accept the possibility that Zembla is as "real" as New Wye, 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, signaling that it is not to be taken literally. As in other of Nabokov's books, however, the fiction is an exaggerated or comically distorted version of his own life as a son of privilege before the Russian Revolution and an exile afterwards, and the central murder has resemblances (emphasized by Priscilla Meyer) 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, and D. Barton Johnson, 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, 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", 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.


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