The Novel of the Century: Nabokov’s Pale Fire

O.K., I’ll play. You know, the Century-Slash-Millennium List Game. I admit I was reluctant to get into the whole Man -of-the-Century, Movie-of-the-Millennium enterprise. But a couple of things changed my mind: calls from two networks and a newsmagazine on the Hitler question–was he the “most evil” man of the century? should he be Man of the Century, period?–started me thinking in those terms. And then the arrival of a book I’d long been looking forward to, a book which suggested my first Edgy Enthusiast End-of-Century Award, the one for Novel of the Century. The book that prompted these reflections and confirmed me in my choice for Novel of the Century was Brian Boyd’s remarkable, obsessive, delirious, devotional study, Nabokov’s Pale Fire (Princeton University Press). And (insert 21-gun salute here) my award for Novel of the Century goes to Nabokov’s Pale Fire , with Ulysses and Shadows on the Hudson taking the silver and the bronze.

The Judge’s Rationale: Pale Fire is the most Shakespearean work of art the 20th century has produced, the only prose fiction that offers Shakespearean levels of depth and complexity, of beauty, tragedy and inexhaustible mystery.

One of the achievements of Brian Boyd’s book is that he makes explicit the profound way in which Pale Fire is a Shakespearean novel–not just in its global vision and the infinite local reflections in a global eye it offers, but also in the profound way in which Pale Fire is haunted by specific works of Shakespeare, and by Shakespeare himself as Creator. If, as Michael Woods (author of The Magician’s Doubts ) argues, Pale Fire offers “a theology for skeptics,” Brian Boyd makes explicit the ways in which it is a theology of Shakespeare.

Before I pay further tribute to Pale Fire , I want to pay further tribute to Brian Boyd. Yes, I already saluted his courage and scrupulousness as a scholar for renouncing his previous position on the Pale Fire narrator question at the Nabokov Centennial Night last April (see The Edgy Enthusiast, “Nabokov’s Pale Ghost: A Scholar Retracts,” April 26).

But he deserves new accolades for this new book-length examination of Pale Fire . An investigation notable less for his new theory of the controversial narrator question (with which I respectfully disagree) but for the way his pursuit of the narrator question has deepened the vista of delights in the novel and–most importantly–disclosed an even deeper level of Shakespearean affinity and signification in Pale Fire .

If Charles Kinbote is the ostensible narrative voice of Pale Fire , the one who writes the footnoted commentary to the poem that opens the novel, deliriously mad commentary that forms the bulk of the book, Brian Boyd has become–and I mean this as the highest compliment–Kinbote’s finest Kinbote.

Before venturing further into the depths and delights of Pale Fire theories, I want to pause here for the benefit of those who have not yet tasted the pleasures of Pale Fire . Pause to emphasize just how much pure reading pleasure it offers despite its apparently unconventional form. Following a brief foreword, the novel opens with a 999-line poem in rhymed heroic couplets formally reminiscent of Alexander Pope, but written in accessible American colloquial language at least on the surface. Please don’t be intimidated by the poem’s length or formality; it’s a pleasure to read: sad, funny, thoughtful, digressive, discursive, filled with heart-stopping moments of tenderness and beauty.

Following the poem (entitled “Pale Fire”) which is identified in the foreword as the last work of John Shade, a fictional Frost-like American poet, another voice takes over: the commentator Charles Kinbote. A delightful, deluded, more than a bit demented voice whose 200 pages of commentary and annotations on the poem constitute the remainder of the novel. Kinbote’s voice is completely mad–he is the ultimate unreliable narrator, the mad scholar colonizing the poem with his own baroque delusion–but also completely irresistible. Kinbote weaves into his footnoted annotations on the poem the story of his own relationship with the poet, John Shade. How he befriended him during the last months of his life while Shade was composing “Pale Fire.” How he’d disclosed to Shade, a colleague at the college where they both taught literature, the fantastic story of his (Kinbote’s) supposed secret identity: that he was not really Charles Kinbote, but rather the exiled King of Zembla, a “northern land” where he once ruled as Charles the Beloved until he was deposed by evil revolutionaries from whom he fled into exile. Revolutionaries who sent an assassin to hunt him down, an assassin whose bullet, meant for Kinbote, mistakenly killed John Shade instead.

And now, having absconded with the dead poet’s manuscript of “Pale Fire,” holed up in a cheap motel in the mountains, Kinbote attempts to demonstrate with his commentary that Shade’s last masterpiece is really about him , about Kinbote, about his own tragic and romantic life as King of Zembla, his flight and exile. All this despite the fact that, on the surface, neither Kinbote nor Zembla appears anywhere in “Pale Fire,” despite the fact that the poem seems on the surface to be John Shade’s attempt to come to terms with his own tragedy, the suicide of his beloved daughter Hazel Shade–and his efforts to explore the possibility of contacting her in the Afterlife, across the border between life and death which has exiled her from him.

As I said, it only seems complicated and cerebral. In fact, reading Pale Fire , both novel and poem, is an almost obscenely sensual pleasure. I guarantee it.

Nor should the pleasures of reading Brian Boyd’s book be underestimated, even though I believe he’s reading into Pale Fire a ghost story as fanciful as the one Kinbote reads into John Shade’s poem. Boyd’s ghost story is his new revised solution to the Pale Fire Narrator-Commentator Question: Who is Commentator Charles Kinbote? If we believe he invented an imaginary past as Charles the Beloved of Zembla, did he also invent John Shade the poet he’s purportedly reading his Zemblan story into? Or did Shade invent Kinbote?

For some three decades following the 1962 publication of Pale Fire , most critics and readers have followed the ingenious solution to this mystery offered by Mary McCarthy in a famous New Republic essay entitled “A Bolt From the Blue.” McCarthy argued from submerged clues in the Commentary that the “real” author of the Commentary and Foreword (and Index) in Pale Fire , the real Zemblan fantasist, was a figure barely mentioned in the Commentary, an academic colleague of Shade and Kinbote called, anagrammatically, V. Botkin.

I won’t go into the details of her dazzling conjecture here, suffice it to say it’s powerfully persuasive and held sway until the early 1990’s when Brian Boyd unveiled his first (and now abandoned) Pale Fire theory. Based on Mr. Boyd’s interpretation of a discarded epigraph from a revised manuscript of a Nabokov autobiography, Mr. Boyd argued that Kinbote did not exist as Botkin, or as a separate entity of any kind: that Kinbote was invented by John Shade who not only wrote the poem called “Pale Fire” but invented a mad Russian scholar-commentator to write a Commentary that massively misread Shade’s own poem as a Zemblan fantasy.

O.K., I’m not doing justice to Boyd’s conjecture perhaps because I’ve never found it convincing: It always seemed needlessly reductive to collapse the voices in the novel from two to one. But Mr. Boyd’s theory did attract a considerable number of believers who called themselves “Shadeans”–even after Mr. Boyd pulled the rug out from under them a couple years ago by retreating to an intermediate position that said, Well, no, Shade didn’t invent Kinbote, but Shade’s ghost , after his murder, somehow “inspired” Kinbote’s (or Botkin’s) Zemblan fantasy from Beyond.

But now Mr. Boyd has pulled the rug out from under himself once again.

In his new theory, Mr. Boyd has virtually abandoned John Shade entirely to argue that the real source, the true inspiration for the amazing shimmering imaginary land of Zembla, is not Kinbote or Shade or Shade-from-beyond-the-grave, but John Shade’s dead daughter Hazel whose ghost, Mr. Boyd says, insinuates Zemblan promptings into both John Shade’s poem and Kinbote’s beautifully mad commentary to it.

Although Mr. Boyd tries to justify the process of literary investigation that led to this conclusion with reference to the great logician of scientific discovery Karl Popper, Mr. Boyd neglects the warning of a far earlier logician, the medieval philosopher William of Ockham, who famously cautioned: “Entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity.”

I have to be candid and say that Brian Boyd’s conjuring the ghost of Hazel Shade into Kinbote’s muse seems to me an instance of a gifted exegete going one entity beyond necessity. Yet I also have to say that, it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t detract from Mr. Boyd’s book, it doesn’t detract from my admiration for Mr. Boyd’s beautiful Kinbotean obsession with Pale Fire . If it doesn’t detract, what it does do is distract the way a red herring distracts, from the true achievement of Mr. Boyd’s book: his successful effort to refocus our attention on Nabokov’s preoccupation in Pale Fire with the mystery of the afterlife, specifically with the afterlife of art, the afterlife of Shakespeare. The ghostly muse most truly revealed by Mr. Boyd’s excavation of Pale Fire is not the ghost of Hazel Shade but the shade of William Shakespeare.

It was Nabokov’s wife, Véra, Mr. Boyd reminds us in a footnote, who “singled out potustoronnost (the beyond) as her husband’s ‘main theme’ throughout his work.” It is a theme often overlooked, or looked down upon, in the commentary on Pale Fire . Yes, the entire Third Canto of John Shade’s four-canto poem “Pale Fire” is dedicated to John Shade’s sojourn at something called “The Institute for the Preparation for the Hereafter” where he meditates upon the possibility of communicating with the daughter he lost across the divide between life and afterlife.

But too many, I believe, read Shade’s search for signs and traces of the hereafter purely as comedy. The comedy is there but only as a veil for the enduring Mystery it simultaneously mocks and pays tribute to.

A mystery echoed implicitly in every line of the “Pale Fire” poem beginning with the famous opening passage: “I was the shadow of the waxwing slain/ By the false azure in the windowpane;/ I was that smudge of ashen fluff–and I/ Lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky.”

Life after death in the “reflected sky,” the mirrored afterworld of art. One of the things I find irritating about the way people read Pale Fire (and write about it) is the recurrent failure to take the poem, the astonishing 999-line work called “Pale Fire,” seriously enough, on its own terms. In fact, the poem as it stands alone, even without the Commentary, is a powerful and beautiful work of art, one that, I would argue, deserves far more recognition than it gets from those who don’t seem to get that it’s more than a pastiche for Kinbote to prey on with his parasitic exegesis.

In fact, let me take a real leap here, let me go out on a limb few would venture forth upon, let me make the following assertion: Not only is Pale Fire the (English-Language) Novel of the Century, but “Pale Fire” the poem within the novel may well come to be looked upon as the Poem of the Century in its own right.

But let me return briefly to the afterlife. As I said, it is not so much Mr. Boyd’s far-fetched argument that Hazel Shade’s ghost is the afterlife muse of “Pale Fire” that makes his book so illuminating as it is his exploration of the afterlife of Shakespeare in Pale Fire . In particular, the afterlife of Hamlet , the ghost in Hamlet , and Hamlet as the ghost that haunts Pale Fire .

Early in Kinbote’s commentary on the poem, he cries out against his supposed enemies: “Such hearts, such brains, would be unable to comprehend that one’s attachment to a masterpiece may be utterly overwhelming, especially when it is the underside of the weave that entrances the beholder and only begetter, whose own past intercoils there with the fate of the innocent author.”

When I reread this passage, I initially thought of it as a kind of allegory of Brian Boyd’s own obsessive “attachment to a masterpiece,” especially to the “underside of the weave” of Pale Fire –of the way Mr. Boyd has become Kinbote’s Kinbote. But submerged in the coils of that passage I think there is an expression of the way Vladimir Nabokov had himself become Shakespeare’s Kinbote: ecstatic commentator on his own overwhelming attachment to a kindred creator, William Shakespeare.

When Kinbote speaks of ‘the weave that entrances,” he speaks of the entranced as “the only begetter,” which is the mysterious phrase for the shadowy figure evoked in the dedication of Shakespeare’s sonnets to their “onlie begetter.”

Scholars have argued for centuries over the identity and significance of “onlie begetter,” but there can be little doubt that the only begetter passage in Pale Fire is one more instance of the way “the underside of the weave” of Pale Fire is shot through with a web of Shakespearean references, the way Pale Fire is dedicated to, haunted by, a work of Shakespeare–and not the most obvious one.

The obvious one is Timon of Athens , since it seems at first that Pale Fire takes its title from this amazing passage in Timon , a bitter denunciation of a cosmos of Universal Theft:

I’ll example you with thievery:

The sun’s a thief, and with his great attraction

Robs the vast sea; the moon’s an arrant thief,

And her pale fire she snatches from the sun;

The sea’s a thief, whose liquid surge resolves

The moon into salt tears.

God is that great! That last liquid surge that resolves the moon into salt tears: the image, of course, of flickering moonlight dissolved (reflected) on the surface of the waves, dissolved into the gleaming golden teardrops of light. And, of course, the theme of theft, all Creation as theft from a greater Creator, is shot through the book and may reflect Nabokov’s theft from–at the very least his debt to–Shakespeare.

But Brian Boyd has come up with a less obvious but perhaps more crucial Shakespearean origin for the title of Pale Fire : the pale ghost in Hamlet who speaks of his haste at dawn to return to the purgatorial fires of the underworld in these terms:

Fare thee well at once!

The glow worm shows the matin to be near,

And gins to pale his uneffectual fire …

Boyd makes a brilliant link between that passage in Hamlet about the ghost and the glow worm and a fragment of a poem in the Commentary to Pale Fire , lines in which John Shade conjures up Shakespeare as the ghost of electricity, a fantastic glow worm, illuminating the contemporary landscape from beyond:

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.

Shade’s poem (which of course is Nabokov’s composition) is called “The Nature of Electricity,” and it is, in fact, metaphorically electrifying in its suggestion that a current from the afterlife illuminates contemporary creation, that Shakespeare’s ghost illuminates Nabokov’s creation.

I think Mr. Boyd is at his most astute when he comments upon this passage: “The evocation of Shakespeare flooding a whole town with light [suggests] something particularly pervasive and haunting about Shakespeare’s creative energy … From start to finish of Pale Fire Shakespeare recurs as an image of stupendous fecundity.” And he adduces a further instance of Shakespeare as the ghost of electricity in Kinbote’s Commentary when the mad annotator avers: “Science tells us, by the way, that the Earth would not merely fall apart but vanish like a ghost, if Electricity were suddenly removed from the world.”

Electricity, as a ghost that creates the world, doesn’t merely haunt it but holds it together, gives it coherence ; Shakespeare as the ghost that gives Pale Fire its astonishing holographic coherence–the way each particle reflects the whole like a jewel, the way the whole haunts each particle like a ghost of coherence. But in Mr. Boyd’s elucidation of the theme it is not just the ghost of Shakespeare, but a specific ghost in Shakespeare: the ghost of Hamlet, which is the spirit that electrifies Pale Fire .

Isn’t it curious that the two novels that are to my mind chief rivals for greatest fictional achievement of the century, Ulysses and Pale Fire , are both haunted by Hamlet ‘s ghost? Joyce, as I’m sure you know, devoted an entire chapter of Ulysses , the pivotal “Scylla and Charybdis” chapter, to an eccentric theory of the special relationship between Shakespeare and the ghost in Hamlet . To the apocryphal (but not utterly improbable) anecdotal tradition that one of the roles Shakespeare played as actor was that of the Ghost in Hamlet . And that, in crying out on stage to his son (his namesake, the young Prince Hamlet) across the divide between life and afterlife, Shakespeare was himself–the theory goes–somehow crying out to the departed spirit of his own son, the twin called Hamnet, who died at age 11, not long before Shakespeare wrote or at least played in Hamlet .

In the thicket of Joyce’s speculation about ghostly fathers and sons, Hamlets and Shakespeares, one can sense Shakespeare emerging as the ghostly father of Joyce. And similarly in Nabokov as the ghostly father of Pale Fire .

Nabokov, Mr. Boyd reminds us, once called Hamlet “the greatest miracle in literature.” What makes Pale Fire Novel of the Century is that it, almost alone, has that absolutely miraculous “bolt from the blue” quality. Pale Fire is as startling, as stunning, as life-changing as the sudden heart-stopping appearance of a real ghost. And the real ghost that inspires Pale Fire from beyond the grave, the real shade that haunts its reflected sky is not Hazel Shade’s, but Shakespeare’s Hamlet .