Nabokov – Pale Fire

23 Aug

Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov (1962)

Though Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire could be challenging and indeed trying at times with its intentional incoherence, I found it to be absolutely fascinating.  It is a novel strewn with endless Easter eggs of clarity left for the reader to tinker with.  And “novel” is a term to be used loosely; the reader is given a forward by a fictional scholar to a 999-line poem by another fictional poet, followed by notes and a corresponding index by said scholar.  Not to mention the fact that he is insane.  The story is constantly jumping from forward to poem, note to poem, note to note.  I’m fairly certain that the unabridged version of Pale Fire would be well over 999 pages…or index cards.

Pale Fire is only the second Nabokov novel that I’ve read, the first being Lolita.  His use of language is flowery and creative, exceptionally punny and playful (especially in the poem).  I admittedly find myself looking up as many as two-three words in the dictionary per page, but I’m always glad that I did.  Pale Fire and Lolita are two of the most impressive novels that I’ve read.  Long story short – I will be reading more Nabokov very soon.

Word Play

Several of the characters in the book like to play with, or in fact twist language.  At every turn, there seems to be some flipping, mirroring, shuffling, misconstruing of words and letters.  Zemblan in itself is playing with language as Nabokov has created this fictionalized, native dialect.  Odon, actor and friend of King Charles, has a palindromic brother Nodo.  The note for line 819 fittingly titled “Playing a game of worlds,” refers to Shades love for “word golf” a word game where one must replace one letter with another to create another word and ultimately transition one word into another.  What’s more interesting is that the second word is the opposite of the first.  Kinbote admits that he was never excited to participate in these games, yet he is not shy about listing a few of his records.  The fist, “hate” to “love” he can do in three words (hate, have, lave, love) “lass” to “male” in four words (lass, mass, mast, malt, male) and “live” to “dead” in five words with “lend” in the middle (live, line, bind, bend, lend, lead, dead…six moves…I may not be intelligent, but I’m not insane either) In the note to lines 347-348 “She twisted words…,” we learn that Hazel was fascinated with mirrored words and that Hazel resembles our solipsistic narrator “in certain respects.”

My favorite instance in the novel may be the ghost in the barn episode in the note to line 347 with Hazel Shade.  She camps out at night in an abandoned barn attempting to channel the spirit of a ghost.  She uses a Ouija-like alphabet game in the attempts of recording a message from this “talking light.”  Hazel patiently records the following message from said spirit: “pada ata lane pad not ogo old wart alan ther tale feur far rant land tal told.”  This of course is absolute nonsense, and what’s most entertaining (and possibly a meta-textual note) is that the spirit seems completely harmless until Hazel starts to try and “scrabble” the message;  not long into her permutative (yeah, made that word up…we’re playing with language after all) toying, the spirit makes a “pugnacious dash” at Hazel’s feet and sends her running from the barn.


V. Botkin, which can be found in the index listed as an “American scholar of Russian descent,” is the only of the scholars/collegiate colleagues that is given an entry in the Index.  He is also mentioned in two very important notes.  The first note for line 71 titled “parents,” fittingly ends the list of names derived from professions with “Botkin,” though I’m not sure that there is any significance to a Botkin being a maker of expensive footwear (shed light on that if you have any ideas…unless male homosexuals of the time were into wearing Danish stilettos).  As this is a passage written about descent and namesake, it’s not inappropriate to draw a connection between the name Botkin and Charles Xavier Kinbote.

The second note for line 894 is a particularly telling passage.  Titled “a king,” the note for line 894 delves into the true identity of Charles Kinbote as well an etymological breakdown of “Kinbote.”  It begins with a visiting German scholar expressing his disbelief at the uncanny resemblance of Kinbote to the missing King of Zembla.  Charles explains that the root of “Zembla” comes from “Semblers” or a people that resemble one another.  Humorously, when asked, Shade sees no resemblance at all between Charles and the Zemblan King.  Another in the room explains that he assumed “Kinbote” was an anagram of “Botkin” or “Botkine,” to which Kinbote snootily replies that he is being confused with a refugee from Nova Zembla.  “Kinbote” is then revealed to mean “regicide” or “a king’s destroyer.”  Perhaps there is a shuffled analogy here: Kinbote is to king destroyer as Botkin is to king creator.  The passage ends with Kinbote taking offense to Charles Xavier’s garb being referred to as “fancy pantsy” by the young Emerald whom he snipes at briefly.  Charles II is also listed as “Charles Xavier Vseslav” in the index; Vseslav Botkin?

There is a third passage referenced in the Index entry for V. Botkin and that is for line 247.  Kinbote discovered that Shades wife Sybil referred to Kinbote in private as “an elephantine tick; a king-sized botfly; a macaco worm; the monstrous parasite of a genious.”  Kinbote is referred to directly as a “botfly.”  I find this interesting for two reasons.  One, it clearly (and humorously) describes Sybil’s utter disdain for Kinbote and his sapping of her husband’s creative gift.  Two, by referring to him as a parasite, it is almost as if Kinbote is this malevolent tenant in the mind of John Shade.

Recognizing Kinbote as V. Botkin, a [deranged, possibly schizophrenic] American scholar of Russian descent, does give one a small anchor in reality.  In fact, that becomes the biggest question in the novel:

Reality?  Nuh-uh?

What is real and what is surreal or fake?  God knows…  I’m not sure that Nabokov wanted there to be a “right” answer.

The question becomes exceedingly difficult to answer (or at least definitively) because the book is so intentionally vague and convoluted.  The reader learns quickly that not only is Kinbote’s narration to be taken with a grain of salt, the majority of the time it is to be simply dismissed as the delusional ramblings of a madman.  For the majority of the novel I suspected: Kinbote and Charles the Beloved to be one and the same, Zembla as some elaborate and delusional fabrication, Shade as an oblivious, idolized neighbor and colleague, and I didn’t know what the hell to make of Gradus frankly (an escapist from an institution?).  This theory seemed to gel until I got to the 4th canto.  Zembla, although Kinbote draws analogies to it in his notes constantly, is not mentioned in the poem until line 837!  “Old Zembla’s fields where my gray stubble grows, / Where slaves make hay between my mouth and nose.”  I did not read this novel linearly (i.e. forward, poem, notes, index), but rather read the forward, 1st canto, notes for 1st canto, 2nd canto, notes for 2nd…and so on.  In one line, I once again lost my white-knuckled grasp on sense.  What’s worse is that our over-appreciated bard drops this in rhymed heroic couplets about shaving.  With Shade’s mention of Zembla, I now greatly doubt Shade’s existence as a “real” character.  In fact, it is now quite possible that all main characters (Kinbote, Shade and Gradus) are nonsensical products of the same psyche.  I would appreciate feedback.  I’m now thinking that the majority of the novel is the insane invention of a New England [Wye] reality, compliments of narrator Vseslav Botkin, European whack-job scholar.

There are a number of different themes/motifs in the novel that I could touch on, but as this is my first review in some time, I will end it here.

Highly recommended.

Rating: *****


One Response to “Nabokov – Pale Fire”


  1. Clarke – Exley | the self-hating hipster - April 23, 2013

    […] is most interesting, of which I particularly liked the nonchalant reference to both Nabokov and Pale Fire in “Exley’s Favorite People.”   Unfortunately, the novel falls prey to the fact […]

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