Novel, Poem or Puzzle?
“There was a time in my demented youth
When somehow I suspected that the truth
About survival after death was known
To every human being: I alone
Knew nothing, and a great conspiracy
Of books and people hid the truth from me.”
― Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire
During a radio broadcast in 1939 Winston Churchill said: "I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma;". This is an apt epigraph for a discussion of the puzzles that are presented in Nabokov's endlessly fascinating novel, Pale Fire. It is like no other novel that I have ever read, if it is a novel.
On the surface it seems straightforward. There is a foreword by Charles Kinbote, the poem Pale Fire by John Shade, followed by 230 pages of commentary by Kinbote, and concluding with an index. Oh, if it were only that simple. The reader is alerted early in the foreword by references to someplace called Zembla and interjections by Kinbote about his personal life that seem out of place in the introduction to a substantial poem in four cantos. After reading the poem and less than half of the commentary it becomes clear (with many unanswered questions and puzzles) that there are several narratives coexisting in this book. Among them are the Shade domestic story (primarily related in the poem) including the tragic event of the death of Hazel, Shade's daughter. The story of Charles, the King of Zembla and Gradus, an assassin hired to kill the King. Finally interpolated with these is Charles Kinbote's own story. All of these are connected in various ways and discovering the connections, underlying references (literary and otherwise) could become a lifetime endeavor depending your level of obsession or interest in such things. Needless to say, this book has spawned a small industry within literary academia to fulfill the interest and obsessions of those who devote their lives to such things.
One example of the puzzling nature of this book is best described by Prof. Michael Wood who said in his book The Magician's Doubts:
"John Shade's poem is not about Zembla, and Kinbote's disappointment is crucial, along with his attempted piracy, and the cramming of his commentary with everything he thinks the poem should have contained." ("The Demons of Our Pity", p 188)
That the commentary contains more references to events outside of and perhaps related to the poem (perhaps not) is just one of the many puzzles in this fantastic novel. I may have further comments on my reading of Pale Fire, but I may not out of fear that I will not know when to stop.
“do what only a true artist can do ... pounce upon the forgotten butterfly of revelation” ― Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire
Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov. Vintage Books, 1989 (1962).
"The Demons of Our Pity" in The Magician's Doubts by Michael Wood. Princeton Univ. Press, 1994.