Pale Fire

by

Vladimir Nabokov

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Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Vintage edition of Pale Fire published in 1962.
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Foreword Quotes

Nay, I shall even assert (as our shadows still walk without us) that there remained to be written only one line of the poem (namely verse 1000) which would have been identical to line 1 and would have completed the symmetry of the structure, with its two identical central parts, solid and ample, forming together with the shorter flanks twin wings of five hundred verses each, and damn that music.

Related Characters: Narrator/Charles Kinbote (speaker), John Shade
Related Symbols: Birds and Butterflies
Page Number: 15
Explanation and Analysis:

As a rule, Shade destroyed drafts the moment he ceased to need them: well do I recall seeing him from my porch, on a brilliant morning, burning a whole stack of them in the pale fire of the incinerator before which he stood with bent head like an official mourner among the wind-borne black butterflies of that backyard auto-da-fé.

Related Characters: Narrator/Charles Kinbote (speaker), John Shade
Related Symbols: Birds and Butterflies
Page Number: 15
Explanation and Analysis:

Let me state that without my notes Shade’s text simply has no human reality at all since the human reality of such a poem as his (being too skittish and reticent for an autobiographical work), with the omission of many pithy lines carelessly rejected by him, has to depend entirely on the reality of its author and his surroundings, attachments and so forth, a reality that only my notes can provide. To this statement my dear poet would probably not have subscribed, but, for better or worse, it is the commentator who has the last word.

Related Characters: Narrator/Charles Kinbote (speaker), John Shade
Page Number: 28-29
Explanation and Analysis:
Pale Fire: Canto One Quotes

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.

Related Characters: John Shade (speaker)
Related Symbols: Birds and Butterflies
Page Number: 33
Explanation and Analysis:

My God died young. Theolatry I found
Degrading, and its premises, unsound.
No free man needs a God; but was I free?
How fully I felt nature glued to me

Related Characters: John Shade (speaker)
Page Number: 36
Explanation and Analysis:

My picture book was at an early age
The painted parchment papering our cage:
Mauve rings around the moon; blood-orange sun
Twinned Iris; and that rare phenomenon
The iridule—when, beautiful and strange,
In a bright sky above a mountain range
One opal cloudlet in an oval form
Reflects the rainbow of a thunderstorm
Which in a distant valley has been staged—
For we are most artistically caged.

Related Characters: John Shade (speaker)
Page Number: 36-37
Explanation and Analysis:
Pale Fire: Canto Two Quotes

Space is a swarming in the eyes; and time,
A singing in the ears. In this hive I’m
Locked up. Yet, if prior to life we had
Been able to imagine life, what mad,
Impossible, unutterably weird,
Wonderful nonsense it might have appeared!

Related Characters: John Shade (speaker)
Page Number: 40-41
Explanation and Analysis:

It isn’t that we dream too wild a dream:
The trouble is we do not make it seem
Sufficiently unlikely; for the most
We can think up is a domestic ghost.

How ludicrous these efforts to translate
Into one’s private tongue a public fate!
Instead of poetry divinely terse,
Disjointed notes, Insomnia's mean verse!

Related Characters: John Shade (speaker)
Page Number: 41
Explanation and Analysis:

Life is a message scribbled in the dark.
Anonymous.

Related Characters: John Shade (speaker)
Page Number: 41
Explanation and Analysis:
Pale Fire: Canto Three Quotes

It missed the gist of the whole thing; it missed
What mostly interests the preterist;
For we die every day; oblivion thrives
Not on dry thighbones but on blood-ripe lives,
And our best yesterdays are now foul piles
Of crumpled names, phone numbers and foxed files.
I’m ready to become a floweret
Or a fat fly, but never, to forget.
And I’ll turn down eternity unless
The melancholy and the tenderness
Of mortal life; the passion and the pain;
The claret taillight of that dwindling plane
[…] Are found in Heaven by the newlydead.

Related Characters: John Shade (speaker)
Page Number: 52-53
Explanation and Analysis:

Nor can one help the exile, the old man
Dying in a motel, with the loud fan
Revolving in the torrid prairie night
And, from the outside, bits of colored light
Reaching his bed like dark hands from the past
Offering gems and death is coming fast
He suffocates and conjures in two tongues
The nebulae dilating in his lungs.

Related Characters: John Shade (speaker), Narrator/Charles Kinbote
Page Number: 55-56
Explanation and Analysis:

Life Everlasting—based on a misprint!
I mused as I drove homeward: take the hint,
And stop investigating my abyss?
But all at once it dawned on me that this
Was the real point, the contrapuntal theme;
Just this: not text, but texture; not the dream
But topsy-turvical coincidence,
Not flimsy nonsense, but a web of sense.
Yes! It sufficed that I in life could find
Some kind of link-and-bobolink, some kind
Of correlated pattern in the game,
Plexed artistry, and something of the same
Pleasure in it as they who played it found.

Related Characters: John Shade (speaker)
Page Number: 62-63
Explanation and Analysis:
Pale Fire: Canto Four Quotes

Dim Gulf was my first book (free verse); Night Rote
Came next; then Hebe's Cup, my final float
In that damp carnival, for now I term
Everything “Poems,” and no longer squirm.
(But this transparent thingum does require
Some moondrop title. Help me, Will! Pale Fire.)

Related Characters: John Shade (speaker)
Page Number: 68
Explanation and Analysis:

Maybe my sensual love for the consonne
D'appui, Echo's fey child, is based upon
A feeling of fantastically planned,
Richly rhymed life.
I feel I understand
Existence, or at least a minute part
Of my existence, only through my art,
In terms of combinational delight;
And if my private universe scans right,
So does the verse of galaxies divine
Which I suspect is an iambic line.

Related Characters: John Shade (speaker)
Page Number: 68-69
Explanation and Analysis:
Commentary: Lines 1-48 Quotes

We shall accompany Gradus in constant thought, as he makes his way from distant dim Zembla to green Appalachia, through the entire length of the poem, following the road of its rhythm, riding past in a rhyme, skidding around the corner of a run-on, breathing with the caesura, swinging down to the foot of the page from line to line as from branch to branch, hiding between two words (see note to line 596), reappearing on the horizon of a new canto, steadily marching nearer in iambic motion, crossing streets, moving up with his valise on the escalator of the pentameter, stepping off, boarding a new train of thought, entering the hall of a hotel, putting out the bedlight, while Shade blots out a word, and falling asleep as the poet lays down his pen for the night.

Related Characters: Narrator/Charles Kinbote (speaker), Jakob Gradus, John Shade
Page Number: 78
Explanation and Analysis:
Commentary: Lines 49-98 Quotes

At times I thought that only by self-destruction could I hope to cheat the relentlessly advancing assassins who were in me, in my eardrums, in my pulse, in my skull, […].

Related Characters: Narrator/Charles Kinbote (speaker), Jakob Gradus
Page Number: 97
Explanation and Analysis:
Commentary: Lines 149-214 Quotes

In its limpid tintarron he saw his scarlet reflection but, oddly enough, owing to what seemed to be at first blush an optical illusion, this reflection was not at his feet but much further; moreover, it was accompanied by the ripple-warped reflection of a ledge that jutted high above his present position. And finally, the strain on the magic of the image caused it to snap as his red-sweatered, red-capped doubleganger turned and vanished, whereas he, the observer, remained immobile. He now advanced to the very lip of the water and was met there by a genuine reflection, much larger and clearer than the one that had deceived him. He skirted the pool. High up in the deep-blue sky jutted the empty ledge whereon a counterfeit king had just stood. A shiver of alfear (uncontrollable fear caused by elves) ran between his shoulderblades. He murmured a familiar prayer, crossed himself, and resolutely proceeded toward the pass. At a high point upon an adjacent ridge a steinmann (a heap of stones erected as a memento of an ascent) had donned a cap of red wool in his honor.

Related Characters: Narrator/Charles Kinbote (speaker), King Charles
Page Number: 143
Explanation and Analysis:
Commentary: Lines 230-348 Quotes

pada ata lane pad not ogo old wart alan ther tale feur far rant lant tal told

Related Characters: Hazel Shade, Aunt Maud
Related Symbols: Birds and Butterflies
Page Number: 188
Explanation and Analysis:

The dead, the gentle dead—who knows?—
In tungsten filaments abide,
And on my bedside table flows
Another man’s departed bride.

And maybe Shakespeare floods a whole
Town with innumerable lights,
And Shelley’s incandescent soul
Lures the pale moths of starless nights.

Streetlamps are numbered, and maybe
Number nine-hundred-ninety-nine
(So brightly beaming through a tree
So green) is an old friend of mine.

And when above the livid plain
Forked lightning plays, therein may dwell
The torments of a Tamerlane,
The roar of tyrants torn in hell.

Related Characters: John Shade (speaker)
Related Symbols: Birds and Butterflies
Page Number: 192-193
Explanation and Analysis:
Commentary: Lines 367-434 Quotes

I am thinking of lines 261-267 in which Shade describes his wife. At the moment of his painting that poetical portrait, the sitter was twice the age of Queen Disa. I do not wish to be vulgar in dealing with these delicate matters but the fact remains that sixty-year-old Shade is lending here a well-conserved coeval the ethereal and eternal aspect she retains, or should retain, in his kind noble heart. Now the curious thing about it is that Disa at thirty, when last seen in September 1958, bore a singular resemblance not, of course, to Mrs. Shade as she was when I met her, but to the idealized and stylized picture painted by the poet in those lines of Pale Fire. Actually it was idealized and stylized only in regard to the older woman; in regard to Queen Disa, as she was that afternoon on that blue terrace, it represented a plain unretouched likeness. I trust the reader appreciates the strangeness of this, because if he does not, there is no sense in writing poems, or notes to poems, or anything at all.

Related Characters: Narrator/Charles Kinbote (speaker), Sybil Shade, Queen Disa
Page Number: 206-207
Explanation and Analysis:
Commentary: Lines 469-629 Quotes

With this divine mist of utter dependence permeating one’s being, no wonder one is tempted, no wonder one weighs on one’s palm with a dreamy smile the compact firearm in its case of suede leather hardly bigger than a castlegate key or a boy’s seamed purse, no wonder one peers over the parapet into an inviting abyss.

I am choosing these images rather casually. There are purists who maintain that a gentleman should use a brace of pistols, one for each temple, or a bare botkin (note the correct spelling), and that ladies should either swallow a lethal dose or drown with clumsy Ophelia.

Related Characters: Narrator/Charles Kinbote (speaker), Hazel Shade, Professor V. Botkin
Page Number: 220
Explanation and Analysis:

KINBOTE: But who instilled it in us, John? Who is the Judge of life, and the Designer of death?

SHADE: Life is a great surprise. I do not see why death should not be an even greater one.

KINBOTE: Now I have caught you, John: once we deny a Higher Intelligence that plans and administrates our individual hereafters we are bound to accept the unspeakably dreadful notion of Chance reaching into eternity. Consider the situation, Throughout eternity our poor ghosts are exposed to nameless vicissitudes. There is no appeal, no advice, no support, no protection, nothing. Poor Kinbote’s ghost, poor Shade's shade, may have blundered, may have taken the wrong turn somewhere—oh, from sheer absent-mindedness, or simply through ignorance of a trivial rule in the preposterous game of nature—if there be any rules.

Related Characters: Narrator/Charles Kinbote (speaker), John Shade (speaker)
Page Number: 225-226
Explanation and Analysis:

“That is the wrong word,” he said. “One should not apply it to a person who deliberately peels off a drab and unhappy past and replaces it with a brilliant invention. That’s merely turning a new leaf with the left hand.”

I patted my friend on the head and bowed slightly to Eberthella H. The poet looked at me with glazed eyes. She said:

“You must help us, Mr. Kinbote: I maintain that what’s his name, old—the old man, you know, at the Exton railway station, who thought he was God and began redirecting the trains, was technically a loony, but John calls him a fellow poet.”

“We all are, in a sense, poets, Madam,” I replied, and offered a lighted match to my friend who had his pipe in his teeth and was beating himself with both hands on various parts of his torso.

Related Characters: John Shade (speaker), Narrator/Charles Kinbote (speaker)
Page Number: 238
Explanation and Analysis:
Commentary: Lines 662-872 Quotes

Lines 734-735: probably…wobble…limp blimp…unstable

A third burst of contrapuntal pyrotechnics. The poet’s plan is to display in the very texture of his text the intricacies of the “game” in which he sees the key to life and death (see lines 808-829).

Related Characters: Narrator/Charles Kinbote (speaker), John Shade
Page Number: 254
Explanation and Analysis:
Commentary: Lines 873-1000 Quotes

Lines 939-940: Man’s life, etc.

If I correctly understand the sense of this succinct observation, our poet suggests here that human life is but a series of footnotes to a vast obscure unfinished masterpiece.

Related Characters: Narrator/Charles Kinbote (speaker), John Shade
Page Number: 272
Explanation and Analysis:

We are absurdly accustomed to the miracle of a few written signs being able to contain immortal imagery, involutions of thought, new worlds with live people, speaking, weeping, laughing. We take it for granted so simply that in a sense, by the very act of brutish routine acceptance, we undo the work of the ages, the history of the gradual elaboration of poetical description and construction, from the treeman to Browning, from the caveman to Keats. What if we awake one day, all of us, and find ourselves utterly unable to read? I wish you to gasp not only at what you read but at the miracle of its being readable (so I used to tell my students). Although I am capable, through long dabbling in blue magic, of imitating any prose in the world (but singularly enough not verse—I am a miserable rhymester), I do not consider myself a true artist, save in one matter: I can do what only a true artist can do—pounce upon the forgotten butterfly of revelation, wean myself abruptly from the habit of things, see the web of the world, and the warp and the weft of that web. Solemnly I weighed in my hand what I was carrying under my left armpit, and 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.

Related Characters: Narrator/Charles Kinbote (speaker), John Shade
Related Symbols: Birds and Butterflies
Page Number: 289
Explanation and Analysis:
Index Quotes

Botkin, V., American scholar of Russian descent, 894; kingbot, maggot of extinct fly that once bred in mammoths and is thought to have hastened their phylogenetic end, 247; bottekin-maker, 71; bot, plop, and boteliy, big-bellied (Russ.); botkin or bodkin, a, Danish stiletto.

Related Characters: Narrator/Charles Kinbote (speaker), Professor V. Botkin
Page Number: 306
Explanation and Analysis:
No matches.