Various patterns and motifs repeat throughout Pale Fire: wordplay, the interplay of the colors red and green, and the notion of counterpoint, for instance. The book is so richly patterned, in fact, that it’s impossible to pick up on everything that Nabokov is doing in just one reading. To Nabokov, writing a book that requires such careful re-reading isn’t just a petulant demand that his readers keep up with his intelligence; it is, as scholar and Nabokov biographer Brian Boyd argues, a way of building Nabokov’s own metaphysical ideas into the very structure of the novel itself. Namely, Nabokov saw in the universe subtle patterns and coincidences so numerous that he believed that they couldn’t be random—they were evidence that the universe must be orderly and designed. (This is, of course, the central revelation of John Shade’s poem “Pale Fire.”) By building these same kinds of subtle patterns and coincidences into Pale Fire, Nabokov asks readers to delight in close observation and to pay attention to echoes and repetitions in order to discern deeper meaning. Uncovering the novel’s subtle patterns, in other words, mirrors the act of uncovering truth about the universe, which (for Nabokov, at least) induces awe at the great beauty and mystery of life.
The text of John Shade’s poem “Pale Fire” (written, of course, by Nabokov himself) holds the key to understanding this aspect of the novel. The third canto narrates Shade’s inquiry into whether consciousness can survive death, and he determines (by coming to believe that the universe is designed) that it must. This revelation comes in the aftermath of a strange mix-up: based on a misprint in a news article, Shade came to believe that he and a stranger had identical visions of a white fountain during near-death experiences, which he thought proved the existence of the afterlife. However, when he learned that the stranger had not seen the same white fountain (as the article meant to say “mountain”), Shade isn’t deflated. Rather than causing him to abandon his belief in the afterlife altogether, this experience reorients his search for the truth. This mountain/fountain coincidence, he writes, is itself “the real point”—he should be looking not at “text” but at “texture.” (In other words, the fountain or mountain itself doesn’t matter; what matters is the coincidental mix-up of their names.) In this coincidence, Shade finds not “flimsy nonsense, but a web of sense,” evidence of the “plexed artistry” of the universe (or that the universe is a designed work of art). The real point of life is to find in the “correlated patterns” that are everywhere in human life, a “pleasure” similar to the pleasure that those who designed the universe must feel. Put another way, Shade finds beauty in mysterious patterns and coincidences, seeing this as evidence of the artistry that underlies the universe. To him, this is the real meaning of life.
To help readers understand the awe and pleasure that Shade feels when he begins to understand this, Nabokov wrote into his own novel intricate patterns, inexplicable coincidences, and numerous echoes across different sections. A major example of this is the novel’s focus on counterpoint, a term that is musical in origin, referring to a composition in which independent melodies play simultaneously and complement one another. The novel plays with the notion of counterpoint in many different ways. There is narrative counterpoint, in which two stories (akin to two melodies) play at the same time while linking together in unexpected ways: Shade’s poem and Kinbote’s Commentary, as well as the story of Kinbote’s semester in New Wye and Gradus’s journey to America. There is Gradus’s name itself, which references the book Gradus ad Parnassum, a groundbreaking 18th-century textbook on creating musical counterpoint. Then there is Shade’s own use of counterpoint in his poem—both in the interplay of sound and meaning (Kinbote calls this, at one point, “contrapuntal pyrotechnics”) and in his themes, as “Pale Fire” has the “contrapuntal theme” of life and death (two interlinked melodies that initially appear to be independent of one another but are actually, as Shade shows, profoundly connected). For Nabokov, structuring his book contrapuntally and then planting tons of references to counterpoint is meant to pique a reader’s attention, suggesting that there is more to the book than initially meets the eye. Counterpoint itself then becomes a metaphor for the order of the universe: it’s a “web of sense” that shows how melodies that seem to move independently of one another (all the disparate aspects of human life) are actually beautifully linked.
For Shade, a love of poetry helps him to derive meaning from all the patterns he sees around him. Even if he doesn’t know the source or meaning of those patterns, their very existence suggests that life—like poetry—is authored and designed. When he writes that the point of life is not “text” but “texture,” he is arguing that human beings can never understand the “text” of life, since it’s not a poem that they can read, because it’s divinely authored in a language that human perception cannot understand. However, the “texture” of life—the prevalence of inexplicable patterns and resonances, like butterflies showing up at strange times—is itself evidence that there is greater meaning, even if that meaning remains a mystery. Of course, not everybody interprets coincidences as Shade does (Kinbote uses coincidence—such as the arrival of Jack Grey following months of Kinbote’s paranoia about Zemblan assassins—to bolster his own delusions). However, the prevalence of coincidence and patterning in the novel, interpreted through Shade’s own poem, points to Nabokov’s belief in a universe that has deep order, even if it’s barely perceptible.
Patterns, Fate, and Coincidence ThemeTracker
Patterns, Fate, and Coincidence Quotes in Pale Fire
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
pada ata lane pad not ogo old wart alan ther tale feur far rant lant tal told
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
(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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.