Pale Fire is a fictional story told in the form of a non-fiction scholarly work: it’s the annotated edition of the poem “Pale Fire” by John Shade, with a Foreword, Commentary, and Index written by his neighbor Charles Kinbote. While Kinbote writes in a traditional academic form, he himself is not a scholar of poetry and he lacks the focus, knowledge, and sanity to be a helpful critic of Shade’s poem. The result is a zany narrative of a megalomaniac’s delusions that just so happens to cohere into a novel now considered to be one of the greatest of the 20th century. Both parts of the novel—Shade’s poem and Kinbote’s annotations—share a fixation on the nature of art, raising questions about the relationships between art and life, critic and poet, and artist and god. Nabokov leaves many of these musings open-ended, although he does drive home that, for him, great poetry can be seen as a metaphor for the structure of the universe itself: beautiful, orderly, and consciously designed.
The title of Nabokov’s novel (and Shade’s poem) comes from a passage in Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens: “The moon’s an arrant thief and her pale fire she snatches from the sun.” Timon is literally saying that, since the moon reflects the sun’s light rather than producing its own light, the moon is stealing from the sun—but many interpret this passage as a comment on the relationship between critic and artist, with the critic merely stealing an artist’s light rather than making their own. Nabokov’s use of this title would initially appear to mock Kinbote, the hapless and deluded critic who completely misses the point of John Shade’s great poem and instead hijacks its publication to tell his own bizarre stories of Zembla. However, as the novel progresses, this dynamic becomes more complex.
Shade is clearly a great poet, while Kinbote is an undisciplined thinker and writer, but Kinbote nevertheless creates something extraordinary in his Commentary. He tells the complicated and compelling story of King Charles’s upbringing and escape from Zembla, which even Shade agrees is art (he tells Mrs. Hurley that the Zemblan stories—however delusional—are the “brilliant invention” of a “fellow poet”). Furthermore, at the end of his Commentary, Kinbote admits to his failings as an artist—that he’s mostly an imitator of other people’s prose rather than a true innovator—but he says that he shares one crucial thing with artists: he is not so used to the world around him that he fails to see its extraordinary nature. He’s attuned, in other words, to the fact that both “the scientific and the supernatural, the miracle of the muscle and the miracle of the mind” are extraordinary and difficult to explain. Shade (who is undeniably a true artist) shares this quality; his genius is his ability to see the divine in everyday life and his openminded embrace of the world’s mystery. In this way, both Shade and Kinbote are artists, mutually reflecting one another’s pale fire.
While Kinbote does have some qualities of an artist, Shade’s views on art are undeniably more coherent and also quite strange. For Shade, poetry is a metaphor for the structure of the universe, and authorship is a metaphor for divine creation. In other words, as Shade composes his verse, he is acting like a god and creating a beautiful, orderly universe. Shade emphasizes in particular that poetry is full of patterns; not only is there meter and rhyme, but also unexpected wordplay and the repetition of themes, images, and motifs. In reading “Pale Fire,” one might not grasp everything at play in the poem, but readers will certainly pick up on the echoes between certain words and ideas: the repeated imagery of reflection, the fixation on butterflies, the allusions to illustrious poets who were also interested in surviving death. To Shade, this experience of recognizing a pattern but not quite grasping its significance or scope is exactly like the experience of life itself: everywhere, he sees evidence of patterns in the universe (strange coincidences or echoes between seemingly unrelated things), but he can’t make sense of what they mean. To him, the meaning of life is to delight in life’s complex patterning, seeing it as evidence that the universe is intelligently (and artistically) designed, but never expecting to fully understand.
Nabokov seems to endorse Shade’s view, imbuing his novel with so many patterns, repetitions, and bizarre coincidences that readers find it difficult to make sense of them all. (In her famous review of Pale Fire, for instance, the critic Mary McCarthy noted that Nabokov was doing something with the colors red and green, but she didn’t venture a guess as to what, since there was too much else in the novel commanding her attention.) The experience of reading the novel is supposed to be one of confusion, unexpected connection, and gradual revelation that ultimately leaves the biggest questions unanswered (Nabokov never outright confirms Kinbote’s true identity, for example). For Nabokov, this experience of art mirrors the experience of life itself, and he’s asking readers to appreciate the conscious, complex design of both his novel and their lives.
The Nature of Art ThemeTracker
The Nature of Art 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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.