NABOKV-L post 0012992, Sun, 30 Jul 2006 21:13:56 -0700

Shade and Shape in Pale Fire by Brian Boyd
NOTE: I picked this up off a Praue TV web page. As i recall it first appeared in NABOKOV STUDIES and them as part of Boyd's Pale Fire monograph.

D.Barton Johnson

Wed Mar 10th 16:48 2004 / #46
Shade and Shape in Pale Fire by Brian Boyd
. . . which, I hope, sufficiently approximates the text,
or is at least faithful to its spirit
--Pale Fire, Note to Lines 39-40
For those who have been following the story so far: this will not lead where you expect.
Setting out the Problem
The longest-running and the fiercest disagreement in the interpretation of any of Nabokov's works has been over the internal authorship of Pale Fire.1 Nabokov wrote the novel in 1960-1961, and published it in 1962, but Charles Kinbote signs the Foreword on October 19, 1959, after having also written the Commentary to John Shade's 999-line poem, "Pale Fire," which he reports was composed between July 2 and July 21, 1959. Kinbote has evidently also compiled the Index. In the fictive world where Kinbote can sign his Foreword in "Cedarn, Utana," there seems no doubt about who wrote what in this annotated edition of Shade's magnum opus.
Nevertheless since shortly after publication of Pale Fire readers have proposed that these attributions are perhaps as deceptive as the novel's characters and events. Jakob Gradus, the stalker of the former Charles II of Zembla, seems likely to be no more than a fantasy superimposed on the real Jack Grey by Kinbote, who thinks he is the Zemblan king but is probably not, and may in fact be a Russian scholar named Vseslav Botkin. That much readers can suspect or even deduce on a first or second reading.2 But after more prolonged immersion in Pale Fire some critics have suggested that Shade seems in fact to have written the entire volume, not just the poem; others have argued instead that Kinbote wrote it all, poem included; still others maintain that Nabokov undermines the apparent dual authorship but deliberately leaves attributions unresolved, so that while there is evidence that either Shade or Kinbote could have written the whole, the reader, like someone looking at the perceptual psychologists' pet image, now sees duck, now rabbit, but cannot settle on a single stable response.
In Shakespeare attribution studies, those who question the integrity of some of the canonical plays are called "disintegrators." Curiously, for readers of Pale Fire, most Shakespeare scholars now accept recent evidence that Timon of Athens contains scenes written by Christopher Middleton;3 most Nabokov readers on the other hand reject with disgust and exasperation the claims of the "integrators" of Pale Fire. For even most advanced readers of the novel its integrity and its consummate formal harmony come solely from Nabokov, while the comedy and pathos of its disintegratedness, so essential to its effect, derive from the absurd breach between Shade's contribution and Kinbote's.
An often intense debate about who wrote what in Pale Fire has recently (December 1997-January 1998) broken out in the Nabokov discussion group on the internet, NABOKV-L, and has drawn on and added to the published critiques.4 Of the integrators, Shadeans dominate. The case for Shade as sole author was first made by Andrew Field in 1967 (291-332) more arguments were added by Julia Bader in 1972 (31-56); I added more in Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years in 1991 (425-56) and still more in a long contribution to the internet discussion (22 December 1997), but others like Gennady Barabtarlo (242 and NABOKV-L, 9 January 1998), Chris Ackerley and Sergey Il'yn have also taken up the Shadean cause in print or on screen. The first Kinbotean was Page Stegner (1966), but he offered no arguments beyond the colorfulness of Kinbote's fancy (if Kinbote could invent flamboyant Zembla, he could surely invent pallid Appalachia). He has had more support among readers new to Pale Fire than old hands, although there are critics like Pekka Tammi and Charles Nicol who argue that the equivocal overlaps between poem and commentary can be accounted for by Kinbote's more-or-less consciously reflecting "Pale Fire" in the mirror-world of his Zembla.5 Among those who opt for the fundamental undecidability of the authorship are Alvin B. Kernan (101-26) and Brian McHale (18-19).
The majority who oppose single authorship includes Robert Alter (184-217), Ellen Pifer (110-18) and David Lodge (161-64). Dmitri Nabokov joined the internet discussion with his recollection that his father thought the idea that either Shade or Kinbote could have invented the other barely less absurd than the idea that each could have invented the other, but since in one of his own manuscripts Nabokov ascribes the Index to Shade (who would therefore have to be still alive after his reported death) (see Boyd, VNAY, 445 and note 21 below), even that does not settle the matter.
Shade as sole author of Pale Fire is not my idea, but I have made the most detailed case for it, both in VNAY and in the internet discussion, where it has often been referred to as if it were just my argument. I now want to reject the Shade-as-sole-author hypothesis--to reaffirm his death and the separate reality and authorial role of the person who signs himself Kinbote--and to offer an entirely different hypothesis, one which I think should appeal to all sides. Not that I have sought to compromise or retreat: as I wrote on the internet discussion, what would be needed to supplant the Shadean hypothesis would be one that explained more of Pale Fire, not one that explained less and overlooked the peculiar pressure the novel exerts towards a deeper accounting for the hum of half-heard harmonies behind its flagrant discords.
In the recent NABOKV-L discussion (8 Jan 1998), Ellen Pifer cited her 1980 citation of Robert Alter's "eminently sensible" 1975 comment: "This novel is not a Jamesian experiment in reliability of narrative point-of-view, and there is no reason to doubt the existence of the basic fictional data--the Poem and its author, on the one hand, and the mad Commentary and its perpetrator, on the other, inverted left hand" (Pifer 187n. 15; Alter 186). Alter's remark is indeed sensible, but like so many of those made against the Shade-as-author position, it also runs the risk of stopping discussion and inquiry short. The closer we attend to Pale Fire, the more it provokes us into explaining the strange resonances between two minds and worlds that seem as remote from one another as Shade's and Kinbote's. The novel is indeed no Jamesian experiment in narrative reliability, but it is an eminently Nabokovian exercise in readerly discovery, and in the surprises that can leak out from another realm.
Those who have argued against Shade as sole author have rarely paid sufficient heed to the astonishing pressure of significance that wells up as echoes between part and part accumulate, to the way, in Alvin Kernan's words, that "everything in the `plexed artistry' of the novel seems to lead on to everything else and to tease us with the possibility of a completely articulated structure which if understood will allow us to fly through the barrier of the text into a meaning beyond."6 (Only Kernan's "tease"--natural enough for someone who believes that the novel sets up an undecidable choice between Shade or Kinbote as sole author--strikes me as wrong.) Those who have argued for Shade, on the other hand, myself included, have been so struck by the need to respond to the tantalizing mystery of the novel's covert coherence and its promise of radical revelation that they have overlooked the objections to the Shadean position that to anti-Shadeans seem so obvious and undeniable as to be positively perverse to dismiss (we will return to those objections, some of which are indeed decisive, shortly).
I would now like to propose another reading, which avoids the objections to the Shadean solution, explains much more of the novel, and accounts both for its overtone of provocation and promise and for the pressure so many have felt towards positing either Shade or Kinbote as sole author.
*Copyright (c) 1997 Board of Trustees of Davidson College. This article, which originally appeared in Nabokov Studies #4 (1997), is reprinted here by kind permission of the author and the editors of Nabokov Studies. This material may not be duplicated or used in any way without prior permission.
1. New York: Vintage, 1989 (a corrected version of the first edition, New York: Putnam, 1962). All citations will be in the form F,,, I (for Foreword, Poem, Commentary and Index) plus page number. Further corrections and annotations are added in Vladimir Nabokov, Novels 1955-1962: Lolita, Pnin, Pale Fire, Lolita: A Screenplay, ed. Brian Boyd (New York: Library of America, 1996).
2. Mary McCarthy reread the novel to write her celebrated review, "A Bolt from The Blue," expanded in "Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire," where she identifies Kinbote as Botkin and Gradus as Grey.
3 .Most of Act III proves to be Middleton; "pale fire" is safely Shakespearean.
4. The debate began on 15 December 1997 and lasted into February 1998, with after-shocks as late as April.
5. D. Barton Johnson, Worlds in Regression, 60-77, is both anti-Shadean and anti-Kinbotean but a semi-Botkinian. Indicating Botkin as the "real" person behind Kinbote, he asks: "Is Botkin perhaps a Wordsmith faculty member who is writing a novel about the entirely fictional characters Kinbote, Shade and Gradus? The idea would be attractive were it not that Botkin and Kinbote are almost certainly the same person. More plausible is that Shade, his poem and his killer are all real as is V. Botkin, a drab Wordsmith faculty member" (70-71); but he adds: "Within the world of Pale Fire, V. Botkin is the source from which all else flows" (72).
6. In Bloom 122. As an example of the way anti-Shadeans can overlook the covert correspondences between part and part, let me cite Pifer: "The tenuous relationship between Shade's poem and Kinbote's Commentary, which has disturbed many of the novel's readers, . . ." (117). But it is not the tenuous relationship between the parts that disturbs: that is perfectly understandable as a product of Kinbote's insane egotism, and has troubled no one. What has perturbed some readers is the intimacy of the relationship between part and part, when on the surface they indeed appear utterly remote.
Discovering Pale Fire
Let us move forward slowly. In the reading I now propose, the situation as deduced by alert first- or second-time readers remains intact.
Within the world of the novel, Shade is perfectly real, and almost everything we hear about him is true, except for what Kinbote's comically transparent biases distort: Shade's inordinate fondness for Kinbote, his being inspired by Kinbote, and his being henpecked and censored by his wife. Shade is indeed shot and killed after finishing the 999th line of his poem, which probably does need just one more line. His shameless neighbor spirits away the manuscript of the virtually completed poem, hoping it will contain the glorious adventures of Charles II of Zembla, which he has been relentlessly pressing on Shade, but he finds instead that the poem is Shade's wry and tender account of his own life, an autobiography, not a heroic biography.
Kinbote thinks he is Charles II, and he thinks he is a Zemblan, Charles Kinbote, hiding his real and royal identity; but in all probability he is actually Vseslav Botkin, a Russian émigré, whose paranoia is edging him towards suicide. All the same, the book is so steeped in Zembla that it is never quite resolvable whether it exists or not within the world of the book, so that a scene like Shade's public defence of Kinbote from identification as the ex-king of Zembla may or may not blur the reality of what has happened in New Wye. But one thing seems certain: the person who shot Shade was not Jakob Gradus, a Zemblan Shadow, but Jack Grey, an American declared insane in a trial presided over by Judge Goldsworth, whom he thinks he is aiming for when he shoots Shade.
This is the level which most good readers appreciate as Pale Fire unfolds, except perhaps that they might not feel sure about identifying Botkin as the person behind Kinbote and might not see that he will succumb to his strong temptation toward suicide.7 The novel must therefore work well on this level, and the experience of readers and the evidence of critiques like those of Robert Alter, Ellen Pifer and Michael Wood (173-205) show that it does.
In fact it works on an astonishing number of levels. Through the power of Shade's poem it builds up a memorable and poignant picture of the poet's dedication to his craft, his decades-long attempt to explore in his art the meaning of his life in a world shadowed by death. Throughout the poem, from the impact of its opening image, Shade exploits the tension between himself as stay-at-home poet and the endless unknown that he suspects surrounds him. What he feels as his best clue to the beyond is his sense of the infinite possibilities of design present everywhere, his confidence in a harmony behind things that his own work can reflect, even in a world where his daughter has recently taken her own life.
Poem and commentary interact in a complex interplay of simultaneous and successive ironies. We respond first to the outrageous comedy of the disjuncture between poem and ostensible annotation, which manages to be at once a barbed satire, a harmonious and multifaceted revelation of character and a resonant moral critique. Despite Kinbote's deep if uneven knowledge of English poetry and his moments of subtle sensitivity, his commentary for the most part is a wild intensification of the worst imaginable excesses of scholarship, from failure to understand the obvious (baseball and basketball as cricket and football), through idleness and wilful imposition, the self-serving insistence on one's own themes at the expense of the writer's, to the delusion that the work owes its value or even its very existence to one's own contributions. What could seem exaggerated, insistent or shallow in another context here functions as a natural, vivid and hilarious result of Kinbote's overweening vanity. It also has a universal moral resonance. Kinbote thinks himself devoted to Shade and Shade's poem ("Such hearts, such brains, would be unable to comprehend that one's attachment to a masterpiece may be utterly overwhelming" [F, 17]), yet he cannot make the effort to understand the particulars of Shade's imaginative world (words, things, customs, allusions, intentions), so that his performance as editor becomes an exact image of all moral myopia, all failure to make the effort to respect the sheer difference of another individual.
When he outrageously imposes on Shade's helpless poem the Zembla story he had wanted Shade to commemorate all along, Kinbote unwittingly stands as a crazy image of shameless egocentricity, but his Zembla offers its own rich satisfactions: the crisp hue of its cloudless skies; its shimmering, teasing relation to the world we know from life (Scandinavia, Novaya Zemlya, Russia), language (Germanic and Slavic) and literature (Zenda, the Scarlet Pimpernel, countless adventures of flight); its eclectic and limpid exoticism and skewed sexuality; and the witty structural reversal it allows the novel by surrounding the prosaic realism of the poetry not with dry scholarship but with fabulous romance.
Despite the contrast between the strangeness of Zembla and the familiarity of New Wye, Kinbote also adds a touch of romance even to his account of New Wye, as he tries to evoke the radiance of his relationship with Shade. But we soon start to see we must read New Wye in another light than Kinbote's. Where he thinks he presents in himself an entrancing image of urbanity and adventure, we enjoy his contributions for the peerless portrait of insufferable and uncontrolled vanity, a portrait of self-delight as rich as Malvolio's and all the more absurd for coming from his own pen. So much of our pleasure in reading Kinbote's Foreword, his Commentary and his Index comes from seeing the endless ways in which he discloses his egotism, in his scholarship, in his dealings with others in Appalachia, in the way it shapes his vision of Zembla. Yet from as early as Kinbote's "and damn that music" (F, 15) we also begin to detect a desperation lurking beneath his immense self-satisfaction, a loneliness and helplessness and fear that drive him to invent Zembla to compensate for all that his life lacks and to foist his invention upon the man who can immortalize it all, John Shade.
Throughout the commentary there runs a peculiar dynamic of discovery. We have to unearth level after level about the "real" Kinbote: first that he is Charles II, and that he is a homosexual and a pedophile, and then that his conviction he had become Shade's closest friend and deepest inspiration is sheer illusion, and that his elaborate account of the pursuit of Gradus has no basis except in fantasy, and that the entire story and the very existence of Zembla may therefore be illusory. As we recognize the pervasive unhappiness and paranoia behind his images of triumph, we may also strongly suspect that he will commit suicide once the book is published, his Zembla is immortalized and his incognito divulged.
In a sense there is also a rather different dynamic of discovery in Shade's poem: the dread of the disclosure that hangs over the Shades the night their daughter dies, the contrasting promise of revelation that fills Shade in his near-death experience, the apparent confirmation of that in Mrs Z.'s vision, the deflating recognition that this confirmation was a false hope, and yet the possibility of a deeper discovery in the irony of that very disappointment. Yet Shade's final confidence in the "web of sense" he discerns in what might seem "flimsy nonsense," the sense of pattern in "the verse of galaxies divine" that makes him
reasonably sure that we survive
And that my darling somewhere is alive,
As I am reasonably sure that I
980 Shall wake at six tomorrow (P, 69)
again proves displaced when he is killed shortly after all but finishing his greatest work. The final discovery for the reader is the discrepancy between on the one hand Shade's resolute attempt to make sense of his life and on the other the senselessness of his death, the work of a madman which robs him not only of his life but even of his work, as Kinbote steals his manuscript to roll up each of its index cards into a new telescope to train on Zembla. Shade is not even left with his death, since Kinbote steals that by inventing Gradus as someone in pursuit of not Shade or Goldsworth but himself.
Despite Shade's confidence in a benevolent design behind things, despite Kinbote's radiant remembrance of things Zemblan past, what begins in brightness seems to end in darkness. Shade tries to compensate for the limitations of his life through the control of his art; Kinbote responds to the anguish of his isolation through the removal of restraint that his madness allows. Both end up dead, one killed, the other taking his own life once his panegyric to himself has been preserved in print. Yet somehow as we read through the Index it is the radiance and the comedy, not the loss, the terror and the tragedy, that remain.
On this level Pale Fire is already a work of extraordinary richness, for its interlocking stories and its stories-within-stories, for the vividness of its characters and the contrasts between them, for its interplay of realism and romance and its amalgam of satire, comedy, farce and tragedy, for the control Nabokov manages to retain through the chaos of Kinbote's manic self-obsession. Nabokov makes Kinbote not only extreme, not only one of the most vivid portraits ever made of human vanity, of its absurd comedy and the tragedy of the solitude it leads to, but also someone who stands for us all, for the urge we all have to have our life preserved, known and valued for the color it has for us, for the centrality it inevitably has in our scheme of things, and the impossibility of fulfilling that urge without imposing ourselves on others and denying them their centrality to their experience.
Pale Fire is a complex study of the relationship between life and art and death. In Shade's poem and Kinbote's commentary, Nabokov treats art as the essence of our human urge to make sense of our lives, to find a shape and permanency to resist the accident and transience of life. In the echoes of his own losses, real and feared (his father's assassination, bizarrely reflected in Shade's death;8 his loss of Russia, seen in the distortive mirror of Kinbote's Zembla; his apprehension for his daredevil son, inverted in Hazel's death and Shade's attempt to transmute that into art),9 Nabokov expresses his own weightiest feelings through airy invention.
7. Some readers think that Nabokov's declaration that Kinbote "certainly" committed suicide "after putting the last touches to his edition of the poem" (Strong Opinions 74) is unwarranted by the novel. Michael Wood calls this "authorial trespassing, and we don't have to pay attention to it" (186), but as I show in Nabokov's Pale Fire: The Magic of Artistic Discovery, the evidence of the text does converge on suicide, if not conclusively, at least as a very probable inference.
8. For details that connect Shade's death and V.D. Nabokov's, see Brian Boyd, Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years (VNRY), 189-93 and VNAY 455-56. Priscilla Meyer makes much of V.D. Nabokov's death in her extremely erratic Find What the Sailor Has Hidden: Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire, but has no sense of the limits of meaningful association.
9. Robert Alter, "Autobiography," 136-37, was the first to suggest this theme.
Because Pale Fire offers so much already--and of course much more could be said of its limpid inventions and implications--many astute readers like Alter and Pifer feel there is no need to explore further. Yet in doing so they forget the experience and overlook the texture of Pale Fire, the sheer number of its pointed interconnections that seem to intimate a revelation just ahead, to dangle before us what Kernan identifies as "the possibility of absolute meanings if only we could follow and assemble the myriad of resemblances which look like clues to an absolute meaning" (Bloom 114). Pale Fire's echoes and patterns, and especially what Bader calls "all these 'subliminal' connections between the poem and the commentary" (37) can seem about to converge, to interlock, to fit together into a key that will open a door we still cannot see.
Shade says in "Pale Fire" that he has dedicated his whole life to fighting the "inadmissible abyss" of death (P.179, 38), and he has done this through his art, through the exercise of his imagination. At the beginning of poem he imagines projecting himself beyond the death of a waxwing that has knocked itself out on his window, projecting himself into the azure world beyond:
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.
And from the inside, too, I'd duplicate
Myself. . . .
At the end of the poem, Shade compares his confidence in the design of things, in a life after death, to his confidence that he will wake up the next morning, but within a few minutes of setting down the last lines of his poem he is killed. According to Kinbote the killer is a Shadow, a glassmaker, whose birthday, strangely, we can discover to be the same day as Shade's and Kinbote's (C.181, 157-61, C.949/2, 275). Kinbote describes himself as a King whose coat of arms includes a waxwing-like bird (C.1-4, 73); the name of the person who kills Shade, Jakob Gradus, when reversed as if in a mirror reads Sudarg of Bokay, a "mirror-maker of genius" (I, 314), whose sky-blue mirrors surely reflect the indelible mirror images in the poem's opening lines. Something odd is happening.
During the poem, discussing his time at a lay Institute of Preparation for the Hereafter, Shade says that in death he is "ready to become a floweret / Or a fat fly, but never, to forget." (P.523-34, 52-53) Now Sybil Shade calls Kinbote "an elephantine tick; a king-sized botfly; a macaco worm;10 the monstrous parasite of a genius" (C.247, 171-72), while Botkin in the index is "American scholar of Russian descent . . . ; king-bot, maggot of extinct fly that once bred in mammoths and is thought to have hastened their phylogenetic end." (I.306)11 Kinbote is flamboyantly homosexual, or what his most homophobic foe calls "Quite the fancy pansy" (C.894, 268); of all the flowers and "flowerets" in the English language there are only two that end "-et," "bluet" and the much more common "violet," which happens to be the first rhyme-word of the first couplet in the verse paragraph that includes "floweret" (also placed as the first rhyme-word of its couplet). In Ada, Nabokov has Van pointedly and vindictively associate the names of violets (pansies) with the homosexual Captain Tapper (I.42; 304-06, 600) and clearly in Pale Fire too he has gone to a great deal of trouble to associate Shade's "ready to become a floweret / Or a fat fly, but never, to forget" with the homosexual Kinbote, that "king-sized botfly" so desperate that the world shall never forget his "Zemblan" past.
Now readers like Ellen Pifer prefer not to treat Nabokov's novels as puzzles, yet Nabokov himself has famously compared the relationship between the author and the reader of a novel to the relationship between the composer of chess problems and the hypothetical solver,12 and interconnecting details like those just noted in Pale Fire have evidently been designed to catch our eye, provoke our curiosity and invite our explanation--since they cannot be accidental--of their purpose. Pifer argues eloquently for Nabokovian values, for detail, and memory, and curiosity, and imagination, but if these things are important, why is it that details that we remember relate to other details in curious ways that prompt some imaginative response on our part are not also important? Overlooking the riddling problems Nabokov's works pose will not make them disappear, though it may cause what makes him unique start to fade.
The shadow-Shadow, waxwing-silktail, reflection-mirror echoes seem to reflect purpose, not chance, and perhaps Shade's purpose. For Shade begins his poem by showing himself projecting himself imaginatively beyond death: perhaps the wax-wing image is a key to the Kinbote story; perhaps Shade has not died but has instead invented Kinbote and commentary and killing. After all, he declares in Canto 3 of the poem, after discovering that what he had thought was the corroborating "fountain" in Mrs Z.'s near-death experience was in fact a "mountain":
all at once it dawned on me that this
Was the real point, the contrapuntal theme;
Just this: not text, but texture. . . . (P.806-08, 62-63)

If Shade were to publish not only his own poem but also what seems to be someone else's unrelated commentary, texture would dominate over text; his projecting himself into the shadow of the waxwing, into the azure, would be a perfect prefiguration of his projecting himself into Zembla, that cloudless "land of reflections" (C.894, 265).
Yet according to the story he is killed. But of course the hypothesis that he had invented the commentary requires that the killing too would be fictional, requires that if he is to imagine himself dead and inhabiting as it were Kinbote's soul, the life of someone who is a mirror-inversion of himself (exile rather than stay-at-home, lonely homosexual rather than happily married man, vegetarian rather than meat-eater, bearded rather than clean-shaven, left- rather than right-handed, and so on), then he must indeed seem dead.
Nevertheless arguments against the Shadean hypothesis rule out this solution. The objection that probably lies behind the strong aversion of most anti-Shadeans to the Shadean hypothesis is that Shade has never previously shown himself capable of sustained fictional invention: marvelous images, perhaps, like the waxwing, or Shakespeare's spirit lighting a whole town, but never characters or elaborate plots. If Shade is sixty-one, and as able to construct stories as elaborate as the Shadean hypothesis would require, why has he never written fiction before?
But writers can of course discover their talents late; Sterne was forty-six when he swerved aside from sermons to Tristram Shandy. Perhaps a more potent argument, advanced by David Lodge, is that as a novelist himself he cannot imagine Shade transmuting into poignant autobiographical art the tragedy of his daughter's death only then to offset it against the crazy invention of Kinbote (162-64). In Pale Fire Nabokov himself of course transforms his own father's killing into the shambolic farce of Shade's death, and in the margins of his autobiography he turns his father's death into a kind of cosmic chess game; although he does not himself combine the two strategies in one work, in The Gift he has his narrator Fyodor set his tender evocation of his own father's life and death beside his scornful, mocking, parodic account of Nikolay Chernyshevsky's life and death. Yet Lodge's argument still has its force.
Still more forceful is D. Barton Johnson's point that whoever writes the commentary knows Russian, and we have no evidence that Shade knows the language (66-68). In the internet discussion I counterargued: "This kind of argument could be used to prove Nabokov couldn't have written either Pale Fire or Ada, since there is no evidence, outside the Zemblan of Pale Fire and the Dutch in Ada, that he knew any Scandinavian languages or any Dutch: it is very possible for an inventive wordsmith with a particular purpose to do enough poking into another language to play a little with its lexicon." Yet although there is actually little connected Russian in the commentary (the longest such passage, "Khrushchev's" reported "V? naz?vaete sebya zemblerami, you call yourselves Zemblans, a ya vas naz?vayu zemlyakami, and I call you fellow countrymen!" [C.949/2, 274], could be understood by a first-year student of Russian, although such a student would be much less likely to invent such a pun), some of the play on isolated words demands a sophisticated knowledge of the language: taynik (hiding place), for instance, might be found in an English-Russian dictionary, but the old form potaynik would not (I, 314, 312).13 According to the story, Kinbote does know Russian, even if he is genuinely Zemblan; and Botkin, who seems to stand behind him, is of course a Russian by birth. Kinbote or Botkin seems a much likelier author of the Commentary and Index than Shade.
Where Johnson approaches Nabokov's works as puzzles, Pifer skirts the puzzles to fasten on character and conduct. Her resolute humanism has its power, and in fact provides the decisive grounds for rejecting the Shadean solution. As she argued in support of Lodge's anti-Shadean stance at the 1995 Nabokov conference in Nice, Shade would have to be very immodest, in a way that seems uncharacteristic of him, to construct a Kinbote who writes passages like this: "I experienced a grand sense of wonder whenever I looked at him, especially in the presence of other people, inferior people. This wonder was enhanced by my awareness of their not feeling what I felt, of their not seeing what I saw, of their taking Shade for granted, instead of drenching every nerve, so to speak, in the romance of his presence." (F, 27) The whole contrast between Shade's modesty and kindness and Kinbote's immodesty and blind self-obsession would be undermined by a Shade who covertly presented his modesty as one of the positive poles of the story. Kinbote repeats three times (F, 22; C.47-48, 92; C.949/2, 280) that Main Hall on Wordsmith campus has been renamed after Shade's death "Shade Hall," a curious and indeed unimaginable kind of hubris for the normally modest Shade to display if he has merely invented his own death.
And if he had invented his own death--and this explains the outrage the Shadean idea provokes--how much would the novel lose! I was once so fascinated by the increase in Shade's powers that this reading would imply, by the sense that he all but transcends his situation through the deceptive might of his art, that, like other Shadeans, I was ready to overlook what it would mean for his world.
If Shade feigns his death, and yet survives in New Wye, he will become an object of bemused curiosity--the national papers will descend on a well-known poet who has so elaborately faked his own death--so that come publication day his composing the poem and commentary will have served nothing like the purpose of transcendental probe the Shadean theory posits: he will only find himself entangled in the gossipy nets of others. A Shadean reading of the plot, if pursued to its end, lapses into muddle. So would Shade's plan--which would be enough to make Shade desist.
This objection and others assume that in a Shadean reading Shade and New Wye are more or less as they are in the text: Pale Fire minus only Kinbote, Zembla, and Gradus. But in fact if Shade invents Kinbote, Zembla, and his own death, he must also be radically reinventing his real life--since Kinbote seems, at least on the surface, a real part of Shade's last few months--to the point where New Wye, Wordsmith, and even Hazel's death become dubious. The crux of the Shadean reading is that Shade as sole author seems to be trying to cope as inventively as he can with the fact of death, but neither death nor life, neither his own or Hazel's, is left with enough existence to need to be coped with.
We need another solution.
10. The larva of a botfly.
11. Chris Ackerley first drew my attention to this echo.
12. Speak, Memory 290 (hereafter SM); Nabokov corrects the phrasing of this idea slightly in Strong Opinions 183 (hereafter SO).
13. Vladimir Alexandrov deals with two other twists on Russian words difficult for a non-expert in his Nabokov's Otherworld, 210-11.
If the eerie echoes between poem and commentary cannot be explained as the work of Shade, could Kinbote have written both parts? According to the first level of the story, he certainly has the imagination to invent the outlandish world of Zembla; why could he not also add the plainer world of Appalachia?
But Pale Fire quickly rules out the possibility of Kinbote as sole author. The never-modest Kinbote declares himself capable "of imitating any prose in the world (but singularly enough not verse--I am a miserable rhymester)" (C.991, 289), an admission borne out by the woeful meter and rhyme of the variants he tries to fabricate. If he could write Shadean verse he would have no need whatever to implore Shade to commemorate Zembla in verse; he could simply do the job himself, and all his desperation, all his ridiculous pride in imagining himself the intimate and the inspiration of a poet of Shade's standing, would vanish. Kinbote is far too self-centered and too misogynistic to want to imagine the happily married John and Sybil Shade, and he knows too little of America to do so, unless he arranges jokes like "Frankly I too never excelled in soccer and cricket" (C.130, 117) at his own expense--something this conceited and touchy commentator would never do. The scholar who has the impetuosity and minimal self-control to write "There is a very loud amusement park right in front of my present lodgings" (F, 13) has neither the skill at verse, nor the interest in others, nor the discipline, nor the slightest shadow of a motive, to invent a John and Sybil Shade who would only distract from the glory of Charles II.
A subtler and more plausible explanation involving a reduced but still key role for Kinbote has been advanced by Pekka Tammi (Problems of Nabokov's Poetics, 197-221, "Pale Fire," 571-86) and Charles Nicol (23 Dec 1997). Perhaps the uncanny coincidences between poem and commentary could be explained by Kinbote's deliberate attempt--after he discovers that the long poem Shade has been at work on is not at all the epic of Charles II he had expected--to fabricate a close relationship between what he can find in the poem and his Zembla.
To some extent Kinbote plainly does seek to intensify the connections between poem and commentary. When he writes "The poor poet had now been turned over and lay with open dead eyes directed up at the sunny evening azure" (C.1000, 295) there can scarcely be any doubt he means to recall the memorable "azure" of the poem's second line.14 When he recollects seeing Shade burn a whole stack of superseded drafts "in the pale fire of the incinerator" (F, 15) he evokes the poem's title, and also his own thesis that despite the poem's undeniably not being about Zembla, it would have been much more so had a jealous Sybil not censored these incinerated early drafts: "I realize only too clearly, alas, that the result, in its pale and diaphanous final phase, cannot be regarded as a direct echo of my narrative." (C.42, 81) He even says "My commentary to this poem, now in the hands of my readers, represents an attempt to sort out those echoes and wavelets of fire, and pale phosphorescent hints, and all the many subliminal debts to me." (C.1000, 297) The added joke here is that in this most elaborately artful echo of the poem's title, he fails to realise he is also echoing the source of Shade's title, which he has not bothered to identify:
I'll example you with thievery:
The sun's a thief, and with his great attraction
Robs the vast sea; the moon's an arrant thief,
And her pale fire she snatches from the sun;
The sea's a thief, whose liquid surge resolves
The moon into salt tears.
(Timon of Athens, 4.3.435-40)
The "wavelets" in his last note contains a ripple from Timon, without his knowing it, just as his admission that he has in many cases "caught myself borrowing a kind of opalescent light from my poet's fiery orb, and unconsciously aping the prose style of his own critical essays" (C.42, 81), which follows the passage referring to the "pale and diaphanous final phase" of the poem, echoes even more closely the source of Shade's title, not directly or consciously, but by way of the very passage Shade raids--which Kinbote has just quoted in another connection in the previous note (C.39-40, 80), in a Zemblan version which lacks the phrase "pale fire" but continues to reverberate in his mind.
The subtler of these echoes of the poem's title, then, are jokes at Kinbote's expense, and the more overt ones are undisguised if not inelegant allusions, wistful toyings with Shade's title, as if to say: "I offered you Solus Rex, and you gave me Pale Fire. Look what I can do with your title. Why couldn't you have made more of my far more fascinating memories?"
But apart from these few reflected gleams of the poem's title, Kinbote has no reason to maximize the links between Zembla and Shade's poem. He had wanted, had desperately wanted, Shade to write his story in verse, but Shade did not, and his own professed and demonstrated ineptitude at writing verse means he cannot alter the fact and rewrite the poem as he wishes. As a result his only option is to record his urging his Zemblan lore on Shade and his bitterness on discovering it had not been used. He wants us to feel his pain at the betrayal:
We know how firmly, how stupidly I believed that Shade was composing a poem, a kind of romaunt, about the King of Zembla. We have been prepared for the horrible disappointment in store for me. Oh, I did not expect him to devote himself completely to that theme! It might have been blended of course with some of his own life stuff and sundry Americana--but I was sure his poem would contain the wonderful incidents I had described to him, the characters I had made alive for him and all the unique atmosphere of my kingdom. I even suggested to him a good title--the title of the book in me whose pages he was to cut: Solus Rex; instead of which I saw Pale Fire, which meant to me nothing. I started to read the poem. I read faster and faster. I sped through it, snarling, as a furious young heir through an old deceiver's testament. Where were the battlements of my sunset castle? Where was Zembla the Fair? Where her spine of mountains? Where her long thrill through the mist? And my lovely flower boys, and the spectrum of the stained windows, and the Black Rose Paladins, and the whole marvelous tale? Nothing of it was there! The complex contribution I had been pressing upon him with a hypnotist's patience and a lover's urge was simply not there. Oh, but I cannot express the agony! (C.1000, 296)
Since he cannot fabricate a Zemblan poem himself, his one alternative position is to claim that Shade's poem would have had more of Zembla if he had been free to write as his friendship for Kinbote prompted:
Gradually I regained my usual composure. I reread Pale Fire more carefully. I liked it better when expecting less. And what was that? What was that dim distant music, those vestiges of color in the air? Here and there I discovered in it and especially, especially in the invaluable variants, echoes and spangles of my mind, a long ripplewake of my glory. (C.1000, 297)
Always jealous of Sybil's closeness to Shade, he concocts the theory that she censors the Zemblan elements out of his poem, and he manufactures the Zemblan variants in proof (C.42, 81). His fabrications are hilariously clumsy and inept, implausible in their alleged place in the poem, clunky in rhythm and sublimely banal in rhyme, and even at this low level sometimes too difficult for him to make the effort to fill out what seems a plausible line (see the variant at C.130, 118). The first forged variant, "Ah, I must not forget to say something / That my friend told me of a certain king" (C.12, 74), which licences the whole Zembla theme in the Commentary, is later embarrassedly retracted, although Kinbote does not return to excise the lines ("I could strike them out before publication but that would mean reworking the entire note, or at least a considerable part of it, and I have no time for such stupidities" [C.550, 228]), since that would in effect remove his pretext for mentioning Zembla at all. His other few Zemblan variants are half-proudly identified in the Index as "K's contribution," but confirm that he knows and admits, outside of the transparent fiction that the variants are Shade's, that there is no evidence at all that Shade ever planned to write the poem Kinbote wanted about Zembla. The most he can claim is that "the sunset glow of the story acted as a catalytic agent upon the very process of the sustained creative effervescence that enabled Shade to produce a 1000-line poem in three weeks." (C.42, 81)
The hypothesis that Kinbote is responsible for the subtle subliminal links between poem and commentary--as opposed to the wonderfully unsubtle variants--would require either that he has adapted the Zemblan material he now recounts in order to fit Shade's poem better, or that Kinbote has infiltrated into his Commentary covert verbal associations other than his explicit sad caressing of Shade's title.
The first option makes no sense and contradicts the evidence. If he had adapted the Zemblan story to the poem, he would not now be able to make so much of his disappointment at the disparity between them, and he would not have needed to concoct his variants. Besides, the account of Zembla must be basically in place--its blue atmosphere, the tunnel, the escape over the mountain--for Kinbote's pride in the story's glamor and his persistence in thrusting it before Shade to establish the situation on which everything else in the novel rests. Even Kinbote's relationship with Disa, which it has been suggested might be his creative response to the portrait of Sybil in the poem, (Nicol 23 December 1997) must in fact be something he has described in detail to Shade before he sees a word of the poem, since after he sums up this part of his story, he reports: "When in the course of an evening stroll in May or June, 1959, I offered Shade all this marvelous material, he looked at me quizzically and said: 'That's all very well, Charles. But . . . [h]ow can you know that all this intimate stuff about your rather appalling king is true?'" (C.433-34, 214) If Kinbote were inventing, he would surely not have Shade say "your rather appalling king": he can see nothing appalling in the king's behavior.
The firm outline and the bright tint of what he evokes for Shade as "our blue inenubilable Zembla" (C.991, 288), then, must be securely in place before Kinbote ever sights Shade's azure imagery. Kinbote has not refashioned his Zembla to bring it in line with Shade's poem.
The other option, that Kinbote has deftly stitched poem and commentary together with gossamer verbal threads, does not in fact account for such key connections as that between Shade's "ready to become a floweret / Or a fat fly" and Sybil's calling Kinbote "a king-sized botfly" and seems utterly at odds with all Kinbote's practice. Because of his overblown egotism, he lacks self-control ("and damn that music!," "Dear Jesus, do something" [C.47-48, 93]), and when he does something he considers subtle he wastes no time in drawing it proudly to our attention. He reports with pleasure: "I contented myself on my way out with pulling Gerald Emerald's bowtie loose with a deft jerk of my fingers as I passed by him" (F, 24); he repays the Shades' not inviting him to Shade's birthday party by directing Sybil to an "impossibly rude" allusion to Proust, smugly adding "I am a very sly Zemblan" (C.181, 162). When he tries for an unusual stylistic effect in his commentary, he cannot refrain from pointing it out and even claiming it as unprecedented: "It is probably the first time that the dull pain of distance is rendered through an effect of style" (C.47-48, 92); "Never before has the inexorable advance of fate"--of Gradus, that is--"received such a sensuous form" (C.131-32, 136).
For the most part Kinbote is simply so entranced by the picture he has built up of himself as Charles II that he reverts to it shamelessly on the least occasion. Shade mentions "parents," and after a half a paragraph on Shade's parents, grudgingly lifted from Prof. Hurley's obituary, Kinbote devotes six pages to Charles II's father and mother (C.71); Shade writes "one foot upon a mountain," and Kinbote seizes the chance to spend ten pages reliving his own escape over the Bera range (C.149). Kinbote stuffs Zembla into the Commentary without apology or craft, simply because he cannot help it, and not as part of some subtle argument that the Poem and Commentary are deeply interfused. He admits frankly, plaintively, insistently that there is nothing of his Zembla in the poem, except--to allow some suggestion that Shade was deeply moved by his story--in his grossly concocted variants.
Kinbote lacks the restraint, the modesty and the motive to establish the silent signals connecting poem and commentary that trouble and tantalize the attentive reader. We need another solution. Let us think.
14. As Tammi notes ("Pale Fire" 586 n45), there is no reason to imagine, as Alexandrov supposes (209-10) that Kinbote "does not notice" the echo.

Toward a Solution
If Kinbote, or the Botkin standing behind him who imagines he is Kinbote and therefore Charles II, has pressed his story on Shade as something he must transpose into verse, the Zemblan parts of the commentary cannot all be Kinbote's response to his reading of "Pale Fire." Fleur de Fyler's languid sexual siege, Charles II's escape through the tunnel and over the mountains and his Côte d'Azur meeting with Disa are central to the saga Kinbote offers Shade before he ever reads the poem. Without his compulsion to fill Shade with his story, and his disappointment at not finding it in the poem, most of the dynamics of the Kinbote-Shade relationship, the most important human relationship in the book, would vanish.
But almost half--forty per cent--of the Matter of Zembla concerns not the king's escape but the assassination attempt against him. All that, all the Gradus material, all the Shadows, all the Niagarin and Andronnikov and Izumrudov material--must be new, must have been added to the escape story since Shade's death.
The man who kills Shade appears to be Jack Grey, escapee from an Institute for the Criminally Insane who wanted to kill the judge who sent him there. Kinbote claims to have heard from Grey that he is really Jakob Gradus, Shadow and would-be-regicide, but his virtually self-refuting evidence ("I did manage to obtain, soon after his detention, an interview, perhaps even two interviews, with the prisoner" [C.1000, 299]) carries no conviction whatever in the face of the coherence of the Jack Grey story. But the Gradus story swells in Kinbote's mind until it expands the Zembla theme to fill almost half of the Commentary.
Despite Kinbote's integrating the Gradus story into the Commentary from the first, it must all be a recent invention. Before Kinbote's interview or interviews with Grey, if it or they ever took place, there is no indication in either the Zemblan escape story or even in his account of his night terrors in New Wye that he had had any notio69
n that there existed such a group as the Shadows. In all the Zemblan story that he thrusts upon Shade, there is never any hint of an assassination threat, never a modulation from the key of triumph.
Yet it is precisely the story of Gradus's pursuit, not the escape story, that is most uncannily resonant with the poem, what he has added to the Matter of Zembla since Shade's death, not what he had tried to have Shade immortalize in verse: Gradus as a "shadow" who kills Shade in the note to line 1000, "I was the shadow of the waxwing slain," Gradus as glass-maker and his reflection as Sudarg of Bokay, "mirror-maker of genius."
What is particularly striking about the Gradus material is the manner of its presentation, the fact that it is so elaborately and insistently counterpointed with Shade's composition of the poem: "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, . . . steadily marching nearer in iambic motion . . . moving up with his valise on the escalator of the pentameter . . . while Shade blots out a word" (C.17 and 29, 78); "the force propelling him is the magic action of Shade's poem itself, the very mechanism and sweep of the verse, the powerful iambic motor" (C.131-32, 136). This becomes particularly strange when we note that "Gradus," according to Nabokov's dictionary, Webster's Second, is short for Gradus ad Parnassum, "title of a dictionary of prosody, poetical phrases, etc., once used in English schools as an aid in Latin versification; hence [not cap.], any similar dictionary designed to aid in writing Greek or other poetry."
And stranger still if we note that Gradus ad Parnassum is also the title of Johann Fux's 1725 treatise on counterpoint, which laid the basis for musical counterpoint over the next two centuries. Now Shade's poem is itself an example of literary counterpoint, in several ways: on the verbal level, in the counterpointing of sound and sense; on a narrative level, in the synchronization of Hazel's last night out and her parents' night at home; and on the level of idea and intention, when, after the "fountain"/"mountain" disappointment, Shade writes:
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,
810 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. . . . (62-63)

Kinbote particularly admires and singles out for praise Shade's verbal counterpoint, what he sometimes calls Shade's "combinational turn of mind" (F, 15) or his "special brand of combinational magic" (C.727-728, 253): "A third burst of contrapuntal pyrotechnics" (C.734-735, 254), "an apotheosis crowning the entire canto and synthesizing the contrapuntal aspects of its 'accidents and possibilities'" (C.830, 262).
Unlike the rest of the Commentary, which is characterised by Kinbote's opportunistic seizing on chance words ("I could make out": "By the end of May I could make out the outlines of some of my images in the shape his genius might give them" [C.42, 80]; "often": "Often, almost nightly, throughout the spring of 1959, I had feared for my life" [C.62, 95]), the Gradus theme is carefully orchestrated throughout the Commentary. Gradus's pursuit of the King is synchronized with Shade's composition of the poem; his image becomes less and less distant, and Kinbote's narrative access to him more and more complete, as he approaches the scene of the killing, so that by the time he is flying to New Wye from New York, Kinbote can take us even into Gradus's "magenta and mulberry insides, and the strange, not so good sea swell undulating in his entrails." (C.949/2, 278) Why can someone whose self-control is so often vulnerable ("amusement park," "and damn that music," "Dear Jesus," pulling Gerald Emerald's bow-tie, hurtfully thrusting at Sybil that passage from Proust, desperately prowling around the Shade house at night, bursting into tears on the phone) shape his commentary with such care in this one respect? And why is the shaping so insistently associated with Shade's composition of the poem? Why is it so emphatically in the counterpoint singled out as the hallmark of Shadean style?
Why too, for that matter, is Shade so pointedly gray? In the time covered by the novel, he is sixty and sixty-one, and it is only natural that he has gray hair, but there is something less than casual about the "abundant gray hair" (F, 20) of "my gray-haired friend" (F, 28), whom Kinbote addresses as "you bad gray poet, you!" (C.12, 74) and whom he describes, at the very moment he is shot at by Grey or de Grey, as "gray-locked" (C.1000, 294). Why does Shade not only have the same birthday as Gradus or de Grey, but also a name that can mean the same as Gradus's other alias, Degree? Why all this on top of the identification of the man who kills Shade as a shadow, when Shade has written "I was the shadow of the waxwing slain," or on top of Jakob Gradus's trade as a glass-maker, and his mirror-reversed image as a "mirror-maker of genius," maker of mirrors of a special sky-blue tint that seem to reflect directly the azure reflections of the opening of Shade's poem?
Jakob Gradus seems a fantasy Kinbote constructs, after Shade dies, out of the name and deed of Shade's killer, Jack Grey. Kinbote of course wants to make this murderer part of his Zemblan world, and has no interest whatever in linking him with Shade: the whole point of the forty-plus pages he devotes to Gradus is that Gradus was out to get him, not Shade or Goldsworth.
In view of the fact that the correlations cannot reflect Kinbote's intentions, and in view of the fact that only the Gradus elements of the Zembla story unmistakably form in Kinbote's mind after Shade's death, in view of the extraordinary association of Shade and someone as unlike him as Gradus, in view of the fact that only the Gradus parts of the Commentary exhibit a conscious control and craftsmanship that is alien to Kinbote's usual practice but exactly reminiscent of Shade's, I suggest that we are invited to see here that Shade's shade, his ghost, influences Kinbote's paranoia in such a way that his developing fantasy that Jack Grey was a regicide from Zembla, not an escapee from a local Appalachian asylum, takes shape as the Gradus story, and then through Shade's unrecognized guidance is shaped into a complex narrative counterpoint to the composition of the poem.
Such a solution to the problems posed by the intricate interplay of poem and commentary would seem extraordinary were it not for Shade's and Nabokov's preoccupation with the afterlife,15 and for parallels within the novel and outside. Kinbote obtains access to Hazel's notes from the haunted barn, and despite his own sense of the all-important urgency of deciphering the message that she spells out with the help of the ghostly light on the barn wall, he can find no sense whatever, nothing "that might be construed, however remotely, as containing a warning, or having some bearing on the circumstances of her soon-coming death." (C.347, 189) But from our vantage point we can discern a message in the line Hazel takes down on her pad ("pada ata lane pad not ogo old wart alan ther tale feur far rant lant tal told" [C.347, 188]), a message to Hazel to tell her father ("pada": pa, da, padre) not to go across the lane to old Goldsworth's, as an atalanta butterfly dances by, after he finishes "Pale Fire" ("tale feur"), at the invitation of someone from a foreign land who has told and even ranted his tall tale to him.16 We can decipher the message warning of Shade's death, of course, only after his death. Kinbote observes that "The barn ghost seems to have expressed himself with the empasted difficulty of apoplexy" (C.347, 189), but he does not realize that it is the spirit of Shade's Aunt Maud, always so fond of "images of doom" (P.89, 36), who shortly before she dies has a stroke that seriously interferes with her speech (P.196-208, 40). Just as Maud's predilection for images of doom, and her corrupted speech, are reflected in her warning and undeciphered by Kinbote, so Shade's characteristic fondness for combinational magic and counterpoint, especially in his last poem, seems to find its unrecognized outlet in the Gradus parts of the Commentary.
Apart from all the specific connections between Shade and Gradus, Nabokov offers other hints to this reading in the commentary, where for instance in glossing "stilettos of a frozen stillicide" Kinbote recalls having encountered this word (which means, according to Webster's Second, "a continual falling or succession of drops; now esp., the dripping of rain water from the eaves; eavesdrop") "for the first time in a poem by Thomas Hardy" (C.34-35, 79). The Hardy poem is "Friends Beyond," in which the speaker tells of those resting in the local cemetery:
They've a way of whispering to me--fellow-wight who yet abide--
In the muted, measured note
Of a ripple under archways, or a lone cave's stillicide:
"We have triumphed: this achievement turns the bane to antidote,
Unsuccesses to success. . . ." (I: 78-79)

Since Kinbote is unable, as usual, to remember exactly where a particular poet used a particular word, Nabokov can refer us here, behind Kinbote's back, to another work in which a mortal speaker communicates with the beyond. Behind Kinbote's back, because unlike Hardy's speaker, Kinbote remains unaware of the communication, unaware that his Gradus fantasy is as it were "S's contribution" to the Commentary, as his own fabricated variants are "K's contribution" to Shade's poem. Kinbote then closes his note, with his habitual compulsiveness--and perhaps with the wry help of his own "friend beyond"--with a suspicion of Gradus: "We should also note the cloak-and-dagger hint-glint in the `svelte stilettos' and the shadow of regicide in the rhyme." (C.34-35, 79)
The idea that Shade from beyond the grave helps Kinbote add the Gradus elements to his other Zemblan material will also seem less extraordinary to the reader who knows Nabokov's story "The Vane Sisters," where the ghosts of two dead women dictate the narrator's actions and words without his recognition, even though his text expresses explicitly his frustrated attempt to discern some glimpse of the sisters beyond death, or Transparent Things, where the ghost of one of the characters who dies during the course of the book tells the whole story and welcomes the hero over the threshold of death in the last line, or Ada, where a covert pattern of Lucette and letters hints at Lucette's kindly intervention from beyond in Van and Ada's lives, and her continuous inspiration as they write their collaborative memoir (see Boyd, Nabokov's Ada, 179-205 and 224-25).
15. Véra Nabokov singled out potustoronnost' (the beyond) as VN's main theme in her introduction to Stikhi [3]. I treated the theme at length in "Nabokov and Ada" and in Nabokov's Ada: The Place of Consciousness, and in the two volumes of the biography. William Woodin Rowe's Nabokov's Spectral Dimension is vulgar and almost always unjustified spook-spotting; Vladimir Alexandrov, Nabokov's Otherworld, introduces aspects of the topic well but often pushes associations too far.
16. Nabokov offered a similar decoding to Andrew Field, 26 September 1966, (Boyd, VNAY, 454), and Véra Nabokov did the same for Igor Yefimov, 8 July 1980 (Vladimir Nabokov Archive, Berg Collection, New York Public Library) and Gennady Barabtarlo (Barabtarlo 207-08).
On to Line 1000, back to Line 1
Let us return to Shade's last hours. He breaks off his poem, saying to Kinbote: "I have here [indicating a huge pregnant envelope near him on the oilcloth] practically the entire product. A few trifles to settle and [suddenly striking the table with his fist] I've swung it, by God." (C.991, 288) To judge by the symmetry of the cantos, he has been planning a thousand-line poem, and in the course of this last day's work, he has found both a title and an ending. Noting in the course of a backward glance over his career that he has passed beyond titles filched from other writers, he now pretends to lapse back into old ways from sheer haste when he steals the phrase "pale fire" from Shakespeare. In fact by filching from Timon's denunciation of universal thievery he wittily mocks the whole practice of purloining titles and at the same time through the imagery of reflection in Timon's speech he reflects in turn the lingering after-image of his own opening lines.17 At the end of the poem Shade wants to answer the highly-wrought image of the poem's opening with a quiet fade-out into the mundane harmonies around him. At the same time, by virtue of the Vanessa, with its crimson-barred wings, he can close off the poem with a visual echo of the opening, the red streak on a waxwing's wings. The harmonies gently gather, as "the flowing shade and ebbing light" (P.996, 69) again draws on the tide-and-shine imagery from the Timon passage, while not interrupting the relaxed, "sustained / Low hum of harmony" (P.963-64, 68) of his close. No wonder Shade is pleased with the way the end of his poem is working out.
And yet it doesn't seem quite to have ended. The poem is in heroic couplets throughout, and the 999th line has no matching rhyme. Shade declares in the penultimate verse paragraph:
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.
I'm reasonably sure that we survive
And that my darling somewhere is alive,
As I am reasonably sure that I
980 Shall wake at six tomorrow, on July
The twenty-second, nineteen fifty-nine. . . . (68-69)

After equating the design of his verse and his universe like this, Shade would utterly undermine his serene confidence in the deep harmony of things--which he plainly seeks as his poem's final note--were he to leave the last rhyme unfinished. He must surely plan one more line to round the poem off.
But as he accepts Kinbote's invitation for a drink and walks across the lane to the Goldsworth house, he is shot and killed by an intruder. He has asserted that if his private universe scans right, so does the verse of galaxies divine, but suddenly the rhyme is broken off forever,

Search the archive:
Contact the Editors:,,
Visit Zembla:
View Nabokv-L policies: