Matt Roth writes:
I wonder why [Morris] thinks Botkin-Kinbote acceptable when John
Shade is the author, but not when VN is the author. Would readers of Shade's
book have lower standards than readers of VN's book? Wouldn't they expect the
same sort of "realism" that we expect?
As usual, Matt has raised a deep point, one that
goes to the heart of fiction and metafiction. To answer it, we have to
carry through in our imaginations the trajectory of "Pale Fire," a novel by
This book would be published in a counterfactual
world in which Shade is a well-known poet, and in which the details of his life,
including the tragic loss of Hazel, are also known. Readers would come to
it with a completely different set of preconceptions and questions than readers
in our world bring to VN's PF.
To begin with, it would be clear that the poem
"Pale Fire" is a fairly straight autobiographical account of certain elements of
Shade's life. So far, so good. Then the reader would be confronted
by a clearly fictitious commentary by an invented Kinbote, during which
"John Shade" appears as a character in his own novel. The real Shade is of
course alive -- probably on a book tour! -- and since the book is "a
novel by John Shade," there is no Kinbote. No reader would be in
the least doubt about any of this.
In my opinion, this would allow our hypothetical
reader to view Kinbote (and Botkin, if the reader is clever enough to spot him)
in the way I suggested in my earlier post: as alter egos through whom Shade
explores self-images of transcendence. He postulates his own death and
imagines two possible ways he might "live on in the reflected sky." His
readers will of course perceive that the real pathos here is his longing for
Hazel's immortality as well.
Now, we can contrast this imaginary reading of John
Shade's "Pale Fire" with the actual response we have to VN's "Pale Fire."
In our world, John Shade does not exist. He is a character invented by
VN. And the crucial point is this: Therefore, Kinbote and/or
Botkin exist on the same level of reality as Shade. CK
(and/or VB) and Shade share the fictional space, so to speak. We
must accept both Shade and CK/VB as characters on an equal metaphysical
footing. Whereas in the counterfactual world that received John Shade's
"Pale Fire," readers know that Shade is real and CK/VB is not.
This is a difficult point, but everything hinges on
it. In a world with a real novelist (John Shade) who creates
a character (CK/VB), the events of "Pale Fire" happen "on paper," and are
thus not meant to be taken as real. No reader of "a novel by John Shade
called 'Pale Fire'" believes for a moment that the author was shot by
Gradus or anyone else, commented upon by Kinbote, etc. But in a world
where both Shade and CK/VB are equally fictitious (or equally real, if you
prefer), the relationships among these characters must observe
the constraints of realism. They all inhabit the same
A final thought: I admit, reluctantly, that VN
probably didn't intend us to view Shade as the author of all the texts that
comprise "Pale Fire." In that sense, I am not a Shadean. Rather, I
believe that "Pale Fire" would be a better novel under that
interpretation. But in my world, authorial intention comes first,
so I accept that we're left with wrestling with Botkin as VN meant him to be
understood. Now if only . . .