I've written that in performing Pale Fire, the poem, that the reciter should build his interpretation not just upon well supported semantic considerations but also towards greater aesthetic pleasure, greater drama for instance.
Keeping this consideration in mind I'd like to present a more detailed, naturalistic tale of what is being related in Kinbote's notes.
Over time I'd like to cite more specific justification for the reading, but for the time being just the reading.
The critical framing for this interpretation comes from Kinbote's commentary to Lines 433-434: To the...sea Which we had visited in thirty-three. Kinbote has just related his last meeting with Disa in the expectation that Shade will render it in verse:
...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 there are just two questions. How can you know that all this intimate stuff about your rather appalling king is true? And if true, how can one hope to print such personal things about people who, presumably, are still alive?"
"My dear John," I replied gently and urgently, "do not worry about trifles. Once transmuted by you into poetry, the stuff will be true, and the people will come alive. A poet's purified truth can cause no pain, no offense. True art is above false honor."
"Sure, sure," said Shade. "One can harness words like performing fleas and make them drive other fleas. Oh sure."
"And moreover," I continued as we walked down the road right into a vast sunset, "as soon as your poem is ready, as soon as the glory of Zembla merges with the glory of your verse, I intend to divulge to you an ultimate truth, an extraordinary secret, that will put your mind completely at rest."
I do not think that one can prove Shade as other than Botkin's creation, but for the sake of convenience let's assume he is. And that Botkin has befriended the poet. The friendship may be based upon shared, or similar, deviant tendencies. Contrary to what the unreliable Kinbote might have us think, Shade has discussed the poem with Botkin, who realizes that the portrait of Sybil contained therein is highly idealized, and ought to be told in a more detailed and realistic fashion. Shade cannot bear the humiliation that would be inflicted upon Sybil should it be revealed that that she married a man with his unusual predilections; not to mention his own humiliation. Were Botkin to write about it directly Sybil, and John, would be stigmatized. What Botkin can do is write a highly transfigured version of the Shade's marriage that reveals at least a closer version of the truth while still protecting the Shades' reputation. Only the most erudite (Freudians?) will be able to unwrap the mystery, and even they will not be able to say exactly what the Shadean secret is. And after this tale has been told Botkin has a clever way of retracting it, by revealing Kinbote to be a role that Botkin has invented for himself.
Botkin has already been publicly testing-out the Kinbote persona. Making Kinbote appear as an alter ego of John Shade gives him access to Shade's memories and secrets. Kinbote, because his Zemblan fantasties are so fantastic, is seen as mad, deranged. Madmen, like prophets and oracles, speak symbolically; and need their speech interpreted. Kinbote's perceived madness provides Botkin with the perfect cover for retelling Shade's story.
All that needs be done is invent a tale so outlandishly fantastic so as to discredit the teller and yet recombines the main, excised, elements of Shade's life; and thus create a tale so different that its derivation will not be easily perceived by the reader.
Some Thoughts on Methodologies in Analyzing Codologies.
The preceding interpretation might well seem to some a piece of fiction all its own.
Kinbote, due to his great ego and fantastic tales, is seen as unreliable, yet his notes constitute the primary source of what we know about Pale Fire. This raises questions of what should be allowed, or seen to be persuasive, in interpreting Kinbote's notes. Is the reader free to accept or reject willy-nilly any part of Kiinbote's Tale?
The reader has been directed towards some quoted words of Shade: how can one hope to print such personal things about people who, presumably, are still alive? and urged to interpret it so as to apply to Shade's own marriage. Should the reader do so?
Most find the practice of quoting out of context to be a rather despicable form of sophistry; in most instances of argumentation, in the op-ed piece especially. But is it justified here?
On the other hand, doesn't this kind of re-contextualizing often occur in literary criticism, and with regard to Pale Fire? I'm inclined to think that it does, although I don't have any examples ready. (I think I'm going to start looking!) Of course it can be argued to let the reader decide what standards should apply in each case. But this is a little unsatisfactory in that the reader may deceive herself along the lines of existing beliefs. Such is the all-too-human tendency of all our judgments and opinions[, according to the cognitive psychologists].
Consequently I think a few observations are in order.
For example: the quote from The Letters of Franklin Lane given in Kinbote Note to Line 810: a web of sense
...It comes from a manuscript fragment written by Lane on May 17, 1921, on the eve of his death, after a major operation:
"And if I had passed into that other land, whom would I have sought?...Aristotle!—Ah, there would be a man to talk with! What satisfaction to see him take, like reins from between his fingers, the long ribbon of a man's life and trace it through the mystifying maze of all the wonderful adventure...The crooked made straight. The Daedalian plan simplified by a look from above—smeared out as it were by the splotch of some master thumb that made the whole involuted, boggling thing one beautiful straight line."
Here again I would like to redirect the sense of these lines, although here it's a bit of a mystery what the intent was to begin with. A desire to speak to Aristotle in the afterlife of course, but also to have the complications of life, perhaps just a life, simplified by a wise, overseeing hand. But whose life is to be interpreted? Franklin Lane's? or Kinbote's opaque symbolic picaresque escape? Moreover note the role that smearing is to play in this sought after severe simplification: details are to be ignored in favor of a much simpler contour. Shouldn't this be read as instructions for understanding Kinbote's tale? What should guide our interpretation, then, is the need to explain the most prominent aspects of the story in a realistic way while also maintaining an eye toward aesthetic wholeness, and formal balance. [Botkin's combinational delight.]
With this in mind let me suggests some guiding principles in analyzing Pale Fire:
1. render Kinbote's Tale more naturalistic and believable;
2. explain the most prominent and poignant moments in Kinbote's Tale;
the incident in the Rose Court, Disa's sorrow...
3. explain Kinbote's most urgent utterances,
4. explain those passages that strike the reader as possessing authorial tone,
5. interpret in a way that tends to render all of Pale Fire more aesthetically pleasing, i.e. balanced and unified.
Whatever one interprets under these ground rules will never be what one would call plain and certain truth, but more like a vision. We see a simple, certainly idealized, version of the Shades' marriage; and then an occluded vision, very different, that suddenly melts away.
As in my rough framework the reader is asked to see Botkin recombining the details of the story in a way that allows it to be retold; so too in this interpretations objects, events, and sayings are also recombined and rearranged in order to retrieve, however roughly, the likely original story.
The main tension in Pale Fire is the disjunction that exists between Shade's poem and Kinbote's notes. The humor and irony require that this distance should be great. Elliptical is a good metaphor in this case. Pale Fire, the poem, is the book's sun, and Kinbote's notes trace out a remote orbit. This propulsive opposition nevertheless gives rise to a countervailing desire for greater unity, and one that a comprehensive reading rightly ought to try to fulfill.
Seeing the Shades' marriage as other than one mainly full of connubial bliss may well seem far-fetched to many, but in fact the mechanism for this viewing is like a line of standing, planted, dominoes where the first one's fall causes the sequence of collapse. The induction goes like this:
1) Kinbote is to be viewed as the alter ego of Shade,
2) Kinbote's own unusual predilection causes the reader to search for traces of similar tendencies in Shade.
3) The discovery of such hints and coincidences directs the reader to view Kinbote's tale as a distorted vision of Shade's life, as well as giving rise to thoughts about how Sybil would have reacted to the abnormal sexual predilections of her husband.
4) Such considerations lead the reader to reappraise Disa's role in Kinbote's tale, its centrality and poignancy, and to wonder if she is not a distorted version of Sybil.
5) Kinbote's command to consider well the strangeness of the resemblance between the two then becomes the confirming final domino.
How compelling this vision of Disa-as-Sybil is to be seen depends on how fully felt each of the propositions are by the reader. Such logicality is apt to be distrusted in literary interpretation, yet if each step is firmly supported, the simple aristotelian ribbon may perhaps be seen.
from Kinbote's Commentary to Lines 433-434: To the...sea Which we had visited in thirty-three
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 the 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.
ps, a little verse:
Congratulations to us all,
And all who've ever been,
And all those destined yet to come,
And also Tiny Tim.