Nabokov's Pale Fire
is "what a composer of chess problems might term a king-in-the-corner waiter of the solus rex
Perhaps even moreso than Luzhin Defense
, Pale Fire
seems to me Nabokov's ultimate ode to the king's game. A kind of post-modern salad of quirks and quizzes, the structure of the "novel" is a 999-line poem of heroic couplets by the late John Shade, a preface, an index, and most importantly explanatory commentary in the form of end-notes by Charles Kinbote (friend? neighbor? deposed king? psychopath?).
Nabokov was a lover of chess, but more particularly chess problems, which in themselves are remote artifices, much like Nabokov's post-modern artifacts-as-novels. He championed the chess problem as a battle, not between black and white, but between problem and solver, and that is how his novels should be read as well: the tension is not between characters but between novel and reader. Pale Fire
is he ostensible struggle between Shade's poem and Kinbote's commentary, but is actually a problem (or host of questions, problems) for the reader to solve. The character-king of Charles Kinbote (Zembla's Charles X), is the great false move of the game: posing as the innocuous professor and neighbor of John Shade, we are tempted to believe what he tells us in his commentary, though as the narrative continues his harmless mask slips and slips, revealing the madman beneath. Nabokov, in an interview, on deception in chess and in art:
The fake move in a chess problem, the illusion of a solution or the conjuror's magic: all art is deception and so is nature; all is deception in that good cheat, from the insect that mimics a leaf to the popular enticements of procreation ...I am fond of chess but deception in chess, as in art, is only part of the game; it's part of the combination, part of the delightful possibilities, illusions, vistas of thought, which can be false vistas, perhaps.
The whole of Pale Fire
can be read as a false vista, and the potential truths behind the mask are manifold, though none is certain. Is Kinbote really Charles the Beloved of Zembla (is there a Zembla at all?)? Is he the mad professor V. Botkin? Is the world actually a shared work between Shade and Kinbote, or is Kinbote/Botkin the sole author? The novel abounds in questions, each solution seductive but all mutually exclusive.
For the sake of simplicity, and to keep from caging myself too much in the Kinbote-is-Botkin camp, I will focus this review largely on the other treasures of Pale Fire
, and take Kinbote's character as real and not simply a creation, though with a dash or two of salt. The novel's title suggests lines from Shakespeare's Timon of Athens
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
Timon goes on to name the sea, the earth, and all else as thieves, but they are natural thieves: the moon can't help but to hold the light of the sun, the sea can;t help but to reflect the light of the moon, etc. Artistic theft is a recurrent theme in this Boswellian game of chess, and the potential malignancy of borrowing of inventive "light" from other artists. Kinbote "steals" the narrative from Shade, in fact the poem is quite overshadowed by the narrative, both in relative length and in artistic power, it is not the friendly borrowing of allusion, but the maliciously referential one-up-manship which Kinbote employs on the work of the late Shade. Kinbote is the Nabokovian trope of false-artist: a man who appears to share his views on art, but deploys them to malicious ends. Like Hermann in Despair
, like Humbert in Lolita
, Kinbote is an aesthetically inclined man, but one who uses art as a way to seduce, to take advantage: not art for art's sake, but art as Machiavellian deception.
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.
The novel is a web, it literally refers to itself, and defies tradition methods of narrative reading. The trick is to pounce upon the butterflies of revelation when the appear in small flashes (they are never caught fully in the web) to avoid the sinister spider of deception. Even from the start, how does one read Pale Fire
? Poem first, then commentary? Or Kinbote's self-important suggestion to read the commentary before-during-after? There is no right way. The novel is a chess match of 999 lines, first Shade's poesy, then Kinbote's prose, Shade, Kinbote, Shade, Kinbote, etc. But it is an idle kind of match (stalemate.
), the quality of Shade's poem is a vastly inferior to Kinbote's commentary, though there is no real conclusion, the poem is left undone, or at Kinbote's suggestion it is left recursive: ending the same way it began. Like a king-in-the-corner, there is a stunted kind of play between Shade and Kinbote, but the play between book and reader is quite active, quite evocative.
The false vistas of Pale Fire
are manifestly forewarned of in the opening of Shade's poem: "I was the shadow of the waxwing slain / By the false azure in the windowpane
" The reader can easily be seduced by the seeming vistas of Kinbote's stories, but by doing so they are reduced to the shadows of their own naivete. While there are a number of potentially "true" vistas, Nabokov never gives us one that is certain, keeping us constantly cognizant of the potential pitfalls of our assumptions: we are never safe when we read Pale Fire