07 October 2010

Pale Fire's Structure

So I read Vladimir Nabakov's Pale Fire last month, and I have been in love with it since. I have been through it a couple more times (it's short) and just keep finding more delightful things. I've even deliberately avoided almost all the scholarship on it, so their discovery won't be spoiled for me.

First, let me repeat:

If you have not read the book, do not read this post. Seriously. If you read this, it will ruin the book for you forever and perhaps beyond repair. Here's what it looks like: go read it. It is amazing. You can read it here.

Otherwise, stop reading this.

So as I pointed out before, the book starts with a fairly simple but amusing frame, with a clownish commentator presenting the poem of his dead friend and interspersing it with stories of his country's deposed monarch. We start from this point, with a slim poem and a ream of strange commentary. But I was just thinking about the elegant journey we go on.  It bears explication - even if it's just for myself.

We begin with the simple story, but there is an easily-penetrated fiction.  In a first reading, a large part of the experience is guessing the fiction and having it slowly confirmed, with all the varied implications it entails.  By the end of the book, certainly every reader will have penetrated to the next level in the labyrinth and realized that Kinbote is the Zemblan king. Kinbote hints at this almost from the Foreword, becoming increasingly heavy-handed with the clues until the end, when the pretense of Kinbote is dropped.
  • The foreword hints, "Imagine a soft, clumsy giant; imagine a historical personage whose knowledge of money is limited to the abstract billions of a national debt; imagine an exiled prince who is unaware of the Golconda in his cuff links!"
  • In only the second note in the commentary, Kinbote fumbles out deliberately, "At forty, not long before the collapse of his throne, he had attained such a degree of scholarship that he dared accede to his venerable uncle's raucous dying request: "Teach, Karlik!" and "Therefore he lectured under an assumed name and in a heavy make-up, with wig and false whiskers."
  • Halfway through (433), Kinbote is relating the adventures of the king with such vividness and detail that it is becoming obvious they are one and the same. The only mitigation is that Gradus gets the same treatment, which is only explained later by Kinbote's interview with him (or is it? More on it later). While discussing it with Kinbote, Shade even asks, "How can you know that all this intimate stuff about your rather appalling king is true?"
  • By 691, Kinbote is narrating the king's adventures in the first person.
  • The final note is explicit: "And you, what will you be doing with yourself, poor King, poor Kinbote?"
We can illustrate. Let's start with what we've just seen, the uppermost layer of the poem and the shallowly-buried second layer. We know that the king is hidden in Kinbote now.

Now we can re-read the book, using what we suspected early on and knew with certainty by the end of the first reading. We have also learned other things, of course, on the way. Kinbote is eminently unreliable. Some things we know are not true: he was never really Shade's friend, for example. But there are other things that were thrown out almost casually. The identity of Gradus, for one. A compelling alternate story is presented in 1000 and then deliberately dismissed by Kinbote - the escaped mental patient Jack Grey who actually hates Shade and never knew Kinbote. This sounds interesting... could it be true?
[T]he gunman gave his name as Jack Grey, no fixed abode, except the Institute for the Criminally Insane. ...
My good gardener ... certainly erred in several respects--not so much perhaps in his exaggerated account of my "heroism" as in the assumption that Shade had been deliberately aimed at by the so-called Jack Grey.
This dismissal sounds suspiciously like Kinbote's earlier dismissal of doubts of the friendship between himself and Shade - doubts that we know at this point to be entirely accurate, since it's clear Shade merely endured him. And if we assume that this alternate story is true, even though clumsily shucked aside by the unreliable Kinbote, that brings us to a whole host of new possibilities on a second reading. What if Kinbote is so deranged that he just thinks he's the deposed king of Zembla, and into his elaborate fantasy he weaves the assassination of a famous poet by an escaped criminal?

What if Kinbote is just a crazed Zemblan, and the entire king idea is fake? This explains the quiet pity we hear from Shade at such moments as in 802:
I cried that I must see him in the evening and all at once, with no reason at all, burst into tears, flooding the telephone and gasping for breath, a paroxysm which had not happened to me since Bob left me on March 30. There was a flurry of confabulation between the Shades, and then John said: "Charles, listen. Let's go for a good ramble tonight, I'll meet you at eight."
Ah, now we're getting real! We can take the moments of vivid storytelling that occur in the commentary, related about Gradus and the king, and set them apart as entirely imaginary. There had been a discrepancy earlier, when it came to Gradus' story: the idea that Kinbote had gleaned such detail from a jailhouse interview with Gradus just doesn't seem plausible.
After scrupulously washing his hands, he went out again, a tremor of excitement running like fever down his crooked spine. At one of the tables of a sidewalk cafe on the corner of his street and the Promenade, a man in a bottle-green jacket, sitting in the company of an obvious whore, clapped both palms to his face, emitted the sound of a muffled sneeze, and kept masking himself with his hands and he pretended to wait for the second installment. Gradus walked along the north side of the embankment. After stopping for a minute before the display of a souvenir shop, he went inside, asked the price of a little hippopotamus made of violet glass, and purchased a map of Nice and its environs.
But now that we have questioned Kinbote as king and Grey as Gradus... what else should we question?

How about Zembla itself?

The word "Zembla" is a trifle silly. Let's be frank: it sounds kind of made-up. But hey, it's a book, so some things are going to sound made-up. After all, they are made-up. Plus it's an old book from a different time, so what sounded real in 1962 might sound fake now. But still... "Zembla"?

So we can consider that there might not be a Zembla at all. But that doesn't really make sense... its existence is accepted by many other people. Even if Kinbote isn't the King of Zembla, he has made it clear he is from Zembla and no one seems to dispute that. And those instances aren't set apart by tone or circumstance the way Gradus' identity was called into question - they don't lift out neatly. They are given the same color as the existence of Kinbote's house or the barn or anything else.

To illustrate, here's a mention of Zembla's capital, Onhava, in the Foreword.
One day I happened to enter the English Literature office in quest of a magazine with the picture of the Royal Palace in Onhava, which I wanted my friend to see, when I overheard a young instructor in a green velvet jacket, whom I shall mercifully call Gerald Emerald, carelessly saying in answer to something the secretary had asked: "I guess My Shade has already left with the great beaver."
This just doesn't have the same hint of delusion associated with another idea that immediately precedes it.
The thick venom of envy began squirting at me as soon as academic suburbia realized that John Shade valued my society above that of all other people.
If Zembla doesn't exist, then it seriously calls into question the coherence of the book... if this was the next level in the descent, the next turn of the puzzle-book that is Pale Fire, then it was a clumsy one, since it essentially would say, "Or maybe nothing is true!" And that's boring.

But since we're already questioning things, how about Kinbote as a person? Isn't he a little cartoonish as well, like the name of Zembla? He provides a lot of humor, of course: his desperate attempts to cram the actual poem of Pale Fire into the shape of his desired Zembla-themed dirge, his crazed obsession that leads him to sew the poem into the very lining of his clothes, his staggering incompetence as a commentator, and so on. His bizarreness is one of the best things about the book. But it's also - well, bizarre. The poem is so balanced and well-written (it's being released as a stand-alone work now) and careful, even in its own moments of Vonnegutian whimsy ["Since my biographer may be too staid/Or know too little to affirm that Shade/Shaved in his bath, here goes:" (887-9)]. But Kinbote is a clown, as I said earlier.

What if it's not that there is no Zembla, but that there is no Kinbote - none of it is true? What if Shade wrote the whole Foreword and Commentary on his own work, as a goofy accompaniment and display of his completed poem? Or maybe it's Shade who doesn't exist, and instead a clever Kinbote who's imitated him and feigned madness?

But now our clues of confirmation are becoming more sly. Up until now we have had ample assurance that we're not veering off into self-indulgent nonsense or untenable speculation. Nabakov has been with us, and as we descend into the book we can see his handprints in the mortar. But this is deep, particularly with all the turns and tunnels that we have passed to let them wait until later: the king's wife as Dido in a parody of the Aeneid, the king's homosexuality and professional misconduct, the political play of Zembla, and so on. We tread on less certain ground. There is a fertile mine of evidence, though, that we haven't even touched on yet to get this far: the Index.

Let's pause here for a moment, though, and reflect that we truly are not overturning each older theory as we move on in understanding. Rather than deciding we were wrong and discarding the previous viewpoint, we are instead descending into another level of interpretation, more complex, within the first. It's not a battle between possibilities, it's a journey through them, with the author's full intent behind it. Wondrous to see.

Returning: I spoke of the Index in my last post on Pale Fire - a delighted romp straight through in my initial happiness with the book. Since we're mapping out our descent, we'll go less haphazardly this time. Really, my progress through these understandings was crowded by consideration and investigation of all those side turns we're ignoring for now, but this is a neater condensation of the overall narrative of my descent into the nature of the book.

I have pointed out some of the circular games of the index, such as found when looking for the location of the crown jewels of Zembla. You look up "crown jewels," and are referred to "hiding place," and thence to "potaynik," and from there to "taynik," and finally back to "crown jewels" - none the wiser. This bit of the index could still be a game by a playful lunatic.

But we find clues. Or rather one single, amazingly revelatory, tightly-wrapped, key.
Botkin, V., American scholar of Russian descent, 894; king-bot, maggot of extinct fly that once bred in mammoths and is thought to have hastened their phylogenetic end, 247; bottekin-maker, 71; bot, plop, and boteliy, big-bellied (Russ.); botkin or bodkin, a Danish stiletto.
Here we have an indexed reference to a person who scarcely even appears in the text!  He is mentioned only as "Prof. Botkin, who taught in another department" (172) and "I was under the impression that you were born in Russia, and that your name was a kind of anagram of Botkin or Botkine?" (894)

And not only that: the referenced pages in the index entry are seemingly unrelated! Follow the numbers, and you find a conversation between Kinbote, Shade, and other faculty (in which on of the references to "Botkin" occurs; a kind of fly offhandedly dropped as an insult on Kinbote by Shade's wife; and the briefest of asides about the origins of names. No Botkin. Who is Botkin?!

V. Botkin is the hidden, true narrator and "author" of Pale Fire

Let's unpack our masterful clue.

American scholar of Russian descent, 894:
A visiting German lecturer from Oxford kept exclaiming, aloud and under his breath, that the resemblance was "absolutely unheard of," and when I negligently observed that all bearded Zemblands resembled one another--and that, in fact, the name Zembla is a corruption not of the Russian zemlya, but of Semberland, a land of reflections, of "resemblers"--my tormentor said: "Ah, yes, but King Charles wore no beard, and yet it is his very face! I had [he added] the honor of being seated within a few yards of the royal box at a Sport Festival in Onhava which I visited with my wife, who is Swedish, in 1956. We have a photograph of him at home, and her sister knew very well the mother of one of his pages, an interesting woman. Don't you see [almost tugging at Shade's lapel' the astounding similarity of features--of the upper part of the face, and the eyes, yes, the eyes, and the nose bridge?"
Professor Pardon now spoke to me: "I was under the impression that you were born in Russia, and that your name was a kind of anagram of Botkin or Botkine?"
Kinbote: "You are confusing me with some refugee from Nova Zembla [sarcastically stressing the "Nova"].
Here is the first big revelation: the origin of Botkin's idea of Zembla. It is both a reference to the Russian word "zemlya" (Земля; "soil" or "earth") and to something called "Semberland" and to a place called "Nova Zembla" (Dutch for Но́вая Земля́; "New Land"). And perhaps... an anagram?

The "Semberland" bit stirs the memory. But let's come back to it in a moment.

Zemlya and Nova Zembla. The former is a Russian word, the latter is a common Dutch corruption of the same as the name of a Russian island. The sort of words that might be used by an "American scholar of Russian descent," like Botkin. A clear tip-off.

As for Semberland: it reminds us of seeing the word elsewhere. And indeed, very near the end at 949 (text search on a computer makes this the work of a moment), we see Gradus at a library. He is reading the New York Times, and among the many stories it recounts is this tidbit:
And at a picnic for international children a Zemblan moppet cried to her Japanese friend: Ufgut, ufgut, velkam ut Semberland! (Adieu, adieu, till we meet in Zembla!) I confess it has been a wonderful game--this looking up in the WUL of various ephemerides over the shadow of a padded shoulder.
There's the same Semberland! It's Zemblan for "Zembla," it seems. So is this just another circular game, after all?

But! But!!

How is Kinbote reading a newspaper?! He has only one book, remember? Timon of Athens in translation! The first set-up is now fully revealed as a sham, beyond any doubt!

Should we have seen this before? Maybe. I'm sure some astute people noticed these sorts of discrepancies the first time through. For all I know, most people see through these things on the first read. But it's a quiet sort of discrepancy hidden deep in the book amidst sharply-rising tension. I rather like the way I found it.

In a stroke, we've plunged down and been made certain that there is no Kinbote - and also that Nabakov is paying attention to this line of thought. And since the conversation referenced from the Botkin entry takes place with Shade, that implies that there is no Shade, either - at least not how we have seen. The old identities are fraudulent.

Finally, this conversation gives us a few exaggerated hints about Botkin. We're drenched in some Russian, and "Kinbote" is hinted as being an anagram of "Botkin." Big signposts now.

We could unpack the other two sections, but they seem less revelatory. There are other things in other places that occur to us and make more sense, now. We can abandon the idea that Shade wrote the whole thing and that Botkin was a false lead, for example, if we consider how Shade would have been speaking of his deceased daughter Hazel in Kinbote's words. In his poem, Shade is cruel with himself and frank about her appearance (she's quite plain) but he's never as malicious as the writer of the Index, who gives her entry in part as "having preferred the beauty of death to the ugliness of life." A cruel joke: her ugliness of life was her ugliness in life.

We can also find things in the index that are not in the rest of the book, having struck gold with "Botkin":

  • Kobaltana, a once fashionable mountain resort near the ruins of some old barracks now a cold and desolate spot of difficult access and no importance but still remembered in military families and forest castles, not in the text.
  • Marrowsky, a, a rudimentary spoonerism, from the name of a Russian diplomat of the early 19th century, Count Komarovski, famous at foreign courts for mispronouncing his own name--Mararovski, Macaronski, Skomorovski, etc.

Both Russian. Their meaning? I don't know yet.

We have gone as deep as I have delved into Pale Fire, now, and it has been an amazing journey. It may not even be over yet: Nabakov has gotten more and more subtle, and there seems to be more to understand here. Can we figure out more things about Botkin? There are references in the book to a Professor Pnin and a Hurricane Lolita - both other books by Nabakov - are they meaningful? What can we be certain of, and is there an answer to everything? When do we go deeper than Nabakov planned for?

I'm not sure. But I intend to find out. I hope you can join me.


  1. Very nice "Inception"-like discussion! I've been fascinated with Pale Fire since finishing it a few days ago and thinking about quite a lot too. Although in one sense I'm disappointed that there is an "official" solution that Nabokov endorsed, it really does make the most sense and leads to the most fascinating insights.

  2. awesome detective work. Excited to hear any further insights. (WUL=Wordsmith University Library?)