Vladimir Nabokov’s ingenious Pale Fire, one of the world’s great postmodernist novels, consists of two parts: an autobiographical poem of 999 lines in heroic couplets — the same format Alexander Pope uses — ostensibly by one John Francis Shade prior to his death, and the commentary ostensibly supplied by his ostensible friend, neighbor, and literary executor, a Dr. Charles Kinbote.
The bulk of the novel is the latter half, the commentary, and at the end of his Foreword he advises not reading the poem without having read the commentary apparatus first. Unfortunately, his reliability as a narrator is a little less than stellar, and by taking this advice we would be forced to read the poem entirely through his lens. Let us therefore ignore this advice wholesale and read the poem Pale Fire by itself, without Kinbote’s commentary apparatus, both to appreciate it on its own merits and to get as unvarnished a view into Shade’s character as Nabokov makes possible.
The first thing we notice about Pale Fire is that it is most certainly not a Modernist poem: its format, the heroic couplet, rests on iambic pentameter, a mode of poetry William Carlos Williams had declared obsolete just a decade prior, and heroic couplets themselves had long since fallen out of favor in most “serious” poetic efforts. By having Shade favor this kind of versification, Nabokov makes him very much a throwback.
Nabokov is also quite skilled at executing the format — though nowhere near as skilled as its old masters (e.g. Alexander Pope and John Dryden) were. Individual efforts positively sparkle, such as
Who’d seen the Pope, people in books, and God (85),
I never bounced a ball or swung a bat (130).
That said, while Pale Fire does occasionally achieve that sparkle so strongly associated with its format, it is hardly perfect. One can argue how much of this is Nabokov’s own defects as a poet, and how much character development given these verses’ putative author, but one of the subtler features of heroic couplets are their completeness of phrasing. Thoughts don’t generally end mid-line (which also contributes to it having an extraordinarily high count of end-stopped lines). Pale Fire is unable to do so, however, with sentences — and paragraphs — frequently ending mid-line, e.g.
Bicycle tires. A thread of subtle pain (138-9).
Pale Fire’s 999 lines are arranged into four stanzas. Kinbote believes the last line repeats the first, a conjecture supported by the rhyme scheme (lane / slain). Something of an extended ode, or perhaps epic in the manner of highly autobiographical poetry in the American tradition (cf. Whitman’s Song of Myself or Ginsberg’s Howl), the poem itself is built around a lifetime of experiences, mostly crystallized into a theme of life, death, and loss.
Canto I begins with
I was the shadow of the waxwing slain,
rather recalling (prefiguring?) Maya Angelou’s famous “I know why the caged bird sings”, and from the early imagery of birds, Shade proceeds into his heat: the death of Aunt Maud, the first real family figure in his life. Death thus forms Pale Fire’s first, and most prominent, thematic strain.
In Canto II, Shade meets and falls in love with his wife in the memorable quatrain
Sybil, throughout our high-school days I knew
Your loveliness, but I fell in love with you
During an outing of the entire senior class
To New Wye Falls. We luncheoned on damp grass. (246-50)
The entire section is Shade at his best, including the subtle internal assonance of cataract and romantic in the following quatrain.
They meet, marry, and have a child together. Their daughter, though, has a hard life — not particularly attractive, she never succeeds at love, and after a particularly disastrous blind date
. . . . . . she, instead
Of riding home, got off at Lochanhead (401-2),
setting up a tension between the question of her fate and the scene of touching domesticity between himself and Sybil Shade maintains for nearly a hundred lines, only ending in the dénouement beginning with
And a patrol car on our bumpy road … (486),
where we find out that no, the young missus will not be coming home anymore.
If death thematically dominates Pale Fire’s first half, then responses to it dominate the second — most prominently, rebirth, a theme heavily developed in Canto III, one which opens with an account of a semester spent giving a seminar at one “Institute of Preparation for the Hereafter” (IPH), a place of which Shade expresses the sentiment
. . . . . . I really could not tell
The difference between this place and Hell (621-2).
The IPH experience tantalizes a ghost in ll. 645-664, but one that anticlimatically resolves in the ebb stretching to l. 682, where the Canto’s second half begins — with an account of a near-death experience, one apparently paralleled by another’s, and a futile follow-up visit with the discovery that the apparent parallel is founded on little more than a typo.
Despite Kinbote’s claims otherwise, Canto IV is obviously unfinished. The theme of death and dealing with the ultimate finality, which has sustained the rest of the poem, is nowhere present here. Its heaviness is gone. Instead, we get a silly, almost Groundhog Day-esque snapshot of the poet’s daily life and creative process. The contrast is jarring — the mood of the poem does a complete 180. It is as if we’re looking at a canto from an entirely separate poem affixed to the end of three cantos of sustained melancholy.
Yes, strains of rebirth pervade Canto III, and poetic creation is a kind of birth, but the transition is woefully incomplete. There’s a certain sense here of where Shade was intending to go, but Canto IV is a good draft or two away from realizing the fullness of its late creator’s vision.* (This must be deliberate on Nabokov’s part.)
Pale Fire shows the depth of Nabokov’s genius — both in prose and in poetry** — and, by applying the heroic couplet to the life of a putative poet of his generation, demonstrates (contre Williams) its continuing vitality as a format — should we let it be — in this day and age.
However, the poem is only half of the novel. The other half is the commentary on it, and here we will embark on a more in-depth examination of its most important character, the very Dr. Charles Kinbote who we so assiduously ignored this whole post, and from whom we can already detect a certain strain of narcissism — for hasn’t perusal of the thing he wished us ignore already been fruitful?
* An interesting counterargument here is that this snap between Cantos III and IV is reflective of a depressed Shade’s decision to commit suicide (by proxy?), in which case Pale Fire’s plot is thrown into even more uncertainty than it already is.
** Reminding us of Nabokov’s translation sins. As Borges reminds us in This Craft of Verse, Nabokov’s approach would have been considered “a crime” prior to the 19th century.