Pale Fire – Vladimir Nabokov


My review of this author’s collected Stories:

My previous reviews of older or classic books:

When I read this book, covfefe permitting, my thoughts will appear in the comment stream below…

26 thoughts on “Pale Fire – Vladimir Nabokov

    by Charles Kinbote (1959)

    “: John Shade perceiving and transforming the world, taking it in and taking it apart, recombining its elements in the very process of storing them up so as to produce at some unspecified date an organic miracle…”

    I feel I have been trying to achieve something similar with my gestalt real-time reviewing for the 12 years they have taken so far. A “sudden flourish of magic” and there! – an imaginative work of words suddenly resides as triangulated by the coordinates of us all. Here, Kinbote’s reviewing — of the forthcoming work we are about to read — seems to assume, as mine often generally does, that there is nothing new in literature other than the contribution of each work to the ever-echoing gestalt. A congeries of synchronicities and cross-references. Here, however, the reviewer Kinbote actually knows the author, visits his home, knows his wife, competes with other academics to know him deepest of all, and Kinbote almost loves Shade (loves the inner svelte core of Shade’s otherwise pudgy persona) just in the same way as Kinbote does not seem to love women… I infer many things from this foreword, and was reminded somehow of John Barth and Mark Danielewski. Finding hidden impossible rooms and attics and cellars and sot-weed factors in the forthcoming work (about to be read), a work that already expands beyond the margins of its core into endless pudgy commentary (!), a work threatened by this foreword’s stated “pale fire of the incinerator” and represented by today’s synergy of Climate Change and Covid-19, unless, of course, cancelling each other out rather than synergising?

    “: the lost glove is happy.”

  2. B20CD21D-CAA2-4C97-B9EF-E20B5BA0FFC7

    I intend to read all four cantos of John Francis Shade before reading what appears to be an extremely ‘pudgy’ series of commentaries by Charles Kinbote on its text, commentaries that follow it in this book.


    Canto One

    “Finding your China right behind my house”

    “…the leaves
    Or indoor scene, or trophies of the eaves.”

    Indeed some ‘quirk of space’ makes me unable to see its roof, ‘a fold or furrow in the fragile vista’. Yet, whatever the quirk, these lines rhyme in perfect couplets. I am not an expert on verse, but are these lines the sort of lines I once learnt at school as Alexandrines with Caesurae? (It would be appropriate if they were as I am currently reviewing the Alexandria Quartet!) No expert, it is true, but I know what I like, and I like this! It is utterly captivating, complex enough to enjoy tussling with it, simple enough to bathe in its flowing meaning, and I feel I am growing up in this House of Leaves as the poet seems to have done (“Asthmatic, lame and fat” and never swing a bat.) And I think it coins what is now my favourite word: “iridule”. But there is so much else to tell you about…

    “I felt distributed through space and time:”

  3. Canto Two

    “Yet if prior to life we had
    Been able to imagine life, what mad,
    Impossible, unutterably weird,
    Wonderful nonsense it might have appeared!”

    This canto includes a striking account of what seems to be the suicide of Shade’s daughter. I stand by that interpretation, despite the fact that the rules of gestalt real-time reviewing entail that my comments need to try to wholly depend on my first reading of a text and my immediate reaction to it, without later revision or research. Of course, Kinbote talks earlier about Shade’s palimpsests of text and of his own palimpsests of commentary! But as Kinbote himself says earlier in the Foreword, the commentator always has the last word. And, at least at the moment, I am the one who is the commentator, whatever my credentials or diligence!
    There is a timely mutual synergy that arises, however — a literary synergy that other readers can check out — from the fact that I am currently reading and reviewing (here) a revelatorily agonising novel based on the suicide of one’s child.

  4. Canto Three

    “For we die every day;…”

    When I read here of an old man like me with “bits of colored light / Reaching his bed like dark hands from the past / Offering gems;” I misread that as ‘germs’, and, while you all know I have spent years talking in my real-time reviews about constructive typos, accidental typos that MEAN things, I was still amazed to find later these lines in this Canto about the ‘white fountain’ beyond death’s pale of the veil:
    “‘There’s one misprint — not that it matters much: / “Mountain” not “fountain”. The majestic touch.’ // Life Everlasting — based on a misprint!”
    As a sort of Dryden’s or Pope’s version of ‘Finnegans Wake’ and Katherine Mansfield (my reviews respectively here and here) and my now what appears in hindsight to be a premature astute reference, at the start of this review, to ‘HOUSE of Leaves’, the latter I say now as if written by Proust, or dare I say (with my having read and reviewed here all his short stories) by Nabokov himself!
    Too much to tell you about here, but, fundamentally, this Canto seems to be a puckish exploration, in the above styles, of Shade’s life after death, as if a poet’s vision of being a widower once with two dead wives, now meeting them again, as he meets his dead daughter again, too. I am not sure of the references to ‘incest’ that I recall being made somewhere in this Canto…

    “It was a year of Tempests: Hurricane
    Lolita swept from Florida to Maine.”

    Oh, yes, Blake, too.

  5. Canto Four

    “In penless work there is no pen-poised pause”

    Oh, the impossible ideal of gestalt real-time reviewing!
    This, to my inexpert eye, is matchless poetry in rhyming couplets. The acme of the art. But with elements of someone else’s freehold self-ridicule hovering over that leasehold poet?
    Using this valuable vehicle, the poet called Shade speculates on the difference between working in the head and working with a paused pen. And shaving his beard in the Barth: “…and now I plough / Old Zembla’s fields where my gray stubble grows, / And slaves make hay between my mouth and nose.” The semblance of the Zembla mentioned in the forgoing foreword? A bath as Kinbote’s skinboat…
    And finally he really gets to the follicle roots of what I have long described as my central purpose in garnering some fiction truth from literature by means of gestalt real-time reviewing…
    “I feel I understand / Existence, or at least a minute part / Of my existence, only through my art / In terms of combinational delight.”

    I shall now read, for the very first time, Kinbote’s ‘Commentary’ that takes up most of this book… and review it below in real time.


    Up to line 12

    I know my own reviews have loads of cross-references and in the first few pages of his vast ‘pudgy’ commentary, I can already see that this teems with Skinboat’s, sorry, Kinbote’s cross-references — from the lines of Shade’s poem — with his, Kinbote’s, own fictional land of Zembla, which he seemingly talked about with Shade. This is all a bit presumptuous, I feel, especially as his forename is purported to be shared with that of Zembla’s King. And how can anyone trust Kinbote when he misspells the title of FINNEGANS WAKE (an e after the nn and no apostrophe before the s) as “Finnigan’s Wake” !! !! (My previous review, over twelve different websites, of Finnegans Wake: )

  7. “Line 17: And then the gradual; Line 29: gray
    By an extraordinary coincidence (inherent perhaps in the contrapuntal nature of Shade’s art) our poet seems to name here (gradual, gray) a man…”

    I find this hilarious. By extraordinary coincidence, too, I have spent years publicly on this Gestalt Real-Time Reviewing site scrying such extraordinary coincidences of literary wordplay, words by instinct or typo or phonetics or semantics or visual graphology, beyond even Wimsatt’s Intentional Fallacy! (I first learnt about the latter literary theory in 1967 from Anne Cluysenaar.) Call it Confirmation-Bias, if you like, but I have found it works well with literature and hyper-imaginative genre fiction. He, old Skinboat claims that Shade here with ‘gray’ and ‘gradual’ refers to (Jacob) Gradus and the story or truth regarding Zembla etc.
    …or as if the Pale Fire Cantos are retrocausally affected by this subsequent Commentary and, thus, by Skinboat himself !!….. representing a general conundrum I have publicly grappled with on many occasions.

    “We shall accompany Gradus in constant thought, as he makes his way from dim distant Zembla to green Appalachia, through the entire length of the poem.”

  8. Pingback: Within the Pale | THE DES LEWIS GESTALT REAL-TIME REVIEWS: Wood, Metal, Stone

  9. “Line 27: Sherlock Holmes”

    Kinbote (sorry for calling him Skinboat earlier!) seems to think that Shade made up the “Case of the Reversed Footprints” as connected with Sherlock Holmes.
    Indeed, I can find no such reference.
    I do think, however, it is far more likely to be a reference to GK Chesterton’s Father Brown stories. It just simply SOUNDS like Father Brown. I have heard of unreliable narrators as a literary device, but unreliable commentators or reviewers like Kinbote are quite another thing!
    There are footprints, for example in Father Brown’s ‘The Insoluble Problem’, ‘The Invisible Man’ and ‘Dagger with Wings’. Any others? Please leave any of your findings in a sub-comment to this comment.

    My much earlier gestalt real-time-time review of the complete Father Brown stories:

  10. Lines 34 – 35: Stilletos of a frozen stillicide

    Following some false modesty, Shade mentions that ‘stillicide’ was once famously used by Thomas Hardy whose short stories I happen to be reviewing here even as I speak. It is as if Kinbote, via Nabokov, speaks to me! Saying, see! You can trust me. And indeed Hardy DID use this word. But did Robert Frost? In the context, it would be appropriate if he did. Nabokov gave two poetry readings with Robert Frost, in 1942 and 1945… And Cynan Jones recently wrote an acclaimed work entitled STILLICIDE involving, inter alia, ‘rewilding the novel.’

  11. Up to line 42

    “I mesmerized him with it, I saturated him with my vision…”

    After relating a couple of lines in the Cantos to Timon of Athens, even suggesting that there is a Zemblan version of Timon, Kinbote claims that he mesmerised Shade into imbuing his Cantos with “the dazzling Zembla burning in my brain.” I myself have long suggested such a process does actually work, but in my view this is via literally preternatural means, between ALL literary works as a gestalt! Across time and geography. And I think I have proved that by the still developing process I invented in 2008 of Gestalt Real-Time Reviewing. Who do you trust most, Kinbote or me?

    Re Timon of Athens, Wikipedia says: “Since the nineteenth century, suggestions have been made that Timon is the work of two writers, and it has been argued that the play’s unusual features are the result of the play being co-authored by playwrights with very different mentalities;…”

    • I had to stop there, earlier this morning, above, with the first words of this critique upon lines 47 – 48 of the Cantos, not only because the critique of just these two lines takes up a number of close-ordered pages of this book, but also, more importantly, because I, too, live in a Dulwich Road! And have done so for the last 25 years. Something I find very spooky!
      FCC91F33-5BE0-4FE6-810F-A71F8F21E99F But, having regathered most of my composure, I have now so far read three of these pages. Against my better judgement, I have been captivated by the Kinbote-described décor and family accoutrements of this house that he rented from Judge Goldsworth, in the days when he, Kinbote, entertained Shade and worked at Wordsmith University (unless I mis-recall) (and my own family have called me a ‘wordsmith’ over the years), a houseful of photographs, paintings (including this Picasso, but shown in full length), and books where can be found memorabilia of how, inter alia, Goldsworth dealt with hoodlums etc. One photo shows the Judge with his wife, each with their own gender reversed. A medicine chest, a used safety-blade slit, the cat’s diet list, and logistics for curtains and furniture to avoid sunlight.

      I have so far read up to this point (in Kinbote’s long critique of these two lines of Shade’s poetry): “I have no desire to twist and batter an unambiguous ‘apparatus criticus’ into the monstrous semblance of a novel.”

      NB: “semblance” there !

    • The rest of Kinbote’s ‘commentary’ on lines 47-48

      C4754F39-E9C4-493F-B04A-E51252F86513”Windows, as well known, have been the solace of first-person literature throughout the ages.”

      Only a few days ago, I posted this photo of my own lockdown window at home, and there stated that I was becoming increasingly persecuted by my own confirmation-biases. Between me and literature’s gestalt. Here, I sense an escape, as, taking on, at least temporarily, Kinbote’s persona, I surveil Shade’s own HOUSE of Leaves amid the environs (including “three conjoined lakes called Omega, Ozero, and Zero”) of Dulwich Rd, knowing that what I am seeing through Shade’s window is him writing the long poem of four cantos, and I watch Sybil his wife persuading him to leave out all the Zembla semblances that I try to instil by gestalt into his mind and, thus, into the poem itself! I can even see him picking his ear with a pencil. And “A tall lamp with parchment-like shade…”
      But what of the boy at the end of this section, flying what might be a modern drone in disguise.

  12. C1B44304-E3F6-4B1F-8660-97F5C5E1BC20

    57A75448-C456-4206-BD6D-B509297C643D Up to line 62

    Commentary about the shagbark…
    “and ‘tree’ in Zemblan is ‘grados’”

    Reference to looking across at Shade’s rented house and its windows being (line-)shaded or uncertain?
    …and a TV aerial on a roof as a paperclip, how apt!
    And the contention that Shade had recycled some of his older discarded work for the four Cantos. A sense that this commentary retrocausally postdicts the durability of Shade’s own life? And not only by heart attack. (Perhaps this my own commentary of a commentary postdicts something significant, too?)

    And, this time, the lockdowned solitude or solipsism of Kinbote himself (despite the odd lodger or two, including Balthasar, if vaguely misspelt, from Durrell’s ‘Justine’?) – evolving in my mind. An “oblique shuffle”…
    And was the ‘hal . . . . . s’ not ‘hallucinations’, but in my view, ‘halitosis’? It would at least fit the spaces available. And mention of parents’ rooms needing to be left unlocked for Freudian purposes in the children. And ‘persecution mania’ now explicitly specified here, to match my own I mentioned above somewhere.
    And, yes, “yesteryear leaves” in connection with the Shade house…

    “Solitude is the playfield of Satan.”


  13. Line 70

    Kinbote has the cheek to quote supposed lines by Shade that Shade later supposedly deleted from the finished Cantos, lines referring to the story of the imaginative swashbuckling deposed Zemblan king with whom Kinbote is now attempting to imbue the Cantos. I claim that Kinbote manages this in wishful retrocausal hindsight; he would no doubt claim that he did it by constructive critique. I also note he mentions here this king’s “coronation” (my bold). Lending a new light to the ‘pale fire’ reference as borrowed from the sun? Also Kinbote here mentions the climbing down, “in dream-slow pursuit”, of pylons, that match my rereading earlier today of ‘Nemonymous Night’ in its apocryphal section. A book that I am sure I shall allow Kinbote to have once read precausally?

  14. Line 71: parents

    “The Lukins are an old Essex family.”

    5053FC3D-1316-4DE0-895A-87FC7815090CI see Shade’s parents were bird experts, as well as his father being qualified in medicine and, aptly today, surgical instrument manufacture. The bird loving brings me to other flying objects, here expounded upon from the phrase “flying apparatuses”…and remind me, almost too conveniently, of a certain book’s cover I mentioned earlier above … and together with some more old nonsense from Kinbote about his dubious Zembla Mythos and the political or manic monarchic or dynastic matters connected thereto, together with Kinbote’s seeming grievance that, when reading between the lines, he is not given sufficient credit and configuring as a person within the Cantos as well as within a certain academic work about Shade.

  15. Line 79: a preterist

    There is here more Zemblan nonsense from Kinbote, still reading such things INTO the Shade Cantos by various nefarious means. As if Shade is some form of shadow from our warming Sun as pale fire? But more importantly, Kinbote’s otherwise judicious quoting of the word ‘preterist’ evokes my own ‘article’ ‘The Preterite of the Preinternet’ here in 2014.

  16. Up to line 121

    I am now lightly skipping through these footnoted commentaries, at least for a while, with far too many of them cross-referred or footnoted to themselves! A solipsistic review by an equally solipsistic or Zemballistic reviewer/commentator.
    I cannot even empathise with such convolutions of critique, even from a projected critical-care bed!

  17. Line 130: I never bounced a ball or swung a bat

    I think this is the first line featured in this Kinbote commentary that is also referenced by me above (“‘Asthmatic, lame and fat’ and never swing a bat”) when I was originally gestalt real-time reviewing the Cantos themselves. So, I suppose, it is satisfying that this line evokes pages and pages of this Kinbote commentary! — Except it leads to more nonsense regarding lines deleted by Shade that Kinbote regrets being deleted as they seem to teem with Zembla references and its deposed king, info-dumps involving LGBTQ Oleg and Odon, Coriolanus Lane and Timon Alley, and Moderate Democrats known as Modems! Nabokov as a prophet for the pre-internet (see ‘the preterist’ above) now made post-.
    Individual now covidual?

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