Commentary/Canto One: Summary:
Charles Kinbote does not offer commentary on Shade's poem as a whole. Instead, Kinbote adds notes of clarification for specific words and phrases that appear in the poem. The reader quickly realizes, however, that these clarifications are not very relevant to Shade's poem. In fact, many of these comments may seem to be chosen at random. It would be hasty to characterize the commentary as random, though. These notes do evolve into a pattern: Kinbote is telling us a story that he believes to be of vital importance. For better or worse, he has hijacked Shade's poem in order to do this.
Kinbote's efforts are pretty hilarious when we consider what an actual "commentary" might have been. Kinbote's commentary tells us less about New Wye, John Shade, and poetry. Instead, we read about a land called Zembla, learn a good deal about Charles Kinbote, and get some classified information regarding political intrigue in the land of Zembla.
Kinbote does occasionally make reference to John Shade. In discussing one of the poem's early lines, Kinbote describes the birds that held Shade's childhood fascination. The discussion of the bird then shifts to a discussion of Zemblan birds, and then proceeds to other Zemblan topics.
Kinbote argues that he is Shade's muse: he has taught the poet much about Zembla and, as a result, Shade has written "Pale Fire"a poem that is largely about Zembla. Because Kinbote sees "Pale Fire" as an inspired poem about Zembla, he sees his discursive commentary on Zembla as relevant and perhaps even necessary information. Kinbote helped John Shade to write about Zembla. So it makes sense that Kinbote is especially (uniquely) qualified to give us the definitive commentary on the poem.
In terms of Zembla, a few main "facts" of the story are established in the commentary on Canto One. The later commentary proceeds from these main facts to fill in the detailsbut the skeleton of the plot is presented early on:
King Charles of Zembla was the last of the royal line, having fled into exile when revolutionaries captured the government. Charles is a quirky, enigmaticbut likeable character who never really enjoyed the politics and strictures of the monarchy. One gets the sense that Charles is almost relieved to be rid of the obligations (though he misses the palace and its perks). Furthermore, the king's life is in danger. Though they have captured the Zemblan government, the revolutionaries (Kinbote calls them "The Shadows") are intent upon assassinating King Charles. A man called Gradus (one of several aliases) must fulfill this mission.
As fictional characters go, Charles Kinbote is rather unique in terms of psychological complexity. From the beginning, Kinbote's sanity and reason are called into question. At this juncture in the novel, our estimation of Kinbote's sanity depends upon whether or not we think Zembla is an actual place (within the fictional world). Of course, there is no country called Zembla on our map, but that doesn't mean that there isn't a Zembla within the novel Pale Fire. However, if Kinbote has invented Zembla, he is not merely dishonesthe is delusional and probably a little dangerous as well. As the novel progresses, Kinbote gives us more information about his personal history. And it shouldn't take the reader too long to catch on to Kinbote's heavy-handed hints that he, Charles Kinbote, is in fact the Zemblan King Charles in disguise.
Though there is no actual nation called Zembla, Zembla does bear strong parallels to Russia, which is Nabokov's homeland. The overthrow of the monarchy parallels the Bolsheviks' termination of the Romanov dynasty. As described, the language, climate and geographic location of Zembla also bear strong correlation to Russia: The Zemblan phrases sound like Russian, or another Slavic language. Zembla is capable of producing Russian winters. Zembla is at the eastern edge of the European continent.
Nabokov took the name "Zembla" from a poem by Alexander Pope; Pope's "Zembla" is an imprecise reference to Novaya Zemlya, an Arctic Russian island. In terms of narrative structure, Zembla represents one of the "post-modern" features of Pale Fire. Nabokov has taken details of the actual world and created a duplicate. The humorous references to Zemblan literature and translation are parody. In post-modern circles, Nabokov's compilation of these "Zemblan" details (Russian sounds, Russian winter, Russian geography, Russian names, and Russian political history) is described as "pastiche"a collage.
This doesn't suggest that all Zemblan details correspond to Russia. Nabokov's diverse academic interests (for example: Alpine butterflies, American media, British poetry) prevent Russian-ness from being a totalizing theme. Zembla's "Charles the Beloved," for example, is the namesake of France's similarly polarizing King Charles VI (1368-1422). Charles VI had two nicknames: "Le Bien-Aimé" ("The Well-beloved") or "Le Fol" ("The Insane") and both are applicable to the Zemblan King Charles.
Ironically, Kinbote tells us that Charles the Beloved's reign from 1936-1958 was a "reign of peace." The facts of Nazi aggression, World War Two and its horrors, and the friction of the Cold War make it difficult for us to imagine 1936-1958 as a "reign of peace." Zembla seems believable as a "pastiche" or illustration of Russiabut if Zembla is like Russia, how was this a time of peace?
Pale Fire borrows the motif of "synchronicity" from James Joyce's works. For the duration of the commentary, Gradus' travels are synchronized with Shade's writing. As the assassin travels westward, the poet moves closer to completing his final work. The synchronicity motif foreshadows Shade's death: Gradus arrives in New Wye as Shade is completing his poem, and soon after Shade stops writing, Gradus unintentionally kills the poet.
Kinbote describes the long course that will take Gradus "from distant dim Zembla to green Appalachia." This speaks to theme of exile. In Pale Fire and Lolita, Nabokov illustrates how the barriers of memory and language complicate distances of time and space. "[D]istant dim Zembla" becomes increasingly difficult to remember and describe. Furthermore, as Gradus leaves Zembla for America, he comes into the light. Zembla remains vague and mysterious, but mysteries unravel in America. Aliases and motives are revealed.
As an exile, Charles Kinbote is a parallel character to Lolita's Humbert Humbert (though Humbert is not Russian, but French-Swiss). Both Humbert and Kinbote are "unreliable narrators." In part, language barriers complicate communication between the narrator and the reader, but both men are psychologically unsteady. Over the course of the novel, unfolding details about Kinbote will strengthen the parallel: Both men are continental Europeans and social/political conservatives. They are both writer-teachers on the fringes of the university establishment, but their academic efforts are complicated by insanity, and are pseudo-intellectual at best. Trapped in a New England small town, neither man can play a sustained role within a traditional family structure, but both men have nontraditional sexual interests. Both exiles become itinerant and go into hiding at some point: Humbert hides because he is a murderer, but Kinbote is hiding from a murderer.
Kinbote and Humbert's similarities emphasize the moral confines of small town provinciality; the psychological complications of immigration and exile; and the proven vulnerability of social structures, like marriage or monarchy that once seemed durable. In sum, both men are unsuccessful in their attempts to integrate the mainstream society. One ends up in prison, and the other in a cave.
There are a few literary references worth noting. The word "stillicide" alludes to "Friends Beyond," an 1898 poem by Thomas Hardy. Lines 6-8 of the poem read:
"They've a way of whispering to me fellow-wight who yet abide-
In the muted, measured note
Of a ripple under archways, or a lone cave's stillicide."
Hardy's "stillicide" refers to a cave's silence (a death to noise), but Kinbote's stillicide refers to Gradus' murderous intentions.
As indicated in the text, the phrase "Pale Fire" does in fact come from Shakespeare's play Timon of Athens. In an English-Zemblan-English translation exercise, Kinbote re-writes Shakespeare's phrase "pale fire" as "silvery light." The implications of such an error are vast. This error speaks to the theme of translation, and more specifically, what is lost in translation. Shakespeare uses the word "resolves" but Kinbote replaces it with "dissolves." Kinbote's translation of Shakespeare "dissolves" the original intent. This is a parallel to how Kinbote "dissolves" Shade's "Pale Fire" into something different. In this passage of Timon of Athens, Shakespeare's "pale fire" is moonlight, light that the moon has stolen from the sun. We might ask ourselves whether the relationship between Kinbote's criticism and the original texts (Shade's and Shakespeare's) is similarly thieving.
Literary criticism often enlists actual psychological terms and theories as a means of better understanding fictional human characters. The term "cathexis" is defined as a relationship where one person "binds" another person to himself, and then defines that person by their relationship with and utility to him. Consistently, literary critics have used the term "cathexis" to describe Kinbote's relationship with John Shade. (Sybil Shade later uses the words "parasite" and "tick"). Kinbote is not mentioned anywhere in Shade's poem; for all of Kinbote's protestations, it is doubtful that the two men were friends. Kinbote claims that he and Shade were neighbors, but Shade gives no evidence to substantiate this claim. Kinbote "binds" Shade to himself as friend and neighbor. Having done this, Kinbote tells us that he has inspired Shade to write "Pale Fire." Kinbote only focuses on the pieces of the poem that are useful and interesting to him. Kinbote makes a motif out of the poem's phrase "I could make out" and writes:
"By the end of May I could make out the outlines of some of my images in the shape his [Shade's] genius might give them"
Kinbote is only interested in what Shade's poem can be made to say about Zembla. Substantially portions of the poem's "Fair Copy" are deleted and rewritten. Additionally, numerous passages are added on to the 999-lined poemwhich Kinbote's claims is unfinished. Unsurprisingly, Kinbote will give himself permission to finish the poem once he reaches the end of the commentary.
Commentary/Canto Two: Summary:
King Charles makes a breathtaking, narrow escape from the Zemblan palace. By the time the king is in France, a group of "anti-Carlists" called the Shadows is plotting assassination. The Shadows are bumbling and ineffectual, however. Gradus, the chosen assassin, is particularly dense and inept. Again, Kinbote reminds us that Gradus' westward travels (to find the king) are synchronized with John Shade's writing schedule.
Back in New Wye, John Shade celebrates his July birthday. Kinbote is sure that Shade would have invited him, but Sybil ostracizes Kinbote. Because Sybil is jealous of Kinbote's relationship with John, Sybil has prevented Kinbote from attending the party. Over time, Kinbote has learned that Sybil would call him "an elephantine tick; a king-sized botfly; a macao worm; the monstrous parasite of a genius." Kinbote expresses sympathy for his dead friend. Kinbote saw that John Shade was both "capricious and henpecked." Shade couldn't stand up to Sybil, as she tyrannical determined who his friends would be.
Kinbote also mentions "Hazel Shade," the daughter of John and Sybil. Kinbote describes the daughter as a "poltergeist" who haunts the house. Hazel tries very hard to become an intellectual. At one point, she discovers a "talking light" in a barn, but this episode brings only embarrassment. When Hazel brings her parents to witness the scene, the "talking light" fails to show up.
Gradus spends some time in Copenhagen before leaving for Paris. By chance, Gradus meets a man named Bretwit. Bretwit is an old Royalist but not a very smart one. He talks freely with Gradus and confirms that the king has, in fact, left Zembla. Midway into the conversation, Bretwit discovers that Gradus is not a Royalist and refuses to say anything more. Bretwit does not know that Gradus is an assassin, instead accusing him of being a tabloid reporter.
This commentary section takes the motif of synchronicity and incorporates it as part of the narrative structure. Kinbote tells us that the story will "become gradually clearer as gradual Gradus approaches in space and time." This indicates that the relationship between Gradus and Shade is neither minor nor coincidental. This synchronicity gives structure to the plot. Like other characters in Nabokov's novels, Gradus has a name with a meaning. The alias "Gradus" suggests obscurity: the presentation of Gradus is "gradual." Another alias, "Le Degre," suggests that Gradus will emerge by degrees.
Gradus/Le Degre suggests an obscurity or mystery that is gradually explained over time. On the other hand, the name "Shade" is like the name "Haze" in Lolita. "Shade" suggests an obscurity that remains obscure. "Shade" does not emerge nor become clearer by degrees. Kinbote's commentary fails to illuminate Shade's poem in a significant way. The suicidal daughter is doubly mysterious as "Hazel" ("Haze") and "Shade." Indeed, the reader should note that Kinbote tells us Hazel's nameJohn Shade never names Hazel in his poem.
The commentary alludes to Boswell's Life of Dr. Johnson. Boswell's work is the definitive prototype of modern biography. Boswell is renowned for his accurate recollection and attention to close detail. Kinbote's depiction of John Shade is less balanced than Boswell's depiction of Dr. Johnson. Much unlike Boswell, Kinbote seeks to integrate himself within near every aspect of Shade's life. Kinbote lacks the personal distance that worked towards Boswell's credibility as a fair observer.
Kinbote injects so much of his personal life into the commentary that the lines between literary criticism, biography, and autobiography are blurred. For example, Kinbote offers a biography of the exiled king. Whenever Kinbote suggests that he is, in fact, the exiled king, the commentary becomes more autobiographical.
The commentary also mentions Professor Pnin, the main character of Nabokov's novel Pnin. Pnin blocks Kinbote's chance of becoming a tenured professor. Here, Nabokov refers to his own ill fated though highly publicized attempt to become a tenured professor at Harvard. Nabokov's chief adversary famously argued that having Nabokov teach Russian literature simply because he was a Russian writer, would be like having "an elephant teach biology." In Pnin, Nabokov's bitterness is on full display.
Again, the text alludes to the literature of Pope and Shakespeare. Kinbote cites lines that refer both to "Zembla" and a "king." Asking if the reader has "guessed my secret," Kinbote suggests that he is the exiled king of Zembla.