By the false azure in the windowpane;
I was the smudge of ashen fluff — and I
Lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky.
Pale Fire is a 1962 novel by Vladimir Nabokov. It ostensibly concerns a 999 line poem by nationally famous poet John Shade, which appears in the book with extensive commentary by Shade's neighbor and fellow professor Charles Kinbote. Once the commentary gets underway however, it is clear Kinbote's interpretation differs wildly from the information available in the poem itself, which is soon eclipsed by the mad, paranoid, telescoping story that emerges from Kinbote's intrusion. Shade is unavailable to correct the work, having been shot dead by a man who was likely trying to kill someone else entirely.
As inconsistencies in the narrative begin to pile up, more and more of the novel's premises become suspect, and the reader navigates through multiple layers of reality formed by variable amounts of truth and lies, while simultaneously navigating Kinbote's labyrinthine footnotes that allow the book to be read in any order the reader chooses.
Likewise, the story can be read any way the reader chooses (though not every layer of reality is created equal): as an exile's loving capsule of his vanished homeland, an international political thriller, a sad portrait of a lonely madman, a parent's ode to his dead child, or a scathing satire of academia.
According to The Other Wiki: "The interaction between Kinbote and Shade takes place in the fictitious small college town of New Wye, Appalachia, where they live across a lane from each other, from February to July, 1959. Kinbote writes his commentary from then to October, 1959, in a tourist cabin in the equally fictitious western town of Cedarn, Utana."
The novel provides examples of:
- All of the Other Reindeer: Kinbote's social status at the university, with the (possible) exception of his relationship with Shade.
- Always Second Best: John Shade is always listed second after Robert Frost in the lists of New England poets, something he dislikes but lives with.
- Anachronic Order: Most of the novel consists of footnotes that refer the reader all around the book.
- Author Appeal: References to butterflies, like every one of Nabokov's books.note
- In-universe, Kinbote's tales about King Charles of Zembla are full of homoeroticism and distaste for women.
- Author Avatar: Near the end, implied to be one of Kinbote's layers.
- Author Existence Failure: In-universe. Shade is killed before he can write Line 1000 of his poem, but Kinbote helpfully tells us what it must have been. It is also implied that Kinbote is spiraling down toward suicide; once his edition of Shade's poem is finished, he will clearly have nothing left to live for.
- Many critics of the novel go even further than this, arguing that neither Kinbote nor Shade truly 'exist' in the world of the novel, that neither of them are the true 'narrator' of the work, who shows himself only through very brief slips in how he writes the character of Kinbote near the end, who states that his 'notes and self' are slowly waning away— in this reading, he truly is waning away as the novel draws to a close.
- Bilingual Bonus: "Zembla" is an old way of transcribing Земля (today generally transcribed zemlya or zemlja), which means "land" in Nabokov's native Russian. It's also a reference to The Prisoner of Zenda.
- Biography à Clef: Kinbote more or less insists on reading Shade's poem in this fashion, and insists that real-life precedents exist for the thinnest allusions in Shade's poem, and presents his wild speculation and theory as proof of this.
- Depraved Homosexual: Kinbote is mildly promiscuous with certain of his students who are in the closet (he installed two ping-pong tables in the basement den of his rented house as a pretext/excuse for bringing younger men home), although he claims to have been heartbroken by one with whom he was seeking a less ephemeral relationship. His adoration of Shade also borders on Homoerotic Subtext.
- Speaking of Homoerotic Subtext, Kinbote stuffs so much of it into his stories of Zembla that it pretty much ceases to be subtext. In his recounting of Jakob Gradus's pursuit of the Zemblan king, he devotes one section to placing Gradus in a very homoerotic situation with a much younger man, and dwelling gleefully on Gradus's discomfort.
- Die for Our Ship: Kinbote absolutely adores Shade, while looking for every opportunity to put down his wife Sybil, including claiming certain parts of the poem are not about her when they explicitly are.
- Driven to Suicide: Hazel Shade after being ditched by her jerkass blind date whom she had seen as her one chance for finding love.
- Expy: Professor Pnin (from Nabokov's previous novel) makes a brief appearance near the end, as does "Hurricane Lolita."
- Kinbote is perplexed by the use of the name "Lolita", commenting that it is a popular name for Spanish parrots but mentioning that there was no hurricane called Lolita in 1958.
- Despite John Shade mentioning Robert Frost as a fellow poet, it seems clear that Nabokov based him on Frost — they are almost alike in appearance, share a vocation (university lecturer teaching literature), and have similarly evocative surnames.
- Footnote Fever: Nabokov occasionally has it, but Kinbote has it worse. The novel is not quite as loony as House of Leaves, but was clearly an inspiration for it.
- I Have This Friend...: Kinbote reports overhearing part of a conversation at a party between John Shade and another guest, Mrs. H.; Shade insists that "a person who deliberately peels off a drab and unhappy past and replaces it with a brilliant invention" cannot truly be called insane. When Kinbote innocently asks what they were discussing, however, Mrs. H. insists that they were merely talking about an employee at the local railway station who thought he was God and began redirecting the trains.
- In the Original Klingon: Kinbote suggests a Zemblan etymology for Shakespeare's last name as being "the most probable".
- It's All About Me: The sentiment that allows Kinbote to write almost three hundred pages of "commentary" on his murdered neighbor's poem, imposing his own story upon it along the way.
- Jerkass: Kinbote. Although he could fall anywhere on the scale between here and The Woobie, depending on how pathetic you think he is.
- Literary Allusion Title: "Pale Fire" comes from Act IV, scene iii of William Shakespeare's Timon of Athens, a fact Shade notes in his poem. Appropriate on multiple levels, in that it's deliberately stolen from a speech on the universality of theft — and Kinbote, too, seems to be trying to steal his own 'pale fire' by reflection from the brilliance of John Shade.
- Meaningful Name: Many, some overlapping with Significant Anagram.
- Metafictional Title: Pale Fire the book is named after "Pale Fire" the poem.
- Mysterious Past: Real, or imagined and achingly desired.
- New Age: Has an obvious precursor in the Esalen- or Naropa-style spiritual learning center where John once gave a seminar, and which he gleefully satirizes in the poem as the "Institute of Preparation for the Hereafter"; in among a torrent of puns on the IPH acronym, he makes it clear that the place could give no useful guidance on coping with death or the afterlife.
- Noble Fugitive: King Charles the Beloved.
- No Celebrities Were Harmed: In terms of his physical appearance, evocative name, and his generally sober, unflashy, classical diction, John Shade could be considered this with respect to Robert Frost.
- Plain Jane: Hazel Shade, John Shade's overweight, psoriasis-afflicted daughter.
- Ruritania: A highly idealized example in Zemblanote .
- Shout-Out: MANY.
- Significant Anagram: Very significant.
- Small Name, Big Ego: Kinbote again.
- Although, comically, he accuses his academic opponents of this, including his fellow teacher Gerald Emerald.
- Spy Speak: The assassins (supposedly) pursuing the exiled King Charles frequently do this; unfortunately for them, their codes change so often that the speakers at both ends of a conversation can completely misinterpret each other. Two spies apparently break into the bedroom of Charles' likewise exiled wife and find a letter from him, giving away his pseudonym and place of residence, in her bedside table; when they inform their associate that the clue was right where he said it would be, he claims to have told them nothing of the sort.
- Stalker with a Crush: The whole reason Kinbote first rented a cabin out west in Cedarn is that he heard through multiple channels that John and Sybil Shade had a cabin there themselves, and were to go there on their next vacation; he got hold of a rental property there and was going to find some excuse to "accidentally" run into John.
- Stylistic Suck: Kinbote flatters himself that he can accurately ape the prose style of many other writers, but professes to be horrible at writing verse. Some of the "variant lines" which he claims were left over from earlier drafts of the poem — the very lines that give him the excuse to bring in his otherwise irrelevant stories of Zembla — seem suspiciously un-Shadeian, so to speak.
- Ugly Guy, Hot Wife: John and Sybil Shade.
- Unreliable Narrator: I'd give the example's name, but I'm pretty sure he lied about that too.
- The Unreveal: A big part of why the book is so great: there is just enough information given to deny any single interpretation as valid.
- Viewers Are Geniuses: Or else Nabokov wrote it to amuse himself, and he just doesn't care if you get it.
- You Need a Breath Mint: After shanghai-ing Gerald Emerald into helping with a demonstration of Zemblan wrestling holds, Kinbote finds a note in his jacket pocket (probably left by Emerald) that says "You have h . . . . . . . s real bad, chum" — i.e. halitosis. Failing to see the significance of the number of dots, Kinbote thinks he's being accused of having hallucinations, which only adds to his resentment of his fellow lecturers; he also never addresses the problem of his bad breath because he never figures out what the note actually refers to. Justified in that Kinbote is strongly hinted to be an alcoholic.