The Value of Art and OrdernVladimir Nabokov: Pale Fire; G.P.nPutnam’s Sons; New York, 1962.nby John Glass, Jr.nTo Lo call Pale Fire a poetic novelnwould be to indulge in a kind ofnNabokovian jest: rather than a poeticnnovel, it is a novel which includes a poem.nThe poem, however, is only one element,nfor among other things Pale Fire is annextended academic joke depending fornits effect upon the discrepancy betweennthe 499^2 couplets by John Francis Shadenand the commentary by the editor,nShade’s erstwhile neighbor and colleaguenat Wordsmith University, CharlesnKinbote. Shade’s poem, left apparentlynonly one line short of completion by thenpoet’s untimely death, is clearly autobiographical,nconcerned especially with thensuicide of the poet’s only daughter andnwith metaphysical speculations whichnfollow that event and Shade’s own heartnattack. The poem’s couplets, composednby a man who earlier had written a booknon Alexander Pope, are carefully wroughtnand their meaning is seldom other thannclear—or so it seems until the readerncomes to Kinbote’s commentary. Insistingnthat without his comments Shade’snpoem has “no human reality at all,”nKinbote proceeds to explain that “PalenFire”—the title is from Shakespeare’snTimon of Athens, although Kinbote isnunable to locate the source —actuallynconveys the fairy-tale history of Charlesnthe Beloved, last King of Zembla, whonwas imprisoned by revolutionaries butnescaped to America where he became anprofessor of Zemblan literature and—yesn—editor of the last and greatest poem ofnthe late John Shade. Indeed, poor Shadenwas shot and killed, Kinbote insists, bynan inept Zemblan assassin who reallynwas intent upon murdering the unfortunatenCharles. The joke, one thinks, isnamusing, if perhaps a trifle over long.nMr. Glass teaches English literature atnRockford College.nThe matter, however, is more complexnthan it appears, and the reader, at firstnrather comfortably disentangling thenelements of what he takes to be realitynfrom the fantasy of Kinbote’s Forewordnand Commentary, may begin to wondernwhom the joke is on. Students in introductoryncourses in literature are regularlynwarned to beware of first-person narrators;none must, they are told, evaluatennot only the story but also the reliabilitynof the narrator, on whom after all thenreader is dependent for all he knows ofnthe story. Edgar Allan Poe, whose worknNabokov admired, notoriously createsnsuch problems. “Nervous,” begins onenof Poe’s narrators, “very, very dreadfullynnervous I had been and am! but why willnyou say that I am mad?” The words castndoubt over all that follows, and morenthan one perplexed freshman has finallynbeen moved to ask how one can be surenthat a murder really does occur in “ThenTell-Tale Heart.” An unbalanced narrator—andnCharles Kinbote is at leastnthat—leaves the reader off balance andnraises serious questions about the naturenof the “reality” conveyed in the fiction.nxVccording to what the reader is told isnthe official report of the matter, JohnnShade was killed by an escaped lunaticnnamed Jack Grey, who mistook Shadenfor the judge who had had Grey committed.nKinbote’s more elaborate theory, onnthe other hand, makes Shade’s death thenwork of one Jakob Gradus, a member ofna Zemblan revolutionary group callednthe Shadows, and Kinbote carefullynworks out correspondences between thencomposition of “Pale Fire” and the approachnof Gradus, even discovering—ornfabricating—an allusion to Gradus innwhat Kinbote claims is a variant discardednby Shade. The possibility that Kinbotenin fact composed the lines in which hendiscovers the reference to Gradus raisesna still more unsettling question: If Gradusnand the whole story of Charles thenBeloved of Zembla are products of thennnimagination of Kinbote, may not Shadenand “Pale Fire” also be.’ The question isnless easy to answer than one might suppose.nNabokov has had a good deal ofnfun with shadows, shades, and reflections,nwith the mingling of illusion andnreality.nT. Lhe academic joke and the puzzlingncombination of reality and fantasy servento enhance rather than diminish thenimpact of the novel, forcing the readernto acknowledge finally that disentanglingnthe real from the fictional is not the objectnof the game, that after all Pale Fire is annovel, that Gradus, Grey, Shade,nKinbote, and “Pale Fire” are all productsnof the imagination of Vladimir Nabokov.nThat is not to say, however, that there isnno object to the game. What Nabokovnoffers is an opposition not between illusionnand reality but between chaos andnorder. Gradus-Grey, whether a Shadownassassin from Zembla or an escapednmaniac, is an embodiment of chaotic andndestructive forces, even, in Kinbote’snpresentation, suffering acute internalndisorder himself during the last stages ofnhis quest. Shade, on the other hand, hasngiven to his experiences as child and man,nhusband and father, scholar and poet,nthe clearly defined pattern and order ofnhis poem, and it is hardly irrelevant thatnNabokov chose to cast that poem in sonrestrictive a form as the heroic couplet.nBetween these extremes of chaos andnorder stands the comic and pathetic figurenof Charles Kinbote, homosexual, pedant,nand madman. Kinbote’s efforts to establishna connection between Shade’snpoem and the career of King Charles ofnZembla represent an undertaking notnaltogether unlike the composition of thenpoem itself, an attempt to give form andnthe permanence of art to chaotic experience.nThe result may be absurd, but theneffort is not contemptible.nKinbote’s character is, of course, centralnto the novel, and the choice ofnKinbote as narrator creates difficultiesnContinued on page 26n15nChronicles of Culturen