Charles Kinbote is the unreliable narrator in Vladimir Nabokov's novelPale Fire.
Kinbote appears to be the scholarly author of the Foreword, Commentary and Index surrounding the text of the late John Shade's poem "Pale Fire", which together form the text of Nabokov's novel. In the course of initially academic but increasingly deranged annotations to Shade's text, Kinbote's writing reveals a comic melange of narcissism and megalomania: he believes himself to be a royal figure, the exiled king of Zembla and the real target of the gunman who has in fact murdered Shade. Using the scholarly apparatus of reference and commentary, Kinbote first intertwines his own story with the commentary on Shade's poem, then allows the poem to slide into the background and his perhaps delusional world to move into the spotlight; as Kinbote had hoped John Shade would produce a poem about Zembla's exiled king, this shift provides some satisfaction for Kinbote.
Kinbote's "distant northern land" may or may not exist in the world of the novel. In one interpretation, Kinbote is in fact a failed Eastern European academic probably named Vseslav Botkin, teaching at the same university as Shade. Botkin is desperate for recognition, ridiculed by most of the staff. Shade alone feels pity for him, and occasionally indulges Kinbote in long walks around New Wye, the college town where they live.
Structure and Pale Fire's author
The reflexive structure of the novel, in which neither Kinbote nor Shade can really have the last word, together with apparent allusions to Kinbote's story in the poem, allow critics to argue various theories of authorship for Pale Fire as a whole, including the theory that Shade invented Kinbote and wrote the commentary himself, and the contrasting theory that Kinbote invented Shade. Brian Boyd's book Pale Fire: The Magic of Artistic Discovery thoroughly explores the authorship and interpretive options, eventually settling on a thesis involving intervention in the text by both Shade and his daughter Hazel after their respective deaths. Mary McCarthy, in her 1962 New Republic essay "A Bolt from the Blue" (in which she classed Pale Fire "one of the great works of art of the century") identified the book's author as Professor V. Botkin. Nabokov himself endorsed this reading, including in a list of possible interview-answers at the end of his 1962 diary, "I wonder if any reader will notice the following details: 1) that the nasty commentator is not an ex-king and not even Dr. Kinbote, but Prof. Vseslav Botkin, a Russian and a madman..."
- ^McCarthy, Mary (June 4, 1962). "A Bolt from the Blue". The New Republic. Revised version in Mary McCarthy (2002). A Bolt from the Blue and Other Essays. New York: The New York Review of Books, pp. 83–102. ISBN 1-59017-010-5.
- ^Brian Boyd, Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years, Princeton: The Princeton University Press, 1990. p. 709. On the same page, Boyd includes another note from Nabokov's 1962 diary: On Kinbote: "He commits suicide before completing his index, leaving the last entry without p[age] ref[erences]." Nabokov always liked—see Lolita, The Defense, Glory, Despair, King, Queen, Knave, Laughter in the Dark, Bend Sinister—to leave a body count.
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1. Why would Nabokov create a novel with this kind of structure?
Modernist writers such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, and Gertrude Stein experimented with form. They created disjointed texts that reflected the non-linear nature of a search for meaning. These authors created a whole new type of art, in which fragments work together to create a meaningful artistic experience. Vladimir Nabokov, however, is a post-modernist. While he has built upon the freedom to play with form granted by his modernist predecessors, he is not searching for meaning but instead creating an unsolvable puzzle.
The four parts of the novel do work together, yet there is no smooth correspondence between them. The reader is driven to jump back and forth between the sections, trying to follow threads. How does the note relate to the poem? How does the index influence the meaning? Why are some references, such as Oscar Nattochdag, who is mentioned in the note to line 627, omitted from the index?
In this process of flitting back and forth, the reader tries to create meaning, only to come to the conclusion that perhaps there is no meaning to be made. For example, what is the reader to make of the reference Kinbote makes to "old mother space and old father time" (note to 741)? Is he making reference to Shade's daughter playing mother time in a play? Or, is Shade actually writing this, repeating a theme? Or, did Kinbote write Shade's portion, as well? None of these questions can be answered.
Ultimately, all that is definite in this format is the humor. Disa is the Duchess of Payne and Mone, Gordon's clothing changes every few lines (note to 403-04), and Kinbote is unable to understand a note telling him he has halitosis. This format is appropriate for a post-modern text; although the search for meaning turns up empty, the game is awfully intriguing.
2. How does the fantasy of Zembla coordinate with other realities?
In one sense, Pale Fire could be read as a highly symbolic text. Kinbote, if he is delusional, could be reflecting his true circumstances in his fantasy world. If this is the case, there are many possible ways that the realities correspond. Unfortunately, as is always the case with this text, there is no definite answer except to say that shades of one reality often pop up in another.
Perhaps the most consistent thread is Kinbote's uncomfortable places of refuge, but there are no clues to indicate which is real. He writes the commentary from a motor court that he describes on the first page as across from an amusement park, a place to which he fled after the controversy over his account of Shade's death (note to line 1000). Yet, the Goldsworth house was a refuge from King Charles's enemies in Zembla, and it was also uncomfortable. And, the room in the palace where he was sent to be imprisoned was similarly incommodious. This man refers to one uncomfortable hideaway after another, from which he dreams of his palace. These realities may correspond to one another, but there is no answer regarding which is the original and which is the delusion. In fact, even the characters within the hideaways may correspond to one another, as he says his motel's owner reminds him of Shade (note to line 810). All that is clear is that truth and facsimile are indistinguishable from one another.
Moreover, some threads that seem to have correspondences are tantalizingly unclear. For example, how does Disa, the King's wife, correspond to his other realities? He writes of being tormented by her in his dreams: "He dreamed of her more often, and with incomparably more poignancy, than his surface-life feelings for her warranted." However, there is no indication he has a wife in one of his other realities. He does write that: "Disa at thirty. bore a singular resemblance not, of course, to Mrs. Shade as she was when I met her, but to the idealized and stylized picture painted by the poet in those lines of Pale Fire(note to lines 433-34). Could Shade be Kinbote and be writing of both women? Could Kinbote be a homosexual frustrated by being denied a satisfying home life by the prejudices of the day? It seems like there ought to be some correspondence here, but the exact nature of it is frustratingly unattainable.
Nabokov has successfully created a situation in which the reader desires to make realities fit together but finds herself unable to do so because nothing really does fit together. He, as always, has the upper hand.
3. What is the nature of a writer?
Many twentieth century writers have been concerned about defining their role as writers. Henry James, for example, devoted a good deal of energy to theorizing about it in his Prefaces to the New York Edition, not to mention the efforts he made to define his place as a writer within his fiction. However, Pale Fire seems less about defining the role of a writer than it is about undermining all expectations that writers and their productions are in any way fixable or stable.
Canto Four is about how Shade finds meaning through the process of writing, but he never claims to establish an identity through this process. "I feel I understand/Existence, or at least a minute part/Of my existence, only through my art," he writes (lines 970-72). He, as a writer, does not know who he is, yet he writes as a process of finding some sense of who he is in a world otherwise devoid of meaning.
Kinbote, on the other hand, completely loses himself in the process of writing. He writes himself several new identities. Shade, in fact, labels a man who reinvents himself as a poet, saying such a man is not insane: "One should not apply [that word] to a person who deliberately peels off a drab and unhappy past and replaces it with a brilliant invention. That's merely turning a new leaf with the left hand." He goes on to assert that such a man is a poet, and Kinbote concurs that "We all are, in a sense, poets" (note to line 629). So, he is inventing a new identity for himself as a poet while at the same time writing himself in and out of identities. A writer, in this case, is never clearly defined because he can always redefine himself.
In addition, neither Shade nor Kinbote is clearly the actual writer. An argument could be made that one invented the other. The identity of the writer of "Pale Fire" is never clear, although the writer of Pale Fire clearly is Nabokov. Nabokov, then, retains the authority and the ultimate writer's identity. He does not, however, take himself too seriously, as he continues to play with the questions of writerly identity and the purpose of writing. Unlike his predecessors, Nabokov makes an ever-changing game of his role as a writer, rather than making it a serious and fixable identity.
4. What does this book indicate about scholars and commentators?
In Pale Fire, Charles Kinbote claims that he is going to provide scholarly commentary on the final poem of John Shade. Very quickly, the reader comes to realize that Kinbote has aspirations of his own to be a creative writer and is not terribly interested in actually commenting upon Shade's work. Pale Fire shows scholars who dissect and often destroy the literature they claim to love.
Kinbote, in the most obvious sense, destroys Shade's final work in his own self interest. "Pale Fire" the poem becomes Pale Fire the book, with Kinbote's comments as the most prominent feature. He admits that he has tried to change the poem into what he wanted it to be when he gave Shade the fodder for a poem about Zembla: "My commentary to this poem, now in the hands of my readers, represents an attempt to sort out those echoes and wavelets of fire, and pale phosphorescent hints, and all the many subliminal debts to me" (note to line 1000). Kinbote has absolutely taken Shade's poem and replaced it with his own text.
Kinbote, however, may actually be creating something more artistic than Shade created. Shade's poem is a mediocre fireside poem. While there are poignant moments, it would not be worthy of much attention on its own. Kinbote, however, adds a whole new dimension. He invents Gradus and makes his movements correspond with Shade's writing, he creates vibrant images (even if most of them are erotic fantasies), and he invents an entire kingdom. Whether it is as well-written as Shade's poem or not, Kinbote's text is certainly more colorful, interesting, and imaginative. He may be a scholar trying to become a poet, or he may be a poet in the guise of a scholar.
While the relationship of Shade's and Kinbote's texts is rather predatory, they agree on one thing: scholars prey on poets. The entire text demonstrates this fact, but the note to 929 is a very specific comment on it. A psychology text declares that Little Red Riding Hood's cap is a symbol of menstruation, and Kinbote asks "Do these clowns really believe what they teach?" Kinbote, at least, apparently believes in what he writes about Shade, however far-fetched it may be.
5. What is with all the changing names?
Shakespeare's Juliet asks "What's in a name?" In her case, a name means more than she suspects, as her romance causes death for her and Romeo. For Vladimir Nabokov, the name game is considerably less serious. Kinbote shifts names continually in a comic attempt to change identities, yet Nabokov demonstrates that names are fluid and meaningless as markers of identity.
Kinbote goes by several different names, sometimes in an attempt to change his identity and sometimes in an attempt to hide it. He was Charles Xavier, the Beloved, but he hid that identity when he took on the name Kinbote. However, it seems possible that he is actually Professor Botkin, an identity he has tried to shed. Another professor pointedly asks if his name is an anagram of Botkin (note to 894), and the note on Botkin in the Index indicates that man is a Russian-American scholar. Since the name does seem to be an anagram, it appears that Kinbote is probably a man named Botkin who shed that identity to become Charles Xavier hiding as Charles Kinbote. The problem is, this is not entirely certain, as perhaps he is Charles Xavier pretending to be a man named Charles Kinbote who has shed an identity as Botkin. Or, he might really be Charles Kinbote who believes he is Charles Xavier and has another alternate identity as Botkin. With this confusion, Nabokov has created considerable confusion about the connection between a name and an identity. Clearly, it does not matter, as names and identities shift so easily in this text.
Kinbote, however, does attach a great deal of importance to names. He writes that it is a "singularly tasteless device" to use a real person's name in a poem (note to 627). He feels the real person should not be used, yet Shade used the person's name. Once the name "Starover Blue" has been used, it does not belong to the person but is a character in the poem. While Nabokov has demonstrated that names and identities are fluid, Kinbote is asserting that names belong to the identity. This makes sense, as he has a great deal at stake in being able to change who he is.
Kinbote is not the only one with a shifting name. Disa's house changes names, the Shadows keep getting new names, and Sybil Shade's maiden name is also noted. All these changing names are quite serious to Kinbote, but Nabokov presents them as a game because to try to fix identities and names would be truly ridiculous.