“Pale Fire” is a complex, multi-layered post modernist novel – but for goodness sake don’t let that put you off! At the heart of this novel is an extraordinary romp – and that’s not a word you expect to see used to describe a modern novel.
The structure of the novel is worth spending a minute or two outlining. It opens with a 999 line poem, which is followed by what appears to be at first a detailed critical analysis of the poem. The critic uses appropriate technical language and phrases, and the reader is not alerted to there being anything out of the ordinary in this set up. This appearance slowly begins to unravel. The first hint that all is not as it seems occurs when the critic is disturbed by some noise outside, and this intrusion appears in his notes. The situation quickly spirals from here, as we come to understand that the writer – Charles Kinbote, academic and friend of the now deceased poet John Shade, is in fact delusional. He is the ultimate unreliable narrator, and nothing he tells us can be taken at face value. Sometimes slips in his facade reveal a different perspective, but any “revealed truth” has to be treated with equal care. This is not a world in which the true state of affairs is within our grasp; we are just shown different levels of illusion.
Kinbote’s footnotes to the poem steadily lead the reader to understand that he took a teaching job in the United States and cultivated an acquaintance with Shade, imposing his company despite the resistance of Shade’s wife. over time he tells Shade the fantastic story of King Charles the Beloved of Zembla and his escape into exile. We are invited (by Kinbote) to infer that he is telling his own story, and that he wants Shade to turn this narrative into his poem; a suggestion Shade stubbornly resists.
The real delight of the novel is this Zemblan fantasy. It is outrageously kitsch, almost unquotable in that every sentence is at once ridiculous, over-written, camp, and hilarious. The king’s escape from imprisonment, his disguises and near misses, is all related breathlessly, kept superbly in tone. A parallel narrative relating the journey of Shade’s accidental assassin across Europe to the US is of a piece of this comic operetta style, closer to some of the tone of cheap gangster or spy stories.
In constructing this inner narrative we are invited to see the world outside it as real – similar to the way McEwan uses the alternative ending of “Atonement” to bring into focus the “real” ending. In this “real” world Kinbote is a disturbed academic, Gradus the assassin an escaped lunatic or criminal trying to kill the judge from whom Kinbote rents his house, and Shade is who we are told he is, the one constant through all the layered narratives. But there are many warning signs that tell us that however flawed and ridiculous Kinbote’s stories may be, the world from which he relates them is equally artificial. There is no safe ground to which the reader can anchor themselves, no fixed point of reliable perspective. The “real” world is equally flawed and ridiculous, albeit in a different, less comic, way.
On one level, the simplest reading of this novel is a satire on academia, and in particular the hangers on that surround famous writers, noting down their every comment for future inclusion in memoirs, chronicling the mundane details of the famous one’s life, and attempting to gain their place in the margins of the picture frame of posterity. No doubt this was in part Nabokov’s point, reflecting on some of the response to the publication of “Lolita”, but on its own this is a fairly mundane reading. But this is a fairly limited reading.
An alternative approach is to see the novel as a mystery story, in which we are invited to unpick the accidental revelation of the real events of the novel from Kinbote’s confused perspective. This is a seductive reading, as the reader is always led carefully into “guessing” what really happened a few pages before Kinbote confirms it. A good example of this is his identity – we work out that he believes he is Charles the Beloved well before the mask slips and he refers to Charles as “I” rather than “He”. But this guessing game is, once the reader realises that Kinbote is telling his own story, far too easy. Guessing games are sometimes fun, but they aren’t great literature.
Which leaves the complex, multi-layered narrative which is open to multiple, all equally valid readings. Which in turn makes this a classic modernist novel.
There are no rules about how or when to enjoy a novel, and the escapist fantasy of the King of Zembla, which wouldn’t feel out of place in a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, is still for me the funniest, most enjoyable part of this novel.