I regret racing straight to Pale Fire’s Wikipedia page the minute I finished it, too impatient to even attempt taking in its index. Nabokov, I quickly learned, did not scruple to speak openly about all the tricks and traps he laid throughout this proto-hypertext, in interviews contemporary with the book’s 1962 publication. At least I can feel relieved that, with dozens of critical studies about it flowering over the subsequent decades, the literary world wisely chose to read the author’s own explicit answer-key as just another interpretation.

Specifically, Nabokov cheerfully pointed out clues he hid around the text showing that “Kinbote” was a pen name for an eccentric professor, “Zembla” this person’s complete fabrication, and “Gradus” merely a disturbed local citizen. But the Wikipedia article goes on to describe real-world competing schools of “Kinbotists” and “Shadists” who disagree about the story’s “true” authorship, as well as a splinter group who credit Shade’s tragically departed daughter with literally ghost-writing the whole thing.

I am okay with all of this. I just wish I had allowed myself to sit with original text it a bit, first. Maybe the very nature of its kinetic, jumping-around nature inevitably encouraged me to just keep leaping past the final page and into the most obvious meta-text immediately available to me, sixty years later.

I feel driven to defend poor Kinbote this way: the text gives us permission to believe in Zembla, that distant northern land, since it transparently sets itself in world half a degree separate from our own. Shade’s home and university exist in a comfortably fictional college town, but then the text drives it a step further by placing New Wye in “Appalachia”. Kinbote, meanwhile, writes out his distracted exegesis in the western state of “Utana”. In context, we have no reason to think these are Kinbote’s fancy nicknames for (say) Pennsylvania and Montana; they are literally the names of two American states, in his world. We must either conclude that Kinbote’s grip on reality is utterly shattered—dissolving the whole text to meaningless, impotent raving—or accept that if his United States is so rearranged, then Europe might just have room for his beloved Zembla, as well.

But then, I have to tell you why I feel fairly certain that, even absent Wikipedia, I’d have arrived at an interpretation similar to Nabokov’s. The cadence of Kinbote’s storytelling, and especially his love for sprinkling “Zemblan” vocabulary lessons throughout his digressions, remind me so strongly of the stories my own own fabulist mother would tell of her childhood, raised (she would tell us) by a Norwegian community in downeast Maine. I wouldn’t understand until adulthood that she made up all these stories on the spot as needed, deploying “Norwegian” liberally to lend them credence. Reader, I have just now turned to the internet again to finally prove to myself that—yes—the Norwegian words for “cat” and “dog” are not, in fact, kisa and dusa.

I will tell you the real mystery that Pale Fire leaves me with, one looming larger to me than even its weird talk of poltergeists, or the hauntingly grave note that Kinbote ends on. Is Shade’s poem titled “Pale Fire” supposed to be good? I just don’t have the experience with poetry to confidently pass any kind of judgment on it, though I do have my suspicions that Nabokov intended us to read it as satire of a particular kind of poetic self-indulgence. The book primes us to expect comedy, after all, presenting the poem after a “preface” where Kinbote’s boasts about his sportscars and student-body catamites get suddenly interrupted by peevish complaints about all the noise outside his motel room. But that poem undeniably contains a multitude of transcendent peaks over its 999 lines even so, just as Kinbote’s notes manage to repeatedly harmonize with it despite their overt self-obsession.

I don’t know! It’s a good book, you should read it.

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