FORENOTE TO KINBOTE'S COMMENTARY, by Ted Nelson
The first side of Nabokov's novel is John Shade's haunting poem. The poem
as a whole (not included here) appears to me to be about the suicide of the
poet's daughter, in a context of nature, family, suburban life, and 1960s
Below, however, we have another interpretation-- the second side of
What follows are the comments of Charles Kinbote, a lunatic literary
critic. Kinbote believes himself to be the deposed king, Charles Xavier,
of a far-off land, called Zembla. He believes that even since coming to
the USA in 1958, he has barely escaped from an assassin named Gradus.
While partially expounding on John Shade's poem, Kinbote continually uses
the poem as an excuse to tell his own dubious story, which he thinks is
actually hidden in the poem.
(Because this is a demo about connections, Kinbote's notes have been
severely truncated to show these connections and honor copyright. I
recommend the full book.)
=== === === CHARLES KINBOTE'S NOTES ON THE POEM "PALE FIRE," BY JOHN SHADE
=== Lines 1-4: I was the shadow of the waxwing slain, etc.
The image in these opening lines evidently refers to a bird knocking itself
out, in full flight, against the outer surface of a glass pane in which a
mirrored sky, with its slightly darker tint and slightly slower cloud,
presents the illusion of continued space. We can visualize John Shade in
his early boyhood, a physically unattractive but otherwise beautifully
developed lad, experiencing his first eschatological shock, as with
incredulous fingers he picks up from the turf that compact ovoid body and
gazes at the wax-red streaks ornamenting those gray-brown wings and at the
graceful tail feathers tipped with yellow as bright as fresh paint. When
in the last year of Shade’s life I had the fortune of being his neighbor in
the idyllic hills of New Wye (see Foreword), I often saw those particular
birds most convivially feeding ...
=== Line 12: that crystal land
Perhaps an allusion to Zembla, my dear country. After this, in the
disjointed, half-obliterated draft which I am not at all sure I have
Ah, I must not forget to say something
That my friend told me of a certain king.
That King’s reign (1936-1958) will be remembered by at least a few
discerning historians as a peaceful and elegant one. Owing to a fluid
system of judicious alliances, Mars in his time never marred the record.
Internally, until corruption, betrayal, and Extremism penetrated it, the
People’s Place (parliament) worked in perfect harmony with the Royal
Council. Harmony, indeed, was the reign’s password. The polite arts and
pure sciences flourished. Technicology, applied physics, industrial
chemistry and so forth were suffered to thrive. ...
Line 17: And then the gradual; Line 29: gray
By an extraordinary coincidence (inherent perhaps in the contrapuntal
nature of Shade’s art) our poet seems to name here (gradual, gray) a man,
whom he was to see for one fatal moment three weeks later, but of whose
existence at the time (July 2) he could not have known. ... We shall
accompany Gradus in constant thought, as he makes his way from distant dim
Zembla to green Appalachia, through the entire length of the poem,
following the road of its rhythm, riding past in a rhyme, skidding around
the corner of a run-on, breathing with the caesura, swinging down to the
foot of the page from line to line as from branch to branch, hiding between
two words (see note to line 596), reappearing on the horizon of a new
canto, steadily marching nearer in iambic motion, crossing streets, moving
up with his valise on the escalator of the pentameter, stepping off,
boarding a new train of thought, entering the hall of a hotel, putting out
the bedlight, while Shade blots out a word, and falling asleep as the poet
lays down his pen for the night.
Line 27: Sherlock Holmes
A hawk-nosed, lanky, rather likable private detective, the main character
in various stories by Conan Doyle. I have no means to ascertain at the
present time which of these is referred here but I suspect that our poet
simply made up this Case of the Reversed Footprints.
Lines 34-35: Stilettos of a frozen stillicide
How persistently our poet evokes images of winter in the beginning of a
poem which he started composing on a balmy summer night! The mechanism of
the associations is easy to make out (glass leading to crystal and crystal
to ice) but the prompter behind it retains his incognito. One is too
modest to suppose that the fact that the poet and his future commentator
first met on a winter day somehow impinges here on the actual season. ...
Lines 39-40: Was close my eyes, etc.
These lines are represented in the drafts by a variant reading:
39 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . and home would haste my
40 The sun with stolen ice, the moon with leaves
One cannot help recalling a passage in Timon of Athens (Act IV, Scene 3)
where the misanthrope talks to the three marauders. Having no library in
the desolate log cabin where I live like Timon is his cave, I am compelled
for the purpose of quick citation to retranslate this passage into English
prose from a Zemblan poetical version of Timon which, I hope, sufficiently
approximates the text, or is at least faithful to its spirit ...
Line 42: I could make out
By the end of May I could make out the outlines of some of my images in the
shape his genius might give them; by mid-June I felt sure at last that he
would recreate in a poem the dazzling Zembla burning in my brain. I
mesmerized him with it, I saturated him with my vision, I pressed upon him,
with a drunkard’s wild generosity, all that I was helpless myself to put
into verse. ...
Although I realize only too clearly, alas, that the result, in its pale and
diaphanous final phase, cannot be regarded as a direct echo of my narrative
... of my discourse on Zembla and her unfortunate king.
Lines 47-48: the frame house between Goldsworth and Wordsmith
The first name refers to the house in Dulwich Road that I rented from Hugh
Warren Goldsworth, authority on Roman Law and distinguished judge. ...
Judge Goldsworth had a wife and four daughters. Family photographs met me
in the hallway and pursued me from room to room, and although I am sure
that Alphina (9), Betty (10), Candida (12), and Dee (14) will soon change
from horribly cute little school-girls to smart young ladies and superior
mothers, I must confess that their pert pictures irritated me to such an
extent that finally I gather them one by one and dumped them all in a
closet under the gallows row of their cellophane-shrouded winter clothes.
Line 49: shagbark
A hickory. Our poet shared with the English masters the noble knack of
transplanting trees into verse with their sap and shade. Many years ago
Disa, our King’s Queen, whose favorite trees were the jacaranda and the
maidenhair, copied out in her album a quatrain from John Shade’s collection
of short poems Hebe’s Cup, which I cannot refrain from quoting her (from a
letter I received on April 6, 1959, from southern France):
THE SACRED TREE
The ginkgo leaf, in golden hue, when shed,
A muscat grape,
Is an old-fashioned butterfly, ill-spread,
When the new Episcopal church in New Wye (see note to line 549) was built,
the bulldozers spared an arc of those sacred trees planted by a landscaper
of genius (Repburg) at the end of the so-called Shakespeare Avenue, on the
campus. I do not know if it is relevant or not but there is a
cat-and-mouse game in the second line, and “tree” in Zemblan is grados.
Line 57: The phantom of my little daughter’s swing
After this Shade crossed out lightly the following lines in the draft:
The light is good; the reading lamps, long-necked;
All doors have keys. Your modern architect
Is in collusion with psychanalysts:
When planning parent’s bedrooms, he insists
On lockless doors so that, when looking back,
The future patient of the future quack
May find, all set for him, the Primal Scene.
Line 61: TV’s huge paperclip
In the otherwise empty, and pretty fatuous, obituary mentioned in my notes
to lines 71-72, there happens to be quoted a manuscript poem (received from
Sybil Shade) which is said to have been “composed by our poet apparently at
the end of June, thus less than a month before our poet’s death, thus being
the last short piece that our poet wrote.”
Here it is:
The setting sun that lights the tips
Of TV’s giant paperclips
Upon the roof;
Line 62: often
Often, almost nightly, throughout the spring of 1959, I had feared for my
life. Solitude is the playfield of Satan. I cannot describe the depths of
my loneliness and distress. There was naturally my famous neighbor just
across he lane, and at one time I took in a dissipated young roomer (who
generally came home long after midnight). Yet I wish to stress that cold
hard core of loneliness which is not good for a displaced soul. Everybody
knows how given to regicide Zemblans are: two Queens, three Kings, and
fourteen Pretenders died violent deaths, strangled, stabbed, poisoned, and
drowned, the course of only one century (1700-1800). The Goldsworth castle
became particularly solitary after that turning point at dusk which
resembles so much the nightfall of the mind. Stealthy rustles, the
footsteps of yesteryear leaves, an idle breeze, a dog touring the garbage
cans—everything sounded to me like a bloodthirsty prowler. ...
Line 70: The new TV
After this, in the draft (dated July 3), come a few unnumbered lines that
may have been intended for some later parts of the poem. They are not
actually deleted but are accompanied by a question mark in the margin and
encircled with a wavy line encroaching upon some of the letters:
There are events, strange happenings, that strike
The mind as emblematic. They are like
Lost similes adrift without a string,
Attached to nothing. Thus that northern king,
Whose desperate escape from prison was
Brought off successfully only because
Some forty of his followers that night
Impersonated him and aped his flight—
He never would have reached the western coast had not a fad spread among
his secret supporters, romantic, heroic daredevils, of impersonating the
fleeing king. They rigged themselves out to look like him in red sweaters
and red caps, and popped up here and there, completely bewildering the
revolutionary police. Some of the pranksters were much younger than the
King, but this did not matter ...
Line 71: parents
With commendable alacrity, Professor Hurley produced an Appreciation of
John Shade’s published works within a month after the poet’s death. It
came out in a skimpy literary review, whose name momentarily escapes me,
and was shown to me in Chicago where I interrupted for a couple of days my
automobile journey from New Wye to Cedarn, in these grim autumnal mountains.
A Commentary where placid scholarship should reign is not the place for
blasting the preposterous defects of that little obituary. ...
Line 79: a preterist
Written against this in the margin of the draft are two lines of which only
the first can be deciphered. It reads:
The evening is the time to praise the day
I feel pretty sure that my friend was trying to incorporate here something
he and Mrs. Shade had heard me quote in my lighter-hearted moments, namely
a charming quatrain from our Zemblan counterpart of the Elder Edda, in an
anonymous English translation (Kirby’s?):
The wise at nightfall praise the day,
Line 80: my bedroom
Our Prince was fond of Fleur as of a sister but with no soft shadow of
incest or secondary homosexual complications. She had a small pale face
with prominent cheekbones, luminous eyes, and curly dark hair. It was
rumored that after going about with a porcelain cup and Cinderella’s
slipper for months, the society sculptor and poet Arnor had found in her
what he sought and had used her breasts and feet for his Lilith Calling
Back Adam; but I am certainly no expert in these tender matters. Otar, her
lover, said that when you walked behind her, and she knew you were walking
behind her, the swing and play of those slim haunches was something
intensely artistic ...
Line 85: Who’d seen the Pope
Pius X, Giuseppe Melchiorre Sarto, 1835-1914; Pope 1903-1914.
Lines 86-90: Aunt Maud
Maud Shade, 1869-1950, Samuel Shade’s sister. At her death, Hazel (born
1934) was not exactly a “babe” as implied in line 90. I found her
paintings unpleasant but interesting. Aunt Maud was far from spinsterish,
and the extravagant and sardonic turn of her mind must have shocked
sometimes the genteel dames of New Wye.
Lines 90-93: Her room, etc.
In the draft, instead of the final text:
We’ve kept intact. Her trivia for us
Retrace her style: the leaf sarcophagus
(A Luna’s dead and shriveled-up cocoon)
Line 91: trivia
Among these was a scrapbook in which over a period of years (1937-1949)
Aunt Maud had been pasting clippings of an involuntarily ludicrous or
grotesque nature. John Shade allowed me one day to memorandum the first
and the last of the series; they happened to intercommunicate most
pleasingly, I thought. Both stemmed from the same family magazine Life, so
justly famed for its pudibundity in regard to the mysteries of the male
sex; hence one can well imagine how startled or titillated those families
were. The first comes from the issue of May 10, 1937, p. 67, and
advertises the Talon Trouser Fastener (a rather grasping and painful name,
by the way). ...
Line 92: the paperweight
The image of those old-fashioned horrors strangely haunted our poet. I
have clipped from a newspaper that recently reprinted it an old poem of his
where the souvenir shop also preserves a landscape admired by the tourist:
Between the mountain and the eye
The spirit of the distance draws
A veil of blue amorous gauze,
The very texture of the sky.
===Line 98: On Chapman’s Homer
A reference to the title of Keats’ famous sonnet (often quoted in America)
which owing to a printer’s absentmindedness, has been drolly transposed,
from some other article, into the account of a sports event. For other
vivid misprints see note to line 802.
Line 101: No free man needs a God
When one considers the numberless thinkers and poets in the history of
human creativity whose freedom of mind was enhanced rather than stunted by
Faith, one is bound to question the wisdom of this easy aphorism (see also
note to line 549).