What is posterity? Those who come after us, after our earthbound existence has ceased. Why does the true writer of genius dream only of posterity? Because he knows only the hack and the huckster compose with an eye to contemporary fame. Why do writers evoke the past? Second-raters evoke the past because they wish to associate their feeble prose with some historical event, as if death during a global war and death in a small village that has always known peace and prosperity could be distinguished by mourners; first-raters introduce the past because it is through the prism of youth's nostalgia, of our feelings of immortality, that the present and future become everlastingly tragic. What is immortality? For the non-believer, a myth; for the believer, and all great writers are by nature believers, the destiny of the human soul because literature is the history of the human soul. Why are all great writers believers? Because the writer of genius composes for his posthumous triumph; for his resurrection from some cavernal archives centuries after the hand, and arm, and body, and head that created those works have been destroyed; for the ideal reader who will finally bestow upon him the reading he has always sought, the reading that will properly reflect the parameters of his art and his genius. What is art? Art, as this author once said, is beauty and pity. Which brings us to one of the most spectacular novels ever written.
Our hero is American poet John Shade, but he is dead. He will die twice, as well as incur one near-death experience during which time a "white fountain" will appear to his blood-blanched brain, an event which a doctor denies (odd, since doctors deny everything except death), but which will lend itself to the execution of a long and lucid 999-line poem in heroic couplets. In search of a confederate similarly grazed by the scythe, he tracks down an interviewee from a famous article who also dreamed a "white fountain"; upon their sharing some feckless tea and chatter, however, he learns she was misquoted, and that what she beheld during those two minutes of her clinical extinction was in fact a "white mountain." Shade does not desist from his reflections: his orphaning as an infant; the suicide of his only child Hazel upon an icy lake and after years of societal non-acceptance; his own weariness, wheezing bulk, and, apart from longish "sunset rambles," complete lack of concern for his physical well-being; and his deference to his wife, muse, support beam, and literary amanuensis, Sybil. Shade describes birds and butterflies with equal hand, but his verse aggregates in depth upon its posthumous edition:
Immediately after my dear friend's death I prevailed upon his distraught widow to forelay and defeat the commercial passions and academic intrigues that were bound to come swirling around her husband's manuscript (transferred by me to a safe spot even before his body had reached the grave) by signing an agreement to the effect that he had turned over the manuscript to me; that I would have it published without delay, with my commentary, by a firm of my choice; that all profits, except the publisher's percentage, would accrue to her; and that on publication day the manuscript would be handed over to the Library of Congress for permanent preservation. I defy any serious critic to find this contract unfair. Nevertheless, it has been called (by Shade's former lawyer) "a fantastic farrago of evil," while another person (his former literary agent) has wondered with a sneer if Mrs. Shade's tremulous signature might not have been penned "in some peculiar kind of red ink." Such hearts, such brains, would be unable to comprehend that one's attachment to a masterpiece may be utterly overwhelming, especially when it is the underside of the weave that entrances the beholder and only begetter, whose own past intercoils there with the fate of the innocent author.
The usurper is a certain Charles Kinbote, a colleague of Shade's at Wordsworth College, and, we learn soon enough, a man bent – in, ahem, more ways than one – on drawing our collective attention to happenings far past the ken of the average resident of the "small college town" of New Wye. What events could garner such appeal for a polyglot professor of comparative literature, a European intellectual, very late of Europe (so late, in fact, that his own position and familiarity with said college town strike us as suspiciously thorough)? Nothing less, as it were, than an attempted regicide (Kinbote's alleged meaning in its native language) in a distant, beautiful "crystal land."
The "crystal land" in question is Zembla, a name which will evoke a smile on a Frenchman's face and a smirk on a Russian's. Kinbote is impassioned by three things, in no particular order: the plight of his King, Charles the Beloved, who fled assured execution at the hands of left-wing insurgents and has since made his paths to lands unknown; literature in all its most glorious manifestations, from this poet's saturated globs (globs, in any case, of genius), to English writers of clipped, clean, and often magnificent prose (they know who they are), to the shimmering waves of the Bard himself; and the lean, sweaty energy of male youths fourteen and over, the acme of their virile charms coming during their college years. The latter two pursuits are just that, hunts of endless quarry, bountiful harvests, and daydreams of passions that quiver in a cool springtime wind. It is the first and most recondite of tales, the flight of Charles II, with the help of (literally and figuratively) various actors, through France, where he bids his farewells to his unabashedly ignored queen Disa, and onwards to some other terrestrial nook, that becomes our narrative's compass and chart. And soon enough, Kinbote's comments disenshroud these forking paths, one of which begins decidedly to resemble a cul-de-sac:
There was something else, something I was to realize only when I read Pale Fire, or rather reread it after the first bitter hot mist of disappointment had cleared before my eyes. I am thinking of lines 261-267 in which Shade describes his wife. At the moment of his painting that poetical portrait, the sitter was twice the age of Queen Disa. I do not wish to be vulgar in dealing with these delicate matters but the fact remains that sixty-year-old Shade is lending here a well-conserved coeval the ethereal and eternal aspect she retains, or should retain, in his kind, noble heart. Now the curious thing about it is that Disa at thirty, when last seen in September 1958, 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. Actually, it was idealized and stylized only in regard to the older woman; in regard to Queen Disa, as she was that afternoon on that blue terrace, it represented a plain, unretouched likeness.
Indeed, Kinbote spends an inordinate amount of his lonely, perverted time feeding his colleague details about Zembla, including an incredible secret mile-long passageway from castle to opera house. Yet the coincidences between poem and Prisoner of Zembla asides do not accumulate as much as hint at a very different knot for our flapping parade of loose ends. The biggest such oddity will be a Danish passport holder known to Kinbote as Gradus, but also as Jacques Degré, or Jack de Gray, a "sickly bald-headed man resembling a pallid gland ... singularly featureless ... [with] café-au-lait eyes." It is this toad of a human – neither word does him sufficient injustice – who will slink across Europe, then an ocean, then America, and halt his slimy trail in New Wye. And his final deed would have been captured in the poem's final line were it not for the small matter of John Shade's no longer being able to breathe, much less bleed a pen onto a parchment square.
Curious readers will find a wealth of secondary literature on Pale Fire, one of the greatest masterpieces of the twentieth century, and I recommend that one read none of it; nothing will be gained by the discerning mind except some clever puns and cleverer misdirections (Kinbote's map is one of snakes, ladders, and more snakes). Anagrams and polyglot calembours are of course grand fun, and an index appended to Kinbote's commentary lubricates all the necessary engine parts for the racier among us to enjoy a few victory laps. But we are much better off gorging ourselves on the infinite delights of Nabokinbote's genius, examples of which I will not adduce if only to avoid the capital crime of preterition. Suffice it to say that our novel can and should be read numerous times, ideally over the course of a long and adventurous intellectual existence, praise that should be heaped on only the most magical of our books. But I will need to say one more thing about Charles Kinbote, or whatever his real name might be ("As the glory of Zembla merges with the glory of your verse," he tells a rather indifferent Shade and a completely unshocked reader, "I intend to divulge to you an ultimate truth, an extraordinary secret"). When Kinbote utters "Even in Arcady am I, says Death in the tombal scripture," we cannot but think of a Russian first name; when we consider our college town, we cannot but think of a smug homophone; and when we wonder about this "ultimate truth," we cannot but think of this tale, named after another lost kingdom. And when Kinbote sees someone lurching up the garden path, we see before us a dagger with a handle toward our hand.