Places: Pale Fire

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1962

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Parody

Time of work: Late 1950’s, early 1960’s

Places DiscussedZembla

Zembla Pale Fire (zehm-BLAH). Imaginary country located somewhere near Russia that is the homeland of the literary scholar Dr. Charles Kinbote. The name “Zembla” comes from the real Russian island of Nova Zembla, in the Arctic, whose name means “new land.”

Nabokov also plays on the similarity of the sound of “Zembla” to such English words as “assemble,” “emblem” and “resemble,” which relate to one of the novel’s most important themes: art as a mirror to reality. However, it is a curious sort of mirror, one that not only reflects but also distorts, refracts, and multiplies. Zembla is a distorted mirror image of the mundane world that Kinbote is forced to inhabit. In the normal world Kinbote is a lonely, obscure, closeted homosexual. In Zembla, he is King Charles the Beloved, whose sexual orientation is regarded as proof of manliness, not as a shameful secret. (The novel Pale Fire itself is formed of a similarly distorted reflection–John Shade’s poem and Kinbote’s commentary on it, a pale and distorted reflection of the original.) In this ideal, “crystal land,” art and science flourish under King Charles’s rule, and even taxation becomes “a thing of beauty.”

Zembla is not simply Kinbote’s escapist fantasy. It has a complex–if invented–history that reads something like a parody or distorted mirror image of Russian history. Like that of the historical Russia, Zembla’s aristocracy falls to revolution, and the idyllic Zembla becomes populated by characters such as the assassin Jakob Gradus, who typifies Nabokov’s conception of the Soviet mind-set: low, vulgar, and incompetent. Unlike Russia’s czar, King Charles escapes to America, where he assumes the identity of Charles Kinbote, or so Kinbote claims. There he meets the poet John Shade, who he hopes will be able to “re-assemble Zembla” in rhyme. Much of Kinbote’s commentary recounts the king’s flight and Gradus’s subsequent attempt to find and kill him.

New Wye

New Wye (noo wee). Fictional Appalachian town based on Ithaca, New York, where Nabokov lived during the 1950’s. Unlike the fantastic and epic Zembla, New Wye is generally depicted realistically and domestically. Shade’s poem depicts a world of natural details–such as birds and trees–middle-class trivia, and domestic life. Seen through Shade’s eyes, the world of New Wye is a mass of subtle detail–a band of color on a butterfly wing, or the shape taken by a falling rubber band–that is imbedded in the largest of questions: death and the afterlife.

For Kinbote, the Old World king in exile, New Wye is bleak and follows social rules that he finds largely incomprehensible. Much like some of Nabakov’s other novels, Pale Fire is about the Old World meeting the New World and the inevitable conflicts that arise. While Kinbote may characterize America as middle class, domestic, and, at times, lowbrow, his commentary and Zemblan epic reads much like the absurd paperback mystery novels he claims to despise.

Shade home

Shade home. Middle-class house in New Wye. Perhaps no other place within the novel so clearly represents Kinbote’s isolation and loneliness as the poet Shade’s home. Kinbote tries to watch Shade at work on the poem he believes will restore Zembla to him, peering into his neighbor’s house with binoculars and at times even peeking in the windows. He daydreams about situations in which he saves Shade’s life and imagines being warmly received in the latter’s house. However, he is not even invited to Shade’s birthday party. In contrast to the “normal” heterosexual family of his neighbors, Kinbote’s own home is a rental house, in which he sleeps alone in a “solitary double bed,” apart from his brief liaisons.

Wordsmith University

Wordsmith University. University modeled on Cornell University, where Nabokov taught while living in Ithaca. The fictional university is material for parody–Kinbote mocks the “suburban refinements of the English Department,” and its faculty members are largely small-minded and not infrequently vulgar. In this novel, the university is conspicuous for its absence: almost all of the action takes place either in or around the Shade home, or in Kinbote’s imaginary Zembla.

BibliographyBader, Julia. Crystal Land: Artifice in Nabokov’s English Novels. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972. The discussion of Pale Fire is extensive and insightful, concentrating upon the novel as imaginative experience.Boyd, Brian. Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years and Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1990, 1991. This two-volume biography is absolutely essential not only for its information about Nabokov’s life but about his life’s relation to his art.Dembo, L. S., ed. Nabokov: The Man and His Work. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1967. This early collection of articles on Nabokov introduced many of the ideas that later critics would continue to discuss. Excellent article by John O. Lyons on Pale Fire.Rampton, David. Vladimir Nabokov: A Critical Study of the Novels. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984. Although Rampton limits his discussion to a few novels, his concentration upon content is a good antidote to the many formal approaches to Nabokov.Roth, Phyllis A., ed. Critical Essays on Vladimir Nabokov. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984. Comprehensive, very helpful selection of articles on Nabokov. Pale Fire is treated in several of the essays.
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