restricted access Nabokov's Pale Fire: The Magic of Artistic Discovery (review)
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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 49.2 (2003) 374-375

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Brian Boyd. Nabokov's Pale Fire: The Magic of Artistic Discovery. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1999. xii + 303 pp.

Take the phrase from Nabokov's autobiography Speak Memory about "tender ghosts humoring a lucky mortal," grock on Nabokov's late-life revelation that he did indeed write his penultimate novel Transparent Things from the spectral dimension, and stir in a good dollop of that early story "The Vane Sisters" where characters in the beyond make their presence known by organizing an acrostic in the text. So armed, you are ready to accept—and I do—that Brian Boyd is absolutely correct that the "solution" (his word) to the great 1962 novel Pale Fire is to understand that Hazel Shade directs the Zemblan fantasies of Charles Kinbote and that her father, the poet John Shade (who joins her in the afterlife when he is accidentally murdered), adds a second narrative line about the assassin Jack Gradus to the dream world that Kinbote—like Hazel, like her father—constructs to escape the pain of this world, this "orbacle of jasp," in the words of the poem "Pale Fire" that Kinbote's commentary reads and misreads. Correct Boyd is, but also irritating.

The thesis of Boyd's study, that there is a "solution" to the puzzles of Pale Fire, comes from the maestro himself and his interest in creating chess problems with false solutions that lure the astute solver before he finds an easier answer. Boyd ends the book arguing with a reader's report in which Michael Wood complained—as this reviewer was on the verge of doing—about Boyd's misuse of the concept of solution. Whatever one thinks of Boyd's response, shouldn't he have incorporated the reader's suggestions into the text of the book instead of tacking something on to the end? The whole structure [End Page 374] of the book is annoying, in fact, because it insists that a reader go through a series of missteps in order to reach the grand solution about the spectral influence of Hazel and John Shade. But is not that gradual approach contradicted by Nabokov's own theory that only the re-reader can fully appreciate a novel? We are busy people. Not many can wile away the hours in graduate school trying to construct a grammar of Zemblan. Give the public the solution it wants; then let us reread. Why delay for a hundred pages? I admit there's a certain absurdity in recommending an annotated Pale Fire, but a great short essay might have been a better choice than a spiraling critical study (based on another famous comment by Nabokov).

Such an essay could be constructed, for example, from the amazing variations on the opening lines of "Pale Fire" that weave through Boyd's study. In a stunning omission, however, the index does not include references to the poem by line: only dedicated professionals may realize the amazing, continuous commentary that is dispersed on pages 25-26, 34, 152, 178, 179-86, 191, 205-07, 217, and 224. There is no single solution to the meaning of the opening image of the waxwing's shadow that flies on after the bird dies, but I can't imagine that there are many Boyd has overlooked. This book is not a triumph of literary theory. But it is a triumph of New Criticism: careful close reading with attention to sources (which like any method may be a source of excellence in the right hands). As Boyd shows, almost inadvertently, anyone in the last forty years could have solved the puzzle of Pale Fire, and some great minds applied themselves without success. Perhaps nothing is more irritating than that.


Charles Ross
Purdue University