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  • Playing a Game of Worlds in Nabokov's Pale Fire
  • Martine Hennard (bio)


Forcing, adjusting, abbreviating, omitting, padding, inventing, falsifying, and whatever else is of the essence of interpreting.

—Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals

To begin with a quote from "On the Genealogy of Morals" (III, 24) in a mock-imitation of Kinbote's presumptuous display of learning is a way of putting the argument of this piece into play, since Nabokov's rhetorical strategy inevitably condemns the reader to pale or paltry mimicry. Whatever ploys the commentator may deploy, the devices of her discourse are necessarily imitative, derivative, derisory: any posture becomes imposture (pseudo-scholarly, pseudoliterary, pseudo-apologetic). Leading the critic from the track of meaning to the turn of its tricks, the emblem (see Index) of Pale Fire may well turn out to be double-talk in a story of double-crossing. [End Page 299]

This suspect supplement (impossible and necessary, yet always already inadequate according to the rules of the Nabokovian game) will suggest that Pale Fire problematizes the distinction between critical and creative writing. Since the question of interpretation posed by the novel is enmeshed in a radical rethinking of the notion of identity, I shall address the related issues of subjectivity, subjectmatter and subjection in and through writing by taking the figure of the exile as a metaphor for the subject in Pale Fire.1 As my (ab)use of a specific theoretical lexicon shows, my account of the emergence of the critic as creator draws on Derrida's notions of play and différance, while my discussion of Kinbote's articulation and dissemination of identity in the writing process will be loosely based on Kristeva's semiotic treatment of the self. Derrida and Kristeva share with Nabokov an interest in the creative and disruptive potential of displacement which enables them to articulate a critique of traditional modes of thinking from a borderline position.2Pale Fire refracts related concerns in the fictional mode by shattering oppositions such as self versus other, reason versus madness, reality versus imagination, creative versus critical writing. The novel can also be viewed as addressing a problem of periodization and categorization: located on the frontier "in-between" the modernist and postmodernist movements, Pale Fire questions the literary historian's drive to distinguish them as separate modes of writing. In its superposition of a poem in heroic couplets and a mock-heroic fantasy masquerading as commentary, it may however suggest that postmodernism differs from modernism by inscribing the postal supplement which reveals (and revels in the recognition) that meaning never arrives except as a distorted, misread message. Traveling through these reflections, the exile will be my joker, appearing at various textual levels and replayed in each section of running notes under a different (dis)guise. As Kinbote would have it, to indulge in "an execrable pun" (176), "exile becomes a bad habit" (229).

Pale Fire brilliantly dramatizes the Derridean "infinite drift of meaning" whereby a text, once cut off from its originating source and circumstances, becomes prey to a paranoid scholar and his far-fetched (as far as Zembla) interpretation. As a consequence, the interaction between Shade's poem and Kinbote's commentary can be viewed (that is, interpreted in its turn) as an allegory of reading: no longer authorized, meaning ceases to be original, definite and definitive, and starts "wandering." In other words, language is shown to exceed an intended meaning irretrievably lost as soon as materialized in discourse—a tenet crucial to much post-structuralist [End Page 300] theory. To translate this idea into current academic code words (see note to I. 469), Pale Fire forecloses the possibility of a transcendental signified (be it validated by the author or inherent to language) and its differential freeplay of meaning questions metaphysical categories such us presence, essence and truth. Kinbote's reading thus exemplifies in a parodic form the elusive nature and ambivalent status of any creative or interpretive activity, which of course constitute writing's very conditions of possibility.

The signification of Nabokov's allegory remains fundamentally ambiguous, however, insofar as Kinbote's presence turns out to be fatal to the poet, while his critical liberty reduces Shade...