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PALE FIRE AND SHERLOCK HOLMES Paul R. Jackson Temple University Most commentators on Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire have noted the importance of the bird reference with which John Shade's poem opens. With an image that presumably was to be repeated at the poem's close, Shade refers to himself as "the shadow of the waxwing slain/ By the false azure in the windowpane," a central mirror metaphor introducing at once the theme of resemblances that dominates the book.1 Shade becomes the punning but living shadow of the dead bird; the poem moves quickly to the questions of art and reality, life and death with which the book deals; and the poet can immediately point to continued life as he announces paradoxically: "And I/ Lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky" (p. 33). While critical opinion may differ on the precise nature of Shade's life after death—he is generally seen as either living on in the notes Kinbote supplies or as the author of his own story and therefore of his own pretended and unreal death—Pale Fire makes sense only in terms of the survival of the imaginative moment Shade's poem introduces. Shade must, somehow, live on. Less commented upon than the waxwing, however, is a second bird that soon enters the poem, a further example of what Kinbote pointedly calls "all those amusing birds" (p. 13). As Shade in the poem stands contemplating the falling snow on the other side of the windowpane , he describes the landscape first "as night unites the viewer and the view" and then as morning brings its "amazement" (p. 33). The morning surprise is a track left by a second bird, a revelation that leads to poetic questioning: Whose spurred feet have crossed From left to right the blank page of the road? Reading from left to right in winter's code: A dot, an arrow pointing back; repeat: Dot, arrow pointing back. . . A pheasant's feetl Torquated beauty, sublimated grouse, Finding your China right behind my house. Was he in Sherlock Holmes, the fellow whose Tracks pointed back when he reversed his shoes? (p. 33). Reading a road as if it were a book is a literary game indeed, and arrows pointing back, repetitions of reversed direction, pheasants as sublimated grouse, and Chinas becoming Americas all suggest the 102Notes resemblances that merge the opposites and provide the affirmation solidly at the base of Pale Fire.2 Kinbote, as untrustworthy an editor here as elsewhere, correctly identifies Holmes but is unsure of the story. Holmes is "a hawk-nosed, lanky, rather likable detective, the main character in various stories by Conan Doyle." But of the story itself, he pleads the same lack of reference material that obscures the central quotation from Timon of Athens that gives the novel its title and central image. Referring to the Holmes stories, Kinbote says only: "I have no means to ascertain at the present time which of these is referred to here but suspect that our poet simply made up this Case of the Reversed Footprints" (p. 78). Kinbote is partly right; there is no case in the Holmes canon solved by the detective reversing his shoes. But Holmes lurks here around the page's corner nevertheless, and correct recollection points the way ultimately to Shade's continued existence beyond the construct of the poem itself. The tracks of Sherlock Holmes, a childhood enthusiasm, can be followed throughout Nabokov's work.3 Chess player Luzhin of The Defense retains memories of Holmes "endowing logic with the glamour of a daydream, Sherlock composing a monograph on the ash of all known sorts of cigars and with this ash as with a talisman progressing through a crystal labyrinth of possible deductions to the one radiant conclusion," memories so intense twenty years later that reading Holmes again was only to experience a "dryish paraphrase, an abridged edition. . . ."* An "omnibus edition of Sherlock Holmes" follows Pnin's narrator for years,5 while the narrator of The Real Life of Sebastian Knight resorts to "an old Sherlock Holmes stratagem."6 Shirley Holmes of Lolita's Camp Q points to mystery,7 and Hermann Hermann of Despair...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2158-5806
Print ISSN
0091-8083
Pages
pp. 101-105
Launched on MUSE
2014-10-01
Open Access
No
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