Robert Fulford's column about Nabokov's Pale Fire: The Magic of Artistic Discovery

(The National Post, March 14, 2000)

Vladimir Nabokov, one of the wonders of 20th-century civilization, hated seeing "simple" used as a compliment. "Sincerity" was another word that made him shudder. When he was teaching at Wellesley College and later Cornell University, he gave a low mark to any student who said something like "Flaubert writes with a style which is always simple and sincere." To Nabokov, any appearance of simplicity or sincerity (even in Flaubert) was for sure deceptive; nothing was ever as obvious as it seemed.

He celebrated the unpredictable complexities of everything from the wing patterns of butterflies (which he collected with the dedication of a born scientist) to the motives lying behind human love. He looked for unexpected meanings in even the most banal details of life, and the test questions he set for his students were notoriously eccentric: Describe Emma Bovary's hairdo; What sort of paper covered the walls of Anna Karenina's bedroom? If he believed in a divinity, his god was subtle, endlessly inventive, perhaps a little sly.

When he died in 1977 he left behind a shelf of masterpieces, some of them written first in Russian, some in English, none of them simple. He thought "the unravelling of a riddle is the purest and most basic act of the human mind." He probably would have enjoyed one of the most remarkable academic books of this season, Nabokov's Pale Fire: The Magic of Artistic Discovery (Princeton) by Brian Boyd, an attempt to unravel the riddles Nabokov embedded in Pale Fire.

When that novel appeared in 1962, reviewers said correctly that it could be enjoyed without immediate puzzlement, but that it obviously hid many levels of complexity. Mary McCarthy, in a famous article, called it "a jack-in-the-box, a Fabergé gem, a clockwork toy, a chess problem, an infernal machine, a trap to catch reviewers ..." She also thought it a thing of perfect beauty, symmetry, strangeness, originality and moral truth. Ever since, critics have been sorting out its beauties, its truths and its puzzles.

Like all the best mysteries, Pale Fire begins with a murder. In a town resembling Ithaca, N.Y., at a university resembling Cornell, a teacher and Robert-Frost-like poet named John Shade has been shot dead. He had written 999 lines of a poem about the death of his daughter, and the poem appears at the start of the book. After that, the story is told by Charles Kinbote, a neighbour and friend of Shade's, whose 200-page commentary on the poem both reveals and hides the events surrounding it.

Kinbote turns out to be a chronically unreliable narrator: He tells us that he's in fact Charles the Beloved, King of Zembla, where he ruled until revolutionaries forced him into exile. He also tells us that the killer of Shade was an assassin from the revolutionary government who mistakenly killed Shade while on a mission to eliminate Kinbote.

Even on first reading, we understand that Nabokov is playing an elaborate literary game. Kinbote is mad, and his efforts to interpret Shade's poem as a commentary on Zemblan events (which Shade doesn't even mention) can be seen as a satire of imaginative academics.

But clues scattered through the book point to other explanations. McCarthy decided the "real" author of the commentary was another Zemblan who is barely mentioned, V. Botkin. There are those who believe that Nabokov was saying John Shade didn't die but wrote the commentary under the pseudonym of Kinbote as a way of disappearing.

Boyd now interprets Nabokov's intentions in another way: Both poem and commentary were inspired from beyond the grave by Shade's daughter Hazel. Boyd also believes that much of the book was inspired by Shakespeare's treatment of ghosts.

Among other things, Nabokov's Pale Fire: The Magic of Artistic Discovery is a monument to a brilliant scholar's persistent love affair with a book and its author. Boyd, professor of English at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, has been living with Pale Fire for more than three decades. He found it fascinating when he read it in high school in the 1960s, and at college in 1970 he wrote a freshman English essay on its mysteries. In 1974 he wrote his MA thesis about it. Five years later he made another Nabokov novel, Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle, the subject of his PhD thesis. He had found his specialty, and his passion.

In 1990 and 1991 he brought out his two-volume biography, Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years and Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years. That magnificent work, written with scrupulous care and a sympathetic imagination, established him as the world's leading authority, the prince of Nabokovians. It also revealed him as one of the great biographers of the day; it's hard to think of another literary figure of recent times who has been treated as expertly and thoroughly as Boyd has treated Nabokov.

We might have guessed that after decades of immersion, Boyd would have been glad finally to release himself from Nabokov's influence -- and he does in fact have underway a biography of a quite different figure, Karl Popper, the great philosopher of science.

Nevertheless, Pale Fire has remained central to Boyd's thinking, and he realized a few years ago that he had more to say about it. Partly this was due to the Internet, which has affected literary scholarship as much as it has affected everything else. Boyd found himself asked to discuss Pale Fire on the Electronic Nabokov Discussion Forum, among other sites, and in doing so discovered that his own views were changing. Those changes are at the heart of his exuberant new work, and even if we decline to embrace all of his theories, we can only admire the scrupulous and intelligent mind that has formulated them.

Boyd does not disdain eccentric flights of imagination. He's unafraid of being thought obsessive. There was always a sweet kind of madness in Nabokov, and apparently Boyd absorbed it into his own intellectual bloodstream, as if it were an unusually pleasant virus.

Today, at age 48, he's that rarity, a scholar who metaphorically married his childhood sweetheart and then discovered, as the years passed, that while she remained just as attractive as she was when he first laid eyes on her, she has continued to grow steadily more fascinating -- and not the least bit simple.

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