Who's the Narrator of Nabokov's Pale Fire?

William C. Dowling

Rutgers University

Almost since the moment Nabokov's Pale Fire was published, readers have been engaged in a complex argument about who the "real" narrator of the story is.

The controversy among Nabokovians has separated into three possibilities: (1) The real narrator is the person corresponding to John Shade, who does not really die but composes a work in which he makes his own death an incident so that he can go on and compose a commentary to his own completed poem: "Man's life as commentary to abstruse / Unfinished poem." (2) The real narrator is the person corresponding to Kinbote (Botkin), who writes a poem and imagines the death of the poet so as to have an excuse to tell the story he is really interested in -- the magical tale of his lost kingdom of Zembla and his escape and exile. Or (3) there really are two narrators in Pale Fire, one corresponding to Shade, one to Kinbote.

In his brilliant book Nabokov's Pale Fire: The Magic of Artistic Discovery, Brian Boyd gives a complete review of these positions, with all the evidence and counter evidence, before presenting his own "two narrator" solution. I'm not going to repeat Boyd's summary here, but will simply refer you to his account of the various positions.

Nor will I attempt to recapitulate Boyd's "two narrator" solution. In brief, he thinks that, in a poem and commentary much concerned with the life of consciousness in "another realm" after physical death, that the ghosts of both Hazel Shade and John Shade exert pressure on the narrative at various points, sending "coded" messages that account for the resonances and reverberations between the poem and commentary.

So what's right? Who is the "real" narrator of Pale Fire.

Let me put my cards on the table. I think that John Shade and Kinbote are creations of a narrator resembling Vladimir Nabokov, and that this narrator "shows himself" at a certain crucial point in a way that cannot be denied.

But here's what I don't mean. I don't mean that the narrator corresponds in any sense to the "real" Vladimir Nabokov -- that is, the Russian emigre writer who today lies buried in a cemetary in Montreux, Switzerland.

Nabokov when he was alive believed in art as something like the ultimate reality. If he explicitly survived in his art as "Nabokov" -- as he does, for instance, as the narrator of the novel Pnin, where he appears as rather an unpleasant character -- it would have to be as a presence IN the story. Nabokov was doubtless familiar, for instance, with Proust's version of the same point in A la recherche du temps perdu, which he knew intimately:

A book is the product of a different self from the self we manifest in our habits and in our social life. It is taking things too easily to suppose that one fine morning the truth will arrive by post in the form of an unpublished letter submitted to us by a friend's librarian, or that we shall gather it from the lips of someone who saw a great deal of the author. In what way does the fact of having been a friend of Stendhal's make one better fitted to judge him? For those friends, the self which produced the novels was eclipsed by the other, which may have been very inferior to the outer selves of many other people.

That's what I think is happening in Pale Fire: the Nabokov-like narrator is telling the story as a voice that, if it survives, will have exactly the same status as John Shade and Kinbote.

What, then, about all those ghosts and voices and "communications from beyond"? I think the Nabokov-like narrator is saying something like this: "A work of art originates in the consciousness of a creator, but it does so in a manner of speaking 'from the outside' ." This is what the ancient invocation of the Muses was about. It is what John Shade goes through in parts of the poem Pale Fire. When the creator has finished a work of art, he's still present in the world, but there is this 'other him' that is caught forever in the words of the work that has come to birth through him."

The Sublime Relay Race

So you can read Pale Fire like this. There is are consciousnesses in the world that belong to literary geniuses like Shakespeare, Puskin, and Nabokov. But when the "real" Nabokov who escaped from Russia and came to the United States begins work on Pale Fire, his consciousness "passes into" John Shade and becomes, for the nonce, the American poet who writes Pale Fire. Then this same consciousness "passes into" Kinbote and becomes, for the nonce, the mad commentator of Pale Fire. Then, as this consciousness leaves Kinbote, it briefly shows itself as a "third consciousness" identical neither with Shade nor Kinbote.

The end of the "passing through" period -- what involves consciousness passing on and leaving the completed work behind -- is in each case represented as a death. For John Shade, it is getting killed by the bullet of an assassin. For Kinbote, it is when his commentary and notes begin, as he says, "petering out," and he realizes that he will have no more existence when the commentary is done. For the "third narrator," it is the spectre that briefly appears at the very end of the book -- "a bigger, more respectable, more competent Gradus" -- and shows that he is aware that an actual death lies ahead for him, as it does for all mortals.

The moment at which I see Shade "dying" and Kinbote coming into existence as a narrator is, therefore, the moment of Gradus's assassination attempt. What happens in terms of Kinbote's mad fantasy is that the Extremist assassin is aiming at him, the exiled King, and hits Shade by mistake. But watch carefully and you'll see the "transmigration of consciousness" from one narrator to the next as the manuscript of the poem Pale Fire passes from poet to commentator:

I instinctively backed, bellowing and spreading my great strong arms (with my left hand still holding the poem) in an effort to halt the advancing madman and shield John, whom I feared he might, quite accidentally, hit. . . . I felt -- I still feel -- John's hand fumbling at mine, seeking my fingertips, finding them, only to abandon them at once as if passing to me, in a sublime relay race, the baton of life.

Here is the evidence for my reading.


On the "naturalistic" level, the man who kills John Shade is just Jack Grey, an escaped lunatic from a local hospital for the criminally insane.

In Kinbote's exiled-king fantasy, Grey becomes "Gradus," a dull-witted assassin who is sent by the Extremist party to kill the exiled king of Zembla. In the Commentary, we get detailed accounts of Gradus -- his pursuit of Charles the Beloved, his travels, his search for clues, etc -- until he finally arrives on the campus of Wordsmith University. In Kinbote's mad fantasy, therefore, Gradus didn't mean to kill Shade. He is just a dullwitted bungler who, aiming at Charles II, the exiled King of Zembla, misses his aim and hits the American poet instead.

All that's fine, but there is one problem. Gradus doesn't start out by being a killer or assassin in any normal sense. What he IS is the "death" that occurs when, the consciousness of an artist having "passed into" a speaker or character inside a work of art, the work is completed and its creator is marooned outside it. Gradus is the moment at which the spirit of a creator is immortalized in a work of art and the poet or artist goes back temporarily to being just an ordinary human being. This is why Kinbote goes to such lengths to synchronize the approach of the "assassin" Gradus with the actual writing of the poem Pale Fire:

We shall accompany Gradus in constant thought, as he makes his way from distant dim Zembla to green Appalachia, through the entire length of the poem, following the road of its rhythm, riding past in a rhyme, skidding around the corner of a run-on, breathing with the caesura, swinging down to the foot of the page from line to line as from branch to branch, hiding between two words (see note to line 596), reappearing on the horizon of a new canto, steadily marching nearer in iambic motion, crossing streets, moving up with his valise on the escalator of the pentameter, stepping off, boarding a new train of thought, entering the hall of a hotel, putting out the bedlight, while Shade blots out a word, and falling asleep as the poet lays down his pen for the night.

Shade's "death," in short, is simply the moment at which the poem Pale Fire comes to an end (with one missing line, which would have been, as Kinbote observes, identical to the first line and a completion of an elaborately symmetrical 1000-line poem).

But why, then, can't the "real" narrator of Pale Fire be the person who corresponds to Kinbote, the mad commentator who survives Shade?

Here's why.

Access to a Good Library

The conclusive evidence that the narrator of Pale Fire can't be either Shade or Kinbote comes at the very end of the sequence that has him arriving in the United States. Being a dullwitted fellow, Gradus is at a loss about how to kill the time that he has to spend in New York before his plane leaves for the airport at Exton.

Gradus settles on a bench in Central Park and reads the New York Times. As always in Nabokov's fiction, a careful reader is given the exact day of the Times that Gradus is reading. Here is the passage. It's long, but it's also perhaps the most important in Pale Fire:

He began with the day's copy of The New York Times. His lips moving like wrestling worms, he read about all kinds of things. . . . The United States was about to launch its first atom-driven merchant ship (just to annoy the Ruskers, of course, J.G.) Last night in Newark, an apartment house at 555 South Street was hit by a thunderbolt that smashed a TV set and injured two people watching an actress lost in a violent studio storm (those tormented spirits are terrible! C.X.K. teste J.S.). The Rachel Jewelry Company in Brooklyn advertised in agate type for a jewelry polisher who "must have experience in costume jewelry" (oh, Degre had!). The Helman brothers said they had assisted in the negotiations for the placement of a sizable note: $11,000,000, Decker Glass Manufacturing Company, Inc., note due July 1, 1979, and Gradus, grown young again, reread this twice, with the background gray thought, perhaps, that he would be sixty-four four days after that (no comment). . . . A pro-Red revolt had erupted in Iraq. Asked about the Soviet exhibition at the New York Coliseum, Carl Sandburg, a poet, replied, and I quote, "They make their appeal on the highest of intellectual levels." A hack reviewer of new books for tourists, reviewing his own tour through Norway, said that the fjords were too famous to need (his) description, and that all Scandinavians loved flowers. And at a picnic for international children a Zemblan moppet cried to her Japanese friend: Ufgut, ufgut, velkam ut Semberland!" (Adieu, adieu, till we meet in Zembla!) I confess it has been a wonderful game--this looking up in the WUL of various ephemerides over the shadow of a padded shoulder.

The "I" of the final sentence is the narrator of Pale Fire. I'll explain in detail in a moment why this must be so, but let me make the logical argument clear: (1) "WUL" means "Wordsmith University Library," which means that the "I" of the final sentence must at this very moment be present in New Wye, Appalachia, the home of Wordsmith University; (2) John Shade cannot be present in New Wye because he is dead, and his poem, to which this is a commentary, is in the hands of Kinbote, writing away in a mountain cabin in distant Cedarn, Utana, and (3) Kinbote, of course, also can't be looking at old copies of the New York Times, because he is not only several thousand miles away, but does not have access to any library at all.

This last point is especially important. Throughout the commentary, Kinbote remarks again and again that he is working without access to reference books.

So, for instance, when Shade writes in the poem Pale Fire about his encounter with a certain "Mrs. Z," Kinbote goes out of his way to protest that he doesn't consider such merely "factual" matters part of his responsibility: "Anybody having access to a good library could, no doubt, easily trace that story to its source and find the name of the lady; but such humdrum potterings are beneath true scholarship."

In the Index, however, in the entry under "Kinbote, Charles, Dr.," there occurs a quite different account of this same omission: "his not being able, owing to some psychological block or the fear of a second G [Gradus], of traveling to a city only sixty or seventy miles distant, where he would certainly have found a good library, 747."

Kinbote's fear of a "second Gradus" is not unreasonable, because it is precisely someone with "access to a good library" who is in a position to identify the "I" who is looking over the padded shoulder of the imaginary Gradus as he reads a real New York Times in Central Park, and so to put an end to the imaginary reality in which Kinbote has dwelt since the moment of Shade's death.

Still, the careful inclusion of what should be ascertainable or public facts is always a sign in Nabokov's fiction that layers of reality are being peeled back to expose a more fundamental reality. In Nakokov's Pnin, for instance, the protagonist of the story solves the problem of the "relativity of time" in Tolstoi's Anna Karenina by linking certain events in the story to their corresponding newspaper accounts.

The New York Times Gradus is holding is that for Monday, July 20, 1959. A few minutes in the newspaper files of any major library very quickly turns up the various items about which he reads while sitting there on his bench in Central Park. Carl Sandburg appears, for instance, in an story entitled "Two Octogenarians Hail Soviet Fair--Both Sandburg and Steichen Pleased by Coliseum Show." "Of the Soviet exhibition, Mr. Sandburg said," says the Times reporter, "'They make their appeal on the highest of intellectual levels'." Another item is this: "Pro-Red Revolt Erupts in Iraq." On page 12 is a story ("30 Children Join Picnic of Nations") corresponding to Kinbote's "Zemblan" revoicing: "When the party ended the children shook hands and embraced. A Swedish girl told her Japanese friend: "Adjo, adjo, valcommen till Sverige!" Good-by, Good-by, welcome to Sweden!") The "hack reviewer" of Kinbote's account turns out to be Orville Prescott, who says, among other things that "Norway's fjords are too famous to need description" and "All Scandinavians love flowers." In the following day's Times, Kinbote's "Rachel Jewelry Company" corresponds to an actual ad by the Charel Jewelry Company in Brooklyn: "Jewelry polishers. Must have experience on costume jewelry. Charel Jewelry Co, 620 62 St. Bklyn." And so on.

In short, Gradus is imaginary -- we knew that -- but then Kinbote is also imaginary -- we may have suspected that -- and Shade is imaginary as well. The narrator of Pale Fire has been, all along, the "I" who at a crucial moment in the narrative ties his story to real or ascertainable events that then situate him in a university library in upstate New York, leafing through an actual New York Times for July 21, 1959.

The Narrator Unmasked

The details in the Gradus passage do not need a great deal of explanation. The parenthetical comments are all traceable to the "I" who here situates himself in the Wordsmith University Library, speaking in one or another of the voices he has created in the story to this point. Thus "J.G." reacts predictably to the story that the United States is launching an atomic-powered ship "just to annoy the Ruskers" because the Extremists for whom Jacob Gradus works are an extension and tool of the Soviet Union.

Thus, too, "C.X.K." (Charles Xavier Kinbote) sees the lightning that strikes the house in the Times story as belonging to tormented souls because he has, under the influence of a poem by John Shade, come to think of all forms of electricity as embodiments of the souls of the dead. The sentiment is witnessed or authenticated by John Shade ("teste, J.S.") because the original thought was expressed in his poem "The Nature of Electricity": "The dead, the gentle dead--who knows?--/In tungsten filaments abide, / And on my bedside table glows / Another man's departed bride. . . . /And when above the livid plain / Forked lightning plays, therein may dwell / The torments of a Tamerlane, / The roar of tryants torn in hell."

The slippage in narrative voice that begins as this narrator's "Kinbote personality" starts to dissolve is carefully prepared for in Pale Fire. Earlier in the story, in one of the passages in which Kinbote undergoes remorseful dreams for the pain he has caused his long-suffering wife Disa, he has seen himself cut off from her by a large anonymous audience:

He absolutely had to find her at once to tell her that he adored her, but the large audience before him separated him from the door, and the notes reaching him through a succession of hands said that she was not available; that she was inaugurating a fire; that she had married an American businessman; that she had become a character in a novel; that she was dead.

Disa has, of course, become a character in a novel (Pale Fire), and that is the fate that awaits Kinbote himself as his commentary draws to an end and the work goes out to a large anonymous public that neither Kinbote nor his creator will live to see. The picture that more and more confronts Kinbote is precisely that of a lecturer looking out at an auditorium, a speech to humanity that is also a speech into the void:

Well folks, I guess many in this fine hall are as hungry and thirsty as me, and I'd better stop, folks, right here. Yes, better stop. My notes and self are petering out. Gentlemen, I have suffered very much, and more than any of you can imagine. I pray for the Lord's benediction to rest on my wretched countrymen. My work is finished. My poet is dead.

There are many kinds of slippage in this short passage: the drop into an American idiom that Kinbote would never use, the equation of "notes" and "self," the hint that "his poet" has in a certain sense been kept alive by the transmigration that has allowed the same consciousness that once dwelt within the Shade of the poem Pale Fire to then dwell for a time within the consciousness of Kinbote. And what the slippage reveals is someone instantly recognizable to anyone familiar with the biography of Vladimir Nabokov. "What will you be doing with yourself, poor King, poor Kinbote?" a voice asks. The answer: "I shall continue to exist. I may assume other disguises, other forms, but I shall try to exist. I may turn up yet, on another campus, as an old, happy, healthy, heterosexual Russian, a writer in exile, sans fame, sans future, sans audience, sans anything but his art."

It is only at this point that the imagined audience of Pale Fire suddenly understands that it may ask the same question of this exiled Russian writer: "And you, poor narrator, what will you be doing with yourself?" The answer is clear-sighted and resolute: he will exist in his art, knowing, however, that such existence is limited by a final silencing of the voice that has transmigrated through Shade and Kinbote and the "I" who spends an afternoon in the newspaper archives of the Wordsmith University Library, who has assigned the name Gradus to the "death" that is the fate of a purely literary voice when its creator has moved on to dwell within another fictive consciousness: "Whatever happens, wherever the scene is laid, somebody, somewhere, will quietly set out--somebody has already set out, somebody still rather far away is buying a ticket, is boarding a bus, a ship, a plane, has landed . . . and presently he will ring at my door--a bigger, more respectable, more competent Gradus." This is the final silencing of the artistic voice, the death that is shared alike by literary genius and ordinary mortals.

That leaves untouched, of course, the "puzzle of consciousness" -- and, in particular, of consciousness as it may exist beyond physical death -- as Brian Boyd and others have addressed it as the central theme of Nabokov's writing. I will deal in another note on the solution to that problem that seems to me implicit in my own account of the narrator problem in Pale Fire.

Copyright (c) 2003 by William C. Dowling