During a recent journey to Renfrew and back with my girlfriend, among the many talks we had, I mentioned a truly remarkable book, Pale Fire, which was written by the author of Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov. The book and the poem within the book are replete with double and triple meanings. Pale Fire is no doubt a masterpiece of metafiction!
In the book, the fictional author, John Shade, has written a long poem that begins:
“I was the shadow of the waxwing slain
by the false azure in the windowpane;
I was the smudge of ashen fluff – and I
lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky.”
The autobiographical poem goes on like this for a total of 999 lines, but curiously, the seemingly absent 1000th line could well be the very first line of the poem, both in rhyme and in meaning, because John Shade’s identity is confused by a political assassin and Shade is mistakenly murdered!
Who edits and annotates Shade’s last work for publication? The very man who was the intended target of the assassin, Shade’s neighbour, Kinbote! And just as the moon, which only reflects the light of the sun, Kinbote (the moon) does his level best to make Shade’s poem all about himself, Kinbote, and oddly, though Kinbote can be seen to be wrong, he is not entirely wrong! Without Kinbote’s presence in Shade’s life, Shade would not have been slain. Also, as Shade says in his poem, “I was the shadow of the waxwing slain…” The waxwing, a regal-looking bird of relatively bright plumage, not unlike Shade’s neighbour, Kinbote, the flamboyant, but incognito, former King of Zembla.
Lines 997 – 999 begin to predict the coming assassination:
“A man, unheedful of the butterfly
Some neighbour’s gardener – I guess – goes by,
Trundling an empty barrow up the lane.”
We have only to re-read line one of Shade’s poem to complete a 1000-line masterpiece of poetic writing – “I was the shadow of the waxwing slain”.
Wikipedia has a complete descriptive analysis of Pale Fire. Within that Wikipedia entry is the following explanation of the title of the book, but even that, I have further annotated to add depth and understanding of just how completely masterful this work is.
“As Nabokov pointed out himself, the title of John Shade’s poem is from Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens: “The moon’s an arrant thief, / And her pale fire she snatches from the sun” (Act IV, scene 3), a line often taken as a metaphor about creativity and inspiration.” (*But it is also about Kinbote’s usurpation of fame, wisdom, and ability that he derives mainly from John Shade’s creativity, just as the moon derives its light from the sun.) “Kinbote quotes the passage but does not recognize it, as he says he has access only to an inaccurate Zemblan translation of the play ‘in his Timonian cave’, and in a separate note he even rails against the common practice of using quotations as titles.”
“The title is first mentioned in the foreword: ‘I recall seeing him from my porch, on a brilliant morning, burning a whole stack of them [papers] in the pale fire of the incinerator…’.” (*Which also relates to how an author’s entire, unpublished, creative output is often incinerated, either literally or figuratively, by accident or intention, just as the author’s remains and all his personal memories are often returned to ashen dust.)
Sad as such eventuality might seem, I submit that impermanence is the way of all life. Yet there is a melancholy beauty in impermanence, which we can recognize if only we can allow ourselves to accept that it cannot be otherwise.
I found the book Pale Fire to be worth reading more than once. It would be especially appealing, I think, to persnickety academics who have taken actual enjoyment from examining and cross-referencing footnotes for complete understandings. But one can also just read the poem and leave the more involved complexity of relating poem to annotation and interpreting both for another time. The poem is remarkable unto itself!