The King of Zembla, the King of Spain, and the Search for “Reality” in Nabokov’s Pale Fire

That Nabokov’s fiction presents the reader with a myriad of puzzles is a commonplace of Nabokov criticism. Solutions to such puzzles do exist in some cases, but in others the author deliberately crafts a permanent mystery instead of presenting a certain, if obscured, resolution. Concealed by the unreliable narration born of madness, Charles Kinbote of Pale Fire constitutes one such “permanent mystery.” One of Nabokov’s most beloved forbears, Nikolaj Gogol′, offers insight on the particular nature of the mystery of Pale Fire and simultaneously elucidates the nature of permanent narrative mystery in Nabokov. Specifically, viewing Kinbote through the lens of Gogol′’s Popriščin—to read the King of Zembla informed by the precedent of the King of Spain—first offers strong evidence for one possible reading of events in Pale Fire: that all events outside of Kinbote’s relationship with John Shade in fact occur in an asylum. More important, however, are the contrasts in narration between the two works; the juxtaposition of the knowable reality of “Notes of a Madman” to the obscured truth behind Kinbote’s delusional tale ultimately demonstrates the unsolvable nature of the fabula of Pale Fire.

To discuss Pale Fire requires that one make certain assumptions, which in themselves are leaps of a reader’s faith. For the purposes of the present study, we shall assume that Kinbote is indeed mentally deranged and that the novel occurs in “our” world, that is, that Nabokov has not created a fictive geography and globe that includes the nation of Zembla. Given these assumptions, one notes a strong similarity in the psychopathology of Kinbote and that of Popriščin: acute paranoia, absurd megalomaniacal delusion, and a sharply distorted perception of reality. Such similar states of mind suggest that Kinbote may well exist in a similar reality to that gleaned through Popriščin’s narration. The king’s castle, the palace coup, and the flight from Zembla are viably read much as we read the torture of the King of Spain, but instead of the mustard plasters, we infer the realia of an asylum, pursuit by interns, and the escape of an institutionalized psychotic.

In the comparative reading with Gogol′, as we move from events of plot to the matter of narration, we find that Nabokov departs from Gogol′ in that the former forgoes any anchoring points on which the reader might base a clear version of events. Narrative unreliability and madness have a rich history in prose, and often, perhaps typically, the author provides sufficient “objective” cues to the reader, such that the reader progressively obtains the means for determining a reliable version of events. Such is the case in a number of Poe’s mad narrators, for example, and in these instances, the reader’s perception of the deviation between reality and the protagonist’s view of reality becomes part of the orchestration of the literary work. Nabokov, however, does not grant his reader any firm grip on the reality lurking beneath the surface of Kinbote’s narrative, and even the most fundamental assertions regarding plot events could potentially be subject to doubt. In Popriščin’s tale we never doubt that we possess some reasonably complete version of “real” events; but with Nabokov, we find ourselves fluctuating between certitude that an actual event lies behind a narrated event (Shade and Oleg, for example), and perplexity over events that seem the product of pure fantasy. Ultimately, the comparative reading demonstrates the truism of Kinbote’s “basic fact” of aesthetics: “That ‘reality’ is neither the subject nor the object of true art which creates its own special reality having nothing to do with the average ‘reality’ perceived by the communal eye.”