Pale Fire: Novel Summary: Foreword
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Charles Kinbote is a friend of the late poet, John Shade. Shade's widow, Sybil, signed over the right to publish and comment upon the poet's last poem to Kinbote right after her husband's death. The terms were fair, giving her all financial remuneration, yet Kinbote retains complete control over the publication of the final poem. Other scholars have tried to get their hands on the poem, and Sybil wants Kinbote to include their help, but he is very protective of his control over the poem and refuses to let anyone else be part of this work. In this Foreword, he introduces the publication, which includes the poem, his commentary, and an index.
Kinbote actually spends little time introducing the poem in the Foreword. He does explain the poet's method of composition on little notecards, giving a precise description of how many lines are on each card or in each canto. He also gives a clear description of the physical appearance of these cards, most of which are fair copy. Only the cards composed on the day of Shade's death contain messy edits, and some of the draft cards are extant. By using very specific details, Kinbote defends his version of the poem as the complete text against other scholars who claim it is incomplete.
The rest of the Foreword is spent describing his friendship with John Shade and the snubs he received from the faculty at Wordsmith College, where both men taught. The friendship, he explains, was only a few months in duration, but it was very strong. He knows that Shade would have requested his insight on the poem had he lived. When he first moved into the area, Kinbote was excited to realize he was living next door to the famous poet, whose work he had translated into his native Zemblan two decades before. He went out of his way to make the acquaintance of the poet and often watched Shade's house out of his windows. People at the College and in the community became jealous of this relationship, making snide comments and calling Kinbote "insane."
Kinbote is now living in hiding because of the furor after Shade's death, during which everyone wanted a piece of the final document. He is in a motel where it is difficult to concentrate, yet he perseveres in commenting upon his friend's final work.
The Foreword gives the reader a sense of Kinbote's personality. He is clearly narcissistic. In a text that is supposedly about Shade's poem, he spends a lot of time writing about himself. He is also extremely defensive about his interpretation being correct and about his relationship with Shade. There are also hints that he is unstable. While he is giving a detailed account of the structure of the poem, he interrupts himself to complain about the noise outside, and he freely admits to peeping in on the Shades through their windows. His interpretation of people is not as lucid as one would like in a commentator. For example, he inappropriately goes into detail about how disgusting it is to let another person prepare his food while at a luncheon, and then he claims, "My free and simple demeanor set everybody at ease" (21). He alienates people with his instability and narcissism, but he does not understand their responses to him and is defensive about that. These facts are important to keep in mind while reading the text.
There are a few moments in this Foreword that harbinger things to come. There is some confusion, which will continue throughout. In the second paragraph, he claims that Canto Two is "your favorite" (13), but it is not clear to whom that pronoun refers. In addition, there are some quotes worth keeping in mind, as they reflect strikingly on later moments in the text. For example, Kinbote calls typographical errors in the text "trivial misprints" (18), which is significant in the poem when Shade has his vision of eternity shattered by a misprint. Kinbote's whitewashing of his relationship with the Shades is first indicated when he assumes they did not see him as he rushed over to introduce himself to them and they almost ran him over. If they did not see him, one wonders why they drove off with "John at the wheel strenuously grimacing and Sybil fiercely talking to him" (20). Finally, Kinbote is insistent that his interpretation is more valuable than the poem itself, as "it is the commentator who has the last word" (29). This is worth keeping in mind when comparing the poem with the commentary.
Kinbote's advice on how to approach the text should be taken with a grain of salt. He writes, "Although those notes, in conformity with custom, come after the poem, the reader is advised to consult them first and then study the poem with their help, rereading them of course as he goes through its text, and perhaps, after having done with the poem, consulting them a third time so as to complete the picture" (28). On the one hand, the text certainly can be read this way, and, although it will alter the reader's approach to the text, it will make as much sense as the traditional method of reading. On the other hand, a commentator who suggests that the reader read the poem once and his notes three times does arouse some suspicion as to his motives.