One of the highlights of new releases in poetry this fall is a long poem by John Shade that begins with the remarkable line “I was the shadow of the waxwing slain.” It’s all the more remarkable because John Shade does not exist.
Shade is a creation of Vladimir Nabokov, and his 999-line poem is the start of Nabokov’s 1962 novel Pale Fire. Shade has (in the novel) died, and the balance of Pale Fire is taken up with commentary on the poem by his friend, Charles Kinbote. But Kinbote is obviously off his rocker, and he has something to get off his chest. Did he murder John Shade? Is he John Shade? Nabokov scholars have spent almost 50 years debating the fictional relationship. An author never had more fun playing with his audience.
Now, Slate reports that the small poetry press Gingko is publishing the fictional poem (also called “Pale Fire”) –- that is, about one-quarter of Pale Fire -- under the name John Shade. This with the blessing of Nabokov’s son, Dmitri, who caused a stir last year with the posthumous release of his father’s novel The Original of Laura, which Vladimir had ordered to be incinerated.
This edition of “Pale Fire” –- the poem –- will include commentary from a Nabokov scholar, Brian Boyd. Take a moment to appreciate the meta-mess: Nabokov’s Pale Fire is about a completely deranged attempt at interpreting a poem. Now, a real scholar will interpret that same poem. It’s as though Nabokov had the whole thing planned all along.