Brief Interface with the Novel, including Sourcing Info on Zembla

Vladimir Nabokov wrote his superbly original Pale Fire novel primarily in Nice during 1960 and '61, and it was published by Putnam in April, 1962, achieving the bestseller list that summer (Boyd, 1996). It consists of three parts: a thirteen-page Foreword by one character, Charles Kinbote; the final Poem composed in four Cantos of heroic couplets (totaling 999 lines) by another character, John Shade, before he is mistakenly assassinated by a third character, Jakob Gradus; and Dr. Kinbote's 173-page Commentary, which is keyed to lines in the poem. Should a perspicacious reader be wondering what completes the couplet of line 999 ending in "lane," Nabokov intended that it urge us back to line 1:

I was the shadow of the waxwing slain.

This postmodern novel revolves (See O. Pamuk's discussion concerning finding the "center" of a novel, 2010) around a conceit, that Shade's chanson "Pale Fire" unconsciously runs the concurrent course of a plot to assassinate the deposed and escaped monarch of "a distant northern land" called Zembla. Kinbote is that former monarch using a disguised identity (or in some readers' interpretations, an insane visiting professor who believes he is a deposed monarch from Zembla). His Foreword reveals his supercilious ego, and while his thesis of the concurrency is not explicitly stated, his Commentary abundantly amasses purported Zemblan references in the text and parallels between the poem's composition over twenty-one days and the journey of Gradus via Copenhagen, Paris, Geneva, etc. to carry out the assassination plot. This structural conceit allowed Nabokov to craft a marvelously humorous farce concerning literary interpretation, which in effect embellishes his own masterpiece of verse. That proved to be one way to move a long poem into the ranks of bestsellers.

At first, I figured Zembla was simply a renaming of Martin and Sonia's imaginary Zoorland in Nabokov's Glory. When I came across a reference to "Nova Zembla" in Sterne's The Life and Opinions of Tristam Shandy (first pub. c.1761, vol. III, chp. 20) I was onto something, because Boyd failed to include Zembla in his "Notes" for the Library of America's edition of Vladimir Nabokov: novels 1955-1962. Turns out, Dutch seamen called the pair of islands (90650 sq. kilometres) in Barents Sea north of the Ural Mountains "Nova Zembla," which the Russians called Novaya Zemlya. There is also a small, uninhabited island called Nova Zembla off the northeastern coast of Baffin Island, Canada. Nabokov dropped the "Nova" and adjusted the geography in the novel to be an autonomous peninsular kingdom.


  • Nabokov, Vladimir. (1962). Pale fire, reprinted in Vladimir Nabokov: novels 1955-1962 (1996), includes "Chronology" & "Notes" by Brian Boyd. NY: Library of America.
  • Pamuk, Orhan. (2010). The naive and the sentimental novelist (translated fr. Turkish by Nazim Dikbas). Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.
  • Sterne, Laurence. (1967 reprint). The life and opinions of Tristam Shandy. Hamondsworth, Middlesex, UK: Penguin.