There are a few bits of Pale Fire which I haven’t seen mentioned in the forums, and I’m never sure whether this is because they’re so obvious as to not need comment, or because they’ve not been broadly understood (or maybe we completely disagree). At the risk of stating the obvious, here are a few brief notes.
The confounding of space and time is a recurring theme in Nabokov’s work, starting at least as early as Mary, where consecutive rooms are identified with consecutive dates:
“Along each side were three rooms, numbered with large black figures stuck onto the doors. These were simply leaves torn off a year-old calendar—the first six days of April, 1923.”
(Mary, Chapter two)
In Pale Fire, the passage from Mary is renovated, with generations taking the place of calendar dates:
“Sometimes I’d help her with a Latin text,
Or she’d be reading in her bedroom, next
To my fluorescent lair, and you would be
In your own study, twice removed from me,”
“Twice removed” is a genealogical term, referring to a difference in generations (e.g. my mother’s first cousin is my first cousin once removed; my grandmother’s first cousin is my first cousin twice removed).
A few lines down, we get an echo of the theme, with art taking the place of ancestry:
“[…] the point is that the three
Chambers, then bound by you and her and me,
Now form a tryptich [sic?] or a three-act play
In which portrayed events forever stay.
Here, the three rooms can be transformed into art either spatially (in a painting) or temporally (in a play).
Backtracking for a moment, the (maybe) less obvious part of the “twice removed” joke comes when we encounter Kinbote’s note on Sybil:
“John Shade’s wife [...] was a few months his senior. I understand she came of Canadian stock, as did Shade’s maternal grandmother (a first cousin of Sybil’s grandfather, if I am not greatly mistaken).”
(From note to line 247)
This would make John's grandmother Sybil's first cousin, twice removed (if Kinbote is not greatly mistaken).
There are many instances (too many to list here) of the spacetime theme in Pale Fire, but a big one I’ve never seen commented upon (and now I’m really in danger of stating the obvious) is this:
The end of the poem is symmetrical to the beginning, but with time taking the place of space.
I’m sure you know these lines by heart now, but here they are for comparison’s sake:
“And from the inside, too, I’d duplicate
Myself, my lamp, an apple on a plate:
Uncurtaining the night, I’d let dark glass
Hang all the furniture above the grass,”
The intro gives us a spatial projection (Shade as a boy, projecting himself, through his window, from inside to outside); the outro gives us a temporal projection (John as an old man, projecting himself into the imagined future).
“I’m reasonably sure that we survive
And that my darling somewhere is alive,
As I am reasonably sure that I
Shall wake at six tomorrow, on July
The twenty-second, nineteen fifty-nine,
And that the day will probably be fine;”
The window in the outro is “Old [note the time adjective] Dr. Sutton’s last two windowpanes.” (Line 986)
“The man must be—what? Eighty? Eighty-two?
Was twice my age the year I married you.”
Dr. Sutton’s earlier reference comes with its own time-based riddle:
“A thousand years ago five minutes were
Equal to forty ounces of fine sand.”
Notice how quickly Shade switches from time to space:
"[...] the year I married you.
Where are you?”
And then of course there’s the man “trundling an empty barrow” (Line 999) who evokes, as has been noted, the earlier “tin wheelbarrow pushed by a tin boy” (Line144), at which point Shade “felt distributed through space and time” (Line 148).
I should probably cut this list short, but let me know whether these notes are common knowledge or perhaps just plain wrong: I’ve been surprised before.
Thanks in advance,