A few brief notes on spacetime in Pale Fire

Submitted by Alain Champlain on Wed, 08/07/2019 - 01:42

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,”
(Lines 363-366)

“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.
(Lines 379-382)

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,”
(Lines 5-8)

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;”
(Lines 977-982)

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.”
(Lines 987-988)

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.”
(Lines 120-121)

Notice how quickly Shade switches from time to space:

"[...] the year I married you.
Where are you?”
(Lines 988-989)

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,



I see you have already dispensed with the "phoney hyphen" between Space and Time as Van Veen remarks in the Texture of Time. That's an interesting way of looking at things. If nothing else, this "neat symmetry" that you note gives credence to John Shade's sense of "subtle harmonic balance" and to the poem's "symmetry of the structure, with its two identical central parts, solid and ample, forming together with the shorter flanks, twin wings of five hundred verses".

The contrast between temporal and spatial projections definitely seem to be premeditated and intentional. However, Canto IV (apart from what you point out) does recapitulate the First Canto, one is almost tempted to say, in a different key. To take another example of this "reprise":

"Season, midsummer. I once overheard.
Myself awakening while half of me
Still slept in bed. I tore my spirit free,
And caught up with myself - upon the lawn
Where clover leaves cupped the topaz of dawn,
And where Shade stood in nightshirt and one shoe.
And then I realized that this half too
Was fast asleep; both laughed and I awoke
Safe in my bed as day its eggshell broke,
And robins walked and stopped, and on the damp
Gemmed turf a brown shoe lay! My secret stamp,
The Shade impress, the mystery inborn.
Mirages, miracles, midsummer morn."  (lns. 874-886)

with the eggshell referring back to the "collector of cold nests" (Canto One); brown shoe to "shoes" of line no. 28. Of course, this dream is yet another example of Shade doubling himself.

The Gingko Press edition of Pale Fire, which discusses the merits and values of the poem solely, seems to me an attractive proposition in this regard. That is to see more of patterns and techniques built into the poem. Haven't got hold of this yet.



You posting is far from redundant.

Not every reader is up on every work of Nabokov's. Some focus on just a few works and may or may not delve deeply into Pale Fire.

For myself, I lay no claim to expertness on PF. I only taught the poem once to high schoolers and, as you can imagine, they had trouble with it. But it was a good experience for them to engage with an author who has a command of language.

Some of your points and questions I brought up in a separate post, which you might enjoy reading. Wasn't planning on doing this in a creative vein, but when She knocks, it's best to open the door. Wrote a poem à la VN's poem in question called: An Arrant Thief.


Jim Buckingham

Well! It’s about time that this web space got some action!


Back to Alain’s post: To my (admittedly limited) knowledge, your points have not been discussed previously, except perhaps the “windowpane” into/outro, although I can’t specify anything about that. Perhaps it’s my own awareness that makes it seem familiar. Otherwise your remarks seem reflective of VN's space/time (no hyphen) continued interest and contrapuntal, symetrical and circular patterns.


I am intrigued about the “twice removed” quote. I would not have thought anything of it except, as you point out, for K’s mention of John & Sybil Shade’s shared ancestry. It is not so much the space/time angle but it made me wonder WHY Nabokov would have included this genealogy connection.


I thought it might be a clue to a connection between the poem and commentary. Both give genealogic information for both S and K.  I thought maybe the John & Sybil relations might be reflected in K & Disa’s relationship. However, I can’t figure out what that connection might be. 


I also thought it might tie in with the abundant associations of alchemy in PF, especially alchemy’s prime dictum of the coniunctio, or “sacred marriage” between the “King” and “Queen.” Sometimes the King and Queen were called “Brother” and “Sister.” Sometimes these were depicted as two halves of a hermaphrodite. However, “First cousins, twice removed” does not quite have the same incestuous or oppositional suggestion.


And yet, there seems to be no gratuitous remarks in PF, so what does this mean?