Unfinished business

by Kelvin Smith

Charles Kinbote, opinionated editor of John Shade’s final and longest poem, “Pale Fire”, distrusts publishers and editors immensely. Having stolen the manuscript of Shade’s unfinished poem from the recently widowed Sybil Shade, Kinbote believes he is the sole gatekeeper and interpreter of the poem. Of course, this is only so he can ensure that his narrative can be sneaked into his notes of the poem.

Despite this mistrust of publishers, Kinbote constantly offers small hints in his commentary that he remains dependent on their help. This is no more apparent than in the Foreword, where three lines reveal the extent of his dependence: “I alone am responsible for any mistakes in my commentary. Insert before a professional. A professional proofreader has carefully rechecked the printed text of the poem […] that has been all in the way of outside assistance” The note in italics demonstrates that while Kinbote wants to present himself above editorial intervention, his desire—and subsequent inaction—to acquire professional help has resulted in compromising the quality of his manuscript.

This proofreading failure is just one of Kinbote’s many editorial blunders in a novel that plays with the complex interdependence and required trust between author, editor and publisher.

Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire, 1962

(Guest Post by Simon Rowberry)