Back when I wrote my post on Nabokov's unfinished novel, The Original of Laura, I confessed that I never read his Pale Fire. Since then I've rectified this omission; and as the novel mentions a fictitious kingdom called Zembla, I was also inspired to do some research on its real life equivalent. So here's my take on Pale Fire as well as what I discovered about the real Zembla.
Nabokov's Pale Fire
Pale Fire (published in 1962, after Lolita and before Ada) presents itself as a 999-line poem written by the Frostian, American poet John Shade and edited after the poet's death, with an introduction and copious endnotes, by his friend, neighbor and colleague at Wordsmith College, Charles Kinbote. The poem – which takes its title from a line in Shakespeare's Timon of Athens ("The moon's an arrant thief/ And her pale fire she snatches from the sun") – is divided into four cantos which discuss Shade's life, particularly the death of his teenage daughter Hazel and his coming to terms with mortality. In his commentary, Kinbote doesn't so much explain the poem (and when he does his literary acumen is spotty) as he tells a story all his own. As one's reading progresses, the suspicion grows that Kinbote is a singularly unreliable narrator/editor – that he didn't know the late poet as well as he suggests, that he is not who he claims to be, and that he is perhaps delusional.
Part of what makes Pale Fire so much fun to read is that it presents the reader with a mystery: only by reading through Kinbote's comments with the critical, skeptical eye of a literary detective can one hope to unravel the "true story". One can't just passively read this book but rather one is asked to flip back and forth between the poem and the endnotes, which also include cross-references and an index. And for me, looking up unfamiliar words and allusions on the internet added yet another complementary layer of reference. Because of all this, Pale Fire is recognized as an example of metafiction as its story exists on several levels and it invites the reader to question reality versus fiction.
The Kingdom of Zembla
Much of the story Kinbote weaves in the comments concern the adventures of King Charles II "the Beloved" of Zembla. Kinbote's Zembla is "a distant northern land" which he paints as an idyllic, Ruritanian kingdom skirting the line of modernity. Here, King Charles lives a life of luxury and pederast perversion until his government is overthrown by a Communist revolution backed by the Russian Bolsheviks. The king is first placed under house arrest, but he manages to escape abroad through some feats of romantic derring-do. Then, when they learn of his flight, the Communists send an assassin named Gradus after the exiled king, and this, Kinbote tells us, is the man who (mistakenly) shot John Shade.
In Search of the Real Zembla
My current fasicnation with the frozen north inspired me to see what I could uncover about the real Zembla. Nabokov's true life inspiration could only be the archipelago of Novaya Zemlya (Новая Земля = "New Land" in Russian) which was formerly called "Nova Zembla" in English. Novaya Zemlya is a chain of two large islands and many smaller ones which extends into the Arctic ocean north of the Russian mainland, seperating the Barents Sea in the west from the Kara Sea in the east. The archipelago is largely mountainous because it is basically just a continuation of the Ural mountain range beyond the coastline. Of the two main islands, Severny (Остров Северний = Northern Island) supports many glaciers and Yuzhny (Остров Южний = Southern Island) has an environment characterized by tundra. The archipelago is also the home to a variety of arctic fauna including polar bears, walrus, and sea birds.
Far from the Kinbote's bucolic kingdom, the real Novaya Zemlya's big claim to fame is that it served as a nuclear testing site for the Soviet Union from 1955-1990 (this was the North Test Site, the Soviets also performed tests at the Semipalatinsk Test Site in present-day Kazakhstan). In addition to the detonation of scores of nuclear weapons, the area around Novaya Zemlya also became a dump for radioactive waste and a graveyard for nuclear arms, submarines and reactors which had fallen into disuse. In the past, Norway has voiced concerns over radioactive fallout and the other ecological ramifications resulting from this activity, given that its Finnmark county is only 900 km away and fishing in the Barents Sea is an important component of the Norwegian economy. A high incidence of premature deaths from cancer and of infants born underdeveloped (the latter as high as 95%!) has also been documented in Arkhangelsk Oblast, the Russian administrative division which includes Novaya Zemlya.
Almost all of the indigenous Nenets people (most of whose ancestors were originally settled in the archipelago in 1877) were forcibly removed to the mainland soon after nuclear testing began in the 1950s. Today, a little more than 2,500 civilians and military personnel live in Novaya Zemlya almost all of them located in the urban settlement of Belushya Guba and the neighboring Rogachevo airbase. For decades outsiders' access to the islands had been restricted, but today they have been reopened for scientific research.
Images: Sattelite photo of Novaya Zemlya taken by NASA; 1998 photo of Novaya Zemlya's Foreigner's Bay (c) 2001 David Lubinksi.