This reminds me of the ludicrous account which he gave Mr. Langton, of the despicable state of a young Gentleman of good family. ‘Sir, when I heard of him last, he was running about town shooting cats.’ And then in a sort of kindly reverie, he bethought himself of his own favorite cat, and said, ‘But Hodge shan’t be shot; no, no, Hodge shall not be shot.’
- James Boswell, Life of Johnson (the epigraph to Pale Fire)
Pale Fire cannot be fully appreciated within a contemporary interpretive context. That much is clear from reading Richard Rorty's preface to my copy; though his exposition is possessed of an admirable moral clarity, his satisfaction with having found the key to the book in Nabokov's thundering revelation at the end leaves one someone disappointed (not to mention that his narrative of just whom the reader is supposed to identify with is very much off-base). I think one particularly productive avenue of approach runs through the eighteenth century. The book suggests--nay, demands--we take it, what with the frequent evocations of Johnson and Pope, the references to Boswell, Swift, etc.
The most obvious point of comparison is, of course, Tristram Shandy. One need not be a Shandean to be a Shadean, but it certainly helps. After all, each book promises the life and opinions of one author, and delivers those of quite another; each book is an intense and witty study of the life emplotted, veering off in its narrative from the supposed grounding of fact it is held to be founded upon; each book delights in its Shakespeare references (Alas, poor YORICK!) and devotes pages to the study of names. But I don't think the analogy gives us much beyond the similarities; it is perhaps somewhat of an absurdity to use one notoriously tangled and obscure work to decode another.
No, the point of comparison should be Boswell. The Life of Johnson (which your ignorant author has only read in extract) is a curious text, for it contains essentially the whole of Boswell's literary career; his journals were unknown during this time. Boswell's an arrant thief, stealing his light from the much greater celebrity of Dr. Johnson (remember that in the end of the book, we are told that John Shade himself resembles Johnson--and note the initials: SJ/JS). Like Pale Fire's commentary itself, moreover, Boswell's hagiography incorporated much fiction and hearsay, and false imputation of direct experience.
But Boswell was also, like Kinbote, an outsider, an immigrant from another "distant northern land": Scotland. His experience is a movement from periphery to center, and his experiences in the London Journal suggest some of the same culture shock which no doubt accounts for Kinbote's reputation as a lunatic (actual lunacy notwithstanding).
If Zembla is a distant echo of Scotland, then we cannot avoid being reminded of a yet more famous invented poet's oeuvre: James MacPherson and his Ossian. "Pale Fire," indeed, is an almost perfect mirror of Ossian's works: the former is a 'real' poem written by a questionably real author that fails to describe the wonders of a questionably real northern land, and the latter consists of questionably real poems written by a questionably real poet really evoking the wonders of a real northern land.
Tentatively, this interpretation gives some support for the Kinbotean hypothesis. For what would Ossian be without the invented Scottish tradition he carries, implicitly?"Pale Fire," in a similar way, allows Kinbote a space for his Zemblan disquisitions...