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Charles Kinbote writes a forward to the long poem, "Pale Fire," by John Shade. In the forward, he explains not only how he came to be the editor of the poet's final poem, but how he came to know John Shade. Charles, in rather odd style, makes many references to himself, his living situation, the trouble he has had over his "rights" to the poem, his terrible relationship with the poet's wife, his teaching position at the same small private college where Shade teaches, his affection for his male students, and his vegetarianism. He mentions Zembla, a small country in Europe from which he is presently exiled. He also mentions that his native country has recently suffered an extremist revolution, and the king (also named Charles, "Charles the Beloved") has been deposed and is currently in hiding. Charles then describes a photo of himself and Shade, extols the virtues of their friendship, takes another stab at Mrs. Shade, and then suggests that the reader peruse the notes before and after the poem, and maybe during, or maybe the reader should buy two books and then cut and paste. He finally notes that, after all, it is the commentator who gets the last word.
"Pale Fire: A Poem in Four Cantos":
John Shade's poem begins with his early life, imagining himself the shadow of a dead bird, killed by crashing into a window. His ornithologist parents are dead, and he is raised by a nutty aunt. A clumsy boy, Shade is different from other children; but his outlook improves once he realizes there is an afterlife and discovers masturbation.
Shade is asked to give a lecture at an institute that specializes in studies of the afterlife. The institute publishes pamphlets on what to do in case of various life-after-death emergencies; for example, one of their brochures explains what to do if a person is reincarnated as an insect. After delivering his lecture, Shade has a question and answer period during which he has a heart attack; he believes that he has died and actually enters "the other side." When he recovers from his heart attack, he tries to contact a woman who has had a similar life-after-death experience, much like his own. When he meets the woman, he finds her flighty and useless.
The last canto of the poem addresses the art of writing poetry. Shade uses his morning ritual of shaving and dressing to illustrate the personal nature of the literary process. He understands his existence through art and believes that there is purpose to the small private matters of life: his poem on the shelf, his wife in the garden, a bird singing in a tree, a butterfly outside the window, and a gardener wheeling his empty wheelbarrow up the lane.