#4: PALE FIRE, by Vladimir Nabokov
For the next few weeks, I’ll be thinking back through the books I read in 2010 and ranking my favorites in a top 10 list. Today, I’ll be talking about #4, Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire.
It should be rather evident by now that I am a Nabokov fan. (His Ada was, after all, my 10th favorite book I read all year). I picked up Pale Fire a few months after I had read Lolita and was dazzled… and confused. This is one of the most ambitious and strange novels I’ve read and yet I do not think Nabokov would want me to call it a novel.
So what is it exactly? Pale Fire is many things. It is the title of a 1,000 line poem by the fictional poet John Shade. It is a murder mystery. It is the long-form annotated guide to the aforementioned poem. And it is quite elaborate and beautiful and confusing.
After a foreword, the book begins with “Pale Fire,” the long poem by John Shade (which, of course, Nabokov wrote himself). I don’t know very much about poetry, despite being married to one who makes it, but I think it’s a pretty decent and interesting poem. Particularly considering that English was the third language of its author. The New York Times book review from 1962–when Pale Fire was published–puts the issue of Shade’s poem quite well:
["Pale Fire," the poem] is about on a level with the work of Alfred Austin, Tennyson’s successor as Poet Laureate, who also had a bent for conversational verse: not bad, but also not good, not, in the strict sense, a poem at all. The reader, having plowed through it with mild interest, is likely to be afflicted by the disproportion between its merit and the apparatus that surrounds it. For the author has to keep up a pretense that Shade was a great man, and the poem a great poem. Yet it is also part of the joke that he does not believe this for a moment. He is carefully building a farce, assuming the mask of pedantry in order to point a grimace at his readers.
Behind this farce we meet the person of Charles Kinbote, an obsessive literature professor from the imaginary country of Zembla (Nabokov has a thing for fictional nations). Kinbote is the author of the annotated guide to the poem, which we are now reading and which consumes the rest of the novel. It is fair to say that Kinbote worships Shade. He regards “Pale Fire” as the greatest poem ever written and managed to get the rights to the poem and to publishing this annotated guide after Shade’s mysterious death.
In the hands of the witty and sly Nabokov, Kinbote’s fanaticism is a wonderful and frightening thing to behold. His love of Shade borders on pathological, once he moves in next door to Shade so he can watch him all day long. He is deeply envious of the poet’s purported talent, for as Kinbote says of himself:
I do not consider myself a true artist, save in one matter: I can do what only a true artist can do—pounce upon the forgotten butterfly of revelation*, wean myself abruptly from the habit of things, see the web of the world, and the warp and the weft of that web.
Kinbote’s warping of the web–the fabulous series of artifices that Nabokov has created–captivates utterly. Pale Fire was certainly the most interesting and thought-provoking book I read in 2010. I do not know if it was the best, but it was deliciously strange. As Kinbote–or is it just Nabokov himself?–says in the end:
I trust the reader appreciates the strangeness of this, because if he does not, there is no sense in writing poems, or notes to poems, or anything at all.
(*Side note: Just in time for this review: The New York Times reveals that Nabokov’s theory on butterfly evolution has been proven. Lovely!)