This is adapted from something I wrote a year or so ago for the Big Readers Forum. Do join us, it’s nice there.
I’m a bit flabbergasted by Pale Fire, I confess. Despite not being particularly long, it does seem on the face of it somewhat formidable, and so to begin with I was wary of approaching it. I see now that it was silly of me to be wary – who in their right mind is scared of a book? – but I’m now in the more difficult position of knowing what to write about it, or how to write about it. I am aware that when I write reviews of books I tend towards hyperbole, with superlatives coming out of every orifice. Maybe that’s because I’m easily pleased, or just because I’m good at choosing books I like. Anyway, pointing this out is merely a precursor to an apology if I go overboard a bit when writing about Pale Fire.
Anthony Burgess writes, in his Ninety-Nine Novels: The Best in English Since 1939, that “The interest of Pale Fire is perhaps mainly formal”. I think that’s a point open to argument, but its structure is undoubtedly highly inventive. I’ve never read anything remotely like it before. To give as brief a summary of the structure and plot as possible, without spoilers, Pale Fire itself is a 999-line poem written by the celebrated American poet John Shade, his last completed work prior to his murder on 21st July 1959. Nabokov’s book includes the text of the poem along with a foreword, commentary and index by Charles Kinbote, a neighbour and colleague of Shade’s at Wordsmith University (based in New Wye, Appalachia).
The ideal commentary on any given work may be supposed to be one that is scrupulously researched, impartial, and which contains as little of the commentator’s self in its text. Kinbote’s commentary to Pale Fire is none of these things. Kinbote is a native of Zembla, an imaginary country which, as far as I can surmise, may be somewhere near Scandinavia – its language at times resembles an eccentric hybrid of Norwegian and Basque, but I’m getting ahead of myself – and believes himself to be its deposed and exiled King, and even that Shade’s assassin was a buffoon employed by Zemblan rebel forces who killed the wrong man. Furthermore, during the few months of Kinbote’s acquaintance of Shade, he has related to the poet a good deal of Zemblan history, and believes Shade’s final poem to contain a magnitude of veiled references to his homeland, which he communicates in the commentary. Needless to say, these references are visible only to Kinbote, while to the reader the poem appears to chronicle nothing more than a sequence of scenes from Shade’s life.
My overwhelming emotion on reading it was one of joy at Nabokov’s creativity, his audacity, his manipulation of language and his humour. Kinbote is one of the most monstrously believable characters I have ever met on the printed page. He is self-aggrandising, conceited, narcissistic, deluded, deranged and megalomaniacal. Reading between the lines, it is evident that his relationship with Shade, while tolerated by the poet, is far from solicited. Shade’s wife, for whom Kinbote reserves occasional special vitriol, disapproves of his presence, and no wonder! Kinbote stalks Shade and his wife, plans to holiday at the same resort as them, spies on them through windows on all visible sides of their house and engineers ‘accidental’ meetings, altogether the last person one would choose to prepare an edition of one’s final artistic utterance.
The commentary itself is outrageous. Quite apart from the fact that its vast majority touches not on the poem but on the colourful history of Zembla, Kinbote’s ‘friendship’ with Shade and the journey of the assassin, Gradus, to track down his quarry, it suggests that Kinbote may even have changed the text of the poem. He freely admits having italicised passages in the voice of Shade’s daughter, and having been tempted to omit certain passages, which prompts the reader to question – what else has been changed? What can we believe and what can we rule out? Humbert Humbert in Lolita is an oft-cited example of an unreliable narrator, but Kinbote is an even more impressive example, since even his identity is in question. Who is he, and who is the real author of Pale Fire? The word ‘tricksy’ does not begin to describe this book.
Nabokov’s characteristic humour and wordplay are in evidence here at least as much as in Lolita. Examples of Kinbote’s ridiculousness and/or self-importance follow. This passage relates Kinbote’s suspicion that an acquaintance is mocking him for the hallucinations he suffers periodically. In fact, the reader is meant to infer, his bad breath is the point at issue:
Hallucinations! Well did I know that among certain youthful instructors whose advances I had rejected there was at least one evil practical joker; I knew it ever since the time I came home from a very enjoyable and successful meeting of students and teachers (at which I had exuberantly thrown off my coat and shown several willing pupils a few of the amusing holds employed by Zemblan wrestlers) and found in my coat pocket a brutal anonymous note saying: “You have hal . . . . . s real bad, chum,” meaning evidently “hallucinations,” although a malevolent critic might infer from the insufficient number of dashes that little Mr. Anon, despite teaching freshman English, could hardly spell.
Here, Kinbote seems convinced that he almost appeared explicitly in Shade’s poem:
A beautiful variant, with one curious gap, branches off at this point in the draft (dated July 6):
And minds that died before arriving there:
Poor old man Swift, poor —, poor Baudelaire
Strange Other World where all our still-born dwell,
And pets, revived, and invalids, grown well,
What might that dash stand for? Unless Shade gave prosodic value to the mute e in “Baudelaire,” which I am quite certain he would never have done in English verse (cp. “Rabelais,” line 501), the name required here must scan as a trochee. Among the names of celebrated poets, painters, philosophers, etc., known to have become insane or to have sunk into senile imbecility, we find many suitable ones. Was Shade confronted by too much variety with nothing to help logic choose and so left a blank, relying upon the mysterious organic force that rescues poets to fill it in at its own convenience? Or was there something else–some obscure intuition, some prophetic scruple that prevented him from spelling out the name of an eminent man who happened to be an intimate friend of his? Was he perhaps playing safe because a reader in his household might have objected to that particular name being mentioned? And if it comes to that, why mention it at all in this tragical context? Dark, disturbing thoughts.
He is so gloriously self-obsessed! Other memorable moments include an imagined scene from Shade’s pre-Kinbote existence written as a playscript, knowing references to Lolita and Pnin, Kinbote’s characteristically pompous suggestion that the reader buy two copies of the book so that the text and commentary can be read side by side (and another intrigue of the structure is how differently the book would read if the poem and commentary were read simultaneously rather than one after the other – would we pick up on the Zemblan references that Kinbote sees? I doubt it), and – perhaps my particular favourite – the rendering of the opening of Goethe’s Erlkönig into Zemblan:
Ret woren ok spoz on natt ut vett?
Eto est votchez ut mid ik dett.
The index is a section of the book in itself, not a mere addendum. A choice entry: “Kinbote, Charles, Dr.; his belief that the term “iridule” is S‘s invention, 109”
Something readers occasionally observe on nearing the end of Lolita is that they feel sympathy for Humbert where before there was none, in spite of his horribleness. There is room for sympathy for Kinbote, too, and I found especially poignant the descriptions of his sadness at not being able to consummate the marriage to his arranged bride, Disa, because of his homosexuality. I hardly need say that Nabokov’s prose is gorgeousness itself, particularly, I thought, in his intoxicating descriptions of the Zemblan court and the innocent eroticism of King Charles/Kinbote’s childhood relationship with his friend Oleg.
It’s a book that begs to be read and experienced and savoured and reread. Yes, it’s challenging, but not nearly so much as to be unreadable or unapproachable. I expected something impressive, but never this impressive and never this viscerally exciting. If this isn’t one of my five best books of 2009 come December, I’ll eat my head.
Postscript: it was, though 2009 was a very strong reading year by usual standards.