Thursday, April 3, 2008

Pale Fire - Vladimir Nabokov

Vladimir Nabokov, born 1899, died 1977, published Lolita 1955, published Pale Fire 1962, remains one of the foremost intellectuals in the better part of 20th century literary world. Notably fluent in Russian, German, French, and English, it almost appears as if Nabokov is not so much interested in plot, character and story as he is flaunting his erudition and obscure knowledge under the guise of tricky wordplay. Regardless of his eccentricities as a stylist, he does not disregard or sacrifice story.

In keeping with the oeuvre mandate, let it be acknowledged that the critic has read Bend Sinister, Laughter in the Dark, Lolita, Speak, Memory, and a fair number of short stories. Pnin, Ada, or Ardor, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, Despair, and Look at the Harlequins! are on my list of future books to read. Nabokov was extremely prolific but relatively underappreciated. For all the controversy that Lolita has brought about in the past fifty plus years, Pale Fire follows innocently undetected, while containing more than a few controversial episodes itself. While Lolita may continue to compete for greatest 20th century American novel, I recall seeing Pale Fire on more than one sort of list of books that people would like to read before they die, or a book that was so profound they wanted to read and study to unlock some sort of secret revelation.

That is not surprising given its structure. There is no other book like it. It begins (like Lolita) with a preface. The "foreword" is penned by Charles Kinbote, neighbor to the author of the poem "Pale Fire," John Shade. In the foreword, Kinbote explains how he came to teach at the same university in upstate New York as Shade, and how he happened to rent the house next door to his, and how he happened to run into him and become friends with him. Then he says he is getting too far ahead of himself and stops.

"Pale Fire," a poem in heroic couplets, 999 lines, divided into four cantos, comes next. For all the profound aspects of the novel Pale Fire, the reader might be urged to start here, particularly the majority of canto 3, though Kinbote refers to canto 2 as "your favorite, and that shocking tour de force," which concerns John and Sybil Shade's doomed daughter. We are told in the foreword, that Shade died shortly after completing the final line of the poem--indeed he wrote the poem over the last three weeks of his life.

After the "primary text" comes the "Commentary," which forms the majority of Pale Fire. In it, Kinbote notes some three or four dozen line references with varying degrees of copious analysis and confession and storytelling. Truly, this part is Kinbote's story, and soon he reveals a story he liked to tell Shade about, which was the escaped King Charles of Zembla. As we move closer to the end of Shade's poem, we get closer to the final revealing of the entire story as Kinbote has let us see it. He is meant to be mad, and indeed he seems overly obsessed with Shade, but like Humbert Humbert, he is not a narrative slouch. Indeed, Pale Fire becomes mostly about King Charles at a certain point.

I have almost no idea what these scenes are meant to mean, but they are certainly just as eye-opening as almost any scene in Lolita. What is strange is that Kinbote narrates the story of King Charles at a curious point of disconnect. The reader can almost easily guess the connection between the two by the 2nd or 3rd time Kinbote mentions him. The first time, in fact, I began to think, "how does Kinbote know such intimate details of the king?" Perhaps it is rather obvious, but anyhow, some of the scenes resulted in my doing double takes, memorably while making my way through what must be the most morally offensive segment of the book to conservative minds while reading in an outdoor hot tub at a hotel in Rancho Bernardo, CA on a weekend trip with my parents.

Kinbote becomes rather obsessed with the King Charles story, until eventually the King escapes Zembla, and manages to make his way to America, to happen to teach at a university...And like Clare Quilty in Lolita, there is Gradus, a man suspicious of all those who possess too much knowledge, who stalks the escaped King, and who eventually plays as intrinsic a role in the novel as that aforementioned "double" of a villain. But Charles is not only interested in exotic royal pasts--his ardor for Shade and his work shines through almost as clearly. Most memorable is a scene near the end of the novel, where Kinbote calls Shade on the phone, after not attending a party Sybil threw for the poet's 60th birthday, and screams that he must seem him at once and bursts into tears over the phone. His knowledge of the poet's life, and his possible (and idealized) influences, puts a funny spin on the academic snooping going on in any modern edition of any classic text.

Furthermore, Pale Fire introduces the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure genre, in a manner. The commentary is written so that the reader can refer back to the poem for greater elucidation, and read more than a line, a stanza, or even pages at a time. Also, within notes are references to other notes with references to other lines so that a times a narrative thread can be found with all ensuing references already marked out by Kinbote. Whether Nabokov intends the work to be a massive cryptogram, I do not know, but his typical obsessions like butterflies and chess and intellectualism arise and are treated here as well as in anything else I have read by him.

Nabokov is a master. He did not accumulate the Nobel, or the Pulitzer, but he is clearly a master, and a fine model to follow. Of course, one cannot hope to attain his level of erudition, but it is fun to see what he was capable of, given his talents, his knowledge, and his artistic spontaneity. Pale Fire may not be as densely-layered or as descriptive a work as Lolita, but its poetry is unmistakable. It is more entertaining than Bend Sinister or Laughter in the Dark, and it is more intellectually compelling than Lolita, though it would be difficult to say it is a greater novel than that nearly-untouchable work. It has the same quality of his finest short stories, such as "The Vane Sisters" (which, I have to admit, is really only the first one of two or three which truly amazed me). It may make you gasp, it will most definitely make you laugh, it might confuse the hell out of you, but when you finish Pale Fire, you will feel a sense of literary domination, and for how complex everyone wants to make it out to be, it's really not bad at all. Taken slowly with a painstaking line-by-line close analysis, or speed-read like your typical mass-market trade paperback, Pale Fire will please no matter the method.

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