Sunday, 29 June 2014

Vladimir Nabokov: Pale Fire

Back in January I asked readers to vote for 10 books for me to read from my book pile. As I read through the list I posted my impressions on them. Recently I finished this challenge by reading Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire. I deliberately postponed it until the end because I wanted to savour the bittersweet anxiety of returning to the author of Ada or Ardor. There was also apprehension involved because I feared he could not repeat the virtuosity of that novel. But Nabokov corrected me with zest and aplomb! It is premature to declare it, but I have no doubts Pale Fire is the best book I read in 2014.

There exist many pleasures to be picked from this novel but first I must essay a rudimentary explanation of the plot. On the surface, the novel is an extended commentary written by one Charles Kinbote, professor of American Literature at a small college town, about the poem “Pale Fire,” whose author, John Shade, is his friend, neighbour and college colleague. Kinbote guides the reader through the apparently autobiographical poem and unveils the subtextual celebration the small European kingdom of Zembla, from where Kinbote hails and which recently suffered a Soviet-backed coup d’état that deposed its beloved monarch, King Charles II. That’s one interpretation; the other is that Kinbote may be the deposed king, hiding in America from revolutionary assassins and that it was his intimacy with the Shade that inspired the poet to write a poem about Zembla, or so the king thinks, because the poem doesn’t mention Zembla save in one or two instances. So it’s possible that King Charles, if he be Kinbote, is actually insane and is misunderstanding the poem. Or it may be that Kinbote is in fact an insane Russian émigré-cum-college professor called V. Botkin who thinks he’s Charles Kinbote, who thinks he’s King Charles, who may have his own mental instabilities. But it’s also possible that Zembla, Kinbote et al are figments of Shade’s imagination (the least interesting interpretation to me). Basically the reader can choose whichever plot he fancies the most and ferret out clues from the text to support his reading, which is essentially what Kinbote is doing when he insists that Shade “was reassembling my Zembla!”

Since I’m a fan of mono-linear plots, I have to stick to one course of interpretation, and my preference goes to the most obvious one: Charles Kinbote is King Charles pretending to be Charles Kinbote. It is quite obvious that the reader is in the hands of a madman. But he’s an entertaining madman with talents a real reader is trained to admire. The fact that Kinbote is well-spoken and pathetically endearing hides the fact that he’s a callous and selfish person. But he writes alliterative sentences and uses word puns, and sprinkles the text with foreign words, and so the reader is disarmed because he wishes he were that clever with words. And so, like children, we’re led by the hand by this dangerous narrator. His friendship with the Shades today would be called stalking: he ingratiates himself with the Shades for ulterior motives, spies on them, obsesses over them, and exaggerates his friendship with Shade. Although there’s a wide cognitive dissonance between what he says and the way Shade treats him, he believes “John Shade valued my society above that of all other people,” which incites academic jealousy against him. The man is clearly paranoid. At least one colleague calls him “insane,” behaviour he attributes to the “venom of envy.” Another person drops a note in his pocket accusing him of suffering hallucinations. In an article included in the commentary the College shows concern about the fate of the manuscript, since it’s in the hands of a “deranged mind.” And this envy leads to an obituary containing “not one reference to the glorious friendship that brightened the last month of John’s life.” Kinbote himself claims that “[p]ersonally I have not known any lunatics.” But the text is constantly bringing up the topic of insanity, and it’s from here that we realize that Kinbote may be one Botkin thinking he’s Kinbote thinking he’s King Charles.

According to Kinbote, he moved next to the Shades on February 5, 1959 (like the best of madmen he’s nothing but methodical and precise). Although Kinbote knew Shade “only a few months,” he considered him a “very dear friend” because “there exist friendships which develop their own inner duration, their own eons of transparent time, independent of rotating, malicious music.” Kinbote’s foreword to the poem and the commentary is dated October, 19, 1959, by which time Shade is dead. So a few months indeed (and we find out that in five months he’s only invited to their “table exactly three times”). Tragedy has struck Shade: a gunman assassinated him, and Kinbote retrieved the manuscript of the poem in order to publish it, apparently out of respect to him. Kinbote believes he contains in himself the best of virtues, fairness and generosity included. “Immediately after my dear friend’s death I prevailed on his distraught widow to forelay and defeat the commercial passions and academic intrigues that were bound to come swirling around her husband’s manuscript (transferred by me to a safe spot even before his body had reached the grave) by signing an agreement to the effect that he had turned over the manuscript to me; that I would have it published without delay, with my commentary, by a firm of my choice; that all profits, except the publisher’s percentage, would accrue to her; and that on publication day the manuscript would be handed over to the Library of Congress for permanent preservation. I defy any serious critic to find this contract unfair.” Yes, well, the problem is that he obtains Shade’s poem because he happens to die right next to him, victim of a deranged man, and so he runs away with the 80 cards inside a manila envelope that constituted the poem, hiding himself in a remote place to write his notes. Furthermore, in due time we also realize that Kinbote harbours hostility towards Mrs. Shade, Sybil, the “misguided widow,” as he calls her, which may be attributed to his likely homosexuality.

We don’t have to wonder too much because Kinbote; in a totally deadpan, un-ironic way he describes himself as the most horrible of creatures, totally oblivious to his sinister personality. He routinely spies on John Shade, his neighbour, especially in the backyard, where he burns drafts of his poem. Kinbote’s conceited and thinks Shade would have asked for his opinion. “And perhaps, let me add in all modesty, he intended to ask my advice after reading his poem to me as I know he planned to do.” But the fact is that Shade writes his poem without his input. Kinbote, a native of Zembla, thinks that Shade used their brief encounters to create a paean to his faraway, unreachable, mourned land. The hilarious bulk of the novel is the misinterpretation of the poem. Kinbote prides himself on his “placid scholarship” even though he’s explosive and highly emotive. He’s constantly using the word “modest” about himself, but modesty is something he lacks. And his exegesis is totally disproportionate. Two words in a verse – “my bedroom, line 80” – leads to a note that goes from page 90 to 94. Just two words. In a verse that speaks of “that crystal land,” Kinbote sees a possible “allusion to Zembla, my dear country.” Although Kinbote maintains that Shade is writing about Zembla, its name doesn’t figure at all in the final version, only the draft cards, save for one verse:

And now a silent liner docks, and now
Sunglassers tour Beirut, and now I plough
Old Zembla’s fields where my gray stubble grows,
And slaves make hay between my mouth and nose.

Needless to say Kinbote is not amused by this paucity. The commentary section, which segues from the long unfinished poem (the final verse was left unwritten), is a brilliant example of critical misreading, an example of an apophenic mind finding symbols and references that don’t exist in the text, the critic annihilating the author, overwhelming him with his narrow-minded, obtuse, egocentric interpretation, seeing in the text only what he wants to see. In other words, a warning about and a parody of literary criticism.

Kinbote has an explanation for the absence of Zembla: Sybil’s hostility towards him. In his theory, after Shade read his verses to her, “she made him tone down or remove from his Fair Copy everything connected with the magnificent Zemblan theme with which I kept furnishing him and which, without knowing much about the growing work, I fondly believed would become the main rich thread in its weave!” (As I cobble my notes from the novel, I realize this is the novel where a re-read is much necessary to appreciate all the intricateness of its architecture.). Like paranoid people, Kinbote is an expert at rationalizing away everything that threatens to wrinkle the smooth silk of his insanity. The fact that Kinbote hates Sybil, and women in general, may be due to the fact the king is gay; throughout the novel he shows no interest in women; and indeed Kinbote expels a roomer after he catches him entertaining a “fiery-haired whore from Eton.” Which must beg the question, does Kinbote love Shade?

Kinbote, like I already mentioned, also seeks to obliterate the author from the text and to insert himself on it. “Let me state that without my notes Shade’s text simply has no human reality at all since the human reality of such a poem as his (being too skittish and reticent for an autobiographical work), with the omission of many pithy lines carelessly rejected by him, has to depend entirely on the reality of its author his surroundings, attachments and so forth, a reality that only my notes can provide.” More disturbing is his sense of possession of Shade, it’s always “my good-natured poet” or “my poet.” He thinks he owns Shade; and since he couldn’t own him in life he now owns the interpretation of the text. Like he writes in the foreword, “for better or worse, it is the commentator who has the last word.” Indeed! The fact that the Shades don’t give him much consideration leads him to be always anxious to visit them, under whatever pretexts. “What I would not have given for the poet’s suffering another heart attack (see line 691 and note) leading to my being called over to their house, all windows ablaze, in the middle of the night, in a great warm burst of sympathy, coffee, telephone calls, Zemblan herbal receipts (they work wonders!), and a resurrected Shade weeping in my arms (“There, there, John”). But on those March nights their house was as black as a coffin.” Like I said, the man is sinister under his fancy talk. So you can imagine that Shade’s death doesn’t bother him as much as it excites him with the prospect of giving him absolute freedom over his text. He even considers himself “the main, if only potential, victim” of the murder attempt, because it left his Zembla poem unfinished. His indifference to Shade’s death and his concern for the poem are the apogee of his ruthlessness. He even demeans the tragic death of Shade’s daughter, Hazel, an important presence in the poem, by saying that she “resembles me in certain aspects.” There are no depths he won’t sink to. And so he continues until the end of the novel.

Then there’s the subplot of the king. Ignoring Shade’s autobiography, he sees in the poem a hidden narrative about the flight of the King of Zembla. It’s a great narrative, full of derring-do and last minute escapes, chases and disguises, evasions and hiding in woods. It’s also possibly fully fictional, a mere invention of a man who thinks he’s a Zemblan King. Does it matter? No, it’s aesthetically rewarding. It’s no more false than any other narrative, it just tells you it’s probably false. Indeed it’s unlikely that Shade was ever interested in the king, for in a discussion he called him an “appalling king.” In this thread from this labyrinthine novel, King Charles is fleeing from an assassin named Gradus, who searches for him in Europe before tracking him down in America, leading to the tragic murder of John Shade. Gradus is the typical extremist. “He worshipped general ideas and did so with pedantic aplomb. The generality was godly, the specific diabolical. If one person was poor and the other wealthy it did not matter what precisely had ruined one or made the other rich; the difference itself was unfair; and the poor man who did not denounce it was as wicked as the rich one who ignored it. People who knew too much, scientists, writers, mathematicians, crystallographers and so forth, were no better than kings or priests: they all held an unfair share of power of which others were cheated. A plain decent fellow should constantly be on the watch for some piece of clever knavery on the part of nature and neighbour.” This narrative is hilarious and over-the-top, and its light touch is all the more amazing after I discovered Nabokov’s father had been assassinated in similar circumstances by a Soviet henchman. The ability to transform such a personal tragedy into such comical literary fuel is remarkable and a sign of Nabokov’s good-humour as a novelist.

Now I’m of course one of those readers who just wants a funny, entertaining plot, I dispense the highfalutin stuff, but even so this novel has many treasures for those who want a deeper interaction with the text. Nabokov was a fan of meta-fiction and that’s evident from the name of his possible madman, Professor V. Botkin, a Russian college professor, much like Nabokov, and indeed V. Botkin seems to have been scrambled from letters of his own name. Already in Ada or Ardor he had created an alter ego called Vivian Darkbloom. This segues into the intertextuality of his book, which includes references to his other novels, Lolita and Pnin. Readers of Nabokov must surely extract fun from that. Alas, I can’t yet.

And then for the lovers of language there’s the vast vocabulary: parhelia, to forelay, pudibundity, stillicide, speluncar, turfy, springy, nictitation, apograph, perlustration, alternating between Latinate, arcane and just plain goofy words. Finally, though, we have Nabokov’s gift for alliteration, internal rhymes and consonance. A few examples:

1) “I wanted to know if he did not mind being taken the longer way, with a stop at Community Center where I wanted to buy some chocolate-coated cookies and a little caviar.” (I’m signalling only the stressed syllables)

2) “(…) black bendlet of a branch.”

3) “every tree top plotted its dotted line (…)”

4) “well do I recall seeing him from my porch, on a brilliant morning, burning a whole stack of them in the pale fire of the incinerator before which he stood with bent head like an official mourner among the wind-borne black butterflies of that backyard auto-da-.”

5) “poor beady baubles and bits of nacre became microscopic soldiers swarming in desperate battle.”

6) “testicles they crave to twist and tear with their talons.” You almost wish to give the English language a dressing down for not having a synonym starting with t for crave. Bad language, bad, go to your room!

This novel is complete: it amuses the seeker of comedy, it’s full of adventure and incidents, it is a cerebral challenge for readers who like difficult books, and it’s a marvel of aesthesis. Nabokov’s imagination extends into every domain it touches, including a long rumination about suicide methods, transforming it. Here we are in the hands of a man who could take hold of reality and recreate it to his whim and fancy in the most delectable and ludic of ways.


  1. So glad you've taken to what is after all my favorite novel (and one to which I keep returning despite myself); I've been on tenterhooks awaiting your report. Mary McCarthy (then Edmund Wilson's ex) gets it right in the opener of her review: "Pale Fire is a Jack-in-the-box, a Faberge gem, a clockwork toy, a chess problem, an infernal machine, a trap to catch reviewers, a cat-and-mouse game, a do-it-yourself novel." And a literary cornucopia.

  2. Nnyhav, thanks for reading.

    Mary McCarthy summed it up really well! I'm shocked, on reading the wiki page, that this novel got mixed to negative reviews when it came out. Everything about it is so exhilarating and entertaining.

    Nabokov has ensnared me with two novels. Now I wonder what to read next? Perhaps Lolita? The Real Life of Sebastian Knight? Pnin?

  3. Always a pleasure to read about this novel. I would say that this is one of the few novels you can reread not just for the intricateness but just to see the story clearly, or to peel the stories off of each other. You can enjoy a succession of mono-linear plots, a different one each time you read the book.

    I would point to Invitation to a Beheading, The Gift, Pnin, Speak, Memory, and Lolita, along with a number of short stories, as works of similar virtuosity, and frankly think several more of VN's books come pretty close, including Sebastian Knight.

    Nabokov's father was accidentally assassinated by a Czarist goon, actually, not a Soviet, although they hated him, too.

    1. Tom, thanks for the recommendations.

      Indeed as I was culling my notes from the book and re-reading bits, I realized that this would be a great novel to re-read. No doubt I have to do it one day. Its architecture is immense and exuberant, like the Sagrada Familia.

      On Nabokov's father, my bad; but wasn't he a Czarist himself?

    2. Nabokov's father was a liberal democrat, actually. Democracy, rule of law, civil rights, that old stuff.

  4. A great post on a great book. Now that I've reread Dante thanks to you, I am eager and delighted to start rereading Pale Fire.

    If you pick Lolita (another great book), it's worth reading through then re-reading in the hugely entertaining annotated edition.

    1. Scott, I'm in awe that you've re-read Dante because of me!

      Rest assured, when I read Lolita, it'll certainly be the annotated version. But that one's got such a great reputation I think I'll leave it for later and try one of his lesser-known novels first.

    2. Miguel - All thanks to you. I found it rewarding to revisit Dante after your criticisms; it's healthy to have one's adolescent enthusiasms put to the test. But the edition I picked, by Irish poet Ciaran Carson, is at least as much Carson as Dante, and quite a different creature than the John Ciardi version I'd read before. Hopefully I'll get around to posting something about it once I get through Spanish literature month.

    3. Scott, yes, do that, it'd be interesting to confront your ideas about Dante with my own.

  5. I wonder how an annotated Pale Fire, which is already an annotation, would appear...

    Nabokov. One writer I have yet to sample. The adjectives you used in this review attract me: complete, comic, cerebral, aesthetically rewarding!

    1. Nabokov is a jewel. I had a bad start with Mary, but after Ada and this I'm converted.