PALE FIRE BY VLADIMIR NABOKOV

Sure, I could have written a poem. I could have included a commentary on that poem too. That would have been fun, right? Or I could have cooked up some bilge about a madman’s unhealthy interest in an author or poet or something. Indeed, I actually sketched out a review in which some loony was obsessed with my reviews, someone who would turn up at my house with a humungous gift-wrapped chocolate penis, but none of that stuff would fly, as – in a brief moment of clarity, if you like – I realised that merely writing a review puts you in a Kinbotean position. I am entirely certain that Nabokov intended that to be the case, that to write about his book is in some sense to ape his crazy narrator, and I wouldn’t want to disappoint Vladimir.

So, yes, on the most basic level Nabokov appears to be poking fun at so-called critics and experts and their meticulous deconstruction of another, more creative, person’s work. Yet one could say that he isn’t merely yanking the pigtails of academics, but also those of the obsessive fan, the people who think that they understand, know, and possibly influence creative people. Not only that, but the novel touches on that strange Misery-like phenomena of someone being so invested in a work that they react badly when it does not meet expectations, or does not contain what they wanted it to contain. I’ve never felt like that myself, but have seen evidence of it. Indeed, wasn’t there a big hoo-ha about one of the Harry Potter novels when part of the plot was leaked? Or am I actually thinking about Misery? I need a cigarette.

Apparently, there is some discussion as to whether the poem written by John Shade, and dissected by Charles Kinbote, and which is included in its entirety in Pale Fire, is y’know, any good, and if it isn’t [it isn’t], is it meant to be bad? Gee, I dunno. I’d never put myself forward as a poetry expert [well, I would, if I had a girl to impress], but I know what I like and I don’t like this book’s long opening poem. It is clunky and banal; unexpectedly so, in that I consider Nabokov to be one of the genuinely great writers and would have anticipated his poetry being, if not as precise and beautiful as his prose, certainly more impressive than what is served up here. Yet, there are precedents for this kind of thing. Balzac’s Lost Illusions is concerned with the ups and downs of a poet, Lucien Chardon, and in it Honore also serves up some of his protagonist’s poetry. And that is wack too. So, just because someone is a great writer does not mean that they know or could write great poetry. As far as I am aware, there is no suggestion that Chardon’s poetry is meant to be rubbish; and the characters who interact with him all praise his work, as does Balzac in his narration. I seem to recall that it may not have been the author himself who wrote the passages of poetry in Lost Illusions, but, in any case, he does appear to highly rate them. Of course, it isn’t a major problem, but, if Nabokov was being sincere, then a little of the shine is taken off his book, a little bit of my appreciation of it diminishes.

Are there, then, reasons for supposing that Nabokov intended to write a bad poem? Yeah, I think there are. First of all, if we accept that part of Nabokov’s intention was to satirize academics and critics and fanboys then it makes his book funnier if the poem under consideration is quite poor. There’s something inherently amusing, for me, in the idea that someone would spend a lot of time and effort exploring something that is undeserving of that time and effort, will actually credit that work with qualities and depth that it does not possess. Certainly, if one believes that Kinbote is mad then his madness is brought into sharper focus by his deadly serious treatment of and interest in the [bad] poem.

There are, of course, numerous ways to approach the text and the principle character. It could be that, yes, Kinbote is bonkers, and he genuinely believes that he is the king of Zembla [is this a spoiler? I would say not as it is hardly a stunning twist], and absolutely, sincerely, sees in the poem subtle allusions to Zemblan history and the story of the king’s flight and relocation. There is also, of course, his relationship with John Shade, a relationship that he sees as close and inspirational, but which the text suggests was otherwise. Indeed, it is fairly standard unreliable narrator fare, but my favourite aspect of the narrative was Kinbote’s insistence on this relationship while, for example, admitting to having to spy on the poet in order to find out what he is up to. Sybil, Shade’s wife, is also cast [by the narrator] as the jealous, protective other half, as someone who resents their friendship, but, again, the suggestion is that she sees Kinbote for what he is [a nutty neighbour who they barely know] and therefore tries to keep him at a distance.

It is also possible that one of either Shade or Kinbote does not exist. Is Shade Kinbote or Kinbote Shade? I dunno. The truth is that I did not enjoy the book enough to want to explore that question in detail. I’ve written before about my attitude towards experimental fiction. Particularly relevant to my experience of Pale Fire is this: “one could garner as much satisfaction from being told the idea behind the work as from actually reading or studying it yourself, that actively engaging with the book beyond that initial exposure is, to all intents and purposes, pointless.” That kinda sums up Nabokov’s novel for me. I wasn’t wary of spoilers earlier, and one reason for that is that I can’t imagine there is anyone who comes to this book not knowing the set up of the plot and the form it takes. I certainly did. The problem, for me, is that I don’t think my appreciation ever went beyond oh that is a neat idea. And, boy, is it a fucking neat idea, but I couldn’t really engage with the text at all. Pale Fire is made-up of a poem, and a commentary on that poem; and the narrator sees in that poem his own life and experiences. Fantastic! But I have come out the other end thinking ah, it’s a poem, and a commentary on that poem; and the narrator sees in that poem his own life and experiences.

Perhaps my biggest frustration was that the Zembla stuff didn’t seem to really go anywhere, or it didn’t hold my interest anyway. Again, I loved the idea, and the first couple of times Kinbote tackled one of Shade’s innocuous lines and began the commentary with something like this is a reference to Zemblan republicans I was chuckling like a dickhead who has just watched his cat fall off a table. But the joke soon wears thin and, once chuckle-bereft, I was *whisper it* slightly bored. The possibilities of a imaginary world are literally endless and I felt that Nabokov didn’t explore his world nearly enough or didn’t, at least, tell me anything truly engaging about it. Cards on the table, Pale Fire felt like a missed opportunity.

There was, however, one saving grace, one thing I did like very much. What is that?  Well, I don’t know if you’ve heard, but Nabokov could write. His sentences, almost regardless of their content, are just stunning. Always. In fact, at times I considered the content to be a distraction from his prose. Sure, I toyed with the idea of giving up on Pale Fire a couple of times, but I just couldn’t do it. I’m weak; I’m the kind of guy who would cheat on you with your best friend, who would eat the last slice of chocolate cake. In the cold light of day I might think this book is not very good, go read something else but dangle it in front of me, let me read a couple of sentences, and, I can’t help myself, I’m suddenly repenting and wanting to call it a work of genius.

One last thing…Kinbote appears to have an unfortunate interest in young boys. If Lolita killed your unicorn, then Pale Fire is likely to, at least, bash it round the head a little bit. I must admit that this second foray into the mind of a paedophile made me slightly uncomfortable. I explored the abuse angle, the paedophile angle, in my Lolita review, and I ultimately acquitted Nabokov of the charge of perversion or dubious interests. I’m less able to do that here, because, well, it isn’t central to the plot. Indeed, I wondered if I was imagining it half the time, like ‘am I just thinking this is what he is alluding to because of Lolita?’ But then Kinbote writes something about being entertained by stiff-necked Eton boys being brought over from England and I realised I was in denial. Does that stuff make Pale Fire obscene? Of course not. Immoral? No, I don’t think so. But I must admit that I did shift nervously in my seat a little bit, and I did pull a funny face.

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4 comments

  1. I especially liked this review, as it’s pretty much how I felt about ‘Pale Fire’, too. But in my case I actually did give up on it, about a quarter of a way into the commentary. Nabokov is a real thorn in my side. I want to just say “fuck it, he isn’t for me”, but I somehow can’t. So far, I’ve only finished ‘Speak, Memory’, which I really did like. Since then I’ve picked up and put down ‘Pale Fire’, ‘Ada’ (300+ pages in, at that) and ‘Pnin’. I’m thinking of starting ‘The Gift’ soon. But, Christ, should I even bother? Have you read it?

  2. I’m guessing you’ve read Lolita? I’m becoming more and more of the opinion that it’s his only truly great, maybe even worthwhile, novel. So, yeah, I know what you mean. I think i ought to love everything he wrote, but I just don’t. Pnin seems insubstantial, Ada too wacky, and The Gift [which I keep picking up] too laborious. I feel the same way about a few authors actually. Pynchon is another. I might post my GR review later, and reading that the last week or so has convinced me that although I like the sound of all his books I only really love one of them: Mason & Dixon. But then everyone tells me I am too hard on books. The amount I pick up and abandon is staggering. I spend more time doing that than reading books from start to finish.

    1. This is going to sound ridiculous, but no. I haven’t read ‘Lolita’. It’s like how I felt about ‘Ulysses’. You start to feel like you’ve read it already just by reading so much ABOUT it. (I don’t know how to use italics.) Anyway, that’s how I feel with ‘Lolita’; some of the excitement is diminished because of it’s reputation. I know the story. In a way, I’ve read it. I guess I wanted to explore the Nabokov I didn’t “know”. I’ve never read a word of Pynchon or Delillo or Foster Wallace, either. (And I’m American!) I just can’t get into the idea of their books. When I read you review of ‘Infinite Jest’ and came across – what was it, Canadian wheelchair terrorists? – well, I kind of checked out. Not for me. Too quirky. So, yeah. That was a long around “No, I haven’t read ‘Lolita’ and probably should”, but there it is.

  3. Yeah, i share your resistance to quirky [although Don Quixote is quirky, and so is a lot of Dickens; and i love both]. The most annoying thing about IJ is that it could have been great, had DFW just shown some restraint, if he’d cut out all the dumb goofy stuff. It’s almost as though he was trying to distract you from the heart of the novel, as though he felt embarrassed by it and so had to make a series of silly jokes. I hated Pynchon for the longest time; too many tiresome beatniks. But I read M&S and really like it. Every other book of his I’ve tried since I either give up on or struggle through. I know what you mean about not having the motivation to read something you know so much about. But with Ulysses and Lolita half of the pleasure to be derived from those books is in the prose, rather than the plot. I mean, fuck all happens in Ulysses.

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