I first heard about Nabokov’s Pale Fire in a workshop-style grad school class on literary essays. Bryan Smith, a brilliant PhD student who writes strange, experimental fiction, wrote an essay on Pale Fire that I think I can sum up, “Look at all the many ways that Nabokov fucks with the reader in this book! He fucks with you, and then he fucks with the way he just fucked you! Isn’t it awesome!” His essay made me want to read the book, which made it a success in my opinion, but it also made me a little intimidated. The fact that it took about 4 years for me to pick up the book says a little about that intimidation, as well as about the size of my To Read List. And now, I feel nervous that this is the first book that I’m publicly reviewing for my brand-new blog. Couldn’t I have picked a nice YA title?
Pale Fire is a novel in footnotes. The narrator, Charles Kinbote, is commentating on his late friend, John Shade’s, 999-line poem, and telling all about his friendship with the poet and his own life story. Kinbote hijacks the poem and drowns it with comments that have nothing to do with Shade’s work and everything to do with his own agenda. The whole thing is a big joke on academic commentating and the vanity of the professoriate.
The best thing about the book is definitely Kinbote’s voice and narration. He’s one of the most hilariously pompous characters I’ve ever read, yet he lists his modesty twice as a topic in his index, which contains more entries for him than even for the poet he’s supposedly editing. It’s an over-the-top voice, with lots of descriptive flair. He’s incredibly defensive, constantly justifying himself, while claiming that he needs no justification. He begins his foreword talking about how other academics disagreed with him about whether or not Shade even wrote the poem, putting readers on guard about his “competence, and perhaps…honesty” (14).
That line by itself shows a lot about the sentence-level writing of this book. The most important idea of the sentence, the question about the narrator’s honesty, is buried by the sentence, within nested clauses at the end, but in such a way that it calls the reader’s attention right where it needs to be. Kinbote is constantly making these kinds of statements, and you can never tell whether it’s because he’s denying some truth to himself that will out no matter what, because he’s ignorant of something that Nabokov is using some excellent sleight of hand to show you despite his narrator’s best efforts, or because Kinbote is crazy like a fox and knows exactly what he’s doing, showboating and showing off how he’s gotten away with commandeering his dead friend’s last work. These sentences would be delicious fun to pick out and tease apart in a seminar class. Just thinking about that makes me nostalgic for classes in Crounse Hall and McMicken Hall.
Some other examples, which can probably tell you more than I can about the book’s complexity and its sense of fun:
“Do those clowns really believe what they teach?” (271). (Referring to psychology professors, particularly Freudians)
“If I correctly understand the sense of this succinct observation, our poet suggests here that human life is but a series of footnotes to a vast obscure unfinished masterpiece” (272).
“I wish you to gasp not only at what you read but at the miracle of its being readable” (289).
For all of these cerebral, metafictional, bookish moments, the book also has a lot of heart. Even though I had judged Kinbote to be an arrogant hack, Nabokov had made me sympathize with him enough that I felt bad for him when he read Shade’s poem and realized his friend had not written about Kinbote’s homeland of Zembla but about his own life (of course he did, you jerk!). Though I knew how presumptuous and silly Kinbote was being to think that Shade would want to write about some perhaps-made-up foreign king and his adventures, I understood by then how important it was to Kinbote and knew how devastating it was for him. With a form and subject like this, nerdy intellectual fun comes naturally; it takes a master to make what was supposed to be a dry, academic commentary emotionally engaging as well.
I feel like there are a lot of things about this book that I missed because I listened to it in audiobook, instead of reading it in print. Being able to page back and forth between the poem and the footnotes, and between the various threads of narrative, would have helped me to read more carefully. The story isn’t told chronologically, which made it more challenging to follow. It took more concentration than most audiobooks. That’s not a fault of the book, but a caution to anyone who tries to listen to it. Some novels are just as good in either format, some are better spoken, and some are absolutely impossible to understand without full attention to the written word. Pale Fire tips toward the “better in print” side of the spectrum.
At the end of the foreword, Kinbote says, with a wink, “for better or for worse, it is the commentator who has the last word” (29). This is definitely true, and that’s why for all its challenges I’m glad that this was my first review on the blog. The people who talk about books have a lot of power, more power in some cases than authors. Pale Fire is a book about how a reader can make or break a text. It makes me realize that I hope that I can bring something of myself to the books I read, without writing over them the way Kinbote does to Shade’s poem. I hope I can present texts honestly to other readers, giving a fair, honest opinion, without letting my personal agenda run amok. I hope I can work toward creating a voice that’s fun to read, like Kinbote’s, but with actual modesty instead of just pretensions of it. And I hope that mereader won’t be a purely intellectual exercise empty of feeling, but a place were we can discuss how affect and intellect come together in great literature.