Saturday, July 11, 2009

Arrant Thief

"Pale Fire" is my first-ever Nabokov novel.  I'm still not totally sure why I decided to go with this instead of "Lolita" - maybe because Lolita is too mainstream or some similarly inadequate reason.  It isn't my first Nabokov story, though.  He was one of my absolute short story writers who I encountered in my Fiction Writing class.  Pale Fire reminds me of a lot that I enjoyed in those earlier works, but is really operating on a whole different plane.  It keeps his sense of playfulness, but the complexity is so intricate that it's really in a league of its own.

I was really glad that I approached the book with absolutely no foreknowledge about its contents, which allowed me to be surprised about the path it takes.  If you think you may want to check it out yourself, consider skipping the spoilers in this post.


This book is incredibly funny, but you probably need to be an English major to get the most out of it.  It occupies the exclusive realm of stories that don't look like stories - I've run across this in some of my favorite short stories, but this is the first time I can recall that I've seen it successfully drawn out to an entire book.  Anyways: "Pale Fire" is presented as a 999-line poem, along with an introduction, commentary (in the form of endnotes), and index.  From just flipping through it, it looks exactly like the sort of tome we English majors read for four solid years.  And, refreshingly, it is fully aware of the essential absurdity of this form.

When you come right down to it, an "annotated version" is a little silly.  Inevitably, some minor scholar is presuming to explain the work of a great author.  Great authors don't do annotations (with very few exceptions).  It's cruel but compelling to say that these writers long for fame by association.

"Pale Fire" is that raised to the highest degree.  The "narrator" (that is, the author of all material except the 999-line poem) is, to put it bluntly, insane.  The degree and nature of his insanity are up to debate (under "Mega Spoilers" below), but he quite clearly is not at all a normal person.  His madness takes many forms, but at the heart is a preening self-aggrandization that plays perfectly into the role of commentator.  I couldn't help laughing and shaking my head in amazement as Kinbote inserts more and more of himself into the text, sometimes not even pretending to comment on John Shade's poem.

The ravings of Kinbote are the highlight, but there's a lot going on here besides his lunacy.  Shade's poem itself is quite lovely.  It doesn't go at all with the endnotes, but of course that's the point.  His description of his daughter's troubled life is quite heartbreaking, and his joyful affirmation of love to his wife are cheering.  I'm not sure if it's necessarily a very GOOD poem - I'm much more of a prose than a poetry guy - but it's certainly sweet.

The other piece of the story, which is told through the endnotes, is the saga of King Charles II of Zembla: his heritage, flight from the nation, exile, and eventual confrontation with an assassin.  You pretty early on learn (or can guess) the broad outlines of what will happen, but there's still a great deal of suspense that's heightened by the sense of inevitability.

Minute by minute, though, Kinbote is the star of the book.  He may be the best example of an unreliable narrator that I've ever come across, which is saying a lot.  Through the distorted glass of his madness, you can see scenes from his life, and find the madness in there as well.  His relationship with the Shades is comic and tragic.  Kinbote is utterly convinced that he is Shade's very best friend in the entire world, his confidant, his muse, his inspiration.  Yet, we eventually learn, Shade only had Kinbote over for dinner thrice in about a year, and doesn't seem to have ever had a particularly close relation with him.  It's a strikingly asymmetric relationship - Shade tolerates Kinbote, good-naturedly putting up with him, while Kinbote is convinced that Kinbote is the best thing to ever happen to Shade.


It took me a while to figure out that Kinbote and Charles were the same.  I think it was about halfway through, when he mentions Shade's comment that he had guessed his secret.  Leading up to it, though, I'd thought about how odd it was that Kinbote had access to such vivid details from Charles' past.  Again, since Kinbote is such an unreliable narrator, it's hard to know what to make of it.  Did he invent Charles?  Did he just have an extremely active imagination? 

Even after you find out that they are the same, that question is still not resolved.  I'm initially tempted to dismiss Kinbote, to say that this is an example of schizophrenia.  He's really just a sad scholar who has built up an elaborate fantasy world in which he's an incredibly important person.  Then I think back to an earlier scene he recounts at a faculty party, where a visiting scholar is struck at Kinbote's resemblance to Charles, and is trying to find a picture to convince the others.  "Well," I think, "Maybe Kinbote IS Charles.  He's still crazy, but he does happen to be a king.  After all, there's corroborating evidence."  And then I remind myself that Kinbote is EXTREMELY UNRELIABLE.  He could have invented the entire party scene, or created the visiting scholar character.  Or, who knows, maybe the scholar did see a resemblance, and that's what sparked the conviction in Kinbote's mind that he really was a regent in exile.


I had a bit of trouble deciding how to read the book.  In the foreword, Kinbote gives an early indication of how he views his role in putting together the book: he urges you to read the notes in their entirety first; then to read the poem, stopping to read the notes along the way; then to read the notes all the way through again.  Needless to say, I wasn't about to do that.  I ended up doing this the way I would a conventionally annotated book: reading until a good stopping point (in this case, the end of a stanza), then flipping to the back to read any notes that corresponded to that stanza.  There's so little connection between the poem and the notes that you could probably do each one in series, but there are occasional moments of serendipity where it's nice to read them close to one another.

The one exception was when Kinbote specifically urged me to read a note out of sequence.  He often refers you to other notes (again, as is usually the case in real annotated books), which I ignored, except for a particularly insistent one where he said something like, "See, see now, see now, the note to 991."  Ah, that voice!  It's so compelling and strange and dreadful and sad.


"Pale Fire" is a fantastic puzzle of a story.  It requires a lot of effort on a technical level to get through, but once you start to "get" it, it becomes extraordinarily funny and moves along satisfactorily.  I'm positive that I missed a lot on my first pass through, and really should read through it again to try and glean more.  Excellent work.

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