July 25, 2010


Freeing "Pale Fire" From Pale Fire: The next big Nabokov controversy. (Ron Rosenbaum, July 23, 2010, Slate)

[L]et me give you the Pale Fire basics. Published in 1962, seven years after Lolita's scandalous success, it almost seemed designed to fend off readers and critics who mistakenly associated Nabokov with sensational transgressive salaciousness.

First, we read a brief, strange foreword written by someone who calls himself Charles Kinbote. Kinbote (who turns out to be a delusional madman not really named Kinbote) tells us he's absconded with a pile of index cards, the nearly completed manuscript of a poem written by a neighbor of his, John Shade, left behind after Shade was murdered.

The poem—the text of which follows the foreword—is called "Pale Fire" (after Shakespeare's line: "the moon's an arrant thief,/ and her pale fire she snatches from the sun," with all its resonance of the relationship between reality and its reflection/afterlife in art.) Kinbote, it becomes apparent, is an arrant thief as well; his "Pale Fire" he's snatched from the dead man's widow.

As we read the footnotes that follow the text of the poem, it is revealed that Kinbote has taken the stolen index cards and fled to a cheap motel in the American West, where he is madly scribbling delusional footnote annotations to "his" edition of the poem. In the footnotes he makes a desperate but comically inept attempt to prove the poem is "really" about him, Kinbote, and his exotic history as "King Charles the Beloved," the deposed and exiled ruler of an exotic "northern land" called Zembla and the real target of the bullet that killed his neighbor and colleague, Shade.

Got that straight? What gives the novel its postmodern, experimental look is that the bulk of it, some 230 pages that follow the 999-line poem, is made up of Kinbote's numbered and often long and meandering explicatory footnotes keyed to the poem's lines. Not a traditional novelistic form to say the least. It's as if T.S. Eliot made a madman's novel out of the footnotes to the "The Waste Land."

And yet, I want to re-emphasize this, the novel offers even the surface reader a multitude of traditional novelistic pleasures, anti-postmodern in their often humane and comic tenderness.

Over the past two decades, more and more Nabokov scholars and readers are crediting the novel as perhaps his best, surpassing Lolita, The Gift, and Ada. But there has been one persistent unresolved schism among them, and it centers on the aesthetic status of the eponymous poem within the novel.

From the beginning, there has been a debate among readers and critics over the relationship between the poem and the novel. Actually, that's not quite true, now that I think about it. From the moment I read the novel and read about it, I somehow took for granted what everyone writing about it seemed to take for granted: That there must be something wrong with the poem, since the novel gives so much weight to a madman's misguided obsession with it.

And then as I read and reread the novel, and sometimes just the poem, it began to dawn on me. Maybe the poem wasn't meant as a pastiche, a parody, an homage to Robert Frost. John Shade refers to his reputation with characteristic modesty as being "one oozy footstep" behind Frost, but that doesn't mean we should take his self-deprecation as gospel.) In fact, I must admit Frost has always left me cold, so to speak. And when I started asking myself what other American poet of the past century has done anything comparable in its offhand genius to "Pale Fire," I could only think of Hart Crane, the Hart Crane of White Buildings.

Once it dawned on me that the poem might not be a carefully diminished version of Nabokov's talents, but Nabokov writing at the peak of his powers in a unique throwback form (the kind of heroic couplets Alexander Pope used in the 18th century), I began to write essays that advanced this revisionist view of the poem. It was actually one of these that came to the attention of Dmitri Nabokov who seemed to indicate this was his understanding as well: That his father intended the poem to be taken seriously.

Of course, the question of intention is dicey. At Yale William K. Wimsatt thundered against "the intentional fallacy," the futile attempt to read the mind of the poet in order to get to the heart of the poem. I tend to agree with the argument that trying to figure out the poet's intentions rather than the poem's intent can be a mug's game. Nabokov himself had been sphinxlike about the poem's reception, but, on close reading, the poem does reflect the pale fire of his previous and later preoccupations.

It's a combination of meditations on life, death, art, and the afterlife, art as the afterlife, all built around a core of grief at the death of the fictional poet's daughter. And all the excellences of the poem's complex, Persian-rug pleasures suggest perhaps it deserves to be stolen back from the thief Kinbote and looked at as a pseudonymous work of Nabokov's that he had hidden inside the Russian doll construction of the novel.

That's the position taken by Mo Cohen in this new edition, designed by the artist and illustrator Jean Holabird. That the poem deserves to be read on its own terms, solus rex to use a Nabokovian phrase. Standing regally alone. Allowed to convey its own meanings once it's left the author's pen.

...and decide you should accept Kinbote's opinions?

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 25, 2010 8:54 AM
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