“Pale Fire” by Vladimir Nabokov

Having only read Lolita and The Defense before, I was totally unprepared for the kind of Nabokov that I found in Pale Fire. It is definitely the oddest book of his I’ve ever read, though possibly one of his most interesting.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 2nd for Michael Chabon, 3rd for Mary Gaitskill, 1st for Michael Griffith, 4th for David Leavitt, 4th for Arthur Philips, and 3rd for Vendela Vida.)

To begin with, Pale Fire presents itself as a 999-line, four-canto poem by John Shade along with forward and commentary by Dr. Charles Kinbote. However, the poem, the forward, and the commentary are all fictional components of the novel. The poem is autobiographical, digressively examining Shade’s fairly ordinary life. The commentary, on the other hand, is anything but commentary on the poem.

Kinbote presents himself as Shade’s close friend, though he only knew him for a few months before Shade’s death and I get the feeling that Shade merely put up with Kinbote. Kinbote had tried to get Shade to write the poem about the escape of the king of a fictional country called Zembla and was disappointed to find out what the poem was really about.

Then, instead of actually commenting on the poem (which he pretends to do) Kibote uses the commentary to talk about his relationship with Shade, his own life, the colleagues he hates at the local college, and the escaped king of Zembla. Revealed through the commentary is the fact that Kibote believes himself to be the escaped king of Zembla (whether or not this is completely insane) and believes the unknown gunman who kills Shade to be a royal assassin named Gradus, actually sent to kill Kibote.

First, let’s look at a section from canto one of the poem (lines 13-28):

Retake the falling snow: each drifting flake
Shapeless and slow, unsteady and opaque,
A dull dark white against the day’s pale white
And abstract larches in the neutral light.
And then the gradual and dual blue
As night unites the viewer and the view,
And in the morning, diamonds of frost
Express amazement: Whose spurred feet have crossed
From left to right the blank page of the road?
Reading from left to right in winter’s code:
A dot, and arrow pointing back; repeat:
Dot, arrow pointing back … A pheasant’s feet!
Torquated beauty, sublimated grouse,
Finding your China right behind my house.
Was he in Sherlock Holmes, the fellow whose
Tracks pointed back when he reversed his shoes?

Next, let’s look at the commentary for a portion of this section:

Line 17: And then the gradual; Line 29: gray

By an extraordinary coincidence (inherent perhaps in the contrapuntal nature of Shade’s art) our poet seems to name here (gradual, gray) a man, whom he was to see for one fatal moment three weeks later, but of whose existence at the time (July 2) he could not have known. Jakob Gradus called himself variously Jack Degree or Jacques de Grey, or James de Gray, and also appears in police records as Ravus, Ravenstone, and d’Argus. Having a morbid affection for the ruddy Russia of the Soviet era, he contended that the real origin of his name should be sought in the Russian word for grape, vinograd, to which a Latin suffix had adhered, making it Vinogradus. His father, Martin Gradus, had been a Protestant minister in Riga, but except for him and a maternal uncle (Roman Tselovalnikov, police officer and part-time member of the Social-Revolutionary party), the whole clan seems to have been in the liquor business. Martin Gradus died in 1920, and his widow moved to Strasbourg where she soon died, too. Another Gradus, an Alsatian merchant, who oddly enough was totally unrelated to our killer but had been a close business friend of his kinsmen for years, adopted the boy and raised him with his own children. It would seem that at one time young Gradus studied pharmacology in Zurich, and at another, traveled to misty vineyards as an itinerant wine taster. We find him next engaging in petty subversive activities—printing peevish pamphlets, acting as messenger for obscure syndicalist groups, organizing strikes at glass factories, and that sort of thing. Sometime in the forties he came to Zembla as a brandy salesman. There he married a publican’s daughter. His connection with the Extremist party dates from its first ugly writhings, and when the revolution broke out, his modest organizational gifts found some appreciation in various offices. His departure for Western Europe, with a sordid purpose in his heart and a loaded gun in his pocket, took place on the very day that an innocent poet in an innocent land was beginning Canto Two of Pale Fire. We shall accompany Gradus in constant thought, as he makes his way from distant dim Zembla to green Appalachia, through the entire length of the poem, following the road of its rhythm, riding past in a rhyme, skidding around the corner of a run-on, breathing with the caesura, swinging down to the foot of the page from line to line as from branch to branch, hiding between two words (see note to line 596), reappearing on the horizon of a new canto, steadily marching nearer in iambic motion, crossing streets, moving up with his valise on the escalator of the pentameter, stepping off, boarding a new train of thought, entering the hall of a hotel, putting out the bedlight, while Shade blots out a word, and falling asleep as the poet lays down his pen for the night.

Now, I quote a fairly large portion here, but I think it is quite evident why. There is just no way to comprehend the oddity of Pale Fire without seeing how the poem and bizarre commentary interact. I think the above is the shortest section that illustrates this phenomenon quite this well.

For anyone like me who has only read Nabokov works such as Lolita and The Defense, Pale Fire is downright uncharacteristic. It is weird, metafictional, and darkly humorous. However, it is also incredibly good. Pale Fire may not have the same emotive power as Lolita, but it is much more unusual. I highly recommend it, though I do advise that it can take a little getting used to. It is well worth the effort if you hang in there.

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