Sunday, January 11, 2009

Cannonball Read #15: Pale Fire, by Vladimir Nabokov

So finally, FINALLY, I have finished Pale Fire. I do not want you to think that I did not like this book, because I fucking loved it and will likely refer back to it again and again, BUT I think maybe it was cursed. I'm just saying. Every time I picked it up and sat down to read, something would happen, limiting me to a scant handful of pages at each sitting. It was extremely frustrating.

On the back of my copy, there is a quote from John Updike, which reads: "Nabokov writes prose the only way it should be written, that is, ecstatically." Everyone's tastes vary, of course, but I have a hard time imagining that anyone approaching this book would argue with Updike's sentiment. It's not an easy read, and you do need to be fully engaged with the text to get the most out of it, but the payoff is out of this world. Some writers are just plain in love with language, and Nabokov expresses that love better than almost any other author.

It would be hard to explore every angle and possible option for Pale Fire. From its very first publication, it has been as source of great debate, not only in regard to its correct interpretation or application, but even simply as to what the hell is going on. I'm going to disengage my more analytical side for the sake of better encouraging you to read this work for yourself, but I also can't not mention the critical analysis, because it's such an integral part of reading the book.

Pale Fire opens with a fairly scholarly introduction...academic, but with a personal air, as you so often see in analytical works where the commentator knows or knew the original author. John Shade's titular poem follows, and on its heels comes extensive commentary from the poet's acquaintance, Kinbote. The poem is lovely and deeply personal, exploring life through the lens of family and faith, and could be counted as a notable achievement by any poet. The commentary begins seriously, but fairly quickly, you realize that something weird is in play. Kinbote's analysis soon shifts into personal anecdotes, many of which display a frantic grasping at associations, and many of which reference a story that Kinbote himself had told Shade, and believed the poet to be memorializing in his poem. The story Kinbote believed Shade to be developing concerns the escape and adventures of the king of Zembla, not a personal reflection as Shade eventually created. Kinbote's bitterness over his story's abandonment shows clearly as the commentary progresses, and reeks of that high school yen for acceptance by the cool kids.

As the story continues, several things become clear. First, that Kinbote has clearly obtained this poem against pretty much everyone's the time he gets to telling us how he actually laid hands on it, the weirdness of that specific event is almost moot, since it is abundantly clear that Shade did not see Kinbote as either friend nor academic peer, that Shade's wife saw Kinbote as an irritating busybody at best and a dangerous stalker at worst, that Shade and Kinbote's colleagues considered him insane, and perhaps most of all, that he is unqualified to analyze the poem because of his intense personal feelings. Second of all, we begin to see that the Zemblan tale is deeply personal to Kinbote, whether he is in fact the Zemblan king the story revolves around or whether the whole thing is a figment of his imagination. Whatever the case, the tale is deeply important to him. Finally, we are left with a deep sense of Kinbote's desire for acceptance and acclaim...he wants his peers to respect him, but he also wants his story told and his achievements recognized. It's heartbreaking, at times. Kinbote so desperately wants Shade to be his friend, and to bring him into his personal life, but at every turn, he is rebuffed.

There has been a great deal of debate over what's going on in this book. Scholars and critics have put forth all sorts of theories - that Shade was a figment of Kinbote's imagination, that Kinbote was the creation of Shade, that Kinbote was insane and simply adopted Shade as an object of obsession...even the matter of Shade's death is hidden under a deep fog of uncertainty. Kinbote describes it specifically, but by the time he tells us about it, there are so many questions about his state of mind that the reader is reluctant to take his account at face value. The structure of the book is unusual and absolutely fascinating. It's a little bit like literary Celtic knotwork...the overall effect is lovely, and the work itself winds in and out of itself throughout. It's not the best choice for idle reading where you're likely to be distracted, but it shouldn't be missed.

301 pages.

No comments:

Post a Comment