Wow. I say that in the most respectful, perfectly awed tone possible. This is, without a doubt, the most difficult book I’ve ever read. Harder by far than Don Quixote and Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary. Harder than any other Nabokov book I’ve read thus far (though I have yet to attempt Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle). Reading it was a huge challenge (as evidenced by the fact that it took me two weeks to read, and I only finished it yesterday after a Herculean effort borne out of a desire to just get the thing over with!). To be perfectly honest, I didn’t like the book. I think it’s marvelously written, and the style and form are absolutely beautiful, but for the work as a whole, it fell far flat of my expectations. Part of that was because my expectations were skewed (I was told this book was about synesthesia, only to have that later taken back), but there are a number of other reasons as well.
First, to tell you a bit about the book – it is set up in four parts: a foreword, a poem in four cantos entitled “Pale Fire,” commentary on the poem, and an index. The poem is written by fictional author John Shade, and the other three sections are written by Charles Kinbote, who basically stole the poem from Shade after his untimely death and took it upon himself to write up all the narrative. From the foreword onward, it’s quite obvious that this will not be a work of literary critique as Kinbote pretends it will be. The commentary section (by far the largest section) is simply an excuse for Kinbote to tell his story. It is completely nonlinear, notes leading to other notes leading to other notes, a crisscrossing maze of references that eventually tell the story of the exiled king of Zembla (the country from whence Kinbote came) and the man who is dispatched to assassinate him. I literally had to use a notebook and several bookmarks to read this one, writing which note I was on and which it lead to so I could get back, writing in my copy (which I normally don’t do) to mark which notes I’d read and which I hadn’t. It got pretty crazy at times. This structure was absolutely fascinating. Problem is, the story wasn’t.
There are all sorts of theories that go along with this book – John Shade is really Kinbote, Kinbote is really Shade, both are really a different person, etc. It’s the sort of book one could comfortably research and write a novel-sized masters thesis on. There are so many intricacies, and even after reading the whole thing (and rereading the foreword), I’m sure there are a thousand things I missed, particularly as I often got a little bored. I know I read the book badly. If the story was interesting enough, I would have loved to go back and unwind all those intertwined passages, seek and search all the literary references, dig into the mysteries Nabokov has laid therein. Instead, I’m going to pass over all that, make a few comments of my own, and probably never touch the book again – though I will pat myself on the back for having completed it!
The poem is mediocre at best, bordering on ludicrously amateur at worse; singsong-y, piddly, forced rhymes, banal subject matter, etc. My thoughts on this are either 1) Nabokov is definitely not a poet, or 2) Nabokov purposely wrote it to sound this way. This second, I think, is more likely, especially as he did publish several volumes of poetry (none of which I’ve read, so I can’t testify as to the quality of it). I have a very high opinion of Nabokov and his genius. He’s one of my all-time favorite authors and I think his writing is fantastic. Unfortunately, he falls victim to his own arrogance at times, plays more with style and lets everything else fall by the wayside. When he does that, his books are no longer interesting except in a study of structure, like this one. Pale Fire is perfectly constructed, and is a great critique of literary drivel, if that’s what Nabokov was aiming for. One little chestnut in the middle of all the meanderings, discussing a painter named Eystein, said:
…in some of those portraits Eystein had also resorted to a weird form of trickery: among his decorations of wood or wool, gold or velvet, he would insert one which was really made of the material elsewhere imitated by paint. This device which was apparently meant to enhance the effect of his tactile and tonal values had, however, something ignoble about it and disclosed not only an essential flaw in Eystein’s talent, but the basic fact that “reality” is neither the subject nor the object of true art which creates its own special reality having nothing to do with the average “reality” perceived by the communal eye.
Perhaps even a little heavy-handed, this chestnut.
One thing that really does annoy me about this book, and I probably would have enjoyed it better if it were not this way, is Nabokov’s treatment of Charles Kinbote. Not Kinbote specifically, but…well, Nabokov’s main characters often have several features in common. I’ve read the Kinbote type in several books now, with little variation. He is a slight, small, kinda slimy, delusional, narcissistic, obnoxious, left-handed, homosexual pedophile. These things commonly reoccur in Nabokov novels. It seems that if one is homosexual, then one must also be a left-handed, disgusting human being who will always have a predilection for children. Not all of his pedophiles are homosexual (think Lolita), but all homosexuals are pedophiles. The notion is absurd and disturbing. I know this was classic thinking at the time Nabokov wrote, but I don’t know, maybe since I have all this respect for him, and because he seems to be so much more intelligent than to fall prey to idiotic cultural suppositions, I want him to know better. And maybe he does. I don’t know that he really believed homosexuality and left-handedness were interchangeable, you know? Nabokov was a really smart guy, not just in writing, he studied science quite a bit, and I’m almost sure he knew better than to think that. But when it came to homosexuals equating to runty, narcissistic, slimeball pedophiles, the more I read Nabokov’s work, the more I think that he really does believe this, at least subconsciously, and that makes me quite sad. And a little disgusted.
So, all in all, this wasn’t the most enjoyable book I’ve ever read. The suppositions annoyed me more than the structure fascinated me. The plot wasn’t exactly interesting. The fourth part, the index, was by far the most amusing part of the lot, with tons of word play and entries like:
Kinbote, Charles – his interest in Appalachian birds, 1 … his trusting the reader enjoyed the note 149 … his request that the reader consult a later note 169 … his utmost courtesy towards his friend’s wife, 247 … his sad gesture of weariness and gentle reproach, 937 …
Yeah, it goes on like that, for a long time, and all the other entries are either like that or word plays (one word leading to another to another to another and back to the first, for instance). This book is definitely one for the literary vaults, but I only recommend it if you’re willing to do a lot of work for not a lot of story gain (what other gains you might get will depend on how dedicated your reading is). It’s definitely a book best read exactly the way Kinbote says in the foreword:
Although those notes, in conformity with custom, come after the poem, the reader is advised to consult them first and then study the poem with their help, rereading them of course as he goes through the text, and perhaps, after having done with the poem, consult them a third time as to complete the picture. I find it wise in such cases as this to eliminate the bother of back-and-forth leafings by … purchasing two copies of the same work…
Clever, Nabokov…very clever. 🙂