Monday, August 23, 2010

"Pale Fire" and its manifold weirdness which makes it unlike the others

Others of Vladimir Nabokov's novels is how I mean "unlike the others," to clarify. -- Ed. Matt's note.

"Pale Fire" isn't just different structurally, although it is different in that way (set up to resemble a critical edition of an epic poem), but it's wildly different in shear scope of its introspection, given the strange mania of the narrator, Dr. Kinbote, who is, similar to a great many other Nabokovian characters, an obsessive. Nabokov's novels are never short on introspection, to be sure, yet this one is brimming with it. In fact, it's that strange detachedness belonging to the erudite narrators of Nabokov's stories, with their simultaneous zeal for the things that they find interesting, that keeps me coming back. All great writers are, of course, uncommon, and Nabokov's novels demonstrate time and again exactly how true that is of him, as well.

But to return to structure for a moment, it is the novel of an epic poem, but only as that's been rooted at its epicenter. The epic poem, which is also featured in its entirety, has the eponymous title, "Pale Fire," and is penned by the introverted but seemingly magnanimous poet laureate of Nabokov's imagination, John Shade. (Suddenly Paul Auster's characters' names appear to have a recognizable antecedent.) Shade is, meanwhile, the embodiment of Dr. Charles Kinbote's obsession, an affliction that has numerous layers, most of which still in one way or another return to his preoccupation with Shade and Shade's oeuvre. As is alluded to with the introduction, penned by Kinbote, and made undeniably clear with Kinbote's subsequent "notes," the story's true focus concerns not Shade but his ebullient biographer and one-time neighbor, i.e. Kinbote himself. Sybil Shade, John's wife, alternatively, struck me as representing the interests of John with respect to his dislike of Kinbote and people who act like him. People who find their way into one's life with fairly self-serving purposes at the heart of this endeavor. The whole "where were you before I made my money" sort of phenomenon.

Still, to be fair to Kinbote, I don't think that notion accurately describes his motivation, or at least not entirely. What he wants is something deeper, perhaps more nefarious, than basking in the reflected light of John Shade (no irony very intentionally intended). Maybe a more apt comparison would be to say Kinbote is a learned, slightly less cartoonish hanger-on like Bill Murray's ludicrously multi-phobic, dependent Bob was to Richard Dreyfuss' pompus psychiatrist and straight-man foil in the movie "What About Bob?" He's a man who has produced his own narrative, of a strange land called Zembla, which he deeply wishes would resonate with Shade, so that in some form or another it manifests itself in the poet's work. This desire shows itself to be something akin to the way we find meaning in all the terms we come across in life, and even more so to the minutely detailed way in which scholars of any discipline parse meaning from the important works of genius considered venerable-nearing-sacrosanct in their respective fields of study. Kinbote also proves that the line between the artist's culling a reality and one's own attempt at crafting a reality, as I guess would be the case of certain kinds of madmen, is -- as the adage sort of goes -- very thin. (you know, more precisely the line between genius and madness, which is specifically the old adage.)

I can say it's very hard for me to restrain myself from giving away crucial plot points (twists and so forth), even though with Nabokov, I think, twists are less important as a plot device (as a method of keeping the reader reading) than what they mean to the individual (as he seems to prefer the first-person narration) laying out the tale, whatever it be. Twists in that respect then, seem more a way of conveying how perception is the truth of any revelation, because what is the case is only the case insofar as you believe it to be thus. It's hard not to get a sense of the unreliability of Nabokov's usually self-interested narrators. Kinbote is no exception.

Perhaps in a separate post I will more carefully analyze the various principal plot points that define this masterwork. I haven't decided. I don't know if that's really necessary for my own self, in terms of feeling I've adequately gripped the text. But it is one of those novels that leaves you feeling there are so many places in which to invest your attention. A certain kind of madness has that effect on me, compulsion to continue to wrestle with its "meaning."

Novels and so forth are Rorschach Tests, by the way.


  1. Various principal plot points would be greatly appreciated! Hope things are going well at your end, as summer shades to autumn... A good time in Chicago. Cheers, K

  2. All right, since you asked so nicely, I'm on it.

    And I'm doing well, Kevin, nice to hear from you. Hope all is good on your end, also.

    Oh, and you might be interested to know I've just finished David Mitchell's "Number9Dream," with my thoughts on that novel forthcoming.

  3. Can't wait. Of his works, ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas are by far my favorites. Especially Cloud Atlas. By the by, do you still in Chicago? Is the Bourgeois Pig still standing, on Fullerton and Hallstead, I think, in Lincoln Park? Cheers, K

  4. I do, indeed. My understanding is that it is still standing. Or it was as recently as last winter, when I dated a girl who liked to study there.