Thoughts on Pale Fire

in Reviews, Musings

I keep thinking this blog ought to be about something, because most of the good blogs I read have a particular focus, but I haven’t had the spare energy to try and devote myself to developing content about a specific topic. I mean, interaction design is the obvious one, and the one my blog header claims, but I feel like my thoughts and experiences on that topic would need a lot of work to be really bloggable, and most of the times I try I end up with a 3/4 finished draft that never makes it out of my draft folder. So it’s just been a blog about things I do and think, which is of course never confined to a neat topic. I suppose I’m writing for myself more than for an audience, anyway. I want to work as a designer, not as a blogger, so probably that’s ok. The blog is just not the point.

So that’s my justification for writing a post about a book that has nothing to do with computers or design or user experience or whatever, on this blog. This post won’t really make any sense to anyone who hasn’t read Nabokov’s Pale Fire, or at least knows something about it, so probably y’all can just skip this unless you got here by googling Pale Fire, in which case I doubt my rantings and musings will really be enlightening. I just have Thoughts and I feel the need to have those Thoughts Recorded somewhere, and what else is a blog good for. Plus, spoilers. Normally I don’t care about spoiler warnings for things like 50-year-old novels, but Pale Fire really is mainly a big puzzle/joke, and much of the fun in reading is in working out the layers of the puzzles. If you think one day you might want to read it, and I do highly recommend it, though probably not as one’s first introduction to Nabokov (which, really, read something by Nabokov. The man is brilliant, his writing is gorgeous and sad and complex and disturbing and often very, very funny), you should probably just go read it.

Last summer, I read the Modern Library edition of Pale Fire and got really mad at the guy who wrote the forward because it was like the most terrible and insulting forward to a book I’ve ever read. I turned to the forward for insight about the book that I hadn’t gotten from my own reading, and what I found was a “summary” of “my reading experience” that assumed I was a lot dumber and missed a lot more of the nuances the first time through than I actually did. And there was no expansion upon any ideas, just a sort of “gee isn’t Nabokov great” reaction to this supposed reading experience. By a man who thought it would take quiet reflection after finishing Lolita for the average reader to figure out that maybe Humbert Humbert is supposed to be less than sympathetic. I could spend like another hour ranting about just that, but seriously, who the hell picks up Lolita without knowing it at the least as “that book about a pedophile”? My primary memory of reading the first half of the book is of wondering whether or not I would be able to get through the whole thing because it is just full of page after page of Humbert reverently describing and justifying his own lust for pre-pubescent girls. How do people get through that without…noticing?

Anyway, I got really irritated then, and felt unfulfilled because Pale Fire is a complex book and I wanted to talk to someone about it to try and tease out what I thought of it but none of my friends have read it. But then today, language hat posted about it, which led me to an Ask Metafilter post about Nabokov recommendations, which led me to some real commentary (even if the website very badly needs a redesign), which overall was a much more satisfying experience. LH confirmed my own feeling that the poem itself is not very good. I mean, in the first place you’d have to be a really brilliant poet to start with to make 1000 lines of heroic couplets written in English in the 20th century not sound impossibly cheesy and dated, and while Nabokov was a brilliant writer, he was not a poet.

And then I read an excellent argument against the idea that either John Shade or Charles Kinbote invented the other, which I am glad to have read because I thought people were crazy for claiming such things. I thought it was absurd on the face of it, because a not-insignificant portion of the humor in the book is Nabokov making fun of the worst habits of bad literary critics, and that layer of meaning collapses into something far less satisfying when you claim that the poet is inventing the critic, or vice-versa. But this argument is much more thoroughly argued and textually supported, etc, but also pleasingly simple at its heart. I think it boils down to, if either one of them were faking the other’s part, all the apparent character development that accounts for how the text came into existence within the world of the novel becomes nonsensical, and if you can’t believe that these two central characters both exist, you can’t trust anything you learn about them either (I mean you can’t trust anything Kinbote says about himself anyway, but then you can’t even trust the things he accidentally reveals about himself either because it’s all just part of his setup), and then you just, don’t really have a book. Either John Shade is an egomaniacal asshole faking his own death to sensationalize his poem and glorify himself with Kinbote’s naked hero worship, or “Charles Kinbote” is setting up an elaborate literary hoax for the purposes of doing exactly what Nabokov himself intended. Neither possibility is ultimately very interesting to me, and I think if you’re going to argue for games as elaborate as that, it should at least be for the sake of an interesting payoff, you know?

I am not sure I like Boyd’s proposed alternative explanation for the textual resonances that lead people to argue that John Shade wrote the commentary in the first place, but that is my personal preference against ghosts and spiritual silliness, and messages from beyond the grave do occur in the text.

I suppose I have at least been convinced that Zembla doesn’t exist within the world of the text, though I did like the parallelism of Exeton (X), New Wye (Y) and Zembla (Z) as made-up real places within the novel. Exeton and New Wye are just fake towns in real states, and Zembla is an entire fake country, and there is rather a lot of support for arguing that Kinbote is actually the Russian scholar Botkin. Still, I agree basically with Language Hat’s assessment of Pale Fire. It’s a very funny joke, and it is full of extremely clever layers of trickery, but mainly it is a gimmick and not the kind of masterpiece that Lolita is. I enjoyed it as much for the pleasure of watching Nabokov show off, as anything, and that’s not really what great literature is about. Normally I hate it when writers show off so transparently (I’m looking at you, Tom Robbins) but it’s friggin Nabokov, and when Nabokov shows off it is effortless and beautiful.