Friday, June 8, 2007

Pale Fire by Vladmir Nabokov

It is entirely possible that I am not literate enough to fully appreciate Nabokov's Pale Fire. After all the entire book is writen in the format of a commentary on a 999-line poem called, appropriately, Pale Fire. It's split into three sections, with the first 60 pages containing the complete text of the poem, the middle 200 or so containing commentary on various obscure lines, and the final section comprising a bibliography. Of course, there are some twists. First, the entire thing is fiction. The poem, the commentary, the bibliography, all just framing devices to tell the story of Zembla, the home country of commentator (and friend of the poet John Shade, author of Pale Fire, the poem) Dennis Kinbote. Confused? Titillated? Having a hard time believing a book like this could actually be interesting and understandable to someone who knows nothing about literary criticism?

Well, Pale Fire was not the easiest book I've ever read, but it wasn't as difficult and pedantic as its summary would make it sound. The poem Pale Fire, which opens the book, is actually quite good as a standalone poem, and, afer reading it, it's difficult not to be a bit curious what the commentary will reveal about it. However, anyone actually seeking insight on the poetry will be disappointed, since most of Kinbote's commentary takes the form of taking a line from the poem, making a tenuous connection to John Shade's life, and then using the line (or, sometimes, even an isolated word) to tell the story he wants to tell. Namely, the story of Charles Xavier, Zemblan king, and his life, rule, and eventual exile from the fictional country of Zembla.

The most interesting aspect of he book is that it never really entirely answers many of the questions it raises. From reading Kinbote's commentary, it's possible to pick up clues and put together a rough draft of what may have happened, but, in conjunction with that, Kinbote's own confessions of the reactions of others to his friendship with Shade (particularly Shade's wife) are revealing: virtually everyone thinks he's crazy, and it's difficult to tell if even his romanticized friendship with Shade himself is being told in the truest possible light. The entire novel is like a puzzle box, with each bit of commentary shifting other bits side-to-side until a vague pattern begins emerging.

Lest I make it sound like a plotless bore, Pale Fire is quite funny at points, both because of Kinbote's eccentric narration and because of the book's satire of literary criticism in general. The final third of the book is quite plot heavy, such as it could be in its format, and is really pretty exciting. Still, the book works best if you enjoy reading books as intellectual exercises in addition to just pure entertainment. I'm going to read it again someday. Maybe after I've read 30 more books, I'll be smart enough to understand it all.

1 comment:

Carlton said...

Pale Fire...more like Pale Fairy.