“…what makes a work of fiction safe from larvae and rust is not its social importance but its art, only its art”. – Vladimir Nabokov, 1964
Written by Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire centers around an eponymous fictional 999-line poem and contains a fictional foreword, commentary and index. The commentator is the character Charles Kinbote, who introduces himself as a friend and neighbor of the poet, John Shade. Kinbote explains that Shade had been murdered on the day that the poem was finished, and that he had been entrusted to publish the poem with his own literary commentary. He claims to be from a country named Zembla – a “distant Northern land.”
The poem itself is written in iambic pentameter and rhyming couplets, divided into four cantos, or sections. It concerns the poet’s life, the death of his daughter and musings on death and the creative process.
Then comes the commentary, where all hell breaks loose. First of all, the commentary dwarfs the actual poem by 147 pages, taking up the bulk of the book. Our commentator, Kinbote, starts off by analysing the first lines, the famous “I was the shadow of the waxwing slain/By the false azure of the windowpane.” The reader initially gets some good insights to the poet’s life and analysis of the poem itself. Then, like an ominous ghost, a story about Kinbote’s own country, Zembla, starts to pop up everywhere and swell like cancer, until the reader realizes that Kinbote has sabotaged the study of the poem and turned the book into his own deranged narrative.
Three stories intertwine throughout the novel: the plot of the poem itself, Kinbote’s own story about his relationship with the poet and Kinbote’s tale of his country, Zembla. Being the brilliant mind that he is, Nabokov weaves these narratives together expertly. Not only this, but he plants numerous references to literature and culture throughout the book like hidden jewels. The Wikipedia page lists them all, and one glance at it convinces you that you’d have to have a Ph.D. in literature, botany and lepidopterology, to find and understand them all.
For example: Canto Three starts with these lines:
“L’if, lifeless tree! Your great Maybe, Rabelais:/The grand potato”.
What does this mean? What’s “l’if”? What’s the grand potato? You Google “Rabelais”, but can’t find out what a potato has to do with him. When you finally arrive at the commentary for these lines, a hundred pages later, you find out that “l’if” means “tree” in French, hence “lifeless tree” (pun on “life”). Then there’s also this:
“I remember form my school-rrom days Rabelais’ soi-disant ‘last words’…Je m’en vais chercher le grand peut-étre.”
Google translate time. That French phrase means “I’m gonna get the great maybe (death).” If you click the button that pronounces the sentence you’ll notice that “peut-être” sounds vaguely like “potato”. Hence the grand potato.
“How the heck is that funny?” you may exclaim. “Why do I have to do all this work to decipher this crap?” Taken out of context, that whole thing did seem like a bored old professor’s trick. But one of the book’s prominent themes is death, and if you had been riding along with the narrative, you’ll realize that this was a brilliant, ironic ridicule of Death and the afterlife. And yes, the whole book is scattered with stuff like this. Some are more blatant than others. If you know both baseball and Keats well, you’ll have no problem with chuckling at: “A curio: Red Sox Beat Yanks 5-4/On Chapman’s Homer, thumbtacked to the door”.
Keep in mind that this was written in 1962, when people had to go to libraries to find stuff out. But the Internet won’t help if we can’t even recognize some of the more subliminal references. So why even bother reading it? Because it flows with beauty and pleasure. Its language is crafted with virtuosity. Its images are dazzling. Its lyricism is breathtaking. Its intellectuality is challenging and stimulating. It’s a great, enrapturing story. It’s perfect in form and structure. It will surely keep me coming back year after year to see how many more “jewels” I’ll be able to find.
I have only scratched the surface of the book. My goal was to get you to experience this pinnacle of literature for yourself, and I hope I kinda accomplished that. Nabokov wrote novels unlike anything people ever read, and Pale Fire is the grand testimony to that.