Monday, January 15, 2018
Pale Fire online reading group, Week One
Vladimir Nabokov in the 1960s. Via Wikipedia, described as being in the public domain in Italy.
Pale Fire is a Jack-in-the-box, a Faberge gem, a clockwork toy, a chess problem, an infernal machine, a trap to catch reviewers, a cat-and-mouse game, a do-it-yourself kit ... This centaur-work of Nabokov's, half-poem, half-prose, this merman of the deep, is a creature of perfect beauty, symmetry, strangeness, originality and moral truth.
-- Mary McCarthy's review of Pale Fire, quoted in Nabokov's Pale Fire by Brian Boyd.
Pale Fire, Vladimir Nabokov's 1962, was published seven years after Nabokov's best-known work, Lolita, a best seller that allowed Nabokov to retire from his job as a college professor at Cornell University in Ithaca. Pale Fire is a personal favorite of many Nabokov fans, including me. Brian Boyd, arguably the world's most important Nabokov scholar, calls it Nabokov's finest novel.
For the first week of the discussion, please read the Foreword. It's only 12 pages of text in my paperback copy of the book.
Pale Fire has an unusual format for a novel. It consists of a poem, "Pale Fire," a poem in four cangtoes ostensibly written by American poet John Shade, that takes up about 25 pages of text. The rest of the book is a discussion of the book by a college professor and friend of Shade's, Charles Kinbote, who evidently, like Nabokov was, is a literature professor from Eastern Europe who has come to America and taken a job at an American university. Pale Fire has a Foreword, the poem itself, a long Commentary section, and in Index.
The Foreward is a good introduction to the book as a whole, and whether you find portions of it funny and interesting is a good clue to whether you should go on with the rest of the book.
The first paragraph is a precise and careful discussion of the physical manuscript of the poem, just as you would expect from an English professor from an upper tier American university, but it's not long until the professor begins to inject himself into the manuscript in inappropriate (and hilarious) ways. In the third paragraph, Kinbote suddenly writes, "There is a very loud amusement park right in front of my present lodgings."
The rest of the Foreword mixes appropriate discussion of the matter at hand with personal anecdotes that introduce the reader to Kinbote and his situation and to his friend and late colleague, Shade. There's soon an indication that the book involves much more than an academic monograph on a poem: "...I was forced to leave New Wye after my last interview with the jailed killer." (Page 4. All of my page numbers are from an old Berkley mass market paperback; I hope the page numbers will be at least close to whatever edition you are reading.)
A few notes on the text:
Page 4: Note that Kinbote refers to having to find "a new incognito." He writes the Foreword from a motel in Cedarn, Utana, a fictitious Midwestern state.
Page 7: The Foreward has totally inappropriate references to Kinbote's sexual interest in young men: A girl student is "pulpous," but a boy is "delicate" and "rather wonderful." When the department chairman on Page 9 calls him in to discuss a complaint by a boy to the student's advisor, Kinbote laughs "in sheer relief" to find out it's only about Kinbote's disparagement of another professor.
Page 10: Another premonition of what's to come: A woman in a grocery store tells Kinbote, "What's more, you are insane."
I enjoyed the passages which highlight Nabokov's gift for vivid description, as in the view from a New York skyscraper, "in the midst of a vast sunset (we sat in a cell of walnut and glass fifty stories above the progression of scarabs)" Page 4.
"... the suburban house (rented for my use from Judge Goldsworth who had gone on his Sabbatical to England" (page 5). Nabokov himself never owned a house, but instead stayed in the homes of absent college professors and in other temporary lodgings. He lived from 1961 until his death in 1977 in a hotel in Montreaux, Switzerland.