Monday, January 29, 2018
Pale Fire online reading group, Week Three
Cornell University, the Ivy League school where Nabokov taught for about a decade. (Creative Commons photo).
This week we begin the "Commentary" section of the book. Let's go for about 17 pages, covering the analysis through line 61. In my old mass market paperback, that's pages 45-61. In any edition, read until Kinbote begins the discussion of line 62.
The commentary is essentially a collection of footnotes, and often within them, the book refers the reader to another footnote -- much as in Robert Anton Wilson's The Widow's Son, the footnotes refer to each other. Eric Wagner says that Pale Fire influenced Wilson when Wilson was writing The Widow's Son.
Brian Boyd, in his book length commentary on the novel, Nabokov's Pale Fire, says that readers are meant to follow Nabokov's references to other portions of the commentary and gain early information about what is "really" going on.
This is the section which is ostensibly a literary analysis of John Shade's poem, but it doesn't take long for apparently personal material to intrude, often in funny and odd ways. Why is it relevant, for example, on the first page of the commentary, that our critic is repulsed by the "gusto" in which robins in his yard gobble up worms?
And also very soon, the ostensible literary commentary gives us details of the sad story of the Eastern European king Charles, whose reign "will be remembered by at least a few discerning historians as a peaceful and elegant one" (page 46, commentary to line 12).
The "would-be regicide Gradus" (page 46, end of commentary to lines 1-4) will be an important element of the plot.
Page 47, although Kinbote makes a half-hearted attempt to make it sound like he is talking about someone else (he resembles "my disguised king" page 47), it's clear that the professor knows more about the daily life of the monarch than he ought to. It's already possible for the reader that Kinbote "is" (or believes himself to be) King Charles.
Commentary to lines 47-48, I thought the satire on the detailed instructions from landlords was really funny. My wife and I often stay in rented houses, so I could appreciate it. Nabokov never owned a home in the U.S. and often stayed in the rented homes of faculty members away on sabbatical.
Kinbote apparently does not realize how bad he looks when he describes spying on his neighbor.