Nabokov's sensible biographer Brian Boyd ...
John Crowley Little and Big
The Waxwing Slain
Jul. 26th, 2010 at 8:30 AM
I suppose it's not unusual really, just more apparent to me because I've followed it, but it seems to me odd that Vladimir Nabokov of all writers seems to attract critics and commentators who are themselves rather crude, sometimes slapstick-crude. The rather strange Ron Rosenbaum, who had strong (but successively contradictory) opinions about whether the Nabokov fragment "The Original of Laura" should have been published, now weighs in on whether an equally elaborately produced stand-alone edition of the poem in "Pale Fire" is justified. (He's positive.) His critical thinking about the poem, the book, Nabokov, and other things seems offkey.
The poem/novel does seem to elicit very weird responses. Nabokov's sensible biographer Brian Boyd once got hold of the idea that the poem was "really" written by the ghost of Hazel, the (imagined) poet's dead daughter. Andrew Field, a truly bizarre and almost always wrong-headed (actually rather Nabokovian) figure in Nabokov studies, had the idea that the whole book, poem and crazy commentary, were "really" written by John Shade, the poet (did Shade then not die in the course of the story? Not told.) The justification for the new stand-alone edition of the poem (which reproduces the index cards on which Shade "actually" wrote the poem, including the pencilled "variants" that the mad commentator cherishes, I guess) depends on our appreciation of the poem as an "actual" poem "really" written as a poem by Nabokov himself, and to be admired on its own as a "real" poem. The original commentators -- including Mary McCarthy as I remember -- dismissed the poem as not the work of a great poet, as Shade is claimed to be.
This odd determination to discover something "really" behind the novel's surface assertions seems to me bewildering. If any novel ever written fends off such inquiries by its very nature it's this one. Is that not actually its greatest achievement? It's often claimed that Kinbote is a madman and delusional. But that's only trivially the case. It's far more important that in constructing Kinbote and his semblance of a world ("Zembla") Nabokov has counterpoised one semblance of a world with another, the commonplace world of John Shade's New England, which is also an illusion -- the poem is autobiographical even though the poet is imaginary; thus it has built-in limits as sincere or "real" poetry that are central to its power. However fine it must be radically insincere. The two worlds of Pale Fire are like the two worlds of Ada, only in Pale Fire both are given equivalent and therefore mutually destructive ontological standing. Why would critics who love Nabokov want to refute this? It's like theologians in love with God who can't keep pondering supposed paradoxes and contradictions about God that if accepted at face value radically diminish the idea of God.
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