“PALE FIRE,” THE POEM ...
December 2, 2011
“PALE FIRE,” THE POEM: DOES IT STAND ALONE AS A MASTERPIECE?
Posted by Giles Harvey
Some books, like “The Institutionalist Approach to Public Utility Regulation,” defeat commentary; others, like “Ulysses,” invite it. “Pale Fire,” Vladimir Nabokov’s resplendent rare bird of a novel, comes with its own commentary built in. The novel has four distinct sections: 1) a short foreword by one Charles Kinbote, who has come into possession of a manuscript of the final work by his neighbor and academic colleague, the celebrated poet John Shade; 2) the text of Shade’s opus, “Pale Fire”—“a poem in heroic couplets, of nine hundred ninety-nine lines, divided into four cantos”; 3) a long commentary on “Pale Fire” by Kinbote (of which more shortly); and 4) a thorough, over-thorough index.
The foreword tells us that Shade has recently died and that Kinbote, ignoring the pleas of Shade’s widow and numerous academic Shadeans, has absconded with the manuscript of “Pale Fire” to the Northwest, where, in a rented “tumble-down ranch,” he sets about annotating the poem. As everyone who has read or even heard about “Pale Fire” knows, Kinbote’s commentary gets everything wrong: it is an anthology of delusion. Intrusive, lonely, desperate, and deranged, Kinbote tips his psychological hand early on when he begins to talk, in suspiciously intimate detail, about a certain king, Charles the Beloved, who is supposed to have ruled over the “distant northern land” of Zembla from 1936 until 1958, when a leftish insurrection toppled his reign and forced him into exile.
It doesn’t take us long to realize that Kinbote is, or believes himself to be, this king, and that he has spent the previous six months regaling Shade with stories of Charles the Beloved in the hope that he would transform them into art. “Oh, I did not expect him to devote himself completely to that theme!” writes Kinbote, trying to choke back his anguish on realizing that Shade’s poem, an essentially autobiographical meditation on time, memory, and the afterlife, makes no mention of Zembla and its deposed monarch. “It might have been blended of course with some of his own life stuff and sundry Americana—but I was sure his poem would contain the wonderful incidents I had described to him, the characters I had made alive for him and the unique atmosphere of my kingdom.”
Aghast, Kinbote sets about reinstating all the precious material excluded by Shade. The resultant “commentary”—which includes a hair-raising narrative of the king’s escape across Zembla’s Bera mountain range, a blow-by-blow account of a bungled assassination plot, learned asides on Zemblan history (with special focus on the members of its royal family), and plenty else besides—is perhaps the most entertaining two hundred pages of fiction ever written. Like a greedy man at the buffet over-filling his plate, Kinbote can’t help larding his prose with one more personal disclosure, and then another, and another. A typical note begins:
Line 130: I never bounced a ball or swung a bat
Frankly I too never excelled in soccer and cricket; I am a passable horseman, a vigorous though unorthodox skier, a good skater, a tricky wrestler, and an enthusiastic mountain climber.
Given the ludic vitality of Kinbote’s portions of the book, it is not surprising that Shade’s subtle, meticulously wrought poem should have received short shrift. Most readers tend to think of the poem as the grace that must be perfunctorily said before we sit down to the meal of the commentary. It is this imbalance that a new edition of “Pale Fire” seeks to redress. In a move that is likely to irritate and scandalize many, Gingko Press has lifted Shade’s poem from Nabokov’s novel and published it as a separate book. (They are not, incidentally, the first to have done this.)
That’s not all, however. The new edition, housed in a deluxe, cloth-bound, fold-out box, also contains a “facsimile” of Shade’s manuscript which accords with the description Kinbote provides in his foreword: “eighty medium-sized index cards, on each of which Shade reserved the pink upper line for headings (canto number, date) and used the fourteen light-blue lines for writing with a fine nib in a minute, tidy, remarkably clear hand, the text of his poem, skipping a line to indicate double space, and always using a fresh card to begin a new canto.”
In one respect, the Gingko Press “Pale Fire” is a fetishist’s dream, an extravagant plaything to be unpacked and fondled with glee. (Nabokov: “One should notice and fondle details.”) In another, it is a serious statement about how seriously we ought to take Nabokov’s longest and most ambitious piece of verse. The new edition also comes with a svelte booklet containing two essays, by the Nabokov biographer Brian Boyd and the distinguished poet R. S. Gwynn, both of which argue passionately for the aesthetic splendor and autonomy of “Pale Fire” the poem.
“We have not paid Shade and his poem the respect, the care in reading, they deserve,” Boyd writes, before launching into an intimidatingly rigorous formal analysis that includes sentences such as this one: “Within and between quatrains, [Nabokov] amasses phonic repetitions: the the ss and ws of quatrain 1, the ‘silent thought … sigh … sought’ echoed by quatrain 2’s ‘sight,’ the ‘thought … thing … thing … sought’ echoed in the couplet’s ‘think,’ and the first line’s ‘silent thought’ answered in the penultimate line’s ‘while I think.’ ” (Boyd’s toiling italics.)
Gwynn, taking a more literary historical approach, argues that the rise of “confessional” poets like Lowell, Plath, and Sexton in the nineteen-fifties created a critical climate hostile to Nabokov’s coy and playful verse. (“Pale Fire” was published in 1962.) “With the publication of Lolita,” Gwynn writes, “Nabokov had been hailed as a master of English prose and of the American idiom as well; it is not much of a leap of faith to suspect that this ambitious poem by the most competitive of authors was an attempt to establish himself as firmly in the canon of American poetry as he had done in prose. His failure to do so has little to do with the quality of the poem; it is more a function of a period during which American poetry was in the process of redefining itself.”
I did some canvassing to see what the literati made of such claims. Dan Chiasson, The New Yorker’s poetry critic and himself a feted poet, was not convinced: “Part of Nabokov’s seriously irritating genius is to have baited the hook with a poem that people would be tempted to praise, even to praise over ‘real’ Modern poems. (Eliot especially courses through the poem—the word ‘sempiternal,’ for example, comes straight out of ‘Four Quartets.’) It’s a prank, and for that reason, ‘Pale Fire’ [the novel] is a pretty tedious and minor work of art according to my own personal canon. On its own, the poem is probably a better prank, a more subtle one—and in that one way, I guess, ‘better’—but to say it’s great poetry is just absurd.”
Chiasson is not wrong about the prank-like quality of “Pale Fire”—the book tricks us into thinking it’s one thing (a poem, loaded down with the usual academic appurtenances) before we realize it is in fact something else altogether (a novel!)—but pranks were something Nabokov took very seriously. Indeed, practical jokes of one kind or another abound in his work (see, for example, the first chapter of “The Gift,” which is structured around a deeply cruel April Fool’s Day prank). “All art is deception,” Nabokov once said in an interview, “and so is nature; all is deception in that good cheat, from the insect that mimics a leaf to the popular enticements of procreation.”
Paul Muldoon, another great contemporary poet and The New Yorker’s poetry editor, had more sympathy than Chiasson for claims about the poem’s stand-alone magnificence, and hit upon an apt image for the hermeneutic quandaries it poses: “I do think ‘Pale Fire’ is a quite wonderful poem, though it’s hard to read it as an entirely discrete entity. Isn’t it like one of those tall buildings which incorporates in its core the very crane that raised it?”
It was a novelist, Arthur Phillips, who had the most enthusiastic words for Shade. Phillips’s own recent novel, the at once technically virtuosic and humanly moving “The Death of Arthur,” takes the form of an introduction to a newly discovered Shakespeare play (and includes the text of the play itself), and is clearly a descendant of “Pale Fire.” Said Phillips:
My strongest impression on this nth re-reading is that the poem is really a novel in verse. Vivid and thoroughly drawn characters, scenes, themes, tragedies large and small, recurring images and motifs. Even without the marvels of the novel “Pale Fire,” the poem “Pale Fire” is a little novel in itself. And, as a rhyming novella, there’s really no question who wrote it. Only the novel makes it a poem by Shade; without the Commentary, the poem could only be by Nabokov. The language, the languages, the butterflies, the literary jokes (Chapman’s homer will make me happy until I am a walking shade). And, as such, it deserves to be published on its own, as a poem by Nabokov. The greatest poem of its century? I’m not ready to go that far, even as I’m ready to call its proper housing the greatest novel of the century.
Personally, I’m with Phillips. The poem is a pleasure trove of wonders, like everything Nabokov wrote. Take the literary joke Phillips mentions, for example, from the passage where Shade describes his eccentric aunt Maude’s room, which is kept intact after her death:
Its trivia create
A still life in her style: the paperweight
Of convex glass enclosing a lagoon,
The verse book open at the Index (Moon,
Moonrise, Moor, Moral), the forlorn guitar,
The human skull; and from the local Star
A curio: Red Sox Beat Yanks 5-4
On Chapman’s Homer, thumbtacked to the door.
A master of the list, Nabokov shrewdly saves the best detail for last, and yet everything here is a keeper. (Kinbote, who is capable of misconstruing anything, glosses the final line thus: “A reference to the title of Keats’ famous sonnet (often quoted in America) which, owing to a printer’s absentmindedness, has been drolly transposed, from some other article, into the account of a sports event.” That final “sports event” is a touch of brilliance that simultaneously conveys Kinbote’s rarified aloofness and his poignant cultural alienation: despite having lived in America for some time, he doesn’t even know what baseball is.)
Of course, the poem is not without its weaknesses—occasionally it devolves into a kind of presssureless, hyperpersonal chitchat that is reminiscent of John Updike’s light verse at its most pedestrian. Occasionally it shows a weakness for what Nabokov, in an earlier novel, called “the doubtful splendors of virtuosity.” It is hard not to feel in the following passage, for example, that the razor-blade commercial is just a pretext for the burnished ingenuity of Nabokov’s description of it:
I have my doubts about the one-armed bloke
Who in commercials with one gliding stroke
Clears a smooth path of flesh from ear to chin,
Then wipes his face and fondly tries his skin.
But let’s not be coy. The commentary may constitute the main attraction, but as this lavish new edition reminds us, the poem is itself a doozy that bristles with all the humor, yearning, pathos, and metaphysical wit that have become synonymous with Nabokov’s name. Here are the famous opening lines, which reveal the writer’s imagination in full flight and, among other things, give us a catalog of some of nature’s most artful pranks:
I was the shadow of the waxwing slain
By the false azure in the windowpane;
I was the smudge of ashen fluff—and I
Lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky.
And from the inside, too, I’d duplicate
Myself, my lamp, an apple on a plate:
Uncurtaining the night, I’d let dark glass
Hang all the furniture above the grass,
And how delightful when a fall of snow
Covered my glimpse of lawn and reached up so
As to make chair and bed exactly stand
Upon that snow, out in that crystal land!
Photograph of Nabokov by Horst Tappe/Pix Inc./Time Life Pictures/Getty Images
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