Pale Fire, by Vladimir Nabokov
There are some writers whose creativity is so great and whose way of writing and thinking are so elusive that they become classic authors of all-time works without others being able to get a good handle on them. Such is the case with this book, a short novel that is a deeply layered work that serves as a multi-layered parody that even amounts in some cases to a self-effacing self-parody. As is often the case in Nabokov’s novels, most of the work involved is in dealing with an unreliable narrator whose interests and bias may far too easily lead the reader away from what the author considers to be the most important aspects of humanity in the sadness faced by a plain young woman whose despair at being unloved leads her to commit suicide after a disastrous blind date with a very ungracious young man. And as is all too common in Nabokov’s work, I find myself feeling deeply empathetic with the humane and kind and all too often tragic characters in this novel, of which besides the young woman who committed suicide is her father, a poet who died soon after completing a long poem (“Pale Fire”) when he is set upon by someone attempting to assassinate a former king of a decrepit African nation who is the unreliable narrator of most of the novel.
There are three parts to the novel. The first part is a Foreword by Charles Kinbote, the deposed former king of Zembla, that not only describes the poem but also manages to talk about himself almost as much as the poet or the poem itself. After this comes a beautiful modernist poem in “Pale Fire” that has the author reflecting on the course of his life, the death of his daughter, and on various aspects of interest to him in the sort of work that one would be familiar with in reading the similar poetry of a young T.S. Eliot or other poets of that generation. And then, after that, the next more than 150 pages consist of one of the worst imaginable commentaries on a poem, one that bears little relation to the poem itself and consists of Kinbote rambling on about his own loss of power, his efforts at staying ahead of those who would do him harm, and his own friendship with the poet. He seems to think that the poet’s lack of interest in making the poem an epic about Zembla is due to some sort of censorship rather than the fact that the poet had other things on his mind, including people who were not nearly as self-absorbed and mentally unbalanced as the commentator was.
Among the joys of this novel is the way that Nabokov manages to slip in at least one humorous reference to his own previous novel Lolita, which had become a scandalous success and that the self-absorbed narrator manages to completely misunderstand, not knowing why anyone would mention Lolita in a poem written in the late 1950’s because he had apparently never heard of it himself. In general, Nobokov seems to be playing at the ways in which people write about books without really understanding them, revealing themselves in the course of their reviews and not being very insightful about the writings that they are purportedly reviewing and commenting upon. It is rather characteristic of the man, I suppose, that Nabokov would deal with the problem of unreliable readers and reviewers and commentators by writing a book which spoofs the terrible reviewing and comments of a thoughtful work of poetry, demonstrating his viewpoint and perspective in a way that is easy to understand and which anticipates the terrible misreadings of writings by later members of the academy involved in textual criticism in such a way that the sensitive reader of this book is left to ponder upon their own biases and filters that keep them from reading books as thoughtfully as they deserve sometimes.