Saturday, July 08, 2017

Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov

(Book Review)

So... left to my own devices, I probably would never have picked up this book.   For a couple of different reasons.

First of all, I'd never heard of it before it was suggested for bookclub.  (I knew the author, Vladimir Nabokov, by reputation, of course.  He's most famous for writing Lolita.  But I had never read any of his books before, and I never knew about Pale Fire.)

Secondly, this is one of those post modern stories, where it's not entirely clear what is happening, and multiple interpretations are possible.
And me...I'm a simple man who likes his stories to be straightforward.

But, I ended up reading this book anyway, because I'm in a bookclub now, and sometimes in a bookclub you read stuff that other people suggest.

It was fair enough actually.  I'd had my own way for far too long in this book.  (The last 3 books we'd read, Down and Out in Paris and London, A Passage to India, and Lady Chatterley's Lover, had all been my suggestions.)  I sent the bookclub a long list of other books I was interested in reading, but in the end, we went with someone else's suggestion.

...And I have to say... I was actually pleasantly surprised by this one.  Despite the fact that it's a post modern novel in which multiple interpretations are possible, it still has a fairly straightforward surface reading, and I was pleasantly surprised by the various plot twists as I gradually figured out what was going on.

My enjoyment of the novel was increased by the fact that I had no fore-knowledge of this novel going into it, and so had no idea what to expect.

Nowadays most books are spoiled by their own cover, but I was lucky because we used a PDF copy of the book.  (It would have been impossible to find it in the bookstores here in Saigon, so someone in our bookclub downloaded a PDF copy off of the Internet.)
This PDF mercifully contained no information about the book.  No blurb on the back cover, no publisher's introduction, nothing.
So I went into the book completely blank.

And if at all possible, that's the best way to read this book.  Don't read anything online about it, don't read the back cover, don't read the publisher's introduction, just ignore everything and go in completely blind.

Which means, if you think you might ever want to read this book someday, it's probably best to stop reading this review now.  Spoilers ahead.


Okay, so, if you're still reading, here's the plot of the book.

The book consists of  a poem, and also a commentary on that same poem.  Although in reality everything is being written by the author Vladimir Nabokov, in the world of the novel the poem and the commentary are written by two different people.  The poet is named John Shade, and the commentator is named Charles Kinbote.

There is a short forward to the poem, written by Charles Kinbote, in which we get some hint of the madness which is to follow.  It appears that John Shade is a famous poet who has recently died.  Pale Fire was John Shade's last great poem before his death, and the poem is being published posthumously by Charles Kinbote, who is also supplying the notes and commentary to the poem.  There is also some sort of controversy  which is only vaguely hinted at in the Forward.  It appears that Charles Kinbote has gotten ahold of John Shade's last poem against the wishes of John Shade's colleagues and John Shade's widow, and they have been trying to prevent Charles Kinbote from publishing the poem with his commentary.  But Charles Kinbote is certain that only he can explain John Shade's poem, and so he is going ahead with the publication against their wishes.

Charles Kinbote asserts that John Shade's poem can only be understood with his notes, and so he advises the reader to read the notes first.  "Although those notes, in conformity with custom, come after the poem, the reader is advised to consult them first and then study the poem with their help, rereading them of course as he goes through its text, and perhaps, after having done with the poem, consulitng them a third time so as to complete the picture." (p.14 of The Forward)

Despite Charles Kinbote's assertion that the poem should not be read without his notes, the poem follows next, and it is completely possible to read it without any notes.

It's a long poem--4 Cantos made up of 999 lines.  (In my copy, which admittedly has pretty large print, the poem takes up pages 16 through 49).

The first few stanzas of the poem I found confusing, but if you stick with the poem it starts to make sense soon enough.
It's primarily a narrative poem, autobiographical in nature.  But mixed in with details of John Shade's life are his thoughts on aging, and death, and the likelihood of an afterlife.  And the story of his daughter's suicide.

If you search the Internet, commentary on the poem is all over the board.  (For a discussion of the diverse views, see: “Pale Fire,” the Poem: Does It Stand Alone as a Masterpiece? from The New Yorker).
Some people think the poem is wonderful on its own, and some publishers have even gone as far as to publish the poem as a complete work on its own.
Other people think that Nabokov deliberately made a flawed poem as a way of mocking the style of Robert Frost or John Updike.  They point to the poem's flawed rhythm or other literary shortcomings.

Me?  Call me a philistine if you will, but I thought the poem was beautiful. And devastating.  (I say "devastating" because the poem forced me to think about aging, and death, and the uncertainty of an afterlife--subjects that I usually do my best to avoid thinking about.)

Then we get to Charles Kinbote's commentary.

Charles Kinbote is an unreliable narrator.  (Did I mention this was a post-modern book?)  But gradually, by reading between the lines of what Kinbote is saying, and also by noticing how defensive he is about certain subjects, the reader begins to get an idea of what really is going on.

It turns out that Charles Kinbote barely knew John Shade--he was John Shade's neighbor, and he was an obsessive fan of John Shade, and he had been stalking John Shade.  But he was never an intimate friend of John Shade (as he claimed to be.)

Furthermore, Charles Kinbote mistakenly believes the whole poem is about him--even though the poem obviously has nothing to do with him.
So, throughout the commentary, Charles Kinbote keeps trying to hijack the poem--to explain why this  or that particular line is really a veiled allusion to himself.

As I gradually realized what was happening, I completely fell in love with this book.  "Oh man!  This is genius!" I thought to myself.   "An entire commentary on a poem written by someone who clearly doesn't understand the poem."
Now we see clearly why John Shade's old friends and widow are so upset that Kinbote has obtained the rights to the poem.
It was too funny--the image of John Shade's family and friends all furious at the situation, but legally powerless to do anything about it as Kinbote published John Shade's last poem with his lengthy nonsensical commentary!  I found myself almost forgetting that Kinbote and Shade were fictional, and imagining that a madman really had gotten hold to the publishing rights of a dead poet's last great poem!  And then, once I reminded myself that it was fictional, I found myself regretting that such a ridiculous situation never occurred in real life.

It also made me in awe of all the work that Nabokov must have put into this book.  Imagine writing a poem as beautiful and devastating as Pale Fire, and then just using that poem as a set-up for an extended joke about a clueless commentator.  Nabokov was so talented he could afford to write such a great poem just for the joke!

The first 70 or so pages, as I gradually realized what was happening, were the most enjoyable of the whole book.  But at our mid-way book club meeting, I expressed concern that the best part of the book was already over.
"Now that I've gotten the joke," I said, "What's left?  There's just another 150 pages of commentary to wade through."
My friend Tom pointed out that there were several little easter eggs left to be resolved.  We still needed to find out how John Shade had died, and how Kinbote had gotten the publishing rights to the poem.

In the end, we were both right.  Tom was right that these little easter eggs were gradually revealed, and that this provided sufficient motivation to keep reading.  But I was also right in predicting that nothing in the second half of the book equaled the surprise in the first 70 pages.

I'll now get into the second half of the book, and this time I'm going to spoil absolutely everything about the plot.  So last chance to stop reading.


In the course of Kinbote's lengthy commentary on John Shade's poem, 4 separate themes emerge.
1) Kinbote's recounting his relationship with John Shade
2) Kinbote's recounting his own past life as King of a country called Zembla
3) Kinbote's recounting the adventures of Gradus, the man who attempted to assassinate him (and accidentally killed John Shade in the process)
and finally: 4) some actual useful commentary on the text of the poem itself.

Tastes may vary, but of these 4 themes, I found the most interesting was Kinbote's recounting his relationship with John Shade.  This was amusing because it was obvious to the reader that Shade was deliberately keeping Kinbote at arm's length, and yet Kinbote keeps insisting they were intimate friends.  Also, these sections contain all the details of every time that Kinbote perceived himself slighted by John Shade's wife or John Shade's friends, and so it has the human interest element of gossip and drama.

Interspersed with this is Kinbote's own story as the exiled king of the country of Zembla.
At first, Kinbote refers to the king of Zembla only in the 3rd person, and makes a distinction between himself and his king.  But as the commentary goes on, he starts forgetting to keep this distinction clear.  At first it is just a couple slip ups, but eventually he is explicitly identifying himself with the person of the exiled King.
Since we already know Kinbote is an unreliable narrator, the obvious question is how much of this is true, and how much of this is his delusion?
Zembla, of course, doesn't exist in our world.  But it was initially unclear to me whether Zembla was a real place within the world of the novel.
At the first meeting of our book club, it was 2 against 1.  I maintained that Zembla really was a real place within the world of the novel, and Kinbote really was an exiled king.  How else to explain his elaborate backstory?
The other two members were of the opinion that Zembla was yet another one of Kinbote's delusions.
By the end of the book, it was clear that Kinbote was delusional, and that there was no Zembla.

So what to make about the extended narrations describing the adventures of the King of Zembla?  Herein lies one of the puzzles to this novel.  Some commentators see it as a metaphor for elements of Kinbote's life, other people think he constructed a fantasy life as a reaction against his life.

What I can say, however, is that these sections on the adventures of the Zemblan king were very boring to read through, in part because it was so nonsensical, and in part because it was written in a thick, plodding prose.
The rest of my book club agreed that these sections were boring to read through.  Someone suggested that Nabokov made these sections boring on purpose to show what a terrible narrator Kinbote is.
Perhaps that's giving Nabokov too much credit?  (Surely every author who writes boring prose shouldn't be able to claim it was intentional!)  But on the other hand, the more engaging sections of the book do indicate that Nabokov can write interesting prose when he wants to, so maybe there's something to that theory.
Or maybe the fact that I was bored by it reflect my limitations as a reader.  (If you look up the criticism of this book, you'll find that the literati are absolutely in love with it.  So if I didn't dig all of it, maybe that's on me.)

The third plot thread is Gradus.
Gradus is an assassin who Kinbote believes was sent from Zembla to kill him.  Kinbote constructs an elaborate backstory for Gradus, and recounts the whole backstory to the reader.
Just as the sections about the adventures of the Zemblan King, Gradus's adventures start out reasonably believable, but gradually get more and more ridiculous until the reader can't help concluding this is also just another part of Kinbote's fantasies.
And then at the end, we find out that Gradus is in reality a man named Jack Gray who escaped from the local mental asylum and killed John Shade.  Kinbote was convinced this man was trying to assassinate him, and only killed John Shade by accident, and so conducted the elaborate backstory for him.
Also, as with the sections on the Zemblan King, the story of Gradus was written in a thick prose that I found boring to read.  And my bookclub agreed with me.  Once again, whether Nabokov did this on purpose or not, I'm not sure.

Finally, intermixed with all of Kinbote's bizarre fantasies, there is actually some useful commentary on the poem.
A running joke throughout the commentary is how Kinbote misses all the literary allusions in the poem.  (One example of many: Kinbote claims that the only Shakespeare play that he has with him in his log cabin is Timon of Athens, and yet Kinbote completely misses the fact that the very name of the poem, Pale Fire, comes from Timon of Athens).
And yet, from time to time, Kinbote does actually provide some useful information about the poem.

For example, the very first lines of the poem (I was the shadow of the waxwing slain,  By the false azure in the windowpane) I would never have understood without Kinbote's commentary.
Kinbote also has a lot of extra information about John Shade's family, and particularly about the supernatural investigations of the daughter Hazel Shade, that he puts into his commentary.
This actually does appear to clear up some of the meaning of parts of the poem.
Of course, since we know that Kinbote is an unreliable narrator, it's unclear how much we can trust any of this.

I'd never heard of this book before my friend recommended it for bookclub, but it does have a reputation.  The literati love this book. Nabokov himself apparently said of this book that it " full of plums that I keep hoping somebody will find." And, according to Wikipedia: "Pale Fire has spawned a wide variety of interpretations and a large body of written criticism, which Finnish literary scholar Pekka Tammi estimated in 1995 as more than 80 studies."  There are whole books written on various interpretations of Pale Fire.

To those of us who don't work in a college English department, the whole thing seems kind of silly.  Especially since some of this scholarship was published when Nabokov was still alive.  I mean, why didn't they just ask him?  And why didn't he just come out and clear everything up?

I know, I know.  According to the established convention, the author is not supposed to interfere with the interpretation of his work.
But for those of us not employed by a college English department, these conventions can seem a little bit silly and dogmatic.
It can also seem, if I'm being cynical, like a way for a generation of literature professors to keep their jobs.
But I suppose that's how the game is played.
And if society can afford to pay millions of dollars to pop singers and basketball players, I suppose we can collectively afford to support a few literature professors who make their living out of trying to deconstruct the novels of other literature professors.

The good news, for us non-literary types, is that this book at least has a surface reading which is readable.  Even if it's unclear how much of Kinbote's story is true, and how much is false, it is at least a straightforward story that can be read and understood.  So it's not as bad as reading Joyce or T.S. Eliot.

Connections to Other Books I've Read
* The poem contains allusions to Sherlock Holmes and The Brothers Karamazov.

* Some commentators believe that the country of Zembla comes from the novel The Prisoner of Zenda.

* Some commentators believe that Kinbote and Gradus represent are the same person--a la Jekyll and Hyde.  See HERE for further explanation of that interpretation.

Facebook Posts
For whatever they may or may not be worth, I'll duplicate some of the discussion here that we had on our Facebook page for the bookclub.

May 30, 2017
Tom posted:
I'll bring this up at the book club meeting as well, but since I'm here, I suggest this as our next book. It has been in my "to-read" list for years, and it simply demands to be read as a part of a group.
Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov

I commented:

I was having a look at this online just now.
I've got to be honest, this may be too much for me. I'm not sure I can understand this.
[Editor's note: I withdrew this objection to the book once Tom explained to me that the above link was just the poem, and that the novel mainly consisted of a commentary on the poem.]

Oliver commented:

Ive read his autobiography: speak, memory. Dudes prose is fucking insane

May 31, 2017
I posted:
Dear everyone,
Sorry the last few post weren't more inclusive. I know we lost a lot of you on Lady Chatterley's Lover, so I started only addressing myself to people who were still reading the book.
If anyone's up for the next book though, feel free to jump back onboard.
Next book is Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov. Tom has already uploaded a PDF.
I'll be going to the print shop on Friday. If anyone wants a paper copy, let me know before then.

June 2, 2017
Tom Posted:
There are many opinions floating around the internet on how to best read Pale Fire, given its unique composition. My preferred approach is this:
1) Read the Foreword (14 pages)
2) Cursory read of the entire poem (35 pages)
3) Careful read of each canto alongside commentary
Commentary for Canto One goes from page 50-127.
I suggest two separate meetings. One to discuss the poem with canto 1 commentary (pages 1-127). Another to discuss the rest of the cantos and commentary (pages 128-284).
Once everyone interested has a book we can discuss dates to meet. Please offer your own suggestions if you have any.

I commented:
You originally floated the idea of not meetings till the end. Is this a change in that thinking?
Tom replied:
Correct. It's reputation is that of a fun read, but also a difficult one. It would be good for several minds to come together after the first canto so that if anyone is struggling to make sense of something we could perhaps aid them. Also, in the event that someone loses interest after the first canto, they can still participate to some degree. 
I replied:
Yeah, I'd agree with that. I'd prefer to do more meetings for exactly that reason.
Here's another thought: meet after each Canto?
Or how about this. Meet up after the first Canto, and then decide how we want to pursue things from there once we've gotten a feel for the book. 
June 4, 2017
I posted:
Okay, now that all the copies have been printed and distributed, we should set a date for the next meeting.
I think our normal pattern is for every two weeks.
Tuesday June 20th? For the Forward and Canto 1.

June 4, 2017
I posted:
Tom, I just wanted to say, I am really loving this book. I had some time to get into it this weekend with my level testing shifts. And I'm finding it much more fun than I thought it would be. This was a good suggestion.

June 5, 2017
I posted:
I'm only about 70 pages into this book so far, but I'm already getting the impression that this is a book that demands multiple readings. Little easter eggs are hidden in the beginning of the book that don't fully make sense until you interpret them in light of information later in the book.
To help with this, I've been listening to the audio book in my apartment. I put it on in the background while I'm getting ready in the morning, etc, and only use it to review the parts I've already read. (When I catch up to where I am in the book, I just reset it back to the beginning again.)

June 18, 2017
I posted:
So... meeting this Tuesday, right? How does 10 AM, Happy Nest Cafe sound?

June 19, 2017
Tom posted:
NPR today

If Trump is indeed the unreliable narrator, his Twitter feed perhaps best resembles Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire, considered one of the greatest works of 20th century fiction.
A quick summary: In Pale Fire, a fictional poet and professor named John Shade writes a 999-line poem, which is presented near the start of the book. The poem is, by turns, poignant, mundane, funny and wrenching, telling about Shade's youth, his marriage, his daughter's suicide and his struggle to come to terms with death.
After Shade's death, a fellow professor, Charles Kinbote, writes a 200-page analysis of the poem. That analysis is a total misreading — Kinbote believes the poem to be about himself, and he also claims to be the exiled king of a foreign country named Zembla. And yet, even while it's a rambling, deranged delusion of grandeur, it's also utterly captivating.
Kinbote's analysis seems to have entirely lost touch with reality in a way that Trump's tweets have not. But just as the reader can look at the "reality" of the poem and then at Kinbote's commentary to decide how big the gap between reality and his commentary is, we can see what is going on in the real world, then look at Trump's tweets and decide for ourselves how big that gap is.
And on top of all that, there is yet another layer.
After all, Trump's tweets have led to endless conjecturing about why he tweets. Does he simply lack a filter? Is it red meat for his base? Is he carefully planting distractions when the news isn't going his way? Does he secretly want his executive order to fail? Is covfefe a coded message????
'Covfefe' Kerfuffle: Trump's Typo Sparks A Search For Meaning, And HumorTHE TWO-WAY'Covfefe' Kerfuffle: Trump's Typo Sparks A Search For Meaning, And HumorLiterary critic Wayne Booth, who is credited with coining the term "unreliable narrator," expounded on what makes this kind of narrator work.
"All of the great uses of unreliable narration depend for their success on far more subtle effects than merely flattering the reader or making him work," he wrote in his The Rhetoric of Fiction. "Whenever an author conveys to his reader an unspoken point, he creates a sense of collusion against all those, whether in the story or out of it, who do not get that point."
So the question is who is colluding with us as readers. Essentially, one of the great debates over Trump's tweets boils down to this: Is Trump Kinbote, or is he Nabokov?
June 20, 2017
I posted:
Good meeting today guys:
To bring everyone else up to speed, here's what we decided going forward.
We've decided on the following schedule:
Meet again two weeks from today (July 4th), with the goal of having finished the book by then.
For the present, we agreed to hold off on researching the commentary for this book.
But we might do a bonus week where we spend a week researching the commentary (like we did with the Brothers Karamazov) and then meet a 3rd time on or around the the 11th.
Everything's flexible, so feel free to chime in with thoughts

June 25, 2017
Tom Posted:
Line 819: Playing a game of worlds
"My illustrious friend showed a childish predilection
for all sorts of word games and especially for so-called
word golf. He would interrupt the flow of a prismatic
conversation to indulge in this particular pastime, and
naturally it would have been boorish of me to refuse
playing with him. Some of my records are: hate-love
in three, lass-male in four, and live-dead in five (with
"lend" in the middle)."
This is a new game to me, but it was evidently created by Lewis Carroll in 1877. Hate-->Love in three steps was easy. I thought of hate--have--hove--love.
Anyone care to attempt lass-->male or live-->dead?

I commented:
I'm assuming that since you first posted this, you've finished the book and you now realize the answers are in the index.
But if not... the answers are in the index.

June 27, 2017
Email I sent
Hey guys.  Anyone else having trouble accessing the Facebook group?
I can't seem to read or post anything there.
Anyway, I had a couple thoughts, and I guess I'll just e-mail them rather than post them.
How's everyone else coming with the book?
As for me, I've finished it.
I've already been looking into some of the online commentary.
(Sorry, I know we said we wouldn't, but I got curious).
it's possibly I've been looking in the wrong places, but I've been finding the quality of the commentary isn't as rich as I had hoped.
Most of the commentary I've been reading just highlights the ambiguity, rather than gives anything concrete.
I'm wondering if the extra week for researching commentary might not be necessary.
Like, maybe we should just wrap everything up on our next meeting, and just move on to the next book.  What do you think?

June 29, 2017
I posted
So, I wanted to post this a few days ago, but couldn't because of technical issues. (See previous post )
But I messaged Thomas and Oliver, and I think we're all on the same page with this.
I'm finding that I've finished the book already, and that the commentary on the book isn't quite as interesting as I thought it would be. (Lots of questions raised, but concrete answers seem to be in very short supply, it seems). So I'm proposing that at the meeting this coming Tuesday, we discuss both the book, and any commentary we've read, and then move on to the next book.
Which means we should also be thinking of the next book.
My previous list from last time still stands.

Of this list, I've noticed that Saigon bookstores seem to carry Frankenstein and Arabian Nights, so if you like buying a real book with a real binding, that's something to consider. I'm going to say Frankenstein is my first choice this time around. Assuming no one else has read it before. (Anyone?) As always though, I'm open to any and all suggestions. I'm just trying to kick start the discussion by throwing out proposals.

July 2, 2017
I posted:
Still on for Tuesday? Same time same place? (Nest Cafe, 12:00)?

Video Review
Video review here and embedded below:

Link of the Day Interviews Noam Chomsky 2017


Whisky Prajer said...

Huh. You've got me musing over which Nabokov I'd recommend to newcomers. Probably Lolita, actually. Have you read Reading Lolita In Tehran? I've been meaning to get around to it, myself.

Joel Swagman said...

I haven't even read Lolita yet (ashamed to say). I'm sure I have to read that before Reading Lolita in Tehran.
Actually, this book aside, I haven't read anything by Nabokov. I'm the newcomer. Recommend away.