It felt inappropriate to start reading Lolita. All I really knew or know about it was that it was about a pedophile, it was nevertheless supposed to be a great novel, and the author was sort of Russian. But I am on a quest recently to read good books, and I have found myself liking Russian authors, and I never read anything by Nabokov before. So as a compromise, I picked up Pale Fire.
I didn’t like the book. When I finished the book, I still didn’t quite like it. And then I tried to explain to someone, not why the book was good or bad, but just what the book was, what it was about. It was so hard for me to explain, that during the explanation itself, I completely changed my mind about the book and realized that I loved it.
So now I want to explain it again, just to explain how this book works, and maybe that will make me love it even more.
Pale Fire is nominally an enormous poem, with commentary. A 999 line poem. The poem is by this guy Shade, published shortly after his death. The commentary is by a Dr. Charles Kinbote. But at the same time the reader knows very well that the whole book by Nabokov, so there is something going on.
So there is a long poem, and the commentary, and then in the commentary a realization slowly builds. While reading Kinbote’s commentary is becomes clear that he is just nuts, completely insane and also a jerk. Often the commentary is overtaken by Kinbote mentioning how he isn’t going to bother doing a bit of work to do a better job:
Line 384: book on Pope
The title of this work which can be found in any college library is “Supremely Blest”, a phrase borrowed from a Popian line, which I remember but cannot quote exactly.
The commentary also frequently slips into the poem reminding Kinbote of his own life, and then he inserts autobiographical stories.
Lines 385-386: Jane Dean, Pete Dean
The transparent pseudonyms of two innocent people. I visited Jane Provost when passing through Chicago in August. I found her still unmarried. She showed me some amusing photos of her cousin Peter and his friends.
Both of these are examples from me opening to the middle of the book - the commentary is just full of this.
In the experience of reading, I was maybe halfway through the book, and I just didn’t understand what I was reading. It didn’t seem good. I felt like I didn’t know what I was doing, like I had turned on an episode of season 5 of a drama, didn’t recognize any of the characters, and was just watching them drift in and out.
But through the book, this feeling grows and grows. First I was ambivalent to be reading an enormous poem; like nearly 100% of modern humans, I have not cultivated an interest in poetry. Then I was mildly annoyed to be reading critical commentary that was poorly written, unfocused, and somewhat egomaniacal. And it just breaks through every logical barrier of what acceptable literary criticism sounds like until the critical commentary mentions two lines in the poem before diving into ten pages of an unrelated tale of the commentator’s life.
The most common theme in the commentary is Zembla, a small European country. Kinbote is something like a professor of Zemblan literature, working at the same university as Shade, where they are something like friends. He’s been hinting to Shade for months, you should write a poem about Zembla. There’s exciting stuff going on there, recently Zembla has had a coup and kicked out the old king. The traditions of the old Zemblan monarchy are giving way to a new Zembla, with plenty of metaphors about life and transition. Zembla is the root of deep truth and beauty, the greatness that is inherent in humanity meets its most primal form in the traditions of Zembla, let me tell you a few stories and sayings of traditional Zemblan peasants, and all this stuff would be great to work into your poetry. That sort of thing.
So when Shade produces this epic poem, Kinbote is fired up, and then there is nothing in it about Zembla. Kinbote is emotionally crushed. He tricks his way into editing the official publication of the poem along with commentary, and now that he is writing this commentary, he is on a mission to prove that truly, the poem is rife with deep allusions to Zembla this and Zembla that.
I want to call it a great performance, but that isn’t quite the right word. The book creates a growing feeling, where you start out reading some sedate nature poetry, and eventually find yourself overwhelmed by the rantings of a Zembla-obsessed madman. I didn’t like it, and then I both didn’t like it and was also confused by what exactly I was reading, and then by the time that I had started to figure it out, I couldn’t put it down.
But there’s another part to the structure, a twist. As Kinbote tells more stories about Zembla, they get more detailed than even a obsessed professor of Zemblan history should be able to handle. He’s telling Shade the story of the Zemblan king escaping from the castle during the coup, and Shade asks, how could you possibly know? And before long, a new story comes out: Kinbote is the deposed Zemblan king. Assassins from the new government are hunting for him. He isn’t a normal professor, it’s something like a witness protection program, where he can work at this university and teach Zemblan literature.
All of a sudden, Kinbote is a sympathetic character. No wonder he’s obsessed with Zembla, he spent his life as the king and is thinking about his legacy. No wonder he’s bad at writing critical commentary, he isn’t really a literary professor. And he’s stressed out, because he’s afraid for his life.
Indeed, the assassins hunting for Kinbote end up killing Shade by mistake. Now it ties back. Ironically, Shade’s story is tied to Zembla, because Zemblan assassins are responsible for his death.
There’s just one final twist. The police don’t believe the murderer was a Zemblan assassin. They conclude it was meaningless, a random act of violence from an escaped lunatic.
What is the real story? The structure of the novel makes it impossible to know. The unreliable narrator is so unreliable, he isn’t even supposed to be telling the story that he is telling.
It’s an amazing book. It’s hard for me to imagine how Nabokov got the idea for this novel. A poem, with commentary, and in the commentary this whole story of escape and assassination is revealed. The plot, as it is, is hidden inside layers of text that is nominally someone writing about something else.
In conclusion, I do love this book even more after writing about it. Strong recommend.