49. Literary criticism for gymnasts
April 30th, 2021
Nabokov’s 1962 novel Pale Fire has four sections:
1. A foreword written by a bloviating scholar named Charles Kinbote.
2. A 999-line poem written in heroic rhyming couplets (and packed with head-nodding iambs) by a fictional poet named John Shade.
3. A lengthy critique and commentary on the poem by Kinbote.
4. An extensive index of the people, places, and things mentioned throughout 2 and 3.
It’s like a book I specifically asked to exist.
If you’ve read Pale Fire, you have the advantage on me. Usually I don’t like to share enthusiasms before they’re fully baked, but I’m only 80 pages into this book and already so in love with its concept that telling you about anything else here at the end of April wouldn’t feel right.
As you might have guessed by the book’s structure, it isn’t immediately clear how to ‘correctly’ read the thing. Kinbote suggests reading his commentary first, then the poem, then re-reading the commentary for “the complete picture”, but Kinbote also exposes himself as an unreliable narrator (or at the very least, a wildly deluded one) within a matter of pages. My current approach involves duelling bookmarks: one for Shade’s poem, and one for the commentary, so that I can vault back and forth between them. Reading this way feels physical, vaguely gymnastic, like I’m furiously sifting through piles of ephemera, underlining and cross-referencing, pinning things to a wall and connecting them with red twine.
This process would be totally thankless if Shade’s poem was tripe, but the opposite is true—all four cantos of Pale Fire are packed with humour and pathos and arresting imagery, most notably the very beginning of the poem, where Shade describes a bird colliding with a window, and the optical illusions created by reflections in the window, “as night unites the viewer and view”:
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, the 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!
Having only read a third of the book, this is probably where I should end things, an enthusiasm in media res. Here’s hoping it continues.
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