The Book that Does what None Has Done
April 1, 2011 § Leave a comment
Now i shall spy on beauty as none has
Spied on it yet. Now i shall cry out as
None has cried out. Now i shall try what none
Has tried. Now i shall do what none has done.
– Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire
Here’s a confession to begin with: I am not particularly bright. I have often had to rely heavily on whispered explanations from my exasperated wife in order to follow, in real time, the twists in the plots of Hollywood thrillers. Unfortunately, my wife’s intelligence is not a resource I can call upon while reading. Moreover, she has been categorical in her refusal to read the kind of books that I would need most assistance to understand. Therefore, I have had to wrestle, manfully and all by myself, with certain modernist authors – Joyce, Eliot, Kafka, Beckett – and whenever I have done so, I have felt my grasp on them slip, slowly but inescapably, and it is not long before I am pinned down and crushed under the weight of a monstrous incomprehension. It is even worse – much worse – with poems: they make me feel, not just unclever, but emotionally inadequate as well. In short, the more critically acclaimed the work is, the less I believe I will get out of it. Note that this is only true for 20th century European modernist fiction and poetry, loaded as they are with literary allusions and symbolism, and written exclusively, apparently, for an audience of literary critics and professors – I never had a problem ‘getting’ Shakespeare, Flaubert, Melville or Dostoyevsky.
This background should help explain the trepidation with which I picked up Pale Fire, a book that is highly recommended by literary critics and included in most serious Top Hundred Twentieth Century novel lists. The trepidation only increased when I saw that the book consisted of the following parts:
- An Introduction to the novel, by the postanalytic philosopher Richard Rorty
- A 14-page Foreword,
- A 999-line poem, covering 24 pages, titled ‘Pale Fire’,
- Copious notes and commentary to the above poem, filling the next 174 pages, and
- An 8-page Index of main characters etc
My nervousness was not helped by the first thing I read in the Introduction: a footnote that went, “Warning… The first-time reader may wish to postpone reading the Introduction until he or she has finished the Index.” Moving on obediently, I saw that the Foreword, in its turn, recommended that the reader should consult the Notes first, and then study the poem with their help, or cut out and clip together the text of the poem and the commentary and read them together, or even buy two copies of the book and lay the poem and the notes adjacently on the table.
Already unsure of my own intellectual capabilities, I now reeled under these multiple instructions, each threatening me with complete and assured bewilderment if they were to be disregarded. What I held in my trembling and unworthy hands was clearly an epic of gargantuan proportions – a sacred, secret text that could only be accessed by the most scholarly of students. Any moment now, I feared, a ghostly literary hand would emerge from the book and smite me contemptuously.
Except, I am happy to report, I was completely wrong. The novel is as full of soul as an opera singer – and as clever as a circus monkey. The poem at the heart of the novel is an exquisite work of art in its own right – lyrical, rhyming, tragic, gentle and utterly accessible, even to those of us whose knowledge of poetry is restricted to the odd rude limerick. But it is the rest of the book that I found most fascinating. Slyly, ever so slyly, Nabokov has managed to weave a surreal jigsaw puzzle of a novel into the foreword and the notes. Unlike any other great novel I have read, it is playful, irreverent, self-mocking; but like all the others, it raises more questions than it provides answers for, allowing the reader to mull over them and arrive at his own conclusions. Is this a serious literary work that parodies the genre of detective novels, or a detective novel that cocks an irreverent snook at literary commentary? And which of the characters are real, which mad, and which imaginary? What does it mean for a novel to have ‘real’ characters ‘imagining’ other characters? This novel has more levels than Inception – and I didn’t even need my wife to explain it to me. I am also relieved to note that generations of scholars have discussed Pale Fire, and they are virulently divided on these questions, as a cursory scan of the internet will prove.
As for me, I think I’d like to believe that the poet (John Shade) is real, but went mad when his daughter died, and invented an alter ego (Charles Kinbote) that gradually took over his personality. That interpretation makes for slightly chilling reading, so you will be relieved to know that it is possible to postulate, and read the novel in light of, other equally valid hypotheses, including a more mundane one involving multiple mistaken identities.
“Now i shall try what none / Has tried. Now i shall do what none has done.” And so, in the spirit of the novel, here I am at the end, back to the introductory quote with which the post began, the opening lines of Canto 4 of Pale Fire. Vladimir Nabokov, pretending to be John Shade, who is possibly pretending to be the King of Zembla, who has assumed the identity of Charles Kinbote, (not necessarily in that order), was referring to, er, himself here…and by golly, he was right.