Review: Pale Fire

Pale Fire
Pale Fire
Vladimir Nabokov
New York: Vintage International, 1989

Review Copyright © 2000 Garret Wilson — October 7, 2000 9:00 a.m.

How can one write a review of this book? How, without conceding defeat and becoming yet another object of its strangely reflexive subtle criticisms, can one hope to even discuss Pale Fire in any light? Vladimir Nabokov has written the most damning and dismissive parody of literary criticism that would shake the confidence of anyone portending to uncover even a visible meaning in a text.

Pale Fire is a 999-line poem, written by a certain John Shade. Those lines take up not 40 pages; the more than 200 that follow contain annotations on that poem by another professor at the same college, Dr. Charles Kinbote. Yet Kinbote has ulterior motives: having told Shade on many occasions stories of his otherwise-unheard-of homeland of Zembla, yet seeing a finished poem with no references to his tales, Kinbote explicitly sets out to infuse the poem with as many allusions to his dream-world as he can.

Throughout his annotations, Charles Kinbote makes hints of his secret identity as relating to Zembla. Is Kinbote who he hints to be? Are any of stories true? There would be a strong argument that the answer to both of these questions is, "no." A comment from Shade, who later claims he was referring to "the old man... at the Exton railway station...," would seem to allude to such delusions:

"That is the wrong word," he said. "One should not apply to a person who deliberately peels off a drab and unhappy past and replaces it with a brilliant invention. That's merely turning a new leaf with the left hand" (238).

But Nabokov just won again; is my explanation of this allusion, my feeling that somehow I'm such a person to be able to access some objective meaning that lies behind the text, merely an illusion? Is there a knowledge apart from the text itself, and if there is, who am I to believe I could be able to find it?

Nabokov, after all, illustrates that sometimes there is knowledge that lies outside the domain of the annotator, and would be impossible to uncover — in another dimension, as it were. It's unsurprising that Kinbote would wonder why Shade would choose "to give his 1958 hurricane a little-used Spanish name (sometimes given to parrots) instead of Linda or Lois" (243); how could he, a fictional annotator in a novel, possibly know of the real-life author's earlier novel of the same name? And here again, Nabokov's strange reflexivity distorts the separation of reality and fiction and who is annotating whom. And I'm caught in the middle.

Yet who doesn't want to read for knowledge, and to look past the text for a bit more knowledge than is present (assuming the knowledge that is present can ever be objectively quantified)? What annotator has not searched for hidden meaning within variant readings in drafts (79)? What reviewer, like Kinbote, has not "reread, not without pleasure, my comments to his lines, and in many cases have caught myself borrowing a kind of opalescent light rom my poet's fiery orb, and unconsciously aping the prose style of his own critical essays" (81)? Having reviewed God of Small Things, I too find myself firmly within Nabokov's grip.

So perhaps one can step back from meaning, for just a bit, and look at the qualities of Nabokov's writing. Pale Fire, as a poem, would win no awards, although some lines are certainly aesthetically pleasing:

"This index card, this slender rubber band

Which always forms, when dropped, and ampersand," (53).

The strength of Nabokov's writing, however, lies in its complex allusiveness. In one small section, Nabokov wraps so many meanings around just three letters:

L'if, lifeless tree! Your great maybe, Rabelais:

The grand potato.

I.P.H., a lay

Institute (I) of Preparation (P)

For the Hereafter (H), or If, as we

Called it — big if! — engaged me for one term

To speak on death ("to lecture on the Worm,"

Wrote President McAber). (52).

Kinbote's notes reveal that, in French, "L'if" is the yew tree. They also reveal that Rabelais' "Je m'en vais chercher le grand peut-être" concerning death (as does this section), is the source of the pun "grand potato" (222). Those same notes reveal even more supposed meanings contained within this passage.

I now seemed to have returned to meaning and the annotator's claimed insight and superior access to a text. After Nabokov's assumed rejection that this is even possible (I seem to be claiming it's possible for an annotator to gain such meaning by assuming that Nabokov is implicitly saying this), how could anyone ever annotate Pale Fire and hope to escape Nabokov's clutches? Now finding myself at that very place, I too will concede defeat and contribute my own annotation to the text:

Page 95:

"There was naturally my famous neighbor just across he lane..." (95). "he" should be "the."