Until recently, Vladimir Nabokov was not a name that was familiar to me. I’ve heard of Lolita and its ugly reputation, but I was surprised to find that the same author wrote numerous other novels. One of these was Pale Fire, an excerpt from which is used in K’s baseline test in Bladerunner 2049.
…and blood-black nothingness began to spin
A system of cells interlinked within
Cells interlinked within cells interlinked
Within one stem. And dreadfully distinct
Against the dark, a tall white fountain played.
–Vladimir Nabokov, “Pale Fire”
This excerpt alone is, to me, really good. It inspired me to pick up a copy of Pale Fire at my local library and read the rest.
Unfortunately, ‘disappointing’ is not nearly a strong enough word for that book. I wanted to write a scathing review, but decided to read a few of the author’s other works before doing so. Maybe the things that I hated about it– the character of the obnoxiously conceited, self-important editor; the discord between the poem and the rest of the book; the hints of casual pedophilia– were deliberate stylistic choices. Maybe Pale Fire was intended to be an unpleasant read. Maybe it was a one-off stinker.
In that vein, this three-part series contains my reviews of Pale Fire, Lolita, and Invitation to a Beheading. (I checked out several of his other works, but Invitation is as far as my limited time and patience could get me.) I also intend to discuss the flaws in Nabokov’s writing, and the peculiar similarity between his circumstances and that of his protagonists. My review of Lolita will include a detailed rebuttal of the abuse that story attempts to excuse and normalize.
There will definitely be spoilers, and I’ll be attaching content warnings as needed.
Part One: Pale Fire
Content warning for mention of pedophilia.
Pale Fire is, supposedly, a posthumously-published poem and the notes of its editor. The editor is a fictional person named Charles Kinbote, who has tasked himself with publishing the poem of a similarly fictional deceased friend, the “legendary poet” John Francis Shade.
The book starts with a needlessly wordy and meandering 29-page foreword that represents everything that people loathe about forewords. It’s also an accurate foreshadowing of things to come. This excerpt from the final page of the foreword provides a taste of the general tone of Kinbote’s “notes,” and of Nabokov’s writing in general.
To this poem we now must return. My Foreword has been, I trust, not too skimpy. Other notes, arranged in a running commentary, will certainly satisfy the most voracious reader. 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, consult them a third time so as to complete the picture. I find it wise in such cases as this to eliminate the bother of back-and-forth leafings by either cutting out and clipping together the pages with the text of the thing, or, even more simply, purchasing two copies of the same work which can then be placed in adjacent positions on a comfortable table–not like the shaky little affair on which my typewriter is precariously enthroned now, in this wretched motor lodge, with that carrousel inside and outside my head, miles away from New Wye. Let me state that without my notes Shade’s text simply has no human reality at all since the human reality of such a poem as his (being too skittish and reticent for an autobiographical work), with the omission of many pithy lines carelessly rejected by him, has to depend entirely on the reality of its author and his surroundings, attachments, and so forth, a reality that only my notes can provide. To this statement my dear poet would probably not have subscribed, in the least, but, for better or worse, it is the commentator who has the last word.
–Vladimir Nabokov, “Pale Fire”
I hope you enjoyed that lovely wall of text.
The poem itself comprises pages 33 through 69, and it’s not bad. It’s not nearly as good as the excerpt led me to hope for, but it’s cozily derivative of some of the great poets. If he actually wrote this, Nabokov was a decent poet. He probably should have stuck to poetry.
The remaining 232 pages of Pale Fire are Kinbote’s notes. And I do not speak lightly when I say that the rest of the book is one of the most boring, meandering, pointlessly wordy things I have ever read. I’ve read a fair amount of older literature, and this is poor even by those standards.
Pale Fire is composed of three or four separate plot threads (depending on whether you consider the brief descriptions of the journey of the assassin Gradus enough to comprise their own thread.)
The first is the poem itself, in which Shade describes his life struggles, his brushes with death, and his joys and sorrows. The second, third, and fourth strands occur as a tangled recollection in Kinbote’s notes. One is Kinbote’s story; the next is that of King Charles, the exiled monarch of Kinbote’s homeland; and the last is that of Gradus, the revolutionary operative sent to track down and assassinate the former king.
Kinbote is a recent immigrant from the fictional country of Zembla, from which he fled due to the revolution. He has taken a job teaching at a university in the eastern United States in order to be close to a poet who also teaches there. Kinbote’s story is largely comprised of his time at the university, and his attempts to befriend the poet and convince him to compose an ode to Kinbote’s fallen country and deposed king.
Via Kinbote, King Charles waxes poetic about his childhood, his teenage years, and his reign as an adult. We learn how he was imprisoned during the revolution (very gently, in case anyone’s wondering,) how he escaped, and the route he took to his eventual exile in the United States. He also spends plenty of time lamenting his lost country which the revolutionaries have now “ruined.” This is all going to sound really familiar when we get around to covering Nabokov’s own history.
The life and path of the fictional king so closely resembles that of the fictional Kinbote, and Kinbote conveys so much of the king’s internal monologue, that I guessed the final reveal barely a third of the way through the narrative. Surprise! Kinbote is the exiled king.
The King’s presence at the university and his friendship with Shade is the cause of the poet’s death. A revolutionary operative tracks the deposed king to America and eventually to the university, where he attempts to assassinate Kinbote. He misses, and one of the bullets strikes Shade. The poet is fatally wounded and dies.
Kinbote is carrying the envelope containing the poem when the murder occurs, and bullies Shade’s grieving widow into signing over the publishing rights shortly thereafter. If we view the poem and the “editor’s notes” as actually being written by two separate people, it’s arguable that Shade’s wife would have done a considerably better job of presenting it.
Rather than supplementing or illuminating the poet’s work, Kinbote uses the notes to tell his own story and that of his Beloved King Charles. This rambling narrative is laced with repeated references to his disappointment that Shade’s final epic poem contains few –if any– references to old Zembla and it’s deposed King.
In order to co-opt Shade’s words, the self-appointed editor spends a lot of time hunting for hidden meanings and telling the reader what he’d hoped Shade would say instead. This takes place on an almost line-by-line basis– which goes a long way to explaining how a 36-page poem spawn 232 pages of notes. He also spends a wholly unprofessional amount of time complaining about Shade’s wife, who (he feels) kept him from spending valuable time with the poet, and who (he thinks) conspired to purge Kinbote’s influence from the final draft of the poem.
If you’re an author, poet, or any kind of creator, imagine a deranged fan getting the rights to your work after your death and reinterpreting your work to make it seem as if you thought of them as often as they thought of you.
I often wanted to smack the narrator and tell him to write his own poem eulogizing his king and homeland. No one can tell the tale you want to tell, buddy. Poetry comes from lived experiences. It comes from the heart –and that’s probably part of the reason the poem itself comes off as a little bit hollow and derivative. The poet was copying the emotions and life experiences of other great poets, rather than writing his own.
What’s Done Well, And What’s Done Badly
If Pale Fire was intended to be a parody of editors who assume to interpret and reinvent the work of others once those others can no longer speak for themselves, then it does so brilliantly. Kinbote clearly has no idea what Shade’s poem is about, or what the poet was actually trying to say, and he doesn’t care. He only cares about his own narrative. This comes through loud and clear in the foreword, where he states that “…without my notes Shade’s text simply has no human reality at all…”
Unfortunately I have no idea if this was actually Nabokov’s intent. During the course of my research, I didn’t see anyone –either the author or any of his reviewers– suggest that this was the intended message.
Probably the most positive thing that can be said about Nabokov’s work in Pale Fire is that he’s done an excellent job of writing two main characters with very different lives and voices. It’s a believable portrayal of a gentle, aging poet and an obsessed, self-centered fan.
Kinbote’s obsession with Shade, and his disappointment in the fact that the poet chose not to devote his last great poem to a country he’d never visited and a king he’d never sworn fealty to, comes through loud and clear despite the fact that the author was, as far as we know, both Kinbote and Shade. This concept is nicely executed.
…Or at least it would have been if a real editor had gone through and taken a machete to the jungle of run-on sentences and multi-page paragraphs created by “editor” Kinbote. Pale Fire’s notes could have been pared down to a third of their published length without losing any of their meaning. A vastly more readable narrative would have resulted.
There’s also the fact that Kinbote is a thoroughly unlikable person. He’s self-centered, conceited, misogynistic, and feels that most of those he meets are below him. He also appears to have an attraction to young men, especially male teens and children. This casual normalization of pedophilia is an unpleasant theme in all three of the works I read.
The Similarities to Nabokov’s Own History
But Kinbote’s just a character, right? Well, about that… I’m not the first reviewer to note that the lives and origins of some of Nabokov’s protagonists, such Charles Kinbote and the exiled king in Pale Fire, bear a surprising resemblance to the author’s own life.
Vladimir Nabokov was born in 1899 in Saint Petersburg to a wealthy and prominent family of the Russian nobility. His father was a lawyer, statesman, and journalist. His mother was the heiress granddaughter of a millionaire gold-mine owner.
Nabokov spent his youth in Saint Petersburg and at the country estate Vyra south of the city, and its widely agreed that echoes of this privileged childhood can be seen in many of his works. After being uprooted from such a charmed and affluent life, it’s not hard to see how he might have viewed himself as the exiled nobility which he technically was.
In 1916 Nabokov inherited the estate Rozhdestveno, next to Vyra, from his uncle. He lost it in the October Revolution a year later. The family fled to Crimea, then to England (where Nabokov earned a BA from Cambridge,) and finally to Berlin. There, in March 1922, Nabokov’s father was fatally shot by Russian monarchists while trying to shield a leader of the Constitutional Democratic Party-in-exile.
Nabokov married in Berlin, and the family moved to Paris in 1937. In 1940 the family moved to the United States and settled in Manhattan. Nabokov joined the staff of Wellesley College in 1941 as a resident lecturer in comparative literature.
If you’ve read Pale Fire, you may noticed that all of this sounds very similar to Kinbote/King Charles’ flight from the revolution in fictional Zembla. Using a touch of your own past or personality in a character is one thing. Pale Fire reads more like self-insert fiction.
The kindest thing I can say about Pale Fire is that it’s not very good, but the honest reviewer in me wants to state that it’s flaming waste of 300 pages. You’d be better off spending that time reading almost anything else. Or learning a new skill. Or tidying up your living space. Regardless of what alternative activity you pick, it’ll probably be less tedious than this book is.
If you decide to torture yourself by reading Pale Fire, though, please let me know what you think of it. Up next: an assessment of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita.
All excerpts used under Fair Use for the purpose of criticism and commentary.