Choose Your Own Advent, Day 9: Pale Fire

Pale Fire, Vladimir NabokovChoose Your Own Advent is a yuletide celebration of literacy. We’ll spotlight a different novel every day until Christmas, hopefully helping you find one you’d like to read in the new year.

Title: Pale Fire
Author: Vladimir Nabokov
Year: 1962

I took a series of writing workshops in college. They were massively helpful to me, not least because I was in a room with other writers, who could offer constructive criticism that was difficult to come by otherwise.

I wrote. People read what I wrote. They enjoyed it, or they didn’t enjoy it, and that was about that. There was no opportunity to improve though, unquestionably, there was significant room for improvement. There’s no more reliable road to mediocrity than remaining closed off from active, articulate feedback.

I’d taught myself as much as I could. I learned from my mistakes to a certain point, but beyond that I wasn’t aware of the mistakes. The writing workshops made me strongly, acutely, often uncomfortably aware of my mistakes. I owe them everything.

In one of the workshops there was a student named Scott. He was a bit older than the rest of us, and he didn’t seem to like me much. At the very least, I can confirm that he did not like my writing. That stuck out to me, because my writing was, on the whole, pretty good. It was the last of the workshops I’d taken, so I’d honed my craft fairly well by that point. My instructor enjoyed my work a lot, and often used my stories as examples to illustrate his points to others.

I think Scott may have been a bit jealous of that. But, hey, all writers think they see jealousy where they probably don’t. It’s just as likely he simply didn’t enjoy the kind of writing I did…and no matter how well or poorly I did it, there would be a disconnect between my intentions and his reception.

Toward the end of the semester he was providing feedback on one of my stories. It was one I was proud of. It’s one that eventually went on to be published, and to be turned into a short film by an amateur director. I’m still proud of it.

But Scott didn’t enjoy it. I remember his feedback well. He said, as though he couldn’t find anything else positive to say, “Well, at least Philip is showing us that you can enjoy yourself while writing.”

It was meant as a backhanded compliment, I’m sure, but I remember being baffled by that. Why wouldn’t you enjoy yourself while writing? If you don’t enjoy it, why do it? There are dozens of other ways to express yourself…why pick one that you don’t thoroughly enjoy?

I think that’s why he didn’t like my work; I enjoyed what I was doing. I tried to let that enjoyment shine through. His work–and presumably, therefore, his preferred kind of work–was serious. Always. Without variation. Everything was deep and painful and profound without any room for levity. I preferred the delicate chaos of combining both.

All of which is to say that this is what I prefer in the stories I read. Playfulness. Not lightness, necessarily. Not joy. Not happy endings. Not even relief. But I prefer authors who enjoy writing. And I’m not sure any author in history had more fun with the English language than Vladimir Nabokov.

In fact, once Nabokov began writing in English, he never went back to his native Russian. He found English to be more expressive. More satisfying. More…fun.

Nabokov toyed with convention, with structure, with readers’ expectations of all kinds. And, as a result, he remains one of literature’s greatest treasures.

Pale Fire might just be Nabokov at his most playful. The central conceit is that “Pale Fire” is the title of the final poem by (fictional) poet John Shade, and that’s what Pale Fire contains: the complete, uninterrupted (ahem…) text of that poem.

You, dear reader, are part of the story. Because you bought Pale Fire in order to read the last creative spark from the celebrated Shade. Only you get a bit more than the poem; you also get a foreword and commentary from his protege, Charles Kinbote.

And so “Pale Fire” ends up sandwiched between the words of Shade’s commentator, and a game of last-words, literary one-upmanship, and dueling (dualing?) contextualization begins.

It amounts to a sprawling, intricate puzzle of fiction, and there’s no particular “right” way to read it. Sure, you start with the foreword, but then do you read the lengthy poem straight through? Do you flip back and forth between the lines and the commentary that (ostensibly) explains them? And when you come to a conflict–when “Pale Fire” clearly says one thing, but Kinbote assures you that it says another–what do you do?

Nabokov played with narrative unreliability throughout his entire career, but Pale Fire amplifies it to a level that, in my opinion, has never been equaled. Kinbote gradually reveals himself to be not just unreliable, but outright malicious, delusional, and dangerous. And he does it all through the seemingly benign, academic work of annotating the text of the final poem by his closest friend.

Nabokov doesn’t give us the story; he gives us the final product. He gives us the exact book that Kinbote ended up publishing…warts and all. It’s a reader’s job to figure out what the story even is. Indeed, there have doubtless been readers who finished the book without realizing that there was a story.

Kinbote uses his strike of personal kismet–the fact that he, and not Shade’s wife Sybil, ended up with custody of the poem after the man’s death–to give himself a platform he would not have otherwise had. Readers would buy “Pale Fire” because John Shade wrote it, but they’d be “rewarded,” in our beloved commentator’s eyes, with the insightful, thrilling, personal thoughts of Charles Kinbote instead. It’s a bait and switch that confounds both real and imagined readers of Pale Fire, and Kinbote’s desperation to make the most of his fleeting moment in the literary spotlight is comic, distressing, and frustrating in equal measure.

To say more about Pale Fire would be to spoil at least one of its incredible surprises…surprises I’m still unearthing with each successive read. In fact, I could list my favorite surprises and another reader might not recognize a single one of them. And vice versa, of course.

Pale Fire may be Nabokov at his most playful, but it’s certainly Nabokov at his most brilliant. It’s dense, deceptively tricky, and infinitely rewarding. It’s high on my list of favorite novels, and it’s still like nothing else I’ve ever read. Oh, and if you are going to read it, I’ll help you a little bit: the index is part of the story, too.

I like Scott. I wish him well. But for his sake as a writer–and especially as a reader–I hope he’s discovered the value of enjoying things.

2 thoughts on “Choose Your Own Advent, Day 9: Pale Fire”

  1. “I was the shadow of the waxwing slain, by the false azure of the window pain” I bought this book because of your Mega Man video! It’s really great, but too hard for me to follow. I tried to give Nabokov a shot with Lolita, but I couldn’t stomach it. What a sick fuck! I guess I’m just not cut out for such highly sophisticated post-modern literature. Fascinating figure though, and I really enjoyed the poem part of Pale Fire!

    1. Check out Despair, Mr. Lore. That may help. It’s actually one of my favorite Nabokov books, and it’s a fairly easy read. It’s actually one that he wrote in Russian originally…but when he started writing in English, he went back and rewrote the entire thing in his new favorite language. It’s a really good novel, quite funny, and it will also teach you (for lack of a better verb) how to read his other books. It’ll clue you in more clearly on what to look for, and the kinds of games he’ll play with you as a reader.

      After that, Pale Fire should be a bit easier. I assume you’re getting hung up in Kinbote’s commentary, based on your comment. The way I read it was to just push through it. Some of it’s (deliberately) confusing and obtuse. But push through! Read entry after entry. Flipping back to the poem isn’t even necessary. Let Shade tell his story his way, and then let Kinbote tell his. :)

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