Vladimir Nabokov: Heat Seeker

Sixty years of exquisite torture by ‘Pale Fire’



1. Vladimir Nabokov gets a bum rap. To what other high-volume American—yes—novelist do we fail to accord the dignity of collectively imagining their best works, their better tendencies? Roth gets off the hook: We remember the generous, funny, forgivably horny Philip of Goodbye, Columbus and Portnoy’s Complaint ahead of the hoarily horny, menstrual-blood-obsessed Dying Animal. Updike, similar story. Bellow—but quiet now, we could do this all day. The point is, we’re nice to our prose prolificists.

Maybe it’s that Nabokov’s big bad best-seller is, in some really key ways, not a book to be recalled fondly. Lolita does, and should, make you feel icky, its superstructural concern being to beguile you with the refined language of a cretinous narrator. (That Humbert succeeds in pulling this off, recruiting his readers, effectively conscripting them into complicity, is kind of Lolita’s Big Joke—one can’t help but imagine the guffawing a Vanity Fair blurb claiming it to be “the only convincing love story of our century” must have occasioned from Vlad—and I once had a friend confess to me that certain of its scenes had very guiltily turned them on.) But I think this goes beyond that. For one thing, too many teachers and TAs, too many professors, too many graduate writing workshops assign not Nabokov’s singularly singing, sumptuous, naughtiest works (Lolita, Pale Fire, Ada) but his knottiest outings: Transparent Things, “The Vane Sisters,” that piece whose name escapes me but where you spend 18 pages absolutely confounded as to what he’s describing before the “treat” of having it revealed that the narrator has been looking out the window of a train at utility poles supporting telegraph wire. Wowsers.

Wherever it comes from, the overall impression is—as Martin Amis put it in a 1999 essay commemorating what would have been the older novelist’s hundredth birthday—of “this snorting wizard of hauteur.” Vlad is frosty, he is detached, he is composing 16th-century sonnets in the ’60s, a world aflame, and being duly ignored, just outside his castle walls. It is true that even in his heartiest, hardiest fiction Nabokov can’t help but devote airtime to certain low-level obsessions—butterflies, chess, Proust—that the rest of us might find crustily nose-up unrelatable. But Amis is also right, as he goes on to say in that essay, that Nabokov “wants to embrace his readers too … he is the dream host, always giving us on our visits his best chair and his best wine.” (Here he is comparing Nabs with Joyce: “What would Joyce do? Let’s think, he would call out vaguely from the kitchen, asking you to wait a couple of hours for the final fermentation of a home-brewed punch made out of grenadine, conger eels, and sheep dip.”)

Nor is Pale Fire (to drill down, finally, to the particulars of the novel under discussion, first published in 1962) done any favors by the sort of précis you could fit onto a dust jacket or offer by way of recommendation to a friend. No—watch this flap copy flame out: “Pale Fire” is an epic poem, nine hundred and ninety-nine lines of rhyming iambic pentameter to be precise, flanked by a short foreword and a long commentary/annotation, with the poem being the work of one character, John Shade, and the fore- and afterword that of another, Charles Kinbote, Shade’s would-be biographer (read: starfucker).

See the problem? Even if you can work in the part where Kinbote is likely a madman, and certainly not to be trusted, and winds up effectively ignoring the poem to tell an entirely different story—one in which he, the exiled king of someplace called Zembla, winds up inadvertently getting Shade shot dead—it still all sounds fairly airlessly arch, gamesmanship for gamesmanship’s sake, lacking, in a word, heart.

2. But oh does Pale Fire have heart. It’s even a bleeding heart, the kind that wants you to feel how much it aches: In what you just know gave the Nabster another of those private chuckles, the heart of the poem that is the heart of the book concerns a heart attack. That new Blade Runner from a few years back did a great job of locating—palpating?—this burning core, making the “baseline test” for the replicants an incantation of the “cells interlinked” bit from Pale Fire’s poem (which is titled—because of course it is—“Pale Fire”):

Patly I fell. My heart had stopped to beat,
It seems, and several moments passed before
It heaved and went on trudging to a more
Conclusive destination. Give me now
Your full attention.
                                     I can’t tell you how
I knew—but I did know that I had crossed
The border. Everything I loved was lost
But no aorta could report regret.
A sun of rubber was convulsed and set;
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.

With, of course, the importance of this passage double-underlined by way of that “Give me now / Your full attention,” followed by line-breaking caesura. (Part of the great fun I’m here to argue Pale Fire provides comes from how unsubtle it can be.) Later, Kinbote will go out of his way to avoid annotating these lines—their omission by this addled commentator again signaling their centrality—offering merely that “the fitting-in of the threefold ‘cells interlinked’ is most skillfully managed, and one derives logical satisfaction from the ‘system’ and ‘stem’ interplay.”

Which, talk about damning with faint academese! If we’re to follow Kinbote’s dubious lead into the realm of scansion, I’d add that the internal slant rhyme afforded by “destination” and “attention” stops you up in just the way the poem wants; that the “iambic motor” becomes much more regular here than elsewhere (many lines drop the unstressed beat that ought to lead them off); that the hammering repetition at “cells” recalls Poe’s rhyming “Bells”; that in fact, if you read this in your head in the James Earl Jones voice that so fabulously intoned “The Raven” on The Simpsons, it’s all pretty Poe-like—Vlad simply must have dug it that Poe and his beloved Alexander Pope sat so close on the shelf—and that, save perhaps the ending of Darkness at Noon (old Bolshevik, dark gun barrel, shrugging ocean wave), I can’t think of a more haunting evocation of the moment of dying, with those bold images of an eclipsing sun that is no-sun, of that white fountain against the dreadful void. I read this swath aloud to my cat one morning, and she stopped begging for food.

Then again, maybe you’re not like my cat and poetry isn’t your thing. An informal poll of friends, family, and coworkers revealed that of the vanishingly small percentage who had read the novel Pale Fire, most had taken Kinbote’s prefatory advice to skip the poem “Pale Fire” and go straight to the commentary (this despite his giving you every reason not to trust him right there in that foreword—maybe this is this novel’s Big Joke, that everyone skips the source text without which the rest wouldn’t exist, thereby missing the actual hidden treasure the Zembla sections only tease at). The prose features no shortage of the dazzling concinnities always on display, like so many pinned butterflies, in Nabokov—bent in Pale Fire to the service of meditations on sin, faith, grief, prejudice, and suicide, as well as to harder-to-name corners of lived experience, like how the texture of a dream can distill reality to a keening, hyperreal essence. Here, let’s let Vlad do that part, in the person of Kinbote-as–Zemblan King Charles the Beloved, who is gay, and has just told his queen he doesn’t love her, thereon to be racked by recurring dreams of her:

The gist, rather than the actual plot of the dream, was a constant refutation of his not loving her. His dream-love for her exceeded in emotional tone, in spiritual passion and depth, anything he had experienced in his surface existence. This love was like an endless wringing of hands, like a blundering of the soul through an infinite maze of hopelessness and remorse. They were, in a sense, amorous dreams, for they were permeated with tenderness, with a longing to sink his head onto her lap and sob away the monstrous past. They brimmed with the awful awareness of her being so young and so helpless. They were purer than his life.

Does it matter that such stunning passages come from a narrator who may well be fabricating every element of them? In other words: Can a “game” like Pale Fire achieve true poignancy? Answering question with question: Isn’t that what all fiction is anyway?

3. Besides, when it’s not making you cry, Pale Fire will make you laugh—another emblem of what is, under all the po-mo scaffolding, an open and inviting door. My copy is currently a palimpsest of Kinbote’s palimpsest, with the great majority of little marginal marks reading simply LOL; there are too many to count, but they start with his interrupting a dry academic discourse to complain, “There is a very loud amusement park right in front of my present lodgings” and end in the index (clearly penned by Kinbote) where the character Oleg is listed as the king’s “beloved playmate” from childhood (clearly they were much, much more than that, with Oleg referred to elsewhere as a “faunlet”—correspondent to and perhaps in a sense corrective of Lolita’s “nymphets”—and with a tryst said to have ended in both boys “moaning like doves”).

Nabokov’s not above self-laceration, either: Kinbote, no lepidopterist he, throws up his hands when confronted with the poetical mention of a certain species, and on several occasions indicates how thoroughly he detests “quotational titles” such as Pale Fire. (I’ll save you the google: It comes from Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens, which naturally figures heavily in the novel.)

But Nabokov’s favorite type of punchline involves a recursive setup that can offer a window onto the warp and weft of the novel. Example: On the eve of his coronation, with nothing so important as siring an heir, Charles has to be physically confined to his quarters lest he glimpse “in the dark cold gallery, lying all over the painted marble and piled three or four deep against the locked door, some dozing, some whimpering … his new boy pages.” (The king has a thing for pages.) You will be forgiven for sending those boys back-of-mind over the course of the pair of florid paragraphs to follow—until “the door of the anteroom slid open with a merry crash and the whole heap of putti tumbled in.” (This sort of thing—the gag deferred—would be lifted more or less wholesale by David Foster Wallace for use in Infinite Jest: On one page a character strains over an equally surreal high school test question, on double binds: What would one do if one were both kleptomaniacal and agoraphobic? The novel leaves this student before returning, many pages later, to tell us how he is just now dotting the i in “mail fraud.”)

This recursiveness extends beyond jokes; indeed it is everywhere in Pale Fire, from what I’ve called the superstructure (Vlad preferred “architectonics”) to the arrangement of paragraphs and even the structure of sentences. Nabokov’s famously looping phrasings—stackings of clauses that can sometimes occlude view of the original referent, sending you back to the top of the slide (DFW would pinch this, too)—enact in miniature his technique of declaring, topic-sentence style, that he’s about to reveal something, only then to delay and divagate and eventually wind back around to it once the reader’s probably forgotten what the point was supposed to be; and this in turn mirrors the many, many places where the annotations send you to other annotations, or to the foreword, or to still other parts of the poem, so that if you mapped the whole thing with string and pushpin it would look like the maniacal webwork of Charlie from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia or Carrie from Homeland. (If you were to actually read the novel according to these cross-references, you’d need at least three color-coded bookmarks. You might also go as mad as Kinbote.) In other words, Pale Fire looks like a fractal, or more to the point like a crystal, and this is a novel(ist) obsessed with reflecting light, refracting light, with prisms and mirrors and distortions, with resemblances, semblances, above all with dissembling. Not for nothing is the great putative kingdom of Zembla called that, which Nabokov makes clear in the late going, giving the name as “Semblerland, a land of reflections, of ‘resemblers’”; also not for nothing do its loyal royalists dress up to resemble the fleeing king, thus enabling his escape by dint of what I’ve heard termed, in tech-speak, “security through obscurity.”

4. Dissembling. The watchword for the whole enterprise, really. Is Kinbote a(n insane) fabricator? Might there be a much simpler explanation for Shade’s eventual demise than that a king-in-exile prompted a cell of Zemblan revolutionaries to dispatch an assassin to his adoptive American home, but that for all their careful planning these wannabe regicides wound up sending a uniquely hapless killer—one who misses Kinbote/Charles with every bullet, yet manages to send one directly through the heart of the poet, eliminating his map for keeps?

Other than the exact manner in which Shade is killed, it’s up to this question—to what degree can we trust anything being told to us?—to keep taut the novel’s narrative tension; that Kinbote and the king are one and the same is telegraphed incredibly early, and likewise the matter of the identity of Shade’s assassin, Gradus, alias Jack Grey inter alia. Pale Fire isn’t a whodunit or whydoit; it’s a howdidit, partly, and partly a whatevenhappened. Nabokov lets some air out of the balloon at the close of the commentary section, with only the index (and its unwinnable Möbius game involving the precise location of the hidden crown jewels) to go: Kinbote declares that Gradus’s “confession” (heard only by him, natch) involves “deceiving the police and the nation by posing as Jack Grey, escapee from an asylum”—and not just that but an “Institute for the Criminal Insane”—“who mistook Shade for the man who sent him there.” But of course it’s not clear that Gradus did any deceiving, any posing, at all; maybe, maybe even probably, Kinbote is deceiving us by using the word deceiving. Seems we all could use a close shave with Occam’s razor.

But let’s give Nabokov the last word here. Again from very near to the novel’s conclusion:

We are absurdly accustomed to the miracle of a few written signs being able to contain immortal imagery, involutions of thought, new worlds with live people, speaking, weeping, laughing. We take it for granted so simply that in a sense, by the very act of brutish routine acceptance, we undo the work of the ages, the history of the gradual elaboration of poetical description and construction, from the treeman to Browning, from the caveman to Keats. What if we awake one day, all of us, and find ourselves utterly unable to read? I wish you to gasp not only at what you read but at the miracle of its being readable.

Pale Fire—quite literally a new world, Zembla, filled with people speaking, weeping, laughing, fucking, fighting, killing—lives up to the challenge implicit in that excerpt: to make real that which, fundamentally, is not. That it’s even more upfront about this than most any other novel shouldn’t be a mark against it—it should recommend it.  ❖

Mike Laws is a freelance copy editor and occasional writer who roves and trawls the greater New York City area. He is originally from Maryland’s Eastern Shore and still, for some reason, loves the Baltimore Orioles.

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