John's Reviews > Pale Fire

Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov
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Sep 01, 13

bookshelves: russian, poetry
Read from May 30 to June 14, 2011 — I own a copy, read count: 1

When you first move to a new town, you learn a few routes: home to work, home to the market, home to the post office. You start to branch out. You get drinks one day after work, but to get home you go by way of work and then go home. You know this isn't the shortest distance, but there's something comforting about driving via landmarks, and anyway, who's rushing? You go on like this for months, building your "work map", and your "shopping map", etc. etc. More likely than not, there will be some lacunae in your map of the region,[1] and tenuous connections, but you know as much as you want to.

And then sometimes you're in a region between these maps, and see a familiar landmark, and two maps click together, and you get a jolt of recognition and surprise, and suddenly you want to tell people about how "look! That bar we go to is directly between work and the post office!" and they don't quite get why you're so excited.

Pale Fire is like that.

If this were a metaphor for mathematics,[2] the interpretation would be obvious here. But Pale Fire bears enough similarities that the connection's not too hard. The novel consists of a forward, a poem, a commentary, and an index. Your job is to build a network of connections within and between the bits and pieces. Like your mental maps, different people will use different landmarks, and different people will notice different features of the novel's terrain. And, like the bewildered target of your cartographic ravings, other people aren't going to be as excited about the details you noticed unless they noticed them independently.

All that being said, it would be pointless to offer my interpretations of and ruminations on the novel.[3] Instead, I will just promise you that the usual Nabokov details all show up,[4] and there are plenty of delightful puzzles and details to solve and notice, and that these range from the low-hanging variety to the stumpers of "just how ironic is Nabokov being?" and "just how hard is he trying to contradict New Criticism?" and "just how many meta-'s does this impute to the fictional quality of the work?"

Another thing. The charge is often leveled that this is Nabokov's best book, by some measure. Is this the case? I have to admit I have limited experience, but it's the best I've read. The prose isn't as consistently giddy as Lolita's, but wordplay abounds, and his ear has hardly turned stannous. The narrator is less relatable than The Real Life of Sebastian Knight's V., but he's also less reliable. The attention to detail outstrips even Invitation to a Beheading.[5] So yes, it's a wonderfully balanced and full Nabokov novel. My only worry is that perhaps it's too full. This isn't really a problem per se, but it does mean that Pale Fire might not be a great introduction to Nabokov.

One last note, about hypertextuality.[6] I understand that this is supposed to be one of the more difficult parts of the book, because it is nonlinear and nonstandard and requires a great deal of page-turning and vacillating over which trails to follow. My thoughts on this are that 1) this should be less of a problem to those of us used to trawling around Wikipedia and the internet in general,[7] and in fact we should be thankful for this layout, for 2) it forces us to always be re-reading, which is how Nabokov intends his work to be consumed, anyway.[8] So, really, the hypertext business is a comprehension aide, rather than a roadblock.


[1] For example, I've never been on the block one east of the house I spent 20
years growing up in
[2] which it is, but only in a sort of incidental way
[3] Though I can't help but share one of my little triumphs: noticing immediately that in the note to lines 47-48, the Goldsworth girls are named such that the Judge would have to have planned to have precisely four children, foreshadowing the Judge's punctiliousness. This is amusingly borne out in the rest of the note.
[4] Looking for Freud in a Nabokov novel is much like looking for Hitchcock in a Hitchcock film, and spacetime is never far behind him
[5] I don't really have an apt comparison to The Defense, and certainly The Original of Laura is hardly a contender
[6] insert obligatory Borges The Garden of Forking Paths reference here
[7] We who are internauts, as Francophones put it in one of my favorite terms
[8] "... one cannot read a book: one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader", Lectures on Literature. In his following explanation, Nabokov lists a number of textual limitations that he manages to circumvent in Pale Fire, partially through forced re-reading.
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