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Pale Fire - Nabokov 2013 > Discussion - Week One – Pale Fire - Foreword and Pale Fire, p. 11 – 69

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William Mego (willmego) | 119 comments Our first week of discussion commences with the foreward and poem itself. Please limit your comments to these without the commentary. I know for those reading the commentaries simultaneously that might be a little restrictive this first week, but on the other hand it seems likely that Nabokov wanted to poem to be able to stand alone, so let's give the great man his due. Anyway, I expect the discussions could well last past the third week anyway, there's no hurry.

Some thoughts for this week:
The foreward certainly makes one have some strong ideas about the narrator, at least it did for me. Where exactly does that point begin for you?

A lot of my personal attention this week will just be to the poem itself, since we'll be talking commentary or meta-fiction much of the other weeks. Thoughts on the poem? Later today (Monday) I'll weigh in with some of the popular ideas about the poem, such as Nabokov's true intent, which for now I'll sum up as: "deliberate parody?" or "genuine attempt?"

Does this poem deserve to stand alone as a recent new edition put it? Thoughts on the form of the poem? Shade makes reference to Robert Frost at one point in Pale Fire, is there a deliberate reference in the technique or music of poem itself in your opinion?


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Jim | 3056 comments Mod
First impressions of the Foreword and Charles Kinbote; he reminds me of a mash-up between Humbert Humbert and Professor Timofey Pnin. There is a just-under-the-surface nervous tension in Kinbote's writing that reminds me of Humbert, and the lightly veiled contempt towards his American peers that Pnin expressed. The big question about Kinbote's character begins with the short paragraph:

Now "happy" is something extremely subjective. One of our sillier Zemblan proverbs says: the lost glove is happy. Promptly I refastened the catch of my briefcase and betook myself to another publisher.


Was unable to locate "Zembla" on a map of the world...


The poem was quite beautiful. I found myself feeling deep sorrow and pity for both the father and the lost daughter. I would put myself in a third camp - "successful attempt". However the poem might be ranked amongst the academics, I know what I like and the pathos of this poem moved me.


William Mego (willmego) | 119 comments At some point, we'll have to address the nation of Zembla and what it looks like when you draw a map of it. It's....interesting. I'll put that off for now, I think.

To address the poem, the first thing you have to notice is the poetic used, that of the Heroic Couplet. The wikipedia page on it is somewhat lacking (at least in comparison to the poetic dictionary I use) but is especially charming since (as I have only now realized having looked it up there for the first time) Pale Fire is quoted as an example of a modern usage of the form.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heroic_...

But still, the h.c. is something which saw a decline of use, perhaps like the symphony post-Beethoven, composers of its phrases didn't wish to draw comparison to a previous master of the form, in this instance, Alexander Pope. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexand... When you consider I found myself reciting aloud the same 8 lines of his over and over, enjoying the music of my tongue, I can certainly see how many would avoid his spectre.

For me, the poem works. It takes on the challenge of the h.c. and at least does itself justice. The central question to the poem in the Nabokov world is that of intent. Does Nabokov intend a serious poem using his full abilities, or is he making a statement by endowing Shade with second-rate powers (and conversely, the commentator with writing ability equal to that of Nabokov). Much blood has been spilt on either side of this argument. From a technical point of view, he fulfills the requirements of a closed heroic couplet, with use of Syllepsis (or at least of Zeugma, but the difference between the two is ALSO the subject of argument by itself) as well as antithesis. Zeugma stems from a Greek root meaning "a yoking together", so here we're looking at words that yoke, or bind together different parts of the sentence. To take directly from the wiki, An example might be that of the literal and figurative, such as
"[They] covered themselves with dust and glory."


or that which conflicts with logic, such as:
"They saw lots of thunder and lightning."
which as the wiki points out, "Logically, they only "saw" the lightning."

I personally find Canto 3 in many ways weaker than the others, but not strikingly so, and again, a personal preference more than an objective poetic one. The poem itself seems to inspire a great deal of love/hate from critics and poets, but then again, depending on whom you believe, that might be the point...


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Zadignose | 444 comments My first impressions, I'm sorry to record, were rather negative and critical. I do need to read the poem again in its entirety. But I would characterize the book so far as:

A Foreword which momentarily seems dry, but soon it becomes apparent that the editor/commentator/interpreter is a bit mad, kind of a stalker, and probably delusional. It also seems to be a parody/mockery of the nature of the interpretation of art. Unfortunately, it is not yet particularly witty or entertaining, and at times I must wonder whether even a delusional person would write something that makes his own delusion so plain.

The poem then arrives. At least at first reading it seems like a kind of doggerel, occasionally literary, often pedestrian, which may be played for humor/parody, but again it doesn't seem quite funny most of the time. It does have its moments. When I tried rereading the beginning, admittedly it seemed better on a second go, so I will try again. Meanwhile, there are some potentially affecting elements to the story narrated through the poem, the most outstanding of which is the death/disappearance of the daughter.

I suspect that some surprises relating to this will be revealed later in the "commentary."

There may also be some interesting metaphysical musings within. I did like the image of the illusory connection between the interior world of Shade's home and the exterior world, with his comparison of himself to the bird slamming into the window (beginning of first canto).

Again, some of the intentional absurdity within the poem draws attention to itself--such as the sudden transition from meditations on near-death and out-of-body experiences to the frustrations of shaving a stubborn beard--which may also be played as a metaphor of sorts, but it's intentionally clumsy--some of this seems as though it ought to be funnier, or more profound, or both, but it's lukewarm on all fronts.

I'll browse through some passages again and return to this. Overall, though, it so far feels that this whole text is going to be a big joke on us. We're being played for fools, especially if Nabokov anticipates any funny business in our clumsy attempts to interpret (and thus misinterpret) the work and the implied authorial intent.


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William Mego (willmego) | 119 comments What is your primary objection to the poem? Doggerel is of course a powerful and loaded term, and I find it hard to justify unless you have some case to claim the order of words is demonstrably forced to keep the meter. Otherwise I'll assume you intend it as a sort of hyperbole for effect..it is a sort of "nuclear option" in poetry. In fact it would be hard to find a single word that carries more power as such.

I see what you call a sudden transition to shaving a beard as trying to call attention to process, that when we shave our beards our thoughts might wander to deeper places. [Or soaping a leg..Pale Fire, Canto Four, lines 840-844] I don't see the poem as any attempt at humor though.

I don't find the humor to have begun yet with the Foreward. I think Nabokov is setting up the situation, and trying to leave us a little bit confused as to Kinbote and his veracity, not to mention his intent. He will leave us with far more confusion about him later still. I do feel there's a great deal of humor in the commentary however. Yes, to some extent the humor is directed at the idea of commentator/reviewer/academic, but some would even take ire at that, esp those who feel the poem is deliberately made to be second-rate (funny we cannot agree even to this)

For one thing, I ask my original question on your primary objection because I'm curious as to how much of it could stem from the poetic itself. That is, do you find the Heroic Couplet to be almost offensive to the eye and mind? I know some cannot accept it post-Pope, with a wink and nod to Ogden Nash perhaps. I'm not suggesting your objections are solely due to the h.c., but wondering how much might come from it. Either way, I'd be interested to hear your specific issues if you'd share them.


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Jim | 3056 comments Mod
Zadignose wrote: " Overall, though, it so far feels that this whole text is going to be a big joke on us. We're being played for fools, especially if Nabokov anticipates any funny business in our clumsy attempts to interpret (and thus misinterpret) the work and the implied authorial intent..."

Nabokov is nothing if not playful, but the play is intended as a game, not as a joke on the reader. There is a link to Yale Online lectures for Lolita in the Lolita Questions and resources thread. What is mentioned a few times in the lectures is Nabokov's lifelong interest in creating and solving chess problems and how this interest figures into his novels. Worth watching as insight to Nabokov's approach to literature and his readers.


Again, some of the intentional absurdity within the poem draws attention to itself--such as the sudden transition from meditations on near-death and out-of-body experiences to the frustrations of shaving a stubborn beard--which may also be played as a metaphor of sorts, but it's intentionally clumsy--some of this seems as though it ought to be funnier, or more profound, or both, but it's lukewarm on all fronts.

I can see what you mean about the poem, but another consideration other than its merits as a stand-alone poem-by-Nabokov is how/what does the fictional-poem reveal about the character of the fictional-poet? We know John Shade's character only by inferences from within the poem and by the reports of the apparently unreliable narrator, Charles Kinbote. Nabokov was a master craftsman, so whatever effects come across in the poem are certainly there by intent. With this week's reading, we don't have the full picture, but by the end, I'm sure our opinions about the poem and its place/purpose/function in the novel will be clearer. Remember that all the academic ponderings of the Nabokovians are extra-textual and as interesting as it all is, we, as readers, still have to find our own interpretations within the bounds of Nabokov's text.


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Zadignose | 444 comments I'm in the midst of a reexperience/reappraisal, and I get a more favorable impression from a second reading than I did from the first. I may have overstated my first impression of the poem. However, let me explain the origin of that impression:

1)The heroic couplet can be rather sing-songy and raises some dilemmas. The use of enjambment (I was aware of the phenomenon, but had forgotten the term, until revisiting wikipedia... one form of enjambment is when the rhyme does not fall on a natural syntactic break within a line) can produce awkward breaks, as the strong rhyme scheme calls attention to itself and doesn't align with the natural way the reader attempts to comprehend the grammar of the line. Sometimes this can be intentionally played for humorous or surprising effects, while other times it can just sound wrong or awkward, and it's hard to give a precise definition of how, when, or why.

2)The "poem" somehow seems to dance on the line between prose and poetry, and thus does not seem entirely poetic. One may be invited to question how genuinely committed the author was to the aesthetics of the poem. It may rather seem that a poetic form was imposed upon a narrative which could more naturally be presented as prose.

3)There's a sort of oddness that arises from using heroic couplets for decidedly modern and non-heroic, mundane topics such as watching television commercials and paring one's fingernails (even if, while paring one's fingernails, one imagines oneself to be a sort of god or microcosm).

4)Sometimes a line seems contrived simply for the ease of fitting it into the rhyme.

An occasional clue that the author may be mocking the form:

The tall clock with the hoarse Westminster chimes
Has marked our common hour. How many more
Free calendars shall grace the kitchen door?

...
"She should take riding lessons," you would say
(Your eyes and mine not meeting). "She should play
Tennis, or badminton. Less starch, more fruit!
She may not be a beauty, but she's cute."

...
"Mother, what's chthonic?" That, too, you'd explain,
Appending, "Would you like a tangerine?"


Well, anyway, perhaps of this poem too we can say "She may not be a beauty, but she's cute." I think cuteness was often what he was aiming at, while some deeper thoughts may occasionally be hinted at, though we can doubt to what extent we should take them seriously.

--------------------------------------
Then, there's this self-referential line (and being a crank and skeptic--always--I wrote myself the note "self-reference is not necessarily wit"):

Man's life as commentary to abstruse
Unfinished poem. Note for further use.


So, here at least, Nabokov hints that the "point" or controlling idea of the book will likely be the commentary, not the poem itself, and the poem may be intentionally "abstruse," though I would not say the poem is necessarily difficult of comprehension, certainly not on a line-by-line basis, but rather the puzzle of it is "what point is he getting at?".

----------------------------------------------
Meanwhile, the first indication that this will be a bizarre book, and that the author is exercising his sense of humor, appears almost immediately within the foreword, and was apparent at a first reading. It is the line:

"There is a very loud amusement park right in front of my present lodgings."


William Mego (willmego) | 119 comments Thanks for the terrific post, and being brave enough to examine your technical issues with the poem! In my book that takes bravery.

On point #1, I agree fully. Enjambment is an almost unavoidable problem in any restrictive form that allows any leeway, whereas a form such as the sestina can only be created if followed absolutely. You'd be hard pressed to find heroic couplets without issues. It's common enough to have the "open" and "closed" forms just because of it. One more reason Alexander Pope is under appreciated by modern readers. After researching Pale Fire for so long I have grown a hunger to read more Pope!

On #2, I agree partly. Clearly, while Pale Fire the poem deserves (IMO) to be able to stand alone, it was clearly (again, IMO) created as a central device for the novel which includes and surrounds it. There are however moments of truly lovely poetry, so if we're cherrypicking, we might as well pick some ripe fruit as well...this is even quoted on the wikipedia page for the heroic couplet itself:

And then black night. That blackness was sublime.
I felt distributed through space and time:
One foot upon a mountaintop. One hand
Under the pebbles of a panting strand,
One ear in Italy, one eye in Spain,
In caves, my blood, and in the stars, my brain.
(Canto One. 147-153)


I believe that there's a great deal hidden inside the poem, locked away layers of references in addition to the more obvious poetic ones. One of my favorite devices in the poem is the reference on line 395-397:
"She said she understood.
After he'd gone the three young people stood
Before the azure entrance for awhile."

..which echoes the fatal false azure of the windowpane of line 2.

The more hidden references will require more work, however. I'll try digging some into a post tomorrow evening.


John Sundman (jsundman) | 19 comments I read the book decades ago and am re-reading now. I've re-read through the second canto.

It seems to me that it doesn't matter much if the poem Pale Fire is "objectively" good poetry, bad poetry, or a mix (I find it a mix). What matters about the poem is that it shows us who John Shade was -- what was on his mind, what he (presumably) thought was good poetry.

More to say on this when we get to Kinbote's commentary & annotations.

Enjoying everybody's comments so far.


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Zadignose | 444 comments Other notes/comments regarding the poem:

-One wonders what is meant by (line 133)
I had a brain, five senses (one unique);

It's funny in two ways. First, it makes us wonder what his unique sense is. Second, if he has a unique sense, then which of the ordinary five senses does he not have?

Of course his "unique sense" could have to do with his apparent depersonalization/fits-of-abstraction in which he attains a kind of oneness with the universe, or whatever it is that's going on here in his mind. And maybe his one unique sense is in addition to the ordinary five.

-Is his reference to sexual abuse of a boy by a grown woman (lines 161-163) merely an analogy for his traumatizing fits, or does it allude to his actual abuse?

-Why in particular does he repeatedly address his wife Sybil by reference to a butterfly species "Vanessa" which obviously also recalls a girl's name.

-What the heck was his daughter's name, anyway?

-Lines (825-828)
...hiding my keys,
Glasses or pipe. Coordinating these
Events and objects with remote events
And vanished objects...


Yup, I too believe the gods/supernatural entities are constantly hiding my belongings. Them or gremlins. Well, to come clean, I also had depersonalization fits as a kid... hell, I'm too much like this guy.

-When in doubt, it's a bird reference. Everything's a bird. Well, guess that comes from having ornithologist parents... and being a poet, generally.

-Meditative thought: Nabokov, as an already accomplished writer, when writing a poem, would most likely have preferred to write something unimpeachably perfect. But could he have been driven to make light of the work due to doubts regarding his own potential accomplishment within the medium?

-References to a whole civilization living on various parts of his face (in the passages around 930, in the shaving tangent) are reminiscent of Rabelais.

-Eating his egg with a shoehorn is an entertaining consequence of being distracted by his literary efforts.

-"You" usually appears to refer to his wife Sybil. But still, one wonders whether another could be intended, or if he is ever instead addressing his dead daughter. Is it possible (though I doubt my own premise) that he may sometimes conflate his wife and daughter into one person? Nah, probably just Sybil, and I'm reading into it too much.

-There's a bit of obvious irony in Shade's reassuring himself, almost at the end, that tomorrow he will wake as usual to a fine day, when we know that he will not and he's just about to die, one line short of a complete poem.

--------------------------------
A question that I answered for myself:
--------------------------------

-What does "gripping the stang" mean (line 459-460)
"Yes, that's okay." Gripping the stang, she peered
At ghostly trees. Bus stopped. Bus disappeared.


The only thing I could find that might be relevant is that a "stang" could be a two pronged staff, perhaps topped with antlers, used in witchcraft, but by analogy he could be referring to some similarly shaped bit of hardware on a bus, or it's something more obscure, or there's a damned typo in my book.

ANSWERED: Ah, I just found a reference to an obsolete usage in Wiktionary, where Stang = bar/pole/shaft. So if anyone else was wondering, there you have it. The google search actually contains a snippet of a reference to Pale Fire, but the Wiktionary page and the Google cached version don't show this anymore.


William Mego (willmego) | 119 comments Nabokov references butterflies whenever possible, and was a noted amateur lepidopterist. Here's a quick link about his relation to it, I have more to say, but today is going oddly, more when I can.
http://www.nytimes.com/1997/05/27/sci...


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