In two renaissance memento mori paintings by Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665), the above Latin phrase appears on the side of an ancient tomb, intrusively and inscrutably situated in an idyllic meadow among the sheep and herders of Arkadia. It says in translation, ‘here also am I’, and the “I”, of course, refers to death. This same phrase appears in Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire --only there it may refer rather more pointedly to madness.
Pale Fire is a thrillingly suspenseful book, beautifully written, and obviously loaded with the subtle allusions, more obvious references and literary devices cherished by academic readers. It is often cited as Nabokov’s greatest achievement, his modern masterpiece, an American “Prelude” – as in Wordsworth! - and even the proof positive that the novel, as an Art form, is not dead (see Mary McCarthy’s review here.). It is also called the first (and by some the supreme example of) modern American meta-fiction.* Mostly, though, it is an extraordinary example of aesthetic structural design. The way all of its narrative and thematic elements come together is truly amazing, and if nothing else works for you, this aspect alone surely should.
Pale Fire is called a meta-fiction because it takes the experimental form of a literary exegesis of a poem by the fictive character John Shade, which poem is called “Pale Fire”. The editor of this now posthumous work is, ostensibly, Professor Kinbote, an adjunct professor and colleague of Shade at Wordsmith University, as well as his nosy neighbor. So, the work is divided in two sections: i) the poem “Pale Fire”, whose title describes the moon’s radiance as the ‘stolen’ luminosity of the sun, hence, an illusion ad a fraud and ii) the annotation provided by Kinbote, who seeks to find in the poem a rendition and recapitulation of his own paranoid delusions. You see, Kinbote, the old pederast and reprobate, is mad as a hatter!
He believes himself to be the exiled King of Zembla, a “distant northern land”, from which he has fled only to be pursued by an assassin, named Jacques Gradus. He also believes himself to be an intimate acquaintance and friend of John Shade, the poem’s author, and the true target of the gunman who ultimately violates the idyll of middle-American academia, though all of that too may prove illusory. Not to be put off, he (Kinbote) steals the manuscript of the poem and runs!
His exegesis consists of line-by-line notations to the poem, most of which function only as stepping – or jumping – off points for Kinbote’s delusions. His academic credentials validate the quality of the writing; his madness accounts for its demented content. The unfolding of his delusional story is remarkable for its brilliant flashes of unexpected and unintended comedy – a real highpoint in this book - as well as for the gradual and suspenseful build-up of narrative dread and real thematic mystery in the process. Just as surely as we begin, even from the start, to feel dread about the outcome of the story, we begin also, and in equal measure I think, to suspect that something truly profound is being exposed; something more than the ranting of a delusional paranoiac; something about the nature, sanity and adequacy of our own conceptual schemes.
To make this case, I only have to remember that, although John Shade is a saner and a kinder person than Kinbote, he is still a man like Kinbote; although he lives in a more realistic world than Kinbote, he is no less subject to the tragedy of illusion, or the inadequacy of an illusion. Shade’s precious daughter Hazel died by suicide; though she showed early on multiple symptoms of an unstable mind, her father (and mother) didn’t believe in psychiatry! –but luckily, for him at least, he did believe in poetry. No detail in Nabokov’s writing is superfluous.
So much has been written about Pale Fire, that I won’t even try to summarize or to take issue with the scholarship. Theories abounded at first, and also later, about the true identity and author of the poem, the notes, and the proper interpretation of the text, based on the various assumptions, etc. But Nabokov himself gave a spurious end to the debate in an article (in the NY Herald Tribune, June 17, 1962) when he said “the nasty commentator is not an ex-King of Zembla nor is he professor Kinbote. He is professor Botkin, or Botkine, a Russian and a madman."(Clues were provided in the text, most directly when, apropos of nothing, Kinbote remarks about the word botkin, “Note the correct spelling”.) Naturally, hilariously, the debate didn’t end there. Though most still agree it is a masterpiece, they differ on the why and how it came to be so.
What I think is more significant is this. As John Self says in his review (palimpsest, Vladimir Nabokov, post #4), Pale Fire lacks the emotional punch of Lolita (and, I assume, Nabokov’s other major works). But I have to wonder, which Pale Fire is he referring to: the actual poem – for there is a very accomplished and substantial 999 line poem involved here - or the book which putatively takes its focus in the poem?
Interestingly, as an example of experimental form this novel can be read either front to back - poem first, and then the notes (and glossary and index!) - or back and forth, line/poem-to-notes/narrative, and back to line. I have read it now the first way (front to back), and I have to agree with John, that, due mostly to the effect of the second and longest part, though engrossing and suspenseful and often very funny, it lacks emotional weight. This is quite different from my initial experience of reading just the poem itself, and alone. Would this still be true if I had read it differently, i.e. in a different order? I will have to pause a while and read it again, and differently, to know. But it does bring up and beg a question. Was this what Nabokov had in mind when he opted for the dyadic structure? Could this be part of the experiment?
As part II, the introduction and the appendices render the efforts of a madman to glean a meaning from (or more accurately, to impose a meaning on) the object of his focus (the poem), so the poem itself renders the efforts of a sane and decent man, to glean a meaning, and some resolution, from the object of his focus: the premature death by suicide of his daughter, Hazel. The poem recounts his despair and the attempts he made to make sense of death, to come to terms with her (and his) fate. There is more than enough pathos and punch in this work, and the poem is generally recognized by reviewers and critics to be a substantial work of Art in its own right. (Some even theorize that the poem was/is a masterwork meant to stand in opposition to, and as a rebuke of the trend toward nihilism in modern Art and poetry!) The poet, John Shade, is reputed – even by himself - to be just “one oozy footprint behind [Robert] Frost” There can be no doubt that “Pale Fire”, the poem, was meant by Nabokov to be taken seriously.
Reading the poem first, however, means reading the annotation last. And this more cerebral, comic, and bewildering experience, it seems to me, inevitably dissipates the very real effect - the emotional impact - of the poem, which is a critical part of the work, as a whole. Perhaps, in other words, it is important with this type of experimental novel to know it whole and well and to appreciate it not just for the immediate aftertaste, which is bound to be most effected by the taste or tone of the latter portion, but for the distilled resonance of the entire experience.
Pale Fire, then, is still a question mark for me. Perhaps what Nabokov intended was for this work to be “beheld” in the mind and in the heart of the reader, as it must have been for the author –all at once, and in its full force. This more cerebral, more time-sensitive, approach seems altogether consonant with Nabokov’s important themes.
Again, recalling the importance of the design of the work as a whole, we might see the annotation effort offered by Kinbote as a ludicrously far-fetched parallel to the artistic effort of the author of the poem, which is a nearer and nobler approximation to the efforts of any man (read: Man) to find - or impose - meaning on his experience. Out of two tragedies we have two very different results: one man writes a searchingly beautiful poem, another confabulates a narcissistic paranoid delusion. But they still have this in common; neither fully or adequately grasps its object, the thing itself, except as a pale and incomplete reflection, or semblance of reality. The themes of reflection, illusion, and insufficiency abound in Pale Fire, so much so that at times one thinks it most resembles a literary hall of mirrors –some of them, fun-house mirrors. Perhaps we must add one more referent to the opening motto’s “Ego”. In addition to death and madness in Arkadia, here also is illusion.
*I am working on an essay concerning Meta-fiction, its utility as a concept of criticism, as well as its coherence as descriptive category, but further discussion will have to wait at least a bit longer. For now, I'll rely on the elusive moniker only as a placeholder.