Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Pale Fire

From the archives, some old notes on a classic. Vladimir Nabokov is one of my favorite authors.

A poem with commentary, the telling of a man's ordinary life and thoughts, interpreted by a exiled king, who sees in every word a reflection of lost Zembla. Or, alternatively, a lost king invented by a poet and interpreted by a madman, or someone's dream world, inhabited by shades.

An ultimately perfect work, and a book that can be read many times in many different ways, Pale Fire is by turns touching and overwhelmingly comic, the rage against tyrants and cruelty and the forces of mediocrity is always just below the surface. One suspects that the deepest compassion of the author (the true author) is particularly evident in this work, portions of which are some of the most clearly spiritual (I use the term loosely) that I've come across in Nabokov's work. Speaking of sins, John Shade states: "I can name only two: murder and the deliberate infliction of pain." Despite his biting criticism and strong opinions, Nabokov never comes across in his works as particularly judgemental.

Nabokov's calm assurance regarding the sort of afterlife he envisions is eloquent, as is, as usual, his precise and exhilarating style of writing. Kinbote, for his insufferability, is a masterful creation of pathos and hedonism, a dim cousin of Humbert Humbert. The poet Shade is less well envisioned, in the commentary, at least (which forms the bulk of the book), but he is a warm enough figure as seen through "his" poem, and the canto dealing with his daughter's death is heart-wrenching. But in the shifting mirror of this complex book, neither identity nor reality is fixed, yet a sense of loss and distance comes through in every word. 09/01