Sometimes I imagine Alice Liddell became Vladimir Nabokov when she grew up. As a child in ‘Wonderland’ she was able to shrink and grow and engage in complicated word games with everyone she met. In the same way, Nabokov is the 20th Century’s paragon of transformation and word play. But no, Alice was far too pragmatic to have written a book like Lolita. Alice enjoyed listening to the twists and turns in Dodgson’s story, and the games he played with language, but Lolita is a different matter. It’s a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions, well described by Dorothy Parker in 1958 as “the engrossing, anguished story of a man, a man of taste and culture, who can love only little girls” and Lolita “a dreadful little creature, selfish, hard, vulgar, and foul-tempered” (Sex – Without the Asterisks, Esquire, October 1958). However, Nabokov was fond of the works of Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) and translated Alice in Wonderland into Russian. He even called Lewis Carroll the ‘first Humbert Humbert’, (according to Appel, in Nabokov’s Dark Cinema, OUP, 1974).
However, stunning book that it is, I am not going to write about Lolita, much as I would like to do so. The novel is so tangled up in layers of moral outrage, peverse misunderstanding, and half-baked realisations on the screen that it is almost impossible to retrieve. Instead, I want to look at Pale Fire, the fifth of Nabokov books in English (Lolita was the third). Published in 1962, the novel comprises a 999-line poem titled ‘Pale Fire’, written by one John Shade, preceded by a brief epigraph, and followed by a lengthy commentary and index written by Shade’s neighbour and academic colleague, Charles Kinbote.
If that isn’t complex enough, we’ve hardly begun! There’s that epigraph. When one appears at the front of a novel, it is rather like a preface, intended to both to set the tone for what follows, and to convey additional information. In the case of Pale Fire, the relevance of the epigraph is pointedly obscure. Re-reading it recently, now I think it’s like a clue in a mystery novel, as capable of misleading as it is in clarifying, and it certainly manages to turn my thoughts into a rather suspicious frame of mind, not just creating the state of confusion I experienced when I first read it: “This reminds me of the ludicrous account he gave Mr. Langston, of the despicable state of a young gentleman of good family. ‘Sir, when I heard of him last, he was running about town shooting cats’. And then in a sort of kindly reverie, he bethought himself of his own favourite cat, and said, ‘But Hodge shan’t be shot: no, no, Hodge shall not be shot’.” The quote comes from James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson. Get it? No, nor did I: but it sets the tone of this extraordinary novel, making it clear that what you are about to read is going to contain some, no, several confusing puzzles, non-sequiturs, links and thoughts, enough to keep any serious reader engaged for a very long time!
It is hard to convey how absurdly involving this novel becomes. The poem is long, and it is hard to keep focus for those 999 lines. The first time I read Pale Fire I just charged through the poem with little understanding or appreciation. I’d read Lolita previously, an engaging and conventionally structured story, if a very dark and disturbing one. In contrast, the poem was like reading something by T S Eliot: strange, unsettling, and unclear, relying on images and ideas tossed out like a postmodern assemblage of bits and pieces. Then I read the commentary on the poem. If I had thought Nabokov was a really good novelist before, now I was hooked. Pale Fire the poem had become the source for an extended, personal, often funny, and sometimes frightening collection of comments and reflections. And it grabs you.
In trying to offer an overview, I think Shade’s poem seems to describe aspects of his life, albeit confusingly. Canto 1 includes his early encounters with death and glimpses of what he takes to be the supernatural. Canto 2 is about his family and the apparent suicide of his daughter, Hazel Shade. Canto 3 focuses on Shade’s search for making sense of the afterlife, culminating in a ‘faint hope’ in higher powers ‘playing a game of worlds’ revealed by apparent coincidences. Canto 4 offers some details on Shade’s daily life and creative process, as well as thoughts on his poetry, his approach to trying to understand the universe.
Kinbote’s notes on the poem include three stories all muddled up with one another. One is his own story, including reflections on his friendship with Shade. We learn that after Shade was murdered, Kinbote acquired the poem’s manuscript, together with some variants, and oversaw it’s publication, advising readers that it lacks line 1000. Kinbote’s second story deals with King Charles II, ‘The Beloved’, the deposed king of Zembla. King Charles aided by supporters has escaped imprisonment by Soviet-backed revolutionaries, using a secret passage in his castle. Kinbote tells us he inspired Shade to write the poem by telling him of King Charles’s escape, which is the reason it includes allusions to the king, and to Zembla, especially in the rejected drafts, although you can’t find any explicit reference to King Charles as you read the poem. Kinbote’s third story concerns Gradus, an assassin dispatched by the new rulers of Zembla to kill the exiled king. Gradus makes his way from Zembla through Europe and America to New Wye, suffering various comic mishaps. In the last note, on the missing line 1000, Kinbote explains how Gradus killed Shade, apparently by mistake.
Towards the end of the narrative, Kinbote all but explicitly claims that he is the exiled King Charles, living incognito; however, enough details throughout the story, as well as various statements of dubious sincerity made by Kinbote towards the novel’s end, suggest both King Charles and Zembla are both fictitious. Perhaps we are to conclude Kinbote is delusional, and he has built his elaborate picture of Zembla, even including its unique language, as a by-product of his insanity; similarly, Gradus might simply be an unhinged man who had been trying to kill Shade from the start, his backstory as a revolutionary assassin a fabrication.
Confused? Perhaps I should start with an example. In Canto 2 of the poem, we read:
There was a time in my demented youth
When somehow I suspected that the truth
About survival after death was known
To every human being: I alone
Knew nothing, and a great conspiracy
Of books and people hid the truth from me.
Kinbote’s comment on the final line (it’s line 172 of the poem), opens “His and my reader will, I trust, will excuse me for breaking the orderly course of these comments”, a somewhat surprising suggestion since the preceding 40 pages of ‘notes’ cover the imprisonment and escape of the King of Zemblan during a revolution, while the poem up to that point had only covered fragments apparently describing images from Shade’s childhood? Without any comments on these six lines, we move to a description of Professor Pnin ( a character in another of Nabokov’s novels), and then on to teaching Shakespeare at the college level. We are told Shade considers himself benevolent teacher, except he would always give very low marks to anyone who used the words ‘simple’ or ‘sincere’ in describing an author’s work.
Shade concludes his comments on this line by adding: “when I hear a critic speaking of an author’s sincerity, I know either the critic or the author is a fool”. Kinbote replies (even though this is his commentary, he appears in third person: “But I am told this manner of thinking is taught in high school”. Shade replies, “That’s where the broom should begin to sweep. A child should have thirty teachers to teach him thirty subjects, and not one harassed schoolmarm to show him a picture of a rice field and tell him this is China because she knows nothing about China, or anything else, and cannot tell the difference between longitude and latitude.” Kinbote replies: “Yes, I agree”. Still with me? The next note, on the following line, discusses the day the specific stanza was written, and then we are reading reminiscences about Shade’s birthday, one to which Kinbote wasn’t invited, but waited by the telephone for a last minute call, clutching his present. Just to add to the sadness of that moment, we’re told it was Kinbote’s birthday also. And so the commentary continues, with insights into insects, birds, and a discussion of the Red Admiral butterfly. Even I know that Nabokov was a lifelong lepidopterist, often claiming this was his true passion. Then, a few lines later in the poem, the commentary returns us to the King’s adventures, now travelling in disguise.
Have I said enough to make it clear that Pale Fire is both fascinating and frustrating. Today it would be described as ‘meta-fiction’. While Kinbote’s commentary comprises notes linked to the lines of the poem, it would be an understatement to add that the notes do little to add to or explain the poem. Rather the notes contain key elements of those three related stories, the pieces following some kind of logical sequence, but embedded in various other discussions and reflections. A while ago I read that the novel can be read in one of two ways, either ‘unicursally’, straight through, or ‘multicursally’, jumping between the comments and the poem. As a sad reflection of my limited appreciation, despite trying both approaches, I have largely discounted the poem, and focussed on the notes. That might imply I end up in a muddle, but that’s not the case. Rather Nabokov’s style, hopping between commentary and story, is both engaging and satisfying. I don’t feel disappointed when we lurch off on one tangent or another, but rather enjoy the jumping about – because each part is so satisfying.
One of my recent times reading Pale Fire was just after I had read a novel in which one of the key characters was a philatelist, flipping between pages of stamps from various countries, and occasionally focussed on one year, one country, and the stamps of that era. It was an image that stuck in my mind as I read Nabokov’s novel: it was as if I was examining the pages of a history, slightly muddled up, but each section important and valuable in its own right.
However, in going through Pale Fire this last time around, another analogy became even more pertinent. It was as if I was studying butterfly wings, alternating between the overall pattern on each species’ wings, and the links between members of the same family, and then suddenly focussing down on the details of one specimen. From the internet I discovered: “Butterfly wings are made up of two chitinous layers (membranes). Each wing is covered by thousands upon thousands of colourful scales and hairs. These wing scales are tiny overlapping pieces of chitin on a butterfly or moth wing. They are outgrowths of the body wall and are modified, plate-like setae (hairs). Most butterflies have different patterns on the front and back of their wings. Scent scales are modified wing scales on the forewing of male butterflies and moths (on the costal fold) that release pheromones. These chemicals attract females of the same species. The scent scales are also known as androconia.” (from australianbutterflies.com/what-are-butterfly-wings-made-of). A novel of a thousand parts?
Finally, I should add that there is a nice ‘academic’ feel to this. Interactions between Kinbote and Shade take place in the fictitious small college town of New Wye, Appalachia, where they lived across a lane from each other, from February to July 1959. Kinbote writes his commentary from then to October 1959 in a tourist cabin in the equally fictitious western town of Cedarn, Utana. Both authors recount many earlier events, Shade mostly in New Wye and Kinbote in New Wye and in Europe, especially the ‘distant northern land’ of Zembla. The structure makes the reader feel, at least part of time, he’s reading an academic critique.
There are enough clues in the book to sustain this perspective. Characters are slippery. Some critics have argued Charles Kinbote is the alter-ego of the insane Professor V. Botkin, a delusional yet compelling faculty member at Wordsmith College (Wordsmith!). Nabokov encouraged this view in an interview in 1962 (the year Pale Fire was published), suggesting Pale Fire “is full of plums that I keep hoping somebody will find. For instance, 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” (quoted by Maurice Dolbier, New York Herald Tribune, June 17, 1962, on Books and Authors: Nabokov’s Plums). He implied the novel’s complicated cross-references can lead the acrostic-minded reader to discover this ‘plum’. If you want a further clue, the Index to Pale Fire includes an entry for a ‘Botkin, V.’, describing this Botkin as an “American scholar of Russian descent”, which then takes us to line 894 of the poem where a character suggests Kinbote is “a kind of anagram of Botkin or Botkine”.
Did I mention this is sometimes described as meta-fiction. It is more than that, it is a rich, complex, multi-layered collection, with stories, commentaries and allusions all thrown together, creating a world of possibilities for the reader. Yes, you can read it straight through. If you do that, you emerge at the other end somewhat baffled, but with enough sense of the underlying story of Charles, King of Zembla, and his pursuer Gradus, even though it all ends in confusion towards the end of the book when Gradus kills the wrong person (or did he?).
You might agree with some commentators who try to tie the story back to various real events and places. It has been claimed that Zembla is a deliberate corruption of Nova Zembla, a western simplification of the Russian island Novaya Zemlya. As in his other books, the story includes exaggerated or comically distorted versions of Nabokov’s life, who was the son of a privileged White Russian before the Russian Revolution and his subsequently exile. A key murder in the novel might reflect the murder of Nabokov’s father, assassinated by mistake!
Plums, puzzles and word games: here’s one more. In his interview with Maurice Dolbier, Nabokov suggested the title of John Shade’s poem is from Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens: ‘The moon’s an arrant thief, / And her pale fire she snatches from the sun’ (Act IV, scene 3), a line often taken as a metaphor about creativity and inspiration. In Pale Fire, Kinbote quotes the passage but does not acknowledge it, as he says he has access only to an inaccurate Zemblan translation of the play, and later, in another note, he complains about the common practice of using quotations as titles. Why is it Nabokov keeps reminding me of quotations, and especially that wonderful line from The Communist Manifesto: ‘All that is solid melts into air, all that is sacred is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind’? Very Nabokovian.
Nabokov is a word magician. I’m going to break my opening promise by quoting almost the entire first chapter of Lolita:
“ Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lolita in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita. Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, a certain initial girl child. In a princedom by the sea. Oh when? About as many years before Lolita was born as my age was that summer.”
Yes, he’s a compelling, fascinating, dangerously entrancing word magician.