Combinational delight: Nabokov, Pale Fire

I’ve tried to write this post several times. How to even begin to discuss a text as dense and as teasing, as multifaceted and astonishing, as Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, first published in the US in 1962.

Scholars have been poring over this chess puzzle of a text since it was published; I’ll put some links at the end for those who’d like a more profound and challenging account. Much of what’s been published, and I’ve just scratched the surface of a daunting amount of scholarly interpretation and comment, involves exactly who on earth is the ‘only begetter’ of this…novel.

I hesitate to use that word because Pale Fire refuses to conform to most definitions of novel, from Samuel Johnson’s 1755 Dictionary: ‘A small tale, generally of love’ – when the novel was still closer to what tended to be called later Romance – to the OED online:

..A long fictional prose narrative, usually filling one or more volumes and typically representing character and action with some degree of realism and complexity; a book containing such a narrative….

After a Foreword by an American university scholar called Charles Kinbote, in which he explains that his neighbour and alleged ‘very dear friend’, the poet John Shade, was killed on July 21, 1959, just one line short of completing his magnum opus, a 999-line poem in rhyming couplets (he calls them ‘heroic’, but they are too ‘open’ in structure to fit this term, beloved of the Augustans; and Shade shows a heavy debt to Pope in the poem, as Kinbote does in his commentary). It was completed, Kinbote claims, in the last 20 days of Shade’s life.

Already my problem in trying to give an idea of this Russian doll of a novel appears: how to describe it coherently, when it defies coherence itself.

Nabokov Pale Fire cover

My Penguin paperback edition

The poem itself follows the Foreword. Its four cantos consist mostly of autobiographical details about Shade, his wife Sybil, and their daughter Hazel, who apparently killed herself at a young age, after experiencing ‘psychokinetic manifestations’ and some kind of mental collapse. There follows a long section in which he questions the notions of existence and ‘le grand néant’.

The largest portion of the text consists of Kinbote’s supposed ‘commentary’ on the poem. He’s stolen the MS (record cards, like the ones Nabokov himself composed on) of the poem and hidden himself away in an obscure American hotel to edit it. It rapidly becomes apparent that this is no ordinary scholarly exegesis or approach – despite his disingenuous claim that these notes ‘will certainly satisfy the most voracious reader’.

Kinbote reveals himself to be increasingly deranged and pompous. If there is a narrative, it’s in this slow self-revelation: he deludes himself that Shade had become an intimate friend, and that he, Kinbote, had told him in the months before he died that he was actually the exiled King Charles the Beloved of his native northern country, Zembla – he’d been arrested by the Shadows, who resemble the secret police of the Soviet regime that Zembla closely resembles. Kinbote insists, however, that its resemblance to any such place is illusory; it’s very name, he explains unconvincingly, means ‘semblance’ (his claim that his name is Zemblan for ‘regicide’ is equally duplicitous). He and his country are shape-shifters. He even uses the word ‘versipel’, which can mean ‘werewolf’ – a creature of dual nature. The commentary lingers on such wordplay, puns, and relishes its own obscure vocabulary and elegantly sinuous but ostentatious prose style.

Kinbote boasts that Shade was intrigued by his stories of his royal exploits in Zembla, and isn’t daunted by the complete absence of any reference to Zemblan material in the poem; instead he sets about a ludicrous, often hilariously outlandish hermeneutically distorted set of pseudo-scholarly notes in which he interprets extracts from the poem as a coded version of his own Zemblan story.

Either that or he just digresses into long rambling reminiscences, full of non sequiturs and dead ends, of his own putative life as King, including his bizarre escape from captivity and arrival in the US. Or riffs on waxwings, cicadas and butterflies, in the register of TS Eliot (sometimes echoing Conan Doyle), Pope, Shakespeare (the poem and novel’s title may come from Timon of Athens, but Kinbote dodges accuracy by claiming not to have any books with him to verify his literary claims). He’s almost pathologically hostile to his fellow scholars, who find him ‘disagreeable’ and ‘insane’ (with reason!), and who he denounces as frauds and fools who envy his intimacy with the great poet and his superior intellect; only he perceives the truth.

To try to give any fuller a picture would require a post almost as long as the novel.

The poem famously begins with one of nature’s ‘pranks’:

I was the shadow of the waxwing slain

By the false azure in the window pane…

The bird had died by flying into a reflection of the world in the poet’s window-glass. The text is full of such ludic language (‘shadow’/Shade; ‘pane’/pain; strictly speaking the bird has ‘slain’ itself unwittingly – the suicide theme is established obliquely at the outset), doublings, deceptions, mirrors and false notions – like Kinbote’s deluded gloss on the poem.

Instead of being Boswell to Shade’s Johnson (the Epigraph is taken from Boswell’s Life of the great man; but who is supposed to have inserted the Epigraph?!), Kinbote reveals himself to be a slightly modified, super-vain version of a Shandean (ie interpreter of Sterne’s vast comic shaggy-dog story), calling himself a ‘Shadean’.

All the reader can do is try to make sense of things, knowing that with Kinbote as guide, claiming as he obfuscates that he’s ‘clearing things up’ authoritatively, we’re unlikely to succeed. That’s where I went wrong at first; once I’d relaxed into glorious failure, the novel took off and took me where it liked.

It was exhilarating and not a little scary. It’s about authors’ lack of…authority. A postmodern labyrinth of paratexts or hypertextual cross-references and metafictional asides, word games, parody, and looping paradoxes, offering impossible solutions to imaginary questions, prolix and dazzlingly allusive. Even the foreword advises how to read the text (preferably using two juxtaposed copies) – in a non-linear, reflexive manner similar to the way today we read e-texts full of hyperlinks. As Shade concludes, near the end of the poem, he understands his existence, or part of it,

…through my art,

In terms of combinational delight.

And as Kinbote teasingly boasts at one point in his faux commentary: ‘for better or worse, it is the commentator who has the last word.’

It’s cerebral and very funny.

As I was about to start this post I came across this by Anthony at his brilliant blog, Times Flow Stemmed: thesis 20 (of 33) published today to mark his blog’s tenth anniversary:

20: Difficulty in fiction is normally pleasurable

Very apt for a reader of Pale Fire. See Frank Kermode on St Mark’s gospel in The Genesis of Secrecy, and Jesus’ disturbingly opaque explanation of why he spoke in parables.

Here are those links to some of the academic studies of the novel:

Brian Boyd on his theory that Kinbote is really another scholar named in passing in the novel, Botkin:

Zembla website has many more such links.



A martyr and a ruler: Ivy Compton-Burnett, A House and its Head

Ivy Compton-Burnett, A House and its Head (1935)

Ivy Compton-Burnett has possibly the most idiosyncratic and instantly recognisable literary method and prose style of any modern writer. I’ve written about her technique extensively in my previous two posts about her:

The Present and the Past – several posts

A Family and a Fortune

In A House and Its Head she sticks to the formula that works so well for her: a forensic portrayal of a deeply dysfunctional upper middle-class family – the Edgeworths – living in a large country house in the 1880s. The villagers with whom they come into contact are mostly hypocritical, outwardly pious, virtuous types in the vein of Dickens’s ‘telescopic philanthropist’, Mrs Jellyby, or just malicious gossips.

Ivy Compton-Burnett, A House and its Head - coverDuncan Edgeworth is the most interesting character in a novel full of them. He’s a monster – straight out of her usual pool of Jacobean revenge-tragedy nasties. “He behaved like a god,” one of his daughters says at one point, part in awe, part rancorously. “He is always a martyr and a ruler,” is another description of him near the end.

In the opening chapter he starts in a minor way to show his tyrannical, oppressive control of his family: of his downtrodden wife Ellen, two spirited daughters who rebel as far as they dare, but ultimately succumb to his bullying, and of his more courageous and rebellious nephew, Grant, who for a while looks like he’ll be the one to refuse to be constrained by Duncan, but turns out to be just a self-serving, shallow hedonist.

First, he berates innocent, timorous Ellen for the tardiness in coming down to breakfast of the younger generation – as if it’s her fault. When they finally appear, his sarcasm is vicious. It’s Christmas day, and they open their presents. Grant’s is a book ‘inimical to the faith of the day’ that Duncan disapproves of: ‘on every page there is poison’. Presumably it’s Darwin. Duncan places it on the fire to burn. When elder daughter Nance mildly objects (‘Oh, Father, really!’), this is his characteristically venomous response:

“Really? Yes, really, Nance. I shall really do my best to guide you – to force you, if it must be, into the way you must go. I would not face the consequences of doing otherwise.”

“Would not the consequences be more widely distributed?”

“I shall really do what I can to achieve it,” went on Duncan, as if he had not heard, “and I trust it will not be impossible. I do not do it in my own strength.”

His coercive control here is revealed as a combination of patriarchal laying down of the law (i.e. his), personal attack on what he sees as heinous moral turpitude in those around him, and ridiculing of the linguistic-semantic shortcomings, as he pedantically represents them, of his victims’ attempts verbally to resist his strictures and oppressive behaviour.

As always, it’s the brilliantly contrived dialogue that’s the main vehicle for ICB’s mordant, witty take on the corrosive nature of this privileged, borderline deranged cast of characters. She makes little attempt at the usual novelistic technique of presenting what’s meant to be naturalistic dialogue (it never is, even in writers noted for their “realistic” dialogue; it’s always a literary contrivance), and this heightens the sense of artificiality, pomposity and egotism in the characters who deliver the dialogue.

Here’s Duncan still being cruel to Nance near the end of the novel, when her friend Cassie has called to announce the death of her mother:

“Nance, here is Cassie, out of sorts and out of heart. So listen to her, and let her talk herself out. She hasn’t come to you, for you to be of no good to her. See you are of some use as a woman, as you can be of none as anything else.”

So accustomed (and cowed) are the others in his house to this kind of casual unpleasantness that his comment receives no response.

The plot enables ICB to show the nastiness and defects in her characters in full flow: there are many deaths, an infanticide, incest and adultery – plenty for the salacious gossips in the village to indulge in. See what I mean about Jacobean tragedy? Oh, and there’s an insulting marriage proposal that Trollope would have been proud of (“you and I would be a charming couple”, the young woman is told by her would-be husband, whereas if he married her sister, who had just turned him down, they would have made “such an awkward pair”. How could anyone resist this charmer?)

It’s never easy to read a Compton-Burnett novel: the style is arch and dense, and it’s necessary for the reader to keep alert as multiple characters converse with minimal identification of who says what. But she’s well worth the effort.

Scott at his Minor Moderns blog wrote a perceptive, more detailed account of this novel (I liked his summary of it as a modernist Gothic comedy), with a useful biographical portrait of the author.