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.

 

 

Erasures and absences: WG Sebald, The Emigrants

WG Sebald, The Emigrants (Vintage Classics; first published in German, 1993. Translated by Michael Hulse)

But certain things, as I am becoming increasingly aware, have a way of returning unexpectedly, often after a lengthy absence.

The particular thing Sebald is referring to in this, the first of four sections (as in Vertigo) of semi-fictional (auto)biography/travel writing (I can’t find a suitable term for Sebald’s genre) – ‘Dr Henry Selwyn’ – is found in a report in a Swiss newspaper that catches his eye: the remains of alpine guide Johannes Naegeli, ‘missing since 1914, had been released by the Oberaar glacier, seventy-two years later.’

Naegeli was a close friend as well as mountain guide to Dr Selwyn, the elderly Lithuanian-Jewish emigrant owner of the crumbling Norfolk house that the narrator, presumably Sebald, rented with a woman named Clara – presumably his wife, although in real life she was called Ute. The method in most of Sebald’s fiction (for want of a more accurate word) is to present places and exiled people he encounters that interest him, usually because of something in their history that resonates with the Bavarian-born son of a soldier who served in the Wehrmacht through the Nazi era until the end of the war. He collates oral narratives from people who knew his subjects, or writings in scrapbooks, pictures in photo albums (many of which grainily illustrate this text) and other evidence of their lives in an act of literary bricolage and…what? Atonement? He mentions the ‘lack of memory that marked the Germans, and the efficiency with which they had cleaned everything up’. They had, he feels, collectively erased history.

Sebald Emigrants coverThe people who feature in these four chapters come from Jewish emigrant families, most of whom fled the anti-Semitic oppression that surged in Europe (and beyond) from the nineteenth century and on into the early twentieth. By writing about them and their families, the hardships and hatred they endured at the hands of the bigoted and intolerant, Sebald seems to try to exorcise the aching guilt his nation’s terrible past has caused in him and his compatriots – and all those who were complicit in the Holocaust. These fragments he assembles against ruin – his own, and the world’s. But they are as elusive as Nabokov’s butterflies – a recurring image in this novel. (His autobiography has the Sebaldian title, Speak, Memory).

That revenant mountain guide may or may not have existed in reality; such details are irrelevant and elusive in Sebald’s fictional world. He serves as one of countless instances in this strange and haunting novel, of the way the author’s act of testifying in writing simultaneously honours the sufferings of these victims of ultra-nationalism, while failing to assuage his profoundly melancholy unease. The Selwyn chapter ends with a passage that reminds me of Joyce’s ending to ‘The Dead’:

And so they are ever returning to us, the dead. At times they come back from the ice more than seven decades later and are found at the edge of the moraine, a few polished bones and a pair of hobnailed boots.

But even as Sebald records these poignant, concrete details from the lives (and deaths) of emigrants, retrieved from the interstices of history (cemeteries and even glaciers can be historical repositories, mute custodians of the disappeared), he conveys the hopelessness of his task. Lives like the eccentric, reclusive Selwyn’s, who eventually killed himself with his ‘heavy hunting rifle’, or the artist Max Ferber’s, with whom the narrator became acquainted during his years in Manchester, or those of his peripatetic, flamboyant Uncle Ambros Adelwarth, whose own ‘infallible memory’ so haunted him he sought its erasure through ECT treatment, or his junior school teacher Paul Bereyter, who committed suicide when his sight began to fail him, but who had become obsessed with collecting his own archive of suicides. These lives are full of incident and similar factual, concrete details, meticulously set down by the narrator. Yet he despairs about his inability to provide the kind of testimony of their existence that he yearns for. ‘Memory’, great uncle Adelwarth had written as a postscript in his ‘agenda book’, ‘often strikes me as a kind of dumbness. It makes one’s head heavy and giddy…’

In that final chapter on Ferber the artist and the decaying post-industrial city of immigrants, Manchester, that he had made his home, he describes the artist’s obsessive technique of erasure – one that recalls Sebald’s own as a writer:

Ferber had set up his easel in the grey light that entered through a high north-facing window layered with the dust of decades. Since he applied the paint thickly, and then repeatedly scratched it off the canvas as his work proceeded, the floor was covered with a largely hardened and encrusted deposit of droppings, mixed with coal dust, several centimetres thick at the centre and thinning out towards the outer edges, in places resembling the flow of lava.

The meticulous accretion of details here, like a scholarly biographer-historian’s reconstruction of a man’s life and its significance, creates the kind of literary verisimilitude that is usually considered essential in a credibly authentic historical account. Near the end of this chapter, and of the novel, Sebald describes his frustration when trying to write this very chapter, using the documents and photos that Ferber had handed him – an archive of actuality:

It was an arduous task. Often I could not get on for hours or days at a time, and not infrequently I unravelled what I had done, continuously tormented by scruples that were taking tighter hold and steadily paralysing me. These scruples concerned not only the subject of my narrative, which I felt I could not do justice to, no matter what approach I tried, but also the entire questionable business of writing. I had covered hundreds of pages with my scribble, in pencil and ballpoint. By far the greater part had been crossed out, discarded, or obliterated by additions. Even what I ultimately salvaged as a “final” version seemed to me a thing of shreds and patches, utterly botched.

A postmodernist would doubtless seize upon this as a thrilling example of mise en abîme, a description of the futility of trying to articulate anything with signifiers that fail to adhere to the things they attempt to signify (‘the entire questionable business of writing’). I was discussing this feature with Mrs TD, saying that Emigrants was a fascinating example of Sebald’s self-reflexivity, his frustration with the limitations of language in writing this very novel – the act of narrating simultaneously erases what it tries to record.

She’s very sensible, Mrs TD. That’s ridiculous, she said.

My post on Sebald’s A Place in the Country

One of my earliest posts was about The Rings of Saturn