I am in the middle of a very interesting book by Vladimir Nabokov. I am a little bit annoyed with myself because, for the past few days, I’ve been watching episodes of The Big Bang Theory online instead of using most of my time to read and write, which had been my intention before finding all the tv show links. However… what can you do?
At the moment, in lieu of actually reading, I am writing this post – but I’ve been putting that off for at least a day and a half. I think that means I’m ceasing to procrastinate in one regard in order to procrastinate on something else. As long as I’m procrastinating somehow, it’s okay. Can you imagine if I just had everything done? Of course, that isn’t possible, because new ideas for writing come to me frequently. Some will never turn into a piece that was written down, but I the point is that I always have something else to create. Which means I’ll never be finished. It’s lucky, though, in one sense – since I intend to write for my whole life, I never have to worry about retirement!
But I am digressing most flagrantly. This post is meant to put down some of my thoughts on Pale Fire. I will now move on to my original purpose…
If you’re unfamiliar with the work, it is a story written in this form: a poem by John Shade, with an introduction and commentary on particular lines by Charles Kinbote. Let me make this absolutely clear: The entire book, introduction through commentary, and I believe all the way through the index, is Nabokov’s novel. John Shade is a character, and Kinbote is a character. Kinbote is the protagonist. The annoying, ridiculous protagonist.
The commentary is amusing because of its somewhat unpredictable inconsistency. A few of the notes do seem to be attempts to elucidate the meaning of the poem, while others, apparently, are platforms for free association. In my reading, it seems that the notes that go on for pages about the King of Zembla is Kinbote’s own writing, which he has decided should be published and therefore sticks in the commentary anywhere he can.
The most interesting thing about it, I think, is the presence of at least three stories. One story is told by the poem, and gives us a sometimes hazy picture. It is Shade’s voice, and the only chance we have to see Shade from any POV other than Kinbote’s. Then there is the story Kinbote tells, centering on his friendship with Shade – which to me seems overstated, wishful. He writes as if he believes that Shade loves him, a man he only knew in the last year(s?) of his life, and his wife, Sybil, controls him like a captive lapdog.
The third story is about the history of Zembla, particularly the one king who ran away and was then hunted by a man who was supposed to kill him. It clearly has nothing to do with the poem, but Kinbote’s notes make it apparent that he thinks his stories about Zembla were the intended subject of the poem. The poem, in fact, was an autobiographical work from Shade -unlikely to connect to Zemblan kings in any way- and the biggest clue that Charles Kinbote is, to some degree, deluded.
I do recommend this book, but not to everyone. I don’t think it would appeal to general taste. If you decide to read it, I would suggest this: don’t read it as Kinbote suggests at the end of his introduction. Just read the poem, and then the commentary, referring to the poem only when you decide you want a refresher on what that particular line actually said.