Tuesday, December 13, 2011

(Help me, Will! Pale Fire)

I'll example you with thievery:
The sun's a thief, and with his great attraction
Robs the vast sea; the moon's an arrant thief,
And her
pale fire she snatches from the sun;
The sea's a thief, whose liquid surge resolves
The moon into salt tears; the earth's a thief,
That feeds and breeds by a composture stol'n
From gen'ral excrement- each thing's a thief.

--William Shakespeare, "Timon of Athens" Act IV, Scene III


I hadn't yet read Timon of Athens the first two times I read Nabokov's novel Pale Fire, so I didn't get the reference. The parallels between Kinbote and Timon are clear now, too. Oh, Vladimir, you are so clever. There's more than Shakespeare references in the 999-line poem that is allegedly the centerpiece of this novel. There's "Hurricane Lolita," and Zembla of course, which is possibly the setting for the nonsense tale by O. Henry, though neither prisoners nor Zembla are named in that tale. I am nearly infinitely charmed by Mr Nabokov. Which is what always happens when I read his books. At some point I'll wish to hurl the volume as hard as I can into a wall or a fireplace, but I'm not there yet.

Anyway, I'm about five pages into the "commentary" section of the novel. I have ignored Kinbote's advice to read the comments before reading the poem and I'm reading the book in the order it's printed. The poem, which I never liked before, seems quite fine this time around, though once again all of the shaving imagery is a bit off-putting. Is there some connection between "shave" and "shade?" I don't know.

If you've never read the book and wonder what I'm yammering about, I tell you that a poem titled "Pale Fire," the final and possibly incomplete work of a poet named John Shade, is discussed at some length by a Professor Charles Kinbote, who moved into the rental house next door to Shade a few months before the poet's death. Both Shade and Kinbote lecture at a university in the fictional town of New Wye, Appalachia. Kinbote claims to have been asked by Shade to take the poem and have it published, Shade being sure he was close to death. Possibly Kinbote stole the manuscript and forged a letter giving him power of attorney over the work. In any case, as we begin to learn from the second page of the introduction onward, Kinbote is off his nut and is not to be trusted.

The poem itself is a rumination on death as written by an old man. He thinks back over his life as a poet, over the unhappy life and early death (possibly a suicide) of his daughter, and he thinks over his long marriage to Sybil. The whole poem is written to Sybil; she is the "you" to whom Shade constantly directs his thoughts. "Pale Fire" is a fine poem, too. It's not just a prop to support the games of the novel.

Kinbote's introduction, where he justifies his having edited, published and commented upon Shade's poem, is about 15 pages long. The poem itself takes another 33 pages, and the rest of the novel is 225 pages of Kinbote's commentary, allegedly about the poem but actually about himself. There's also a 10-page index to the work, put together by Kinbote, which is a marvel of egotistical psychopathy. Or psychopathic egotism; take your choice. In any case, Kinbote is an utter solipsist and he steals the fire of Shade's poem (Shade/shave/Shakespeare? I don't know) to glorify himself and what are probably his delusions of grandeur. Have I said too much? All the wrong things? No idea. Pale Fire is a brilliant short novel and if you haven't read it, why haven't you?

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