Thursday, December 15, 2011

Misreading "Pale Fire"

It occurs to me (and likely others have gotten here long ago before me) that Charles Kinbote, when he looks at John Shade's poem "Pale Fire" and sees it filled with references to his own life, is not necessarily doing anything more than any other reader of poetry or prose. Possibly part of Nabokov's project in Pale Fire (the novel, not the poem within the novel) is to suggest that every reader who feels he has "connected" to a text is at least partly misreading the text, projecting himself onto and into the work, interpolating his own ideas with those of the innocent author. Which means that perhaps Kinbote isn't as mad as he seems (though he's quite mad, of course), and you and I are more mad than we might like to think. When I read the poem (or the commentary on the poem) and misunderstand an allusion (and doubtless I've done this), how much am I twisting the intended meaning of the text? Is my misreading an invalid reading, or--as semioticians might claim--am I making a new reading that's just as valid as what Nabokov intended? And if that's so, why not claim that "Pale Fire" isn't about John Shade's relationship to the idea of his approaching death, but is in fact nothing more or less than a poem about the last king of Zembla?

Also, this:

Which is a blurry photo of Mighty Reader and me riding the Christmas Carousel downtown, at about 8:00 PM last night. It was quite a fine time.


  1. I recently saw a commercial or TV show that had a couple on a carousel kissing, and I thought about how hard that would be, given that horses next to each other tend to alternate in their up and down-ness.

    My opinion on the matter of interpretation is that it depends on the writer's intention, at least in part. I consider a writer successful if he or she accounts for flexibility in interpretation or points the readers well enough that the intention is clear. I do a little of both.

    As a reader, I love when I can get into a situation where I get to create my own images and story in my head that suits my own preferences. Then, I like the writer when the actual words don't contradict the images I want to have in my head. Also, I hate illustrated books because they almost always disrupt my imagination.

  2. By the way, the picture is so nice and sweet that if either of you becomes a crazy killer, this is the image you should give to the news station for contrast.

  3. Carousel horses don't go up and down quickly, nor very far, so kissing is possible. And highly amusing.

    I'm going to admit that I think the idea of authorial intention is nearly mythological, by which I mean that we're looking for something we're making up during the search. If we think we know what the text is doing (based on our own prejudices as readers), then we think we know what the author meant, because readers tend to conflate the two ideas. If we can't figure out what the text is doing, there's a temptation to declare that the author failed at his intentions. In reality, what the author had in mind has nothing whatever to do with any reader anywhere ever sharing/understanding the author's ideas. And at some point (I argue for "immediately") you have to divorce the work from the author. What did Sophocles have in mind when he wrote the Theban plays? We'll never know, but we can read his plays to our profit anyway, right?

    I agree about illustrations (except for children's books and Dickens), and I extend that to films, which always get it wrong. Except for the film of To Kill A Mockingbird, which is perfect in all ways.

    The picture is nice and sweet! I'm glad the carousel attendant offered to take it for us. I have a camera full of blurry snaps taken on horseback.

  4. Back when I was a kid those horses really moved. You'd be lucky if little Kenny or Suzy got away with only a neck sprain.

  5. I don't think authorial intention is mythological, but I think it's impossible for anyone to determine aside from the author. But that's who should be judging success anyway, i'n't?

  6. Authors don't know what their own intentions are, either. They tell themselves they know, but I have my doubts! At least, I know that when I'm writing something, my intentions are really very vague and I'm stumbling around in a pitch dark room, trying to build a sculpture from air.

    "Back when I was a kid"? Tell me all about it, old man. When I was a kid, the horses were alive, not these plastic things on poles; they were resentful and bad-tempered, and they'd try to throw you off the carousel. If you fell from the saddle during the ride, the horses behind would trample you to death. Kenny and Suzy were lucky if they made it out of the county fair alive, back in my day. It was also colder then, and everything was uphill from everything else and everything cost less and was better made except that we were too poor to afford it though we knew the value of money...etc.

  7. You're right on - you have the real story and its shadow, but as soon as we determine that the shadow is the real story and vice versa, we have allowed the possibility that the switch can occur. And then why not switch back? Or perhaps there is an endless succession of shadows of varying reality.

    You idea is a bit more Borgesian than Nabokovian, but it is implied in VN's concept.

  8. Aww, I love that picture! Davin, your funny saying that should be contrasted with a story of a murder. Dun-dun-dun!

    Anyway, Scott, what struck me here is the "innocent author" line. That suddenly brings new meaning to my Innocent Flower title...hmmm......

  9. " to suggest that every reader who feels he has "connected" to a text is at least partly misreading the text, projecting himself onto and into the work, interpolating his own ideas with those of the innocent author."

    Forgive me for jumping in so late. I read this yesterday and needed to think about it for awhile, because, well, it made me think.

    Also forgive my bumbling, it's very early on the east coast and I've not yet had my prerequisate caffeine.

    On the sentence above alone -- Do you not think, because there are "primarily" only 12 story plots in the universe, and we as authors are told to twist them and make them our own, that we, as readers, are living these same 12 story plots with our own twists, therefore, we as readers, cannot help identifying with the text in any given book we read?

    Does that make any sense to you?

    If I as an author, write something that resonates with a reader and she tells me that I've perfectly captured a part of her life, does not that mean that we are all living in some form of parallel story line ourselves?

    To take this point one step further, in the above comments, you narrated the story of what it was like "Back when you were a kid" which in turn, made me relive the experience of those same dobby horses, etc. and how we knew how much things cost, although everything was cheaper, but we couldn't afford it anyway...

    (however, in the retelling, you forgot about the gold ring and what that meant to grab it.)

    Same resonation (almost) as Charles Kinbote to John Shade. You explained the horses, I resonated.

    My point, (fuzzy as it is) all stories cannot help but resonate with readers, because in some form or another all writers are writing from the same plot lines, and all readers are reading from the same book of life.

  10. Tom: Well-played with "shadows." I'd like to scan the text and look at word frequency rates; that would be revealing, maybe. So many forms of "shade" and "shadow." And why the name Gradus? Is there a Parnassus somewhere? I get the feeling that there is no fixed pole around which all this narrative spins; I can point to anything and say "truth begins here" and nobody can prove me wrong. And in the commentary Kinbote (or is it Nabokov stealing the fire of Kinbote's anecdote?) implies that searching for valuable items (facts?) within the narrative will not reveal any hidden treasures. So, unable to decide which allusions, puns, scrambled words, bits of Russian transliterated into Latin script, et cetera actually point to meanings beyond themselves, I have decided to stop trying to unpuzzle the narrative, and to just read it for pleasure, at the surface level. This is what always happens when I read Nabokov; before I get 2/3 of the way through, the author has demonstrated that I'm too much of a dope to really appreciate his work. Though I begin to think that Pale Fire is about Nabokov as artist, stealing the fire of Kinbote who steals it from Shade who steals it from Shakespeare. Which has all possibly been obvs from the start, especially since there are many more Timon occurences than I'd remembered. Is Nabokov a latter-day Timon, run out of his homeland into the wilds, where he still manages to unearth riches with the sweat of his brow? Is Nabokov stealing the fire of Shakespeare, who was probably rewriting someone else's version of "Timon?" I just don't know. It makes my head hurt.

    Michelle: Yes, you as author are as innocent as Lady M as hostess. Or something. Though I'm sure most of your readers survive the experience, where as Duncan spending the night at Castle Mcbeth? Not so lucky. But anyway, yes: if we authors are innocent craftsmen/artists, than are readers damaging our work when they read it? Remember how you felt when that woman at the book club didn't get CINDERS at all? Readers place demands on narratives.

    Anne: It's way too early for this discussion. I'll be back, though, after more coffee and thinking. But I'll tip my hand and say that I think most stories have little to do with plot, and that the idea of 12 or however many "masterplots" there are is sort of beside the point. When you talk to your best friend over drinks, you aren't there for the plot; you're there for the humanity. Not just your friend's humanity, but your own as well. I'll beazle and prolix onward from that starting point. Or I'll say something else.

  11. Of course Kinbote says there are no hidden treasures. He is trying to keep you from finding the Crown Jewels.

  12. Anne, there's also the idea of interpretation. We might be able to agree on what the author says is happening in a story, what the events are, but we might disagree strongly about what those events mean. And that meaning is something we manufacture within ourselves and is at least partly determined by our culture and personal history; it's not inherent in the story. Look at Shakespeare's comedies: they're violent and misogynistic and moralizing (the villain in Cymbeline gets his head cut off). There are some good jokes, but in general I like them less as I get older though I must assume they were great fun to Shakespeare's audiences. Etc. Though none of this is quite what I mean when I talk about the Nabokov. More coffee, perhaps.

  13. I assume that Kinbote also manages to tell me where the jewels are actually hidden, if I'm bright enough to see it. What's Vladimir trying to keep me from finding? That's my current problem: who is actually speaking to me? If Kinbote can mistake "Homer" for a misplaced reference to a Greek writer and not recognize a baseball term, what else can Nabokov slip past him?

  14. Yes, I remember how I felt. I swear I'm still coming to terms with it. It just felt like an attack.

  15. Michelle: Now imagine that your reader was taking issue not with your story, but with her assumed idea of your views on marriage. There's no way to argue against that, because she's not talking about your book; she's talking about herself.

  16. That's right, the Crown Jewels can be found. Kinbote arrogantly lets it slip out.

    And the Crown Jewels have at least two meanings, real and shadow, with the shadow jewels actually the "real" ones, etc. etc.

  17. What a sweet picture of you and Mighty reader!

    And you are sooo right!! - To kill a mockingbird is probably the only film which didn't interfere with the book for me..I think I even enjoyed the film a little bit more than the book which never happens for me. ever. Also I like Gregory Peck.

  18. Anne: I have spent a lot of time this weekend thinking about the relationship between readers and texts, and the relationship between authors and readers and authors and texts, and I've come to the conclusion that I can make up theories all day long but at the end of the day, I don't necessarily believe any of my theories and I don't, frankly, know anything about the relationship of reader to text. What is it in a work of fiction that attracts us? Better minds than mine have failed to answer this question. I do still think that plot is one of the least important things; I might suggest that character arc is closer, or simply that we are attracted to works of art that we think we see ourselves in, somehow. Not that we are all Narcissus on the riverbank, but that, as CS Lewis nearly said, we read to know that we are not alone.

    I don't much believe in the idea of "there are only 12 (or whatever number) plots" because you can do that sort of reductive abstraction with anything. You can claim that all fictional characters are in fact representations of Ishtar, if you want. Those sorts of statements are not helpful, I don't think. No, I think I'm attracted to writers who point to events or characters and when they say, "I think life is like this," I can say, "I think so, too!" There are a lot of writers with whom I disagree about how life is, and I don't read those books. I don't read YA novels, for example, because I think the "marginalized hero who triumphs" trope is a Big Fucking Lie, just as I don't believe in the HEA trope. But I'm also aware that when I read Chekhov stories, for example, and think I see my own worldview in them, that I could be pasting my own ideas over those of Chekhov. None of that bothers me, though. All of this is why I never ever think about the reader when I am writing. The idea of a reader--of someone other than me reading my work--is pretty much off the table when I'm writing.

    Tom: China buried behind the house?

    Lavanya: Thanks! We are cute. And who doesn't love Gregory Peck? Who doesn't love Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch? TKAM is on my "to re-read soon" list.