Monday, December 19, 2011

Pale Fire: A Novel I Can't Tell You About

I am nearly finished with Vladimir Nabokov's 1962 novel Pale Fire, and I will admit now that about 70 pages back I stopped thinking about this book as a puzzle to be "solved." This is my third time with this book and while I think this is the best read I've managed to give it so far, I still must throw up my hands and surrender to the author. I don't know what's going on here, not quite. I have my suspicions about Kinbote and Shade, of course, and I naturally suspect that the whole of the book is Nabokov talking about Nabokov (because--and let's be honest--when is Nabokov not talking about Nabokov?), but really I can't do any better than suspicions and vague ideas about the possible "reality" upon which the telling is based. And I'm fine with that, because it's been a splendid ride. Nabokov shakes your head up in a way nothing else can. If nothing else, I'm no longer angry at old Vladimir for being so much smarter than I am.

Because old V is so much smarter than I am, I find that I can't really say anything worth reading about Pale Fire. I recommend it to everyone but don't come running to me with your questions about it. Five minutes with Google will gain you far more scholarship than I can pretend to offer. Not just because Pale Fire is a book that's smarter than this reader, but also because, I'm coming to realize, I don't actually know how to talk about reading.

I'm a far brighter person when I sit down to write fiction than I am when I sit down to write about fiction. I think I'm at my absolute best--intellectually, that is--when I am writing a story. This weekend I did a lot of work on my piece for the Literary Lab's "Variations on a Theme" anthology, and there are passages of shining brilliance there that I'll never equal in writing outside of a story. I'm good at fiction. I'm not so good at this, what I'm doing now: talking about fiction.

But I can write well enough to say that even though Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire might leave you as baffled as it leaves me, you should get yourself a copy of it and read the damned thing. It's short, it's funny as hell, it will make you think in ways you probably don't usually think, and it's full of surprises and pathos and no, I don't remember how it ends (I have 40 or so pages to go) but good readers don't read for the endings, they read for the experience of having been in contact with the narrative. Or whatever. I don't know why good readers read, but it has nothing to do with discovering how the plot works out. Note that I use the phrase "good readers" to mean "people like me." I make no apology for that.

Anyway, there's this from page 272 of the Vintage trade paper edition:

If I correctly understand this succinct observation, our poet suggests here that human life is but a series of footnotes to a vast obscure unfinished masterpiece.

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