Please bear with me; I fear I may commit a heresy.
Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire was published in 1962 to a chorus of… well, mixed but broadly approbative response from seasoned readers. Some critics loved it. Others thought it a load of rot. Most, however, it seems, fell somewhere in between, complimenting its style, craftsmanship and vivid imagination, but regretting its insubstantiality. TIME, for example, lamented that it “does not really cohere as a satire; good as it is, the novel in the end seems to be mostly an exercise in agility”. In a similar way, the New York Times regretted that it was “a curiosity into which it is agreeable to dip rather than a book which can be read straight through with pleasure… It is one more proof of Mr. Nabokov’s rare vitality. Unluckily it is not much more than that.”
Since it was published, however, the novel has (as we’re told by academics) managed to get better and better every year, until it can now be regarded as, at the very least, one of the 50 or so greatest works of fiction of all time, or even, according to some experts, the greatest novel of the 20th century.
Unfortunately, taking only the text as it is, rather than what it has become over time, I think the initial response was rather nearer the mark.
Pale Fire is a novel with an unusual, albeit not exactly radical, structure: it presents two texts, with one text superficially (in both senses of the word) commenting on the other. The ‘inner’ text is a lengthy poem of the same name, in four cantos, supposedly by a New England poet named John Shade; the ‘outer’ and much more substantial text purports to be a critical apparatus assembled after Shade’s death by his literary executor, a certain Charles Kinbote. This structure is one of many ways in which the novel leans heavily on the tradition of SF&F (a genre in which false documents, multiple levels of framing, and unreliable editors abound) – although the fact that greater emphasis is placed upon the ‘outer’ text than the ‘inner’ moves it a little closer in style to Al-Mu’tasim than to The Iron Heel. Indeed, at times Pale Fire reads rather like a fix-up novelisation of a Borges short story (in much the same way Silverberg would later write novel-length adaptations of Asimov shorts); or, looked at a different way, as a stepping stone or missing link between Borges and later sci-fi authors like Christopher Priest or Gene Wolfe, both of whom began their careers around a decade after this novel was published (although I’m not sure whether that represents a genuine influence or merely convergent evolution).
Wolfe and Priest are also good comparisons as regards the narrative style. In creating these intermediaries for himself – Shade and Kinbote – Nabokov sets a challenge for himself: to convincingly speak in the voice of these two very different men; and he is not without some success. Shade and Kinbote are indeed distinct from one another. But, disappointingly, they are often less distinct from Nabokov himself, as Nabokov’s own voice, and own interests, continually break through the superficial disguises, which are themselves constructed in a rather ham-fisted fashion. There is certainly nothing here like the delicate ventriloquism with which Priest juxtaposes the voices of Borden and Angier, or even the restrained precision with which Wolfe creates the disturbing narrator of the first section of Cerberus; instead, Nabokov resorts to very broad identifying limitations, effectively caricatures – Shade’s bathetic banality, Kinbote’s prolix narcissism – to deck up his own distinctive voice; a voice that, as it happens, possesses the same sort of apollonian gelidity and robour that both Wolfe and Priest often slip into.
There is, incidentally, something rather annoying in Nabokov’s evident decision to write this novel intentionally badly. He creates his straw men, Shade and Kinbote, and laughs at their bad taste in poety and prose respectively, in a way that feels distastefully timid. It feels like he’s writing from the advantage of an escape hatch. When either of his puppets hit upon a nice turn of phrase, as they both do at times, Nabokov of course must have the credit – neither Shade, whose moments of fine sensibility find sense and beauty in the ordinary moments of normal life, nor Kinbote, whose sinuously orotund, overexuberant exhibitions of (sometimes inaccurate) vocabulary and (rather limited) learning chance upon, at times, striking and well-phrased constructions with a ruminatory, pseudophilosophical insight, truly exist, and everything they get right must redound instead to the true author of their words, Nabokov; and yet, when Kinbote’s flights of language veer into the crass, or his knowledge overextends itself and makes him look the fool, or when Shade’s mock-humble pomposity and leaden ear lave him mired in McGonagallisms, why, Nabokov, like Macavity, is nowhere to be found. It’s not him, your honour, it was Kinbote and Shade what are limited writers, Nabokov himself cannot be criticised; indeed, whenever his creations show themselves to be flawed writers, Nabokov must only be praised more greatly for having produced their bad writing intentionally!
It’s not hard to see why this conceit is so perennially popular with authors – particularly those who wish to preserve a glittering reputation. It leaves the author untouchable, every flaw in the text imputed not to their limitations but to their ironic brilliance. But I can’t help but feel that it’s rather like seeing a man turn up to a duel of honour wearing a full suit of plate. To be sure, he can hardly lose – the hostile critic’s rapier cannot possibly find a clear path through to hit flesh. And yet, from a greater distance, it’s hard not to come away with the impression that his conduct in the trial has only lent weight to his accuser’s case.
To turn, though, from style and form to substance – unfortunately, we find little to speak of. It will come as no surprise of course to learn that Kinbote’s annotations have virtually nothing to do with Shade’s poem; nor is it really a spoiler to say that Kinbote is, in essence, insane (and while it is a slight spoiler to note that Kinbote doesn’t exist, he’s clearly a delusional persona of another character mentioned in the text, it’s hardly a shocking one for the genre-savvy reader). Nabokov leans heavily on cliché throughout the text, which combined with the telegraphic style he uses – he seems to have little faith in the reader’s ability to notice anything that is not made obvious, and ideally repeated a couple of times for good measure – places the reader in the galling position of being able to predict virtually everything that happens from the first twenty pages or so of the novel. To be sure, she could not be certain of precisely what would happen (indeed, I was in the end wrong about one key detail) – but the rules of how these stories work dictate that there are only two or three ways it can go, so nothing comes as a surprise.
Indeed, little comes or goes anywhere, in any case. There is not a great deal of there there. Shade’s poem touches superficially on a child’s loss of his parents, and a father’s loss of a child (the best and most interesting element), and the fear of one’s own mortality. There is a degree of specificity here, but only a limited degree, and the structure minimises the reader’s empathy. Kinbote’s story is on the surface more rich, as he weaves together the story of his acquaintance with Shade, Shade’s strange murder, and the biography of the overthrown last king of Kinbote’s homeland, the fictional Zemblya. Indeed, this last element is the most prominent, bringing Nabokov again very much into the realm of SF&F genre fiction – sadly, because he’s not particularly good at it. His Zemblya is neither novel (it’s a bundle of easy clichés) nor especially vivid – Nabokov is, in essence, bullshitting his way through, without much interest in putting in the work that would give his world the impression of substance. That’s a perfectly respectable strategy in the genre, and one which many good SF&F authors do follow (even if most wouldn’t call it exactly that) – but it usually relies on pace and distraction. Nabokov instead leaves us sitting in an empty room with nothing to do but notice that the walls are cardboard. I’m not talking here strictly about verissimilitude or realism – indeed, in this case there are clear reasons why Nabokov might intentionally prefer something a little bit dreamlike, a little bit uncanny, that makes very clear that, whatever Zemblya is, it isn’t just like New England. But even a good dream needs to convince in its own way. It has to have its own magnetic strength, it’s own unique colour. Zemblya is… a matte painting, drawn by someone who’s only seen the real thing as depicted in a Hollywood movie. And sure, maybe even that is intentional. After all, if we begin with the assumption that the novel is an unquestionable masterpiece by a sacred genius, everything must be intentional, even the things that look like sloppiness. But even taking it at its face, however intentional it is, it’s not compelling.
And something needs to give the reader a clear motivation to read on. If it’s not Zemblya, then what?
Pale Fire works best not as a story, but as a light, inoffensive satire. Shade and Kinbote are both parodic figures, and there’s an undeniable pleasure in seeing the polite viciousness with which Nabokov turns his straw men against his targets. Both characters have their characters assassinated by their own author – punctured, deflated, put on display and sent up – and through them an entire (albeit small and inbred) world is lovingly skewered. Through the poet, Shade, Nabokov attacks the pretensions and hypocrisies of soi dissant artists; through the editor, Kinbote (both through Kinbote’s own flaws and through Kinbote’s pungent attacks on those seeking to replace him as Shade’s literary executor), he decries the hubris and ignorance of literary critics and the limitations of the publishing industry (and even, almost explicitly, the foolishness of people who place works like Pale Fire on too high a pedestal); and through them both, and the incestuous little universe around them, the bubble of an American liberal arts college, he caricatures the smallness of academia. Even if you have only a passing familiarity with authors, publishers, editors, literary critics and the world of literary academia, both the serious intent here and the humour do come across. No doubt this focus helps to explain the novel’s great popularity among exactly those people it purports to attack – much as films about film-making and Hollywood have always had a straight line through to the Oscars.
The problem is: I don’t care. I am not a poet; nor am I an editor, nor a literary critic. My exposure to academia has been tangential and fleeting. I’m therefore left to read through hundreds of pages of at times quite petty, cruel satire of people I don’t know or care about. Hundreds of pages painstakingly demonstrating that all these people are ridiculous – a diligent labour somewhat undermined by the fact that I already knew them – the whole world already knew them, the whole world already treated it as proverbial – them to be ridiculous.
Humour is, of course, variable. But for me, I found that the small, wry humour I found in the opening pages was rapidly beaten to death through shear weight of constant, unending repetition.
My greatest confusion, frankly, is why the novel is so long in the first place. Now, to be clear, the novel is actually very short. It’s only a few hundred pages. It’s just that it’s also at least a hundred pages too long. The jokes just keep on being repeated. The characters are swiftly, even deftly, established… and are then unceasingly reiterated with little variation. The plot, as I say, is largely predictable from the first couple of dozen pages, but even from a viewpoint of intentional ignorance, it would be hard not to recognise most of it as filler – very slow enactments of very little action, action that is already not only predictable but in many cases explicitly predicted by the text itself. Nabokov takes some time to dive into the psychology of Kinbote… but the exploration has neither depth nor subtlety, nor even the benefit of surprise – to the extent that anything is not immediately apparent about Kinbote, it is only because it has been temporarily withheld by the author for the apparent reason of running up the word count, and doled out at a pace that seems to lack any specific motivation other than to hit the desired page numbers. The prospect of Zemblya is intriguing at first, but quickly proves to offer no more up close than it did from afar, like a dour reverse-fractal. The hypermannered prose, while pleasant, is a thin performance, stretched out beyond the point where it was ever charming.
[one big reason, incidentally, why the structure is not more common is, I suspect, that Shade’s internal text is essentially artistically (though not entirely narratively) superfluous. Most writers would simply cut it entirely, and use their skill to make its contents clear through Kinbote’s commentary (including the extent to which the commentary is unfaithful). Borges does not force us to read the whole of Menard’s Quixote as a prelude to his story, but Nabokov probably would…]
All of this is a great shame, because Pale Fire is a brilliant short story – or would be, if Nabokov had been able to cut down to the bone. It’s a very fine novella – or would be, if Nabokov had cared for even moderate concision. At smaller scales, its wit could be incisive rather than preening, and its superficiality could be mistaken for precision. Unfortunately, it is in reality, for no reason clear to me, a novel. Or, at any rate, a short story tied mercilessly to the rack.
The effect is frustrating. Take up any random page, and you’ll find some nice turn of phrase, some mildly amusing absurdity or lampoon, some momentarily intriguing quirk of worldbuilding, or perhaps an allusion that makes you pat yourself on the back for getting it. But after you’ve read a certain number of pages, it becomes sadly clear that the pages do not so much build on one another as simply reiterate themselves in mannered variations.
Nabokov’s ability is a writer is unmistakable, and his potential as an author is tantalising. But I can’t but come away from Pale Fire wishing he’d either disciplined himself to pare it down to a brilliant short story, or else put in the work to bulk it out into a genuinely meaningful novel. Instead, it kind of feels as though he churned this out in the knowledge that it would be an easy assignment (indeed, his satirical little digs seem to suggest a degree of condescension toward his audience: the kind of people who would adore Pale Fire seem to be intentionally among the targets of his satire). What we’re left with is something that declines to challenge, but only sort of… postures. A novel designed, if you’ll forgive the unkind simplification, to be read (and flatteringly remembered after) by first-year literature students.
Which makes me feel bad, because I know several people I otherwise respect in literary terms who have praised this novel to the sky – and it’s not that I disagree, so much as that I can’t even understand what they’re praising. It’s certainly not bad, I more or less enjoyed reading it, I don’t regret having read it, but it’s not clear to me what’s meant to be stunning or immersive or compelling or, frankly, out of the ordinary about it.
And so, I kind of wish that this novel had been pinned to a page back in its year of publication, and not allowed to evolve in the public consciousness in the ensuing decades. Because if I’d come to it as, as the original critics described it – an exercise in agility, a demonstration of vitality, a slight but amusing curio – I’d probably feel well-disposed toward it. Shallow, derivative, not quite the finished article, of course, but certainly clever, and charming in its way.
But the crowning achievement of 20th century – nay, all human – literature? What the hell?
Adrenaline: 1/5. The greatest flaw of the book is that it lies in the hand like crude lead. It’s a short novel, and not difficult to read – I found myself quite unproblematically trotting through each section. And yet it took me months to read. Partly, to be sure, my own fault, due to changing schedules and distractions and whatnot, but also because I felt absolutely zero need to continue on from one section to the next, or to pick the book back up once I had put it down (indeed, the relentless homogeneity sometimes made it slightly difficult for me to tell whether or not I’d read a given page before). The lack of a compelling plot or any focus for sustained interest renders it stagnant in its pace, a problem only magnified by its repetitious nature. As that critic for the New York Times correctly said back when it was published: it might be pleasant to dip into, but it’s not an easy novel to read through in one go.
Emotion: 1/5. Nabokov’s style is cold, and employs multiple distancing devices to further prevent the reader from engaging emotionally with the events of the text, which are in any case never that compelling – little happens, and it happens to unsympathetic people (if, indeed, they can be considered people at all).
Thought: 4/5. Although I did not greatly care about the novel’s puzzles, there were indeed puzzles. Although the overall contour of the story is fairly clear from the beginning, there were plenty of little details that the author quite cleverly slotted into place. There were allusions*, there were ruminations, there were observational moments. In that sense, it’s a more intellectual book than average. However, nothing was terribly ingenious or novel, and there was no great depth. Nor are the games the author plays (the clues, the ambiguities) particularly fiendish – we’re not exactly talking about Wolfe here.
Beauty: 4/5. Kinbote and Shade both, in their opposing ways (although particularly Kinbote) find some great sentences, some pithy phrasings. Take any random paragraph and it’ll be more elegantly expressed than most prose you’ll find. It helps, of course, that longwinded and fustian prose is something I enjoy. However, Nabokov intentionally undermines himself by lumbering Shade with clumsy and facile moments, and spancelling Kinbote’s fluency with a fatal lack of good taste.
Craft: 5/5. I read a couple of other things before, during and immediately after this novel, and it was immediately and undeniably clear just how much better a writer Nabokov is than most of the crowd. His intentionally flawed prose is still better than most prose. His badly-told story is still more carefully told than most stories. To the extent that this novel has many limitations, I accept that they were mostly of Nabokov’s own chosing. It is indeed, as that critic observed, a twinklingly shiny, lively ‘exercise in agility’.
Endearingness: 2/5. I did not actively dislike it. It was enjoyable enough to read, in an unchallenging way. I’m not sure I’ll re-read it, though, and I certainly can’t imagine myself curling up with it as a comfort read.
Originality: 2/5. The overall structure, as noted, is pleasantly fresh and distinctive. The plot, characters, worldbuilding and prose, however, are all riddled with clichés, and offer little or nothing that we haven’t all seen before (and done better).
Overall: 4/7. NOT BAD.
I know, I know, this is a cardinal sin. I kind of want to bump it up to at least 5/7 (“good”), because of course it is well-written. But honestly? It takes more than technique to make a good book. Nabokov probably could have written a truly good book, and I hope he did. But I can’t – after some mental squirming! – find a way to attach that label to this book.
Of course, it doesn’t help that my scoring system is inherently unkind to one-dimension books: because I score in seven categories, it’s hard for a novel that excels in one way – a brilliantly-written novel like this, or a novel that is a fantastically gripping thriller – to get a high score if it fails in every other dimension. But I’m OK with that. Why shouldn’t readers demand more than one trick from their pony?
*I’ll admit, I was kind of pleased with myself for spotting the allusion to that Goethe poem; I wouldn’t have gotten that as a child.
[OK. I’ve been putting off posting this, because I know it’s the sort of review that will lower my taste and intellect in the opinions of some readers to almost zero. Yeah yeah, I know, I’m the lumbering, undisrusticated, troglodytical middlebrow hobnail who just doesn’t get it and probably has to breathe with their mouth open. On the other hand – suck it. I have a degree in philosophy and I listen to Scriabin for fun. Last year I posted a gigantic review of the shorter poetry of Greville, and a brief exhortation to people to listen to more of Georges Onslow’s string quintets. You can’t out-pretentious me!]
Finally, in self-defense, I’d like to reiterate/reintroduce my own view on the error margins in my views. That is, I easily accept people differing by one score from me, and I can understand people differing, as a general rule, by two scores. In this case: if you want to call this novel ‘good’ rather than ‘not bad’, I can go with that; I can’t understand it myself, but I can accept it as within my margin of error. And if you want to really praise it and call it ‘very good’, I’m still not going to roll my eyes at you, though we may need to agree to disagree. It’s only if you call it flat-out, 7/7 ‘brilliant’ that we have a problem – either you’re missing something completely, or I am.