Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
Pale Fire is a novel about a poem (complete with foreword, notes, and an index) and the circumstances of its creation, though it also touches on themes of friendship, royalty, cycles of change, and the nature of human life.
Rather than summarize it for you in any straightforward fashion (after all, the book is certainly anything but straightforward), I have decided to share the notes I jotted down for myself as I was reading. Enjoy!
John Shade, author of poem Pale Fire [yes, same title as novel] [aka 'S']
-- raised by his Aunt Maud (stroke, died, ghost)
-- epileptic as a child
-- husband of Sybil
-- father of Hazel (1934-1957)
-- reads parts of the 'poem in progress' to Sybil, but no one else (and esp. not K)
-- wife is reader, editor, censor (much to K's chagrin)
-- murdered (by accident) by G...?
Dr. Charles Kinbote II [aka 'K'] (narrator of this novel)
-- same as Charles Xavier II, last king of Zembla (fictional land) [1936-1958]??
-- friend of S, both professors at Wordsmith College (in New Wye)
-- self-exiled from Zembla to USA
-- lives in Goldsworth house in New Wye, rented from Judge of same name
-- has a wife (??), Disa [though almost definitely homosexual - Disa lives in Italy]
-- lonely, often fears for his life
Jakob Gradus [aka Jack Degree, De Grey, D'Argus, or just 'G']
-- commissioned to assassinate K by regicidal society (the Shadows)
-- connected to Extremist party
-- former glazier
-- not terribly brilliant
There, now you have it! Got the gist? Clear as mud? Fantastico. Let's proceed!
Spoiler Over: Continue Here
Have you read this one, dear readers? I had not. As I mentioned in my last post, it took several false starts before I got going, but it was truly worth the effort, imho. It is definitely one of the most unorthodox books I've ever read, but not in the snobbish way that Faulkner and Joyce sometimes seem to be intentionally shutting you out of their brilliance. Nabokov's snobbery read as more conspiratorial, as if we two had the best inside joke, and no one else need know. If you have the time and the inclination, definitely snag a copy, but I suggest you either segregate your pieces (violently, with scissors - see above) or purchase more than one copy, as it is quite difficult to read in the traditional book format, what with all the flipping back and forth (though you can always use a furry companion to help with the flipping, see above left). And before you go fussing about me tearing apart the book, let me just say that the narrator SUGGESTS that you do so, so I was Just Following Orders.
NB (re: circuitousness): this blog entry will be distinctly non-linear to honor Nabokov's novel. In fact, I think I will pay homage to Nabokov's style by alphabetically indexing my entry. I hope it pleases you.
Borges, Jorge Luis (1899-1986)
Have you heard of this Argentine gentleman? I first learned about Borges in my Intro to Comparative Literature class with the brilliant Professor McInerney at Haverford. I found him esoteric and rather bizarre at the time, though now I recognize a certain playful genius in his work. Here's a snippet that I think sums him up quite nicely:
"Many of Borges's best-known stories deal with the nature of time ("The Secret Miracle"), infinity ("The Aleph"), mirrors ("Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius") and labyrinths ("The Two Kings and the Two Labyrinths", etc.). His basic contention was that fiction did not depend on the illusion of reality; what mattered ultimately was an author's ability to generate 'poetic faith' in his reader. His stories often have fantastical themes, such as a library containing every possible 410-page text ("The Library of Babel"), a man who forgets nothing he experiences ("Funes, the Memorious"), an artifact through which the user can see everything in the universe ("The Aleph"), and a year of still time given to a man standing before a firing squad ("The Secret Miracle")."
If you're interested in exploring more Borges, here's "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" and "Funes, the Memorious"). I bring up Borges because reading this fiction within a fiction, replete with endnotes and complex worlds within worlds, reminded me vividly of my first experience with that type of work, which was Señor Borges.
Château, Goldsworth, aka house where K is staying and which neighbors that of S
The anthropomorphization of the house that Kinbote is staying in was hilarious: 'The heating system was a farce, depending as it did on registers in the floor wherefrom the tepid exhalations of a throbbing and groaning basement furnace were transmitted to the rooms with the faintness of a moribund's last breath." It reminded me of the description of the house coming to life in To the Lighthouse.
"I did not bother, though, to do much about the family books which were also over the house - four sets of different Children's Encyclopedias, and a stolid grown-up one that ascended all the way from shelf to shelf along a flight of stairs to burst an appendix in the attic." ahgahgaghagh. Sounds like our den, Mom. Pumps to Russellville, eh? ;)
K, on the notes that the house's owners (the Goldsworths) left for him:
"Whatever I touched on the first day of my stay yielded a specimen of Goldsworthiana. I unlocked the medicine chest in the second bathroom, and out fluttered a message advising me that the slit for discarded safety blades was too full for use. I opened the icebox, and it warned me with a bar that 'no national specialties with odors hard to get rid of' should be placed therein[...]Among various detailed notices affixed to a special board in the pantry, such as plumbing instructions, dissertations on electricity, discourses on cactuses and so forth, I found the diet of the black cat that came with the house:
Mon, Wed, Fri: Liver
Tue, Thu, Sat: Fish
Sun: Ground Meat
(All it got from me was milk and sardines)." ahgahghagha. Yes, cats don't need such fancies! Levi would love milk and sardines, anyway!
Friends, bosom, and their impact on literary genius
The way Nabokov describes his sharing of Zembla's history with Shade makes me think of the NPR story I heard about humane foie gras and creating the most flavorful final product by ensuring the geese had a cornucopia of delicacies to feed on. "Surely, it would not be easy to discover in the history of poetry a similar case - that of two men, different in origin, upbringing, thought associations, spiritual intonation and mental mode, one a cosmopolitan scholar, the other a fireside poet, entering into a secret compact of this kind. At length I knew he was ripe with my Zembla, bursting with suitable rhymes, ready to spurt at the brush of an eyelash."
"We may conclude that the final text of Pale Fire has been deliberately and drastically drained of every trace of the material I contributed; but we also find that despite the control exercised upon my poet by a domestic censor and God knows whom else, he has given the royal fugitive a refuge in the vaults of the variants he has preserved." One of the funniest parts of the novel is Kinbote's deep disappointment that Zembla is not featured more prominently or more directly in Shade's poem - Kinbote loves to attack Sybil, Shade's wife, on this account (see domestic censor, above) and makes up for his disappointment by inserting his entire Zemblan tale into the endnotes to the poem. #winning
Gradus, Jakob, Shade's end-bringer (Sorry, I know, Spoiler, TOO BAD), would-be king-killer
Throughout the novel, Nabokov builds this brilliant juxtaposition of Jakob Gradus's journey to the US concurrent with Shade crafting his 999-line poem. Here's my favorite line describing this parallel:
"His departure for Western Europe, with a sordid purpose in his heart and a loaded gun in his pocket (ZWEUGMA, You GUYS!), took place on the very day that an innocent poet in an innocent land was beginning Canto Two of Pale Fire. We shall accompany Gradus in constant thought, as he makes his way from distant dim Zembla to green Appalachia, through the entire length of the poem, following the road of its rhythm, riding past in a rhyme, skidding around the corner of a run-on, breathing with the caesura, swinging down to the foot of the page from line to line as from branch to branch, hiding between two words, reappearing on the horizon of a new canto, steadily marching nearer in iambic motion, crossing streets, moving up with his valise on the escalator of the pentameter, stepping off, boarding a new train of thought, entering the hall of a hotel, putting out the bedlight, while Shade blots out a word, and falling asleep as the poet lays down his pen for the night."
On Gradus trying to be too clever for his own good:
"Furthermore, by following the crafty system (invented in the chief BIC country) of using two different sets of code words - headquarters, for instance, saying 'bureau' for 'king', and Gradus saying 'letter', they enormously increased the difficulty of communication. Each side, finally, had forgotten the meaning of certain phrases pertaining to the other's vocabulary so that in result, their tangled and expensive talk combined charades with an obstacle race in the dark."
Gradus, on receiving the whereabouts of his intended target:
"No, the slip was not for keeps. He could keep it only while memorizing it. This brand of paper (used by macaroon makers) was not only digestible but delicious." I thought this exchange was hilarious, and for some reason it reminded me of these Italian cookies my family used to eat sometimes on holidays - you could light the paper on fire and it would float up to the ceiling like a little magic bird.
Index to Poem, favorite entries
Here are some entries in K's index that I particularly liked:
-- Marcel, the fussy, unpleasant, and not always plausible central character, pampered by everybody in Proust's A La Recherche du Temps Perdu, 181, 691. ahghaghaghagh I rotfled when I read this.
-- Odon, ... meets K. near sea cave and escapes with him in motorboat, 149, directs cinema picture in Paris, 171; stays with Lavender in Lex, 408; ought not to marry that blubber-lipped cinemactress with untidy hair, 691
-- Yaruga, Queen, reigned 1799-1800, sister of Uran (q.v.); drowned in an ice-hole with her Russian lover during traditional New Year's festivities, 681. ah, yes. but of course. a classic conundrum.
Kinbote, Charles, narrator of the novel, note-maker to the poem Pale Fire, friend/stalkerfriend of Shade (more on this TK), former king of Zembla, current professor at Wordsmith University
While you are mostly sure that the narrator Charles Kinbote is in fact the same person as Charles Xavier the Beloved, final king of Zembla, there are moments of lexical uncertainty that I found highly amusing. Here's one on the king wanting to teach in his home country: "Therefore he lectured under an assumed name and in a heavy make-up, with wig and false whiskers. All brown-bearded, apple-cheeked, blue-eyed Zemblans look alike, and I who have not shaved now for a year, resemble my disguised king (see also note line 894)." Ah, do you resemble your disguised king? Eh? ;)
Kinbote's response to Shade's comments on being asthmatic and fat (see Shade, J): "Frankly I too never excelled in soccer and cricket; I am a passable horseman, a vigorous though unorthodox skier, a good skater, a tricky wrestler, and an enthusiastic rock-climber." I love the specificity of this line.
Kinbote, on his Wordsmith colleagues and he not really getting along: "(Overheard at a party) I guess Mr. Shade has already left with the Great Beaver." Of course, I am quite tall, and my brown beard is of a rather rich tint and texture; the silly cognomen evidently applied to me, but was not worth noticing, and after calmly taking the magazine from a pamphlet-cluttered table, I contented myself on my way out with pulling Gerald Emerald's bowtie loose with a deft jerk of my fingers as I passed by him." ahgahghagagagh. #takethatGerald #dontmesswithK
Parallels, Striking and personal
While I recognize that it is not at all unusual for books to reflect some aspect of a reader's life, I am always taken aback when something intensely singular seems to unite me and my narrator.
Here are a few examples:
"It is true that, as usually happens to newcomers, I was told I had chosen the worst winter in years."
#beenthere,K #goodthingIgotanewcarwith4wd #welcometoNH
On the aching loneliness of being in a new place with only a few connections:
"What would I not have given for the poet's suffering another heart attack leading to my being called over to their house, all windows ablaze, in the middle of the night, in a great warm burst of sympathy, coffee, telephone calls, Zemblan herbal receipts (they work wonders!), and a resurrected Shade weeping in my arms ("There, there, John"). I have thought several times how unifying and comforting it would be if some small tragedy (eminently fixable and not irrevocable, of course) were to befall the area I find myself in - especially on the snow days, when we felt like a thousand little islands all to ourselves, and the houses nearby seemed so warm and inviting.
"The Goldsworth château had many outside doors, and no matter how thoroughly I inspected them and the window shutters downstairs at bedtime, I never failed to discover next morning something unlocked, unlatched, a little loose, a little ajar, something sly and suspicious-looking. One night the black cat, which a few minutes before I had seen rippling down into the basement where I had arranged toilet facilities for it in an attractive setting (haghaghagh), suddenly reappeared on the threshold of the music room, in the middle of my insomnia and a Wagner record, arching its back and sporting a neck bow of white silk which it could certainly never have put on all by itself." Hahgahgahgahg. This reminded me of... anyone? anyone? Raised or lowered? (LOWERED) dun dundun duh.... The Master and Margarita. Here's my note from that scene:
And just why shouldn't I gild my whiskers?
In adorning themselves for Satan's ball, the minions choose different ways to gussy themselves up. Hilariously, the tomcat decides to gild his whiskers, and takes some serious flack for it:
"The tom, covered with dust and standing on his hind legs, was in the meantime bowing to Margarita. Now he had a white evening bow tie around his neck; a ladies' mother-of-pearl opera glass dangled from a ribbon on his chest. Besides, his whiskers were gilded.
'What's this now?' cried Woland. 'Why did you gild your whiskers? And why the devil do you need a tie if you have no trousers?'
'A cat isn't supposed to wear trousers, Messire', the tom answered with great dignity. 'You will tell me to put on boots next! ... Have you ever seen anyone at a ball without a tie? I don't intend to make myself a laughing stock and risk being kicked out! Everyone adorns himself as best he can."
Personalities, Split, and Diverse Points of View
I found this note from my first drafts for this blog: "he gets to be so many characters to his reader, so many contrapuntal voices". What I ended up loving most about this work was that the author could present the material and the fictional world to his readers in a variety of lights through a multitude of lenses, which allowed for such a playful conversation and a malleable grounding philosophy of ideas. For instance, Shade could be stolidly in favor of an afterlife, while K could be totally unsure - it gave N the ability to play out both sides of a contentious idea and tease the nuance out of a concept.
Poem, Pretty pieces of the
The poem within the novel is quite exquisite. Here are the first four lines (see picture, right, for what a waxwing is...)
"I was the shadow of the waxwing slain
By the false azure in the windowpane;
I was the smudge of ashen fluff - and I
Lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky."
Perhaps I am just an overly obsessed Harry Potter fan, but I saw Harry Potter connections everywhere in this novel, and it made me wonder if Rowling was a fan, or if I was just completing the feedback loop (see Fforde, Jasper, One of our Thursday Nexts is Missing). In any case, here are a few of the striking similarities:
- Impostors aid in King Charles's escape (à la book 7 with the 7 HPs fleeing from Voldemort) - here's the line from the poem: "some forty of his followers that night/impersonated him and aped his flight."
- Grindelwod, a town in Zembla - um, HELLO, practically the same as Grindelwald, amirite?
- Secret passage (but not from the conservatory to the lounge or the kitchen to the study) - Charles escapes by rediscovering a secret passage in the castle. This scene is possibly the best scene in the whole novel (and is of course carefully contained within the confines of a poetical endnote) but is too long to elaborate here (aka, findityourself). In reference to this passage, Charles remarks, 'On and on went the fantastic burrow' -- SEE, Burrow? LIKE THE Weasley's House?? (#amireadingtoomuchintoallthis? #probably #sorrynotsorry)
- Underground radio - one of Charles's devoted supporters continues to thwart the police by perfectly mimicking the voice of 'Charles the Beloved' in underground radio speeches. ahem, (cough)Potterwatch.
- Magical rooms - at one point, Charles discovers what he calls a 'sudden paradise of a water closet for plumbers or lost scholars'. Oh, do you mean like a... Room of Requirement? I think Dumblydorr even references it being full of chamber pots at one point!
K, on hearing that Sybil wants other academes involved in editing Shade's poem:
"You'll be happy to know, Dr. Kinbote, that Professor So-and-so [one of the members of the Shade committee] has consented to act as our adviser in editing the stuff."
Now 'happy' is a something extremely subjective. One of our sillier Zemblan proverbs says: the lost glove is happy." ahghaghagaghahgag.
I love that Shade is supposed to be unremarkable as a person, but a poetic genius. Here is Shade's self-description in the poem:
"Asthmatic, lame and fat,
I never bounced a ball or swung a bat."
"I had a brain, five senses (one unique),
But otherwise I was a cloutish freak."
Slides, Water, in super-cool castles
Charles references some pretty spectacular elements to his castle back in Zembla. Here's a note about his bedroom: "This had been his father's retreat and was still connected by a jolly chute in the wall with a round swimming pool in the hall below, so that the young Prince could start the day as his father used to start it by slipping open a panel beside his army cot and rolling into the shaft whence he whizzed down straight into bright water." UMM, Water slide out of bed? How awesome is that? It makes me think of this scene from Wallace and Gromit.
Stalkers, of whom Kinbote is king (in addition to Zembla)
Nabokov seems to have a certain flair for the voyeur, and it does not disappoint in this novel. Here are some of the choicest lines about Kinbote
"How glad I was that the vigils I had kept all through the spring had prepared me to observe him at his miraculous midsummer task! I had learned exactly when and where to find the best points from which to follow the contours of his inspiration." #notcreepyatall
"As I strained to see better, standing up to my knees in a horribly elastic box hedge, I dislodged the sonorous lid of a garbage can. This of course might have been mistaken for the work of the wind, and Sybil hated the wind. She at once left her perch, closed the window with a great bang, and pulled down its strident blind." Kinbote's hatred for Sybil and vice versa is the best part of this book.
"I have written about this to Mrs. Shade but she does not return my letters." [Mar-got, you don't return my calls anymore!]
"From the very first I tried to behave with the utmost courtesy toward my friend's wife, and from the very first she disliked and distrusted me." hagh.
Kinbote's description of his feelings upon finding out the Shades were planning a summer vacation and had not told him: Stupefaction, emptiness, injustice - what is more he had not yet finished "my" poem!
and later, Kinbote's feelings of
"Neither the Shades nor I breathed a word about our summer address but I knew, and they did not, that it was the same." OK, creeper. Maybe dial it down a notch!
Virgins, capable of writing wonderful works
Shade references his daughter Hazel throughout his poem, and she seems to be a troubled soul. Here's one of my favorite sections that chronicles Shade's comments to his wife, Sybil, about Hazel:
"You should rejoice
That she is innocent. Why overstress
The physical? She wants to look a mess.
Virgins have written some resplendent books.
Lovemaking is not everything!" ahgahgahgahgahgahgahgahg. I laughed super hard at that line. I must concur with Mr. Shade here -- after all, I'm pretty proud of this blog ;)
Vocabulary, Learning New
I just confirmed this to be sure, but as I suspected, Nabokov was Russian, but also spoke fluent French and English, and while his first 9 novels were published in Russian, Lolita and Pale Fire were both written and published in English. I don't know if it is his trilingual upbringing or just an intense amount of book-learning, but Nabokov has, in my opinion, one of the best vocabularies of any author in the English language. I learned no fewer than 40 new words in reading this book. Here is a smattering of my favorites:
parhelia - sun dogs, mock suns, or phantom suns; an atmospheric phenomenon that consists of a pair of bright spots on either side of the Sun [doesn't sun dogs just sound cool? like, hi! this is my pet, Icarus - it's a sun dog!]
auto-da-fé - from the Spanish and Portuguese, an 'act of faith'; the ritual of public penance of condemned heretics that took place when the Inquisition (Spanish, Portuguese, or Mexican) had decided their punishment
farrago - a confused mixture, a mishmash [ex: this novel was a veritable farrago of information]
moribund - at the point of death; in terminal decline; lacking vitality or vigor [me, nearing the end of the novel]
heliotropes - plants cultivated for their fragrant purple or blue flowers, which are used in perfume; a light purple color [quite a lovely flower, don't you think? makes me think of lilacs.]
preterism - an eschatological (hold, please) Christian view that the prophecies of the Bible are events that have already happened
eschatological - (see? I've got you covered!) the department of theological science concerned with 'the last four things: death, judgment, heaven, and hell'; in the context of mysticism, it refers metaphorically to the end of ordinary reality and reunion with the divine
tryptych - a work of art that is divided into three sections, or three carved panels that are hinged together and can be folded shut or displayed open [see modern, left, or old-school, right]
pudibundity - prudishness
nictation - the action of process of blinking [there! I just nictated! I bet you did, too!]
purblind - having impaired or defective vision; slow or unable to understand; dimwitted
fackeltanz - a payane for a ceremonial torchlight procession formerly celebrating a royal marriage in certain German courts: polonaise (obvi, I mean, who hasn't heard of a fackeltanz? see right)
lambent - (of light or fire) glowing, gleaming, or flickering with a soft radiance (like the Fackeltanz!)
chthonic - (from the Greek, literally meaning 'subterranean') concerning, belonging to, or inhabiting the underworld (this seems like an unpronouncable pairing of consonant blends, no?)
trilby - a soft felt hat with a narrow brim and indented crown [see Mr. Bond, James, to your left]
houghmagandy - adulterous sexual intercourse [but doesn't houghmagandy just sound much sillier? I thought for sure this was going to be an article of clothing. Here's your balaclava, here's your houghmagandy, now off into the snow you go!]
otiosity - leisure, idleness; a state of producing no useful result [me, on a Sunday, or on most days when my main goal is to not leave the house and Christopher Boone-style, take no risks.]
ephebe - (in ancient Greece) a young man of 18-20 years undergoing military training
demesne - land attached to a manor and retained for the owner's own use [ah yes, of course, the demesne. Mine is expansive and covers at least a thousand bazillion acres. does yours?]
At this point, I will leave you with two of my favorite passages, both of which deal with the physical presentation of the poem itself. Charles Kinbote writes that Shade crafted his poem on a batch of index cards, keeping some of the drafts along the way, and affixing them to each other with rubber bands.
"In the large envelope I carried I could feel the hard-cornered, rubberbanded batches of index cards. We are absurdly accustomed to the miracle of a few written signs being able to contain immortal imagery, involutions of thought, new worlds with live people, speaking, weeping, laughing. We take it for granted so simply that in a sense, by the very act of brutish routine acceptance, we undo the work of the ages, the history of the gradual elaboration of poetical description and construction, from the treeman to Browning, from the caveman to Keats. What if we awake one day, all of us, and find ourselves utterly unable to read? I wish you to gasp not only at what you read but at the miracle of its being readable (so I used to tell my students)." Is this not a beautiful sentence? Bradbury pushes us to think on what the world would look like without books, but what if we all found ourselves unable to read? We take the process and the pleasure of reading for granted far too often - let's take a moment (yes, right here, right now - what better time is there?) to be grateful for the act of reading and the writers who make it possible. After all, you're reading this blob, are you not?
In the final scene (SPOILER ALERT - I know, it's way too late for that, but Whatever, I try!) Jakob Gradus tries to shoot the king, but shoots Shade instead. After the tragic event, Kinbote finds himself in possession of that most precious artifact, the poem. This exquisite passage follows:
"I fussily removed it from my black valise to an empty steel box in my landlord's study, and a few hours later took the manuscript out again, and for several days wore it, as it were, having distributed the ninety-two index cards about my person, twenty in the right-hand pocket of my coat, as many in the left-hand one, a batch of forty against my right nipple and the twelve precious ones with variants in my innermost left-breast pocket. I blessed my royal stars for having taught myself wife work, for now I sewed up all four pockets. Thus with cautious steps, among deceived enemies, I circulated, plated with poetry, armored with rhymes, stout with another man's song, stiff with cardboard, bullet-proof at long last." Do we not all feel a little bit bulletproof when we armor ourselves with the heft of another brilliant book? I know I do.
I will leave you with these last two thoughts:
"Time means succession, and succession, change." True! Changing times abound - new friendships, new state, new adventures, and soon, new books!
"It was a lovely breezy afternoon with a western horizon like a luminous vacuum that sucked in one's eager heart."
I wish you all lovely breezy afternoons and vacuum-like horizons that suck in your eager hearts that are busy bragging that they are, they are, they are. The sun has hidden itself again here in NH, but find it again, I will, I will, I will!
Onwards to You, Augustus. Join me if you dare!