Let’s Discuss — Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov

Down you go, but all the while you feel suspended and buoyed as you somersault in slow motion like a somnolent tumbler pigeon, and sprawl supine on the elderdown of the air, or lazily turn to embrace your pillow, enjoying every last instant of soft, deep, death-padded life, with the earth’s green seesaw now above, now below, and the voluptuous crucifixion, as you stretch yourself in the growing rush, in the nearing swish, and then your loved body’s obliteration in the Lap of the Lord (221)

There are two central narratives in this piece of metafiction.  One narrative belongs to John Shade, a poet who leads a relatively uninteresting life. The most striking element of his narrative (which is confined to four lengthy cantos of poetry) is his lifelong preoccupation with death.

The other is Charles Kinbote.  Kinbote is Shade’s neighbor and self-proclaimed editor of Shade’s work. His narrative starts with the foreword, continues with the commentary and ends with the index. The reader will quickly learn Kinbote is not exactly what he seems.

Shade’s work, while at times morbid, is actually very interesting. As the “editor” of Shade’s work, I expected Kinbote’s commentary to be an explication; a means to delve deeper into Shade’s intent. But instead of discourse, readers are given huge chunks of Kinbote’s life and philosophies. You will read about the escape of a self-exiled King Charles of an imaginary country named Zembla, and wonder how peculiar it is for the commentary to not be exclusively about Shade and his work. Especially, since I think Shade’s upbringing and encounters with death have more gravity than Kinbote’s stories.

This is one of those books that could be read more than once and with each reading, something different will stick out to the reader. I have to say, I didn’t read Pale Fire in order. I read the poem first, then the foreword, and then the commentary/index. I needed to read Shade’s work without Kinbote’s influence because it’s obvious Kinbote’s intentions aren’t to put Shade in the spotlight. He reaches beyond the space of the foreword—and so I think there’s criticism about literary criticism here.

There is something to be said when a poet has reduced his life to 999 lines of poetry and his “editor” takes it upon himself to insert his own self-serving memories into the mix.

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