The Resolution Project Season Two: Pale Fire (1962)

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books / the resolution project

Musical Accompaniment: The White Stripes “Little Ghost” (“I’m Slowly Turning Into You” would also be a good one)

“I have no desire to twist and batter an unambiguous apparatus criticus into the monstrous semblance of a novel.” (pp. 86)

Pale Fire cover

The Resolution Project Season Two: For my New Year’s resolution last year (2011), I decided to try and read all one hundred of the novels picked by Time Magazine as the best since their inception in 1923 to the list’s publication in 2005. I got almost halfway through. I’ve decided to bull-headedly push on through and try and finish the challenge, continuing with the same caveat as before: I’ve exempted myself from reading books I’ve already read, leaving some eighty-six or so left to go. Some spoilers may lie ahead, so be warned if you’re the type to be bothered by that. It’s not really worth getting that angry about though.

The Elevator Pitch: Hoo boy, this’ll be a tough one. John Shade is a genial poet living in the town of New Wye, Appalachia, USA with his wife Sybil. Stay with me here. “Pale Fire” is a 999 line poem he’s written about the death of his daughter, various supernatural events that happen to him, and his general creative process. Pale Fire, the novel by Vladimir Nabokov, is composed primarily of the footnotes to this poem, which are assembled and edited by Professor Charles Kinbote, a recent emigré from the Baltic (?) country of Zembla, which has recently had its government overthrown by Communist revolutionaries known as the Extremist party. The story progresses as Kinbote annotates Shade’s poem, reading into its lines not only Shade’s history, but also the history of Charles the Blessed, the former King of Zembla, and his flight from the pro-Soviet interim government. The story of Gradus (aka. Jack Grey, aka. Vinogradus), an assassin dispatched by a group of Zemblan anti-royalists known as the Shadows to kill King Charles is also one of the threads in Nabokov’s tightly woven tapestry.

What I knew about this book, its subject and its author going in: What little I knew about Nabokov came from two sources. I knew that he was Thomas Pynchon’s teacher due to the fact that Pynchon is probably my favorite living writer and I’ve researched him for papers and the like. He’s also a fellow Time 100 list member, with both men pulling off an astounding two books on the list each. I think only them, Graham Greene, George Orwell, Virginia Woolf, Philip Roth and Saul Bellow have been accorded that honour? I guess if you count Anthony Powell’s twelve book cycle A Dance to the Music of Time they’re all chump change, but whatever. I also knew about Nabokov due to his Lolita having been filmed by Stanley Kubrick in 1962, which, coincidentally, is when Pale Fire came out. Of course, I haven’t seen Lolita, although I’d like to, and I probably will once I read it. So I was vaguely cognizant of Nabokov, and his contrbutions to mid-century postmodernism.

“If two secret agents belonging to rival factions meet in a battle of wits, and if one has none, the effect may be droll; it is dull if both are dolts. I defy anybody to find in the annals of plot and counterplot anything more inept and boring than the scene that occupies the rest of this conscientious note.” (pp. 177)

I really enjoyed this book. As I’ve noted before in my reviews of At Swim-Two-Birds and The French Lieutenant’s Woman, I’m fairly fond of books that screw around with the concepts of narrative and cohesion. Pale Fire is exemplary even in this group of modernist and postmodernist weirdness; it has an unreliable narrator, fanciful (most likely) tales of a kingdom in Europe that is now irrevocably altered, a would-be assassin bumbling his way towards his destiny in the United States and being derided all the while for it, and a fairly nice poem to top it all off. It reaffirms my suspicion that most commentators and critics would rather be able to create art, but instead are reduced to being able to read it really well. This would be in line with my own feelings on the matter. Bitter? No….

Speaking of the poem, I bought this book for my Kindle and felt pretty stupid right afterwards. The Kindle version that I got does not hyperlink from the poem directly to Kinbote’s annotations; rather you have to page through all the way to get to them, making it much less useful than say, a dead-tree copy. I was pretty mad about this at first, and pondered out loud on Twitter whether or not the poem part is actually that important in the long run. So I ended up just reading the footnotes first, and was pleased to find out that that’s a perfectly valid way of reading the book! Charles Kinbote even tells you as much in his Forward to the poem, but it’s totally true. Pale Fire is potentially the best example ever of reading too much into things. Kinbote wants the poem to reflect his lost kingdom so much that the slightest semblance of an allusion is used as a springboard into more Zemblan history lessons. It’s kind of hilarious to read the poem afterwards, as it can easily be read as a sort of modern-day Frost thing, having nothing to do with the intrigue and adventure the footnotes would have you believe it does. I’m assuming it would be equally as entertaining to read the footnotes afterwards, or read them concurrently with the poem.

Pale Fire is also a great chronicle of unrequited love. Kinbote is obviously nursing a huge crush on Shade, and his sexuality is referred to in veiled allusions throughout the footnotes as he is continually inviting guys over to play table tennis in his basement, and he is full of disdain for “mammates”, which I assume means people with mammary glands, ie. women. If you buy into Kinbote’s supposed secret identity, as well, there’s even more evidence to support a reading of Pale Fire as a predominately homosocial narrative.

I can really see where Thomas Pynchon got his inspirations from Nabokov. Gradus the assassin’s inexorable progress towards Kinbote and Shade reminded me a lot of Tchitcherine’s quest for the Schwartzcommando in Gravity’s Rainbow, as well as Herbert Stencil’s search for the mysterious “V”. Both authors assume the trappings of adventure fiction in service of a higher ideal; there’s such pulpy fodder as deposed monarchs, secret formulas and passages, codes, assassins, etc. in both oeuvres. I can see why I liked Nabokov so much in retrospect, although I’m sure it’s this stuff that I like that is most derided by the Soft Intelligentsia who thrive on things that are serious above all.

I picked The White Stripes’ “Little Ghost” up there as I feel it matches the illusory, dream-like feel of the novel. The narrator in the song is never quite sure as to whether or not his ghost paramour exists or not, and this matches the feelings I had with regards to Kinbote and the country he came from, Zembla. It might be real, it might not be, it doesn’t really matter, what matters is the journey. As much as I’d like to believe in robot troops from the U.S.S.R. supporting the rebellious Extremists, it seems fairly unlikely. I wouldn’t, however, enjoy an alternate history rundown of how a United States with the states of Appalachia and Utana came to be, nor the story how Zembla came to become a monarchy or something like that. I’m perfectly fine with the story being strange and illusory, I don’t need to know any more than I already do. Nabokov does such a great job of filling out his world with textual detail, even a full index, that I’m satisfied with what’s in the text.

While I still have this book on my Kindle, I’d like to buy it in paper form as well, that’s how much I enjoyed it. I’m also looking forward to reading Nabokov’s other list entry Lolita far more than I was before due to the strength of this book.

“I trust the reader appreciates the strangeness of this, because he does not, there is no sense in writing poems, or notes to poems, or anything at all.” (pp. 207)

Similar books on the Time 100 list: As noted above, At Swim-Two-Birds also screws around with the idea of a novel in a satisfactory fashion, while The French Lieutenant’s Woman is as great a look at Victorian mores as Pale Fire is of Zemblan ones. Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin also has a lot of fun with the concepts of “reality” and “fiction”, as well as pulpy adventure yarns. I would be remiss to also not mention the works of Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49 would be the closest one in my opinion to this, more so than Gravity’s Rainbow.

Total pages read since January 1st 2011: 15660 pp. (1201 this year)

Total books on the Time 100 list read: 54/113, or 48% complete.

Next up on the Resolution Project: Invisible Man (1952), by Ralph Ellison (hopefully this time).

The Author

Matt Bowes is a self-proclaimed cultural commentator/arbiter of good taste from Edmonton, Alberta. He enjoys movies and books, and writes about them sometimes at


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