Free "Pale Fire"! The next big Nabokov controversy.

Scrutinizing culture.
July 23 2010 2:56 PM

Freeing "Pale Fire" From Pale Fire

The next big Nabokov controversy.

(Continued from Page 2)

Either way, of course, Nabokov wrote it, and the question of why he wrote it and who he modeled Shade on is the subject of what will be an equally controversial essay accompanying the edition, by poet and poetry professor R.S. Gwynn.

There will be those who will make the obvious argument in response to this stand-alone edition that one can't rip untimely from its womb (to use a Shakespearean trope) and ignore the fact of its origin in a novel and its attribution to a character in that novel and all the thematic subtexts and attachments being embedded in a novel suggest and consider that poem in isolation. But then again, why not?

Advertisement

Perhaps Nabokov saw "Pale Fire" and Pale Fire as both separable and inseparable. Perhaps he wrote the poem first, intending it to be taken on its own terms, and only then had the idea of creating a novel around it in order to give us one of his greatest characters, Kinbote.

That was the implicit thesis, the raison d'être of the numinous object that arrived at my home not long after my talk with Mo Cohen. Initially I was only supposed to be allowed to look at it for a week then return it, but then, through a comedy of errors, which I will describe shortly, I got to keep it: the mock-up of the forthcoming Gingko Press edition of "Pale Fire," which presents the poem in a kind of magic box within a box. Review copies won't be available for a few months but I like to preview what I think will be significant intellectual controversies. (Was I right that Paul Berman's book would cause a brawl or what?)

 And so let me describe the object. Designed like a cabinet of wonder, it looks like a large book at first, and on the ash-colored cover, one can find in raven-colored ink the words:

PALE FIRE

A poem in four Cantos by John Shade

The box opens like a three-paneled vanity cabinet, revealing a cachelike repository that contains a delicately printed, bound pamphlet (illustrated with an image of a waxwing by Jean Holabird), which reproduces in contemporary typography the 999-line poem "Pale Fire." Pick up the booklet and you see underneath a nest of index cards, which contain the handwritten "fair copy" of the poem, just as John Shade would have left it, just as Charles Kinbote would have stolen it.

The ingenuity and complexity and the box-within-box architecture of the object thematizes, as they say, the ingenuity and complexity and Russian-doll-like construction of the novel and poem.

That is certainly Mo Cohen's intention: When he was turned on to Pale Fire by his old friend Jean Holabird he told me, in an e-mail:

"After reading the poem a few times, I thought, 'wow, take that, John Ashbery.' Where would we be today if "Pale Fire" was the standard for poetry being emulated. We want this book in the Poetry section, let the world discover it there."

We want this book in the poetry section. He wants the rest of the poetry section to dare to try to measure up to it. "Pale Fire's" excellences can turn you into a fanatic. I know. I'm one.

It's interesting that this highest of high-art projects began at the bar of funky SoHo landmark Fanelli's, where Jean Holabird was a bartender and got to know Mo in the '70s when he played stickball in a nearby empty lot.

I asked Holabird what made her decide to undertake the project of turning the poem into a singular object and she e-mailed me:

"I am a visual artist who loves words. Lived with a poet (Tony Towle) for 16 years—collaborated a lot—his text, my pictures—after we broke up, I still had the urge to use other people's words. (Have worked for years on "A Botanical Proust," and "A Botanical & Medicinal Jane Austen"—just for the fun of it.) (And, I realize, talking about this now, the illustrative manifestations are a way of "owning" words that I love.)

… A "few" years ago (1998, I see by the inscription) I was given the lovely Everyman's Edition of Pale Fire, and re-read it more than once. As I was already interested in trolling for botanical references which could be translated into water-color, I noticed the many and often thematic "Parhelia" in the poem, and also, that the poem IS the book. … [O]n one re-reading I actually went back to the Foreword (!) and saw a great graphic opportunity in the precise description of Shade's process. What would that look and feel like?

  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Dec. 19 2014 4:15 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? Staff writer Lily Hay Newman shares what stories intrigued her at the magazine this week.