Freeing "Pale Fire" From Pale Fire
The next big Nabokov controversy.
Who could deplore her desire to own "Pale Fire"?
I don't want to downplay the two essays in the booklet called "Pale Fire Reflections" that is included with the two texts of the poem. I just couldn't find it at first. I was particularly struck by the degree of erudition about contemporary American poetry that Gwynn brought to his case that Nabokov meant "Pale Fire" to be a reproof to over-casual, over-personal, over-trivial trends in American poetry. A reproof to the belief that formal poetics could not capture deep feeling in traditional verse forms. And that Nabokov had modeled John Shade on the well-known traditionalist American poet Yvor Winters, who was a partisan of formal poetics.
But I might not have gotten to read these essays, they were so ingeniously concealed within a kind of secret slipcase in the "Pale Fire" reliquary. In fact, they were so well-concealed that I e-mailed Mo that the essays he'd referred to were missing from my copy. He swiftly FedExed me another copy, but not before I'd discovered the secret slipcase in the original. Now I had two. And as a gesture of apology he said that because my original version was incomplete he'd let me keep it rather than hold on to it for just a week as originally planned.
I've been too embarrassed (until now) to tell him it was there all along. I JUST COULDN'T FIND IT. But I'm not giving it back without a fight. Indeed it was a kind of perfect metaphor for the fact that there are secret slipcases within all Nabokov's work that we'll still be discovering as long as we read him. And no more so than in Pale Fire, poem and novel.
I think the Gingko Press edition will provoke an important argument, and more importantly get people to experience the pleasures of the poem with or without its mad annotations. Then we can move on to the next controversy: whether the poem is complete at 999 lines or missing—as the mad annotator claims—its final line, which, he insists, will be a repetition of the first line: "I was the shadow of the waxwing slain." And thus, affirm perfect circularity and symmetry and all that.
I don't necessarily agree with the conventional view that simply accedes to Kinbote's theory. But that's for the hard-core devotees among us to argue about.
It's not irrelevant to the grander controversy that lies beneath it all: whether the poem and novel are ultimately an affirmation of the coherence of the universe or confirmation of its mad incoherence.
But did you notice how the waxing of the moon's pale fire is captured in the gleam of the waxwing's name?
Correction, June 23, 2010: This article originally included a photograph of Nicolas Nabokov instead of Vladimir Nabokov.
Ron Rosenbaum is the author of The Shakespeare Wars and Explaining Hitler. His latest book is How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III.
Photograph of Vladimir Nabokov by Horst Tappe/Pix Inc./Time Life Pictures/Getty Images.