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.

Vladimir Nabokov. Click image to expand.
Vladimir Nabokov

You know the line: "Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in." It's Pacino, complaining about the mob in Godfather III (or maybe about the Hollywood culture that got him to do the much-derided second sequel). Here I'm talking about the world of Nabokov controversies. Some pretty rough characters in that mob, too. You don't want to get on the Don's bad side.

Anyway, I had just emerged from several years of contention over the manuscript of Nabokov's last novel, The Original of Laura. (You remember: He'd enjoined his heirs to burn the pencil-written index cards of the fragmentary draft. His son Dmitri, after much agonizing—and public prodding from me—had decided to publish it.

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In the course of writing about it, I had changed my position on whether Nabokov's burn order should be carried out at least twice—the whole thing was exhausting. Though I must admit that when it finally came out last fall, I was at least ambivalently pleased at ending up in the Laura acknowledgments, despite ultimately opposing publication. I spent a lot of time trying to get Dmitri Nabokov to make up his mind. I deserved to be acknowledged.

But things seemed to have settled down since the book came out. Then, like I said, I found myself dragged back again. More willingly this time because it was a controversy over what I regard as Nabokov's greatest work, his 1962 novel, Pale Fire.

Just about a month ago, when I was out of the country, I got a voice-mail from an old friend, Mo Cohen, who offered to show me a new Nabokovian objet d'art that is likely to touch off the next big Nabokov controversy. One that takes us deeper into the heart of the work of perhaps the greatest novelist of the past century than the dispute over Laura did. And one that's similar to the Laura affair in that it once again tempts us into divining a dead author's intentions.

I'd met Mo years ago on the mean streets of SoHo (when he was running the lamented Spring Street Books) and knew that he now ran a distinguished art-book publishing house called Gingko Press on the West Coast.

He said he wanted to send me something, an object, an icon of sorts. A black-bound mock-up of a stand-alone edition of the poem "Pale Fire," the 999-line centerpiece of Nabokov's novel Pale Fire, an edition that he and Manhattan artist Jean Holabird intended to publish this November. I realized as he described this unique object, part book, part artwork, part literary manifesto, that he was talking about something more than some coffee-table-deluxe-edition-type thing. With the publication of "Pale Fire" as a stand-alone poem, Mo was throwing down the gauntlet, challenging the world's most avid Nabokov readers and critics, telling them that for 50 years, most of them had gotten a central aspect of, arguably, his greatest work flat wrong.

Please, people, control your excitement. I know, I know, this may seem to be more esoteric, it doesn't have the built-in intrigue of a manuscript in a Swiss safe-deposit box. But it's no tempest in a teapot, not to those familiar with the long-simmering controversy over the poem "Pale Fire." And with the unbearable beauty and delight both the poem and novel offer. But when you're dealing with how to read—on the most basic level—the central node of perhaps the greatest work of the supreme artist of the English language of our era, the stakes are high and worth, I believe, my attempt to explain what it's all about for non-Nabokov readers. (Needless to say, I'd prefer all of you latecomers to run out to read or reread the novel; it is a work of pure pleasure, eminently accessible, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, despite its deceptive "experimental novel" outer architecture.)

But for those reluctant or unable to do that right away, let me give you the Pale Fire basics. Published in 1962, seven years after Lolita's scandalous success, it almost seemed designed to fend off readers and critics who mistakenly associated Nabokov with sensational transgressive salaciousness.

First, we read a brief, strange foreword written by someone who calls himself Charles Kinbote. Kinbote (who turns out to be a delusional madman not really named Kinbote) tells us he's absconded with a pile of index cards, the nearly completed manuscript of a poem written by a neighbor of his, John Shade, left behind after Shade was murdered.

The poem—the text of which follows the foreword—is called "Pale Fire" (after Shakespeare's line: "the moon's an arrant thief,/ and her pale fire she snatches from the sun," with all its resonance of the relationship between reality and its reflection/afterlife in art.) Kinbote, it becomes apparent, is an arrant thief as well; his "Pale Fire" he's snatched from the dead man's widow.

As we read the footnotes that follow the text of the poem, it is revealed that Kinbote has taken the stolen index cards and fled to a cheap motel in the American West, where he is madly scribbling delusional footnote annotations to "his" edition of the poem. In the footnotes he makes a desperate but comically inept attempt to prove the poem is "really" about him, Kinbote, and his exotic history as "King Charles the Beloved," the deposed and exiled ruler of an exotic "northern land" called Zembla and the real target of the bullet that killed his neighbor and colleague, Shade.

Got that straight? What gives the novel its postmodern, experimental look is that the bulk of it, some 230 pages that follow the 999-line poem, is made up of Kinbote's numbered and often long and meandering explicatory footnotes keyed to the poem's lines. Not a traditional novelistic form to say the least. It's as if T.S. Eliot made a madman's novel out of the footnotes to the "The Waste Land."

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