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.

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."

And yet, I want to re-emphasize this, the novel offers even the surface reader a multitude of traditional novelistic pleasures, anti-postmodern in their often humane and comic tenderness.

Over the past two decades, more and more Nabokov scholars and readers are crediting the novel as perhaps his best, surpassing Lolita, The Gift, and Ada. But there has been one persistent unresolved schism among them, and it centers on the aesthetic status of the eponymous poem within the novel.

From the beginning, there has been a debate among readers and critics over the relationship between the poem and the novel. Actually, that's not quite true, now that I think about it. From the moment I read the novel and read about it, I somehow took for granted what everyone writing about it seemed to take for granted: That there must be something wrong with the poem, since the novel gives so much weight to a madman's misguided obsession with it.

And then as I read and reread the novel, and sometimes just the poem, it began to dawn on me. Maybe the poem wasn't meant as a pastiche, a parody, an homage to Robert Frost. John Shade refers to his reputation with characteristic modesty as being "one oozy footstep" behind Frost, but that doesn't mean we should take his self-deprecation as gospel.) In fact, I must admit Frost has always left me cold, so to speak. And when I started asking myself what other American poet of the past century has done anything comparable in its offhand genius to "Pale Fire," I could only think of Hart Crane, the Hart Crane of White Buildings.

Once it dawned on me that the poem might not be a carefully diminished version of Nabokov's talents, but Nabokov writing at the peak of his powers in a unique throwback form (the kind of heroic couplets Alexander Pope used in the 18th century), I began to write essays that advanced this revisionist view of the poem. It was actually one of these that came to the attention of Dmitri Nabokov who seemed to indicate this was his understanding as well: That his father intended the poem to be taken seriously.

Of course, the question of intention is dicey. At Yale William K. Wimsatt thundered against "the intentional fallacy," the futile attempt to read the mind of the poet in order to get to the heart of the poem. I tend to agree with the argument that trying to figure out the poet's intentions rather than the poem's intent can be a mug's game. Nabokov himself had been sphinxlike about the poem's reception, but, on close reading, the poem does reflect the pale fire of his previous and later preoccupations.

It's a combination of meditations on life, death, art, and the afterlife, art as the afterlife, all built around a core of grief at the death of the fictional poet's daughter. And all the excellences of the poem's complex, Persian-rug pleasures suggest perhaps it deserves to be stolen back from the thief Kinbote and looked at as a pseudonymous work of Nabokov's that he had hidden inside the Russian doll construction of the novel.

That's the position taken by Mo Cohen in this new edition, designed by the artist and illustrator Jean Holabird. That the poem deserves to be read on its own terms, solus rex to use a Nabokovian phrase. Standing regally alone. Allowed to convey its own meanings once it's left the author's pen. And in a sense that's what this new gesture, this new incarnation of the poem "Pale Fire" Mo was sending me was. "Pale Fire" freed from the shackles of, or, if you prefer, the delicately woven web of Pale Fire. "Pale Fire" free at last to be a poem on its own.

One essayist has told the story of how when Nabokov was writing poetry in Russian, the chief exile critic consistently trashed his work. Until he published some new poems under a pseudonym and the same critic praised them to the skies. Perhaps, in adopting the mask of "John Shade" and embedding the poem in a novel and surrounding it with a forbidding footnoted fence of madman's annotations, Nabokov was doing something similar. John Shade was his sock puppet! One way of looking at it, anyway.

But if that was his aim, he may have been too clever by half. The novel, or rather the lunatic thief's annotations, became the lens through which the poem was viewed. Many otherwise acute littérateurs never saw the poem for itself; its intrinsic quality was not something to be taken seriously. Despite the fact that the madness of someone's annotations shouldn't affect one's judgment of a work of art.

Now the object Mo Cohen sent me is likely to touch off this debate again. Only this time I think those of us who want to free "Pale Fire" may have the edge, since the object has the blessing not only of Dmitri Nabokov, the godfather, but of Brian Boyd, his consigliere, the world's foremost Nabokov biographer. Boyd has contributed a long explicatory essay to the project (for which he's general editor), and by doing so will make headlines (or footnotes) among those who have been following Boyd's path in relation to "Pale Fire."

Brian Boyd originally shocked many readers by adopting the claim originally made by Andrew Field that the poet John Shade, author of "Pale Fire," was actually the (fictional) author of the novel Pale Fire. This view, that Shade had made up his own mad annotator in Kinbote, who existed only in Shade's imagination, at one point had so many adherents they were called "Shadeans." (I'm still convinced by the argument Mary McCarthy made in her original brilliant review of Pale Fire—"A Bolt From the Blue" in a 1962 issue of the New Republic—that a deceptively minor character, a faculty colleague of Shade, one V. Botkin, is the "real" Kinbote.)

Then, 10 or so years ago, Brian Boyd, in a complete switcheroo that had heads spinning including mine, wrote an entire book about who wrote the "Pale Fire" poem, claiming it wasn't John Shade but rather the ghost of his dead daughter Hazel, whose death is at the sorrowful heart of the poem.

Now, in what appears to be another switch, Boyd seems—in the 30-page essay that accompanies Mo Cohen's edition—to completely abandon his Hazel Shade's shade theory of the poem's authorship (such changes of mind are endemic to open-minded Nabokov scholars). And if he doesn't name a substitute, he argues that the poem ought to be read for its own intrinsic merits and makes clear he believes Nabokov intended us to believe Shade, not his dead daughter, wrote the poem. Or rather, that Nabokov wrote the poem and it's time to claim it for him.

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?

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?

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?

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Correction, June 23, 2010: This article originally included a photograph of Nicolas Nabokov instead of Vladimir Nabokov.