Nabokov's Pale Fire: The Magic of Artistic Discovery

Nabokov's Pale Fire: The Magic of Artistic Discovery

Nabokov's Pale Fire: The Magic of Artistic Discovery

Nabokov's Pale Fire: The Magic of Artistic Discovery

Synopsis

Pale Fire is regarded by many as Vladimir Nabokov's masterpiece. The novel has been hailed as one of the most striking early examples of postmodernism and has become a famous test case for theories about reading because of the apparent impossibility of deciding between several radically different interpretations. Does the book have two narrators, as it first appears, or one? How much is fantasy and how much is reality? Whose fantasy and whose reality are they? Brian Boyd, Nabokov's biographer and hitherto the foremost proponent of the idea that Pale Fire has one narrator, John Shade, now rejects this position and presents a new and startlingly different solution that will permanently shift the nature of critical debate on the novel. Boyd argues that the book does indeed have two narrators, Shade and Charles Kinbote, but reveals that Kinbote had some strange and highly surprising help in writing his sections. In light of this interpretation, Pale Fire now looks distinctly less postmodern--and more interesting than ever. In presenting his arguments, Boyd shows how Nabokov designed Pale Fire for readers to make surprising discoveries on a first reading and even more surprising discoveries on subsequent readings by following carefully prepared clues within the novel. Boyd leads the reader step-by-step through the book, gradually revealing the profound relationship between Nabokov's ethics, aesthetics, epistemology, and metaphysics. If Nabokov has generously planned the novel to be accessible on a first reading and yet to incorporate successive vistas of surprise, Boyd argues, it is because he thinks a deep generosity lies behind the inexhaustibility, complexity, and mystery of the world. Boyd also shows how Nabokov's interest in discovery springs in part from his work as a scientist and scholar, and draws comparisons between the processes of readerly and scientific discovery. This is a profound, provocative, and compelling reinterpretation of one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century.

Excerpt

Martin Amis's observation that Nabokov “does all the usual things better than anybody else” applies with special force to one of the most unusual things ever twisted into a tale, the Commentary that occupies most of Pale Fire. More than two hundred pages of line–by –line annotations might seem a disastrous recipe for narrative, yet Nabokov here tells three colorfully contrasting stories, one homely, one exotic, one splenetic—Kinbote's intimate friendship with Shade in New Wye, Charles II's escape from Zembla, and Gradus's pursuit of the disguised king—that converge to a climax right in the final note. He simultaneously invents settings that offer both the recognitions of realism (small–town American academia) and the dislocations of romance (the fairyland of Zembla); places in them one of the most original and unforgettable of characters, the preposterously comic, inescapably tragic Charles Kinbote; and, amid all the mayhem Kinbote causes, allows us the pleasures of form, the satisfaction of sensing the author's order everywhere behind the commentator's chaos.

One sustained irony shapes the whole Commentary. Instead of presenting readers of his vast apparatus criticus with the result of prodigious labors in labyrinthine libraries, instead of assembling for them identifications they will have no time to make themselves, Kinbote acknowledges that he has “no library in the desolate log cabin where I live like Timon in his cave” (C.39–40) and except for one interview has undertaken no research whatever. Unlike Kinbote's readers, though, Nabokov's are invited to make their own easy and surprising discoveries about what the commentator cannot see. Most of these discoveries demand no infinite Borgesian library—just a good dictionary, a complete Shakespeare, and curiosity, memory, imagination. What we can find in the Commentary depends less on the esoterica of the erudite than simply on an alert assessment of human behavior and character.

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