Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov''s
Pale Fire is a masterpiece that imprisons us inside the mazelike head of a mad émigré. Yet
Pale Fire is more outrageously hilarious, and its narrative convolutions make the earlier book seem as straightforward as a fairy tale. Here''s the plot--listen carefully! John Shade is a homebody poet in New Wye, U.S.A. He writes a 999-line poem about his life, and what may lie beyond death. This novel (and seldom has the word seemed so woefully inadequate) consists of both that poem and an extensive commentary on it by the poet''s crazy neighbor, Charles Kinbote.
According to this deranged annotator, he had urged Shade to write about his own homeland--the northern kingdom of Zembla. It soon becomes clear that this fabulous locale may well be a figment of Kinbote''s colorfully cracked, prismatic imagination. Meanwhile, he manages to twist the poem into an account of Zembla''s King Charles--whom he believes himself to be--and the monarch''s eventual assassination by the revolutionary Jakob Gradus.
In the course of this dizzying narrative, shots are indeed fired. But it''s Shade who takes the hit, enabling Kinbote to steal the dead poet''s manuscript and set about annotating it. Is that perfectly clear? By now it should be obvious that Pale Fire is not only a whodunit but a who-wrote-it. There isn''t, of course, a single solution. But Nabokov''s best biographer, Brian Boyd, has come up with an ingenious suggestion: he argues that Shade is actually guiding Kinbote''s mad hand from beyond the grave, nudging him into completing what he''d intended to be a 1,000-line poem. Read this magical, melancholic mystery and see if you agree. --Tim Appelo
Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov was born on April 23, 1899, in St. Petersburg, Russia. The Nabokovs were known for their high culture and commitment to public service, and the elder Nabokov was an outspoken opponent of antisemitism and one of the leaders of the opposition party, the Kadets. In 1919, following the Bolshevik revolution, he took his family into exile. Four years later he was shot and killed at a political rally in Berlin while trying to shield the speaker from right-wing assassins.
The Nabokov household was trilingual, and as a child Nabokov was already reading Wells, Poe, Browning, Keats, Flaubert, Verlaine, Rimbaud, Tolstoy, and Chekhov, alongside the popular entertainments of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Jules Verne. As a young man, he studied Slavic and romance languages at Trinity College, Cambridge, taking his honors degree in 1922. For the next eighteen years he lived in Berlin and Paris, writing prolifically in Russian under the pseudonym Sirin and supporting himself through translations, lessons in English and tennis, and by composing the first crossword puzzles in Russian. In 1925 he married Vera Slonim, with whom he had one child, a son, Dmitri.
Having already fled Russia and Germany, Nabokov became a refugee once more in 1940, when he was forced to leave France for the United States. There he taught at Wellesley, Harvard, and Cornell. He also gave up writing in Russian and began composing fiction in English. In his afterword to Lolita he claimed: "My private tragedy, which cannot, and indeed should not, be anybody''s concern, is that I had to abandon my natural idiom, my untrammeled, rich, and infinitely docile Russian tongue for a second-rate brand of English, devoid of any of those apparatuses–the baffling mirror, the black velvet backdrop, the implied associations and traditions–which the native illusionist, frac-tails flying, can magically use to transcend the heritage in his own way." [p. 317] Yet Nabokov''s American period saw the creation of what are arguably his greatest works,
Bend Sinister (1947),
Pnin (1957), and
Pale Fire (1962), as well as the translation of his earlier Russian novels into English. He also undertook English translations of works by Lermontov and Pushkin and wrote several books of criticism. Vladimir Nabokov died in Montreux, Switzerland, in 1977.
INTRODUCUTION by Richard Rorty
[WARNING: this Introduction not only gives away the plot of
Pale Fire, but presumes to describe the reader’s reactions in the course of a first reading of the book – reactions which will not occur if the Introduction is read first. The first-time reader may wish to postpone the Introduction until he or she has finished the Index.]
The imagination, Wallace Stevens said, is the mind pressing back against reality. But it is in the interest of reality – that is to say, of the imagination of the dead – to insist that no further pressure is needed: that the imagination of the living can do nothing save reiterate lessons previously learned, instantiate previously known truths. Judicious reviewers must presuppose that nothing genuinely new can be written, for only on that assumption are they in a position to judge, and in no danger of being judged by, the book they are reviewing. Like the judicious reviewer, the common reader is made nervous by books that are insufficiently like the books he or she has read in the past.
Vladimir Nabokov (1899–1977) wrote books which were not much like anybody else’s, and they rarely got good reviews. Most reviewers echoed Dr Johnson’s dictum that nothing odd can last, and proceeded to diagnose Nabokov’s oddities as signs of his egoistical disdain for reality, a disdain which cloaked his inability to imitate reality convincingly. Simon Raven, reviewing
Pale Fire on its publication in 1962, said that it was ‘not a novel, but a blueprint’. Saul Maloff’s review explained that ‘the novelist’s immemorial purpose and justification’ was ‘to create a world’, and that Nabokov had created only ‘a constellation of elegant and marvelous
bibelots, an art which is minor by definition’. Reviewer after reviewer conceded Nabokov’s skill while deploring his self-indulgence, his delight in his own tricks – tricks which made clear his lack of respect for both reality and the common reader. Dwight Macdonald called
Pale Fire ‘unreadable’, emphasized that Nabokov, even at his best, was ‘minor’, and urged that ‘the technical exertions he [Nabokov] expends on the project are so obtrusive as to destroy any aesthetic pleasure on the reader’s part’. Perturbed by the fact that Mary McCarthy had called
Pale Fire ‘a creation of perfect beauty, symmetry, strangeness, originality and moral truth’, Macdonald explained that both the novel and McCarthy’s review were ‘exercises in misplaced ingenuity’.
Nabokov had no interest whatever in creating a world like the one to which Raven, Maloff and Macdonald were accustomed. ‘We speak,’ he once said, ‘of one thing being like another thing, when what we are really craving to do is to describe something that is like nothing on earth.’ It was just that craving which annoyed so many of the reviewers. To those who wish reality to be given the respect it takes as its due, such a craving is a sign of egotistic self-indulgence. ‘Egotism’ is reality’s name for whatever calls attention to itself – whatever is odd, hard to understand, hard to follow. Those who respect reality, who are sure that it needs no further pressure, insist that what is worthwhile is already a part of reality, and merely needs to be accurately represented. What is not a part of reality is subjective, personal, idiosyncratic, silly, puerile, evanescent, not worth writing down. For reality is, to the respectful eye, the only legitimate authority. The poet’s longing to exert pressure upon reality seems not only futile but morally dubious.
Now, thirty years after the publication of
Pale Fire, critics and literary historians have begun to concede that the book will, in fact, last. It is gradually acquiring the aura of a classic, gradually coming to be seen as the work of one of the most powerful imaginations of our century. This sort of concession is one of the means reality uses to avoid admitting that it has been dented. It is as if, in the dark of night, when no one is looking, reality sent out pseudopods to incorporate the latest oddity. By morning reality looks as smooth and unpressured as before (although just a bit bigger). Something that actually was like nothing on earth thus gets turned into one more objective terrestrial fact, waiting to be observed. Sometimes, however, when the oddity is very large or very complexly shaped, the process of assimilation is not over by morning. Then reality can be caught draining the life out of a metaphor, or reshaping a paradox into a platitude, or repackaging a scandal as a classic.
Lolita was like nothing Morris Bishop – a good reader, a good man, and Nabokov’s best friend at Cornell – had ever read; his revulsion from Humbert’s sliminess prevented him from finishing the manuscript. Thirty years later, Bishop’s granddaughter was assigned
Lolita in high school. The more often
Pale Fire are assigned, made set books for examinations, the more Humbert Humbert and Charles Kinbote will become well-known literary characters – familiar parts of the reality within which people grow up. The more that happens, the more likely it is that those two will merge with the figure of their creator – that Nabokov’s readers will think they are reading about Nabokov when they read about these two charming monsters. The more this unconscious identification is made, the less they will remember the people whom Humbert and Kinbote manipulate – the Haze and Shade families, and, in particular, the youngest members of those families, Lolita Haze and Hazel Shade.
Brian Boyd, whose splendid biography serves Nabokov well by making the incorporation of his books less easy, reports that among all the characters in his novels whom Nabokov admired as human beings, Lolita stood second only to Pnin. But readers of
Lolita often have trouble getting Lolita in focus. All they seem to remember is Humbert’s creature, his invention – the nymphet, rather than the little girl. So Nabokov’s suggestion that she is a splendid human being is hard to take in. Still, readers of
Lolita vaguely recall, Lolita did have guts: somehow she got away from Quilty and managed to find herself a good man who would give her a child. She made a home for him and for the child who was to have been born at Christmastime – a home in Gray Star, ‘a settlement in the remotest Northwest’, where it is very cold. Nabokov, it now comes back to us, said that Gray Star was ‘the capital town of the book’. Then finally it all comes back: it was only
Humbert who thought that he had invented Lolita. We were not supposed to think that. We were supposed to remember what Humbert kept forgetting: Lolita’s sobs in the night, her dead brother, the child that might have replaced the brother. How could we have forgotten?
We forgot because Nabokov
arranged for us to forget, temporarily. He programmed us to forget first and remember later – remember in confusion and guilt. His book keeps on manhandling us even after we close it. The reason it is going to be relatively hard to turn
Lolita into a classic is that we guardians of legitimacy, we servants of reality, can only make sound observations about a novel, find admirable illustrations of general truths in it, if we can get it under control. We need to stand at a distance from it in order to see it steadily and whole. But Nabokov arranges things so that, just when we thought that we had stepped back and found the proper standpoint from which to see his book in perspective, we get an uncanny sense that the book is looking at
us from a considerable distance, and chuckling. The resulting discomfiture usually turns into renewed exasperation over Nabokov’s egotism, his puerile tricksiness, his silly attempts at novelty.
Lolita, so with
Pale Fire. When you read the book for the first time, you find yourself absorbed in a good story, told by an odd but charming man, even before you have finished the Foreword. What follows next – the nine hundred and ninety-nine rhyming lines of ‘Pale Fire’ – seems a slightly unfortunate interruption. It is perhaps a little unfair to make us lovers of good stories trudge through a long poem on our way back to the plot. But shucks, we fair-mindedly say, it isn’t a
very long poem. After being briefly troubled by the story of Hazel Shade’s suicide in Canto Two, and being a bit bored by the reflections on death in Canto Three and those on the creative process in Canto Four, we get back to the story which the poem interrupted. We have rejoined that intriguing, if dubious, Kinbote, and are becoming amused at the way he blithely intrudes himself into what is, in theory, a commentary on the poem we have already started to forget.
Fifty pages into Kinbote’s commentary we have forgotten all about John Francis Shade (1898–1959 – as the Foreword told us, we now recall, he died right after writing ‘Pale Fire’, poor fellow). For now we are immersed in the adventures of a much more interesting person – Charles Xavier Vseslav, last king of Zembla (1915–?: reigned 1936–1958). Whereas the only big event of Shade’s life seems to have been the unfortunate suicide of his young daughter, the story of Charles Xavier’s youth is packed with incident. Better yet, it has the deep human interest which always attaches to stories about royalty, not to mention that extra little thrill we get from reading about the copulation of faunlets.
A hundred pages further on, we have become convinced that Charles Kinbote and Charles Xavier are one and the same person. This realization gives us not only the satisfaction of knowing that our interest in Kinbote paid off, but the awed sense that royalty has condescended to treat us as a confidant. A sad, but handsome and well-read, ex-king trusts us enough to tell us things that very few people could have guessed. Shade turns up now and then, and we occasionally suspect that he too may have had the wit to discern, as we have, who Kinbote really is. But Shade’s reappearances are always succeeded, and made forgettable, by the revelation of some new and surprising fact about our remarkable host and commentator.
It is only in the final pages of the novel that we are forced once again to think fairly seriously about Shade. For now something does happen to him. He gets killed. Shade wanders back into Kinbote’s story just at the point at which Gradus, the regicide sent by the revolutionary government of Zembla, is about to carry out his assignment. Kinbote tells us how he, the endangered king:
“. . . instinctively backed, bellowing and spreading my great strong arms . . . in an effort to halt the advancing madman and shield John, whom I feared he might, quite accidentally, hit, while he, my sweet awkward old John, kept clawing at me and pulling me after him, back to the protection of his laurels, with the solemn fussiness of a poor lame boy trying to get his spastic brother out of the range of the stones hurled at them by schoolchildren, once a familiar sight in all countries. I felt – I still feel – John’s hand fumbling at mine, seeking my fingertips, finding them, only to abandon them at once as if passing to me, in a sublime relay race, the baton of life.
One of the bullets that spared me struck him in the side and went through his heart.”
No sooner is Shade dead, however, than the novel begins to fall to pieces. Our attention is suddenly wrenched back to the poem we have long forgotten. For Gradus has appeared at the moment at which Shade has finally handed Kinbote the manuscript of ‘Pale Fire’. As Shade bleeds on the ground, Kinbote hurries inside to get a glass of water for his dead friend and to conceal the manuscript under a pile of nymphets’ galoshes on the floor of a closet. After a bit of unfortunate delay (Kinbote has to waste some time coping with Shade’s widow, the police, and the like) he is able to retrieve it. He reads it snarling, ‘as a furious young heir through an old deceiver’s testament’, realizing that the poem is not about himself but about its author.
We readers, who are by this time completely caught up in Kinbote’s hopes and fears, find ourselves sharing Kinbote’s overwhelming disappointment, even though we have read the poem already, and have known all the time that it was about the Shades and not about the overthrow of the Zemblan monarchy. We too wonder why Shade was so insensitive and cruel as to have made no use of the wonderful material his friend Kinbote was constantly feeding him. We sympathize with Kinbote’s outraged questions:
“Where were the battlements of my sunset castle? Where was Zembla the Fair? Where her spine of mountains? Where her long thrill through the mist? And my lovely flower boys, and the spectrum of the stained windows, and the Black Rose Paladins, and the whole marvelous tale?”
As Kinbote asks these questions, however, the doubts that we loyal monarchists have been impatiently shoving aside for two hundred pages begin to sidle back. We have, perhaps (very probably, in fact), not been the confidant of a king, but only the dupe of a loony. Zembla, we nervously remember, is not on any map we have ever seen. The sunset battlements begin to crumble before our eyes. The whole marvellous tale may have been just the invention of a mad emigre scholar, a monster of egotism who has dragged us into his preposterous fantasies. The only sane, indeed, the only decent, person around (either in the novel or in the room where we sit reading it) turns out to be the man we have forgotten about for so long, the man who wrote the poem whose central event we did not want to remember: sweet awkward old John Shade, with his old-fashioned family values.
As we watch those battlements crumble, we remember having been warned that cloud-capped towers are subject to dissolution. As we look rather desperately around for Nabokov, in order to ask him to take us to his own point of view, to show us where to stand to see his novel clearly, it dawns on us that he has us just where he wants us: listening to Kinbote saying ‘Well, folks, I guess many in this fine hall are as hungry and thirsty as me, and I’d better stop, folks, right here.’ It is as if Prospero, after explaining that he will shortly be drowning his book, stepped to the front of the stage to announce that oranges and ale would be offered for sale in the outer courtyard immediately after the performance, that season ticket holders were invited to meet the cast backstage, but that unfortunately the author of the play, who would have liked to be here to greet his many friends, is out of town. . . .