As I said last week, we will be covering Pale Fire in the class I am taking this fall. Therefore, I will try my best not to go into too much detail as I will be visiting this book again in the upcoming months. I do wish to still go over genre, theme, and history, but I’ll try to keep it brief. Of course, the operative word here is “try.”
Once again, I find it very difficult to place this book within any one specific genre. While this book is not as long or as dense as either Bleak House or Moby Dick, it is still complex and hard to pin down.
I suppose I can start with the obvious fact that it does include poetry. The focus of the entire novel in fact is a 999 line poem of the same name as the book, composed by the fictitious John Shade. The novel contains a brief foreword by the second main character in the book, Dr. Charles Kinbote, a friend and neighbor of Shade’s. The foreword is then followed by the poem, and then the remainder (and majority) of the book is a commentary on the poem, also by Kinbote. So while the book is not all poetry, a poem is the center of attention. And because the book is not just poetry, but also a book about a poem, this makes it metafiction (writing about writing).
It can be argued that Pale Fire is both comedy and tragedy. The comedy comes from Kinbote’s commentary, as it is rarely an actually commentary on Shade’s poem, and often just a disjointed story that Kinbote told Shade at one point –a story Kinbote was hoping would be the focus of the poem before Shade finished it. Kinbote’s hopes are immediately dashed upon his first reading of the poem, but as he rereads it, he convinces himself that certain lines in the poem contain references to the adventure he told Shade. It is pretty clear that Shade’s poem is largely autobiographical and that there is almost no evidence of Kinbote’s story anywhere. At certain points during the commentary, Kinbote manages to squeeze in his own story, therefore getting the satisfaction of telling it anyway, despite Shade ignoring it completely the first time.
The comedy can also come from the adventures of Gradus, one of the main characters in Kinbote’s story that crosses the globe in order to carry out an assassination. His trek is full of comical blunders, the best of which may be near the very end where he has trouble finishing his assignment because he keeps having to make trips to the bathroom to relieve his unsettled stomach.
The tragedy of the story comes from the various sad notes in the poem (the death of Shade’s daughter, his own “faint hope” in higher powers, and his encounters with death early in life. And of course, there is the obvious tragedy (spoiler alert!) of Shade’s death, which, although it is a murder, it is an accident as he was not the intended target.
With this book, I find it difficult to be able to fully explore other genres, so hopefully when I get to study it in the fall, I’ll be able to make some more notes.
The only recurring theme I could pull from this novel would be that of self-involvement, most of which comes from Kinbote. He undertakes the publication of Shade’s poem under the guise of caring about his friend’s last literary endeavor. And while he does publish the poem, it quickly becomes overshadowed by the story he really wanted to tell, which in the end the reader finds out (spoiler alert!) was his own. In retelling his own observations of Shade during the period of time when his friend would have been composing this poem, Kinbote refers to the poem as his poem. He also frequently laments the fact that Shade will not share the work in progress with him, despite his knowing full well that Shade only shares his works in progress with his own wife. Close friends are not allowed a peek, much less neighbors that he has only know for a few months.
Another interesting theme is that off identity, and even hidden identity. There is the issue of Kinbote being found out the really be the protagonist in his own story, the dethroned King Charles Xavier Vseslav of Zembla. It has been argued that Kinbote’s royal alter-ego is imaginary, and that Kinbote is insane (I’d buy that…). It has also been argued that whether King Charles exists or not, Kinbote is actually the insane Professor V. Botkin, whose delusions everyone at Wordsmith College (including John Shade) generally condescend. There is an entry for Botkin in the index, which only points to a note in the novel that contains and instance where another character points out that Botkin is a kind of anagram for Kinbote. And lastly (although I am sure there are more I am missing), there is the killer who is mostly known as Gradus, but also takes on the name of Jack Grey near the end of the novel.
I suppose another recurring theme would be death. As mentioned before, the poem deals with Shade’s early experiences with death, as well as the death of his daughter. And of course, there is the death of Shade himself, even though he was not the one who was supposed to die.
Pale Fire was written in 1962, two books after Lolita and right after Pnin. Speak, Memory would be written later in 1967.
Other than this somewhat useless nugget of information, I have a hard time coming up with anything for history. If I knew more about Russia in the 1960s I might be able to go on at some length about the time the book was written. But I don’t, so I can’t.
Well look at that…even with my lack of knowledge on this book and ability to extract much more than I could, this entry still ended up being surprisingly long-winded. And I know that my class in the fall will give me even more to work with, hopefully in the area of history since that is where I am seriously lacking. Well, at least I will be prepared for the test.
Next week we will take a break from novels, as I haven’t yet finished another one to take notes on. Actually, I will probably take a break from works on the list for the next three weeks, and focus on a few books I have been reading for fun. Hopefully at the end of the three weeks, I will be ready to discuss Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence.