PALE FIRE: A GRIPE.

This Ask MetaFilter thread has made me grumpy, and I trust you’ll forgive me if I vent a bit here. Before I do, I will state for the record that Pale Fire is a wonderful book and I’m glad Nabokov wrote it. But, as with Pachelbel’s Canon, I’m starting to want never to hear of it again.
The thread starts with the perfectly good question “What’s the next Nabokov book for my book group? Not Pnin, Lolita, or Ada.” The first half dozen responses are an interestingly varied lot: people suggest Bend Sinister, Laughter in the Dark, Invitation to a Beheading, Lectures on Don Quixote, and Despair. Then comes the fateful suggestion of Pale Fire, and suddenly everybody and his brother is chiming in: “Pale Fire ++. My all time number one,” “I’m nthing Pale Fire. It’s really fantastic,” “Pale Fire is my favorite book in the world,” “Pale Fire for sure,” “Pale Fire is excellent and fun,” “I’m all about the Pale Fire“….
Now, the gimmick of the novel is that it consists of a series of extended annotations to a longish poem, and if you put the annotations together with the chatty index you can work out the actual story, as opposed to the nutty and self-serving one the annotator is trying to tell. It’s loads of fun, and I have no objection to anyone enjoying it; I certainly did. But it’s essentially a gimmick, and to mistake the enjoyment of working out a gimmick for the enjoyment of reading a great novel irritates me.
Furthermore, I have read too many blorts of enthusiasm about the poem that is at the heart of the novel; it’s true nobody in the MeFi thread has mentioned it, but I’m getting all my gripes off my chest here, so I’m going to announce that I don’t think it’s a very good poem. It’s clever, of course, and well phrased—this is Nabokov we’re talking about—but Nabokov was not essentially a poet; he wrote a few genuinely good poems in Russian (and a couple of excellent translations into English before he decided readable translations were a bad thing), but here he is simply providing a plausible MacGuffin for his crazed-annotator plot. (I hope and trust he would agree with me.) To mistake a MacGuffin for a real poem, let alone a great one, irritates me even more.
So there you have it. Pale Fire: enjoyable, but in my opinion second-rank Nabokov. Which is better than 95% of everything else, of course, but I still don’t like seeing it waved onto the victor’s podium by popular acclamation. If this be elitism, call me Cincinnatus C. and sentence me to death for gnostical turpitude.

Comments

  1. You’re right. “Pale Fire” is a really unique and often hilarious book, but I think it’s sometimes overrated by people who get a bit too excited by its “meta-”, “post-”, “inter-” cleverness. The actual poem at its heart is dreadful, and it’s really kind of depressing to imagine Nabokov slaving away at the clunky meter. For a similar example of a clever textual experiment inspiring a fanatical level of devotion in spite of the questionable quality of some of its writing, see Danielewski’s “House of Leaves”. Or even “Ulysses” – Does the world really need Bloomsday celebrations? a lot of the time, I suspect people’s reverence for these works is motivated more by self-congratulation at getting the “joke” than by actual aesthetic (or whatever you call it) enjoyment of their content. I’ve been guilty of this myself plenty of times.

  2. Bob Violence says:

    I thought the poem was *supposed* to be bad, and that was part of the gimmick. Maybe I missed the point. On the other hand, I love Ulysses, and am very sad to live in a place where Bloomsday isn’t celebrated…

  3. This is one of the oddest things I’ve read on here! Of course the poem is intentionally bad; and of course, there is a difference between a fully engaged book-with-a-gimmick (such as Pale Fire or, say, Lolita) and a standard-issue novel (such as, perhaps, Pnin). The working out of a novel with a gimmick, so to speak, is a better pleasure than reading a novel, for some of us, and a more aesthetic one. And it’s fine if you disagree, of course, but I’m not sure that anyone is mistaking the one for the other; they’re instead comparing book-reading experiences, and remarking that Pale Fire offers something a bit more rare for novels, and for many of us, far more exciting, engaging, moving, etc.

  4. I wish that my second Nabakov book had not been Pale Fire. The premise struck me as tiresome and reading as decoding did not appeal to me at all.
    Posts here and elsewhere have gradually brought to the surface the fact that my diligent novel-reading activities 1960-1964 ended up turning me off to whole large areas of fiction, especially the American fiction of that time.
    This is a retrospective realization, because in the 1960s and 1970s there was never a moment when said to myself “I don’t like fiction”. I just found myself less and less inclined to read contemporary American fiction or most of the monuments of the realist tradition, until finally I wasn’t reading any, and also finding myself disliking a lot of authors in retrospect.
    It’s sort of like the Freudian uncovering of a suppressed childhood trauma. (But fiction or films with a Freudian premise are among those that I most dislike.)

  5. blorts of enthusiasm
    “Blort”, what an apposite word !
    I suspect people’s reverence for these works is motivated more by self-congratulation at getting the “joke” than by actual aesthetic (or whatever you call it) enjoyment of their content. I’ve been guilty of this myself plenty of times.
    Too true. Over the decades, my self-congratulations at having understood something “difficult” has been replaced by worrying about how I could explain it to other people. Self-congratulation has given way to evangelistic zeal. Perhaps they’re not so different, in that their common denominator is a feeling of being a very special kind of dude.
    But then everybody feels that, so maybe it’s just a matter of decent manners. Walk softly, and try not to think too much of the big stick that you’re carrying.

  6. I like Pale Fire (well, it’s a lot better than Ada, anyhow!), but I’d think its structure would make it an extremely poor choice for a book group.
    I was interested to see the relative absence of Russian novels from that thread. I for one will keep raving about The [Luzhin] Defence until I finally persuade one of my friends to read it.

  7. I basically agree with the commenters above who said “Of course it’s a bad poem”. Bloody hell, of course it’s a bad poem. But I will add something else: I don’t think the book’s structural premise is a “gimmick”. To me, a gimmick is specifically an ad hoc effect designed to be quirky or flashy, but without any deeper significance or cohesion to the rest of the work. This is characteristic of much explicitly “post-modern” literature at its worst: Barth, Danielewski, Eggers, that sort of thing. “Pale Fire”, for my money, has more in common with a run of late modernist stylistic and structural experiments which have been handled with sufficient care that they are integral to their contexts and therefore more richly significant than mere “gimmicks”–e.g. the end/start of the Wake, the extreme spartanism of Beckett’s last works, the lipogrammatic “La disparation” and other elaborate mechanisms of Parisian avant-garde literature. The form of “Pale Fire” allowed Nabokov to do and say things he couldn’t otherwise: his is experimentation for a purpose, not for effect. If some like it simply because it’s flashy, don’t let that detract from its greater merits.

  8. Bathrobe says:

    A bit off topic:
    I recently found a Mongolian translation of Ulysses in the bookshops. Given that there are rather large lacunae in the translation of foreign literature into Mongolian, I was quite surprised to find that someone had gone to the trouble of translating Ulysses.

  9. Well, if I’d known everyone was going to agree with me, I would have been more forthright in my post; I didn’t want to upset Nabokov-lovers unnecessarily. I’m happy to go along with the “bad poem” formulation, but I repeat, there are literate people out there who think it’s wonderful.
    “Pale Fire”, for my money, has more in common with a run of late modernist stylistic and structural experiments which have been handled with sufficient care that they are integral to their contexts and therefore more richly significant than mere “gimmicks”–e.g. the end/start of the Wake, the extreme spartanism of Beckett’s last works, the lipogrammatic “La disparation” and other elaborate mechanisms of Parisian avant-garde literature. The form of “Pale Fire” allowed Nabokov to do and say things he couldn’t otherwise: his is experimentation for a purpose, not for effect.
    Well said, and I didn’t mean to imply I thought it was just a gimmick. A gimmick can produce a good, mediocre, or bad work of art; my point was not that it had a gimmick and therefore was not first-rate, but that people were mistaking it for a first-rate book because they enjoyed the gimmick.
    Given that there are rather large lacunae in the translation of foreign literature into Mongolian, I was quite surprised to find that someone had gone to the trouble of translating Ulysses.
    By and large, people do not translate books out of some abstract desire to fill in lacunae but because they love a particular book and want to share it.

  10. Bill Val'derman says:

    I’ve never read Pale Fire but I couldn’t agree with you more about Pachelbel’s Canon, which I’ve endured at least 19,387 times.

  11. marie-lucie says:

    “La disparation”
    “La disparition”.

  12. I think that “premise” is a better label for the poem-and-annotation form than “gimmick”, since it isn’t automatically pejorative. But to me the premise was forced.
    I haven’t read a lot of Nabokov, partly because his hyper-ingenious puzzl-solving premises don’t appeal to me. “Lolita” seems to have escaped from that; it actually seems like a regular comic-grotesque novel. When Humbert reads his T.S.Eliot-ish poem to Quilty and Quilty critiques it (“your best, as far as I am concerned”), it’s ingenious but immediately amusing and not more far-fetched than you find in other comic novels, whereas a novel requiring me to learn chess strategy is too much work. (And it’s not absolutely necessary to know that it’s a TS Eliot parody specifically.)

  13. Re: Pachelbel’s Canon: I know I’m wandering a bit here, but PDQ Bach once did a parody album about a classical radio station called WTWP, for “Wall-to-Wall Pachelbel”.

  14. I haven’t read a lot of Nabokov, partly because his hyper-ingenious puzzle-solving premises don’t appeal to me.
    You should try The Gift; the only puzzle-like thing there is that the end and start of a poem are presented in different places. In general, the novels he wrote in Russian are more straightforward than the ones in English.

  15. Graham Asher says:

    “I suspect people’s reverence for these works is motivated more by self-congratulation at getting the “joke” than by actual aesthetic…”
    And I suspect that people’s disdain for people who like Pale Fire is at least partly motivated by self-congratulation at recognising that to some extent at least people who like Pale Fire are motivated by self-congratulation at getting the “joke”.

  16. fiosachd says:

    From here.
    VN: “The structure of the book was something new. First, I had to create a New England poet who was a follower of Robert Frost. Then I had to evolve some kind of inspiration to produce a good poem, and I hope I did.”

  17. @Graham Asher: You’ve opened a real can of worms here. Is your disdain for AG’s disdain motivated by self-congratulation? Is my disdain for your disdain motivated by self-congratulation? Is my disdain for my disdain motivated by self-congratulation?

  18. It took me decades to be willing to read James Joyce, but once I was willing I liked a lot of it. The Joyce mystique, for which he was partly to blame, turns people off, and my bad experiences with Eglish departments intensified that.
    The Joyce I like is the early Joyce, up until about the middle of Ulysses. I don’t dislike the rest but it became laborious. I ignored the Homeric parallels completely.

  19. Is my disdain for your disdain motivated by self-congratulation? Is my disdain for my disdain motivated by self-congratulation?
    Disdain and self-congratulation are not first principles. They are merely facultative stops on the road to Vanity Fair. You can’t deduce from them where someone is coming from.

  20. I ignored the Homeric parallels completely.
    Me too, but I had no choice, since I was fairly ignorant of Greek mythology. I was pissed off at my ignorance, but figured I would catch up some day. Well, 45 years later I haven’t. I still think, for example: “what is this stupid name Polyeucte ? Is it a chick, or a dude, or what ?”. Not that I’ve seriously tried to fill the holes in my knowledge.
    I feel that Greek mythology is an old sit-com that few people can remember, or are interested in. Nowadays one is expected to be familiar with Seinfeld or Sex And The City. For some reason the German TV channel einsfestival has recently been showing something called The Judy Garland Show. WiPe tells me this was broadcast in 1963-1964. I have to say Garland does seem to be a tragic figure, like an alcoholic Penelope tottering around the stage for her admirers. But it’s all so retro.

  21. Alias Francis Gumm.

  22. The poor dear ! Another hermaphroditic name !

  23. Has anyone analyzed The Simpsons for parallels in Greek mythology ? Maybe I could use that as a learning crutch. Marge and her sisters are the three Fates, Homer is Ulysses, his dad is Zeus, Bart is Hermes, Lisa is the Delphic oracle, etc.

  24. Oops, Polyeucte was a 3rd-century Christian Armenian soldier, now a saint and the subject of the eponymous tragedy by Corneille. I guess I was confusing the name with Polyphème and Pollyanna.
    There’s nothing like the risk of blog exposure when it comes to motivating knowledge acquisition.

  25. Frances Ethel Gumm, no? Francis is the masculine form, yes?

  26. Yeah, but JE wrote Francis, so I took it from there. Anyway, the names are homonymous and so to that extent homophroditic.

  27. marie-lucie says:

    When I first learned English, I learned that Frances, the female name, ended in [z], after a longer vowel (like “Franceez”), but Francis, the male name, in [s] after a short vowel. But I know two women named Frances (one American, one Canadian) and they say it with [s]. Grumbly, are you sure you want to say “homophroditic”?
    We had to study Polyeucte when I was in school. I only remember it as a terrible play, in my opinion, not like Le Cid. Polyeucte (Polyeuctos ?) was an Iconoclast – he went about destroying statues of Greek gods, was killed as a result, and that was his road to sainthood. I guess it was a safe subject for a tragedy in the 17th century.

  28. J.W. Brewer says:

    Maybe this is a broader philistinism, but are there are any comparable 20th century poems in English (comparable in the sense of being narratives of approx. 1000 lines or longer, with some substantial commitment to traditional notions of rhyme and meter) that are undeniably *better* than the one embedded in Pale Fire? It just doesn’t seem to be a form that 20th century Anglophone poetry did particularly well, or was, frankly, even that frequently attempted by poets generally classified in the first rank. (Just as a marker, I will say that some longer things by Auden that I like presumptively don’t meet my criteria, because they were typically an accumulation of lots of shorter pieces written in varying forms and varying voices.)
    I think there are some individual bits (like 6 to 8 line chunks) in the Pale Fire poem that are really quite wonderful, but, yeah, I wouldn’t recommend it reading it straight through for its own merits without the broader context of the book as a whole.

  29. Grumbly, are you sure you want to say “homophroditic”?
    Ben oui, marie-lucie ! J’suis un grand nigaud, moi !

  30. I know two women named Frances (one American, one Canadian) and they say it with [s].
    So did Miss Frances of Ding Dong School fame.

  31. All the time I was reading “Pale Fire”, I was itching to automate the cross references via hypertext. If, indeed, such a hypertext version existed, then I think it would change the “Pale Fire” reading experience, possibly dampening these “blorts of enthusiasm” since it removes a level of difficulty by making it more “user-friendly”.
    So, given the itch, let’s scratch it! Let’s get a “Pale Fire” wiki started: Scan the pages, upload the OCRed text, and get some volunteers to review and generate the hypertext links.
    Once it’s all done, then we wait for the Nabokov estate to sue us.

  32. When I first learned English, I learned that Frances, the female name, ended in [z]
    I’ve never seen such a suggestion, nor have I heard anyone say it that way. As far as I know, it’s homophonous with Francis.

  33. marie-lucie says:

    LH: but I learned British English (all trace of my British accent has disappeared, leaving the French accent more obvious).

  34. I just checked the Daniel Jones Pronouncing Dictionary, my source for UK usage, and he gives the identical pronunciations for Francis and Frances. Someone lied to you.

  35. I think m-l’s right. We said it that way at primary school: when there were girls called Frances we said France’s but never with the boys (actually there weren’t any boys called Francis until later). It’s only anecdotal, but it’s my anecdote and I’m sticking to it.

  36. Frances Gumm’s father was named Francis.

  37. marie-lucie says:

    Thanks, AJP. Could there have been regional or (God forbid) class differences in the pronunciation of these names?

  38. As I realized from Hat’s subsequent comment, I should have written “homophonous” instead of “homonymous”, applied to Frances and Francis. MW has “homophone” as the first meaning (a.) under “homonym”, but I will take care to discriminate between them in future.

  39. Probably not class (I grew up in London with people from a comparatively wide range of class backgrounds). I expect there would have been some regional variation though I couldn’t locate it. It’s such a small difference, really and you’re the only person I’ve ever heard remark on it.

  40. marie-lucie says:

    AJP, I forgot that there could also have been a generational difference, older people using Frances with [z] (thus rhyming with “prances”, or “France’s” as you say) while younger people said the two names the same.

  41. Huh. Well, I have the 13th edition (1967) of Jones; I have no idea whether he might have had the /-z/ version in an earlier edition or whether for whatever reason it didn’t come within his ken, but I am grateful for the addition to my knowledge, and I am adding the alternate to my copy.

  42. Wow, I finally make the dictionary. Funnily enough, my experience of that pronunciation was more from before ’67 than after. I think it might be generational; I think my grandmother (1903-64) used it, but I wouldn’t anymore.

  43. marie-lucie says:

    AJP, that’s probably it: language teachers often have learned an older variety of the language they teach, and if they don’t spend much time where the language is spoken, they pass it on to their students even though it may have become old-fashioned or even obsolete in the country of origin. So I must have learned the old-fashioned pronunciation.

  44. Keeping up with current usage in our first language is also a bit of a problem for those of us who are expatriates, as you were saying about the Parisian â pronunciation.

  45. marie-lucie says:

    Yes, I have never spoken “Parisian”, although my father’s family all did, and nowadays the current pronunciation of many young people (not all) is quite different from mine.

  46. OK, now thanks to Graham Asher, I’m disdainful of my own disdain. Blergh.
    I will say, however, that I find it unlikely that Nabokov deliberately crafted each of “Pale Fire” (the poem’s) 999 lines to be intentionally, laughably awful. It might have ended up as the butt of his metatextual jokes, but the poem itself is a clear product of considered and painstaking artistic effort. It’s not funny enough to be satire, and not clumsy enough to have been tossed off casually. I see it as a mostly sincere poetic effort offered up self-deprecatingly as possibly parodic in order to give its bashful author plausible deniability.

  47. Maybe a practice poem or exercise in English which he decided to integrate into a novel.

  48. a novel requiring me to learn chess strategy is too much work.
    You don’t really have to know all that much about chess strategies for The Defense, do you? Did I miss everything?

  49. No, I think the novel can be enjoyed just fine without appreciating all the chess subtleties. I ignored them, anyway, even though I used to play chess some decades back.

  50. Thanks, Hat. I actually a play little chess now, though I think Nabokov (and Grumbly) would put it that I just push pieces around the board; aside from the opening moves of Ruy Lopez, I don’t know a thing about the strategies.

  51. Did you know that “Lolita by Nabokov” is an anagram for “Lovably taboo ink”? “Lovably anti book” and “Lava booby, no kilt” are others.
    I just figured it out. Well at the website for anagrams, I didn’t sit down with a pencil and a legal pad.

  52. Did you know that “Lolita by Nabokov” is an anagram for “Lovably taboo ink”? “Lovably anti book” and “Lava booby, no kilt” are others.
    I just figured it out. Well at the website for anagrams, I didn’t sit down with a pencil and a legal pad.

  53. I say, No anagrams for “AJP Crown,” you should get together with There are no anagrams for “AJP Crown” sometime. You think a lot alike.

  54. marie-lucie says:

    Yes, you two remind me of the Dupont-Dupond pair (translated as Thomson-Thompson, I think) in the Tintin albums. When one says something, the other one adds Je dirais même plus! (roughly “And I would add …”) and repeats the other one’s words exactly. They look alike too, except for the shape of their moustaches.

  55. And the Jib-Jab mustaches as well.
    Anagram for Jib: Now cap Jr.; conj. warp
    Anagram for Jab: Jerk where may. Or possibly not.

  56. marie-lucie: Here’s a list of the names of Dupont/Dupond in various languages, from Wikipedia:
    Uys and Buys in Afrikaans
    Tik and Tak in Arabic (تيك و تاك)
    Johnson and Rohnson in Bengali
    Kadlec and Tkadlec in Czech
    Jansen and Janssen in Dutch
    Thomson and Thompson in English
    Citserono and Tsicerono in Esperanto
    Schultze and Schulze in German
    Ντυπόν and Ντιπόν in Greek (pronounced [diˈpon])
    Dupont and Duvont in Japanese (デュポンとデュボン Dupon to Dubon)
    Clodius and Claudius in Latin
    Doupont o Doupont in Persian (دوپونت و دوپونط)
    Tajniak and Jawniak in Polish
    Hernández and Fernández in Spanish and Galician
    Skapti and Skafti in Icelandic
    Johns and Johnes in Welsh
    Tomson and Tompson in Serbian
    Zigue and Zague in older Portuguese editions
    In addition to the mustaches, it is clear that they are mirror twins: quite probably Dupont (the one who speaks second) has mirrored internals, with his heart on the right side and so on. About 25% of monozygotic (identical) twins are mirror twins to some degree.
    In the English translations, Je dirais même plus is rendered as To be precise.

Speak Your Mind

*