So I’ve been having a bit of a debate with my friend Alex Heimbach over how to read Pale Fire. The book is in 3 sections – an introduction, a long lyrical poem, and endnotes to that poem. I contend (though no one actually does this) that the fullest way to read the book is to flip back and forth between the endnotes and the text of John Shade’s poem, which is what the editor, a certain Charles Kinbote, suggests. Here’s our back and forth:
Alex: Okay, so, my slightly delayed take on Pale Fire. Whereby take, I mean
mostly disparate thoughts.
The book really came together for me at the end (those last two paragraphs or
so where Kinbote talks about what he’s going to do next are just gorgeous),
especially as an interrogation of who has the right to tell a story and what it means
for a story to be true. Through the notes, Kinbote attempts to rewrite Shade’s life
(as it is represented in the poem) to more closely resemble his. He is proclaiming
himself the final arbiter of the truth of Shade’s life, which is certainly a repulsive
act, and a violent one, but mostly it’s futile. Sybil and the other scholars dart
around the edges of the narrative, casting doubt on its longevity as well as its
veracity. But even their control over the narrative is tenuous when we have the
poem itself—John Shade’s last testament. This is part of why (along with my
innate laziness) I didn’t read “like he tells you to,” as you put it. The poem, and its
author, should get to speak for themselves, before someone else starts dissecting
it. I would say it’s the reader who is ultimately the arbiter of Shade’s story. None
of the versions are true, per say, but the reader’s is the most honest, since it lacks
the calculation of Kinbote’s or Sybil’s or even Shade’s own.
I think the value of the individual reaction is also part of what Nabokov is
getting at with the clearly irrelevant or unenlightening notes (which though I
appreciated as a whole, I still really don’t understand individually). Yes he’s
satirizing how useless a lot of academic criticism is, but he’s also warning against
an official interpretation. For one thing, what if the guy in charge of the official
interpretation is Kinbote? But even more than that, Nabokov is making room for a
multiplicity of voices without particularly preferencing one.
There are similar issues at play with the Zembla story. Kinbote’s tale is pretty
clearly untrue, at least in a literal sense. But it’s certainly a much better story than
Shade’s, and some of the critiques Kinbote makes of Shade’s poem are pretty spot
on—the poem is slavishly literal and sometimes painfully pedestrian (not that
everything about family life necessarily is). So do we preference reality or the
As far as I’m concerned, the end read pretty clearly that Kinbote was a Russian
exile, rendered homeless and forced to watch as the country he loved was
transformed into a horror he no longer recognized. And it drove him a bit crazy.
Art creates the feeling of reality. Thus he encouraged Shade to recreate “his
Zembla” in an effort to recapture the stability he’d lost. But instead Shade
solidifies his own narrative, his own base, and Kinbote, rejected and ever more
adrift, uses the notes to solidify his story and undercut Shade’s.
Thus ends my grand unifying theory of Pale Fire.
Noah: I would quibble with your first point, though. “The poem, and its author,
should get to speak for themselves, before it gets dissected by someone else.”
That suggests a couple of things:
1. Shade is real.
2. Shade is not Kinbote.
3. All art should be first experienced without referential filters.
So to address 2, there’s a line of thinking in the literature around Pale Fire that
Kinbote and Shade are in fact the same person. My gut doesn’t go that way, but
I’m not entirely against ruling it out.
To address 1, “the poem, and its author” are Nabokov, not Shade. Thus one
could very well argue that one should read along with the footnotes as one goes,
because that is the author, Nabokov, speaking for himself. Furthermore, you’ve
already failed at sticking to your plan, since you read Kinbote’s introduction.
You’re already reading the poem with Kinbote’s framing (and how could you
not have? Nabokov purposefully puts the intro in, and you start reading it like a
normal book, unaware you’ve fallen into his trap).
I’d say my answer to 3 is pretty much the same as my answer for 1, except with a
couple more things.
Firstly, what about authors like Borges or Susannah Clarke, who put footnotes
in their work? In many Borges stories, the footnote is written by an “editor” who
is not the “author” of the main text (although both are Borges). Should we then
ignore the footnotes? I bet you don’t. Same for Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr.
Norell – you’d miss a lot if you decided to read the entire book first, then go back
to the footnotes. So I’d challenge you on this point, because I’d wager it has more
to do with them being end notes than an actual position you’re taking on how a
work should be read.
Secondly, what about translation, which inherently isn’t the artist speaking for
him/herself, but in fact someone else speaking for them? Or books that have
references to minutia from earlier eras, which editors give us notes to explain? I’ll
admit I skip these a lot, but mostly out of laziness, as opposed to some principle.
My point in arguing for reading it with the endnotes going along isn’t about the
most “true” version. You’re entirely right that no particular version is more or
less true (but I don’t believe in “truth” per se, so you’re preaching to the choir
here). Instead, I feel like you miss an interesting experiential aspect by reading
them separately. I think Nabokov wants you to flip back and forth, in an effort
to physically recreate the distance between the two authors, Shade and Kinbote
- and, also, play up the dichotomy between poetry and criticism (something
where you clearly fall on the poetry side, since you’re arguing for “poem first, crit
later). But he of course upends with dichotomy with Kinbote’s story being told
throughout the notes, which turns the idea of endnotes on their head. Lastly, you
lose the parallels in the narratives (or pointed lack of parallels) because you can’t
see how their rhythms match up side by side. It’s not that this way is more “true,”
it’s just that there’s mores stuff going on in the physical experience of the book
that I think you ultimately miss. Nabokov was a genius, and I doubt he made them
endnotes instead of footnotes on a sheer whim.
But I’m pretty much with you on everything else.
Alex: Regarding the first two: obviously Shade isn’t real, but I do believe he
is within the context of the narrative. And so I wanted to, essentially, hear his
side of the story first. Which, to a certain extent does privilege the poem over
the criticism, though that isn’t so much a statement of my belief in their inherent
values (something about which Nabokov seems to have had a far stronger
preference than I do) as a statement about how I find it most meaningful to
consume criticism. Yes, I could’ve flipped back and forth (but now that I think
about it, how did you even do that? There are no note numbers so you don’t know
when to look at the end. Do you start with the notes and then read the relevant
part of the poem? Because then that’s pretty much what I did, except with reading
the poem as a whole first), but aside from driving me up the wall, it would’ve
completely destroyed any understanding I might have had of the poem. Which
might be the point, but would’ve been annoying.
I also think you’re falling into the same trap you accuse me of. Kinbote is no more
the author of the book than Shade is. And unless I’m missing something, you read
it the way Kinbote told you to, not the way Nabokov told you to. And I didn’t
miss any of the things you mentioned (except maybe more overarching thematic
parallels), because I did still flip back to check the relevant lines (most of the
time, at least).
Regarding your more general point about mediated texts: I didn’t think that
through all the way and should’ve been more specific, because I think there’s a
big difference between prose and poetry in this case. You’re right in that all the
cases you mentioned I would read the notes as I go along. But in poetry, I never
do, because it relies so much more on rhythm and flow and notes disrupt that.
Even stuff like Shakespeare and the Canterbury Tales, where notes tend to be
helpful, I usually end up ignoring them the first time through because they’re
more distracting than anything else. So I just read the poem the same way I’d read
any other. I agree that Nabokov made them endnotes for a reason, but I’m also
sure he realized that made it more likely for people to read the poem alone first
(or else he was the world’s dumbest brilliant person).
And finally: I don’t take orders from fictional crazy people. I do what I want!
Noah: My point was that it isn’t clear that Shade is real in the context of Pale Fire
- though you (and I, for that matter) think he is.
It wasn’t hard to flip back and forth, you just read the poem with the
corresponding notes page open.
Here’s why I’d argue I’m not falling into the same trap: the introduction. Because
we are made aware that there are endnotes, we are thus aware that there are
explanations for passages (and, presumably, able to look them up). I wasn’t just
taking his advice because, but because that’s how the book is physically laid out
(yes I know it’s laid out with poetry first and notes second, but you know what I
mean, it’s structured in such a way that you are aware there are notes and you’re
going to have questions about the text).
I’ll grant your point about not wanting to look at notes because it disrupts the
flow. But, is that possible is epic poetry? The flow gets disrupted all the time -
everytime you take a break, for instance. So in this case, where we’re dealing with
something akin to an epic (although it’s quotidian, which, as you mentioned, is
kind of the point), the argument that the notes are interrupting the flow doesn’t
really hold water. I usually flipped back to the notes at the end of each stanza -
breaks in flow provided for me by Shade/Kinbote/Nabokov.
But this all gets us to the question of how poetry is meant to be consumed. I’m pretty partial to the idea that it’s supposed to be read aloud (though I expect a lot of contemporary poets would have my head for that). Thoughts?
Any thoughts on your end, Kevin? Have you read Pale Fire? We were just discussing A Visit from the Goon Squad on Twitter with Zack Handlen, where we started to get into questions for formal experimentation. What do you make of the book, or how we consume poetry in general?
- N (with help from AH)