I have climbed one of the several peaks of literature snobbery, in the form of Pale Fire. One of my favorite things to do, especially when reading books like this (meaning, a literature student’s simultaneous wet dream and nightmare) is to go to Good Reads to read, specifically, the one-star reviews. Pale Fire is one of several books that ushered postmodernism into American Literature, and as such, proves to be rather divisive among readers, and has its fair share of naysayers.
The first one-star review, written by Blake Simpson (I know we are unfamiliar with this book critic, I haven’t read him in The Times. But hell! Today, who isn’t a critic?) says “The poem is mediocre, the commentary absurd. Kinbote is about one of the worst characters I have ever read. (Interesting considering the reviewers claim of loving Nabokov’s other masterpiece, Lolita) His tone is pretentious, and most of his notes rambling and pointless.” While I think it is a third-rate method for writing a book review, I think this misled reader’s review is a good jumping off point for my own review.
To begin, “Pale Fire” is actually a poem written by the fictitious poet John Shade. The poem is, in and of itself, decent, not amazing, but worth the read. In the context of Pale Fire, the novel, this poem is interesting, but (very) arguably, has little to do with the actual plot of the novel. The novel Pale Fire, consists of a foreword, the poem by John Shade, and an extensive line-by-line commentary on the poem. The foreword and the commentary are written by Dr. Charles Kinbote, a friend of the poet, John Shade, who, I will say again, wrote “Pale Fire”, the poem. Within the beautifully written foreword and commentary lies a novel with some classic novel elements. Kings, princes, love, murder, the works. Yes, a novel of political intrigue somehow comes out of a man’s commentary on a poem. It is as convoluted as it sounds, and really, that is all that I want to say about the plot of Pale Fire. More important to me, is the deserved reputation it has among literary critics, and how it heralded the forthcoming postmodern themes just starting to appear in literature around the time of its publication (1962).
The reviewer I quoted above said that he found the poem mediocre. I agree. That being said, if the poem has much to do with someone’s opinion on this novel, I have to guess that they probably missed the point. Blake Simpson really reveals how much he didn’t get the point of the book when he says that he thought the commentary was absurd and that Kinbote is one of the worst characters he has read.
It is established, pretty early on in the foreword by Kinbote, that the reader is dealing with a very unreliable narrator. By the end of the book, I felt that I had encountered one of the most unreliable narrators in all of literature. Of course he is absurd! Of course it is pretentious of him to turn a commentary on a 1000 line poem into a 200 plus page diatribe! Mostly about himself!
All of this is really immaterial. The truth is, Pale Fire is a novel that takes a unique to talk about how we, the readers, try to place our own meaning on a work of art. Or worse, it is about the indecent way in which we try to claim that our interpretation of a work must be precisely what the author intended. How many times have any of us taken a work, whatever the medium may have been, and made assumptions about what the author was trying to say? Of course, in the writing of this review, I have done just that. Some would say that it is impossible to do in our postmodern age. To an extent, I agree. It also is about how, often, a writer has no way to control a reader’s interpretations of their work. I think though, that it is important for a reader (or listener, or casual viewer) to be able to decipher the difference between personal conjecture, personal interpretation, and what an artist might have been trying to communicate with a line of poetry (or stroke of a brush, or riff on a guitar).
Besides the literary criticism subtext that can be read in this book (what I consider, personally of course, the most important element of Pale Fire) there are a few things that I would like to comment on. First, this is involved reading. Be prepared to use multiple bookmarks, and if you’re like me, and you hate dog-earing pages, just forget about it, it’s going to happen. Have a dictionary handy as well. Also, in the context of this book, I don’t use the term art lightly. This book is a work of art. It may be the literary equivalent of Picasso, but it’s still engaging and beautiful in its own way. If you can manage to take a step back and worry less about why, and more about how, you may really learn to love this book. I certainly did.