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“Pale Fire” without Charles Kinbote

March 14, 2012

Pale Fire is arguably Vladimir Nabokov’s funniest novel – written in the form of an extended commentary by a madman “Charles Kinbote” on a poem written by poet “John Shade.”  The novel includes the 999 line poem “Pale Fire” which forms the target of the Kinbote’s out-of-control commentary.

I would encourage everyone to read the novel Pale Fire.  But what are the merits of the poem “Pale Fire”?  Brian Boyd and Jean Holabird think we should take it seriously.  They have created an art book that presents the poem several ways:  as a chapbook, as a “facsimile” of the “original” (famously written on eighty index cards), and in a pamphlet of essays entitled Pale Fire:  Reflections

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The whole thing is taken very seriously, but I have to believe it is a put-up job.  Just a quick glance at the “facsimile” index cards show that tongue is firmly-in-cheek.  Here are twelve of them, as reproduced on the Ginko Press site:

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I can’t help but laugh when I read these, especially in the earnest “original facsimile” style, clearly parodying books like T. S. Eliot facsimile The Waste Land:  A Facsimile and Transcript of the Original Drafts Including the Annotations of Ezra Pound.  And, of course, the text itself is hilarious; note, for example, the third notecard which describes the room of the deceased Aunt Maude:

Its trivia create
A still life in her style: the paperweight
Of convex glass enclosing a lagoon,
The verse book open at the Index (Moon,
Moonrise, Moor, Moral), the forlorn guitar,
The human skull; and from the local Star
A curio: Red Sox Beat Yanks 5-4
On Chapman’s Homer
, thumbtacked to the door.

(If you don’t get the joke, then you are not a baseball fan – you might want to check the Wikipedia entry for Ben Chapman.  In one phrase, Nabokov satirizes baseball, Keats, and George Chapman.)

The deadly “seriousness” of Ron Rosenbaum’s self-indulgent review (with a lengthy description of how he could not find the Reflections book) just adds to the satire:

Brian Boyd originally shocked many readers by adopting the claim originally made by Andrew Field that the poet John Shade, author of "Pale Fire," was actually the (fictional) author of the novel Pale Fire. This view, that Shade had made up his own mad annotator in Kinbote, who existed only in Shade’s imagination, at one point had so many adherents they were called "Shadeans." (I’m still convinced by the argument Mary McCarthy made in her original brilliant review of Pale Fire—"A Bolt From the Blue" in a 1962 issue of the New Republic—that a deceptively minor character, a faculty colleague of Shade, one V. Botkin, is the "real" Kinbote.)

Then, 10 or so years ago, Brian Boyd, in a complete switcheroo that had heads spinning including mine, wrote an entire book about who wrote the "Pale Fire" poem, claiming it wasn’t John Shade but rather the ghost of his dead daughter Hazel, whose death is at the sorrowful heart of the poem.

Now, in what appears to be another switch, Boyd seems—in the 30-page essay that accompanies Mo Cohen’s edition—to completely abandon his Hazel Shade’s shade theory of the poem’s authorship (such changes of mind are endemic to open-minded Nabokov scholars). And if he doesn’t name a substitute, he argues that the poem ought to be read for its own intrinsic merits and makes clear he believes Nabokov intended us to believe Shade, not his dead daughter, wrote the poem. Or rather, that Nabokov wrote the poem and it’s time to claim it for him.

Giles Harvey at the New Yorker joins in the fun, debating Nabokov’s intentions in writing

I have my doubts about the one-armed bloke
Who in commercials with one gliding stroke
Clears a smooth path of flesh from ear to chin,
Then wipes his face and fondly tries his skin.

Is this a sincere metaphysical observation?  Or is it just “a pretext for the burnished ingenuity of Nabokov’s description?”

At Booktryst, Stephen Gertz complains that Rosenbaum is unaware of the limited edition Arion Press version of “Pale Fire” on index cards and complains that Rosenbaum is “shilling for his friend, Mo Cohen of Gingko Press,” point out conspiratorially that

What remains puzzling about this is that every Nabokov fan on the planet was likely aware of the Arion Press first separate edition of 1994 […]

(OK, Nabokov fans – here is your chance to vote – were you aware of this edition?)

Here are the parallels from Arion Press – you decide whether you like it better than Gingko Press’s edition.

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All of this makes for high satire worthy of a David Lodge novel – or maybe even a Vladimir Nabokov novel. 

You can buy the Gingko Press version of “Pale Fire” at Amazon for about $25.  Or, if you prefer the Arion Press edition, you can pick it up used for about $4000 (item #5 on this list).  Or you can just read the poem online for free.

Postscript:  The Gingko Press edition is fun and handsome and will bring considerable enjoyment to Nabokov fans.  Even though I am sure most Nabokov fans already have a copy of Pale Fire (if not, consider buying the Library of America edition), I think they would enjoy the Gingko Press version, if only to giggle at the facsimile reproduction and marvel at Jean Holabird’s illustrations.

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