“Pale Fire” the Poem Versus Pale Fire the Novel

So a publisher is coming out with an edition of the poem “Pale Fire” that is the centerpiece of Nabokov’s novel Pale Fire. For those unfamiliar with the book, Ron Rosenbaum over at Slate gives a good rundown.

First, we read a brief, strange foreword written by someone who calls himself Charles Kinbote. Kinbote (who turns out to be a delusional madman not really named Kinbote) tells us he’s absconded with a pile of index cards, the nearly completed manuscript of a poem written by a neighbor of his, John Shade, left behind after Shade was murdered.

The poem—the text of which follows the foreword—is called “Pale Fire” (after Shakespeare’s line: “the moon’s an arrant thief,/ and her pale fire she snatches from the sun,” with all its resonance of the relationship between reality and its reflection/afterlife in art.) Kinbote, it becomes apparent, is an arrant thief as well; his “Pale Fire” he’s snatched from the dead man’s widow.

As we read the footnotes that follow the text of the poem, it is revealed that Kinbote has taken the stolen index cards and fled to a cheap motel in the American West, where he is madly scribbling delusional footnote annotations to “his” edition of the poem. In the footnotes he makes a desperate but comically inept attempt to prove the poem is “really” about him, Kinbote, and his exotic history as “King Charles the Beloved,” the deposed and exiled ruler of an exotic “northern land” called Zembla and the real target of the bullet that killed his neighbor and colleague, Shade.

Rosenbaum goes on to describe all the literary views of the poem and the work itself, and how it all led to publishing the poem as an entity separate from the original work, talking with the people behind the poem’s impending publication.

I haven’t read Pale Fire since being an undergraduate. I don’t remember much other than I thought it was very funny. The book is still sitting on my book shelf. It’s one of the few books that has stayed with me since college, from various apartments, to across the country and back. I keep meaning to reread it.

Publishing the poem as a standalone work seems gimmicky. Whatever “controversy” erupts will cause a bunch of over-stressed tenure-track English Lit professors to salivate. They know that there will be plenty of “scholarship” to be done about such a thing that will make for absolutely gripping reading; plenty of sternly-worded papers, missives, emails, and essays with copious numbers of endnotes defending/decrying the act of publishing the poem “Pale Fire” separate from the novel Pale Fire and what this means for authorial intent, textual criticism, the reading experience, etc.

Though, being married to a tenure-track professor, I do understand the stress they’re under.

For the vast majority of readers none of this will matter. Much like the fight over “who was Shakespeare” doesn’t have any effect on the cultural impact of the plays, this won’t have any effect on the novel Pale Fire or Nabakov’s legacy.

But if it draws more attention to an excellent book, then maybe some bit of good will come of this. And maybe that’s what this ginned up controversy is really about anyway.

Personal Note: Pale Fire was for a class on Modernism. The reading list included such light fair as Ulysses, The Trial, The Sound and the Fury, 100 Years of Solitude, and Burgher’s Daughter. Believe it or not, it was the class that convinced me I should change majors from Mathematics to English Literature.


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