Waxwing Slain

When you think of Russian novelists, what immediately springs to mind is a dour, serious-minded, bearded intellectual, writing about moral law in a frigid land of extremes. Vladimir Nabokov doesn’t really fit that bill, for one (beardless), and two, he’s an American immigrant, fleeing the Russian revolution and descent into communism.

Pale Fire is considered one of his masterpieces, and while it’s certainly an impressive work, it differs greatly from such narratives as War and Peace and Brothers Karamazov.

10,000 foot view: John Shade, a reclusive English Professor and poet at Wordsmith College in New Wye, Appalachia, writes a 999 line poem in the weeks before his death. Charles Kinbote, his somewhat obsessive colleague, acquires possession of this poem (written meticulously on numbered 3×5 cards), and proceeds to write/publish a rather tangential commentary.

First, the poem itself. Four cantos of rhyming couplets cover Shade’s youth, marriage, suicide of his teenage daughter, and his own brush with death. The content is pretty typical of ‘serious’ poetry: existential angst, natural imagery, memory, etc. The highlight is the language itself, and Nabakov’s ability to jam-pack lines with obscure literary references, puns, and grammatical gymnastics and still stay within his rhyming confines.

While the poem is pretty solid in itself, the meat of the book is in Professor Kinbote’s unreliable forward and commentary. Instead of dissecting the poem, he veers into wild tangents – his friendship with Shade, the inter-department politics of their tiny college, suburban espionage. Then there’s the tale of Charles Xavier, ambiguously gay prince of Zembla, a tiny (imaginary) kingdom somewhere in eastern Europe. After Soviet-backed revolutionaries overtake Zembla, Xavier flees his castle through secret passages, treks into the mountain disguised as the country-folk, and finally escapes to America. All the while he’s followed by a cultish assassin named Gradus.

Pale Fire (the novel), is a brilliant display of meta-fiction. While the entire text was penned by Nabakov, we are presented with nested authors. Shade has written the poem, yet Kinbote has interpreted it and (in places) forcibly edited it. The commentary is Kinbote’s, yet it tells the tale of Charles Xavier, who is eventually revealed to be one-and-the-same. And finally, there’s the mystery of Shade’s death. Given Kinbote’s unreliability (a man of disguises), can we give his account any credit? No doubt this controversial meta-mystery is what catalyzed such critical debate, and also elevated Nabakov’s lit-cred.

Probably the most impressive thing about the work is the language itself. I’ll admit, I had to consult the dictionary numerous times. But the cadence, alliteration, granted – even the purple prose – is jaw-dropping. Sure, it sits comfortably in all the Top 100 Novel lists, but it’s not a page turner. Lots of the references and lit-snob stuff went over my head. But this is a man who can work magic with words, and I can appreciate the book for that.

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