Pale Fire, by Vladimir Nabokov
by Vladimir Nabokov.
Putnam. 315 pp. $5.00.
The novel is having a hard time. Never mind best seller lists, copy writers, and Sunday book review sections, only one or two works of fiction have been anything like wildly anticipated during the last few years: perhaps Franny and Zooey (which everyone had already read in the New Yorker), perhaps the final volumes of Durrell’s Alexandria. There have been, of course, any number of novels and books of short stories which the newspapers and their advertisers told us were major works by the best writers of their generation under fifty, or forty, or thirty—but has any of them generated an excitement approaching that surrounding Dolce Vita, Hiroshima, Rocco, L’Avventura, La Notte, Lolita, Marienbad, The Misfits, The Lovers, to name only the most obvious? Are these films better than the fiction which appeared during the same period? Surely not. Hardly any of them is artistically equal to its reputation or the passions it has aroused. But our time wills the cinema and doesn’t will the novel. What would be the fate, for example, of a novel as long, as static, as heavily undramatic as L’Avventura? It would go unread and unsold and unsung. What would happen to a novel as pretentious and pseudo as Hiroshima, Mon Amour? It would be selected by the Book-of-the-Month Club, get on the best seller list, go unread by several myriad purchasers, and be frowned upon by every intellectual except perhaps Clifton Fadiman. Certainly no one as intelligent as Dwight Macdonald, who loved the film, would tolerate its qualities between covers.
Nearly everyone I know—and probably nearly everyone you know—would rather see a movie than read a book, and I count among my acquaintances writers actively weighing down the world with more prose. It isn’t that it is easier to see a film than to read a book; films have become as difficult—and almost as expensive. It isn’t that films are dirtier than books; they aren’t. It isn’t that they understand people better or make more important statements; they don’t. Yet, however trivial or phony may be the mind or spirit behind a film, it takes on significance simply by virtue of being cinematic. And this is as it should be, for The Movie is only just beginning to find out it is an art form. It is not yet totally self-conscious, though it is getting there by leaps and bounds. The audience is still free to be entertained. The Novel has now become laden with terror for the public and for its writers. It is full of meaning and illuminations, almost as portentous as The Poem. It is Art. It explains things. It educates. And yet, however monumental may be its message, it takes on a triviality simply by virtue of being fiction in a time that does not want it. In all the history of the world no people have ever wanted art for its own sake or meaning for its own sake.
For the makers of fiction, this is a time to be gotten through, until the novel comes back into fashion, takes on a new life—until it is freed. Possibly, there are already symptoms of an unclogging, at least to this extent: that a few of our most serious writers, after years of silence, all burst into speech in one single season. James Baldwin has produced a book of fiction after six or seven years; Salinger after twelve; Carson McCullers after fifteen. (Dare I mention Katherine Anne Porter who, it is rumored, had worked on Ship of Fools ever since the Italian Renaissance?) What Salinger is up to in his project, no one yet really knows, except maybe Salinger, but what all the others have been up to is the hope that The Novel will make its comeback in traditional form. Perhaps it will, but meanwhile the French, with their rigorous intellect, have grabbed the bull by his horns—as they did when the theater broke down after the war—and produced the anti-novel, much less exciting than the anti-play in fact, though equally exciting in concept. Unfortunately, the anti-theater on both sides of the Atlantic has moved into decadence without having so far affected the mainstream of drama. Perhaps the anti-novel will do better, though Robbe-Grillet and those women are really hopelessly boring and humorless. Nonetheless, they function at giving the novel an appearance of life and the public an illusion of hope, like the intravenous feeding of a comatose person. If you care about the invalid, you watch the food being ingested and you wait and you hope and you try heroically to suppress your yawns through the long dull night.
If I may take the liberty of calling Nabokov’s work American, then Pale Fire is the first American anti-novel to come to my attention, and it therefore seems to me notable even if it is notable only for external and peripheral reasons. It is notable in the same way that Carson McCullers’ elaborately pretentious Negro in Clock Without Hands is notable. Because it represents the first recognition of a certain state of affairs. Perhaps now someone will come along—maybe she will do it herself—and draw the white-aspiring Negro, the Ivy League Negro, the assimilating Negro as he should be drawn. But McCullers has acknowledged his existence, and the world must contend with a new idea. Nabokov, in Pale Fire, tells us that there is no novel at present, and he offers this book in its place. It is an anti-novel in the sense that it functions like the French genre in substituting for the novel without vitally altering it or advancing it, in being marvelously disrespectful of traditional communication, in being horrendously emphatic about the personal and relativistic. (The body and the spirit of the book, however, are certainly closer to the anti-play with its insistence on humor and absurdity.) With Pale Fire, the question “is this a novel?” becomes irrelevant, since to pose the question is to miss the point.
The first part of the book is a very long poem in heroic couplets by John Shade, the second most famous American poet. (He is second to Frost, he says of himself.) The poem is called Pale Fire and is an autobiographical work written during the last weeks of the poet’s life. Mostly, it is an uninteresting and prosy sort of thing, but it becomes occasionally moving as when Shade speaks of his wife or of his ugly daughter who killed herself while very young. The larger part of the book is a linear commentary on the poem and is written by Dr. Charles Kinbote who comes from a country called Zembla and teaches Zemblan at the same university where Shade, until his death, taught Pope. Shade and Kinbote have also been neighbors, and after Shade is killed, Kinbote absconds with the manuscript of Pale Fire in order to write the commentary. These, more or less, are the events we can be sure of, for Kinbote is a madman and the reader is led to doubt or disbelieve almost everything he says. Lots of additional information is supplied to us as the commentary unfolds, and I hazard—but I don’t guarantee—it adds up to something like this: Kinbote is, or imagines he is, the deposed King Charles of Zembla, and he has escaped to America after a revolution. In meeting Shade, who obviously despises him (though Kinbote—or Nabokov—pretends unconvincingly that Kinbote is never aware of this distaste), Kinbote suffers the poet to endure a torrent of Zemblaniana, with particular emphasis on the youth and reign of King Charles. When Kinbote learns that Shade is at work on a long poem, he becomes convinced that the work is about everything he’s told Shade. In fact, there is no relationship between the two, and this is the point of the novel. The book is ingenious in concept, for the whole commentary is a vain attempt to give meaning and coherence to the meaningless and incoherent. It is, in concept, an allegory. The insane Kinbote—who is repulsive in every conceivable way—struggles desperately and heroically to relate himself to King Charles (who he may or may not be), to Shade, to Shade’s poem, and to a person called Gradus whose reality is indefinite, whose identity is uncertain, but who travels through the commentary and halfway round the world for the purpose of assassinating King Charles Kinbote. In the end, Gradus, whoever he is, if he is, accidentally kills Shade, but by the time this presumably happens the reader no longer believes anything. We no longer know what to believe. We know only that reality is what filters through the irrational brain of a man struggling to give shape and meaning to what has neither shape nor meaning. We can know nothing, says the allegorist, except that we can know nothing and that the human being who performs a heroic act is in fact an appalling worm. Man is a foul grotesque, a ludicrous clown caught up in tragedy.
It sounds like a fascinating book, doesn’t it? One of the great things about Nabokov is that you can’t speak of his novels without making them sound more interesting than they actually are. He is always so full of good ideas, European that he is; he has a wonderful mind and an acute constructive sense; and the central images of his books are always ripped straight from the dark part of the brain, from the creepy nervous terrors of the unconscious. Read any of his work from Laughter in the Dark on up, and you will get that macabre closeup of infantile panic, of things filled with inaccessible, unrecognizable, but very potent horror. Pale Fire has all this and also the additional virtue of taking cognizance of the state of affairs of The Novel. He lets you take nothing seriously, never lets you drop into the world of fiction—and to make doubly, positively certain that you won’t, Nabokov even makes a couple of in-person appearances with references to a hurricane called Lolita and a professor of Russian called Pnin.
Despite all this brilliance, Pale Fire is a total wreck, and for only one reason: it isn’t funny, and it’s supposed to be. Nabokov’s sense of humor is on the same level—though not with the same object—as German scatalogical humor: excrement is funny simply because it is excrement. To Nabokov a thing is a riot by virtue of being itself, with the sous-entendu that he hates it. If you find, as he does and I don’t, that it is a scream to write a literary commentary, to be an academician, to be a homosexual, to be insane, to be paranoid, to be unaware of how other people feel about you—and all these things in themselves—then you will roar the sickly laughter of Nabokov. It takes a lot more to make me laugh; it takes the revelation of some truth to make me laugh, and I think I am not in this respect much different from most people. Nabokov’s mockery offends me not because I’m an American liberal and can’t stand people making fun of other people, but because he is making fun of other people and revealing no truth, except about himself. He ridicules people because he personally doesn’t like them, not because what they are or do is ridiculous. Nabokov hates like Swift, but unlike Swift he is without innocence. His comedy is a lie. It is dead. It is evil, like racial prejudice. Less evil by far than Nabokov’s cold and repulsive aspersions on such things as bad breath and pederasty, however more sinister, were the Eichmann jokes making the rounds last year which mocked and trivialized the death of six million Jews—and which, nonetheless, even I and other Jews could laugh at. We laughed at the absurdity and impossibility of our mind trying to grasp what was too large for it and of our feelings trying to be moved by what was too grotesque for them. We laughed as an admission of our forgetfulness and our hardness. We laughed, in the deepest sense, because we were willing to laugh, and this shamed us. When Nabokov’s creature talks endlessly about the things Nabokov hates, we pity him his obsessions and frown at his author’s tastelessness. The Eichmann jokes showed us up for what we are; Nabokov’s humor only shows him up for what he is.