When I drew up a list of experimental novels I felt I should read before my return to university in the Autumn, Pale Fire was one of the first my mind sprung to. On reading it, yes, it is very experimental. Though perhaps not quite as experimental as I had hoped.
The novel takes the form of an epic poem written by John Shade (a recently dead “great American poet”), then accompanied by the self-obsessed, self-important, confused, often wrong and frequently very, very amusing comments of a borderline stalker friend he had for the last few months of his life. The writer of the notes, Charles Kinbote, ties his own highly adventurous history into the (in reality transparently autobiographical) work by Shade, forcing his own interpretation and self onto and into something that has little to nothing to do with him.
It is funny because of Kinbote’s arrogance, Kinbote’s ribald sexuality, Kinbote’s lacking of the most basic social functions… It is experimental because one can never tell if Kinbote’s version of his past is true (in terms of content) and, in terms of style, because the novel takes the form of annotations to a poem.
However, considering narrative: though there exist several strains, they all progress linearly throughout the course of the book, perhaps sometimes foreshadowing later revelations. Kinbote’s supposed identity, for example, he never formally reveals, though Nabokov makes it deliberately clear from very early on. I struggled to work out if Kinbote was meant to have done this on purpose. I think not – I believe his lack of self-awareness extends so far that he is unable to keep his – potentially fictional – multiple identities separate. So, although layout and concept are distinctly unique, the novel follows a standard, building, narrative form, which would perhaps be my only gripe. I write, fucking pretentiously.
Nabokov has here created a wry, funny, exploration of interpretation, a satire of pompous academics, an exploration of self-promoting fantasy. It made me laugh, it kept me hooked, it was exciting. But going in expecting a volume that would really obnoxiously challenge my perceptions of how a novel can be structured, I felt a little disappointed. But this is my fault, really, for false ideas of the text. Very few novels lack narrative. Certainly nothing I’ve yet written does…
It seems odd to grade Nabokov on a ten point scale, or on any point scale. I mean, Nabokov is probably one of the greatest writers to have ever lived, and you assigned a less-than-favorable numeric grade to one of his many classic novels. Is that odd to you, or am I just really out of touch? I mean no disrespect to you or your post. I just never really grasped the numeric grading scale in regards to anything. What did Nabokov have to do to have earned an 8.9? 9.5? 10.0? Nevertheless, keep reading and writing! And you should give Nabokov’s Pnin a read. Great stuff.
My ten point scale is a reflection of how much I, as a reader, enjoyed a text. More as a benchmark to me for future book choices rather than as any true evaluation of a work as a piece of literature/culture/entertainment/art. The scores are intended also as a way of trying to make my literary preferences/predilections/biases apparent to anyone reading my opinions. But I see your point, yes, taken alone the figures are rather reductive. And may appear self-important. Which they’re not meant to be. At all. I hope that helps!
And, yes, Pnin is on my list!
Thank you for reading!
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