Thursday, May 11, 2006

Nabokov's Pale Fire

is a dazzling work of art and a seemingly inexhaustible literary puzzle. Like no other novel ever written, it's told in the form of a poem, followed by an extensive commentary; between the two, Nabokov teases out a brilliant, hilarious narrative.

The poem itself, the final work of the late poet John Shade, has fallen into the hands of his neighbor, an alternately sycophantic and vampirish half-scholar and fulltime nutcase named Charles Kinbote. Shade's poem is a thoughtful, funny and deeply sad reflection on loss, mortality and the hereafter; Kinbote's commentary is the obsessive, fantical, deluded, and thoroughly paranoid misreading of a madman who fancies himself the deposed king from the mythical land of Zembla, and believes his escape and exile is actually the poem's real subject and inspiration.

It's one of the most sheerly allusive books ever written, and although a lot of people have come close, it seems that no one ever really gets to the bottom of it. The great Nabokov biographer Brian Boyd, who often seems to have devoted his life to ferreting out every sly reference Nabokov ever sewed into his books, came close in own "Nabokov's Pale Fire: The Magic of Artisic Discovery." Even Boyd, however, had little to say about the book's curious epigraph from Samuel Johnson.

In the latest New Criterion, Jeffrey Meyers does a suitably Boyd-esque job of filling in the gap: 

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