Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov
I like Nabokov. the man seems so unlike his protagonists, which is a very good thing. From the little I've read about him, I've gotten the impression that he was a much better guy than those in his books. I could be totally off base, but this is a guy who traveled the country with his wife and his butterfly net, described as wholly unlike his self obsessed narrators. I generally describe Nabokov as a man who writes beautifully about really ugly people.
Pale Fire is a novel, but not written as such. It begins with a foreword written by the narrator, Charles Kimbote, about the 999 line poem Pale Fire, said to be written by a John Shade, who died just after finishing the poem, followed by Kimobote's analysis of the poem. While reading the foreword I got the impression that Charles Kimbote was making all of this about himself. As someone who reads all of the forewords in books, it was easy to see that this guy was really narcissistic. Further reading made this abundantly clear. Kimbote relates that he had the honor of having Shade's poem published posthumously despite much debate and questioning. Actually, it boils down to John Shade being murdered because of his proximity to Kimbote, the real target. Kimbote, who was a fraud and a self-absorbed creep and, apparently, only John Shade didn't see through him or mind. In fact, he was so distraught by his stalkee's death that he had the widow sign a paper giving him full rights to have the poem published as he saw fit, while the body was still warm in his yard (yeah, ick).
John Shade is a poet and a college professor who is well liked and respected among his colleagues. Into his life moves Charles Kimbote. Kimbote rents the house next door to Shad, from another professor who, with his family, is away. Kimbote did his homework to get close to Shade, who he admires. It's no accident that he's landed right in Shade's lap, so to speak. The poem, Pale Fire, follows. Then, it moves back to Kimbote and his analysis and commentary.
With the commentary portion Kimbote has two goals, to make the poem be influenced by and about him and to convince the reader that despite evidence and comon sentiment to the contrary, he knows Shade better than anyone. It also serves to open up the story. There is a lot more going on here than just the poem and Kimbote's hero worship of Shade.
Not only does Nabokov give you a peek into the narcissist that is Charles Kimbote, but he also tells another story inside of this annotated poem. You have Kimbote making each comment more about himself than the poet or the poem he is discussing. The other story is about a dethroned kind, his escape from his captors and his attempted assassination.
There's a lot going on in this misleading little volume. I like the way Nabokov mixes the three parts of this book, to provide his reader with a completely different book than any of the parts would make if viewed individually. My qualm, however, is that this is a book that must be read with your most comprehensive dictionary at hand. I still have a list of words to take to the local library and look up in the huge dictionary on the pedestal in the reference section.
Once again, I am not crazy about Nabokov's main character, but I can't help but be really impressed by the execution of this story. Kimbote is a self-absorbed borderline stalker, but he is written very clearly, even beautifully. You get a feeling for Kimbote and what kind of a guy he is from his own words in the foreword. There there is the poem, 999 lines, in iambic pentameter, for Pete's sake, which is no easy feat. Every line is metered perfectly... all 999 of them. I know because I wound up rereading many of the stanzas, one time ticking off the syllables and accents on my fingers and one time for flow.
The third part is the commentary on the poem. Slowly, you see that Kimbote wants more to discuss how the poem relates to him, then what the poem is probably about. All of your suspicions are realized as he unfurls his own fantastic story as well as his obsession with Shade. This book is flawlessly and brilliantly written.