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Pale FirePale Fire

Vladimir Nabokov

Let’s suppose for a minute that you’re Vladimir Nabokov.

You grew up trilingual, receiving your education in Russian, English, and French.  You were discovered at an early age to be a synesthete, equating (for example), the number five with the color red.  Red was not to be a great color for you.  After your family was run out of Russia by the Bolsheviks in the 1920s and your father was assassinated by the Communists, you passed your time in Berlin writing poetry and novels and giving boxing lessons.  You married a Jewish woman and then had to leave Germany for Paris when the anti-Semite movement gained steam.  Then you fled Paris for the United States when the fascists came knocking at the doors of France.  The fascists did you no more favors than the Communists had.  In the US, you published chess problems, lectured at Wellesley College, and became the curator of lepidoptery at the Harvard Museum.  You published papers on entomology, and, while off on butterfly collecting excursions in Oregon during the summers, wrote Lolita, your first novel in English.  American publishers wouldn’t touch it, the French press handled it tentatively, the critics decried it as pornographic.  It was decreed contraband by UK customs officers, and banned by the French Minister of the Interior.  But when Putnam finally printed it in the US in 1958, Lolita sold over 100,000 copies in the first three weeks.  Americans, prudes that we are, do love a little titillation.  Congratulations, Nabokov the boxing instructor, Nabokov the butterfly collector, Nabokov the chess player, Nabokov the Russian professor.  You were now Nabokov the writer.  Off to Switzerland with you.

But what to write next?  You had proven yourself adept at the novel, proven yourself capable of poetry.  So, Pale Fire.  A 999-line epic poem, followed by a couple hundred pages of fictional commentary.  You created the character of Charles Kinbote, had the character write the foreword to the book and the hundreds of pages of commentary on the poem authored by a second character, John Shade.  The relationship between Kinbote and Shade plays out in the commentary notes, as the reader pages back and forth between the lines of Shade’s poem and the rambling and possibly insane commentary offered by Kinbote.  It was not quite a novel, not quite a poem, and not quite like anything that anyone had seen before.

Again, if your goal was to stir up the critics, you succeeded.  Some praised the work as genius.  Others decried it as “unreadable” and “a total wreck”.  History has been kind to you.  Modern scholars have analyzed Pale Fire upside-down and backwards, applied terms like “metafiction” and “poioumenon” to it.  Whether it’s a poioumenon or not, it is definitely a rollicking good time.  Which I think is probably what you meant it to be.  You would finish out your life writing, translating your own works into your native Russian, and traipsing the Alps in search of butterflies.  It’s not a bad life, Nabokov.  Not a bad life, at all.

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