Wednesday, May 10, 2000

Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov

Started it today. Read it for that 20th century fiction class in college, and haven’t really thought about it much since then. The format is difficult—the foreword, the poem, and the commentary—I get the sense that the characters are hiding somewhere beneath them and it’s up to me to find the clues to draw them out. So far, at least, Shade seems a lot more likeable than Kinbote, but maybe that’ll change. I’m only three pages or so into the commentary, but I already get the sense that it and his foreword is more about Kinbote than they are about Shade or Shade’s poem. I liked the poem—at least the parts that read like prose. Other times I had no idea what was being said—almost like it was written in French. Shade’s daughter gave me a snippet of a story idea—people who don’t fit in and the sad and lonely lives they lead.

She might have been you, me, or some quaint blend:
Nature chose me so as to wrench and rend
Your heart and mine. At first we’d smile and say:
“All little girls are plump” or “Jim McVey
(The family oculist) will cure that slight
Squint in no time.” And later: “She’ll be quite
Pretty, you know”; and, trying to assuage
The swelling torment: “That’s the awkward age.”
“She should take riding lessons,” you would say
(Your eyes and mine not meeting). “She should play
Tennis, or badminton. Less starch, more fruit!
She may not be a beauty, but she’s cute.”

It was no use, no use. The prizes won
In French and history, no doubt, were fun;
At Christmas parties games were rough; no doubt,
And one shy little guest might be left out;
But let’s be fair: while children of her age
Were cast as elves and fairies on the stage
That she’d helped paint for the school pantomime,
My gentle girl appeared as Mother Time,
A bent charwoman with slop pail and broom,
And like a fool I sobbed in the men’s room.

Another winter was scrape-scooped away.
The Toothwort White haunted our woods in May.
Summer was power-mowed, and autumn, burned.
Alas, the dingy cygnet never turned
Into a wood duck. And again your voice:
“But this is prejudice! You should rejoice
That she is innocent. Why overstress
The physical? She wants to look a mess.
Virgins have written some resplendent books.
Lovemaking is not everything. Good looks
Are not that indispensable!” And still
Old Pan would call from every painted hill,
And still the demons of our pity spoke:
No lips would share the lipstick of her smoke;
The telephone that rang before a ball
Every two minutes in Sorosa Hall
For her would never ring; and, with a great
Screeching of tires on gravel, to the grate
Out of the lacquered night, a white-scarfed beau
Would never come for her; she’d never go,
A dream of gauze and jasmine, to that dance.
We sent her, though, to a chateau in France.

And she returned in tears, with new defeats,
New miseries. On days when all the streets
Of College Town led to the game, she’d sit
On the library steps, and read or knit;
Mostly alone she’d be, or with that nice
Frail roommate, now a nun; and, once or twice,
With a Korean boy who took my course.
She had strange fears, strange fantasies, strange force
Of character—as when she spent three nights
Investigating certain sounds and lights
In an old barn. She twisted words: pot, top,
Spider, redips. And “powder” was “red wop.”
She called you a didactic katydid.
She hardly ever smiled, and when she did,
It was a sign of pain. She’d criticize
Ferociously our projects, and with eyes
Expressionless sit on her tumbled bed
Spreading her swollen feet, scratching her head
With psoriatic fingernails, and moan,
Murmuring dreadful words in monotone.

As you can probably tell, I had a hard time deciding where to start and end that one. The whole second canto is pretty powerful, and really leaves you with a vision of how disconnected and sad some things can be.

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Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov
on Amazon
on Wikipedia
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