Nabokovs Pale Fire: The Magic of Artistic Discovery

ISBN 10: 0691009597 / ISBN 13: 9780691009599
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Pale Fire is regarded by many as Vladimir Nabokov's masterpiece. The novel has been hailed as one of the most striking early examples of postmodernism and has become a famous test case for theories about reading because of the apparent impossibility of deciding between several radically different interpretations. Does the book have two narrators, as it first appears, or one? How much is fantasy and how much is reality? Whose fantasy and whose reality are they? Brian Boyd, Nabokov's biographer and hitherto the foremost proponent of the idea that Pale Fire has one narrator, John Shade, now rejects this position and presents a new and startlingly different solution that will permanently shift the nature of critical debate on the novel. Boyd argues that the book does indeed have two narrators, Shade and Charles Kinbote, but reveals that Kinbote had some strange and highly surprising help in writing his sections. In light of this interpretation, Pale Fire now looks distinctly less postmodern--and more interesting than ever.


In presenting his arguments, Boyd shows how Nabokov designed Pale Fire for readers to make surprising discoveries on a first reading and even more surprising discoveries on subsequent readings by following carefully prepared clues within the novel. Boyd leads the reader step-by-step through the book, gradually revealing the profound relationship between Nabokov's ethics, aesthetics, epistemology, and metaphysics. If Nabokov has generously planned the novel to be accessible on a first reading and yet to incorporate successive vistas of surprise, Boyd argues, it is because he thinks a deep generosity lies behind the inexhaustibility, complexity, and mystery of the world. Boyd also shows how Nabokov's interest in discovery springs in part from his work as a scientist and scholar, and draws comparisons between the processes of readerly and scientific discovery.


This is a profound, provocative, and compelling reinterpretation of one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century.


Review: Brian Boyd has already chronicled the life of Vladimir Nabokov in two superlative volumes, one devoted to the author's silver-age youth in Russia and the other to his American maturity. Now Boyd turns his attention to the great enchanter's trickiest and most unlikely triumph in Nabokov's Pale Fire. With its oddball structure--which shackles an epic poem in heroic couplets to an increasingly loony, enveloping commentary--this 1962 novel has always been a bone of contention among diehard fans. Some consider it less a work of art than a Rube Goldberg contraption, onto which Nabokov has brilliantly bolted his favorite motifs. Others call Pale Fire the author's true masterpiece, and Brian Boyd falls quite emphatically into the latter camp, arguing that the book is no mere satire on literary parasitism:

It is a reflection on the whole history of literature, on the shift from romance to realism, from the old kind of hero with whose glory the reader is invited to identify ... to the modern image of everyman as artist, the suburban Shade, in the modest circumstances of the real, coping with courage and self-control, with imagination, curiosity, tenderness, and kindness, with the fact of his mortality and his losses past and still to come.
Boyd's study is at once a shrewd and eloquent guidebook to the intricacies of Pale Fire and a revisionist argument as to its meaning. After all, Nabokovians have spent the last three decades feuding over the ultimate authorship of this double-decker narrative: could the poet, John Shade, have created both the poem and commentary? Or should both be chalked up to that nutty exegete Charles Kinbote? As he wades into this factional war, Boyd can sometimes appear only nominally less insane than Kinbote. ("The prominence of the Shadean or Kinbotean or 'undecidable' readings had not gone unchallenged. D. Barton Johnson, attending to verbal and subverbal detail, stood largely outside the Shade-Kinbote opposition when he focused on the Botkin behind Kinbote." Help!) Yet his hypothesis--which involves a ghost feeding lines to the living like a posthumous Teleprompter--makes perfect sense. And it reminds us that for all Nabokov's vaunted irony and scientific passion, he was fascinated throughout his entire career by the afterlife. Volodya as theologian? Boyd is smart and persuasive enough to make the concept stick, and to send every last one of us back to Pale Fire--immediately. --James Marcus

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