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Pale Fire, Vladimir Nabokov, Vintage International, 1989 (c1962), 320pp.

In Austin I had two good friends who were the most well-read people I¬†had ever met until then. I’ve spoken briefly in this space about one of¬†them, Mike Godwin, now a staff counsel for the Electronic Freedom¬†Foundation and WELL gadfly. The other was Kathy Strong, who was married¬†to Mike for a while. I briefly shared an apartment with Kathy, and I¬†can easily recall the books lying around the house. It was she (along¬†with Dwight Brown) who piqued my interest in Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe¬†novels. But it is the other books–on tables, chairs, bookshelves, and¬†stairs–that I’m thinking of now, books by Robertson Davies, Italo¬†Calvino, and Vladimir Nabokov. I think back on this and wonder why is¬†it only now that I am reading these books when they were clearly being¬†recommended to me by someone whose tastes in literature I admired. I¬†cannot remember, but did I try these books at that time and was not¬†mature enough a reader to grasp their worth? Were there other authors¬†about that I should remember today?

The occasion for these reminiscences is having just finished Nabokov’s¬†Pale Fire, which I can only describe as “my kind of book.” It is not¬†a novel, although by the end you have pieced together a larger story¬†that would not have been out of place in a novel. Nor is it poem,¬†critical work, or index, although it contains all three of these¬†elements. I guess if one must label it, it is “experimental” fiction.

Although the form is most unusual and does hold all appeal for me, the¬†true pull of this work is the character of the narrator, a rogue and¬†totally questionable source of information. His poor victims, the¬†long-suffering poet, John Shade, and Shade’s wife Sylvia, one must feel¬†kindly towards, especially knowing the intensity of the dedicated fan.

I refrain from talking too much about the actual plot, although it is¬†not necessarily a mystery. Instead I hasten to compare this work with¬†Borges in that the creation of a European kingdom recalls his “Tlon,¬†Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” It also reminds me of that nation that Nero¬†Wolfe is supposed to be from (or was that an actual kingdom? I never¬†checked to see.)

This was my first go at Nabokov, and I suppose by my reaction to it, I should not stay too long from his other work. What shall it be: Ada? Lolita? The Collected Stories?

[Finished 18 September 1997]


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