Nabokov’s “Pale Fire” on its own: Does it work? The jury deliberates…

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Some time ago we wrote about Sam Gwynn (a.k.a. the poet R.S. Gwynn) and his newest venture:

Ron Rosenbaum, writing in Slateannounces the next hot Nabokov controversy, and the story is making the rounds in the blogosphere.  The poem “Pale Fire” is about to be liberated from Pale Fire. The 900-line poem at the center of what many call Vladimir Nabokov‘s finest novel, written presumably by the murdered John Shade, will be published separately by Ginkgo Press:  “Nabokov wrote it, and the question of why he wrote it and who he modeled Shade on is the subject of what will be an equally controversial essay accompanying the edition, by poet and poetry professor R.S. Gwynn.”

David Orr‘s New York Times review writes that the the long poems comes in “an almost ridiculously lovely package”: “the poem itself is printed in a small booklet, the note cards upon which Shade ‘wrote’ the poem are recreated (complete with faux ink stains), and an accompanying critical text contains helpful essays from the Nabokov scholar Brian Boyd and the poetry critic R. S. Gwynn (who makes a smart case for Nabokov having used couplets partly as a response to Robert Lowell’s early work).”

“But does it work? Can the poem ‘Pale Fire’ exist without the novel Pale Fire? [You see, contra Josh Landy, here is where the Chicago Manual comes in handy. The finky New York Times style italicizes “Pale Fire” both as poem and novel. I have corrected the ugliness. – ED.]
There are reasons to think it cannot. In a New Yorker blog post last year, Paul Muldoon conceded that ‘Pale Fire’ is ‘a quite wonderful poem,’ but he asked, ‘Isn’t it like one of those tall buildings which incorporates in its core the very crane that raised it?'”

Sam at the helm

What can I say.  I wanted to reach out across the continent, shake them both, and cry out:  ” Dr. Zhivago!  What of the poems of Yuri Zhivago in Doctor Zhivago?” They’ve been published separately for years and years and years.

“I’m very fond of Pasternak’s poems from Doctor Zhivago,” Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky told Solomon Volkov. “They’re remarkable poems, especially ‘Christmas Star.’ I think of them often.”  No talk of buildings and cranes here.

However, Orr continues:  “This is beautifully put, but there is another way to look at things. When authors write ‘as’ a character, particularly in a third-person novel, we usually understand that the text created by that character is subordinate to the world in which the character exists. In Persuasion, for example, Jane Austen brings the novel to its emotional peak with a letter written by Frederick Wentworth — which we understand is really written by Austen and dependent for its resonance on the world of Anne Elliot, the Musgroves, Lady Russell and the rest. It’s hard to imagine anyone reading the letters of Frederick Wentworth for their own sake … In general, the writing of fictional characters is dependent on the larger work, and it is the larger work that reflects the author’s worldview.”

Orr makes a bigger point, about the lyrical “I,” which is a mask and the poet at once.  “There is obviously great potential for confusion as to who is saying what in this arrangement,” he writes.  I’m not quite sure why it matters at all.  In the end, he rather concludes the same: “No poem is ever on its own. And the poem is not Nabokov’s any more than it is John Shade’s. ‘Pale Fire’ is a voice within a voice — a mirrored and thoroughly modern sensibility. And that sensibility, whatever name we give it, is one hell of a poet.”

On the other hand, Booktryst’s Stephen Gertz has a two-year-old bone to pick with Rosenbaum and Gingko Press, publisher of the new “stand-alone” edition of the poem “Pale Fire”:

There’s just one problem. The poem ‘Pale Fire’ was “freed from the shackles..free at last to be a poem on its own,” extracted from the novel and published in its first separate edition in 1994, by Arion Press in San Francisco.

Like the Gingko edition, it’s reproduced just as Nabokov described it in the novel – on file cards.  Read the rest here.


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3 Responses to “Nabokov’s “Pale Fire” on its own: Does it work? The jury deliberates…”

  1. Sam Gwynn Says:

    Thanks, Cynthia, though most credit should go to VN (of course) and to Brian Boyd, whose close reading of the poem is masterly. The “gizmo” got front-page mention in the TLS and good space in the NYTBR and the Yale Review, which is about all a small publishing house like Ginkgo could dream of for such an unusual publication. I frankly think that VN’s reputation as an original poet in English will have to rest on almost entirely on “Pale Fire,” but I do think that that reputation should be higher than it has been in the past.

  2. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Keep us posted, Sam. Maybe we’ll do a round-up of news and reviews a little later. I’ll check the TLS meanwhile.

  3. Brian Boyd Says:

    And re Stephen Gertz’s comment: I was also an adviser on the 1994 Arion Press edition of Pale Fire, which is an exquisite thing, with a moiré cloth box and cover that manage to capture the interplay of sun and moon in the passage of “Timon of Athens” from which Nabokov and Shade pick the phrase “pale fire.” But that was a limited fine edition of the whole novel (at $600 on release), including the poem of course, but also with a separate booklet for the poem (also in a moiré cloth cover), as part of the same boxed set, typeset as if typed on index cards and bound into booklet form. What makes the Gingko edition so unprecedented–and here the credit belongs, if first to VN, then next to artist Jean Holabird, who proposed the project–is a) that it is of the poem alone; b) that the poem appears as if handwritten on index cards (just as Kinbote describes it), with the last 50 lines as if in first draft rather than fair copy (and with the twelve cards of legitimate variants kept by Shade also downloadable from Ginkgo), as if the reader has direct access to what Shade wrote, without the intervention of Kinbote; c) that the poem is also presented as a booklet, for easier reading, almost as if it might have been published had Shade been real, and Kinbote had not intervened (with a brief note About the Author and a page listing Other Books by the Author), and with Jean Holabird’s delicate art work, as it were, belatedly launching Shade’s last poetry volume; d) that there is also a booklet with two essays, by R.S. Gwynn and myself, that focus only on the poem. The focus on the poem, in design and detail, the play throughout with the fiction that readers are for the first time allowed immediate access to a major American poem of 1959, is unique to the Gingko edition, and the result of an admiration for the poem, and a sense of regret that it has been overshadowed by the novel as a whole, however much we might like it (it’s my favorite novel in the world), that is shared by Jean Holabird, Mo Cohen of Gingko Press (and those at the press who became entranced by the project), and Sam Gwynn and myself. And the Gingko “Pale Fire” pack is not a fine limited edition, but both a literary intervention–very successful, indeed, in inviting people to read and discuss the poem as poem–and “an almost ridiculously lovely package” selling for only $35!

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