Opening Nabokov’s Boxes

Usually when people talk about Vladimir Nabokov, they talk about Lolita. I haven’t read Lolita, largely because I can’t work up the nerve to be seen buying it, but from my understanding it’s quite the book, what with the sexual obsession and underage girl and all. For me though, Nabokov’s legacy lies less in his unflinching look at the perverse and more in how his innovations in style and form have affected literature. Seeing books like David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas or Mark Danielewski’s utterly, infuriatingly brilliant House of Leaves described as Nabokovian puzzle-boxes has really piqued my interest as to what is so puzzling about him. And so I passed on the prototypical purchase and got Pale Fire, which I’m pretty sure is a novel, regardless of how much it may try to not be.


Pale Fire is a weird creature. It’s a novel structured as the first edition of a poem composed by a recently deceased poet in the days leading up to his demise. It comes complete with a foreword and commentary, not to mention a full index (though I haven’t worked my way through the index yet). What you’ll quickly find as you dig into this little book though, is that it’s not about the poem. Not really. It’s about the man writing the foreword and the commentary and the poet himself and most anything else other than the 999 lines of verse you pick your way through between the two blocks of digressive, at times confusing prose. The work quickly morphs from a piece of literary criticism into a web of poetry, obsession, jealousy, and even political intrigue. It takes a while to get used to the rambling footnotes (think like a rough precursor to House of Leaves or David Foster Wallace’s generous notes in Infinite Jest), but once you do the whole chimeric scheme really starts to take off. The poem’s incredibly personal cantos act as triggers for the narrator/commentator’s varying narratives to spread out and progressively weave themselves first together and then into the life of the poet himself. It’s a bit rocky at first, but once it all starts spinning it’s a hell of a show to watch.

It’s difficult for me to say exactly what Nabokov is doing with Pale Fire. It’s a profoundly odd novel and I may need to take a second trip through it to really get my bearings (it’s only three or four hundred pages, so that’s not too daunting). But for now I’ll take a preliminary stab at it. The novel seems to be examining what it is we’re looking for with literary criticism. The fact of the matter is, when you sit down with a work of criticism over a novel, you expect to find something about what the author is saying, about the world they lived in and the mind that put it all together. Whether the focus be historical or biographical or textual, the goal is always to unmask the author in some way.

Nabokov outright refuses to do so and instead gives you a commentator intent on his own role in the poet’s life, who only ever seems to find himself in the work, his own world and his own history. What results is a novel which points to the truth of literary criticism, that in trying to unravel an author’s work we can only ever unravel our own experiences of those works, of the author’s world and mind as we see them (though of course that argument kind of defeats itself, when you think about. Don’t though. Boxes inside of boxes and all). Nabokov’s prose is undeniably beautiful, but his underlying scheme is as remarkable as his strikingly vivid imagery or feel for rhythm.  I’d recommend reading this, if you’ve read anything like Cloud Atlas or House of Leaves and are interested in their forerunners at all (there are others, but I haven’t read them). Regardless of what brings you to it though, Pale Fire is a playfully entertaining construction that is at turns dark, comic, and even a little heartbreaking if you let it be.


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