NABOKV-L post 0019128, Sun, 17 Jan 2010 23:09:14 -0700

Re: THOUGHT on Shade as poet
On Sun, Jan 17, 2010 at 7:56 AM, Gary Lipon <> wrote:

> [...]

> Pale Fire, the poem is an ironic piece, but the feelings of pathos and
> tragedy bleed through the irony.
> I love you when you’re standing on the lawn
> Peering at something in a tree: “It’s gone.
> It was so small. It might come back” (all this
> Voiced in a whisper softer than a kiss).
> I love you when you call me to admire
> A jet’s pink trail above the sunset fire.
> I love you when you’re humming as you pack
> A suitcase or the farcical car sack
> With round-trip zipper. And I love you most
> When with a pensive nod you greet her ghost
> And hold her first toy on your palm, or look
> At a postcard from her, found in a book.
> This stanza begins with extraordinary insipidness; an adolescent-like use
> of parallelism,
> and the common affectation of poetry as pretty language embodied in the
> line:
> *Voiced in a whisper softer than a kiss*
> But this is its ironic charm...
> That's one of the few places in the poem that I think might be
intentionally bad, indicating that Shade can't write well about his genuine
or fake love for Sybil. But on the other hand, when Nabokov was expressing
himself in English verse, he wrote lines I consider flat or trite, as in "An
Evening of Russian Poetry":

"enormous clouds above an endless plain,"

"And lovers meeting in a tangled garden,
dreaming of mankind, of untrammeled life,
mingling their longings in the moonlight garden,
where trees and hearts are larger than in life."

[snip some perceptive remarks]

And the hallucinogenic compounding of Hazel's last night with the television
> programming
> has to be considered daring. PF, as a poem, pretty much succeeds or fails
> based on
> the reader's reaction to that device.

I like the TV bits, but my favorite part is the end of Canto 3.

[snip again]

(The hopelessly archaic Ruy Lopes, the Spanish,
> was nevertheless Fischer's favorite opening.
> Long live the preterists!)

Not to get pedantic or off-topic--the Ruy Lopez is old but I don't think
it's ever been archaic. It was played over and over in world-championship
matches after Fischer retired (Karpov, Korchnoi, Kasparov, Kramnik) and is
still popular.


As you say there is a balancing going on through out all of Pale Fire, the
> poem,
> between irony and parody on one side and pathos and authentic emotion on
> the other.
> VN/Shade wants the reader to be moved by Hazel's suicide, but not too
> moved, not to tears,
> and so the humorously unlikely place names,* Exe to Wye, *are mentioned
> right in the middle
> of the pathetic climax. Very Shakespearean I'd say. *I pray you, remember
> the porter.*

John Morris wrote:

> Most signficant of all, the poem is, let's face it, Nabokovian in the
> highest degree!

As I hinted above, I agree completely (though I disagree with John Morris
about much of Canto 3). The alternation of prosaic and poetic language is
just what Nabokov does in "An Evening of Russian Poetry". (People have
suggested here that I underestimate Nabokov's irony, and maybe I'm doing so
again with that poem--but again I don't think so.)

Likewise, I think the Exe-Wye-zesty play is not only Shakespearean but
Nabokovian. In /Speak, Memory/ he relates a pathetic incident from his
country's and his own great disaster, the Soviet revolution, and says the
important thing for him is the recurrence of the match theme. As Brian Boyd
points out in another context, in the killing of Shade Nabokov makes
"shambolic farce" out of the murder of his father. So I'd say Shade can
play with alphabetical coincidences while writing about his daughter's
suicide, and Nabokov doesn't mean it to be bad poetry, however much some
readers dislike it.

Furthermore, Shade is working toward the climax of the poem, the part of the
book that justifies both his "combinational" method and Nabokov's: his
coming to believe that just such coincidences are intimations of
immortality. We can see in retrospect that while he narrates Hazel's death,
he hints at his hope that she "somewhere is alive."

Jerry Friedman

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