NABOKV-L post 0012199, Fri, 9 Dec 2005 11:45:31 -0800

RE poem "Pale Fire"

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Date: Fri, 9 Dec 2005 18:39:30 -0000
From: michael glynn <>
Reply-To: michael glynn <>
Subject: Re: Pale Fire
To: Vladimir Nabokov Forum

Dear Sir - re Shade's poem and its alleged greatness. Could i offer a few
thoughts extracted from Vladimir Nabokov and the Problem of Seeing? Many
Thanks, Michael Glynn

When Kinbote finally learns that Shade's poem is wholly oblivious to his
Zemblan idyll, Kinbote's assessment of the great man's work is trenchant and
pointedly Nabokovian. To Kinbote, Shade's poem is simply "an
autobiographical, eminently Appalachian, rather old-fashioned narrative in a
neo-Popian prosodic style." I would suggest that Kinbote's verdict is intended
to command the assent of the reader, and that Nabokov's treatment of Shade and
his poem is in fact ironic. This is a notion that would discomfit some
critics: Herbert Grabes holds the poem to be "an extremely elaborate work of
art, typical of the later phases of some literary epoch," and Andrew Field
sees it as an important work, one worthy of critical study in isolation from
the rest of the text. Brian Boyd, a staunch champion of Shade as presiding
genius in the novel, hails the poem somewhat hyperbolically as a "masterpiece"
and "a deliberate challenge to both Pound's Cantos and Eliot's Four Quartets."
G.M. Hyde argues that Shade's poem reveals a serious and deep kinship with the
work of Frost in that it manifests the latter's characteristic stoicism in the
face of "terrible and incomprehensible things." Others have, however,
expressed reservations about Shade's poetic offering. Douglas Fowler finds the
poem's heroic couplet form to be limiting whilst Alvin B. Kernan argues that the
poem should be read as "an extended and amusing spoof." In my view, the
challenge Nabokov set himself in writing "Shade's" poem was to produce a highly
competent but highly conventional piece of work, one which would ultimately be
deemed an artistic failure. Nabokov appears deliberately to over-egg the
pudding, having Shade present us with a daughter who is not only plump and
plain but also unpopular, squinty-eyed, clumsy, swollen-footed, psoriatic and,
perhaps not surprisingly in view of her multiple afflictions, deeply mentally
troubled. Furthermore, it appears to have gone generally unremarked that this
central conceit of the plain teenager rejected by her peers is a suspiciously
mawkish one, the stuff of adolescent fiction or any number of late twentieth
century pop songs. A brief comparative exercise will, I believe, throw into
relief Nabokov's slyly ironic intent. Consider the following three extracts:

1) It must have broke your poor little heart

When the boys used to say to you looked better in the dark


The teacher would ask a question

And you would always raise your hand
But somehow you never got your turn

My eyes would fill with water, inside I'd burn, oh yes I did

2) At Christmas parties, games were rough, no doubt,

And one shy little guest might be left out;

But let's be fair: while children of her age

Were cast as elves and fairies on the stage

That she'd helped paint for the school pantomime,

My gentle girl appeared as Mother Time,

A bent charwoman with slop pail and broom,

And like a fool I sobbed in the men's room.

3) I learned the truth at seventeen

That love was meant for beauty queens

And high school girls with clear skinned smiles

Who married young and then retired.

The valentines I never knew

The Friday night charades of youth

Were spent on one more beautiful

At seventeen I learned the truth

And those of us with ravaged faces

Lacking in the social graces
Desperately remained at home

Inventing lovers on the phone

Who called to say - Come dance with me

As will be readily appreciated, the first and third extracts, song lyrics from
The Chi-Lites' Homely Girl and Janis Ian's At Seventeen respectively, are
characterised by a degree of triteness. However, the second extract, from
Shade's poem, is almost identical in terms of subject matter and tone. Nabokov
was too much the literary sophisticate unconsciously to produce such lachrymose
and hackneyed work. If, as I maintain, Shade's poem is in part mawkish and
conventional, it is because Nabokov intends it to be so. Nabokov is suggesting
that Shade's attempt artistically to confront the loss of his daughter fails
where Kinbote's distorted and distorting exploration of loss succeeds. As I
have already suggested, Shade was instinctively Symbolist, concerned ultimately
with there rather than here. However, when he addresses the tragic situation of
his daughter he attempts to do so in a direct, immediate and sincere way,
thereby hoping to give the reader an unmediated slice of reality. I believe
that Nabokov wishes us to see this as a doomed attempt. Not for nothing is
Shade so called. The poet's effort is eclipsed by the madman's commentary.
When Shade attempts to evoke his daughter's tragic situation in conventional,
heartfelt verse, he is betrayed into triteness. It is Kinbote's estranging
method that can capture the essence of a tragic reality. In order to evoke the
twin pains of exile and unhappy marriage, Kinbote, via oblique means,
triumphantly transcends what Shklovsky termed "the sphere of automatised


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