Thursday, September 02, 2004

Novel: Shadow of the Waxwing Slain

Pale Fire by Vladamir Nabokov. 1962, Vintage International (Random House)

I came by this book in a strange path. At the 30th Anniversary Party for D&D, the head of our Book Department introduced me to the team’s new editor. During the course of the discussion, the head of the department revealed that they asked the question “What Book Would You Keep on Your Desk?” (My answer, by the way, was the Chicago Manual of Style). Her choice was Lolita by Vladamir Nabokov. Lolita is one of those famous books that everyone knows about but no one reads, so I asked why. She felt Nabokov’s style superceded his subject matter.

I mentioned this encounter in a phone conversation with friend in New York Publishing. I could almost hear him shaking his head over the phone. “Pale Fire,” he said. “Much better.” So the next time I was in the Half-Price books I picked up a copy.

And it’s a book worth hunting down. The volume is billed as a novel, but does not have a traditional novel or narrative form. It consists of a Foreword, a Poem (in four cantos), Commentary, and an Index. The poem is by John Francis Shade, and represents that character’s last work. The remainder is the work of Charles Kinbote, fellow professor, scholar, and neighbor to Shade.

The Foreword sets up that something is amiss. Kinbote comes off as having a small woodshed of academic axes to grind –disagreements with other professors, reviewers, and even the widow Shade. Kinbote sounds like a big of a crank and pendant, but his inadvertent honesty leaves the clues around that pulls you into the tale itself. Kinbote is clearly an unreliable narrator, and the reader is aware of him spinning the facts to his chosen conclusions.

Shade’s own last work is a Frostian epic poem of rhyming couplets, broken into four parts, which is primarily a meditation on mortality (the shadow of the waxwing slain) – an early seizure, the death of his daughter, a stroke later in life, and thoughts as to his own eventual death. It is interesting in that it holds up in and of itself.

It is in the Commentary section, the longest part of the book, Kinbote begins to dissect Shade’s work. In the process, it becomes clear that Kinbote isn’t talking about Shades’ poem, which we had just read, but rather the epic poem that Kinbote was encouraging his neighbor to write, an epic verse about the exiled King of Zembla, Kinbote’s home nation. Hints are dropped, allegations are made, and a tale is spun out through the commentary that is the bulk of the story. Our unreliable narrator descends by turns to deceptive narrator, and at last to a deranged narrator. By the end we don’t know exactly where to draw the line between reality and Kinbote’s deeply-held fantasies.

The Index provides a grace note to the commentary, one last peek into the now-obviously deluded mind of the author that we have followed through the bulk of the book. We see the tricks and traps of Kinbote’s mind (if he IS Kinbote) as he cannot be honest with himself (or his reader) even within the confines of an Index.

Stylistically this is brilliant, both attracting and repelling at the same time. But structurally it is also wonderful, a novel packed together in a non-novel form. There is no set pacing or plot, but rather an unspooling of events related second-hand, and Nabokov wonderfully drops the hints that reveals to the reader the madness of his speaker.

Recommended and worth reading more than once. Check it out.