09 September 2010

The Games Played in Pale Fire's Index

I just finished Nabokov's Pale Fire this week, and I am in love. It is astonishing, just as good as Lolita - but actually also way more fun!

If you have not read the book, do not read this post. Seriously. If you read this, it will ruin the book for you forever and perhaps beyond repair. Here's what it looks like: go read it. It is amazing.

Otherwise, stop reading this.

So if you finished the book, then you probably have realized that it's a lot more than what it seems. It's designed in a complicated fashion even on the surface, with Kinbote's Foreword and crazed Commentary framing a 999-line poem, but you can cut past that shell and just keep going deeper. The famous early review by Mary McCarthy called the book a "chess problem" and rightfully so. As you make moves in new ways of thinking, you discover that they've been anticipated. Nabokov has laid endless snaring jokes amongst the brambles of interpretation. I've barely touched on the scholarship, but so far it seems as though entire societies have sprung up around various interpretations - "Shadeans" and "Kinboteans" and so on.

Into the thick of it, we see a flimsy lie fall apart: Kinbote is the King. It's obviously and badly hidden. He's also established as an unreliable narrator, which leads us to question other things. Given what he says, can we be sure there is a King at all? The King lifts quite neatly out of the rest of the story if we assume Kinbote is mad. And that also is strongly hinted at by the nature of the assassin Gradus: he is repeatedly called by different names and the nature of his identity is playfully discussed, and in the final pages a "cover-up" takes place. If Kinbote is mad, then Gradus is just Jack Grey, escaped mental patient and murderer of a famous poet. But consider further this trail of thought: why do we think Kinbote himself exists? We can doubt the reality of "Zembla" for many reasons (more on that later) and so perhaps Kinbote is entirely a creation of Shade! And it keeps going.

There's a big difference between the "layers of meaning" in many books and in this one. Here we cannot doubt that Nabokov did this deliberately and with glee, because he leaves crystal-clear clues to indicate his consciousness. No Freudian mistakes or grad-student overanalysis here, just the machinations of an author of dizzying talent.

There's an enormous amount to play with in this book, of course, but so far one of my favorite things is the Index. A close reading shows that it's written not from Kinbote's point of view, or Nabokov's, or Shade's, or even Gradus'! Instead, it's written from the perspective of a completely new person, who is hinted at maddeningly.

My adventure in the Index came when I - naturally enough - went to try to discover the answer to one of the tantalizing secrets of the book: where are the crown jewels of Zembla hidden? A lengthy anecdote is told in the book of the two Russian operatives searching for the jewels, and at one point Nabokov has Kinbote blatantly taunt about the unknown hiding place of "our crown, necklace, and scepter" (abandoning entirely the previous fiction of a separation of Kinbote and King).

So I looked up "Crown Jewels." There was an entry, which directed me to "Hiding Place." Okay. Ah, but "Hiding place" is defined as this Zemblan word "pataynik," with a q.v. (quo vide) directing me to its entry. "Pataynik" points to the abbreviated form "taynik," which itself is defined as the Russian word for... "secret place." And we are told to look at the entry for "Crown Jewels." A complete circle.

So it's a game, played by Nabokov on us. In fact, it appears to be a word game that is similar to the "word golf" mentioned as being one of Shade's favorite games. Word golf is a simple game that involves changing one letter in a word at a time to try to arrive at a new word. It is mentioned by Kinbote, "Some of my records are: hate-love in three, lass-male in four, and live-dead in five (with "lend" in the middle)."

Ah, and the Index! The entry for "word golf" is... well, suffice to say Nabokov uses the Index in another circle to play the game for us!

There are seemingly endless things to find, almost in every entry of this Index. I can't imagine what fun it will be to go back through the book a third and fourth time (and more) to find whatever else there is in the text! Here's part of the Index's entry for the King's wife, Queen Disa, for example: "Disa, Duchess of Payn, of Great Payn and Mone;" We'd heard of the Duchy of Payne before, of course, but only here does it leap out at me: "of Great Pain and Moan." And from there we can examine the entry for "Payn" and dance on to the wry allusions now revealed in the duchy's escutcheon (the Vanessa butterfly, the last thing pointed out to Kinbote by Shade before the murder; the "frolicsome fly" has also been seen by Kinbote on a dead rabbit).

And then there's the entry for "Zembla," which is phrased so impersonally and vaguely as to scream at us, "Fake!": "Zembla, a distant northern land."

What an amazing treasure of a book. And I've only just begun with it!

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