A weekend event….

This weekend I read Nabokov’s Pale Fire, a novel I’ve tried reading a couple of times before, and one of the books on my “I feel really embarrassed that I still haven’t read this and I’m a self identified intellectual” list.

I’m a convert.

An interesting experience for me in reading this through was that once I was done I became convinced that the reason I’d been unable to make much headway in it before was that I hadn’t been ready. It is a shock to think that my 26, and then 34 year old self wasn’t yet seasoned enough to “get” a novel, especially since I’ve always been a precocious reader who prided himself on his taste for the difficult ( “Anatomy of Melacholy” in college, “A Thousand Plateaus”, etc.). I think that what I wasn’t ready for was not the apparatus of the novel, but for the subtle and sobering emotions that waft through that apparatus, and would have been invisible to my puffed up, prideful younger self.

This book is a piece of art for adults, for people who are adult in a way that almost all of the rest of our culture no longer encourages us to aspire to.

It’s mournful, beautiful and unflinching.


  1. Not only had I never read it, but I’d never heard of it. (shhhh…)

    So I had to google…

    “And then black night. That blackness was sublime.
    I felt distributed through space and time:
    One foot upon a mountaintop, one hand
    Under the pebbles of a panting strand,
    One ear in Italy, one eye in Spain,
    In caves, my blood, and in the stars, my brain.
    There were dull throbs in my Triassic; green
    Optical spots in Upper Pleistocene,
    An icy shiver down my Age of Stone,
    And all tomorrows in my funnybone.

    Fuckin’ fabulous.
    I am SO getting this book.

  2. Pale Fire is one of my all-time favorites. Nabokov in general consistently blows my mind.

    Like you I have often wondered if I should re-try reading something that didn’t “take” during my youth, whether I would understand and appreciate it more (or in a different way) now.

    Ulysses is next on my list.

  3. Luckily I had a freshman humanities course that took Ulysses as it’s staring point – we were assigned to read it for the first two weeks of class. It was the perfect way to do it, since you had to barrel through and then had many oppurtunities to circle back as we explored other pieces of writing music art and criticism that are reflected in it.

  4. I was 18 or 19 when I first encountered Ulysses, but my experience consisted of carrying it around title outward for maximum effect while secretly wondering what the hell it all meant. Eventually it got shoved under my bed where so many library fines racked up that I wound up paying for a lost copy.

  5. makes me sad

    My sense of N’s authorial presence and a growing mistrust in the hide and seek he makes of it grew into an active dislike while I read Ada. Much of the interest I might have had in rereading any of his books has leached away- and the rereads were something I’d looked forward to.

  6. I love that book. May need to return to it, though; I did my undergraduate thesis on it and Lolita and Ada, or Ardor. (Have you read this last one? It’s my clear favorite of his.) I am sure my older self will pull a lot more out of it as you say.

    I’m just glad someone else likes him as much as I have.

  7. Re: makes me sad

    I haven’t read Ada, just Lolita, and Invitation to a Beheading and all of the books of collected lectures. Perhaps some of my connection with PF is that I’m in the middle of writing an essay about a friend/author, but I also read it as a very sorrowful love story, which I didn’t expect.

    I feel like I will reread this, but not for a while.

  8. Shit! I feel so bad. I had a class just like this … It was the only literature assignment I faked my way through. Oh no! One more: American Tragedy, which I don’t regret. Ullysses I do feel bad about.

    Sigh … Guess I’ll need to honestly read him through before I retire with proust in the wicker wheelchair and laprug.

  9. Re: makes me sad

    As I mentioned below, Ada is one of my favorites. Where my complaint with N has to do with an aristocratic distance from his characters, the point of my writing on him was that there was aesthetic-ethics at the heart of his writing that required such game-playing and hide-and-seek.

    I think it stems from a baroque perception of the world, a belief in the centrality of humor and play in dealing with ethical matters, and a realization of the difficulty — the complexity — in reading any person or event.

  10. Pale Fire is my favorite Nabokov book and Nabokov is one of my favorite authors… thanks for reminding me of it, I haven’t read it in about 20 years!

    How is my gnome porn going? Can we rebook lunch? Sorry I have been so undependable!

  11. Re: makes me sad

    I once thought that the prose in Speak Memory was some of the best N wrote. On page after page Ada surpassed it. And also the narrative strategies that needed flowcharts if I were to follow them. I agree that Ada is N at the height of his powers.

    Wish I could read your thesis. I suspect that what you rightly describe as aristocratic distance at some point fragmented for me.

  12. Re: makes me sad

    Well, it’s still lying around here somewhere, but I assure you wouldn’t want to read it. I wrote it when I was 22. I am only making a claim for N as an ethical writer (against the many claims to the contrary) while I developed my own preferences for other aesthetic-ethical approaches than his later. The writing, too, shows a bit much of reading N and is purplish and convoluted.

    I don’t remember enough to get to the heart of my small qualms with N, but I think in general I just prefer a grittier approach to literary language. He could’ve veered Genet-ish (Our Lady of the Flowers but then I don’t think he was a dirty queer. ๐Ÿ™‚

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