No Wrong Way?

Todays Reading: Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire, pp. 245-315

Nabokov’s Pale Fire, a novel told in footnotes to a long poem, presents some unusual choices for readers. Do you read straight through, preface then poem then notes? Read the notes as you go, along with the poem? Do you read as you might a real critical edition, the poem first without notes, then again with the notes? Or do you take the narrator/editor’s typically egocentric suggestion and read the notes first, then the poem with the notes, then the notes alone for a third time? Do you follow the cross references in the notes even though they may refer you to later plot developments? Do you read the whole index?

Having read and thoroughly enjoyed the book, here’s not quite what I did but what I wish I had done: read poem and notes at the same time, referring back and forth; followed most of the cross references, but bailed out if they seemed to be heading for anything too “spoilery.” The novel drops some hints, I think, about what would've been Nabokov’s own preferred reading, but it also seems to be designed to be fairly resilient in the face of other choices, able to be read as a linear narrative with a few twists or as a more Faulknerian sort of out-of-sequence meditation.

Interestingly, the book allows you to choose your own level of modernist difficulty—you can read one thing at a time, or you can be juggling at least three. And, at the same time, of course, it’s a novel about reading, about the narrator/editor’s failure to read the poem and (to an uncertain degree) the world as it really is. Meanwhile the book’s slew of irresolvable choices reminds you, the reader, not to look down too much on his misreadings, as ludicrous as they often seem, because reading isn’t always all that easy, is it?

One thing I’ll say for certain: DO spend some time with the index. Written in-character, it’s full of clever bits like a series of cross references that lead around in a never-ending loop, and possibly the solution to one of the book’s minor mysteries (though I couldn’t work it out). And, I think, its last entry should be regarded as the real ending of the novel, the kind of simple, lyrical eulogy you expect as the final signature to any of Nabokov’s books.