“Pale Fire” is having a cultural moment.
It’s a modest cultural moment, as these things go — a major shout-out in a major motion picture, followed by a smaller reference in a smaller recent film — but those two appearances are markers of a larger tectonic shift in the values and Valhallas of modern literature.
Which is to say that the late, great author Vladimir Nabokov will probably always be best known for writing “Lolita” — still as controversial and compulsively readable as the day it was published — but over time he has come to perhaps be most loved for giving the world “Pale Fire,” a 1962 meta-novel whose influence flits through the 2017 sci-fi sequel “Blade Runner 2049” like a troublesome footnote and that is cited by a surprising number of people as their single favorite book of all time.
I first read “Pale Fire” in my late 20s, and, prompted by the new “Blade Runner” and by the novel being referenced as well in Steven Soderbergh’s current “Unsane,” I’m on what’s probably my fourth re-reading over three or so decades. It’s the kind of work that’s different every time you come back to it, which was surely intended by Nabokov, the greatest puzzle-maker in all of literature.
The most puzzling aspect, on first read, is that it’s a book that appears to be a different book entirely. “Pale Fire” takes the form of a long, biographical poem written by the eminent and recently deceased poet John Shade, followed by several hundred pages of annotations by Shade’s friend and fellow professor Charles Kinbote. Very quickly, a reasonably astute reader becomes aware of three things: 1) Kinbote is insane. 2) Kinbote is convinced Shade’s poem, “Pale Fire,” is not about Shade at all but about Kinbote’s own delusional history as the exiled king of the (possibly fictional) country of Zembla. 3) Kinbote’s “interpretation” of the poem takes over the book and, in effect, becomes the novel.
“Pale Fire” is thus many things: a blistering satire of academia and ivory-tower cluelessness; a breathless tale of adventure and escape over snowy mountain ranges; a mystery story (or several); a heartbreaking memoir; a closeted lament; a rumination on the afterlife; probably a suicide note. Perhaps a ghost story as well. The book’s often uproariously funny. It’s also, when seen in the proper light, terribly sad.
Following the cultural detonation of “Lolita” by several years (that novel was first published in France in 1955 but not in the US until 1958), “Pale Fire” got a few ecstatic reviews when it came out and a few nasty ones as well; most critics sat in the middle, befuddled. The book’s unusual structure and elusive meanings stymied those expecting a linear read, whereas a modern reader, versed in the ways of literary and film meta-fictions that comment upon themselves — popping in and out of frames and perspectives — is more easily able to negotiate Nabokov’s verbal and thematic hedgerows.
And as “Pale Fire” becomes easier for readers to process — or as we’ve incorporated the tools to come to it — so the book seems to have stealthily gained in cultural and personal favor. “Lolita,” with its scandalous subject, sad title figure, and creepy, sympathetic, unreliable narrator, is still the title most people think of when they hear Nabokov’s name. It probably always will be.
But do a Google or Amazon search of “Pale Fire” and see how much closer that book is to many readers’ hearts. Literary critic Larry McCaffrey put it in the No. 1 spot in his 2000 list of the best books of the 20th century. Those who love “Pale Fire” love it to pieces.
That includes Brian Boyd, professor of literature at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, author of an acclaimed two-volume Nabokov biography and generally acknowledged as the foremost living authority on the Russian-born author. Reached by e-mail, Boyd admits that he hasn’t seen the recent films — he avoided “Blade Runner 2049” because he felt the original “Blade Runner” “turned [Philip K.] Dick’s wonderful novel into a conventional action movie with designer-chic dystopia” — but what does he think about “Pale Fire” coming into its own?
“High time. It’s my favorite novel in the world: perfect, perfectly surprising, juxtaposing the homely and the fantastic, the real and the delusional, the exact and the mysterious. It turns the curious reader into an enthralled explorer through astonishing labyrinths in a kind of virtual unreality verbal video game.”
It’s Boyd who, in essays and online, has shepherded one of the most vexing meta-questions about “Pale Fire” — which Nabokovian creation wrote what part? Did the late John Shade, a doughty New Englander and looking-glass version of Robert Frost, write the 999-line poem that famously begins “I was the shadow of the waxwing slain/by the false azure of the windowpane” and did the mad Charles Kinbote write the notes and index? Or did Kinbote make up poet, poem, and annotation himself — or did Shade invent Kinbote and his fantasies? Is Kinbote perhaps the delusional projection of Shade’s fellow professor, a certain V. Botkin? Or (Boyd’s own playful interpretation) did the poet’s ghost — Shade’s shade, as it were — dictate the novel into his crazed colleague’s ear?
Part of the daft enjoyment of multiple visits to “Pale Fire” is that clues are there for each and all of these possibilities and that a final answer may lie just beyond our grasp, like the vision of the afterlife Shade reaches for throughout the iambic strivings of the poem itself, a thing of unironic near-perfection and many readers’ favorite part of the book.
That final unknowability is why the novel pops up in “Blade Runner 2049” as not only the bedside reading of Joe, the replicant detective played by Ryan Gosling, but as the source of the code phrases in the “post-trauma baseline test” Joe repeatedly has to take — words that circle around John Shade’s glimpse of a heavenly fountain. (Or did God mistype and was it a mountain?)
As many have noted, Nabokov’s novel serves in the movie as a signifier of mirrored narratives — an acknowledgement that Joe’s childhood memories are as unreliable as any fiction and who knows which is the source — just as Soderbergh’s “Unsane” references “Pale Fire” as the favorite book of the institutionalized heroine played by Claire Foy, the better to cast doubt on which reality is real, the one where the character’s crazy or the one where’s she’s not.
There’s the distinct possibility, of course, that both are true, which means neither is, which means it all depends on the angle of view or the number of times you’ve watched the movies or read the book. And if that isn’t relevant to our fractalized 21st- century lives, with their multiple points of data and mutually contradictory sources of information, I don’t know what is.
Somewhere a waxwing flies on through an imaginary sky and Vladimir Nabokov is laughing in the dark.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.