The 1962 book Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov, published by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc., is a novel presented as a 999-line poem by the name of “Pale Fire” written by the fictional character, John Shade. The poem is also commented on or narrated by another fictional character, Charles Kinbote, Shade’s neighbor, who is more or less concerned with himself rather than with what John Shade has written. Assumingly, to capture the complexities of experiences of the characters, the novel is known to be a form of metafiction, fiction in which the author self-consciously alludes to the fiction of the work by parting from conventions of the novel. The story essentially narrates the process of the creation of the poem. I stumbled upon this book when looking for excerpts of experimental fiction. The book is an interestingly unparalleled read due to its supposed extensive allusions and references to other forms of literature. The book has even been criticized as ‘unreadable’ by the U.S. author Dwight MacDonald. I have chosen to critique an excerpt of it though, because it provides a great example of some of the rhetorical devices used in creative writing.
The audience this book is directed at is an audience exploring experimental, postmodern, or metafiction. The book provides a great foundation for the interplay of references, allusions, and creative rhetorical device usage. The excerpt I chose from the book is considered to be a fairly easy read, rated a 7.7 grade level. However, the references involved change the entire pace of the reading of the book, making it much harder to actually understand.
Throughout the writing that I have analyzed, Canto 1, which explores the author’s encounters with death, the author uses many creative rhetorical devices such as onomatopoeia, a word that imitates the sound it makes, epizeuxis, repeating a word or phrase immediately after saying it, personification, giving human characteristics to something not human, and a clarifying device, distinctio, giving the specific meaning of the word to prevent ambiguity. In the first line of the first stanza on the page of the passage I have chosen from the book, the author writes out the sound that a mockingbird makes, “To-wee, to-wee; then rasping out: come here” (27). This is a clear example of onomatopoeia, “to-wee”, and following, an example of personification when the bird is mentioned to have rasped out “come here”. The next line in the first stanza of the page furthers the personification, “Come here, come herrr’; flirting her tail aloft,” (27). Both what the mockingbird is supposedly saying, along with the fact that her tail is “flirting” are examples of personification. The repetition of the phrase “come here” is also known as epizeuxis, again the repeating of a word or phrase immediately after stating it. The remainder of the stanza continues with end rhyme, as do the rest of the stanzas in the excerpt I have chosen. The second stanza of the excerpt I have chosen to analyze explains the author’s experience with death, “I was an infant when my parents died…And ‘cancer of the pancreas’ to her” (27).
In the third stanza, the author utilizes a clarifying rhetorical device most used in the plain style of writing, distinctio, in a way that seems to be clarifying what a particular word means, but instead I notice he has used his definition as a way to explain what the word does. The following sentence, “A preterist: one who collects cold nests”, defines what a “preterist” does rather than what a “preterist” is, because a preterist according to Dictionary.com is a person who maintains that the prophecies in the Apocalypse have been fulfilled. Therefore, I think that the author is saying that this person who believes the prophecies of the Apocalypse have been fulfilled collects empty nests, perhaps referring to the prophecy of the Apocalypse that nothing living on earth will be saved and it will die. The reason I think this is because of the previous stanza mentioning the death of his parents, as well as the rest of the current stanza mentioning that he is going to pray for everybody to be well “I listened to the buzz downstairs and prayed/For everybody to be always well,” (27). So, as we can see the writing of this poem includes references such as the reference I just discussed and is most equivalent to an activity of hunting, finding, and educationally guessing what the lines are referring too. This could be fun or it could be a chore. Whichever it might be, the author clearly has a dense background of reading, studying, and condensing a lot of that information into one piece where it could potentially be understood as a linear story. My question then is, could this also be considered an esoteric piece of writing due to the nature of the references by the author? Or could many people relate on the same level if they have come across the information alluded in their time as well? Esoteric meaning understood or meant for a select few who have special knowledge or interest. If so, who might the select few, the people who understand the references, of the audience be?
My response to this is that perhaps those who are sincerely interested in uncovering the mysteries of the book are those who might be able to understand what Nabokov is getting at. There exist many interpretations of Nabokov’s book, one in particular by Brian Boyd, who suggests a different take on the number of narrator’s involved in the book’s telling. The different take involves the idea that a reader should be able to discover many things about the book in a first reading and discover even more things about the book by following a series of clues carefully placed by Nabokov the second time around. He even suggest the reader read the book a few more times around to see the clues take effect. This is just one interpretation however, and it may even seem to narrow the audience just a bit more. Either way, Boyd suggests that a person need to read the book several times to fully understand the references involved.
A way I like to look at this issue however is through the idea that perhaps the author wasn’t exactly interested in who understood the book, but rather that he could comfortably write a message, even if that meant it would be reasonably hidden from the reader. This may be the circumstance for many authors and artists, but in this case, the intentions may be different. The intentions of Nabokov may be that he recognizes that he is intelligent in a series of ways; through science, literature, philosophy, etc. Using those areas of intelligence, he possibly could have aimed to integrate his ideas into this book in a uniquely aesthetic, experimental way that still satisfied the conditions of presenting a sensitive subject. Therefore, it seems that any person could pick this book up and read it, assuming they are free to do so.
What separates just any person from the select few of this apparently esoteric work though is the curiosity that arises when the reader picks up on the few clues that suggest what Nabokov is really presenting. The clues or ideas presented may in effect, make the reader uncomfortable, but it is the reader’s willingness to experience this discomfort and explore their own uneasiness that helps them to further understand the text. I am not denying the idea however, that the reader may also have to be fairly intelligent of their own accord, along with being a kind of literary critic, having read and analyzed at least a few other literary works. Though the book may have acquired many interpretations, only a select few will most likely truly understand its nature; a select few that particularly include those willing to read the book more than twice.