This book has some serious payoff at the end, and of course a wonderful fake index that clarifies and makes everything right.
If you don’t know this one, this is a novel in the form of an academic annotation of a long poem. The poem itself is a 1000 (technically 999) line poem about a pastoral and academic life, love and marriage, childhood, parenting, death. Like what most poems are about, with a kind of erudition and educated set of allusions. The notes on this poem are written by the poet’s friend, an emigre scholar from a war-torn fictional country called Zembla. It becomes clear in the very introduction and then more so after the poem that the goal of the would-be book is a case of what the back of the book calls “literary one-upsmanship” where Kinbote, the scholar, takes over and completely subsumes the work of the poet Shade.
The resulting text is an interplay of willful and lazy scholarship, bitterness, irony, and all kinds of other understandings of a story laid upon a story. The motives for this remapping of the poem are not clear til the end, but when they come, they are quite satisfying. At times, this is a very frustrating read because some passages go on and on without a clear point. There’s rambling and repetition, and of course if you’re a stickler for accuracy or the truth, it’s frustrating to watch someone act so selfishly and wrongly about his thinking.
Here’s a few passages that I think show a lot of what the book is like:
“Line 962: Help me, Will. Pale Fire.
Paraphrased, this evidently means: Let me look in Shakespeare for something I might use for a title. And the find is ‘pale fire.’ But in which of the Bard’s works did our poet cull it? My readers must make their own research. All I have with me is a tiny vest pocket edition of Timon of Athens–in Zemblan! It certainly contains nothing that could be regarded as an equivalent of ‘pale fire’ (if it had, my luck would have been a statistical monster).”
“Line 822: killing a Balkan king
Fervently would I wish to report that the reading in the draft was:
killing a Zemblan king
–but alas, it is not so: the card with the draft has not been preserved by Shade.”