I wish you to gasp not only at what you read

Pale Fire

Pale Fire
by Vladimir Nabokov

I need to let you know from the start that this is one crazy crazy book. The structure, the plot and the characters are complex to the point of inscrutable. This is truly experimental literary fiction.

How to describe this book? The poet and academic John Shade has been murdered and this is his last poem, introduced and analysed by a neighbour and colleague of the poet, Charles Kinbote. Kinbote is clearly crazy, but the question is exactly how crazy.

Kinbote’s “commentary” mostly ignores the actual poem and rambles on about the last king of Zembla, the country he has emigrated from to the small New England college where he met Shade. The story of this king is one of wild adventure, preposterous even, and Kinbote is clearly obsessed with it. He had told this story to Shade in the hope that the great poet would write a great poem about it, but that’s not what this final poem is and Kinbote’s disappointment is palpable.

“What if we awake one day, all of us, and find ourselves utterly unable to read? I wish you to gasp not only at what you read but at the miracle of its being readable (so I used to tell my students)…I can do what only a true artist can do – pounce upon the forgotten butterfly of revelation, wean myself abruptly from the habit of things, see the web of the world, and the warp and weft of that web.”

The whole conceit, and Kinbote himself, are often frustrating, occasionally tedious and frankly wholly ridiculous and yet at times it becomes almost, almost, believable. Kinbote’s obsessive nature has attached itself to his learned neighbour and he has clearly read the situation wrong time and time again, convincing himself that he became Shade’s dearest friend on the basis of flimsy evidence. It’s not a new story, but it’s nevertheless an interesting one and it’s being told in a very new way.

Thankfully, the scholarly frame of the novel is not entirely po-faced. This is a comedy, packed full of satire, poking fun at poets and scholars and literary criticism. Kinbote is somehow both subtly ambiguous and a broad comic character. The language is laughably over-the-top academic and delights in putting together pleasing sounds and amazing, if unwieldy, sentences.

“The heating system was a farce, depending as it did on registers in the floor wherefrom the tepid exhalations of a throbbing and groaning basement furnace were transmitted to the rooms with the faintness of a moribund’s last breath. By occluding the temperatures upstairs I attempted to give more energy to the register in the living room but its climate proved to be incurably vitiated by there being by there being nothing between it and the arctic regions save a sleezy front door without a vestige of a vestibule.”

It’s a clever balancing act and I would be thoroughly impressed by a book that made me laugh out loud despite such an outlandish structure if I hadn’t found other sections painfully tedious. This is a short book but it took me a long time to read, partly because I kept putting it down and declaring “This is batshit insane.” Which it is.

“The coming of summer presented a problem in optics: the encroaching foliage did not always see eye to eye with me: it confused a green monocle with an opaque occludent, and the idea of protection with that of obstruction.”

I must admit, this is one of those books I’m a little bit proud of having got through. Which perhaps undersells it. Many people consider this a masterpiece and I certainly see that there’s plenty to admire but I don’t think Nabokov will ever be a favourite of mine.

First published 1962 by G B Putnam’s Sons.

Source: Secondhand, probably from the Oxfam Bookshop on Park Street, Bristol.

What’s in a name

Possession
by AS Byatt

This was a re-read that I sadly ended up rushing through because it was for book club and I didn’t give myself enough time. It’s a wonderful book, as literary as they come yet immensely readable.

The story begins with Roland, a postgrad scholar of the eminent (and fictional) Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash, discovering long-hidden drafts of a love letter from Ash to a mystery woman. This is a potentially huge discovery, Ash having been assumed to be a dull, happily married type.

Thus begins the unravelling of great secrets, but Roland is jealous of his discovery and does not tell his university supervisor or his girlfriend Val. Instead he turns to a complete stranger, fellow academic Maud, because he suspects that the subject of her studies, minor Victorian poet Christabel LaMotte, was also the subject of Ash’s letter.

Between letters, diaries, academic texts, poems and good old-fashioned third-person narrative, there are a lot of switches in style and voice in this book, yet it never feels as though that is the case. Similarly, like the poems being studied for clues, this text is packed full of allusions and references, but it doesn’t feel overly clever or difficult.

In some ways this book is very much a product of its time. It was written in the 1980s and Byatt gently satirises the times. Roland is emasculated by Val’s stronger earning power and neither of them ever says what they mean. Maud is surrounded by feminists who seem obsessed with lesbianism and anti-men sentiments. The shadow of AIDS looms large over thoughts of sex. But this is all subtly kept in the background.

At book club we discussed how you can read this book at many different levels. There is the surface level where it’s a romance/mystery/drama and is fun and enjoyable without requiring any background knowledge. There’s the satire on academia, particularly 1980s academia. And there’s the literary novel, referencing mainly Victorian poetry but also older texts such as Shakespeare and Ovid and I’m sure plenty more that I didn’t spot. The character names are carefully chosen for the literary allusions that they have. And at all these levels it works, works very well, without ever seeming to show off.

I’m told that The Children’s Book is another excellent Byatt read, and that just happens to be on my TBR (a kind Christmas present), so I expect to be breaking that out soon.

First published 1990 by Chatto & Windus.
Winner of the 1990 Booker Prize.