I reread this book this month. Nabokov’s protagonists are always fascinating. The one is Despair, Hermann, is almost tragic in how desperately he hides from reality. In this he is like that other great unreliable narrator, Charles Kinbote from Pale Fire. And when people in the real world laugh and point a finger at this naked emperor, he chooses to recede into a reality where his garments are the finest, his wit awes his friends, and his intellect outwits the police.
You are never really certain if perhaps, deep down, he knows but continues to pretend. The monster gets his comeuppance and descends into despair. His fine plots are tangled. For all the world he is a bumbling crook but in his mind he is inches away from the perfect crime, bested only by bad luck.
I bought this at a used book store a few weeks back. It is a worn down, old edition from the 1960’s. This is my third Nabokov book, and ever since my first, I seem to have lost interest in the ‘normal’ fiction books I used to read. There is a cadence to his choice of words that shines through in all his works.
The story is told by Charles Kinbote, a hilarious, clueless, nosey neighbour of famous poet John Shade. Shade, dead when the story begins, has been working on a 1000 line poem titled Pale Fire. Kinbote hails from the fictitious land of Zembla, and pesters Shade with stories of its rich history and its last King. He is clearly shattered when he gets his hands on the draft of the poem after Shade’s death, and sees nothing related to this.
Things go crazy from here. Bent on seeing what he wants to see, Kinbote annotates the poem with rambling connections that he draws to his own Zemblan theme. Liberally drawing his own inferences from the rough drafts, the picture that emerges is of a man imposing his delusions on another’s work.
The Unreliable Narrator trope has been done to death in movies already (Rashomon, Fight Club, Memento, American Psycho, The Usual Suspects…), but Nabokov has layered his work with magnitudes more of easter eggs. Saying more would spoil the fun, and I’ve already seen several interpretations online that I missed in my first reading.
I cannot speak for the poem itself, having very little exposure in that area. The story, however, is Nabokov at his playful, devious best. The liberally cross referenced footnotes make for a rich experience over multiple readings.