Sunday, 1 August 2010

Book of the Month: Pale Fire (Vladimir Nabokov)

Pale Fire is the epitome of post-modern fiction. It is also [as William  Boyd described] one of the most extraordinary and brilliant novels ever written, let alone in the twentieth century.

‘Pale Fire’ consists of a 999-line poem of four cantos written in heroic couplets (although the couplets are enjambed rather than self-contained), the last work of an American academician (in the Wordsmith college in New Wye, Appalachia) and a poet of moderate reputation called John Shade. The poem, titled ‘Pale Fire’ (taken from an obscure Shakespearean play, ‘Timon of Athens’) is preceded by a foreword and followed by a long series of explanatory notes (abounding in cross references) by one Dr. Charles Kinbote, a refugee professor from a country called Zembla (which, we learn is situated north of Russia), a colleague and neighbour of John Shade. The novel ends with an exhaustive index, also prepared by Kinbote. This is what Mary McCarthy described as the ‘ground floor’ of the novel. We also learn, early in the story, that John Shade was murdered by a killer who is considered to have been escaped from the local lunatic asylum, and who, according to Kinbote, has used a number of aliases such as Jack grey, Jack Degree, Jacques de Gray, James de Gray; his real name may have been Jacob Gradus. Kinbote has obtained legal permission from Shade’s widow, Sybil, and is editing the manuscript and preparing his commentary in hiding, away, he declares, from the machinations of rival Shadians. This is the first indication that things may not be how they appear on the surface.

As the novel progresses, the ‘piano nobile’ (to borrow another phrase from McCarthy’s celebrated review, which went a long way towards promoting the novel in the USA upon its publication), becomes apparent. As Kinbote explicates ‘Pale Fire’, the reader begins to wonder whether he isn’t projecting the troubled history of his country of origin, Zembla, in particular the life and times of its last ruler who, as it happens, shares his first name with Kinbote, onto his interpretation of Shade’s poem. Shade’s poem is an emotional, elegiac and above all autobiographical work, with musings on death and loss and redemption, in part inspired by the death of his fat, plain daughter (who probably killed herself after she was spurned by a blind date); Kinbote, however, plunges deeper and deeper into his personal tale of Zemblan manners and intrigues in his scholium. The doubts disappear when Kinbote lets it be known that he believes that the Zemblan stories with which he has tirelessly regaled Shade during their five-month-acquaintance were the inspiration behind ‘Pale Fire’. The reader also becomes aware that Kinbote had the rather disturbing habit of spying on his neighbour (ostensibly to check on the progress of Shade’s poem in which he had personal interest); that Shade’s wife treated him with a mixture of wariness and dislike; that he was loathed by other academicians on the campus—Kinbote reports in the foreword an exchange with a friend of the Shades, who tells him that she finds him a remarkably disagreeable person and, ‘exasperated by my polite smile’, adds: ‘What’s more, you are insane.’—; and that he is most probably a homosexual and pederast. The second story, the ‘piano noble’ of the novel, is the real story, or so it seems almost until the end. In his commentary, Kinbote tells the story of Charles Xavier, or Charles the Beloved, the poetry-loving last King of Zembla, who loved the ‘laddies rather than ladies’, and who was removed from the throne by the Russian (read Communist) backed local Extremists. With the help of the loyalists, who call themselves ‘Karlists’, Charles escapes from Zembla and makes his way to America. The Extremists then rope in Jacob Gradus, a member of the Extremists’ party that has usurped power in Zembla. Gradus leaves Zembla, Kinbote informs us, on the day John Shade begins writing what would turn out to be the last poem of his life. The reader gradually becomes aware, by degrees, of that which is lying subjacent to Kinbote’s highfalutin prose: he is Charles the Beloved; or he thinks he is Charles the Beloved. And, as observed by the disapproving faculty member, he is insane. He has deluged John Shade (who, the reader realises, has tolerated him out of pity) with fantastical stories of his delusional world, and, while interpreting what is clearly an autobiographical poem, is prone to see his fantasy world reflected in it. Shade gets killed, according to Kinobote, by Gradus—but is he really Gradus; can Kinbote be trusted in anything that he says?—because he is the wrong man at the wrong place at the wrong time—Gradus has come to assassinate Kinbote a.k.a. Charles the Beloved, and the bullet that pierces Shade’s heart is meant for Kinbote. But then, if the killer is not what the deluded Kinbote thinks he is, then who is he? Is he the madman he confesses to the police to be, who has escaped from the local asylum, and has randomly killed Shade, who happens indeed to be the wrong man at the wrong time in the wrong place, but not in the way Kinbote imagines it? And who is Kinbote? What is his real identity? Could he be Professor Botkin, or Botkine (the anagram of which is Kinbote), a refugee professor who teaches in the Russian department and imagines himself to be the exiled king of Zembla? It is little wonder that ‘Pale Fire’ has spawned a plethora of interpretations and reviews speculating on the identity of Kinbote, and, by extension, the narrator.

Devilishly clever, Pale Fire works like a complex chess problem (at one point, the narrator even alludes to the ‘solus rex type’ of chess problem, one of the many clues Nabokov throws at the readers early on). Just as in the solus rex, the king on the run might be outnumbered but is not always disadvantaged, and the novel ends in a kind of draw, which is often the endpoint of a chess game with this problem.
Like many of Nabokov novels, ‘Pale Fire’ crackles with erudition, linguistic dazzle, and deadpan, wicked wit. Indeed the whole novel, from its ponderous foreword to the deadpan index—with line-by-line commentary annotated with fragments of arcane learning—from lepidopterology to Preterism —is one gigantic spoof, a farce; Nabokov is taking great delight in pulling the reader’s leg (assuming of course they will get or be willing to share the joke). Take the poem, for example. As one critic observed, it is not a bad poem, but not terrifically good either. With its conversational bend (and also because of enjambment) it does not read like a poem, even. When the reader plows  through the poem (the best way, I found, was to read portions of the poem together with the relevant—in a manner of speaking—bits of the scholium, which means you have to endure the annoyance of going backward and forward all the time; alternatively, you can read the whole poem first, make your own interpretations, and then read Kinbote’s commentary) he cannot but help noticing the disparity between the poem’s merit and the pedagogic reverence, albeit misplaced, of the commentary; it is a carefully built up farce. What about Zembla, the imaginary country Nabokov has invented?  What might be the inspiration behind it? There is actually a group of islands, controlled by the Russians, called Novaya Zemlya, known in English (and Dutch) as Nova Zembla, in the Arctic ocean, in the extreme North-East of Europe. It was apparently, a sensitive military area during the decades of the Cold War and the Russians had military presence there. It is possible that Nobokov, a Russian √©migr√©, knew of Nova Zembla. However, it is also possible that through Zembla Nabokov is acknowledging his debt to Alexander Pope, an eighteenth century English poet and one of the most celebrated exponents of heroic couplets. The word ‘Zembla’ can be found in Pope’s ‘Essay on Man’ (Epsitle 2), where it signifies the land of the polar star:

            ‘But where the extreme of Vice was ne’er agreed.
Ask where’s the North? At York, ‘tis on the Tweed;
In Scotland, at the Oroades, and there,
At Greenland, Zembla, or the Lord knows where;
No creature owns it in the first degree,
But thinks his neighbour farther gone than he.’

The murdered John Shade, incidentally, is an expert on Pope and has written a book on Pope titled ‘Supremely Blest’.  Whatever might be the inspiration behind Zembla, Nabokov goes about giving shape, colour and contours to this mythical country with great delectation; the invention of Zemblan words, technically neologisms, and explanations, for the benefit of English readers, of their English counterparts—all done with deadpan seriousness—is a remarkable sleight of hand. In addition to the Nabokovian linguistic pyrotechnics (the novel overflows with words such as ‘skoramis’, ‘pudibundity’, ‘fackeltanz’, ‘ancillula’, and ‘enceinte’, which would send many scurrying to the OED), the novel pullulates with references to culture, nature or literature. There are innumerable figurative allusions to the Greek mythology, nature, classical literature, and, of course, Shakespeare. Why, some characters from Nabokov’s own oeuvre, such as professor Pnin, make a guest appearance. Ferreting out these hidden references adds to the enjoyment of the novel. The novel is like a literary game show with secret passages, revealing doors and oblique clues (which, admittedly, very few other than the most anally retentive would be able to piece together). However, if, like me, you are not a person of what Charles Kinbote would describe as broad culture, you would still be able to enjoy the novel for its inventiveness and linguistic brilliance.

There is only one word to describe Pale Fire: brilliant; it is not just clever writing and devices; it is 24 carat gold. It may be ostentatious, but it is high-octane genius. I have never read anything like it. How does one describe a novel whose story takes place almost entirely outside of its own text? All literature, it can be argued, is an art of manipulation, and in ‘Pale Fire’ that sense is very strong. Mary Mccarthy described ‘Pale Fire’ as an ‘infernal machine’, a ‘trap to catch reviewers’, a ‘do-it-yourself-kit’, and a ‘cat-and-mouse game’. To these one can add: a self-contained puzzle that reforms itself just when you think you have cracked it; it is the literary equivalent of Maurits Eschar’s impossible structures. An ingenious masterpiece. 

Beryl Bainbridge

If I ever get round to make a list of my hundred favourite novels or a list of desert island novels, there will be at least three, possibly four, novels of Beryl Bainbridge, who sadly passed away last month. These will be: Every Man for Himself, Injury Time, The Bottle Factory Outing, and An Awfully Big Adventure.

In my more than two decades of (mainly) novel-reading, there is one novel, which I devoured in a day, a novel which was a page-turner, a novel I could not wait to get to the end of, and which, when it ended, left me feeling utterly flummoxed, indeed a bit stupid: Beryl Bainbridge’s Winter Garden. The plot of ‘Winter Garden’—an adulterous lawyer goes on a trip to Leonid Brezhnev’s Russia with his paramour  and gets drawn unwittingly into something which he does not understand (and neither does the reader)—is worthy of an Alfred Hitchcock thriller and the MacGuffin is so ambiguous that the reader, like the hapless protagonist of the novel, is left chasing the shadows until the end.  I read ‘Winter Garden’, first published in 1980, a couple of years ago. I thought I had probably figured out what the novel was about, but was not sure; so I ‘googled’ it afterwards to see whether there were any reviews or discussions that would tell me whether my interpretation of this devilish little (just over 150 pages) novel was correct, but could not find anything that helped. (I once read an interview of Bainbridge in which she said—tongue firmly lodged in her cheek, I suspect— that readers should read her novels three times if they were to get what was going on in them. In another literary event she admitted that on several occasions she had been told by readers that they did not understand what she meant. So, I guess I am not alone in struggling to come to grips with her novels, although, of the dozen or so Bainbridge novels I have read, only Winter Garden remains abstruse.)

An Awfully Big Adventure was the first Beryl Bainbridge novel I read. First published in 1989, this was the last of the novels she based on her early life in Liverpool (it was later made into a film starring Hugh Grant, Alan Rickman, and an actress who played Stella, the female protagonist, the only thing about whom I remember is that she had perky breasts). I loved the novel. It was waggish and sardonic, yet the underlying pathos did not leave you unmoved. And it was all so understated. By that time I had already become a fan of the great Muriel Spark, and Bainbridge, with her coolly stylish and punctilious style, was in the same mould.

I then read most of Bainbridge’s subsequent novels, which, I suppose, would come under the general category of ‘historical fiction’. But there was a difference. While Bainbridge took a historical event such as the sinking of the Titanic or the Crimean war as the backdrop to her novels, her stories were not fictionalised versions of historic events; rather she focused on the obscure or not very well known elements of the historical saga, and made them interesting. Of these Every Man for Himself, Bainbridge’s take on the sinking of the Titanic, remains my all-time favourite. I would have no hesitation in selecting it as one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century. Told through the eyes of Morgan, the rich nephew of the owner of the ship, Every Man for Himself had a fine ensemble of characters and told, in Bainbridge’s trademark meticulous, unostentatious prose, the story of the last four fateful days of the doomed vessel with devastating poignancy. This was followed by Master Georgie, Bainbridge’s take on the Crimean war, with the enigmatical surgeon, George Hardy, as the central protagonist. Master Georgie is a dark, intense tale. The reader gets to know the ways of Hardy, Master Georgie to his obsessively loyal Myrtle, from the points of view of others. Deliberately shunning the hyperbole usually associated with the ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’, Bainbridge presents the readers with a disturbing, alarming, even, at times, tale. And if at the end of it you are left feeling that you still do not know Master Georgie all that well and are a bit puzzled by the emotional sway he holds over others, the elegant, beautiful prose more than makes up for it. According to Queeney came out in 2001, the last novel Bainbridge published. It tells the story of the relationship of Dr. Samuel Johnson and Mrs. Thrale, as told through the eyes of Thrale’s daughter, Queeney. Bainbridge was inspired to write the novel after she came across a letter by Queeney in which she observes that the reason why she and her sister ended up damaged was because their mother hated their father. Like all of Bainbridge’s novels, it was complex, subtle, with subterranean currents the presence of which could only be guessed at by the occasional ripples they sent to the surface.

Most obituaries of Bainbridge I read divided her novels in two phases: in the first phase, which ended with An Awfully Big Adventure, Bainbridge drew extensively on her own early experiences. These novels are set in milieus in which she grew up or spent her formative years, and many have female protagonists that could have been fictionalised versions of Bainbridge herself. The next phase, which began with The Birthday Boys, consisted of what I earlier described as historical fiction. However, this is not strictly true. There is an early novel of hers, published in 1978, entitled Young Adolph. It is a historical novel in the loose sense of the term. Young Adolph is another of my favourite Bainbridge novel. It tells the story of the young and not very gifted (although he did not know it) Adolph Hitler, fancying himself as a painter, staying with his brother and sister-in-law in Liverpool before the First World War. As with most of Bainbridge’s ‘historical fiction’, the novel had a kernel of truth at its core. Hitler indeed had an older step-brother (from his father’s first marriage) who had married an Irishwoman. This brother had stayed in England, Liverpool for a few months before the First World War. What is not proven—there is certainly no historical evidence to back it and Hitler never mentioned it—is that Adolph Hitler ever visited him in England. Then there is Winter Garden, of course, which belongs to her early phase, and is in no way ‘autobiographical’. That said Bainbridge did draw a lot from her own experiences when she wrote her early novels. A Quiet Life, for example, is based heavily on her formative years in Formby, near Liverpool. She said in an interview that in the mid-eighties she felt as though she had written out her own past and was casting round for new subjects and ideas. The novels from her second phase are bigger in scope and all have male protagonists.  They also brought her wider, possibly international, fame and financial stability.

While my most favourite Bainbridge novel (Every Man for Himself) belongs to her second phase, in general I enjoy her earlier novels a lot more.

Almost all of Bainbridge novels end tragically. What characterizes her early novels is the unexpected juxtaposition of the comic with the grotesque. Her early novels are horribly funny, but the comedy has an edge to it, and, even as you laugh, you are troubled by something dark and vicious lurking underneath, ready to strike when you least expect it. Therefore, when the expected unexpected happens, you are still taken aback by its force. The Bottle Factory Outing and Injury Time (which I have reviewed on this blog some time back) are outstanding examples of black comedy. In The Bottle Factory Outing an outing of the employees of a bottle factory—Bainbridge brilliantly captures the apparent commonplaceness of the small worlds of working classes that makes you cringe—, spearheaded by a young unfulfilled woman, is unexpectedly interrupted by a murder. The Injury Time deals with the quotidian intrigues of the middle-classes—Edward, the protagonist of this novel, is having an affair with a chronically unhappy woman, and, to assuage her anger and his guilt, is having an evening party at her place for which a discrete work colleague is invited —which are suddenly overshadowed by violence and destruction. As William Trevor commented (in his review of The Bottle Factory Outing), it is as though ‘Muriel Spark [is] prevailed upon to write an episode of Liver Birds’.

There are, I feel, similarities in the writings of Muriel Spark and Beryl Bainbridge. Both wrote with great economy of prose, in a deadpan style—pans didn’t come deader than theirs—and the writing was cool, stylish and elegant. And they both wrote books that were slender in volume. The longest book Bainbridge wrote was her last, ‘According to Queeney’, which was still less than 250 pages. Novels such as Harriet Said and The Dressmaker are testimonies that you do not have to write tomes to produce quality.
Bainbridge began writing when she was an adolescent. She wrote a novella, entitled Filthy Lucre, when she was 14 (much later included in a volume of her collected stories). The first novel she wrote in her adult life was Harriet Said, which she wrote in her early twenties, when she was divorcing her husband. This novel did not find a publisher for a long time—it was rejected by one publishing company which informed Bainbridge that they did not publish filth—and was eventually her third novel to be published. She published a couple of novels in the 1960s, which attracted lukewarm praise and did not sell well (she once claimed that she earned £ 25 from her debut novel, ‘Weekend with Claude’). Much later, Bainbridge said that both the books were under-edited. She stopped writing for the next few years until she was ‘discovered’ (strictly speaking, rediscovered) by the novelist Allis Thomas Ellis (real name Anna Haycraft) with whose son Bainbridg’s eldest son was friends. Anna Haycraft became her editor, and her husband Colin, who bought the publishing house ‘Duckworth’, became her publisher for the next twenty-five years. Bainbridge remained fiercely loyal to her friends and stuck with Colin Haycraft until his bankruptcy and death. However, the consensus amongst her obituarists seems to be that the rickety financial arrangements did not serve her interests well. Duckworth apparently paid her pittance—the highest she ever got paid was apparently £3000 (and that was in 1990)—and never printed more than a couple of thousand copies. Almost all her novels with Duckworth attracted very good critical reviews but sold poorly because of poor promotion. However, they sold well in paperbacks, and a few, such as An Awfully Big Adventure, were made into films, so Bainbridge, as she jocularly remarked, did not exactly starve. 

Beryl Bainbridge was not very lucky when it came to awards. She was shortlisted for the Booker Prize no less than five times—only Iris Murdoch has been nominated more times than Bainbridge (and she won it once)—but did not win it even once. She withdrew Injury Time, which was published in 1977, as she was on the panel of judges that year.

In recent year Bainbridge was not very prolific. Her last novel, According to Queeney, was published nine years ago. At the time of her death she was putting finishing touches to what would have been her eighteenth novel, Girl with a Polka Dot Dress. While this novel, in keeping with her recent novels, has a historic backdrop—the assassination of Senator Bobby Kennedy—according to her publishers (who have announced that the novel will come out next year), it is more like her early, comic works.

Beryl Bainbridge once famously said that writing was easy; anybody could write. ‘You just listen to what people say and write it down. You think of a story, and then you write it down.’ This remark, I feel, is so like Bainbridge’s writing: unassuming, unpretentious, and absolutely brilliant.

Beryl Bainbridge’s death is a sad loss. She was a legend.