Archives » Literary Fiction

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Penguin, 1996, 211 p.

 Mrs Dalloway cover

This tells the events of one day leading up to the throwing of a party by the titular Mrs (Clarissa) Dalloway which may, or may not, be being attended by the Prime Minister. That title might lead you to believe that the book’s main focus will be Clarissa but it is not. It is written in the stream of consciousness style but that too is a misnomer as what we have here is really streams of consciousnesses since the narration flits from one character to another like a gadfly, rarely settling down for long. This is immensely irritating to begin with but in time, with familiarity, becomes less so.

As well as Mrs Dalloway we enter the thoughts of Peter Walsh, recently returned from India and a failed marriage but declaring himself to be in love for the first time, and Rezia and Septimus Smith, wife and husband. Walsh it seems had a thing for Clarissa in their youths, later musing he had been so in love with her then. (So what was that “first time” declaration all about?) Septimus has not recovered from his experiences in the Great War and his disturbed state has tragically not been recognised by various medical practitioners, nor by his wife.

I know Woolf has received praise for her writing and was an early user of stream of consciousness (a pioneer, indeed) but there is something detached about her style which I find difficult to engage with. My reaction to this book is the same as it was with To The Lighthouse.

This copy was loaned to us by a friend who has written in the margin that Woolf was trying to erase the narrator as a persona. On this evidence, replacing a narrator with many personas isn’t much of an improvement. I’ll not be in a hurry to read any more Woolf.

Pedant’s corner:- sprung (sprang, which was used later,) waggons (wagons,) Hatchards’ (either Hatchard’s or Hatchards’s,) Jorrocks’ (Jorrocks’s,) plaguy (plaguey?) a missing full stop, missing commas before pieces of direct speech (too numerous to count,) Kinloch Jones’s (this was a plural, hence Kinloch Joneses,) “They rose .And Richard” (They rose. And Richard”,) “Mrs Peters’ hat” (Mrs Peters’s,) campare (compare,) “did not use to rouge” (did not used to rouge.)

Look At Me by Anita Brookner

Triad Panther, 1985, 193 p

 Look At Me  cover

The novel starts with the sentences, “Once a thing is known it can never be unknown. It can only be forgotten.” Narrator Frances Hinton works in a medical library. While she is laying out the progress of her life to the novel’s point of crisis she more than once alludes to something in her past she does not wish to remember (“the time of which I never speak”) but, annoyingly, we never actually find out what that was, though we can guess. She lives in the big, old house which belonged to her parents, with Nanny still in attendance, though Frances is completely independent. In her spare time she makes notes for a projected novel. Though not much should be made of this, Look At Me is not primarily a novel about someone writing a novel, it does give Brookner scope to make observations such as, “writing is the enemy of forgetfulness, of thoughtlessness. For the writer there is no oblivion. Only endless memory,” and, “For those who put pen to paper do so because they rarely trust their own voices.”

Through her work Frances falls into the orbit of Nick and Alix Fraser. Nick has an alluring aura, (“He struck one as a much-loved creature ….. The combination of his golden and indiscriminate affection and his hard if random gaze at the women around him made one feel that possibly, and potentially, he might favour one,”) and Alix has “come down in the world,” and scarcely forbears to let everyone know it. When discovering Frances’s parents are both dead they take to calling her Little Orphan Fanny – a description she dislikes.

Frances strikes up a friendship with mutual friend James, the details of which Alix is perennially asking Frances to divulge. This relationship is the core of the book. Frances tells us that, “The worst thing that a man can do to a woman is to make her feel unimportant.” James appears to do the opposite yet Frnces does not seem to appreciate that till it’s too late.

Apart from one aspect Brookner’s writing flows very smoothly and almost transparently though the whole is perhaps a trifle inconsequential. The problem is that use of “one” as an (im)personal pronoun. While seeking to illustrate generality, it in fact undermines it, serving instead to point to the book’s class imperviousness. That phrase quoted above, “possibly, and potentially, he might favour one,” is utterly jarring in its awkwardness. The affect is so detached as to be alien.

Pedant’s corner:- ambiance (I prefer the spelling ‘ambience’.)

According to Queeney by Beryl Bainbridge

Little, Brown, 2001, 250 p

 According to Queeney cover

Bainbridge is – or was – one of the stalwarts of English Fiction, but I had not read anything from her œuvre before this book. I gather her output is varied though, so I shall not take this as representative.

According to Queeney is topped and tailed by a Prologue and Epilogue describing respectively Samuel Johnson’s body’s removal from the house in which he died and his funeral, the sections in between being an account of his relationship with the Thrale family, one of whose daughters (given name, Harriet, like her mother) is the Queeney of the title.

The individual chapters deal with phases of Johnson’s life from a debilitating illness in 1765 to his eventual fading away and each is appended by a letter from the grown-up Queeney to Miss Laetitia Hawkins of Sion Row Tottenham, who is composing her memoirs which feature Johnson heavily, or, once, to novelist Fanny Burney (by now Madame D’Arblay) in Paris. Queeney’s mother and Johnson had both championed Burney’s writing. These letters provide Queeney’s own perspective on the events. (In one of them, incidentally, she mentions recently staying in Dumbartonshire.)

Johnson is irascible, opinionated and enamoured of Mrs Thrale, whose life is otherwise a constant round of pregnancies and dead children. Since this is an illustration of a more private part of Johnson’s life his biographer James Boswell makes only fleeting appearances in the book. We are also granted glimpses of the actor David Garrick.

Bainbridge’s prose is finely written but unfortunately too much of the proceedings are told, rather than shown. As a result the reader does not feel the emotions implied.

Pedant’s corner:- “was sat” (was seated, or, was sitting,) another “sat” (where ‘sitting’ would have been more appropriate,) “she was of no more interest to him that the stone urns set at frequent intervals along the way” (than the stone urns,) “nought but darkness lay ahead” (nought is the number, zero; ‘naught but darkness’.)

Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë

In “The Brontë Sisters: Three Novels,” Barnes and Noble, 2012, 164 p (plus iii p Introduction to the three novels.) Agnes Grey was first published 1847.

 The Brontë Sisters: Three Novels cover

Narrator Agnes Grey is the daughter of a poor-ish clergyman on whose infirmity she decides to find work as a governess to help out her family financially, albeit in a small way. The novel is a more or less straightforward account of her experiences first of all in a family where the children fail to do as they are asked, over-indulged as they are by their parents, a thankless endeavour not soon enough brought to an end, then in another – the Murrays – where she is in charge of two much older daughters, both of whom are headstrong in various degrees. The influence of Brontë’s own life in providing a milieu for her heroine is therefore obvious.

Agnes Grey is God-fearing, thoughtful and mindful of her place in the scheme of things and of her obligations to be compassionate. That others of higher social standing than herself may not be so minded, is something she becomes acutely aware of.

The hypocritical minister, the more truly Christian curate, the calculating mother prepared to sacrifice her daughter’s future happiness to a title, the scheming young girl callously set on snaring a man’s heart while never intending to gratify that desire, all make an appearance here. This fits neatly into the template of the Georgian or Victorian novel. It is all over rather quickly and it is relatively obvious from the moment of the appearance of the curate, Mr Weston, in Agnes Grey’s life where it will end. Everything seemed rather rushed, though, more like sketches for a novel than the complete article.

Pedant’s corner:- In the Introduction; a repeated full stop. Otherwise; no start quote mark when a chapter begins with a piece of dialogue, “it would be with different, feelings” (why the comma?) opportunityl (opportunity,) visiter(s) (several instances, visitor(s),) by-the-bye (previously – on the same page! – by-the-by.) “‘What do your mean, sir?’” (you,) secresy (an old spelling?) “None of the Murrays were disposed to….” (None … was disposed to,) visa versa (nowadays always vice versa,) wofully, woful (now spelled woefully, woeful,) “the congregation were departing” (the congregation was departing,) “not to shabby or mean” (not to appear shabby or mean,) worky-day (now spelled workaday,) “said be” (said he.)

Ancient Evenings by Norman Mailer

Picador, 1984, 715 p.

 Ancient Evenings cover

The main preoccupations of the novel as a form throughout the years have been with love, sex and death. This is not a love story and, since it revolves around reincarnation, that pretty much takes care of death. (Not entirely, there is a long description of the Battle of Kadesh, which isn’t exactly mortality free, and to be reborn one has to die, but these are all-but incidental.)

That leaves only sex, la petite mort. And boy, does it leave sex. You name it, it appears in these pages.

Not that there is much intimation of that to start with. We begin with someone – we quickly learn this person is named Menenhetet Two – waking up in the Great Pyramid of Khufu, assuming himself to be dead, and making his way up into the light. (Ancient Egyptians of course had an afterlife.) This is the first of seven Books in the novel, The Book of One Man Dead. The others are The Book of the Gods, The Book of the Child, The Book of the Charioteer, The Book of the Queens, The Book of the Pharaoh and The Book of Secrets, in all of which the chapters are preceded by that section’s descriptive Egyptian hieroglyph.

The first two are fairly turgid, the second, The Book of the Gods, being an account of Egyptian mythology but which doesn’t seem to serve much of a purpose beyond illustrating their Gods’ convolutions. It is only in the third section that we begin to have some appearance of story. Here Menenhetet Two, as a seven year-old boy, accompanies his parents (mother Hathfertiti and father Nef-khep-aukhem, who in Egyptian tradition are half-siblings,) and his great-grandfather Menenhetet One, to a celebration known as the Night of the Pig (an unclean animal of course,) in the presence of Pharaoh Ptah-nem-hotep, also known as Ramses the Ninth, in the royal city of Memphi. The later chapters play out the ramifications of this evening and Menenhetet One’s reminiscences of his four lives so far, but are mostly set during the life and times of the Great Pharaoh Ramses the Second, (Usermare Setpenere,) whom Menenhetet One served in various contexts – as charioteer, then General, then governor of the little queens in the House of the Secluded (the Pharoah’s harem,) then guard to Ramses’s Queen, Nefertiri, and later to the Pharaoh’s third Queen, the Hittite princess Rama-Nefru, but also, in Menenhetet One’s second life, as High Priest – during his long reign.

Egyptians, due to the influence of the Nile, are privy to other people’s thoughts and Menenhetet Two experiences all of this – and knowledge of his mother’s desire to actually have sex with Ptah-nem-hotep (eventually fulfilled) – mostly by pretending to be asleep. So it is that Menenhetet Two learns his great-grandfather and his mother have been long-time lovers and his real father is Ptah-nem-hotep, conceived by Hathfertiti through devious means.

Mailer makes a fair enough attempt to mimic ancient Egyptian speech patterns and phraseology but in the main the novel is overwritten, which renders it hard going to start with. The details of Menenhetet One’s first life though do manage to conjure some interest but there are still significant longueurs within most of his reminiscences.

My overall memory of this book, however, is likely to be of the quite ridiculous amount of sex it contains.

Pedant’s corner:- On the backcover “Nefititi” (In text it’s always Nefertiri.) Otherwise; lay (lie,) Isis’ (Isis’s,) Osiris’ (Osiris’s,) Horus’ (Horus’s.) “The air alt red” (altered.) “My means might be one-seventh of what once it had been” (of what once they had been.) “Ahead were nothing but mountains covered with trees” (Ahead was nothing but…,) paniers (panniers,) “the first of our advantages were the bows” (the first … was the bows,) staunch (x 2, stanch.)

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

(And two other stories.) Folio Society, 1997, 295 p (including 11 p Introduction by Jeremy Hardy,) plus 12 p illustrations by Francis Moseley and 3 p Author’s Note.

 Heart of Darkness cover

This is one of a uniform Folio Society edition of Conrad’s works. Despite its title the book actually contains three stories, Youth, Heart of Darkness itself and The End of the Tether.

The fairly short Youth is one of those ‘as told to’ stories, by someone called Marlow to a group with knowledge of seafaring about his trip as a Second Mate on a ship whose charge was the Captain’s first, carrying coal to Bangkok from Newcastle. Before the ship can leave port it has to be caulked, then it is bashed by another steamer while still in dock and more repairs are required. On setting out the pumps have to be manned constantly and they are forced to turn back. It by now has such a reputation no crew can be found locally and men have to be fetched from Liverpool. The repairs are finally finished.

But, before she sets sail, the rats start to leave.

Heart of Darkness (In the list of 100 best Scottish books, but only Scottish because it was first published by Edinburgh based Blackwood’s Magazine.)

This long short story is another tale told by Marlow (this time accorded the first name Charlie) telling a ship’s crew in the offing off Gravesend of his trip as a steamboat captain up an unnamed African river – the Introduction says it’s the Congo but that is not in the text – to find the successful but rogue ivory trader Kurtz.

This ‘telling’ style is more obtrusive here than in Youth and erects a barrier between the reader and the text. The actual narrator regurgitating Marlow’s tales – both here and in Youth – is neither named nor makes much of an impression on the reader. The story is therefore rendered opaque (okay, it’s titled Heart of Darkness, a degree of opacity is perhaps required) but it makes disbelief more difficult to suspend.

Caught in a thick white fog near Kurtz’s station the boat is attacked with spears and a crew member is killed but blasts on the ship’s horn disperse the attackers. Marlow observes near Kurtz’s station a row of posts with severed heads on them. The natives seem to want to attack the boat again but Kurtz’s influence on them prevents that. When he is finally brought on board it seems to Marlow’s eyes that Kurtz has ‘gone native.’ He is in any case very ill and dies on the trip back.

(The) Heart of Darkness was first published in Blackwood’s Magazine in 1898/9 (a book containing all three stories in this volume appeared in 1902) and despite Marlow’s expressed disillusion with the trading company’s methods it is representative of the attitudes of the time, presenting the Africans as ‘others.’ Even the story’s title is emblematic of a disregard both for the land- and riverscapes and for the accomplishments and society Africans of the time had. However, Conrad was writing at that time and for an audience who had those prejudices.

The End of the Tether is much the longest story here. In it, ship’s Captain Whalley had made a fortune (and promised it to his daughter who in turn had married a no-hoper) only to lose it in a stock market crash, leaving him with only a ship called The Fair Maid to sell. The proceeds go partly towards his daughter but the rest he invests in a ship called the Sofala whose main owner is its engineer, famous for getting rid of Captains at short notice. The arrangement is to last for three years after which time Whalley will regain the stake he put in. The time is almost up when Whalley begins to show signs of losing his touch. The second mate comes to the conclusion that Whalley is actually letting his Malay helmsman direct the boat and tries to blackmail him. The truth is more nuanced than that.

Note. Modern sensibilities may quail at the use of the word nigger(s) and ‘Marlow’ also describes native Africans as savages.

Pedant’s corner:- “to come abroad” (to come aboard,) curb (kerb.)

Girl with Green Eyes by Edna O’Brien

Penguin, copyright page has 1964 but this edition is a later reprint, 211 p. First published in 1962 as The Lonely Girl.

Girl with Green Eyes cover

This second part of O’Brien’s trilogy sees Caithleen Brady not really having learned the lesson of her infatuation with Mr Gentleman in The Country Girls. On one of her nights out with her friend Baba in Dublin (where she has lodgings and a job) she meets Eugene Gaillard and immediately finds him attractive. He is of course much older than her but she does not find out till a bit later he has a past which includes a wife and a child. Nevertheless she allows herself to be taken to his home in the country for weekends but only after several false starts (one visit being interrupted by her drunk of a father coming mob-handed to the house and assaulting Eugene) does she finally lose her virginity to him. Even her chance encounter with Mr Gentleman, where she is dismissed more or less curtly, does not forewarn her of the dangers of intimacy on such terms.

She finds the exposure of her background embarrassing and later Eugene characterises her (and by implication rural Ireland) as bred in “Stone Age ignorance and religious savagery.” Eugene’s wife turns the screw by threatening to prevent contact with his child and Caithleen fatally gives him an ultimatum.

Her experiences do give her insight though, “it is only with our bodies that we ever really forgive one another; the mind pretends to forgive, but it harbours and re-remembers in moments of blackness,” but the situation cannot hold. “Up to then I thought that being one with him in bed meant being one with him in life, but I knew now that I was mistaken, and that lovers are strangers, in between times.” Yet she still hopes Eugene will come to rescue her.

Pedant’s corner:- haemorridge (x2, haemorrhage,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech (many times,) salame (salami,) sprung (sprang,) “a tick in his right cheek,) (tic,) “the Miss Walkers” (the Misses Walker,) “The inside of my lips were covered with water blisters” (The inside … was covered with … .)

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

Guild Publishing, 1982, 233 p. First published 1817.

 Northanger Abbey cover

This is Austen’s first novel in order of writing, but the sixth to be published. It is certainly a lighter read than Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice but it is refreshing too in that its content is not over-familiar, not having been adapted to death for film and television in the way others of her works have.

From the outset it adopts a more satirical tone than those two books, seems to have a more acid eye to cast on polite society. It was Austen’s commentary on the sort of gothic novel which was seen as trifling, probably thought to be fit only for women to read.

It could even be said to be meta-fictional in that it addresses the reader directly, comments on itself (and on the attitudes of characters in novels to the reading of novels as somehow being unworthy,) while the narrator castigates her fellow novelists for their disparagement of their craft and enumerates the iniquities of reviewers but the overall story arc follows the pattern of romantic fiction.

Heroine Catherine Morland’s mother “had three sons before Catherine was born; and instead of dying in bringing the latter into the world, as anybody might expect, she still lived on.” Catherine herself is said to be as plain as any – no one “would have supposed her born to be a heroine” – seemingly with no outstanding qualities at all. Catherine’s fairly restricted life is opened up when she is asked to accompany the Allens on a trip to Bath for a few weeks’ stay. Here we have the vacuousness of trips to the Pump Room, the tedium of balls where the attendee knows no-one, either to converse or to dance with but soon enough Catherine falls into the orbit of Isabella Thorpe, the object of Catherine’s brother James’s affections, and Isabella’s brother, John, one of those men who insist on their own plans being followed, and who quickly takes it into his head that he and Catherine have formed an attachment. However, Catherine’s attentions soon lock onto Henry Tilney, via his sister Eleanor, and she is at pains to disabuse Isabella of any attraction to John.

It is past, though, the middle of the book before we come to Northanger Abbey, the Tilney’s residence, to where Henry and Eleanor’s father, the Colonel, invites Catherine. Her fascination with old architecture, coloured as it is by her slightly lurid imaginings (derived from gothic novels, naturally) ensures she is almost as delighted at the prospect of seeing Northanger Abbey as she is at prolonged contact with the Tilney siblings.

As fits Austen’s satirical intent, elements from the gothic (there are frequent references to the novel referred to as Udolpho) intrude at various points but while she has Catherine wondering about the appearance and contents of the room she is given at Northanger Abbey, what secrets it might conceal, and having all sorts of unworthy thoughts about Colonel Tilney related to the death of his wife or the possibility that she remains alive and sequestered, Austen draws back from excess. Given the milieu it is of course necessary that the path of true love does not run smooth – not for James as Isabella’s inconstancy is revealed, nor for Catherine when the Colonel is informed that she is not as ideal a match for his son as he had been led to believe.

There are Austenisms such as, “A woman, especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can,” to please the aficionados and an aside on men’s indifference to a new gown (or indeed any new clothing) on a woman. What the book demonstrates beyond anything else though, is the importance of money and prospects to the society Austen portrays.

Modern sensibilities might be offended by John Thorpe’s observation that the Colonel is, “as rich as a Jew.”

Pedant’s corner:- “the Miss Thorpes” (x 2, the Misses Thorpe,) “Miss Thorpe’s, progress” (no comma needed,) by the bye (I prefer ‘by the by’,) “her acquaintance with the Tilney’s” (with the Tilneys,) a missing comma at the end of a piece of direct speech, another before the start of one, “in the general” (in the General, several instances of General with a lower case ‘g’,) “the Lady Frasers” (strictly, the Ladies Fraser,) “the whole family were immediately at the window” (the whole family was immediately at the window,)

The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel

Fourth Estate, 2020, 889 p, including 4p Author’s Note and 1 pAcknowledgements, plus ii p Contents, vi p Cast of Characters and ii p Tudor and Plantagenet descendant family trees.

The Mirror and the Light cover

As we have come to expect of Mantel this is exquisitely written. Each word, it seems, has been chosen with care, the prose burnished to perfection. At nearly 900 pages, though, it is not a quick read.

This final instalment of Mantel’s Tudor trilogy is bookended by two executions, that of Anne Boleyn and Cromwell’s own. Despite the reader’s knowledge of its narrator’s ultimate fate (surely no-one coming to this book could be unaware of it?) there is no sense of tension defrayed. We are in the moment – often in his past moments – with Thomas Cromwell in his efforts to serve Henry VIII and to frustrate the king’s enemies both at home and abroad (and for Cromwell to climb the greasy pole as high as possible while incidentally enriching himself, his family and his entourage.)

The Tudor dynasty is still on insecure ground, its already tenuous claim to the throne threatened by the lack of a male heir, Catholic pretenders (the Poles and the Courtenays) intriguing against Henry with the Spanish Emperor’s envoy and with the Pope, gossiping and insinuating against Cromwell but in the aftermath of Anne Boleyn’s death the most urgent task in the king’s households seems to be to chip out the HA HA insignia from all the heraldic emblems on the walls and to unstitch them from the embroidered cushions. Meanwhile the king’s latest marriage – to Jane Seymour – goes well, bringing benefits to the Seymours and Cromwell both, not least the marriage of Cromwell’s son into the Seymour family. Then, after producing a legitimate son for Henry, Jane dies; and, though Prince Edward thrives, everything is thrown into the air again.

This is an easy to absorb foray through the history of the times as seen through the eyes of one of its prime actors; the uprising against the King’s religious policies in the North of England that became known as The Pilgrimage of Grace, allayed by worthless promises and later crushed by the Duke of Norfolk; the diplomatic dance surrounding the marriages of James V of Scotland with French heiresses; the dissolution of the monasteries and the bounty that brings, both to the crown and to its servants; the arm’s length negotiations for Henry’s marriage with Anne of Cleves; that project’s dismal failure on the pair’s first sight of each other; the insinuation by the Duke of Norfolk of his flighty niece Katherine Howard into the King’s orbit; rumours that Cromwell seeks to marry the King’s first daughter, the Lady Mary. All goes well for Cromwell until suddenly it doesn’t, things he said in innocence are twisted against him, hoist by his own petard.

There are some quotable moments. Thinking of his dead wife, Cromwell remembers, “She kept a list of his sins, in the pocket of her apron: took it out and checked it from time to time.” (She needed to write them down?) Under questioning by Cromwell, Margaret Pole comments on the position of aristocratic women, “‘I have noticed’” she says, “‘common men often love their mothers. Sometimes they even love their wives.’” At one point Cromwell reflects that, “men pay for crimes, but not necessarily their own.”

However, at times I found myself struggling to concentrate on the text, perhaps due to this third Cromwell book’s length (or even its weight) or that I was reading it during lockdown with other things on my mind.

It is obvious in retrospect, though, that the whole trilogy has been the thoughts of Cromwell on the scaffold, scrolling through his life as he awaits the axe.

Overall, this trilogy is a tour-de-force, a great feat of evoking another time, of imagining another mind, and a brilliant achievement.

Pedant’s corner:- “her family sweep in” (sweeps in.) “None of them have kept their looks” (None of them has kept her looks.) “‘I am sure you she remembers you’” (no need for the ‘you’, or else ‘I assure you’ was meant,) burger (x2, burgher,) dottrels (dotterels.) “‘Did you not use to be’” (Did you not used to be’,) “lands at the town of Fife” (Fife is not a town, it’s a county, though it’s still sometimes referred to as the Kingdom of Fife.) “His party travel” (His party travels,) pyxs (pyxes,) “to see that that” (only one ‘that’ needed,) “spout it from their maws” (a maw is a stomach, not a mouth.)

Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov

Penguin, 1991, 236 p, plus xviii p Introductory essay by Mary McCarthy and 12 p Index.

 Pale Fire   cover

On the face of it an exploration of the last work of a recently murdered US poet, John Shade of Wordsmith College, New Wye, Appalachia, with a foreword by the narrator, Charles Kinbote, the poem itself and the narrator’s commentary on it, Pale Fire (that poem’s title as well as this novel’s) is actually something else again. Or several things again.

The foreword gives the narrator’s account of how the poem was written (on eighty index cards) and how he came to be in charge of both its editing and publication but also provides hints of the shifting ground the text in front of the reader embodies. Kinbote’s relationship with Shade and his wife Sybil (names here tend to the symbolic,) is not particularly friendly; Kinbote comes across as something of a stalker and voyeur. Other academics’ doubts about the poem or its significance are dismissed as nonsense. Kinbote slips in references to his origins in the country of Zembla and his translations of previous Shade poems into Zemblan. That Kinbote lives in a house rented from a Professor Goldsworth – also of Wordsmith College – rings bells to a Spoonerist (compare Wordsworth and Goldsmith, noted poets.) In this section Kinbote suggests his commentary ought to be read before Shade’s poem. Perhaps I should have taken that advice but I doubt it makes much difference. The book seemed to read perfectly well in the printed order and the poem is comprehensible enough on its own in any case.

The poem itself, in four Cantos of two different lengths but symmetrical overall, amounting to 999 lines – each an iambic pentameter – is comprised of rhyming couplets but never at any time reduces to doggerel. Kinbote asserts the poem is actually 1000 lines long, as its first was also to be its last but was never written down. (For the symmetry, it would have to be.)

The meat of the book is in the commentary, though, where Kinbote’s conviction that he supplied Shade with the idea for his poem with his reminiscences of Zembla becomes increasingly hard to credit, mixed up as it is with his potted history of Zembla and its last king, Charles the Beloved, its revolution and the king’s unlikely escape though an underground passage used by his grandfather for illicit liaisons with an actress in the theatre where she performed. Kinbote parallels the writing of the poem to and with the journey from Zembla to the US of Jakob Gradus, a gunman hired by the new Zemblan regime’s secret police to kill the king. Gradus is also known as Jacques d’Argus, Jacques Derges and Jack Grey. This last is the name Shade’s killer, an escapee from a lunatic asylum, gave to the police. Through it all Kinbote, whose name is more likely Botkin, a refugee from Zembla teaching in the Russian Department at Wordsmith’s, gradually reveals his true identity as that last king (or, at least, of his belief in that identity) and that he was the intended target of the gunman. But even his account of the shooting is suspect, as the two witnesses, Gradus and a gardener who intervened to restrain him, recall things differently in later statements to the police. Nabokov is not only presenting us with an unreliable narrator but also an unreliable commentator.

Perhaps I ought to mention that at one point Kinbote relays to us Shade’s disquisition on the use of the word “coloured” to refer to “negroes.”

Mary McCarthy’s essay calls the book, “a Jack-in-the-box, a Fabergé egg, a clockwork toy, a chess problem, an infernal machine, a trap to catch reviewers, a cat and mouse game, a do-it-yourself kit.” It is all of these and more. Pale Fire is an astonishing feat of construction. An intellectual maze, a hall of distorting mirrors, but still utterly readable. A portrait of an unhinged mind convinced it is entirely rational, a fillip to those who delight in the use of such words as pudibundity, fatidic and inenubilable (even if they have to look them up.) Food for the mind, if not quite the heart.

Pedant’s corner:- In the Introductory essay; Gradus’ (Gradus’s.) For some of the others I wasn’t sure these were real typos or indications that Kinbote was deranged: sleezy (sleazy,) “another boy, another boy” (why the repetition?) “the harmonies hiving in the man” (hiving?) Keats’ (Keats’s,) momento (memento,) demolishment (demolition, but this was in dialogue,) John Slade (Shade,) sprung (sprang,) “harebreath escapes” (hairsbreadth escapes,) confusely (confusedly,) hoplessness (hopelessness,) Ukranian (Ukrainian,) remindful (reminiscent,) ginko (ginkgo.)

free hit counter script