Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Ron Rosenbaum At Slate Is Wrong About Nabokov's Pale Fire

by Stephen J. Gertz

Portrait frontispiece by Andrew Hoyem for the 1994 Arion Press edition of Pale Fire

He's over the moon about "a new Nabokovian objet d'art that is likely to touch off the next big Nabokov controversy. One that takes us deeper into the heart of perhaps the greatest novelist of the past century..."

And what is it that will ignite this Nabokovian controversy? His friend Mo Cohen, publisher of Gingko Press, is issuing a "stand alone" edition of the poem Pale Fire that lies at the center of Vladimir Nabokov's novel Pale Fire. 

"With the publication of 'Pale Fire' as a stand-alone poem, Mo was throwing down the gauntlet, challenging the world's most avid Nabokov readers and critics, telling them for 50 years, most of them had gotten a central aspect of, arguably, his greatest work flat wrong....

"...All the excellences of the poem's complex, Persian-rug pleasures suggest perhaps it deserves to be stolen back...and looked at as a pseudonymous work of Nabokov's that he had hidden inside the Russian doll construction of the novel...

"...the poem deserves to be read on its own terms, solus rex to use a Nabokovian phrase. Standing regally alone. Allowed to convey its own meanings once it left the author's pen. An in a sense that's what this new gesture, this new incarnation of the poem 'Pale Fire' Mo was sending me was. 'Pale Fire' freed from the shackles of, or, if you prefer, the delicately woven web of Pale Fire. 'Pale Fire' free at last to be a poem on its own."

There's just one problem. The poem 'Pale Fire' was "freed from the shackles..free at last to be a poem on its own," extracted from the novel and published in its first separate edition in 1994, by Arion Press in San Francisco.

Title page to the First Separate Edition of Pale Fire (the poem).

Moreover, it was printed to appear as the fictional manuscript is described in the novel, on index cards.

Arion Press publisher, Andrew Hoyem, lays it out in the book's colophon:

Furthermore, Hoyem wrote an essay, published by Arion Press in 1997, in which he makes a strong case for the poem as an important and distinct work; exactly Ron Rosenbaum's point - thirteen years afterward.

"The poem is not regarded as an independent work, for it is embedded in a novel that takes its title from that of the poem and is a part of the fiction in verse, yet it is self-contained and unreliant upon the rest of the novel...it is possible to read the poem by itself and to recognize its greatness as a distinct literary work" (Andrew Hoyem).

It is difficult for me to believe that Rosenbaum, a rabid fan of Nabokov, was not aware of this earlier, separate edition of the poem 'Pale Fire.' He has spoken to Dmitri Nabokov, the novelist's son and literary executor, and to Brian Boyd, the novelist's biographer. They were quite aware of the existence of the Arion Press edition; Hoyem, in his essay, writes about communicating with them. Dmitri wrote to him after receiving a copy.

"It is very attractive, including the little marsupial," he wrote, the marsupial in question the separate edition of the poem that accompanied Arion's edition of the novel.

And Brian Boyd wrote:

"Thank you very much for for your wonderful edition...I pore over it with delight...it is designed with imagination, wit, and scrupulous care."

It may be that Rosenbaum is fudging a bibliographical point. He's careful not to call this new Gingko Press edition the first separate edition; he refers to it as a "stand alone edition," by which he may mean that the prior Arion Press edition was not meant to "stand alone" by itself independently from the novel with which it was issued as a two-volume set. But "stand alone" is imprecise and far from accurate.

Pale Fire (the poem) standing alone.

Pale Fire (the poem) standing alone with its companions

What remains puzzling about this is that every Nabokov fan on the planet was likely aware of the Arion Press first separate edition of 1994 and yet I don't recall headlines heralding a new Nabokov controversy as a result of its printing. And Hoyem's essay has been around for thirteen years, plenty of time for Nabokov critics and scholars to engage in a literary food fight. There was none that I can recall.

Is it possible that the only controversy here is that Ron Rosenbuam may be shilling for his friend, Mo Cohen of Gingko Press?

Bibliographers take note: The upcoming Gingko Press edition (November 2010) of the poem 'Pale Fire' by Vladimir Nabokov should be cataloged as the First Separate, Independently Published Edition to distinguish it from the Arion Press First Separate Edition that accompanied the novel as a two-volume set.

Images courtesy of David Brass.


  1. Outstanding research Mr Gertz. If such a separate edition, as opposed to separate volume, stirs such emotion then what fickle readers we are.

  2. Controversy is probably too strong a word, but there has been a debate about the stand-alone merit of the poem at least since I first read it 25 years ago. One formulation of the question: did VN intend Shade to be a great poet or a mediocre one? Sergei Davydov, in the Nabokov seminar I had with him in 1986, hypothesized that the novel was, in part, an elaborate device to conceal VN's anxiety about his ability to write poetry in English.

  3. I used to wonder why Dostoevsky had Ivan outline his Grand Inquisitor story instead of sticking it in as a finished poem. Aside from whether Dostoevsky could actually write poetry, seems to me actually writing it would defeat the purpose of putting it into his novel. Were it good enough to read it'd be good enough to be published alone. Also, writing it would take time away from novel writing, which was his bread and butter.

    Some novelists could be poets, like Thomas Hardy or Robert Penn Warren. You could stick great poetry into novels, like Lewis Carroll (if those are actually "novels"). But could you structure a novel around a poem good enough to be a good poem on its own? Is that even possible? I once tried playing both sides of a chess match because I heard Bobby Fischer did. It was impossible, and must require genius or exceptionally poor memory. You're constantly tempted to thumb one side of the scale and pretend the other side doesn't notice.

    The poem won't be as good as it can be if it's subservient to the story the novel's trying to tell, except maybe by freak accident. Not a poem as long as "Pale Fire," anyway. And you can't make up a story to fit an already existing, standalone poem, not without cheating. You're going to secretly favor the novel or the poem, is my guess. Nabokov was primarily a novelist, and safe bet is the poem is subordinate.


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