I first read Pale Fire the summer after my first semester of graduate school. I was staying in a grand residence near the Washington University music school and alumni house, house sitting for a math professor on sabbatical. The home was exquisite, despite some wear and tear, with hand painted wallpaper in the dining room, intricate wainscotting, and a gr . This was a good thing, because there was no air conditioning. Some other students were coming to take over the house in July, so I missed most of the really hot weather, but I also didn’t want to leave. We had a few dinner parties, played the grand piano, and my boyfriend Steve could come stay with me. This lasted only for a while, as he quickly discovered that my boundless energy was a bit much on the daily, though short times together were great fun: we made fantastic travel companions.
My first semester teaching was terrible, to be honest. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, and the pedagogy seminar was held only in the fall. I learned then that I made all sorts of mistakes, but I also had a horrible schedule, with classes at 8am and 5pm four days a week. Living nearly an hour from campus, I was always at ends about what to do between my teaching times. But I survived, more or less, and figured out enough to do a bang-up job running the language drills for summer school. My students loved me, and I had so many tutoring students that I was thriving financially for the first time in ages. I also had a little side gig that a professor handed to me, proofreading for an academic journal.
Given the events earlier in the semester, things seemed to be going well. My advisor had suggested that I stay on to finish my doctorate there, and I was excited. I had written a couple of good papers, and that one sort of downer grade in a rhetoric class that should have been my forte. That is a whole other story, but at this point of my academic career, I could just brush it off and concentrate on soaking in all I could. Teaching got me over my fear of public speaking, and years later, I am grateful to have discovered something I still enjoy so much.
Pale Fire is the perfect book for a graduate student in literature, a sheer delight in a field that can take itself very seriously. If you don’t already know, the novel consists of a 999-line poem by the deceased John Shade, with notes by the critic Charles Kinbote, who has saved the last copy of the poem.
I stayed up all night when I started reading it, laughing wildly at the interpretations, and at the poem itself. Not that the poem is bad, but at the very first couplet, I found myself wondering if the deceased poet John Shade had written a parody never intended to see the light of day.
I was the shadow of the waxwing slain
By the false azure in the window pane
Of course, John Shade and his poem are Nabokov’s creation, as are Charles Kinbote’s notations. I had read Nabokov, but had no idea of this book before I picked it up, which I think must be the best possible circumstance to read Pale Fire. I found such playfulness as I floated along with Kinbote’s far-flung explanations, so far be it from me to spoil the experience for anyone here. You just have to read it.
I will say that this is probably the book that sent me down the rabbit hole I had intended for my career, that is to say, Borges. When I eventually did decide to return to graduate school after a few years away from it, I switched from French to comparative literature, so that I could explore more widely (and also so that I didn’t step on the toes of my then-husband, who was in the French department already). My first interest had been in the Enlightenment, but I soon found a great love for modernism, modernity, maybe postmodernism, but I do know that my experience reading Pale Fire, and going back to it over the following years, completely changed my idea of what literature was and could be. Yes, I already believed in art, in challenging perceptions of reality and truth, but this made me believe in the pleasure of questioning.