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"THE VIEWER AND THE VIEW": CHANCE AND CHOICE IN PALE FIRE David Walker* Vladimir Nabokov is an artist obsessed with pattern. The fabric of each of his books is woven with a dense texture of mirrors, doubles, parodies, games, riddles, masks, and disguises. An important part of the reason for this emphasis is the aesthetic pleasure which the perception of such patterning affords. In his afterword to Lolita, Nabokov claims, "for me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense ofbeing somehow, somewhere connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm."1 In his supremely anti-naturalistic, involuted novels, such games of perception help celebrate with great joy thevery artificiality of the fictional world that transforms experience into art. Highly complex patterning is not confined to the realms of art; its existence in nature, in the "real world," is also of great importance to Nabokov. Perceiving natural patterning results in the same kind of exhilaration; it clarifies and extends an intuition of the world. But its meaning is different in an important way because it involves the idea of coincidence. Nabokov's fiction acknowledges repeatedly its fictional nature; the author is everywhere apparent, making Hitchcockian appearances and winking at the camera. Nature, on the other hand, is governed not by choice but by chance—or so the customary thinking goes. For Nabokov this is too easy a distinction: The mysteries of mimicry had a special attraction for me. Its phenomena showed an artistic perfection usually associated with man-wrought things. ... I discovered in nature the non-utilitarian delights that I sought in art. Both were a form of magic, both were a game of intricate enchantment and deception.2 Suddenly the world begins to seem a work of art, perfectly patterned, controlled, designed. Yet for Nabokov this second scheme is also false and incomplete; to deny the boundary between life and art, die difference between an object and its reflection in a mirror, is to miss the point entirely. Nature does not consistendy demonstrate artistic prin- *David Walker is a doctoral candidate in the Department of English at Cornell University and has published on contemporary poetics. 204David Walker ciples; its games of "intricate enchantment and deception" have meaning only when they are revealed by human aestiietic perception. The artist who refuses to accept this distinction, who denies the reality of human existence apart from his own conception of it, enters the dangerous province of mad solipsism. Only the artist who focuses his perception on the world to reveal its significant textures and forms, without mistaking these forms for the only true reality,' finds the necessary balance. The reconciliation of life and art, the attempt to penetrate the double trutii of chance and choice, is the core of all of Nabokov's writing. But none of his books explores the idea of combinational fate, of the role of design both in life and in art, as thoroughly or as brilliantly as does Pale Fire. The structure of Pale Fire may appear fairly straightforward. It is composed of a meditation in verse on death and the fate of consciousness by John Shade, a baggy, venerated poet, and notes on the poem (plus Foreword and Index) by Charles Kinbote, a mad scholar who completely misunderstands what thepoem is about, tries to convert it to his own devices, and loses all control in the process. But Pale Fire is no mere twentieth-century Tale of a Tub or paranoid Dunciad; it is in fact a radically experimental novel. At first the commentary seems unrelated to the concerns of the poem, and Shade and Kinbote appear to be riding different breeds of hobbyhorse. But that perception, coupled with the assumptions one normally brings to a scholarly critical edition, illuminates the underlying structure of Pale Fire. One doesn't expect the set of notes to a poem to have its own integrity, any significant order, sequence, or movement apart from the form of the poem it mirrors. And if the notes do not really reflect the poem at all, then one might expect total chaos...


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pp. 203-221
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