Mind-Wandering (2)

A methodical man, John Shade usually copied out his daily quota of completed lines at midnight but even if he recopied them later, as I suspect he sometimes did, he marked his card or cards not with the date of his final adjustments, but with that of his Corrected Draft or first Fair Copy. I mean, he preserved the date of actual creation rather than that of second or third thoughts. There is a very loud amusement park right in front of my present lodgings. (Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire (1962), p. 13)

This is the third paragraph of the ‘Foreword’ to Pale Fire. Nabokov’s novel takes the form of a 999-line poem by one John Shade, and a long commentary written by the poet’s neighbour Charles Kinbote (this foreword is in his voice – it’s part of the fiction). Superficially it looks like a conventional poetry edition, with the text first and the notes afterwards. However, several complex stories emerge from that commentary, about the poet and his family, and especially about Kinbote.
      I have scruples about spoilers, and although Pale Fire is , I will only say that it is difficult to tell what is real and what is not, where delusions begin and end. It is obvious from the paragraph quoted above that this is no normal edition. For some reason it includes the results of subjective distraction, and thus it is making us think about mind-wandering (what kind of narrator does it; what it says about them), a topic I began to discuss in my previous post.
      Kinbote’s attention frequently shifts to his particular concerns, although for him this means he is attending to the important business at hand, rather than straying off the point. The novel is more the story he gradually unfolds than about anything else, however unreliable he may be.

The poem starts with some memorable lines and the vivid image of a beautiful bird killed by flying into a window:

I was the shadow of the waxwing slain
By the false azure in the windowpane;
I was the smudge of ashen fluff – and I
Lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky. (1-4)

The commentary on these opening lines eventually turns away from the business of explaining what it means, to the wider context in which the poem is supposedly working:

The poem was begun at the dead center of the year, a few minutes after midnight July 1, while I played chess with a young Iranian enrolled in our summer school; and I do not doubt that our poet would have understood his annotator’s temptation to synchronize a certain fateful fact, the departure from Zembla of the would-be regicide Gradus, with that date. Actually, Gradus left Onhava on the Copenhagen plane on July 5. (p. 74)

The annotator makes what seems like a gratuitous personal connection, by associating the poem with a mundane memory of playing chess. Then he coyly sets up a complicated suggestion about a link between the initiation of the poem and the start of a journey by a yet unmentioned character (which actually happened on a different day).
      Pale Fire offers, then, a narrator whose mind wanders, more and less purposefully, across time and space. The reader has to navigate alongside. This, however complex, seems to me a relatively routine (though often profound) aspect of a novel’s exploration of mind-wandering. Here I’d like to highlight something else about how this particular novel works.


How do we read the poem? Do we keep moving back and forth between text and notes, or do we read all the poem and then the notes? Once we realise that there is a story emerging in the commentary, the centre of gravity must shift decisively in that direction. This leaves a question over how we pay attention to lines like these:

“What is that funny creaking – do you hear?”
“It is the shutter on the stairs, my dear.”
“If you’re not sleeping, let’s turn on the light.
I hate that wind! Let’s play some chess.” “All right.”
“I’m sure it’s not the shutter. There – again.”
“It is a tendril fingering the pane.”
“What glided down the roof and made that thud?”
“It is old winter tumbling in the mud.”
“And now what shall I do? My knight is pinned.” (lines 653-61)

The fretful voices and the game of chess remind me of The Waste Land. But really, there is in these lines about nocturnal anxiety. So as I read them, I feel my attention being drawn away to the notes, where the questions I have are being answered. In fact there is no note on these lines.
      The Trends in Cognitive Sciences article that spurred the previous post suggested that wandering minds have probably evolved for a reason. Sometimes we are drawn away from the present by a necessary or productive thought. A novel like Pale Fire experiments with the definition of foreground and background, presenting us, perhaps, with an immediate perceptual environment (the text of the poem) that feels like it ought to be on our minds, but isn’t. The definition of what is actually the matter at hand has to change as the novel goes on. It would be very hard for a scientific experiment to capture this dynamic quality in our sense of what is foreground and what is background. Pale Fire exposes the strange human capacity to think outside the moment and discover that outside is where the moment really is.

It might well be my favourite novel. By ‘favourite’ I mean that I don’t expect everyone to rate it above Ulysses or Madame Bovary or even Lolita, but when I see a list of the greatest novels without Pale Fire, I do wonder what demon’s been at work… It’s not the book that made me decide to study literature at university, but I think it’s the book that made me look forward to studying literature at university.
The complex quality of ‘aboutness’ was a key topic in that earlier post on mind-wandering.
I mean, I like ‘old winter tumbling in the mud’ as a line in principle. It sounds like it should work, but in practice I don’t think it leads to an illuminating or enlivening thought, for me at least.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.