A new version of Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire, conceived and illustrated by New York artist Jean Holabird, is sure to revive debates about the novel that have continued since its 1962 publication. At the core of Nabokov's masterpiece of meta-fiction is a 999-line poem, also titled "Pale Fire," by fictional mid-century poet John Shade; the rest of the book is written in the voice of Shade's colleague Charles Kinbote. Upon its release, the novel was praised by Mary McCarthy as "a creation of perfect beauty, symmetry, strangeness," and condemned by fellow New Yorker writer Dwight MacDonald as "unreadable."
Similar disagreement over the poem "Pale Fire," a rhyming, autobiographical work in iambic pentameter, considers whether it can stand alone. In October, Gingko Press (Berkeley, Calif., and Hamburg, Germany) will release Holabird's Pale Fire: A Poem in Four Cantos by John Shade, a boxed set with a stand-alone booklet containing only the work of verse—a bold claim for "Pale Fire" qua poem. A second booklet features essays by the project's editor—Nabokov expert Brian Boyd, of the University of Auckland, New Zealand—and poet R.S. Gwynn. Boyd's detailed reading makes a spirited case for the poem's merits, which he posits have been neglected due to its traditional form; Gwynn places "Pale Fire" in the context of American poetry at mid-century, when old orthodoxies were crumbling and new forms such as free verse were in the ascendant. Rounding out the set is a "facsimile" of a fictional object—Shade's longhand draft of the poem (it's actually a digital font that simulates handwriting) on index cards (the format in which Nabokov wrote).
"I like the idea of turning a book into something more—an object in itself and hopefully a thing of beauty," Holabird told A.i.A. Several of her illustrations focus on the distinctive markings of a bird known as the waxwing that features in the poem's opening lines and introduces themes of death and transcendence: "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." The spare pencil and watercolor drawings emphasize unique red tips on some of the bird's wing feathers. These markings sometimes resemble spots of sealing wax, giving the genus its sobriquet.
A few words (with spoilers) on the novel's twisted plot and painfully brilliant structure: Shade's poem, which addresses death, Shade's attempts at comprehending the afterlife, and the suicide of his daughter, is nestled between a foreword and annotations by Kinbote, a neighbor and fellow professor in the fictional college town of New Wye, Appalachia. When Shade is murdered, Kinbote absconds with the manuscript and holes up in a tourist cabin in also-fictional Cedarn, Utana, where, as the poem's self-appointed editor, he prepares the ostensible annotated edition.
One of Nabokov's classic unreliable narrators, Kinbote comically misreads Shade's poem. Imposing a ludicrous and misguided interpretation, he claims credit for inspiring the poem. Further, he interprets the text as obscurely telling the story of King Charles II, deposed king of the fictitious realm of Zembla, who escaped after a Soviet-backed revolution and is pursued by an assassin.
"Whenever I read, I am on the lookout for something I can illustrate in some way," says Holabird. A few years ago, she re-read Pale Fire, a story that included reproducible objects like index cards and a book. "Frankly, I just really wanted to see what that would look like."
Jean Holabird's work will appear in a group show at Elga Wimmer Gallery, New York, Sept. 8–Oct. 1.
Mixed Media, 212 x 66 inches, Courtesy the artist.
Artist Kirstine Roepstorff was born and trained in Denmark, but lives and works in Berli