In his introduction, Richard Rorty fails to mention two things about Pale Fire: i) it’s hilarious; and ii) Charles Kinbote, Nabokov’s narrator, must surely have been the inspiration for Hrundi V. Bakshi in the 1968 Blake Edwards film The Party (starring Peter Sellers). That might be a bit of a stretch, but the autistic awkwardness in the scene where Bakshi feeds Birdie Num Num mirrors Kinbote’s steadily more ludicrous commentary on the titular poem in this sly comedy. What ultimately separates the Russian-born master from Edwards, though, is Pale Fire’s way of bringing the reader around to see that despite his autism, annoying tangents and self-delusions, Kinbote is essential to our understanding of the 999-line poem, in heroic couplets, around which the book is written.
Like Michel Houellebecq, Nabokov is underrated for his laughs. Take this example:
“Three students lying on the grass suggested he [the hired killer] try the Library [for his target], and all three pointed to it across the lawn. Thither trudged our thug.”
Thither trudged our thug. If that’s not the best comedy line I’ll read all year, then I can’t wait to see what beats it. The book is full of moments like this. Unfortunately, however, no matter how often I fantasise about it, I’ll never write four words in a row like that. I feel a bit depressed.