The Madness of Nabokov’s Pale Fire
It’s quite an idea: write an overly lyrical poem by one character, and then include annotations and commentary by another character who is insane. Build layers of ideas and meanings, codes and puns, and make the reader peck around the text as they flip through the pages because the annotations are at the back. Create a fictional country that is part of the commentator’s mad desire to press his theory forward, no matter the ludicrousness. Fill it with a fictional language and love of words, an encyclopedic knowledge and linguistic ability, and some truly lovely phrases. Make fun of your own title, pointing out that Pale Fire is from Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens and anyone can peruse Shakespeare to find a good phrase and title. Who does such a thing?
It’s an Alan Moore kind of audaciousness, who also likes building wordplays and worlds within worlds, and breaking through the fourth wall (sometimes, like in his work on Supreme, it’s the third wall because the characters are going from two-dimensional drawings to our 3-dimensional world). Some editions of From Hell include his annotations and research, where he admits to a mad idealism of convenient theories that reflects the sensational of Jack the Ripper and the later 20th century. How much of “Ripperology” is a desire for an answer, a searching for a plot, a glorying in publicity and horror around Jack the Ripper as an idea? The letters that coined the name Jack the Ripper may have been fabricated by the newspapers of the day; like Pale Fire one story becomes twisted by another story, and it all goes quite meta, because how could Jack the Ripper be a result of Queen Victoria, Masons, and the ill but respected Dr. Gull? It is ludicrous because we want it to work as a story, we want the mystery and the answer. “The existence of an idea,” wrote George Berkeley, “consists in it being perceived … [and] cannot exist otherwise.”