That Book by Nabokov

Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov book cover

You don't remember me; I was in your class, maybe 20 years ago. I never talked, and unfortunately, rarely did the assignments. However, I remember buying this book listed on your syllabus. I appreciated English courses because the material never changed, so severely used books could be found for a few dollars at Smith Family Bookstore, and there was always a demand to buy them back.

You began the class by jumping right into the subject, your enthusiasm evident. "Nabokov, as you are no doubt aware," you said, "is best known for his classic and controversial novel Lolita." I remember because, in fact, I was not aware. However, I was already encouraged that I had something to take away from your class: the lyrics in The Police's "Don't Stand So Close To Me"—Just like the / old man in / that book by Nabokov—now made sense, and my interest was piqued. Holding up a book similar in condition and age to mine, you continued, "This book is probably his next-best-known work, and for some, myself included, Nabokov's finest novel." Perfect, I thought, we are of the same breed. Let's stay off the popular bandwagon.

On the blackboard you outlined some of the plot. The novel consists of a poem 999 lines in length, by a murdered writer, and commentary on said poem. However, the commentary rarely discusses the poem, instead focusing on a country that may or may not exist in an imagined world of a neighbor of the murdered poet who penned the 999 lines. The book is multidimensional and, you advised, could be read as either linear (commentary separate from the poem) or nonlinear (jumping from the commentary to the poem). For me, this was the greatest breakthrough since choose-your-own-adventure.

My attention belonged to you and the world you invited me into. Here, creativity may be found in the delivery as well as the substance. A story can jump, if I so choose, from page 50 to 151 and back again. A writer writes about writers writing about a poet; the author and his fictional author draw us in because all are unreliable and possibly deranged. This was what college was about—learning to see the world in a different way. As the class ended, I was excited, and I took with me your insights and fervor for Nabokov.

I left our classroom in PLC and walked to the EMU. Finding a quiet spot (but not too quiet, on the assumption that women might swoon over a guy dressed like Eddie Vedder reading some foreign author), I began to read. Starting our novel about the poem of 999 lines, I decided nonlinear was the way to proceed. I flipped between pages, the writing flowed, the structure engaged, and the story entranced. The tattered used book had enough power left in it to energize my creativity and wonder. As I pondered the effect of words and the possibilities of stories, my focus drifted from the words on the yellowed pages to my own daydreams. Nabokov's words were seen, but not retained. I decided to stop after barely starting, and find some food and a new place to read.

I headed for the Glenwood for tomato cheese soup and a bagel—enough nourishment to end the distraction of hunger, but leaving enough appetite to continue reading. But where was I in this novel? My enthusiasm turned to confusion. I began again with page one and decided linear was the way to go. I felt some confidence now in my second start. The food arrived and I dove in; the cheese miraculously melted into the soup.

A block away, students gathered at Guido's for Mug Night—a dollar to fill a mug with beer. Thanks to this secondhand book, I could afford my fill. But first, I would go home, read a bit more, change my clothes, and get a mug. Walking across Alder Street, I heard my name called by several of my friends already heading to Guido's. There was a plea for me to join them. I refused and provided an explanation. One of them magically produced an extra mug, and assurance there would be time to read tomorrow. I headed for the bar.

I never finished reading that book. I'm sure you had your suspicions, if you gave my effort any thought at all. My final paper was coherent, though not insightful. It was subpar work and you graded accordingly. Maybe you were not surprised. Is that just part of the job? Do many students show interest and then fade to a level of minimum competence to barely pass a class?

I still have not read Pale Fire, though it sits here on a bookshelf. Are you wondering why this former student you do not remember would bring this up after so many years? Because I wanted you to know, though it did not seem the case at the time, I listened. I don't recall your name or what you look like. The only book I remember is the one I did not read. Yet somehow you passed on to me something precious, and for that, I thank you.

—By Michael Connolly '97

Michael Connolly continues his pursuit of completing his assigned reading in Portland, where he lives with his wife, Michelle Cannon Connolly '97