One Brilliant Passage From Pale Fire
Pale Fire is no doubt a strange book that’s guided by a strange man–the main character John Kinbote. He’s crazy, literally.
But like many crazy people, he has moments of genius. As the reader, you really have to be prepared for that with this novel. Kinbote is one of the most unreliable narrators you’ll ever read, and Nabokov does an outstanding job of mixing insanity and unreliability with genius and profound wisdom.
This passage describes an assassin named Gradus–who has been hired to assassinate the King of Zembla. Yeah, I don’t have time to really explain that right now, so just go with me here.
Anyway, here’s how Kinbote describe this assassin.
One essential dislike, formidable in its simplicity, pervaded his dull soul: he disliked justice and deception. He disliked their union–they were always together–with a wooden passion that neither had, nor needed, words to express itself. Such a dislike should have deserved praise had it not been a by-product of the man’s hopeless stupidity. He called unjust and deceitful everything that surpassed his understanding. He worshiped general ideas and did so with pedantic aplomb. The generality was the godly, the specific diabolical. If one person was poor and the other wealthy it did not matter what precisely had ruined one or made the other rich; the difference itself was unfair, and the poor man who did not denounce it was wicked as the rich one who ignored it. People who knew too much, scientists, writers, mathematicians, crystalographers and so forth, were no better than kings and priests: they all held an unfair share of power of which others were cheated.
I love Kinbote’s wording in that passage. He takes a thought–generalizations are stupid–and carries it to the next level.
In American culture (I can’t speak to other cultures), we’re quick to judge both rich and poor for different reasons. With the rich, we presume they are evil and greedy and stepped all over people to get where they are–which is an awful generalization. And with the poor, we presume that they don’t work and mooch off the government and are lazy–and that’s another terrible generalization as well.
Through Kinbote, Nabokov perfectly describes our tendency to generalize–we generalize because we’re ignorant. We don’t understand the specifics of everyone’s situation, so we default to whatever we grew up thinking or whatever we’ve been told is the right way to view an entire class or segment of people. As Kinbote says, “He called unjust and deceitful everything that surpassed his understanding.” So true.
Another great example of how fiction can open your eyes and teach. If you don’t think you can learn from reading fiction, then you’re reading the wrong fiction.
Profound stuff in that passage.
My Pale Fire review is coming next week.