There’s really only one reason why I read this book and that’s its appearance in Blade Runner 2049. Replicant blade runner Officer K, or Joe as he is later known has the book in his apartment and indeed uses part of the 999-line poem within the book as his Base Line Test – the way the police know he’s not straying from his programming after a mission.
The lines in question are lines 704-707:
Cells interlinked within cells interlinked
Within one stem. And dreadfully distinct
Against the dark, a tall white fountain played.
There are a whole heap of fan theories about how the book parallels the Joe’s journey through 2049 in his search for answers and while I agree that you can draw some interesting parallels between the film and the book, there is such a thing as over analysis.
All the convoluted theories aside – they are vaguely interesting but seem to lose sight of the fact that the film is more akin to the works of Kafka, the previous film, Gnostic symbolism with a bit of Pinocchio thrown in – Pale Fire to my mind is simplest of movie connections to unravel.
The title of the book and the poem within is taken from Act 4, Scene 3 of Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens:
The moon’s an arrant thief,
And her pale fire she snatches from the sun
This line is often taken as a metaphor about inspiration and creativity. How I interpret it is that the moon is reflecting the suns rays – the sun is the genuine star and the moon is stealing some of its light and so is a pale imitation of the sun in the night sky.
In the film the replicants and the AI Joi are the moon and the humans are the sun. Artificial life imitates real life. It’s the theme running through Blade Runner 2049 and indeed the original film.
I think that’s it in a nutshell. Let’s not overthink it.
Fictional American poet John Shade’s long poem is autobiographical and is mostly about his relationship with his wife, the death of his daughter and his near-death vision after suffering a heart attack – lines 704-707 are part of the description of Shade’s vision. The idea that someone else has had the same near-death experience leads the poet to seek out this person only to find that the article he read about it contained a typo – ‘fountain’ was supposed to read ‘mountain’. Those film fans that say that this mirrors Joe’s mistake about his origins in Blade Runner 2049 are really clutching at straws.
The poem is pretty interesting but would be nothing without the commentary that fills the rest of Nabokov’s celebrated book. The commentary is written by Shade’s voyeuristic neighbour and college colleague, Charles Kinbote, who we discover is an exiled King Charles II of Zembla living incognito. Kinbote talks to Shade a lot about his country and the story of the escape of the king, and expects that the long poem the poet is working on will be based on his stories.
Kinbote is disappointed to find that the poem only really mentions Zembla once in passing and is jealous of the relationship between Shade and his wife. To begin with in his commentary he tries hard to link the poem to his country – much like those overzealous film fans try to link Pale Fire to Blade Runner 2049 – before, more and more, going off on tangents telling the story of his escape through a hidden tunnel and the journey of Gradus his would-be assassin. Gradus does in fact make it over to New Wye and unfortunately ends up accidentally killing the poet.
There are enjoyable layers to this book and the fun back-and-forward reading experience would be tricky to handle on a Kindle. The fictional commentator recommends you buy two copies which might imply he’s getting some income from the publication. I settled for using two bookmarks to compare lines of the poem to the comments.
Nabokov’s most famous book Lolita does get a slight mention in the poem where we are told that a hurricane called Lolita is sweeping the country. The controversial book of course went down a storm. As a whole Pale Fire is very funny, a great foray into ‘meta-fiction’ and with our unreliable and often mistaken ‘narrator’ Kinbote, Nabokov has delivered something that I think supersedes Lolita.
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