Finding Meaning in Instability

This week’s lectures covered Commentary and the instability of text. When we look at text we often try to find our own meanings and interpretations, and we usually accept our versions at face value. However, Umberto Eco states that we fail in finding the definition of meaning if you assume you have found the definition. (Pretty mind-boggling stuff am I right?) Our response to allegory is in fact, an allegory! We can pretty much find meaning in everything and anything. Interpretation is essentially a ghostic game. Hence, can text really have any fixity or stability? However, is commentary the answer to this instead. Marveling over this week’s set text, Pale Fire, lead to more questions and but also some new resolutions.

As I opened Pale Fire, I was as excited about starting this ‘poem‘ (or so I thought) and reading its commentary, as I was about 9 am lectures. However, as I started the foreword as I was pleasantly surprised. There is a large choir singing at my door. (Lol – anyone? just me? Ok.) This wasn’t your usual opening, yes it included the ‘there are 999 lines blah…’ but we also met the mystifying Charles Kinbote. A man who has, not one, but two ping-pong tables in his basement and spies on his neighbour for ‘first-rate entertainment.’ Personally, he reminded me of every creepy neighbour from every scary movie. Ever.

What’s most notable about the ‘novel’ is the structure. At the end of the foreword we are instructed to skip to the commentary and then read the poem. Does this not completely contradict literature as we know it? Reading someone else’s interpretation of a text before we make our own?  Kinbote tells us that it is the ‘commentator who has the last word.’

Skipping to the commentary (in fear of Kinbote) I was again surprised to not hear any of the poet’s ideas behind his work, but instead, read Kinbote take all the credit for the poem, whilst also throwing in essentially a full novel about the mysterious Zembla and its exiled King. Essentially, I thought I would hate this book but as I got through it I began to enjoy it more and more, due to the fact I couldn’t decide if it was incredibly clever or else satirising every piece of literature and commentary ever.

In a chapter by Frans van Liere called the Commentary Tradition, Liere relates back to the middle ages and the use of bible commentary within the medieval community. He states that Augustine and Jerome exerted the greatest influence on the medieval commentary tradition and how they used it a form of authority for their own words (Liere 142). Commentary was also used to transform the ‘rich patristic heritage’ of the bible into a ‘readily accessible corpus of biblical commentary (Liere 144). Hence, commentary was also used for accessibility and availability. Yet in Pale Fire, Nabokov and Kinbote choose to mock this through his commentary and by showing  Kinbote’s authority over the poem due to his commentary.

Hence, if we think about Kinbote as an unreliable narrator we can somehow relate him to a lot of other fictional narrators. Holden Caulfield (Catcher in the Rye), Briony Tallis (Atonement), Marlow (Heart of Darkness) and Huck Finn (Adventures of Huckleberry Finn) are just some of the crooks. They either make us aware of their lies or become sucked up into their web. They choose to tell us what they want us to read and how we should read it, rather than letting us face the reality. Instead, we are able to usually make our own interpretations of these lies or sometimes find out the truth at the end. Kinbote instead chooses to wrap himself up in his fiction and immediately we have to question what is real and what is fantasy? Does Zembla or King Charles even exist?

These metafictions afford us the opportunity into the narrator’s imaginations, leaving reality far behind. We begin to question everything within the book and if we can really trust everything we read? Or if we stick the title ‘commentary’ above something is it authentic or simply a satire of all of the above? Personally, I find metafiction engaging and quite thrilling to read. It reminds me of my Lemony Snicket childhood obsession and how hearing the author or narrator speak within the work can shape a fiction into anything they want, transporting the reader into a world of the fantastical and imagination.

Looking at fiction that includes commentary is always a little tricky to wrap your head around, but usually, when you get on the same page as the narrator you can quickly move into their fantasy world. I think it is usually a genre that you either love or hate, and get confused by either way. The commentary demands authority and fixity, but in reality, our interpretation of it reveals instability. We easily don’t believe or agree with everything Kinbote tells us, and instead question why Nabokov has chosen to take away from the poem entirely? In fact, the reader even has the opportunity to read the novel/poem/commentary in whatever order they want. There is no real authority present stopping the reader from starting with the poem and making their own interpretation of that alone? This is one of the very real concerns I have been made aware of within this project, is there really any fixity or stability within text?

However, I do believe novels that include commentary or take on the genre of metafiction could create a great project for this module. The opportunities are endless and I plan to explore this genre a lot more within this blog. There is a loud drum outside my window… Still not funny? I’ll stop, just because I have a novel to finish and Shade’s murder to solve.


Liere, Frans van. An Introduction to the Medieval Bible. Cambridge: CUP, 2014


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