At first, I took him at his word. “I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known,” Nick Carraway notes in The Great Gatsby. When I began teaching—and rereading—the novel, I noticed his hypocrisy: for instance, his inclination to “reserve all judgments”…while being especially snobbish and critical. And, who is “that tangle back home” he mentions right before trumpeting his “cardinal” honesty? If he’s engaged, why spend so much time with Jordan Baker and her “hard jaunty body”? I had always liked the novel, but I never understood it deeply until reading it the third or fourth time.
In hindsight, Vladimir Nabokov’s oft-quoted maxim helps with narrators like Nick: “Curiously enough, one cannot read a book: one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader.” Although Nabokov wasn’t directly commenting on Fitzgerald, his Pale Fire complements The Great Gatsby: Nick Carraway and Charles Kinbote both judge others from behind masks of intellectual and social superiority; both conceal (and yet reveal) aspects of themselves in narratives about other characters; and, their biases and unreliability are clearer when we spend more time with them, as it were. Six months ago, I likely wouldn’t have paired these novels as neatly as I’m doing now. After teaching them in two different courses this semester, I see them as companion pieces on the arts of writing and (re)reading unreliable narrators. When we pick up these and similar novels, we don’t read so much as we reread.
A metanarrative about writing, reading, and criticism, Pale Fire, like other Nabokov works, needs rereading to ‘get.’ (See, of course, Lolita.) The narrator–scholar, Kinbote, annotates a poem (“Pale Fire”) from the recently deceased John Shade and describes its meticulous writing: 999 lines divided into four cantos and written on eighty index cards, which Kinbote possesses. We are getting a definitive text edited by a friend and colleague. Seemingly.
Figuratively speaking, this is the kind of novel we read with bifocals—that is, by double looking at passages for surface and (more importantly) subtext. An example from the Foreword:
Immediately after my dear friend’s death, I prevailed on his distraught widow to forelay and defeat the commercial passions and academic intrigues that were bound to come swirling around her husband’s manuscript (transferred by me to a safe spot even before his body had reached the grave) by signing an agreement to the effect that he had turned over the manuscript to me; that I would have it published without delay, with my commentary, by a firm of my choice….
This might seem weird but ultimately harmless at first. Once my students learned of Kinbote’s paranoia, inflated self-importance, and routine misreading, we reread this passage and found the unreliability in the possessive (almost childlike) me and my, among other places. As we learn later, Shade is killed by an assassin (Gradus) seeking Kinbote himself. Shortly thereafter, he takes the poem—“my treasure”—and reads it disappointedly when finding nothing of the “complex contribution I had been pressing upon him with a hypnotist’s patience and a lover’s urge.”
Although a reader of Pale Fire might feel confused, a rereader sees that hiding within the Commentary is an autobiography of an exiled, mentally unstable king masquerading as a professor and editor. Kinbote foists his own master narrative onto the poem—by his ‘finding’ references to Gradus (whom Shade never knew), or by his self-appointment as Shade’s muse. The more we reread passages, I stressed, the better we see the foreshadowing and deception, and the more distance we get from the narrator.
Pale Fire is a wonderful portrait of an un–self-aware, and often incorrect, narrator. On the last day, I asked students to describe Pale Fire as if to a first-time reader. We’d done the same on the first day and came up with confusing and absurd, among others. The second time, they used eccentric, impressive, and others; of course, I added rereadable. Any reader of Pale Fire might move from puzzlement to appreciation as my students and I did. Seeing the real Kinbote reveals to the rereader the bias and immorality that he would just as soon conceal behind (quasi-)scholarly discourse. With more time, I would’ve bookended the course with Pale Fire, to show the students how much better readers they are the second time.
The Great Gatsby, albeit very differently, is equally robust evidence for rereading. A cursory look—especially Nick’s self-praise as being supremely honest—might satisfy us. The novel is not particularly difficult—there isn’t, for instance, Joycean, Faulknerian, or Nabokovian nonlinearity. And Nick is trustworthy and direct. Or is he?
When I raise this issue, some students are slightly taken aback, as if I’m joking about Nick’s unreliability. But he’s honest, some seem to say, he tells us so himself. A few have said that I’ve “ruined” the novel by highlighting that it isn’t a happy, romantic paean to the Jazz Age. Like Kinbote, Nick nestles autobiography within biography; like Pale Fire, The Great Gatsby is more rereadable than readable. Yet—and this is where the novel opens itself up for rereaders—his flaws are clear when a first-time reader considers that he’s writing the events as they happened—about two years later. He writes a constructed text, not a diary, and we see this as even early scenes express this retrospective judgment.
Appropriately, Nick is a harsh judge of harsh characters. Case in point: When he first visits Tom and Daisy, Nick only writes his criticisms of Tom’s quasi-profundity: “There was something pathetic in his concentration, as if his complacency, more acute than of old, was not enough to him anymore.” These are the moments I highlight for students—as well as my wife when she asked why I insisted on his unreliability—to reveal the true Nick. Reread it, I say, and tell me what’s new and different. For many first-time readers, much about the novel is fresh and seemingly unread when reread. Because rereading shows Nick’s selfishness and self-concealment, I often bookend my Gatsby courses with the novel. Almost invariably, revisiting it shows students what they missed the first, even second, times.
Rereading these and other works teaches patience and persistence. Granted, Pale Fire is much harder to reread than The Great Gatsby, and their narrators are differently unreliable. The framing device of Luhrmann’s recent film notwithstanding, Nick is not as psychologically unstable or obsessive as Kinbote, nor is he hiding from a political assassin. Yet, rereading when knowing the ending can approximate the experience of reading a known work anew. Next time, I’ll keep these novels on the same syllabus for a course on rereading, since their parallels are clear when juxtaposed–which I learned myself, by rereading them, for the first time, together. Being, as Nabokov implores, a rereader is not only for students. What are you rereading next?