Pale Fire

Pale Fire

by Vladimir Nabokov

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In Pale Fire Nabokov offers a cornucopia of deceptive pleasures: a 999-line poem by the reclusive genius John Shade; an adoring foreword and commentary by Shade's self-styled Boswell, Dr. Charles Kinbote; a darkly comic novel of suspense, literary idolatry and one-upmanship, and political intrigue.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307787651
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/16/2011
Series: Vintage International
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 30,253
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov was born on April 23, 1899, in St. Petersburg, Russia. The Nabokovs were known for their high culture and commitment to public service, and the elder Nabokov was an outspoken opponent of antisemitism and one of the leaders of the opposition party, the Kadets. In 1919, following the Bolshevik revolution, he took his family into exile. Four years later he was shot and killed at a political rally in Berlin while trying to shield the speaker from right-wing assassins.

The Nabokov household was trilingual, and as a child Nabokov was already reading Wells, Poe, Browning, Keats, Flaubert, Verlaine, Rimbaud, Tolstoy, and Chekhov, alongside the popular entertainments of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Jules Verne. As a young man, he studied Slavic and romance languages at Trinity College, Cambridge, taking his honors degree in 1922. For the next eighteen years he lived in Berlin and Paris, writing prolifically in Russian under the pseudonym Sirin and supporting himself through translations, lessons in English and tennis, and by composing the first crossword puzzles in Russian. In 1925 he married Vera Slonim, with whom he had one child, a son, Dmitri.

Having already fled Russia and Germany, Nabokov became a refugee once more in 1940, when he was forced to leave France for the United States. There he taught at Wellesley, Harvard, and Cornell. He also gave up writing in Russian and began composing fiction in English. In his afterword to Lolita he claimed: "My private tragedy, which cannot, and indeed should not, be anybody's concern, is that I had to abandon my natural idiom, my untrammeled, rich, and infinitely docile Russian tongue for a second-rate brand of English, devoid of any of those apparatuses–the baffling mirror, the black velvet backdrop, the implied associations and traditions–which the native illusionist, frac-tails flying, can magically use to transcend the heritage in his own way." [p. 317] Yet Nabokov's American period saw the creation of what are arguably his greatest works, Bend Sinister (1947), Lolita (1955), Pnin (1957), and Pale Fire (1962), as well as the translation of his earlier Russian novels into English. He also undertook English translations of works by Lermontov and Pushkin and wrote several books of criticism. Vladimir Nabokov died in Montreux, Switzerland, in 1977.

Date of Birth:

April 23, 1899

Date of Death:

July 2, 1977

Place of Birth:

St. Petersburg, Russia

Place of Death:

Montreux, Switzerland


Trinity College, Cambridge, 1922

Read an Excerpt

INTRODUCUTION by Richard Rorty
[WARNING:  this Introduction not only gives away the plot of Pale Fire, but presumes to describe the reader’s reactions in the course of a first reading of the book – reactions which will not occur if the Introduction is read first. The first-time reader may wish to postpone the Introduction until he or she has finished the Index.]
 The imagination, Wallace Stevens said, is the mind pressing back against reality. But it is in the interest of reality – that is to say, of the imagination of the dead – to insist that no further pressure is needed: that the imagination of the living can do nothing save reiterate lessons previously learned, instantiate previously known truths. Judicious reviewers must presuppose that nothing genuinely new can be written, for only on that assumption are they in a position to judge, and in no danger of being judged by, the book they are reviewing. Like the judicious reviewer, the common reader is made nervous by books that are insufficiently like the books he or she has read in the past.
Vladimir Nabokov (1899–1977) wrote books which were not much like anybody else’s, and they rarely got good reviews. Most reviewers echoed Dr Johnson’s dictum that nothing odd can last, and proceeded to diagnose Nabokov’s oddities as signs of his egoistical disdain for reality, a disdain which cloaked his inability to imitate reality convincingly. Simon Raven, reviewing Pale Fire on its publication in 1962, said that it was ‘not a novel, but a blueprint’. Saul Maloff’s review explained that ‘the novelist’s immemorial purpose and justification’ was ‘to create a world’, and that Nabokov had created only ‘a constellation of elegant and marvelous bibelots, an art which is minor by definition’. Reviewer after reviewer conceded Nabokov’s skill while deploring his self-indulgence, his delight in his own tricks – tricks which made clear his lack of respect for both reality and the common reader. Dwight Macdonald called Pale Fire ‘unreadable’, emphasized that Nabokov, even at his best, was ‘minor’, and urged that ‘the technical exertions he [Nabokov] expends on the project are so obtrusive as to destroy any aesthetic pleasure on the reader’s part’. Perturbed by the fact that Mary McCarthy had called Pale Fire ‘a creation of perfect beauty, symmetry, strangeness, originality and moral truth’, Macdonald explained that both the novel and McCarthy’s review were ‘exercises in misplaced ingenuity’.
Nabokov had no interest whatever in creating a world like the one to which Raven, Maloff and Macdonald were accustomed. ‘We speak,’ he once said, ‘of one thing being like another thing, when what we are really craving to do is to describe something that is like nothing on earth.’ It was just that craving which annoyed so many of the reviewers. To those who wish reality to be given the respect it takes as its due, such a craving is a sign of egotistic self-indulgence. ‘Egotism’ is reality’s name for whatever calls attention to itself – whatever is odd, hard to understand, hard to follow. Those who respect reality, who are sure that it needs no further pressure, insist that what is worthwhile is already a part of reality, and merely needs to be accurately represented. What is not a part of reality is subjective, personal, idiosyncratic, silly, puerile, evanescent, not worth writing down. For reality is, to the respectful eye, the only legitimate authority. The poet’s longing to exert pressure upon reality seems not only futile but morally dubious.
Now, thirty years after the publication of Pale Fire, critics and literary historians have begun to concede that the book will, in fact, last. It is gradually acquiring the aura of a classic, gradually coming to be seen as the work of one of the most powerful imaginations of our century. This sort of concession is one of the means reality uses to avoid admitting that it has been dented. It is as if, in the dark of night, when no one is looking, reality sent out pseudopods to incorporate the latest oddity. By morning reality looks as smooth and unpressured as before (although just a bit bigger). Something that actually was like nothing on earth thus gets turned into one more objective terrestrial fact, waiting to be observed. Sometimes, however, when the oddity is very large or very complexly shaped, the process of assimilation is not over by morning. Then reality can be caught draining the life out of a metaphor, or reshaping a paradox into a platitude, or repackaging a scandal as a classic.
Lolita was like nothing Morris Bishop – a good reader, a good man, and Nabokov’s best friend at Cornell – had ever read; his revulsion from Humbert’s sliminess prevented him from finishing the manuscript. Thirty years later, Bishop’s granddaughter was assigned Lolita in high school. The more often Lolita and Pale Fire are assigned, made set books for examinations, the more Humbert Humbert and Charles Kinbote will become well-known literary characters – familiar parts of the reality within which people grow up. The more that happens, the more likely it is that those two will merge with the figure of their creator – that Nabokov’s readers will think they are reading about Nabokov when they read about these two charming monsters. The more this unconscious identification is made, the less they will remember the people whom Humbert and Kinbote manipulate – the Haze and Shade families, and, in particular, the youngest members of those families, Lolita Haze and Hazel Shade.
Brian Boyd, whose splendid biography serves Nabokov well by making the incorporation of his books less easy, reports that among all the characters in his novels whom Nabokov admired as human beings, Lolita stood second only to Pnin. But readers of Lolita often have trouble getting Lolita in focus. All they seem to remember is Humbert’s creature, his invention – the nymphet, rather than the little girl. So Nabokov’s suggestion that she is a splendid human being is hard to take in. Still, readers of Lolita vaguely recall, Lolita did have guts: somehow she got away from Quilty and managed to find herself a good man who would give her a child. She made a home for him and for the child who was to have been born at Christmastime – a home in Gray Star, ‘a settlement in the remotest Northwest’, where it is very cold. Nabokov, it now comes back to us, said that Gray Star was ‘the capital town of the book’. Then finally it all comes back: it was only Humbert who thought that he had invented Lolita. We were not supposed to think that. We were supposed to remember what Humbert kept forgetting: Lolita’s sobs in the night, her dead brother, the child that might have replaced the brother. How could we have forgotten?
We forgot because Nabokov arranged for us to forget, temporarily. He programmed us to forget first and remember later – remember in confusion and guilt. His book keeps on manhandling us even after we close it. The reason it is going to be relatively hard to turn Lolita into a classic is that we guardians of legitimacy, we servants of reality, can only make sound observations about a novel, find admirable illustrations of general truths in it, if we can get it under control. We need to stand at a distance from it in order to see it steadily and whole. But Nabokov arranges things so that, just when we thought that we had stepped back and found the proper standpoint from which to see his book in perspective, we get an uncanny sense that the book is looking at us from a considerable distance, and chuckling. The resulting discomfiture usually turns into renewed exasperation over Nabokov’s egotism, his puerile tricksiness, his silly attempts at novelty.
As with Lolita, so with Pale Fire. When you read the book for the first time, you find yourself absorbed in a good story, told by an odd but charming man, even before you have finished the Foreword. What follows next – the nine hundred and ninety-nine rhyming lines of ‘Pale Fire’ – seems a slightly unfortunate interruption. It is perhaps a little unfair to make us lovers of good stories trudge through a long poem on our way back to the plot. But shucks, we fair-mindedly say, it isn’t a very long poem. After being briefly troubled by the story of Hazel Shade’s suicide in Canto Two, and being a bit bored by the reflections on death in Canto Three and those on the creative process in Canto Four, we get back to the story which the poem interrupted. We have rejoined that intriguing, if dubious, Kinbote, and are becoming amused at the way he blithely intrudes himself into what is, in theory, a commentary on the poem we have already started to forget.
Fifty pages into Kinbote’s commentary we have forgotten all about John Francis Shade (1898–1959 – as the Foreword told us, we now recall, he died right after writing ‘Pale Fire’, poor fellow). For now we are immersed in the adventures of a much more interesting person – Charles Xavier Vseslav, last king of Zembla (1915–?: reigned 1936–1958). Whereas the only big event of Shade’s life seems to have been the unfortunate suicide of his young daughter, the story of Charles Xavier’s youth is packed with incident. Better yet, it has the deep human interest which always attaches to stories about royalty, not to mention that extra little thrill we get from reading about the copulation of faunlets.
A hundred pages further on, we have become convinced that Charles Kinbote and Charles Xavier are one and the same person. This realization gives us not only the satisfaction of knowing that our interest in Kinbote paid off, but the awed sense that royalty has condescended to treat us as a confidant. A sad, but handsome and well-read, ex-king trusts us enough to tell us things that very few people could have guessed. Shade turns up now and then, and we occasionally suspect that he too may have had the wit to discern, as we have, who Kinbote really is. But Shade’s reappearances are always succeeded, and made forgettable, by the revelation of some new and surprising fact about our remarkable host and commentator.
It is only in the final pages of the novel that we are forced once again to think fairly seriously about Shade. For now something does happen to him. He gets killed. Shade wanders back into Kinbote’s story just at the point at which Gradus, the regicide sent by the revolutionary government of Zembla, is about to carry out his assignment. Kinbote tells us how he, the endangered king:
“. . . instinctively backed, bellowing and spreading my great strong arms . . . in an effort to halt the advancing madman and shield John, whom I feared he might, quite accidentally, hit, while he, my sweet awkward old John, kept clawing at me and pulling me after him, back to the protection of his laurels, with the solemn fussiness of a poor lame boy trying to get his spastic brother out of the range of the stones hurled at them by schoolchildren, once a familiar sight in all countries. I felt – I still feel – John’s hand fumbling at mine, seeking my fingertips, finding them, only to abandon them at once as if passing to me, in a sublime relay race, the baton of life.
     One of the bullets that spared me struck him in the side and went through his heart.”
No sooner is Shade dead, however, than the novel begins to fall to pieces. Our attention is suddenly wrenched back to the poem we have long forgotten. For Gradus has appeared at the moment at which Shade has finally handed Kinbote the manuscript of ‘Pale Fire’. As Shade bleeds on the ground, Kinbote hurries inside to get a glass of water for his dead friend and to conceal the manuscript under a pile of nymphets’ galoshes on the floor of a closet. After a bit of unfortunate delay (Kinbote has to waste some time coping with Shade’s widow, the police, and the like) he is able to retrieve it. He reads it snarling, ‘as a furious young heir through an old deceiver’s testament’, realizing that the poem is not about himself but about its author.
We readers, who are by this time completely caught up in Kinbote’s hopes and fears, find ourselves sharing Kinbote’s overwhelming disappointment, even though we have read the poem already, and have known all the time that it was about the Shades and not about the overthrow of the Zemblan monarchy. We too wonder why Shade was so insensitive and cruel as to have made no use of the wonderful material his friend Kinbote was constantly feeding him. We sympathize with Kinbote’s outraged questions:
“Where were the battlements of my sunset castle? Where was Zembla the Fair? Where her spine of mountains? Where her long thrill through the mist? And my lovely flower boys, and the spectrum of the stained windows, and the Black Rose Paladins, and the whole marvelous tale?”
As Kinbote asks these questions, however, the doubts that we loyal monarchists have been impatiently shoving aside for two hundred pages begin to sidle back. We have, perhaps (very probably, in fact), not been the confidant of a king, but only the dupe of a loony. Zembla, we nervously remember, is not on any map we have ever seen. The sunset battlements begin to crumble before our eyes. The whole marvellous tale may have been just the invention of a mad emigre scholar, a monster of egotism who has dragged us into his preposterous fantasies. The only sane, indeed, the only decent, person around (either in the novel or in the room where we sit reading it) turns out to be the man we have forgotten about for so long, the man who wrote the poem whose central event we did not want to remember: sweet awkward old John Shade, with his old-fashioned family values.
As we watch those battlements crumble, we remember having been warned that cloud-capped towers are subject to dissolution. As we look rather desperately around for Nabokov, in order to ask him to take us to his own point of view, to show us where to stand to see his novel clearly, it dawns on us that he has us just where he wants us: listening to Kinbote saying ‘Well, folks, I guess many in this fine hall are as hungry and thirsty as me, and I’d better stop, folks, right here.’ It is as if Prospero, after explaining that he will shortly be drowning his book, stepped to the front of the stage to announce that oranges and ale would be offered for sale in the outer courtyard immediately after the performance, that season ticket holders were invited to meet the cast backstage, but that unfortunately the author of the play, who would have liked to be here to greet his many friends, is out of town. . . .

What People are Saying About This

Mary McCarthy

This centaur work, half-poem, half-prose. . .is the creation of perfect beauty, symmetry, strangeness, originality and moral truth. Pretending to be a curio, it cannot disguise the fact that it is one of the great works of art of this century.

John Updike

Nabokov writes prose the only way it should be written, that is, ecstatically.

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Pale Fire 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 44 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Never have I despised a novel's protagonist more than I do the excruciating Charles Kinbote as he dragged me through his interpretation, and subsequent self-promoting butchery, of his 'dear friend's' poem. So much so that I regularly had to remind myself that it wasn't real. And that's one of the great things about this book; whilst reading it we spend so much time wondering whether Kinbote is telling the truth or not that we forget that none of it's real at all. I got the distinct impression that I was being led to jump through hoops by Nabakov, whilst he sat back and laughed. In so far as I'm fit to judge, this is a work of true genius.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Pale Fire is a novel obsessed with the relation between fiction and truth, text and life, that which is read and that which is experienced. It is unfortunate that Nabokov is known almost exclusively for Lolita (quite possibly his least interesting and most pedestrian work), when such novels as The Defense, Pnin, and Pale Fire go unnoticed by most readers. Pale Fire, a challenging and exceedingly deep book, is one of the finest examples in any language of exploring the reader's relationship to a novel. In a mature, exact fashion, Nabokov uses this book to not only tell a fascinating story to his audience, but also to show how that story is both true, a lie, an experience, a dream, an epic poem, and possibly something even more amorphous than that. Recommended to anyone you wishes for more than simple entertainment or cheap thrill in their reading.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Although I desperately needed to keep reading this story, I needed just as much to stop, close my eyes, shake my head, tilt it back and smile a broad smile of worshipful delight at Vladimir Nabokov doing it again, giving me just what I wanted when I wanted it. He lets you into his private mind, and I feel privileged!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Nabokov creates a strange masterpiece that even surpasses LOLITA.Maybe the strangest most original book of the 1960s Nabokov makes us question every thing. Just explaining the plot is questionable but nabokovs writing is fantastic,his story and his unreliable characters are great.His work has lasted from the 1920s to the 1970s and included many great books and his opuses are LOLITA and PALE FIRE,LOLITA is very close to being his best but PALE FIRE is his crowning achivement.
ElenaDanielson on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I recommend the boxed edition of the "Pale Fire" poem (without the ironic footnotes, that is another story), issued by Berkeley's Gingko Press, which must have exercised attentive quality control over production. I discovered many small touches that were not obvious until I got it home and took off the plastic wrapping: like the title in blind tooling echoing the red title on the top of the book box, the recessed pasted-on illustration, the pasted on title for "Reflections" (rather like the old "Insel" books, now Insel just uses photo replicas of pasted-on titles). The book cloth is sturdy and durable, the style masculine, not at all "old lady" precious. For the $35 I paid, it is quite a bargain, a lot more than I expected. Reading the poem and Brian Boyd's commentary in this format is a tactile aesthetic experience, very much in keeping with the textures in the text.
jwhenderson on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
During a radio broadcast in 1939 Winston Churchill said: "I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma;". This is an apt epigraph for a discussion of the puzzles that are presented in Nabokov's endlessly fascinating novel, Pale Fire. It is like no other novel that I have ever read, if it is a novel. On the surface it seems straightforward. There is a foreword by Charles Kinbote, the poem Pale Fire by John Shade, followed by 230 pages of commentary by Kinbote, and concluding with an index. Oh, if it were only that simple. The reader is alerted early in the foreword by references to someplace called Zembla and interjections by Kinbote about his personal life that seem out of place in the introduction to a substantial poem in four cantos. After reading the poem and less than half of the commentary it becomes clear (with many unanswered questions and puzzles) that there are several narratives coexisting in this book. Among them are the Shade domestic story (primarily related in the poem) including the tragic event of the death of Hazel, Shade's daughter. The story of Charles, the King of Zembla and Gradus, an assassin hired to kill the King. Finally interpolated with these is Charles Kinbote's own story. All of these are connected in various ways and discovering the connections, underlying references (literary and otherwise) could become a lifetime endeavor depending your level of obsession or interest in such things. Needless to say, this book has spawned a small industry within literary academia to fulfill the interest and obsessions of those who devote their lives to such things. One example of the puzzling nature of this book is best described by Prof. Michael Wood who said in his book The Magician's Doubts:"John Shade's poem is not about Zembla, and Kinbote's disappointment is crucial, along with his attempted piracy, and the cramming of his commentary with everything he thinks the poem should have contained." ("The Demons of Our Pity", p 188)That the commentary contains more references to events outside of and perhaps related to the poem (perhaps not) is just one of the many puzzles in this fantastic novel. I may have further comments on my reading of Pale Fire, but I may not out of fear that I will not know when to stop.
araridan on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Pale Fire is one the funniest books I have ever read. The book is structured as a foreword, a poem, commentary, and an index. I personally don't like poetry very much, but the poem was so bad that I'm pretty sure Nabokov was making fun of poetry and poetry analysis in general. As I started reading more of the "commentary" it seemed pretty clear that it really had very little to do with the poem, although each paragraph or couple of pages were supposed to refer back to a certain set of lines. Instead what the reader gets is the story of the analyzer, Charles Kinbote...neighbor of John Shade, the author of the poem. From the very beginning, during the foreword, we know that Shade has died and that Kinbote has taken it upon himself to publish the 1000 line poem. Throughout the commentary we learn about Kinbote's country of birth (somewhere near Russia) where he was allegedly a king, but was exiled or is in hiding in the United States. We also learn about his short friendship with John Shade (and his intense dislike of Shade's wife Sybil) and how he tried to supply Shade with material by telling him stories of Zembla, his homeland. However, Kinbote is extremely disappointed when he reads the final draft of the poem realizing that Shade has "cut out" most of anything having to do with Zembla. However, Kinbote is still obsessed with publishing the poem, and adding his commentary so the reader can understand what "important" aspects were removed. To the reader, it seems pretty clear that Kinbote and John Shade were not best friends. The more likely scenario is that Kinbote was a bit of a nosy neighbor who perhaps admired John, but that the admiration was not mutual. Kinbote seems tolerated at best, a bit of a nuisance. Also, all of the talk about being a former beloved king in a faraway country leads one to believe that Kinbote might not just be annoying, but possibly crazy. So you get a parody of poetry analysis, a story of a lopsided friendship, and even a bit of a mystery. Highly recommended.
comfypants on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A clever way to write a novel: as extensive notes written by a madman to a 1000-line poem. The poem itself is very good. The notes indirectly tell a story, but you have to read between the lines to figure out what actually happened. At first it's fun and humorous and kind of satisfying, but after 100 pages or so it gets old and just keeps going with more of the same. It's impressive that Nabokov can make the story work at all in this format, but in the end not having a traditional story arc hurts the readability more than it's worth.
isabelx on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is an extremely clever and very funny book. Before I started it I didn't know anything about the story, and I think it's best that I don't say anything about it, for fear of spoiling it for tother new readers. But I recommend it 100%.
Ragnell on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I've seen writers take jabs at critics before, even make an entire movie about them but this... Nabokov turns even critic-bashing into ART. I challenge anyone to read this book and see how many pages they can get before they start fantasizing about punching Kinbote in the face.  And even as you hate the guy, and you know he's a delusional liar, you want to get the whole lie and then you want the truth and you also want to finish Shade's poem. I need more books by this author.
Alera on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Pale Fire is something completely different than most anything I've read before, and likely anything I'll read after. I went in knowing little about it, and was confused most of the time, but by the end I was in love. There is something so brilliant about this work that almost seems continuously out of reach until you're finished, and even then with an almost unlimited amount of interpretations, you can seemingly pick what kind of story you just read. It begins with a lovely poem in four cantos, somewhat detailing the life of writer John Shade, which has been published posthumously by his 'friend' Charles Kinbote. What seems simple and sweet soon becomes bizarre and absurd as you read the commentary added by his friend. By the end you find yourself questioning what and who is real, or if any of it ever was at all. Truly memorable read and one that is incredibly enhanced with discussion.
crimson-tide on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Pale Fire is such a wondrously original and imaginative piece of writing. It's also very very clever and wickedly funny at the same time. Just brilliant. Not an easy book to read straight through quickly though - hours were spent reading the commentary with a finger stuck in the relevant section of the poem, flicking back and forward. Definitely a book for a re-read at a later date. There are layers upon layers of meaning and many "clues" I'm sure are still there waiting for me.The poem itself is a masterpiece. Largely autobiographical (by John Shade), it ranges from pure twaddle to philosophical musings on death and what comes after. Some sections are full of pathos and quite moving, such as when Shade writes about his daughter Hazel and her untimely death, or Aunt Maud after her stroke. And to be able to write it as a 999 line poem in (often extremely ingenious) rhyming couplets is a real feat.Charles Kinbote's commentary (complete with Index) is totally bizarre. The man is a complete and utter nutter! The way he weaved in 'his' story into the critique of the poem shows admirable self-obsession, and the goings on in Zembla and during the escape are absolutely hilarious.I'm sure there are many very 'good' and interesting reviews of this wonderful book to be found in numerous places; what I say here cannot do it justice. But in the end Nabokov is playing with us as readers. What exactly is reality and what is truth here in this convoluted and complex tale?
tracyfox on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I can't imagine how I missed out on reading Nabokov's masterpiece [Pale Fire] for all these years. I am thrilled to have made the acquaintance of this remarkable text. A shimmering puzzle of poetry and prose, it defies classification. The book purports to be the annotated posthumous publication of poet John Shade's final four cantos, an autobiographical poem that explores the meaning of life and art. The notes are written by a neighbor in the insulated university town where Shade lived and works. The poem's notes quickly dispense with any pretense of explicating the poem and instead recount the commentator's life and his relationship with the poet and his wife. The commentator casts himself as the exiled ruler of the northern kingdom of Zembla. He believed his epic tale to be worthy of commemoration and, as he ardently pursues a friendship with the poet John Shade, he hopes Shade will find the words to frame his story and praise the beauties of his glorious land. His growing frustration at Shade's autobiographical poem, which fails to capitalize on the brilliant material he has supplied, builds throughout the notes. The book is rife with word play, characters leading double lives and outright lies in places. At many junctures, Nabokov's presence is palpable and the reader is left to wonder which fictional characters and which fictional events are imaginary and which are real ¿ quite a feat for a work of fiction. The bizarre commentary and index at the end of the book give the careful reader many clues that only raise more questions and leave the reader anxious to start unraveling the puzzle all over again.
SirRoger on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Nabokov is a genius. Exquisite poetry, ridiculous farce, and fascinating murder mystery, all in a strikingly original form. "One of the great works of art of this century."
Djupstrom on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Interesting, but not as good as the hype.
bcquinnsmom on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Pale Fire is a true work of genius. If you have not yet read this book, run, do not walk, to your nearest bookstore and pick it up. It is one of those books that if you don't read another this year, you absolutely MUST read this one. I would most definitely recommend it to readers who are not married to the traditional novel, or who enjoy a bit of challenge in their reading. I wouldn't recommend it to those who only read mainstream fiction -- you probably won't like this book.The structure of Pale Fire is this: First there is a foreward to the poem "Pale Fire," is a 4-canto poem, composed of 999 lines in couplet form. The poem is followed by a commentary, the bulk of the text of Nabokov's work. The surprise is this: The poem is purportedly written by one John Shade, an aging professor at a small university in Appalachia somewhere, but the commentary is written by Charles Kinbote, who as it becomes very clear as the pages progress, feels that he has provided Shade with thematic material for the poem, based on Kinbote's life as an exile from the country of Zembla. As things move along, the reader begins to realize that what we have here is a case of the unreliable narrator. As the Forward begins, the reader is introduced to Charles Kinbote, who is writing the forward to Shade's last work, but by the end of the commentary section, you're not really sure who this guy is. There are clues interspersed throughout as to just who we are dealing with, for example, on page 194, the narrator notes that after Shade's death, faculty members at John Shade's university circulated a letter that stated in part"the manuscript fell into the hands of a person who not only is unqualified for the job of editing it, belonging as he does to another department, but is known to have a deranged mind." (194)This is certainly not the first inkling that we can't rely on Kinbote's story and it won't be the last. Besides, we know that Kinbote is dying to get his hands on Shade's poem because he is just positive that Shade has written a tribute to Kinbote's native land, Zembla, and the commentary weaves references throughout to Zembla, the revolution that sent the king into exile; in fact, within the commentary there is an entire story about this place and its king, complete with his childhood, his youth and career as king. But as it turns out, Shade's poem turns out to be an autobiographical reminiscence and musings on what awaits after death; all the same, the commentary makes everything bend to the will of the writer of the commentary. And, as Kinbote notes in his foreward, "for better or worse, it is the commentator who has the last word." (29)So, who is Kinbote? Is he really who he purports to be? Is he a Russian emigre named Botkin who has changed the letters around in his name? Is he the King of Zembla? Is he Gradus, the king killer? Or, is this all just one big made up story by some other unknown person? If you, like myself, fall into the trap of trying to keep track of all of "clues," and attempt to piece the story together, you're going to come to a point at which you just stop and realize that you cannot do this because of the nature of the novel. This is the sheer genius and beauty of Pale Fire as written by Nabokov -- add to this comments thrown in here and there about being an author, the craft of writing and this book turns out to be one of the best books you'll ever read.There are, of course, several commentaries, analyses and critiques of this novel to be found, so I'll leave you to those. I can't do it justice here, but suffice it to say, if you like this sort of thing, you won't be able to put this book down.
amydross on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The gleaming perfection of Nabokov's sentences deserves four stars even if there were nothing else to recommend this book. The striking format, challenging the very definition of the novel and illuminating the awkward relationship between author and fan, should push it up to five. But the grotesquely broad (and frankly homophobic) characterization of the narrator soured the whole thing for me, and made it hard to take seriously. Plus, a lot of the stuff about Zembla was simply boring, despite the gleaming sentences.
snarkhunt on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Groundbreaking in its time, but this postmodern trope has been much improved on. Wandering, shallow, and quick to offer up the goods.
jeff.maynes on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Pale Fire is a masterpiece, a work of fiction so thought-provoking, entertaining and poetic that no library is complete without it. It is also an unorthodox novel, with the structure of an academic text. At the center of the novel is the poem, ``Pale Fire,'' by fictional poet John Shade. This 999 line poem is then supplemented with a preface, an index, and most importantly, a couple hundred pages of line by line commentary on the poem by Charles Kinbote, a fellow academic and friend of Shade's. His comments on the poem tell a story all their own as Kinbote is, without a doubt, the least reliable literary critic imaginable.What he is, however, is an intriguing story teller, and his tale of the royal family of Zembla, and the fall of their last king, King Charles the Beloved, is an enjoyable yarn, complete with Nabokov's legendary prose prowess. It would be a mistake to ask, though, whether the story of Pale Fire is the story Shade tells in his poem, or whether it is Kinbote's tale of King Charles. The story of the novel is in the combination of the two, and most importantly, in the evaluation of what is really going on. Nabokov masterfully moves us through the plot, building us towards a revelation, and as we reader first guess and ultimately grasp, this revelation, we think we are in control of the story. The entire time though, Nabokov is in control, and the questions he raises by the end of the novel throw the reader's entire reading experience in question. I'll say something a bit less vague about this at the end of this review, where I will more freely make use of spoilers.Kinbote's tales are exciting, and Nabokov's story telling is masterful and thought-provoking. The novel is also beautifully poetic, and quite funny. Kinbote's disdain for Shade's wife Sybill is all over the notes, as he blames her for keeping him from getting even closer to Shade. These passive aggressive notes are frequently amusing, as are some of the details of the various adventures of the Zemblans. The language is also mesmerizing, both in Shade's poem and in Kinbote's commentary. Take Kinbote's discussion of suicide (another example of the humor of the novel, as Kinbote explains why various possible suicide options are less than ideal), culminating in the recommendation that one leaps from an airplane: ``Down you go, but all the while you feel suspended and buoyed as you somersault in slow motion like a somnolent tumbler pigeon, and sprawl supine on the eiderdown of the air, or lazily turn to embrace your pillow, enjoying ever last instant of soft, deep, death-padded life, with the earth's green seesaw now above, now below, and the voluptuous crucifixion, as you stretch yourself in the growing rush, in the nearing swish, and then your loved body's obliteration in the Lap of the Lord'' (170).Or the famous opening lines to Shade's poem:``I was the shadow of the waxwing slain / by the false azure of the windowpane; / I was the smudge of ashen fluff - and I / lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky'' (25).There are few that have ever written as Nabokov does, and the novel is riddled with his sublime wordplay, beautiful description and elegant prose. Coupled with the brilliantly crafted tale, this is a novel which deserves the highest of praise.In the remainder of this review, I will say a few things about the novel which spoil the main story, and I wish to give fair warning. This novel is best experienced without knowing too much about it, as it allows Nabokov to take you along at his pace.In particular, the revelation that we the reader feel we have a handle on, rather slyly from our armchair, is that Kinbote is actually King Charles. His interest in Shade's poem is based on the fact that he wants Shade to tell his story, and not just a story from his homeland. Where Nabokov takes us, however, is to a point where we ask whether anything Kinbote has told us is real in the first place. Was Gradus a reactionary fro
391 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Pale Fire is the story of an amateurish and pretentious poet with an (exiled king?) (insane man?) as his neighbor and ardent admirer. Thoughout the ostensibly critical work, Kinbote (the neighbor) gives us commentary on the poet's final work, but by 'commentary' I mean absolute digression. It's fantastic and funny, definitely worth a read.
the_awesome_opossum on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I couldn't say whether Pale Fire should be read as the ravings of an unstable, narcissistic, paranoid schizophrenic, or as Nabokov's satire of academics and their treatment of texts. Maybe they're one and the samePale Fire is ostensibly an extraordinarily bad autobiographical poem by a poet named John Shade, but Shade gets overshadowed entirely by Charles Kinbote, his editor and annotator. As the poem goes on, we learn, via the endnotes, that Kinbote is the exiled king of a small land called Zembla, and lives in fear of his imminent assassination. Shade's poem recedes into the background, and readers are more or less left at the mercy of Kinbote's ramblingsNabokov is having a lot of fun at the expense of academics, I think. Literary criticism doesn't (usually) overpower an author's intentions to the degree that Kinbote overpowers Shade, but he does conclude his Foreword by reminding the reader that "it is the commentator who has the last word." Does he ever. Great, fun book
nohablo on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Lush, pulpy, purple prose ladled onto a fragile bird-boned skeleton of a plot. God, what utterly delicious, virtuoso writing. Granted, the entire conceit of the novel (and god, what a douchebag, pretentious conceit) is smirking and satisfied and showy, but Jesus what a show. Nabokov rolls out the plushest, most decadent phrases in the English language.I should probably re-read this with tabs to Wikipedia flying out all over the place.
Cecilturtle on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Because of its complexity and very non-linear narrative, this novel is a challenge to read. It is difficult to extract what is fiction and reality, where characters begin and stop, and as such, I never really embarked into the story nor grasped its meaning. There are bouts that are hilarious but there are lengthy passages which I found hard to plod through. I'm sure this merits a second reading, but I'm not up for it.
catherar on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I never could have imagined a poem and its subsequent (and lengthy) review to be so rivetting, haunting, and delightful! This is a most creative book, down to its very structure. Nabokov is a genius. There is nothing more to say.. except, read it!
librarianbryan on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A very thought provoking read, but a lot of style and (maybe) not a lot of substance. I needed a lot of outside sources to decode of the games Nabokov was playing. Intensely funny though.