Pale Fire

Pale Fire

by Vladimir Nabokov


$14.40 $16.00 Save 10% Current price is $14.4, Original price is $16. You Save 10%.
View All Available Formats & Editions
Choose Expedited Shipping at checkout for guaranteed delivery by Wednesday, September 25


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: 9780679723424
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/28/1989
Series: Vintage International Series
Edition description: Reissue
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 79,126
Product dimensions: 5.18(w) x 7.99(h) x 0.67(d)

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

Excerpted from "Pale Fire"
by .
Copyright © 1989 Vladimir Nabokov.
Excerpted by permission of Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews

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.