Sunday, April 17, 2011

Pale Fire (1962)

Vladimir Nabokov here takes high concept to new flights of ecstatic vision, with literary text, criticism, and pulpy narrative so inextricably enmeshed as to be virtually inseparable. It's as entertaining to read straight through as a novel as it is dense and rewarding to parse closely, breaking various sections and their interrelations down to constituent parts—a work that clearly could have been no small feat to produce, but for the most part evidently all in a day's work for Nabokov. Ostensibly it's a critical treatment written by an academic, Charles Kinbote, about a long, previously unpublished poem by poet John Shade. It opens with a foreword by Kinbote, and then reproduces the 999-line poem, "Pale Fire" (of course), which is divided into four cantos. That is followed by Kinbote's line-by-line exegeses, which increasingly ramble off-point as he details his friendship with Shade, Shade's murder, Kinbote's acquisition of Shade's poem in manuscript, and then begins to wander further afield into stories of Kinbote's homeland, Zembia, whose king was recently overthrown in a Soviet-sponsored coup. From there, as it becomes evident that Kinbote is (or believes himself to be) that king, and may or may not be insane, or suicidal, or even a murderer, it grows ever more consumed with paranoia as Kinbote believes there is an assassin on his trail, even as Kinbote is attempting to finish this critical treatise and assemble a publishable manuscript. Though Nabokov plays it as straight as anyone could, the events described are so weird and so funny it's hard not to miss the joke. And that joke is a very good one. The poem itself sprawls across most of the first quarter of the book; it's not particularly easy going for someone like me not accustomed to reading poetry closely, particularly long-form poetry. And no way, I suspect, does that poem ever stand on its own. It's just good enough to be believable and that's all the opening Nabokov needs for this story. Once into Kinbote's commentary, things move briskly, and the plot developments and their implications come from all directions at once. Sometimes you just need to stop for a few moments to contemplate the crazy integrity of it all. I found myself using two bookmarks, one for my place in the commentary and the other for the section of the poem under discussion. You probably don't even need to go through the poem all at once in the first place, as I did, struggling, but can proceed directly from Foreword to Commentary (page numbers obligingly marked out in a table of contents) and absorb the poem well enough that way. Pale Fire is really not one to miss just because the concept might seem so rarefied or intellectualized, though it does, once through, represent a fascinating, seemingly bottomless puzzle capable of sustaining multiple interpretations. At the same time, it's one of the funniest books I've ever read.

In case it's not at the library.


  1. I read this during downtimes on a trip to Colorado last fall and loved it. Hopefully your review will bring more people to it.

  2. And your comment too -- thanks for stopping by and leaving one.