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Nabokov's "Pale Fire": The Magic of Artistic Discovery Paperback – December 1, 2001

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press (December 1, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691089574
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691089577
  • Product Dimensions: 0.8 x 6 x 9.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,291,692 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews Review

Brian Boyd has already chronicled the life of Vladimir Nabokov in two superlative volumes, one devoted to the author's silver-age youth in Russia and the other to his American maturity. Now Boyd turns his attention to the great enchanter's trickiest and most unlikely triumph in Nabokov's Pale Fire. With its oddball structure--which shackles an epic poem in heroic couplets to an increasingly loony, enveloping commentary--this 1962 novel has always been a bone of contention among diehard fans. Some consider it less a work of art than a Rube Goldberg contraption, onto which Nabokov has brilliantly bolted his favorite motifs. Others call Pale Fire the author's true masterpiece, and Brian Boyd falls quite emphatically into the latter camp, arguing that the book is no mere satire on literary parasitism:
It is a reflection on the whole history of literature, on the shift from romance to realism, from the old kind of hero with whose glory the reader is invited to identify ... to the modern image of everyman as artist, the suburban Shade, in the modest circumstances of the real, coping with courage and self-control, with imagination, curiosity, tenderness, and kindness, with the fact of his mortality and his losses past and still to come.
Boyd's study is at once a shrewd and eloquent guidebook to the intricacies of Pale Fire and a revisionist argument as to its meaning. After all, Nabokovians have spent the last three decades feuding over the ultimate authorship of this double-decker narrative: could the poet, John Shade, have created both the poem and commentary? Or should both be chalked up to that nutty exegete Charles Kinbote? As he wades into this factional war, Boyd can sometimes appear only nominally less insane than Kinbote. ("The prominence of the Shadean or Kinbotean or 'undecidable' readings had not gone unchallenged. D. Barton Johnson, attending to verbal and subverbal detail, stood largely outside the Shade-Kinbote opposition when he focused on the Botkin behind Kinbote." Help!) Yet his hypothesis--which involves a ghost feeding lines to the living like a posthumous Teleprompter--makes perfect sense. And it reminds us that for all Nabokov's vaunted irony and scientific passion, he was fascinated throughout his entire career by the afterlife. Volodya as theologian? Boyd is smart and persuasive enough to make the concept stick, and to send every last one of us back to Pale Fire--immediately. --James Marcus --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Library Journal

Interest in Nabokov has been kept up in recent years by such work as Boyd's monumental two-volume biography and Stacy Schiff's V?ra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov). These two new studies will only enhance interest in Nabokov for some time to come. Boyd's new book is an intensive examination of Nabokov's Pale FireAa book that many scholars consider his masterpiece, since it lends itself to a variety of interpretations. Boyd looks at these interpretations and offers his own insights, some of which have changed over the years. He argues that the genius of Pale Fire is that while it can be read easily in a straightforward manner, further readings reveal a multilayered story that promts the reader to dig for deeper meanings. Boyd skillfully peels away the layers of this novel in a feast of literary detective work. He recommends that one read the novel before taking on his book. On the other hand, one need not read any of Nabokov's work to prepare for Johnson and Coates's Nabokov's Blues. Though he had no formal training in biology, Nabokov became an acknowledged expert on BluesAa diverse group of Latin American butterflies. Here Johnson and Coates examine his butterfly studies in the context of recent scientific expeditions to South America. They succeed in presenting both a biographical and scientific study that brings new understanding to both Nabokov's writing and his place in science. Taken together, these books should keep the most ardent Nabokov reader busy for some time. Recommended for academic collections.ARonald Ratliff, Emporia P.L., KS
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

More About the Author

Brian Boyd, University Distinguished Professor of English at the University of Auckland, Auckland, New Zealand, has published on American, Brazilian, English, Greek, Irish, New Zealand and Russian literature, from Homer to the present and from child to adult, and on biography, comics, drama, essays, fiction, film, literary theory, poetry, science, and translation. His writing has appeared in seventeen languages and has won awards in four continents.

He has worked especially on Vladimir Nabokov, as annotator (see AdaOnline,, archivist, bibliographer, biographer, consultant, critic, donor, editor, expert witness, historian, lecturer, lepidopterist, museum advisor, negotiator, reviewer, supervisor, teacher, translator.

He also works on literature and evolution, including his recent Why Lyrics Last: Evolution, Cognition, and Shakespeare's Sonnets (Harvard University Press, 2012).

His other Shakespeare work includes Words That Count (University of Delaware Press, 2004).

He is currently researching and writing Karl Popper: A Life.

For key publications, see

Customer Reviews

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I read Pale Fire only once before reading Boyd's study.
This book is a true discovery for a devout reader because it shows how to read better and more closely, how to link (bobo-link) seemingly unrelated bits together.
M. H. Bayliss
An absolutely brillant book, which needs to be read and, in its Nabokovian manner, re-read.
William H. Roth

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

29 of 29 people found the following review helpful By Phelps Gates VINE VOICE on December 17, 1999
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I started this book halfway expecting a dry, jargon-filled academic analysis, and was pleasantly surprised. The book reads like a series of brilliantly clear and thought-provoking lectures in a course on this remarkable book... the kind of lectures where the prof gets applauded at the end (I envy the students at the U. of Auckland who can take Prof. B's courses!) He starts with the simple puzzles of the book (the ones that most readers figure out on their own, such as who V. Botkin is) and then takes the reader through a series of rereadings, and re-rereadings, eventually presenting his solution to the central problem of the book (I won't spoil the suspense by saying what it is, but it made sense to me). Probably the best aspect of the book is the guidance it gives about what to look for when you re-reread Pale Fire on your own. An example of what literary criticism ought to be!
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32 of 33 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on October 2, 2000
Format: Hardcover
For Nabokov, nothing was ever as simple as it seemed. In fact, "simple" and "sincere" were two adjectives that he despised. While teaching at Wellesley College and later at Cornell, Nabokov would give a low mark to any student who used the words, "simple" and "sincere" in a paper.
Nabokov was a writer who celebrated the complexities in life. He looked for unexpected meanings in even the most banal details of existence and the test questions he set for his students were notoriously eccentric, e.g., Describe Madame Bovary's hairdo; What sort of paper covered the walls of Anna Karenina's bedroom? for Nabokov, God was a subtle being, but tremendously inventive and perhaps a little sly.
Nabokov believed that "the unraveling of a riddle is the purest and most basic act of the human mind." He probably would have loved this remarkable book, an attempt to unravel the riddles and hidden meanings Nabokov, himself, embedded in Pale Fire.
When Pale Fire first appeared in 1962, reviewers said, correctly, that it could be enjoyed without puzzling over its hidden meanings but that it obviously hid many levels of complexity. In a now-famous article, Mary McCarthy called Pale Fire "a jack-in-the-box, a Fabergé gem, a clockwork toy, a chess problem, an infernal machine, a trap to catch reviewers..." But she also thought it was a thing of perfect beauty, symmetry, strangeness, originality and moral truth.
Even on a first reading of Pale Fire, we understand that Nabokov is playing a most elaborate literary game. Kinbote is hilariously mad, and his efforts to interpret Shade's poem as a commentary on Zemblan events can be seen as a satire of imaginative academics.
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15 of 16 people found the following review helpful By scott gates on April 16, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Amazing! When reading this insomnia-inducing book my head kept spinning with the mirror-like mirages of Pale Fire and I felt that everything I trusted and relied on when first I read that book were crumbling around me.
I have read Pale Fire twice and still only feel that I am barely familiar with how the common household objects in the place Kinbote is housesitting helped to create that zany land of the north, Zembla.
I dont want to spoil some of the surprises in this book (Boyd has gone back on his stance of Shade being the author of both poem and commmentary which he supports in his biography of Nabokov). But let me just say that these surprises provoked me in the middle of long nights to exclaim "What is goint ON? " and pace around frantically.
A haunting question (and by the way the ghostly aspects of Pale Fire which i had only felt in a vague way are exposed by Boyd to be something richer than i would have ever imagined) is not only how much control Hazel Shade had over the commentary but also how much control Nabokov's playful shade is exerting upon Boyd. The reviewer below me is onto something.
Boyd brings to Pale Fire his thorough knowledge of Nabokov's other works - for example his thesis - anti-thesis description of chess in Speak Memory or that bizarre short story The Vane Sisters - and illustrates how they help to see into the mystery of some of Nab's more complex works.
After reading Pale Fire twice, I naively thought that i understood it (yes that Bodkin in the University was suspicious, and yes the existence of internation thug Gradus i had previosly questioned) but i was only approaching the intitial layerings of this beatifully layered world.
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15 of 17 people found the following review helpful By M. H. Bayliss on June 30, 2000
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Obviously I must not be as big a Nabokov groupie as other Pale Fire enthusiasts, because when I read Pale Fire in a college seminar, most of us spent weeks admiring Nabokov's academic satire and what we then thought was a purposefully horrible poem. Now I feel somewhat shamed because Boyd seems to think the poem itself is great poetry -- I cringe because our class read out loud particularly funny lines and laughed at what a good "bad" poem Nabokov wrote. Maybe Boyd does miss some of the humor, but that is all he misses. I don't think he leaves one line, joke, pun, or obscure reference unexplained. I enjoyed the first few chapters more because they stuck to many of the more obvious discoveries Nabokov intended his readers to make. By the middle, Boyd had my head spinning with some of the leaps of analysis -- I was too confused to agree or disagree. But by the end, his overall surprises and theories come together and make sense. No matter what you make of Boyd's theory, I applaud the book for its emphasis on close reading and for its obvious love of this great writer. Nabokov is one of this century's best and deserves this kind of in-depth reading. In the final chapter, Boyd answers some of the criticisms about his theory (by Michael Wood, for instance, a Princeton prof) and almost ends up sounding like Kinbote for a moment in his defensiveness. This book is a true discovery for a devout reader because it shows how to read better and more closely, how to link (bobo-link) seemingly unrelated bits together. Hats off to a great work of Nabokov scholarship -- Boyd brought in lots of information from Nabokov's other works that proved to be quite important.
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