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Pale Fire Paperback – April 23, 1989

4.5 out of 5 stars 171 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Like Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire is a masterpiece that imprisons us inside the mazelike head of a mad émigré. Yet Pale Fire is more outrageously hilarious, and its narrative convolutions make the earlier book seem as straightforward as a fairy tale. Here's the plot--listen carefully! John Shade is a homebody poet in New Wye, U.S.A. He writes a 999-line poem about his life, and what may lie beyond death. This novel (and seldom has the word seemed so woefully inadequate) consists of both that poem and an extensive commentary on it by the poet's crazy neighbor, Charles Kinbote.

According to this deranged annotator, he had urged Shade to write about his own homeland--the northern kingdom of Zembla. It soon becomes clear that this fabulous locale may well be a figment of Kinbote's colorfully cracked, prismatic imagination. Meanwhile, he manages to twist the poem into an account of Zembla's King Charles--whom he believes himself to be--and the monarch's eventual assassination by the revolutionary Jakob Gradus.

In the course of this dizzying narrative, shots are indeed fired. But it's Shade who takes the hit, enabling Kinbote to steal the dead poet's manuscript and set about annotating it. Is that perfectly clear? By now it should be obvious that Pale Fire is not only a whodunit but a who-wrote-it. There isn't, of course, a single solution. But Nabokov's best biographer, Brian Boyd, has come up with an ingenious suggestion: he argues that Shade is actually guiding Kinbote's mad hand from beyond the grave, nudging him into completing what he'd intended to be a 1,000-line poem. Read this magical, melancholic mystery and see if you agree. --Tim Appelo


"This centaur work, half-poem, half-prose . . . is a 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."  --Mary McCarthy

Product Details

  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; Reissue edition (April 23, 1989)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0679723420
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679723424
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.7 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (171 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #9,816 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov was born on April 23, 1899, in St. Petersburg, Russia. The Nabokov household was trilingual, and 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 ficticvbn ral books of criticism. Vladimir Nabokov died in Montreux, Switzerland, in 1977.

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Top Customer Reviews

By A Customer on October 1, 2000
Format: Paperback
Pale Fire is the name of a 999-line poem in four cantos by the "distinguished American poet" John Shade, published posthumously in a lovingly prepared edition with a foreword and detailed commentary by the Zemblan literary scholar Charles Kinbote. Pale Fire is also the name of the novel by Vladimir Nabokov in which the poem is written by Shade and annotated by Kinbote, who are Nabokov's creations. The novel is actually written in the form of poem and scholarly apparatus, not omitting a thorough index. It is a perfect and perfectly original union of form and meaning. It is also wickedly, outrageously funny.
The poem itself is a complicated, beautiful, mysterious achievement. It reveals the character of John Shade so completely and movingly that we have to keep reminding ourselves that it was actually written by Nabokov, himself. The poem is the heart of the novel, literally and figuratively, although the commentary no doubt constitutes the most interesting reading. Pale Fire is Shade's final work; possibly his greatest work. It is the product of every thought and experience in a long, thoughtful life, and it also contains that entire life: childhood, adolescence, marriage, fatherhood, old age and death. The title refers to the "pale fire of time," and is taken from a poem by Yeats and not from Shakespeare, as Kinbote confidently suggests. Or is Nabokov simply leading us on a merry chase? Better check Timon of Athens to be sure.
And Kinbote is frequently wrong in his confident suggestions in the commentary.
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Format: Paperback
Pale Fire -- Vladimir Nabokov
It is arguable, and debatable, whether this title or Lolita is Nabokov's masterpiece, but what is certain is that Pale Fire is once of the tightest, best-structured books of the 20th century.
Pale Fire is laid out in three parts: a Foreward written by Charles Kinbote, a Poem written by John Shade, and Commentary, also written by Kinbote.
What is prefigured in the Foreword and then made explicit in the Commentary is Kinbote's strange relationship with Shade and his equally strange past. The story is told completely through the device of the Foreword and Commentary, and in them Kinbote paints himself as a refugee from a despotic regime in a faraway land known only as Zembla. He takes up residence in New Wye, right across the street from professor and poet John Shade.
Once settled in New Wye, Kinbote embarks on an obsessive, mutedly homoerotic relationship with his poet neighbor, courting him when they are together and spying on him the rest of the time. Although Kinbote has fled his native Zembla, he dearly loves his homeland with the pain of one who knows he can never return to the land he has forsaken, and it is his dream that Shade will immortalize Zembla in a poem.
But just as Kinbote reaches for Zembla, so does Zembla reach for Kinbote. In the Commentary Kinbote brings forth a character called Gradus, who is an assassin sent from Zembla to search him out and kill him.
If the Foreword and Commentary tell the story of Kinbote, then the Poem tells the story of Shade. In only 999 lines, Shade paints a vivid picture of his past, taking us through his idyllic life in New Wye, its sudden destruction one night by death of his daughter, and his subsequent coping.
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Oh, there is no fanatic like a convert. And Nabokov's writing in the English language bestows his found tongue with rapture. This is Nabokov's finest (I suppose in this 21st century, I just don't find Lolita shocking! shocking! the way its rookie readers must have) and one of the top ten novels of the 20th century.
Surprisingly, you'll find that this book composed of a 999-line poem and the commentary written on that poem by a colleague, has a plot. It is ingenious, twisted, brilliant. One of the most finely crafted works of art ever. I've picked up the word "replete" in relation to art from Steven Pinker, and this work is repleteful. The words, the language, the structure, the social criticism, and most of all, the beauty, as I contemplate and re-contemplate this work, grow ever more replete.
I love this poem. "I was the shadow of the waxwing slain/ In the false azure of the windowpane" and its delicate rhymes and trips and footfalls are savored with every single re-reading. He brings an outsiders perspective to the language with rhymes we don't "see" but hear: "Come and be worshipped, come and be caressed / My dark Vanessa, crimson-barred, my blest" and it sometimes feels like he's introducing you to a new English language.
So who wouldn't like this book, I suppose, should be a question the reviewer should try to answer. Well, I just can't imagine anybody that's ever bought a novel not liking this one, so I suppose if you're a pure non-fiction reader, this ain't for you. And Nabokov is a bit bloodless at times, you won't find the wild, sloppy joy of a Kerouac, or the brawny aggressiveness of a Hemingway, but finely finely crafted and turned and polished words delivered impeccably, perfectly.
Please, please, read Pale Fire. The more of us that carry Nabokov's masterwork in our hearts, the more he will have "lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky"
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