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Nabokov's Best Ever?,
This review is from: Pale Fire (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. In more ways than one it is the ideal complement to Kinbote's text, providing a clear, beautiful counterpart to Kinbote's unsteady rants and digressions.
However, what takes this book from mere postmodern game and transforms it to a dynamic, engrossing title is Kinbote's unreliability as a narrator and the questions surrounding who the real author of the Poem, Foreword, and Commentary is. Does Zembla really exist and has Kinbote really fled it? Is Gradus's climatic appearance the result of a government plot against Kinbote, or just another of the strange coincidences that pervade Pale Fire? Finally, is Shade's poem really Shade's, or has Kinbote written it for his own purposes? Vice versa, is Kinbote the real creative force behind the Foreword and Commentary, or is it the work of some different, other-worldly presence?
Nabokov masterfully spreads the information needed to answer these questions throughout Pale Fire, yet he does so in such a way that nothing is ever made completely explicit. Just as in all of Nabokov's best books, it is up to the reader to make that final conceptual leap, to take that final step after being carried along by Nabokov's poetic narrative.
Thus, Pale Fire is not a book that should be read only once, or quickly. It is a book that hides hints in the strangest of places (more than a couple appear in the Index), and one which cannot be completely understood the first time through. That is not to say that the first reading will not be satisfying, as Nabokov does give us a suspenseful, well-drawn narrative, but that as the reader peers back into Pale Fire she will see the book growing deeper and deeper as new items begin to pop up, like stars in the sky as evening fades to night.
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Initial post: Apr 29, 2010 10:17:17 AM PDT
Beth Nowlen says:
excellent review. I especially liked the last line, descriptive of the (inenubilable?) time when a dying sunset and emerging stars briefly coexist
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