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Pale Fire Paperback – April 23, 1989
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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
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[If you've read the book on paper, you know this is true: The poem is no more as accessible with the footnotes as without, and much easier and more pleasurable to follow with no wildly irrelevant interruptions for them. And strangely enough, the commentary is no different -- once you've begun it, you have enough work ahead of you teasing out its story without constantly flipping back to the _almost_ irrelevant poem, and in fact, despite my suggestion of reviewing it in chunks, you might not reread the poem at all during the commentary. I'm sure many admirers of the book do not.]
Now, _within_ the commentary, Kinbote presents additional notes that would take you out of this order of reading (under the note for Line 1-4, for instance, he says at one point "(see Foreword)" and at another ("See also lines 181-182.") _These_ notes are hypertexted for your convenience, so that you can click on them, jump to their referents, and return to place with the Back key. Those are the only kind of notes it's useful to have in hypertext, and although I think a few -- a very few -- have been missed, in all other cases, what you should want in hypertext _is_ in hypertext.
Remember, this is not like a normal annotation-by-editor, where you might want to see hyperscripts all through the poem and be able to click on one to read the handy little note associated with it (like the meaning of a French phrase or something) and then click right back to the poem and keep going. None of _these_ notes are actually handy or useful for understanding the poem and you would never want your first reading of the poem to be interrupted by any of them. The whole commentary is a madman's interpretation of the poem which has to be appreciated in a second reading. For that purpose, the little excerpts from particular lines that start off each of these crazy comments are all that you need, you won't need or want to go back and re-re-read additional lines of the poem at that point, Kinbote has already told you what he is referring to.
Now, I'm not going to argue that getting around the Kindle edition is as easy as reading a cheap paperback you can dog-ear the pages of, but it's not _hard_ to bookmark and read (easier on some models of Kindle than others, I imagine) and -- more to the point -- it is not true that the editors have made it harder by mis-formatting it. I am glad to have one of my favorite novels on the Kindle, and if you love the book and love your Kindle, don't be afraid to try it.
The novel is divided into a Forward-the actual poem Pale Fire-the Commentary on the poem-and finally an Index. I read the novel linearly from page one to the end. You could read it by flipping back and forth between the Commentary and the poem, but you would be wasting your time, as the Commentary really has nothing to do with the poem it is supposed to be commenting on.
The novel lends itself to a myriad of interpretations, none of which I am going to examine here. Do that for yourself, I don’t want to foist an interpretation on you.
The biggest strength of “Pale Fire” is the characterization of its narrator by Vladimir Nabokov. I had read only a few pages of the Forward and Dr. Kinbote was clearly established as a real person, and he is a great character. I would have no desire to know him, but he is most certainly real. He is a delusional and very lonely man, desperately in need of companionship. And in some traits he is like most of us, and probably not in a manner we are comfortable with.
“Pale Fire” is an intriguing and very different read. Nabokov is clearly mocking academics, literary criticism, the culture of the 1950s, and even the reader themselves. It is not your usually reading experience, but it is a worthwhile one.