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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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Nabokov mastered the fine line between poetry and literature and this is a great example of a book that fully stimulates the aesthetic requirements for someone like me.When i finish a Nabokov book i feel like i have really been through something that i can carry along in a mental toolbox with me for life.
Lines 120-121: five minutes were equal to 40 ounces, etc
In the left margin, and parallel to it [the poet wrote]: 'In the middle ages an hour was equal to 480 ounces of fine sand or 22560 atoms.'
I am unable to check either this statement or the poet's calculations in regard to 5 minutes, i.e., three hundred seconds, since I
do not see how 480 can be divided by 300 or vice versa, but perhaps I am only tired...
There are so few mathematical jokes in this world!
There is no question that you have to be at "the top of your reading game" to tackle this work, and then, STILL, the "bookmarks will measure what you lost." McCarthy called it a "centaur-work," half poem, half prose. It is that, but it is also far more akin to a game of three dimensional chess, as Nabokov plays (and you can sense his joy in writing this) along numerous planes, vectors, and assorted intersections. The author is a master of allusion and illusion.
Nominally there is the 1000 line poem (or is it only 999?) written by John Shade which his wife has bequeathed to his somewhat friend and academic colleague Charles Kinbote for safekeeping, editing, and eventual publication. The rest of the book takes the form of a meandering "Commentary" by Kinbote on the poem, and much else about life. The poem itself is dense and rich, rhyming couplets commencing with what will now always be memorable for me: "I was the shadow of the waxwing slain, By the false azure in the windowpane..." Before the poem turns back upon itself, at line 1000 (or is it 999?), there are ample eschatological musing, including an unloved daughter who takes the Ophelia exit. Yes, Nabokov anticipates that the reader is familiar with Karamazov, and how Marat died, for literary and historical allusions abound. There are also "svelte stilettos" and "And our best yesterdays are now foul piles, Of crumpled names, phone numbers and foxed files..." As with much of Nabokov, both the poem, and the commentary can serve simply as a vocabulary builder.
Matryoshka is that unique Russian art form: nested dolls, one inside the other. Nabokov writes in a similar fashion, with one story inside another. He has created (or is it a character's imagination?) the Kingdom of Zembla, a mythical northern European country where a coup occurred, and the King has had to flee for his life. There are the inevitable petty rivalries in academia (of which Nabokov must have had much first-hand experience). There is a section involving the secret passages of youth that seemed to be straight from The Lost Estate (Le Grand Meaulnes) (Penguin Classics).
There is his playful approach towards language; no doubt one of the reasons why MacDonald says that he is "self-indulgent." Consider from the poem: "A proud and happy linguist: je nourris, Les pauvres cigales - meaning that he, Fed the poor sea gulls! Lafontaine was wrong..." and as Kinbote states in his commentary on this passage, refreshingly so, that generations of translators have mistranslated "cigale" as "grasshopper" in the tale of the Grasshopper and the Ant. Even more astonishingly, Nabokov cites a translator's dilemma of in the confusion of a misprint between "mountain" and "fountain." Then, in a virtual statistical impossible thrice, between the English "crown-crow-cow" and the Russian "korona-vorona-korova." "Self-indulgent" may be the last defense of the threatened academic in the face of such humbling erudition. For the rest of us though, we can simply enjoy and be amazed, and even learn a bit.
As with all excellent literature, there are numerous penetrating insights into the human condition, from the personal behavior of an assassin on his "mission" to the snubs and counter-snubs in academia. If one is not invited to a party, where else is it appropriate (and understood) to give the host a Pleiades edition of Proust's most famous work, with a similar passage bookmarked?
Speaking of publishers, "Everyman's Library" has produced an outstanding edition, complete with the cloth bookmark, which serves to supplement your own, as you flip back and forth between poem and commentary. And it will easily make it through the obligatory re-read. In the meantime, beware of the false azure in a windowpane. 5-stars plus.
As always, Nabokov's powerful critique of Freudism and Kinseyism has profound, though almost utterly ignored, connotations for the current Jenomic war on Europe and America. High Arka.
I highly recommend this book.