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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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Top Customer Reviews
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. He identifies allusions where none exist; fails to recognize those that are actually there (he is writing his notes in a remote cabin in the Rockies and complains that he has no books to check his references), and suggests interpretations which are clearly, hilariously, wrong. The hapless Dr. Kinbote has got it into his head that Pale Fire (the poem) is really about himself, and his commentary is an audacious attempt to demonstrate this.
So, almost ignoring what is actually present in the poem, he proceeds through the commentary to give a detailed history of his own life and times, often revealing far more than he really means to do. And it turns out to be quite a good story, because Kinbote, a native of the remote northern European country of Zembla, has had quite an adventurous past. It is only a pity that it is quite irrelevant to Shade's poem. Kinbote just happens to be a man who doesn't do anything by halves; even the most innocuous phrase of the poem is "demonstrated" to be a cryptic reference to some event in Kinbote's life. Pale Fire is nothing if it is not great fun.
But Pale Fire is not merely amusing and inventive. Kinbote's commentary seems to be everything literary criticism should not be; but it is actually only an extreme, exaggerated version of what literary criticism truly is. Kinbote attempts to rewrite Shade's poem in his own image and likeness, but this is true to a greater or lesser extent--or a more or less subtle extent--of every critic, amateur or professional.
Pale Fire is thus a complex, and ultimately rather touching, demonstration of the way people have of reading their lives into books and reading books into their lives, like Kinbote. (And also, the way we have of writing our lives into books and writing books into our lives, like Shade.) It is an affirmation of the power of literature, of the power of books to help us make sense of our lives, and of the impossibility of distinguishing precisely where art ends and life begins. To quote John Shade:
I feel I understand/ Existence, or at least a minute part/ Of my existence, only through my art,/ In terms of combinational delight;/ And if my private universe scans right,/ So does the verse of galaxies divine/ Which I suspect is an iambic line.
Almost every reader can remember that one particular novel, poem or play that seemed to have been written for him and him alone. The one the reader took so personally, it changed his entire outlook on life and which even now he cannot discuss rationally or impartially. Every passionate reader knows of just such a book or even books. So, perhaps we should spare one or two sympathetic thoughts for the poor, but smitten, Dr. Kinbote even as we laugh uproariously at his well-intentioned mistakes.
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.