Picking up Pale Fire, I had no idea what to do with it. In fact, (I’m very ashamed of this) I did research on the best way to read Nabokov’s 1962 novel. At first glance, the book split into a 999-line poem entitled ‘Pale Fire’ by a late poet named John Shade and an annotated commentary from his peculiar friend & colleague Charles Kinbote, appears incredibly daunting.
Kinbote’s Forward and Shade’s poem amount to 84 pages of Pale Fire while the Commentary fills the other 130 pages. The annotations corresponding to lines in the poem. “I find it wise to purchase two copies of the same work which can then be placed in adjacent positions on a comfortable table”, Kinbote explains in the Forward. Don’t doubt him
Set in the small town of New Wye, Appalachia (where else?), poet John Shade begins a 999-line autobiographical poem. Little does he know that it would be his last. Closely examining Shade through his shutters and sidewalk, neighbor Charles Kinbote, (at least from what he tells us in the Commentary) becomes privy to Shade’s poem and sees his chance to insert a story of his own.
Kinbote claims he influenced Shade to write the autobiographical poem, but also the escape of the disposed king of Zembla, his mother country. So along with gleaning anecdotes from the life of John Shade, we also follow the young King Charles and his would-be (and clumsy) assassin, Gradus
Since its publication in 1962 to present day, ‘Pale Fire’ has received mixed reviews. Even TIME, whose Top 100 list influenced us to create this site, was unsure how to feel about the novel, citing that despite the great writing, its failure as a satire. Nabokov would be vindicated when the novel was included in their list in 2005.
“I think it is a perfectly straightforward novel. The clearest revelation of personality is to be found in the creative work in which a given individual indulges. Here the poet is revealed by his poetry; the commentator by his commentary”, Nabokov stated in the 1962 article from the New York Herald.
We’re lead back and forth throughout the novel with occassional hints in the Commentary to the poet’s life of John Shade and method behind Kinbote’s madness. While the task may seem overly tedious and dauntinig, the author is right, Pale Fire really is a simple novel. Nabokov excels in not necessarily his prose, which is always outstanding, but rather in the reflection he thrust upon the reader.
“Pale Fire is full of plums I keep hoping someone will find.” Nabokov stated in the same interview. While I would love to delve into all the theories of the novel, (Pekka Tammi listed over 80 in 1995), it’s better to make your own interpretation of Pale Fire.The journey from A to B is entertaining enough as is, but reaching C is truly brilliant. Personally, I think the novel refuses any true theory. Like Audeberti said, ‘The most obscure poem is written for everyone.”
On the other side of criticism, Anthony Burgess would applaud Pale Fire, including it in his best English novels from 1939-1983. “Pale Fire is only termed a novel because there’s no other term for it. It’s a masterly literary artifact which is poem, commentary, allegory, casebook, sheer structure.” Also adding a point I found most interesting, “But I note that most people go back to reading the poem, not what surrounds the poem. It’s a fine poem, of course.
Though what I found the most enjoyable in Pale Fire was Nabokov’s mastery in storytelling. Unlike the blurring of reality and fantasy we see in Lolita and Pnin (I point to Humbert Humbert’s surreal fantasies and Pnin’s lakeside reflections) Pale Fire works in a realm all of its own. Rather than make his tale more concrete, Nabokov makes us question the validity in anything and everything within the binding. “It’s a Do-It Yourself kit”, Mary McCarthy states in her acclaimed review.
As we slowly piece together the life of late poet John Shade, question the sanity of our commentator Charles Kinbote, and sit in suspense as the cat-and-mouse game between Charles Xavier and Gradus reaches it’s climax, we are always in a pleasant state of solace with our Russian babysitter, Vladimir Nabokov:
“By the end of May I could make out the outlines of some of my images in the shape his genius might give them; by mid-June I felt sure at last that he would recreate in a poem the dazzling Zembla burning in my brain. I mesmerized him with it, I saturated him with my vision, I pressed upon him, with a drunkard’s wild generosity, all that I was helpless myself to put into verse. Surely, it would not be easy to discover in the history of poetry a similar case- that of two men, different in origin, upbringing, thought associations, spiritual intonation and mental mode, one a cosmopolitan scholar, the other a fireside poet, entering into a secret compact of this kind. At length I knew he was ripe with my Zembla, bursting with suitable rhymes, ready to spurt at the brush of an eyelash.”