This is one of the strangest, most fascinating books I’ve ever read.
Essentially, Pale Fire is a poem inside a novel inside a novel. Follow? Probably not. It’s still a little confusing to me, and I’ve read it.
Vladimir Nabokov, famed author of Lolita, frames the novel around a 999 line poem written by fictional poet John Shade. The poem, which is a story in itself, is the launching point for a literary critic (who claims to be Shade’s neighbor) to provide a couple of hundred pages of commentary—through footnotes—about the poem.
The problem is, our fictional commentator (Charles Kinbote), appears to be a crazy man who stalks John Shade, and who claims to be a former king of a land called Zembla. This guy is certifiably nuts, and it’s hard to know how much he is telling is truthful and how much is purely delusional. Toward the end of the book, you may even begin to question if Kinbote just made the whole thing up entirely.
But that’s part of the fun. Pale Fire is entertaining because Nabokov basically allows you to be a detective as you try and figure out how much of what Kinbote is saying is true, a lie, an honest mistake, or just plain crazy.
Pale Fire is no doubt a strange book that’s guided by a strange man–the main character John Kinbote. He’s crazy, literally.
But like many crazy people, he has moments of genius. As the reader, you really have to be prepared for that with this novel. Kinbote is one of the most unreliable narrators you’ll ever read, and Nabokov does an outstanding job of mixing insanity and unreliability with genius and profound wisdom.
This passage describes an assassin named Gradus–who has been hired to assassinate the King of Zembla. Yeah, I don’t have time to really explain that right now, so just go with me here.
Anyway, here’s how Kinbote describe this assassin.
What did Vladimir Nabokov think about editors and the editing process?
Here’s what he had to say in a 1967 interview with The Paris Review:
Hey, did you know I’m reading Pale Fire?
Yeah, it’s my 52nd book but I’ve hardly mentioned it on the blog since my preview post on December 18. There were the holidays and giveaways, and year-end wrap-ups and so forth that got in the way of talking about this book.
So let’s talk Pale Fire, shall we?
I found this article from The Observer, written by Ron Rosenbaum, that proclaimed Pale Fire as the greatest novel of the 20th Century. Um, that’s high praise—considering that 90%, if not more, of the novels both you and I have read were written in the 20th Century—Gatsby, Ulysses, 1984, The Grapes of Wrath, etc.
I pulled out a passage from the article so you’ll have an idea of the high esteem in which this critic regards Pale Fire.
This one apparently needs some explaining.
This novel is comprised of two parts: The first section is a 999-line poem, written by the fictional poet, John Shade. The second, which is a large majority of the book, is a commentary on the poem written by the fictional Shade’s fictional colleague, Charles Kinbote.
So what we have here is Vladimir Nabokov, whom you might remember from Lolita fame, writing a novel inside a novel, which is more like a poem and a commentary about said poem.
Follow? Me neither.
But we have some time to figure this thing out. In the meantime, let’s look at some quick facts about Pale Fire and its famous author, Vladimir Nabokov.
Lolita, at its core, is about the sexual abuse of a child. That’s why, for me, it was such a difficult book to read.
Complicating matters is the novel’s cover, which usually has some type of suggestive image of a young girl. Not exactly material you want to carry around in public.
And the covers also seemed to miss the mark on the book’s theme–which was more about a creepy old pervert than a suggestive young girl. Many recent covers of the novels seemed to take their inspiration more from Stanley Kubrick’s outlandish film, rather than Nabokov’s book.
So recently, I stumbled across this as-yet-unreleased book called Recovering Lolita, which gave 60 world-class designers the opportunity to redesign the cover of this classic novel. And let’s be honest: This book’s cover desperately needs new eyes and a fresh look.
After reading 33 books in 16 months, it finally happened: I don’t know what to say.
What I mean is that I have so much to say that I don’t know how to say anything. I’m speechless…well, except for the fact that this is probably my longest review.
You see, I don’t know how to review this book. I’m baffled.
By now, it’s obvious that I’m highly uncomfortable reading Lolita.
That said, the book is beautifully written–and as I mentioned yesterday, it’s disturbing how effortlessly Nabokov seems to get inside the head of a pedophile.
My discomfort with this novel also raises a point we’ve discussed before: When a book brings a lot of negative emotions out of you–anger, depression, disdain–doesn’t that simply mean the author has written an amazing novel? If I really dislike this protagonist, Humbert, doesn’t that simply mean the author did his job of writing a powerful character?