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Next Up: 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.

  • Published in 1962, Pale Fire is one of the most critiqued and written about novels in the last century.
  • The title, “Pale Fire,” comes from a Shakespeare poem called Timon of Athens: “The moon’s an arrant thief, / And her pale fire she snatches from the sun.”
  • Reviews on Pale Fire were initially mixed, with comments ranging from “unreadable” and a “total wreck” to more appreciative of Nabokov’s experimental style.
  • In addition to appearing on the Time list, Pale Fire is ranked 53rd on the Modern Library list and is the number-one ranked novel on literary critic Larry McCaffery’s 20th Century’s Greatest Hits list.
  • The novel is filled with cultural and literary references—everything from the Boston Red Sox and Sherlock Holmes to James Joyce and Edgar Allen Poe.
  • Nabokov, who passed away in 1977, was prolific, having written many novels in English and Russian, as well as dozens of short stories, poetry collections, and plays.

Most of you know my thoughts about Lolita, so I’m hesitant about Pale Fire. This sounds like quite the experimental novel.

Anyone read Pale Fire?

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14 Comments Post a comment
  1. It sound super intimidating to me. Good luck. Look forward to reading your Pale Fire posts

    Like

    December 18, 2012
  2. David Jacobs #

    Yes, read it some years ago – absolutely no need to be intimidated, it’s not difficult at all.

    Like

    December 18, 2012
  3. Teresa #

    It’s a clever maze of poem, and critique with index. Buried in this, is a rambling tale of an exiled King. I’m not giving anything away, this comes out quickly. Making your way through the maze is the challenge. As Nabokov said, he left the reader “plums” scattered about to help make sense of things and to solve the biggest of the puzzles.

    Tempermentally, Kinbote is a Humbert Humbert sort of guy – that is, narcissistic. And so you will recognize the narrator’s voice as a Nabakovian 🙂 character.

    It was an amusing and entertaining read. I had issues with the characterization of Kinbote – but you’ll see what I mean when you get there. Enjoy it!

    Like

    December 18, 2012
  4. Yes, I read it and loved it. I agree with David: it’s not difficult and parts of it are quite entertaining, others are really touching. If you want to dive in deeper Brian Boyd wrote a fascinating, and very readable, commentary on this book.

    Like

    December 18, 2012
    • Thanks for the tip. I’ll have to look that up.

      Like

      December 19, 2012
  5. I am so glad you’re doing this so I can come back and read your posts when I start it. I picked up a free copy in a book box at the end of my street over the summer and had no idea what I was getting into!

    Like

    December 18, 2012
  6. First time readers will find “Pale Fire” easier to understand if they know that Kinbote, to every appearance, is a delusional character with a very tenuous grasp on the reality of the world in which he finds himself.

    Like

    December 18, 2012
    • Much like Humbert Humbert, I guess.

      Like

      December 19, 2012
      • Yes, although I think with a difference. Both HH and Kinbote are narcissists. But only Kinbote suffers from a psychosis that manifests itself in delusions (I bet my mental health terms are out of date). So HH is capable of seeing the reality of the harm he’s done Lolita, once he sees beyond himself. (Those who think HH is a sociopath just faking regret will have a different opinion.) I think Kinbote could not see that Shade’s poem is not about him without medication. So I think the causes of the HH and Kinbote’s behavior are different, but their behavior is definitely similar.

        Like

        December 19, 2012
  7. Pale Fire is a wonderful introduction into the ways which an author can artificially construct a narrative and manipulate the reader through cascading fictions and playful literary constructs. Pale Fire has been taught so many times and analyzed so many ways that it is no longer confusing but new readers can have a lot of fun uncovering its treasures and speculating about the nature of fiction.

    I would have my students read Pale Fire before Lolita. It still baffles me that most readers can see Pale Fire as a fiction and still read Lolita as if it was some form of yellow journalism or soft-core pornography.

    Remember: It’s All Fiction!

    Like

    December 18, 2012
  8. Nabokov is my favorite dead author, so it shouldn’t surprise that Pale Fire is one of my favorite novels. It has everything you could ask for: heart, humor, mystery, intrigue, drama, and word play. I’m not a fan of poetry, but the 999 lines are spellbinding. As with his novels Lolita and Despair, Nabokov assumes first person perspective, creating the consummate intellect slash fool slash villain in a way only a genius can pull off, though admittedly Kinbote is more fool than villain. http://mspyrison.blogspot.com/2012/01/pale-fire-by-vladimir-nabokov.html

    Like

    December 20, 2012

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Pale Fire: The Greatest Novel Of The 20th Century? | 101 Books
  2. Jefferson Kinzle

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