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Pale Fire: The Greatest Novel Of The 20th Century?

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.

Before venturing further into the depths and delights of Pale Fire theories, I want to pause here for the benefit of those who have not yet tasted the pleasures of Pale Fire. Pause to emphasize just how much pure reading pleasure it offers despite its apparently unconventional form. Following a brief foreword, the novel opens with a 999-line poem in rhymed heroic couplets formally reminiscent of Alexander Pope, but written in accessible American colloquial language at least on the surface. Please don’t be intimidated by the poem’s length or formality; it’s a pleasure to read: sad, funny, thoughtful, digressive, discursive, filled with heart-stopping moments of tenderness and beauty.

Following the poem (entitled “Pale Fire”) which is identified in the foreword as the last work of John Shade, a fictional Frost-like American poet, another voice takes over: the commentator Charles Kinbote. A delightful, deluded, more than a bit demented voice whose 200 pages of commentary and annotations on the poem constitute the remainder of the novel. Kinbote’s voice is completely mad–he is the ultimate unreliable narrator, the mad scholar colonizing the poem with his own baroque delusion–but also completely irresistible. Kinbote weaves into his footnoted annotations on the poem the story of his own relationship with the poet, John Shade.

That should give you an idea of the literary mountain I’m trying to climb here. The critical praise for Pale Fire is immense. The Modern Library also had it ranked 53 on their list.

As I continue to read it, I appreciate even more Nabokov’s experimental style. I think I’ll regard Pale Fire much higher than Lolita.

I’m generally not a fan of poetry, especially 999 line poems (read: long poems). But the way the novel is set up, it’s much more of a story than a poem—and the obscure references and difficult aspects of the poem are explained by Kinbote in the footnotes—at least to the extent that Kinbote is reliable.

Anyway, Pale Fire continues on. I got a little tripped up trying to finish A Dance To The Music Of Time last month, so that slowed down my progress in what is not that long of a novel.

More to come about Pale Fire in the next week or so.

8 Comments Post a comment
  1. Just when I decide to finally bite the bullet and attempt Lolita (quenching the nausea that appears at the mere thought), here’s another Nabokov that sounds infinitely more interesting coz I write poetry (nowhere near 999 lines though or even 99!)…and it’s got nothing to do with pedophilia. Maybe I should read this one instead?!


    January 9, 2013
  2. vlt #

    this is an excellant experiment with language, poetry, novel, thinking and signs. outstanding, yet surely not even top5 of 1900s


    January 9, 2013
  3. Well you’re starting to get me interested in it. Not sure I’ll get around to actually reading the copy I salvaged, but we’ll see how your reviews/posts go.


    January 9, 2013
  4. Nabokov is my favorite dead author, and Pale Fire is one of my favorite novels. Believe the hype. It’s really that good. Glad you’re reading it. Look forward to reading your review. Mine is on my blog.


    January 9, 2013
  5. I loved Pale Fire. Brilliant in its “hypertexting” mentality long before the computer age.No two readers follow the same path.

    It’s hilarious and poignant and reflects the shade of his father who was accidentally murdered by an assassin attempting to kill someone else. I loved reading it in an adult ed experimental lit class. Really helped tease out lots of interesting details.

    One book that I own and have been meaning to read is Nabokov’s memoir, “Speak Memory.” I’ve heard that it is a must read.


    January 9, 2013
  6. I read Pale Fire more than twenty years ago, but I had to add to your notes here considering I just finished reading Lolita last week – strangely, for the first time. Although I don’t have a list as such, part of the year will be to read novels I’ve neglected over the years.

    I haven’t see the list yet, but I think the greatest novel of the 20th century is The Death of Virgil. I’ll be interested to see if it’s on the list


    January 26, 2013

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