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Vladimir Nabokov, The Poet

As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts about Pale Fire, this is a unique novel.

It’s part poem, part story/commentary on the poem. In short, it’s unlike anything I’ve ever read. The novel begins with a 999-line poem written by a famous fictional poet. The remaining 200 or so pages are comprised of the fictional poet’s fictional friend’s thoughts about the poem–many of which are off the wall and more about himself than having anything at all to do with the poem.

Strange, isn’t it? Anyway, since Pale Fire has been called, in some circles, the greatest novel of the 20th Century, you can it has been the subject of many critiques–much of which centers on how to handle the poem. Was it just an afterthought? A setup for Kinbote’s long-winded diatribes? Or was there more to the poem?

Here’s how critic Ron Rosenbaum from Slate explained his interpretation of the poem and how it relates to the novel:

From the beginning, there has been a debate among readers and critics over the relationship between the poem and the novel. Actually, that’s not quite true, now that I think about it. From the moment I read the novel and read about it, I somehow took for granted what everyone writing about it seemed to take for granted: That there must be something wrong with the poem, since the novel gives so much weight to a madman’s misguided obsession with it.

And then as I read and reread the novel, and sometimes just the poem, it began to dawn on me. Maybe the poem wasn’t meant as a pastiche, a parody, an homage to Robert Frost….Once it dawned on me that the poem might not be a carefully diminished version of Nabokov’s talents, but Nabokov writing at the peak of his powers in a unique throwback form (the kind of heroic couplets Alexander Pope used in the 18th century), I began to write essays that advanced this revisionist view of the poem. It was actually one of these that came to the attention of Dmitri Nabokov who seemed to indicate this was his understanding as well: That his father intended the poem to be taken seriously.

Prominent Nabokov scholars now believe the poem can stand alone on its own, and it’s not just a setup for Kinbote’s crazy thoughts. To that point, Gingko Press actually published the poem, by itself, in 2011. Interestingly, it’s available for $23 on Amazon, about $10 more than the novel with both the poem and the commentary.

So, yeah, the fact that this novel has now been broken into two pieces and sold separately will tell you just how influential it is. My natural reaction is to fly through the poem–because I’m not a big poem guy anyway–and get to the meat of the story. But it appears Nabokov didn’t intend that.

It took me a while to get my bearings with Pale Fire and figure out the odd setup–as well as the narrator’s unreliability–but I’m really starting to appreciate and enjoy this novel.

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. Matt #

    Thanks for sharing the link to that article. Great read.


    January 15, 2013
  2. Teresa #

    I went through a process similar to yours when I read it last fall and began to enjoy Nabakov’s cat and mouse game with the reader. It was quite a different reading experience than your typical Time 100 book.


    January 15, 2013
    • Kinbote is one of the most unreliable narrators I’ve read. The cat and mouse game is a great description. Jumped out at me when he misinterpreted “Chapman’s Homer” as having something to with the poet, and not the guy who hit a home run. Pretty funny.


      January 15, 2013
  3. Alex in Leeds #

    I knew about the poem being published separately but am surprised by the price of it in comparison to the novel!


    January 15, 2013
  4. Sometime in the late 1990s, I first read Pale Fire for an adult ed class on the experimental novel. We didn’t discuss this possibility at all. Very interesting. I may need to take another look at the poem with this in mind. Thanks for the info!


    January 15, 2013
  5. This commentary made me curious, and I just ordered Pale Fire.


    January 16, 2013

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