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Book #52: Pale Fire

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.

He is the epitome of an unreliable narrator—even moreso than characters like The Chief in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. For instance, in providing commentary on this line of the poem…

And from the local Star

A curio: Red Sox Beat Yanks 5-4

On Chapman’s Homer, thumbtacked to the door. 

Kinbote had this to say…

Line 98: On Chapman’s Homer

A reference to the title of Keats’ famous sonnet (often quoted in America) which, owing to a printer’s absent-mindedness, has been drolly transposed, from some other article, into the account of a sports event. For other other vivid misprints see note to line 802. 

What? Apparently, Mr. Kinbote is not very familiar with baseball. Hilarious.

There’s also an instance where Kinbote rails against using quotations in titles, not realizing that the Pale Fire poem is itself a quote from Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens. You just can’t trust this guy. He’s almost as crazy as Gary Busey talking about “hobbit land.”

Then there’s Kinbote’s stalkerish qualities that he seems totally unaware of, like his propensity to peek through Shade’s windows (either directly outside the window or through his window across the street) to watch his nightly activities. Like this:

After the last guest had gone (on a bicycle), and the ashtrays had been emptied, all the windows were dark for a couple of hours; but then, at about 3 A.M., I saw from my upstairs bathroom that the poet had gone back to his desk in the lilac light of his den, and this nocturnal session brought the canto to line 230 (card 18). On another trip to the bathroom an hour and a half later, at sunrise, I found the light transferred to the bedroom and smiled indulgently, for, according to my deductions, only two nights had passed since the three thousand nine hundred ninety ninth time–but no matter. A few minutes later all was solid darkness again, and I went back to bed.

Outside of Kinbote’s commentary on Shade’s daily activities—a strange premise for footnotes to a poem in the first place—he also uses the commentary to tell the story of his own past as Zemblan King and the assassin who his chasing him. Like I said, dude is nuts.

With Kinbote, Nabokov once again provides us with a character whose narccicism is off the charts. 90% of his commentary on Shade’s poem is simply an opportunity to talk about himself.

One line from the poem simply reads, “I never bounced a ball or swung a bat.”

To which Kinbote, apparently not understanding the purpose of the commentary section of a poem, says:

Frankly I too never excelled in soccer and cricket; I am a passable horseman, a vigorous though unorthodox skier, a good skater, a tricky wrestler, and an enthusiastic rock-climber.

Come again? And how does that have anything to do with John Shade’s poem? It doesn’t, and that’s the point.


The man. The myth. The Nabokov.

The problem with Pale Fire is in the inherent nature of the novel—it’s disjointed. You’ve got a long poem, and then you’ve got a long commentary on said poem that has little to do with the poem itself.

Trying to connect the two is difficult—plus there’s the issue of whether or not the poem is to be taken seriously, and many Pale Fire critics believe Nabokov wanted the poem to stand on its own.

Another problem is simply the logistics of reading Pale Fire. Do you read the poem by itself and then do the same with the commentary? Do you slowly read the poem while referring back to the notes? Do you slowly read the commentary while referring back to the poem?

It’s like a much shorter version of the same problem I encountered while reading Infinite Jest. In that way, it’s not an easy novel to read.

This novel is the poster child for experimental novels. I’ve never read anything like it, and I’m not sure I ever will.

It’s the type of novel that’s really hard to explain. That’s why I’ve included so many excerpts in this review. You really just have to read it for yourself.

Other Stuff

The Opening Line:

I was the shadow of the waxwing slain

By the false azure in the windowpane;

I was the smudge of ashen fluff–and I

Lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky.

The Meaning: The title of the poem (and “novel”) comes from Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens: “The moon’s an arrant thief, / And her pale fire she snatches from the sun”

Highlights: This book will keep you on your toes. Frequent 101 Books commenter Teresa called it a “cat and mouse game” by Nabokov, and I think that’s a perfect way to describe it. If that doesn’t sound appealing to you, then you won’t like Pale Fire. The creativity and experimentation here is off the charts.

Lowlights: As I mentioned in the review, the novel is disjointed between the poem and the commentary. Sure, it’s set up that way, but knowing that doesn’t make it any easier. It’s a logistical challenge as well, just flipping back and forth between the poem and the commentary. These aren’t major issues, but they are bothersome.

Memorable Line: I detailed my favorite passage from the novel in this post.

Final Thoughts: If you’re feeling a little bored with reading the same thing over and over and want to try something new, Pale Fire might be exactly what you need. The narrator in Pale Fire is creepy and narcicistic, but not in the same way that Humbert Humbert is in Lolita. He’s still somewhat likeable in his craziness. So if Lolita freaked you out, like me, don’t let that stop you from reading Pale Fire.

21 Comments Post a comment
  1. Given the source of the title “Pale Fire,” check out the Astronomy Picture of the Day for today (1/30/13) It’s a real-time shot of a moonrise–and as it rises, you see the silhouettes of other moongazers passing in front. It’s beautiful, and almost poetic in it’s own right. Maybe not directly relevant to the novel, but, close enough 🙂


    January 30, 2013
  2. Teresa #

    Great review. I couldn’t decide if I actually liked the book but I found it diverting. And as you say that’s reason in itself to read it. What would you respond to those who say its the best book ever written? Ditto for Infinite Jest.


    January 30, 2013
    • Definitely nowhere close to the best book. I think I ranked it somewhere in the middle of the pack in my rankings of the books on the list. Great read. Worth the time. Nice change of pace. But not the best book of the 20th century.


      January 30, 2013
  3. Thanks for your review! Pale Fire is one of my faves, but not in the same way as others such as Absalom! Absalom!, The Sound and the Fury, or The Dubliners. The two Faulkner novels infiltrated my dreams, while The Dubliners broke my heart. I think Pale Fire and Ulysses fall into the same category: read and admire the author’s chops/cleverness and occasionally lose yourself in the story. I haven’t read Infinite Jest, but it sounds like the call of the same animal.


    January 30, 2013
    • Yeah, the Infinite Jest comparison is valid, I think. It’s easy to get a little lost in the game the author is playing. And it also feels more about technique than story. Still, great book.


      January 30, 2013
    • A small problem with these comparisons: Faulkner and Joyce are fine examples of the modernist period with Joyce arguably being the destroyer of the future of modernism since his novels, FW especially. left no room for growth in the movement. Pale Fire and Infinite Jest, however, are postmodernist works.

      Go back a reread Ulysses … it’s just a very complex, erudite, funny, and intensive look at a fairly typical day in Dublin. Nothing is fake in Ulysses. The same cannot be said for Pale Fire.


      January 30, 2013
      • Point taken. But in comparing Ulysses to Pale Fire, I was not so much comparing the content so much as the authors’ pyrotechnics (maybe even their egos), the idea that they both seem to be out on a wire, performing great feats of writing for their audience under the big top.


        January 30, 2013
  4. Three quick questions (for now):

    1. What part of the novel Pale Fire do you consider “real” (in the fictional sense) and what part do you consider “not-real” (flights of imagination from the author within the novel)?

    2. You say that Shade is not real; is that because Kinbote made him up? Does that mean that Kinbote wrote the poem himself?

    3. Did you notice any consistency in the numerology (if you will) of the novel and the poem?


    January 30, 2013
    • All of this is my interpretation but…

      1) Primarily the King of Zembla plot line.

      2) Are you referring to when I call Shade a “fictional poet?” All I was saying there was that he’s just another character in the story, fictional, though in this case he is also one of the creators of the story. That said, the idea that Kinbote might have totally made up Shade and wrote the poem himself seems like a possible interpretation to me.

      3) Not off the top of my head, but explain what you mean a little more.


      January 31, 2013
      • Your answer to the first question was unqualified but are you saying that only the King of Zembia story is fictional? Let me redirect the question. Fiction creates a world and within that world there is reality: what parts of Pale Fire are real?

        Nabokov is playing with both the form and the content of Pale Fire … look at the form. And how about those names … significant?


        January 31, 2013
        • Nope, like I said I think that was the primary example. But as I mentioned in the post, the unreliability of the narrator makes everything in question.


          January 31, 2013
  5. Robert, just ran across this quote in an article (about the films of Wes Anderson) written by Michael Chabon in the most recent NY Review of Books:

    “Vladimir Nabokov, his life cleaved by exile, created a miniature version of the homeland he would never see again and tucked it, with a jeweler’s precision, into the housing of John Shade’s miniature epic of family sorrow. ”

    The URL is:


    February 5, 2013
  6. shenhuazhao #

    Reblogged this on Heliopolis.


    February 15, 2013
  7. shenhuazhao #

    Reblogged this on Heliopolis.


    February 15, 2013
  8. Reblogged this on Συγγραφείς και Αναγνώστες.


    March 12, 2013
  9. One of the most novel novels I’ve read.
    My reivew:


    February 21, 2015
  10. The 101 list of books published since 1923 supports what I have long suspected. Is there a single novel here which will be regarded as ‘great’ – ‘timeless’ in 101 yrs time? Think of Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky or Dickens!


    July 28, 2015

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