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Pale Fire (1962)
Author: Vladimir Nabokov
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A bizarre, three-legged race of a novel, Pale Fire is composed of a long, narrative poem followed by a much longer set of footnotes written by an obsessive, increasingly deranged annotator. Charles Kinbote, a gay professor at a small New England college, may or may not be a noble-born expatriate from the exotic Eastern European principality of Zembla. He may or may not have stolen the manuscript he's annotating, which he is convinced is really all about him. He is unquestionably unhealthily obsessed with John Shade, the placid, Robert Frost-like poet who composed the poem. Beyond that all bets are off, and the questions ramify without end. Pale Fire is the kind of novel you can happily get lost in: a house of mirrors with no exit, a labyrinth with no endpoint.—L.G.
From the TIME Archive:
Pale Fire does not really cohere as a satire; good as it is, the novel in the end seems to be mostly an exercise in agility
—TIME Magazine, Jun. 1, 1962 (Read This Review)
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
John Shade (born July 5, 1898; died July 21, 1959) is a fictional character in Vladimir Nabokov's 1962 novel Pale Fire. The novel's structure is notoriously difficult to unravel, but most readers agree that Shade is a poet married to his teenage sweetheart, Sybil. Their only child, a daughter named Hazel, apparently committed suicide some time before the novel's action opens (her body was never found). Shade lives in the college town of New Wye, amidst the Appalachian Mountains. His fame is sufficient that television pundits mention him within the same breath as his fellow poet Robert Frost, an association which Shade does not entirely enjoy, perhaps because Frost is always mentioned first.
Nabokov provides few samples of Shade's poetry besides the 999-line work, rendered in heroic couplets (rhyming pairs of lines in iambic pentameter), which is also titled Pale Fire and which provides one facet of the novel's reflexive structure. Shade's poem, in four cantos, describes his life, his obsession with the senses and his preoccupation with death. It is notable for its description of a near-death experience that Shade treats with a mixture of skepticism and reverence, and for the "faint hope" of an afterlife which it provides.
John's next-door neighbor is Charles Kinbote, who may or may not suffer delusions of grandeur. Some critics assert that Kinbote is Shade's invention, while others maintain that Shade is a literary device or a delusion which Kinbote employs to further his own ends. Other interpretations are possible.
Retrieved from "http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Shade"
If you breeze through pale fire it seems to be more idea or exercise than novel. However the footnotes are a gripping if disjoint tale and the realization that everything is not as it seems is (without help) a slow one.
So yes, definately one of the great books but easy to dismiss at first glance
It is fun when things come together, and frustrating when things have yet to come together.
I've been reading and rereading it for years, always delighted, always perplexed. It is like picking up a Burr puzzle and fumbling around with it for ages, but never quite getting the pieces back together.
But fun, certainly.
"Finding your China right behind my house."
I have not been able to figure out to my satisfaction.
What does Kinbote have to say about it? Boyd? Freud?
(Throw the map and compass away, they are useless here).
Do you drink? Sometimes that helps.
Of a WInter Evening
The winter owl banked just in time to pass
And save herself from breaking window glass.
And her wide wings strained suddenly at spread
Caught color from the last of evening red
In a display of underdown and quill
To glassed-in children at the window sill.
To poem is in an interesting article titled:
"Shades of Frost: A Hidden Source for Naboko's Pale File"
by Abraham P. Socher.
The link is
the article discusses Frost influence on Nabokov.
I read Lolita because it is a notorious classic and on so many "must read" lists (and I must read must read list books). I admired it, even enjoyed it, but it didn't make me want to run out and read every word Nabokov wrote.
But I dutifully turned to Pale Fire when it came up on the Modern Library's Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century list. WOW! A gem. A wonderful, marvelous, intricately faceted gem. I sat there flipping back and forth between the poem and annotations for days, completely absorbed.
The whole thing is genius. But what tickled my fancy the most was the story of the escape from Zembla and, in particular, the Zembla cultural and language references. I barked with laughter (while on a crowded plane) when I came to "a shiver of alfear (uncontrollable fear caused by elves)."
Now I do want to read every book Nabokov wrote. And I want to re-read Pale Fire.
Zembla beckons - a crystalline fantastical world that could only come from young Vladimir's* mind - and the poem from the murky sentiment of Shade's - boy and man - and what absolute sadness as he contemplates his physical progeny, Hazel, misfitted for this world.
Have you read Speak Memory? That book creeps in under your skin and stays with you for life.
And, of course, Ada. Physical, sensual, Ada. My husband often wishes that I read nothing but Nabokov. Ahem.
*re-creating his earliest experiences of Russia with a combination of recalled sensual memories and chunky paragraphs lifted from encyclopedias and atlases.
How Wilson wanted a Vera of his own.
*over Pasternak, and other things. Nabokov's take on Dr. Zhivago is bleedingly funny:
"a lyrical doctor with penny-awful mystical urges and philistine turns of speech, and an enchantress straight out of Charskaya" (Charskaya, who wrote sentimental pulp for young Russian girls).
The man could cut with a knife, certainly.
I raise a glass to M. Nabokov's prolificacy.
Does anyone else want to visit Zembla?