Book | Pale Fire – Vladimir Nabokov

Pale Fire is a Jack-in-the-box, a Fabergé gem, a clock-work toy, a chess problem, an infernal machine, a trap to catch reviewers, a cat-and-mouse game, a do-it-yourself kit…

Mary McCarthy’s cryptic introduction to Pale Fire certainly sheds some light on the complexity of Nabokov’s enigmatic novel, illuminating it as a pyrotechnic masterpiece that few writers can hold a candle to as they will pale in comparison (that’s enough puns now). Nabokov’s prose is seductive and exquisite, his narrative craftsmanship is genius. Pale Fire is a paragon for changing the limits to what a novel can really offer; it is an airtight novel that comfortably houses multiple interpretations, boasts a rainbow of references and allusions, spins fantastic crisscrossing threads of intensity and illusion, and is overall a cracking yet taxing read.

Well, I’m done now. Just read it and thank me later. But I feel I ought to say more, as is my blogging prerogative. The book has so many layers of narrative that it is difficult to know where to start and what to reveal and when…

Nabokov’s novel can also be summarised by this one picture with regards to its complex, layer-in-layers narrative

The novel is structured by three parts: the late John Shade’s 999-line poem, its foreword, and its commentary, both edited by Shade’s colleague and neighbour, Charles Kinbote. The bulk of the narrative is Kinbote’s prolix commentary as his literary annotations of Shade’s poem segue into obsessive in-depth elaborations of his friendship with the poet, along with heaps of other semi-spoilerific stuff pertaining to the editor’s dubious domestic origins, ambiguous sanity and the peculiar circumstances relating to Shade’s death.

Shade’s poem is annotated by Kinbote line-by-line. Some annotations are crisp and relevant, others break away into tangential storytelling and rambling contradictory delusions. Kinbote is obsessed with Shade and the way his mind works. He spies on Shade through the blinds from his window. A part of Kinbote’s fascination with Shade is Shade’s apparent interest in the myth and culture of the land of Zembla, a distant land north of Russia, a place with which our narrator shares a perplexing and questionable history. This, amongst other things, creates Kinbote’s dangerous obsession with Shade as follows:

The dreadful thought that they might be going away on a summer vacation neutralized the medicine I had just swallowed. One gets so accustomed to another’s life running alongside one’s own that a sudden turn-off on the part of the parallel satellite causes in one a feeling of stupefaction, emptiness, and injustice. And what is more he had not yet finished ‘my’ poem!

Creepy stuff. Kinbote shares many parallels with Humbert Humbert, the verbose émigré narrator of Nabokov’s most famous novel, Lolita. Both narratives are entrenched with an unhealthy obsession for their desired object and both narratives are written in a way that is so intoxicating – and in other ways so humorous – as to confuse our moral prejudices. Kinbote’s refined character and extent of neurosis thus verges on the hilarious:

Every one of those meals was built around some vegetable that I subjected to as many exquisite metamorphoses as Parmentier had his pet tuber undergo. Every time I had but one additional guest to entertain Mrs Shade (who, if you please – thinning my voice to a feminine pitch – was allergic to artichokes, avocado pears, African acorns – in fact to everything beginning with an ‘a’). I find nothing more conducive to the blunting of one’s appetite than to have none but elderly persons sitting around one at table, fouling their napkins with the disintegration of their make-up, and surreptitiously trying, behind noncommittal smiles, to dislodge the red-hot torture point of a raspberry seed from between false gum and dead gum.

Similarly, Kinbote operates as an unreliable/fallible narrator to allow for the novel’s various confusions and contradictions about the narrator’s identity. However, there is a distinct difference between the diageses or levels at play in Pale Fire than in Lolita. The relationship between Humbert Humbert and Nabokov himself (and we can’t forget that novel’s framing device of another editor too) takes place between character and author rather than completely within the context of the novel and has led to all sorts of controversies concerning fiction’s ethics and authorial accountability (for those that don’t know, Lolita‘s Humbert Humbert is a paedophile, and one could, if they really wanted, use shitty logic to therefore proclaim Nabokov himself to be a paedophile, since H. H.’s account is so convincing and since Nabokov wrote it).

But Pale Fire… Kinbote may or may not actually be an exiled king of Zembla incognito, he might just be living a fantasy. But is he living a fantasy as who he even says he is? He might be a deluded humdrum professor Botkin living in a fantasy. All this confusion, therefore, means the demise of John Shade can either implicate or exonerate the narrator of any culpability. There are theories to suggest that the entire work could just be the fabrication of John Shade himself, and then one could also draw upon Nabokov’s life to suggest that Nabokov is paralleling his fiction to his own status of exile. There is also some amusing intertextuality by Nabokov in referring to Lolita in Pale Fire as Shade uses the name in his poem: “Why our poet chose to give his 1958 hurricane a little-used Spanish name (sometimes given to parrots) instead of Linda or Lois, is not clear.” Teehee.

I think the best thing about Nabokov’s work is his style. Sure, this narrative trickery is all fun and games, but there is a music and sensual beauty to Nabokov’s prose that I have not read from anyone else. There is dazzling colour in Pale Fire and if you haven’t read a Nabokov novel before then please do. You will also learn about two hundred new words from the experience.

One last thing I can think of saying is that I enjoyed the little ironies of relating writing/reviewing as being unsatisfactory within the greater fabric of human life. Here are two sumptuous quotes to end on which give a lot of food for thought:

He lived too much in his library, too little among boys and youths. Writers should see the world, pluck its figs and peaches, and not keep constantly meditating in a tower of yellow ivory – which was also John Shade’s mistake, in a way

…human life is but a series of footnotes to a vast obscure unfinished masterpiece


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