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Saturday, September 22, 2012

Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov

Pale Fire purports to be a poem by John Shade and commentary by his friend and colleague Charles Kinbote, but from the very first page of the "scholarly" introduction you see that something is a little off:
A methodical man, John Shade usually copied out his daily quota of completed lines at midnight but even if he recopied them again later, as I suspect he sometimes did, he marked his card or cards not with the date of his final adjustments, but with that of his Corrected Draft of first Fair Copy.  I mean, he preserved the date of actual creation rather than that of second or third thoughts.  There is a very loud amusement park right in front of my present lodgings.
Kinbote, an unreliable narrator if there ever was one, claims his line-by-line commentary is to elucidate the subject of the poem, the flight of the last king of Zembla (where Kinbote claims to be from), but the poem is about no such thing.  Instead, Kinbote's notes almost always veer off topic into his own personal musings, bits and pieces of literary and Zemblan history, the rather sad and pathetic biography of the last king, and flat-out misinterpretations of Shade's work.  It also becomes clear early on that Kinbote is not doing a very good job of hiding his "true identity" as that king.

But is Kinbote the king, or is he an ordinary, deluded man?  Does Zembla actually exist in the world of the novel?  Could Kinbote be the alias of an insane Russian scholar who worked at the same university as Shade?  Does Shade even exist, or is he a figment of Kinbote's imagination?  And while we're at it, what is the true identity of the assassin who stalks the pages of the book?  These three main characters are the heart of the novel, but despite all the little clues and hints Nabokov sprinkles through the text, there is never an answer as to who the men really are.

But then, solving the mystery is not at all the point.  Instead, the poem and commentary serve as meditations on how people tell their own stories, taking two very different approaches.  Literal truth matters less than what the stories reveal about the tellers.

This is the kind of book that makes me wish I were still in college.  There are reams of commentary and analysis on the book, not just on the meaning of the characters but the structure (you can read it linearly, or the commentary together with the poem, or just jump around the notes) and the many literary allusions.  If only I had hours to spend in a library.


  1. I have no idea why, but this blog post makes me want to ask you, have you read The Radiance of the King? I cannot quite figure out why, but your comments about Pale Fire bring this book to mind.

  2. Replies
    1. This is a good description of it.