Saturday, March 28, 2009
Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire is a literary one-off, so hard to categorize. The first half is a long poem by the fictional poet John Shade; the second is the "Commentary" to the poem by narrator Professor Charles Kinbote. Through his Commentary, Kinbote spins a story of his friendship with Shade and tells the zany tale of the political upheaval in Kinbote's homeland of Zembla. The Commentary annotates lines in the poem, so the idea is to read the poem, then as you read the second half, refer back to the lines of the poem under discussion. Definitely not a standard novel format!
Pale Fire is in my all time Top 10 list. I think it is a wonderful, marvelous, intricately faceted gem. I sat there flipping back and forth between the poem and annotations for days, completely absorbed. I'm not one of the Certified Smart People who understand Nabokov on deep, deep levels, so I took the book for the entertainment it gave me. It struck me as mostly a joke — or at least a romp. Nabokov having fun.
The whole thing is genius. But what tickled my fancy the most was the story of the escape from Zembla in the red suit 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).”
I will read this one again, with the goal of appreciating the deeper complexities. But I will probably just end up laughing more and marveling at the mind that could produce such an intricate word puzzle.
Pale Fire shows up on a lot of Must Read lists, including:
All-TIME 100 Best Novels
Anthony Burgess's 99 Best Novels
Dr. Peter Boxall's 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die
Modern Library's Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century
Thanks go to Rebecca at Rebecca Reads for inspiring this post.