Saturday, March 28, 2009

Review: Pale Fire

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.


  1. I liked Rebecca's post on this book, too. Someday I'll be able to get to this! :-)


  2. Maybe I just need to revist it in another 10 years or so. I see that is is genius, I just didn't enjoy reading it....

  3. Well, that's exactly how I felt about Lolita, so I understand. I plan to go back and reread it someday to appreciate it more.

    In the meantime, you might enjoy some of his other novels more than Pale Fire. I read Pnin and loved it. It was so funny and also sweet.


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