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Pale Fire

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The American poet John Shade is dead. His last poem, 'Pale Fire', is put into a book, together with a preface, a lengthy commentary and notes by Shade's editor, Charles Kinbote. Known on campus as the 'Great Beaver', Kinbote is haughty, inquisitive, intolerant, but is he also mad, bad - and even dangerous? As his wildly eccentric annotations slide into the personal and the fantastical, Kinbote reveals perhaps more than he should be.

Nabokov's darkly witty, richly inventive masterpiece is a suspenseful whodunit, a story of one-upmanship and dubious penmanship, and a glorious literary conundrum.

Part of a major new series of the works of Vladimir Nabokov, author of Lolita and Pale Fire, in Penguin Classics.

246 pages, Unknown Binding

First published January 1, 1962

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About the author

Vladimir Nabokov

742 books12.6k followers
Russian: Владимир Владимирович Набоков .

Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov, also known by the pen name Vladimir Sirin, was a Russian-American novelist. Nabokov wrote his first nine novels in Russian, then rose to international prominence as a master English prose stylist. He also made significant contributions to lepidoptery, and had a big interest in chess problems.

Nabokov's Lolita (1955) is frequently cited as his most important novel, and is at any rate his most widely known one, exhibiting the love of intricate wordplay and descriptive detail that characterized all his works.

Lolita was ranked fourth in the list of the Modern Library 100 Best Novels; Pale Fire (1962) was ranked 53rd on the same list, and his memoir, Speak, Memory (1951), was listed eighth on the publisher's list of the 20th century's greatest nonfiction. He was also a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction seven times.

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Profile Image for s.penkevich.
856 reviews5,897 followers
December 21, 2022
I. Foreword

With deepest sorrows, I regret to inform everyone to the death of fellow Goodreads reviewer, and my dear friend, s.penkevich. While he may have departed, I, Vincent Kephes, have taken upon myself the burden of collecting his notes and the half-finished reviews that he left behind in order to bestow them upon you all. I am certain beyond the shadow of a doubt that, having been close with s., this is in keeping with his wishes, and although they were never overtly expressed, I knew from the first moment we became acquainted that this was an undertaking he desired for I alone to embark upon. While it has been some time since we have seen each other in person, passing in the esteemed interior passageways of Eastern Michigan University and engaged together in academic adventures within the same four walls of many classrooms in Pray Harold’s Literature department, I have intimately following his scribblings on this website. After finding my way through his saved drafts, I’ve found a particular discarded review that radiates his voice and style, an unfinished work that belongs in the public eye. Having finished this particular novel of Nabokov’s back in the spring of 2012, s. left laconic remarks upon Goodreads stating his intention to return once he could “sort out some thoughts” and complete his work. I’ve taken some liberties, incorporating several of his rudimentary drafts and notes into one authoritative, polished copy, and have included a commentary to help understand the ideas that bounced through his mind while creating his review. My commentary to this poem, now in the hands of my readers, represents an attempt to sort out those echoes and wavelets of fire, and pale phosphorescent hints, and all the many subliminal debts to me. Without further adieu, I present to you the last review of s.penkevich’s.

II. Review of: Pale Fire By Vladimir Nabokov
'reality' is neither the subject nor the object of true art which creates its own special reality having nothing to do with the average 'reality' perceived by the communal eye

Nabokov’s Pale Fire is at once a comedy of errors, and a biting satire on politics, literary criticism, as well as Nabokov’s own life and colleagues. Through the foreword and commentary of a fictitious poem, Nabokov stays impressively in character as Charles Kinbote as Kinbote misinterprets John Shade’s poem and imposes his own life story as the true underlying message of the poem. Through misdirection, intentional fallacies, wordplay and wit, as well as a vast array of allusions to his own works and life, Nabokov has created a parody of epic comedic proportions.

In keeping true to Nabokov’s style, I present to you a pale parody.

A Parody Fire
        I was the shadow of the reader slain
        by laughter through the tale of Zemblan’s famed
        runaway royalty, a story which
        served to mimic the politics
5     from which Nabokov also did flee
        like Pale Fire’s commentator to work in an American university.

        Through wordplay and wit this story unfolds
        of poets and spies as voyeurism grows
        an unshakable notion in our commentators brain
10   that it is he who inspires each clever refrain
        from his neighbors pen down into his last work of art
        then a conclusion takes the form of bullet through heart

        Through parody Nabokov takes a humorous jab
        at literary criticism and the way that we grab
15   for meanings that fit into our own ideal
        even when those meanings are completely unreal.
        So have a chucke, have a laugh
        and enjoy Nabokov’s tale of literary gaffe.

In short, a charming novel that I greatly enjoyed reading. The joy lies in Nabokov’s craftsmanship, and I am stunned how well he was able to keep this together.

III. Commentary

1. Through misdirection, intentional fallacies, wordplay…
Am I the only one made irascible by s.’ insistence on producing a thesis statement in each review, as well as incorportate a conclusion in most – this review lacks one for reasons of being an incomplete work, but one can be sure he would have been unable to rest lest he recapitulate his main points. This habit is surely a residual effect of our time spent together in Dr. L-‘s Lit. Theory course. Our marvelous professor insisted that within her course would be forged the perfection of the thesis statement, and it seems s. has been unable to remove himself from his memories of that class. Of utmost importance here is that this was where I first laid eyes on s., then a young, quirky teenager often adorned in band t-shirts featuring musical icons such as Neil Young (loathed) or, to credit his tastes, The Doors. While I sat a distance away from him – the effluvium of tobacco made sitting directly beside him a tad unpleasant for a non-smoker such as myself, I ensured a direct line of sight with his notes by placing myself a few rows behind him. I must confess that his note taking habits were lackadaisical, often drifting into juvenial attempts at poetry, or perhaps song writing. The following poem evinces his inability to break away from a rhyme structure that must have been made sacrosanct in him through angst-ridden punk bands like the Dead Kennedy’s (another t-shirt that frequented his wardrobe in those days). Old habits don’t just die hard, in s. they outright failed to die until he himself did.

2. Line 1: I was the shadow…
A parody of John Shade’s first line in his poem which reads: “I am the shadow of the waxwing slain”

3. Line 2: by laughter…
It seems s. has decided to produce his own little jab at me through this poem. The winter following our time spent together in Dr. L-‘s course, I happened to find myself seeking a new place of residence. Having heard from s. that he lived in the R- apartments, I quickly transcribed a letter to the housing office stating my desires to move in immediately, and, if at all possible due to my being a stranger in the area, to find an apartment close to his own so as to be comfortable around friends. While living near a close friend is a blessing, there are some deficiencies when that friend happens to live with two other roommates, all of which were loud and often intoxicated. Worse, s. began to learn harmonica and banjo at this time, a piercing sound like a tormented soul accompanying the already guitar-heavy clamor of their nightly escapades. Laughter would always thwart my efforts to sleep on weekends, and when one finds themselves alone in the night haunted by loneliness, the joyous laughter that only comes when close friends find themselves in high spirits formed by shared company tends to be nothing but a dagger through the heart. I had pitched multiple noise complaints against them, and this line is a message to me alone that he knew it was I who filed the aforementioned complaints.

3. Line 5: Nabokov did flee…
While Nabokov’s family did uproot over reasons of political turmoil, s. fails to draw the most obvious connexions here. Nabokov’s own father was killed by Piotr Shabelsky-Bork, his father protecting the life of Pavel Milyukov, whom Wikipedia calls “a leader of the Constitutional Democratic Party-in-exile.” To anyone with a scholarly eye, which, clearly, s. lacks, would note that Nabokov incorporates murders through mistaken identity in his novels to echo his fathers own death.

4. Line 6: Pale Fire’s commentator…
Another conspicuous insult directed towards myself. It is apparent that s. finds my features to be some sort of hilarious joke. Though I am not ashamed to have red hair, and very white skin – a feature that is often of discomfort to me during the summer months – it is outright injurious to nickname me “Pale Fire”. I am glad I have kidnapped s. in order to…. That last statement of kidnapping is in jest, and it seems by “backspace” key is out of order otherwise I would have it stricken from the records. It is a tragedy to have lost him, and my backspace key. Alas, we cannot take back our words, and now even in writing I have found myself stuck in the same conundrum. The obvious allusion is sealed by his referene to “an American university”, one of which we have met at. (See Note 1)

5. Line 8: Voyeurism grows…
To speak of me as a voyeur is also entirely unfounded. It was not I that chose for his bed to be directly in line of sight, seen clearly through the tiniest gap between his nightshade and window frame, that could only be viewed from the precise location of my late night reading chair. The chair absolutely had to have been positioned there in order to collect the rays of the moon upon my page so I would not need a night lamp in order to read and could hide myself in total darkness in order to become merely an extension of my novel, or my homework as opposed to a being producing or reading. I had no desire to be forced to watch him sleep from such a tragedy of coincidences, and when he saw me gazing out – purely to better reflect on my thoughts, staring into the abyss allowing it to gaze back into me, spacing out and only happening to be directed towards him, why should I have felt it necessary to avert my gaze? I was in deep thought, caught up in serious work, unlike he who knows nothing of scholarly knowledge and probing thought. Look at his reviews, the man can’t avoid using the term ‘prose’ at least once in every review. Had he an IQ beyond that of a toddler he would know there are resources such as a thesaurus – I assume he hasn’t utilized one as he cannot spell it in order to place it in the url bar.

6. Line 10: Clever refrain…
Clever, as defined by Wikipedia: “a large knife that varies in its shape but usually resembles a rectangular-bladed hatchet. It is largely used as a kitchen or butcher knife intended for hacking through bone. The knife's broad side can also be used for crushing in food preparation.” I suppose this use of cleaver was meant to be some metaphor at the cutting wit of Nabokov’s. Weak choice at best.

7. Line 11: last work of art
This line clearly defines my legal right to have obtained these documents. While I am currently pitted in a legal battle for “illegally” accessing his computer, I am certain this will provide more than satisfactory evidence in my defense. Besides, possession is nine-tenths of the law anyhow.

8. Line 16: when those meanings are completely unreal.
Upon reviewing earlier drafts, there are multiple lines crossed out in which it is evident he desired to use a phrase “misinterpretation of signs”. It seems he, like all juvenile poets, had the end rhyme as his goal and forced each of these meager lines towards keeping up with his laughable rhyme; rhythm and overall enjoyableness were victims butchered and slain in order to achieve his goal. You, reader, are also a victim for having been forced to read such drivel. Unlike s., I will refrain from placing an exclamation point at the end of the preceding sentence, I am not a child and I prefer to maintain a profession care over my punctuation at all times. Besides, what is with his use of the single inverted comma? He must think himself Knut Hamsun or Cormac McCarthy, both of which he must have seen me reading on my balcony, or seen tucked into my book bag at school as there is no possible way that it was from reading Kafka that he decided to investigate Hamsun. If it was Kafka, then surely he learned that from myself as well. When he sat outside reading from Virginia Woolf, I am certain it was only to discover a vantage point to peer in to my bookshelves, which I kept in the middle of my bedroom just so he could see them. I have spent years following his work to see that he is nothing but a shade of my own genius, and I am certain his reference of a John Shade in his introduction is simply a confession of such.
But I digress. The desire to use the term “sign” takes root in his job working as a sign maker at U- factory at the time of reading this novel. Several unfinished drafts for novels such as Steinbecks In Dubious Battle were found by myself as well, and it seemed he had failed in an attempt to relate Steinbeck’s message of workers revolt to his own plight working in the suffocating aluminum dust, low wages and hazardous conditions of the factory. He had a love for workers rights, which was hopefully beaten out of him by the absence of workers voice he must have encountered there. It is best that he did not post those, as politics and anything scholarly is truly above his capacities. Perhaps had he read more Hegel instead of Steinbeck he would have formed any worthwhile opinions.

9. Line 18: literary gaffe.
The literary gaffe is s.’ opinions and this poem altogether. Perhaps it is best that I have kidnapped… I mean, uh, let’s just ignore any attempts of what must be jokesters that say s. is alive and still writing on Goodreads, okay? He is a menace.

There you have it, the final work of s.penkevich. That's all folks.

The End(?)
Profile Image for Manny.
Author 29 books13.7k followers
August 3, 2016

I¹ liked² this book³, especially the poem⁴.

¹ When I use the first-person singular pronoun, I am here referring to my normal persona. I have also, at various times, maintained other personas. For example, between 1999 and 2001, I used to play chess regularly on the KasparovChess site under the handle "swedish_chick".

I find this a strange example of what makes people believe things. Everyone was extremely skeptical on first meeting her; but, for some reason, as soon as they discovered that she actually could speak fluent Swedish, they were also ready to believe that she was an attractive 26 year old graduate student living in Stockholm. I still can't explain why this might be.

² People liked hearing stories about Chick, as she was known to my circle of friends. At the time, I was working at a start-up in Cambridge, England, and one of my colleagues was a young woman I will call G. G took a lively interest in Chick, and helped me considerably with the development of the back-story. Chick borrowed several features from her; in particular, everyone, for some reason, wanted to know if Chick was blonde, and the agreed-on answer was "yes, during the summer at least." Even more remarkably, G began to acquire features from Chick, which went as far as learning Swedish and moving to Linköping in order to do a PhD there.

³ The stories about Chick would fill a small book. She was a charming person, and I've often wished that I were as nice as she was. She was always happy to play chess with lower-rated players, and commented encouragingly on their progress. When people became abusive, as inevitably happens on the Web, she never lost her cool. She would occasionally give regular opponents glimpses of her private life, but only after she had known them for some time and felt she could trust them. The back-story was in fact quite complicated, even though it was hardly ever used; she was bisexual, and had a female lover in California that she sometimes visited. No one was ever told this straight out, however.

It was inevitable that men would fall for this wonderfully attractive person. The first time, I managed to hide successfully, and he went away after a while. (She had poignantly reminded him of a brief encounter he had had many years ago, that he'd always regretted not following up). The second time, it was too complicated. Her admirer was a regular habitué of KasparovChess and kept pestering her for a date in real life. He offered to take her on vacation in Germany and seemed completely smitten. With great regret, we had to terminate Chick.

⁴ One day at work, we were discussing clerihews. We looked up some examples on the Web. Suddenly, G started laughing uncontrollably; she had been visited by divine inspiration! She rushed to her laptop, and shortly afterwards mailed out the following very fine poem:
Manny Rayner, could be saner
Plays chess, in a dress.
My friend is nothing if not PC. I'm sorry that I can't remember the exact text of the accompanying note, but she made it clear that she was not literally implying that I wore women's clothes when I impersonated Chick, and that, if I had chosen to do so, she would have regarded it as a completely defensible exercise of my right to wear apparel that expressed my personality in whatever way I chose.

This review is in my book What Pooh Might Have Said to Dante and Other Futile Speculations
Profile Image for Barry Pierce.
559 reviews7,431 followers
April 21, 2015
Stop it Nabokov, you're making every other writer on this planet look terrible.

This novel, which basically rejects every element and characteristic of our common conceptions of "novels", is a masterpiece of form and structure. It is a book made up entirely of footnotes. In the beginning, we are presented with a poem, a 999-line poem called Pale Fire. The "novel" part of this "novel" resides in the commentary and footnotes on this poem.

Nabokov constructs an entire narrative, complete with rounded characters and locations, within the line-by-line commentary of the poem. It is wonderful. I cannot sing its praises any higher. Like in Lolita we are introduced to a less than admirable, unreliable narrator Charles Kinbote. Slowly he begins his commentary on his friend's poem, Pale Fire. However, as the footnotes pile up, we stray further and further away from academic citation and we are plunged into Kinbote's megalomaniacal and deranged mind. Like Alice down the rabbit hole, we have nothing to grab and the darkness evades every word.

Pale Fire is a true masterpiece. The quintessential anti-novel. Its utter subversion of what we know as literature can only be comparable to Joyce's Ulysses. And like Ulysees, I can say without doubt that this is one of the greatest novels of the 20th Century, if not, all time.
Profile Image for Glenn Russell.
1,358 reviews11.8k followers
November 19, 2016

“The summer night was starless and stirless, with distant spasms of silent lightning.”
― Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire

Do you enjoy reading the poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats, Lord Byron and William Butler Yates? If so, then Vladimir Nabokov might be your favorite novelist, since this master prose writer's feel for language and precision of words is equal to any of these great poets. However, if you are like most readers of novels, what keeps you turning the pages isn't necessarily the poetic precision of language. Alas, there is still a way for you to enjoy Pale Fire. You can experience the beauty and stunning perfection of Nabokov's language, even if poetry isn't your thing.

Take my word for it here - the audiobook is an entranceway to the novel. Robert Blumenfeld speaks the words of Charles Kinbote with a charming, easy-to-understand international European accent, a mix of French-German-Eastern European. And Marc Vietor reads the John Shade poem. Vietor does a fine job with the poem but Blumenfeld as Kinbote is exceptional, listening to his voice is like listening to a virtuoso harpsichordist performing a baroque score. You will want to listen and listen and listen some more. Order yourself both the book and the audiobook and read and listen concurrently - you will have one of the most rewarding, aesthetically satisfying literary experiences of your life.

Turning to the novel itself, we have Kinbote's forward at the beginning and index at the end, and the actual John Shade poem, entitled Pale Fire, and the extensive Charles Kinbote commentary on the poem, which turns out to be not a commentary in the conventional sense of the term, but a benchmark for a subject of Kinbote's prime interest - his dear distant northern land of Zembla and a subject even more dear to his heart - himself.

Indeed, Charles Kinbote. What a man! Many critical essays could be written (and undoubtedly many have been written) on his character, enough to fill a thick leather-bound volume, but here is one quick observation: he is a study in contrast, a highly erudite man of letter (he might even be a king of an Eastern European country) with an ability to fashion language on the level of Vladimir Nabokov, yet when it comes to interpersonal and social skills, he has a blind spot as large as Kazimir Malevich's black circle.

But I hesitate to make too hasty a judgment, since after reading the novel a second time, my understanding and assessment of Dr. Kinbote is entirely different from my first-time reading. I wouldn't be surprised if I encountered a different Charles Kinbote with each and every future reading. Ah, the richness of this most Nabokovian of Nabokov novels! Below are two quotes taken from Kinbote's commentary, complete with cross-reference notes, to whet your literary pallet and serve as an incentive (I hope) to engage with the high art of Nabokov's novel:

"We shall accompany Gradus in constant thought, as he makes his way from distant dim Zembla to green Appalachia, through the entire length of the poem, following the road of its rhythm, riding past In a rhyme, skidding around the corner of a run-on, breathing with the caesura, swinging down to the foot of the page from line to line as from branch to branch, hiding between two words (see note to line 598), reappearing on the horizon of a new canto, moving up with his valise on the escalator of the pentameter, stepping off, boarding a new train of thought, entering the hall of a hotel, putting out the bedlight, while Shade blots out a word, and falling asleep as the poet lays down his pen for the night."

"How much happier the wide-awake indolents, the monarchs among men, the rich monstrous brains deriving intense enjoyment and rapturous pangs from the balustrade of a terrace at nightfall, from the lights and the lake below, from the distant mountain shapes melting into the dark apricot of the afterglow, from the black conifers outlined against the pale ink of the zenith, and from the garnet and green flounces of the water along the silent, sad, forbidden shoreline."

Reading Vladimir Nabokov can be like playing a game of chess against an international chess master. For certain you will be the one who is checkmated, but, still, you gain a deep satisfaction from playing every move.

Profile Image for Fionnuala.
779 reviews
July 20, 2020
I’ll example you with thievery:
The sun’s a thief, and with his great attraction
Robs the vast sea; the moon’s an arrant thief,
And her pale fire she snatches from the sun;
The sea’s a thief, whose liquid surge resolves
The moon into salt tears; the earth’s a thief,
That feeds and breeds by a composture stolen
From general excrement: each thing’s a thief.

Shakespeare, Timon of Athens, Act IV, scene III

This is not a regular review,
and may not be for you.
If you stay to read, never fear,
Nabokov announces in the foreword
whatever ‘facts’ are here.
And please note,
there is much more to Pale Fire’s narrator Kinbote,
than in the commentary below;
I’ve barely scratched the surface of his contrapuntal life.

If I grant Sybil Shade prime place,
it’s due to the negligible note,
at the very bottom of an index page:
Shade, Sybil, S’s wife, passim.

Kinbote makes copious notes
on every character in 'Pale Fire' itself,
and those in the commentary to the poem,
even the most minor players,
listing each and every reference to them,
including page numbers.

While passim means 'already referenced frequently',
Sybil Shade, translator of others' lines,
is hardly mentioned in the index,
not in the extensive note about her poet spouse,
nor in the one about her neighbour,
Kinbote himself.

For this reason, I prefer to see passim
as Kinbote's way of saying: 'we've had enough of her!’
So, in the tongue-in-cheek spirit of
The Revenge of Timofey Pnin
and borrowing liberally from Timon of Athens,
I offer a monologue interview with Sybil Shade entitled:

Sybil Shade Strikes Back

“No mumbling, please, speak up!
What know I of Kinbote, you ask?

He was a thief.
To give but one example:
my husband had a dressing-robe,
of worn-out orange toweling,
with pockets large and spacious,
in which he kept spare pens and scraps of paper,
many written upon,
odd lines and verses
that at the hour of bathing did occur,
or on waking be remembered one by one.
That robe did Kinbote plot to steal,
that old and ragged garment, and for what?
For the words trapped within its seams,
the crumpled echoes of a poet's dreams.

You need more proof than that, you say?
Each thing's a thief, in its own way?

But I'm no thief I'll have you know.
My poems are pure reflections,
not stolen imitations.
And John did never steal from anyone;
the titles of his poems are merely borrowed
from the sea of poets who've come before,
Browning, Shakespeare, Sophocles, and more.

But Kinbote is a thief, and worse,
a parasite, an excremental tic.
For five long months
John harboured that wormy maggot;
kept him close.
The worm became a botfly,
and attacked his host.

It was Jack Grey, you say?
who fired the shot that fateful day?

John Shade was killed by Grey,
I’ve heard that fifty times or more.
But Kinbote contrived the whole affair,
to steal my husband's words,
that their bright fire would shine instead on him,
the foul diszembling turd.

If he could have stolen John’s identity he would.
I saw the way he spied our very life
from the dark windows of his home,
and from the hill behind our house,
his Proust face watching, planning how to pounce.

I saw the way he looked at me, John’s wife.
Utmost courtesy?
Pale Fire shudders at his touch.
Passim, no more salt tears I'll shed.
I’ve talked enough of that botking.

Why do I speak this way?
It is unnatural, you say?

I lived with a poet, and translated poetry by day,
We were a rhyming couplet, and habit will have its sway.”


Edit October 11th: just found this line in The Real Life of Sebastian Knight: He confused solitude with altitude and the Latin for sun. There’s a line in Pale Fire referring to ‘Solus Rex’. That could mean the ‘only king’, or the ‘king alone’ or ‘lonely’ but I thought it could also mean the sun king, the sun as king of all, at least in the context, and like SK, I was confused too but the sun as king corresponded to the envy Kinbote felt for Shade, his wantng to be Shade, a name that nicely camouflages Sun, and Kinbote himself being perhaps a king. But I know that the Latin for sun is solis not solus....

Edit Octobrr 12th: now that I've finished Sebastian Knight, I have new insights on the sun, and kings, and regicide, and the pale moon too, the White Queen as it were. Glad I cast Sybil as the moon here...
Profile Image for Violet wells.
433 reviews3,051 followers
January 11, 2020
Whenever anyone asks me what's the funniest novel I've ever read I always nominate Pale Fire. I always thought it was my favourite Nabokov but on second reading I'm not so sure this still holds true. It's one of those books that relies heavily on its ingenious surprises and second time round its comedy routines lose the clout of the unexpected. The first thing that strikes is the jubilant joie du vivre with which he writes this novel. Nabokov knows he has a brilliant original idea which will allow him the full scope of his prodigious comic gift and you can feel his excitement on every page.

It begins with a brilliant pastiche of an essentially mediocre poem. The narrator knows it's a mediocre poem but has to pretend it's genius to justify the 250 pages of notes he writes about it.

I knew nothing about the plot when I first read Pale Fire and I think that's the best vantage point from which to enter this novel. Almost any description of the plot is a spoiler of sorts.
What I will say is it's probably the most brilliant portrait of megalomania ever written. And in many ways, it anticipates the modern phenomenon of trolling and celebrity envy/stalking.
Profile Image for Nick.
250 reviews14 followers
August 17, 2007
I loved this, especially as my copy of the book seemed to operate on a meta-meta-meta-meta-level.

The book initially appears to be an unfinished poem, 'Pale Fire', by a dead writer named John Shade, together with a foreword, detailed commentary and index by a friend of his, Charles Kinbote.

But Kinbote is less interested in the poem than he is in discussing the country of 'Zembla' and its flamboyantly gay, deposed King. It's more or less apparent, as the book progresses, that Kinbote is EITHER a) the King of Zembla, b) The insane Professor Botkin (= almost an anagram of Kinbote, see?), who believes that he is the King of Zembla or c) A fictional creation of Shade, who has faked his own death and written the commentary and notes himself in an attempt at a post-modern masterpiece.

So, the reader is left unsure what parts of a fictional work are INTENDED to be fictional in the context of the book (Zembla doesn't 'really' exist, but as the rest of the book is also unreal, does this matter?). And of course, if you want to be all realist about it, the whole thing is written by Nabakov rather than Shade or Kinbote anyway.

But (meta-meta-meta level) my copy of the book has pencil writing in the margin from some student/s, who've provided their own commentary on Kinbote's (=Botkin or Shade's, = Nabakov's) commentary, seemingly without realising the irony.

And (meta-meta-meta-meta level), someone else has stuck a post-it on the last page, saying:

'Dear Phantom Annotator,
Your meta-scribbling has amused me more you could imagine'

I laughed. But now my head hurts.
Profile Image for Steven  Godin.
2,380 reviews2,255 followers
June 5, 2022

Surely Nabokov's finest achievement as a writer. His Russian stuff was pretty darn good, but after arriving in the States maybe it was Americanization that pushed him to greater heights to write more than one masterpiece. This novel, is simply put, one of the 20th century's best works, from one of it's best writers. Pale Fire is many things, a Jack-in-the-box, a tour-de-force, a clockwork toy with many components, a chess problem, an enigma, an infernal machine, a trap to catch readers, a cat-and-mouse game, it's a novel that sends your head spinning for all the right reasons. It's also, not what I really expected, just so funny!

Our leading man, Charles Kinbote, is a university teacher brimming with outrageous delusions, and who is obsessed with the old poet John Shade. It's his last poem that get's Kinbote's grey matter going, and that has him reaching into the echelons of utter madness! The result? A humorous, puzzling, and elegantly imaginative account of one man's insanity; mixing fantasy, reality, truth and lies. Kinbote is a hilariously pompous buffoon to rank alongside literature's greatest characters. He also displays glimmerings of self-awareness which turn him into a rather tragic figure by the finale. After reading Lolita—possibly the best prose I have come across, and Pnin— another mighty fine novel, Pale Fire just raises the bar even higher. A mind-blowing novel that was such a joy to read.

Long live the King of Zembla!
Profile Image for Zulieka.
10 reviews10 followers
June 12, 2009
Whoop-dee-doo, five stars to Mr. Nabokov. Do you also feel silly clicking on the ratings? You throw gold stars into Pale Fire and the vanity of star-ratings is exposed.

We here are a community trying to reclaim our authority over writers who for pages have manipulated our thoughts and beings. Generals get stars, good students too, and my 2-year-old every time she uses the potty. Only the higher-ups get to hand them out, but c'mmon, is there a higher-up for Nabokov? Whoever can, hand him a real star from the sky.

There's a profound difference between clever writing and brilliant writing, and I don't know how it happens that in Pale Fire there's no shame or hiding from clever devices, and yet the outcome is brilliant. It could so easily, it seems, have been awful or unreadable. You don't expect a farce, a contrived "set-up" (the writing of the reader of the writing, and god knows which is the narrator) to be dizzy with beauty. It's alarming to pass cantos and watch what starts out as a prank turn into the masterpiece of the century.

Profile Image for Luís.
1,864 reviews520 followers
September 12, 2022
Here is a singular novel, the matrix of an autobiographical poem, augmented by an intellectual development made by a neighbour of the creator of the opus, including an introduction, comments and an index.
It's a bit like the fable of the jay who wants to adorn himself with the peacock's feathers. Charles Kimbote is an inverted scholar, misogynist and solitary neighbour of the author's work in question, entitled Pale Fire, John Shade. Self-proclaimed friend of the artist, whom he brazenly spies on, the professor preaches frankly and shamelessly pulls the cover on him under the guise of scholarly works. But, unfortunately, the overwhelming mass of the critical apparatus tends to eclipse the work of art that it is nevertheless intending to serve: the pontifying exegete, instead of embellishing the text with enlightening comments, parasitises the latter with personal considerations, of harsh judgments on his contemporaries, in-depth studies relating to his native country of Zembla, and the destiny of the last of his sovereigns, without obvious connection with the voluminous poem, except that the neighbouring indelicate did not have of ceasing to annoy the author so that it is questioning in this last. In short, the so-called Charles Kimbote flaunts a laughable pedantry and absconds at first glance.
Pale Fire is an exercise in style, a furiously triumphant tour de force. It is a funny satire of erudition stirring the air in its total sterility, draping itself with a certain dignity, mimicking the true nobility that belongs only to the creator and the artist.
Profile Image for Michael.
1,094 reviews1,510 followers
September 11, 2015
I was mesmerized with the planes of collision of this unusual novel. We get a pompous, self-serving introduction by a fictional editor to a poem, the poem itself, rendered in wonderful old-fashioned lyrical verse dancing life against death, and then a commentary that twists the content of the poem and the scholar’s connection to the author into an absurd dramatic framework. For dessert, an index that pulls your leg in case you weren’t sure. It’s clever, but not smug. There are challenging depths here, but there is no trouble reading it as the prose and narrative is elegant and clear. You are left a bit at sea with interpreting what an unreliable narrator is feeding you, but you the reader are empowered with clues enough to make your own frame to the narrative. It doesn’t quite have the fun factor of Vonnegut or Barth, but it leaves you with more meat per serving, particularly in its grappling over whether art is a means of discovering truth or a godlike power of generative creation.

I came at this without reading any reviews or knowledge about the book beyond widespread respect by literati and a couple of blurbs at the beginning of my 1968 paperback edition; e.g. “Continually blooms with preposterousness of a most amusing kind. The author’s talent for the witty phrase manifests itself on page after page.” My goal here is to present what an average reader (like me) might appreciate or be bored by, and so inform their reading choice. I don’t think amusement and wittiness is quite the right hook for this to satisfy most people I know. I think the draw lies more with the mystery and puzzle of the plot’s construction and the surprises of artful treasures in your path and of doorways that transport you down different paths of meaning.

We are presented first with an emulation of a scholar’s introduction to the final work of a well-respected poet before he died, John Shade. The editor, Dr. Kimbote, is a teacher in a small liberal arts college in the fictional town of New Wye in the rural state of Appalachia (with the flavors of New England), where he was the neighbor and friend of the poet. At first it sounds lucky that Kimbote has wangled permission of his friend to edit and publish the 999-line poem, existing as a manuscript on index cards. Though a specialist only in the literature of his native Zembla (some obscure European nation in the shadow of Russia), he makes us feel that the poet’s wife Sybil or true academics in poetry would have botched the job or corrupted the intended text. But slowly it dawns on us that the scholar is putting himself excessively into the scene and that we are in the hands of a possible megalomaniac who believes he was instrumental in inspiring the content of the poem. This includes his regaling the poet with tales of his country’s noble king being deposed and his crafty escape into exile from evil revolutionaries out for his blood. He promises in his commentary to document evidence of allegorical underpinnings of his muse role for the poem and more proof from discarded alternative drafts. I appreciate comic deflation of effete arrogance in the Ivory Tower of academia. I am not exactly laughing at this point, but I expect a bit more fun before I am through.

For the poem itself, I was sincerely moved in mind and spirit. Geez, why didn’t Nabokov try to make it as a poet? Shade covers in four sections his boyhood rural connection to nature and wondering about the mysteries of life and its impermanence. Then comes pieces on his origins as a poet, finding the love of his life in Sybil, and the joys of raising their daughter. He roots for the daughter to succeed despite her homeliness, but he is laid low with her tragic death, driving him to return to obsessions with the possibility of an afterlife. I have been no big reader of poetry (I was a biology major), but I got pleasures from the poem on the same order as from reading Robert Frost or Wallace Steven’s “Sunday Morning.” Obvious references suggest throwbacks to poets like Alexander Pope or Robert Browning. So few readers read poetry, so I must give a sample to see if the poem “Pale Fire” would appeal to people thinking of taking on this package composed by Nabokov. A few pages in we get a repetition of the sublime opening lines and then a bit of altered states of consciousness from Shade as a boy of eleven stuck at home alone due to illness:

I was the shadow the waxwing slain
By feigned remoteness in the windowpane.
There was a sudden sunburst in my head
And the black night. The blackness was sublime.
I felt distributed through space and time:
One foot upon a mountaintop, one hand
Under the pebbles of a panting strand,
One ear in Italy, on eye in Spain,
In caves, my blood, and in the stars, my brain.
There were dull throbs in my Triassic; green
Optical spots in Upper Pleistocene,
An icy shiver down my Age of Stone,
And all my tomorrows in my funnybone.

Much of Shade’s poem is circles around what human imagination can do to create something of lasting meaning in the face of mortality. Whic is a core question I keep seeking answers for in literature and life—don’t you? At one point after the loss of his daughter, Shade has a small heart attack and experiences a vision of a majestic fountain that captivates him with its allure of a timeless reality. He is treated to a cosmic joke when he tracks down the source of a newspaper account of another person’s near-death experience of a fountain, only to learn “fountain” was a typo for the man’s dream of a mountain: “Life Everlasting—based on a misprint!” He finds a sort of epiphany in the ashes of his disappointment, that what counts is the play of mind in creating such links of meaning:

Yes! It sufficed that I in life could find
Some kind of link-and-bobolink, some kind
Of correlated pattern in the game,
Plexed artistry, and something of the same
Pleasure in it as they who played in found.

It did not matter who they were. No sound,
No furtive light came from their involute
Abode, but there they were, aloof and mute,
Playing a game of worlds, promoting pawns
To ivory unicorns and ebon fauns …

Wonderful conceptions to me. But later he finds a schism in the process of transforming these created links of meaning into his writing. He finds freedom in the mental process of creation, yet when doing so suffers from dissociation from his body, the actions of which become like freakish automaton “taking off what he has just put on” or buying “the paper he has read before”. For the step of formulating words and phrases, “the abstract battle is concretely fought”, but the power of the pen “to swoop to bar a canceled sunset or restore a star” seems to me to suggest the danger of flippant construction going astray of reality. I get a lot out of such rare attempts of writers to probe the mysteries of artistic creation.

For most readers, all this is just backdrop for the novelistic core of the book in Kinbote’s so-called commentary. He comes off like a leech in Shade’s life, and in appropriating the poem manuscript, is seen to be a threat to sullying its beauty by making it all, line by line, about him somehow. In another way Shade’s latching onto the reality of meanings that the self creates has left himself open to the fate of distortion by another self after he is gone. After I made this interpretation, I looked in the thorough Wikipedia article and learned about how literary scholars have mined a myriad of interpretations. How much of a madman is Kinbote; did he have a role in Shade’s death; could he really be the king in exile, etc? Or is all the plot just an illusion or playground for the dance of literary connections or of a virtual chess game?

I was most impressed with the truth in recognition of “Pale Fire” as an early example along with Borges “Garden of Forking Paths” of literary hypertext, analogous to the way the World Wide Web was designed to operate. For example, in the introduction Kinbote recommends buying two copies of the future book so the reader can read the lines of the poem side by side with his commentary. As another example of nonlinear options, I came across an “aha” clue when the narrator says “Kinbote” is an anagram of Bodkin or Bodkine. I paused reading to look up the word and find it means several things that intersect with the plot: “dagger or tool for punching holes in cloth” and also the name of a Russian doctor in the 19th century who discovered Bodkin’s disease, later known as the infectious viral disease hepatitis A. Plus, there is a Professor Bodkin of Russian studies whom everyone is suspicious of. See what I mean about clues and doorways that hop you to other dimensions (Nabokov called them plums)?

You don’t have to feel like an idiot for not catching onto the innumerable literary references in the book. Most are just play in a game or filigrees for texture. Even catching just a few is rewarding, but not just for erudite cleverness. For example, at one point Kinbote is talking about a walk he took with Shade and in looking for a meaningful spot in nature, a farmer’s son refers to the site as where “Papa pisses”. That readily rang dim memories of “Pippa Passes” and a smile over unbelievably recalling the lovely lines of Pippa’s song, “The year’s at the spring,/And day’s at the morn; …/God’s in His heaven/ All’s right with the world!”. But I didn’t remember without hypertexting around how her singing as she went along was influencing the actions of various villagers, including one who suddenly decided to carry out his plan to assassinate a government leader of Austria. It's satisfying to feel ever element in this book is crafted to serve a purpose.

So there are worlds within worlds in “Pale Fire”, almost like fractals. Quite a brilliant construction. I got the most out of the poem and its fragility in the face of what academics with their own agenda might do to it. Others might enjoy the challenge of figuring out what makes Kinbote tick and the twists of concern over the veracity of his stories in the context of a fictional world. It comes down to whether puzzles without definitive answers would be too frustrating to you or if instead you find freedom in ambiguity and the prospect of constructing a frame that works best for you.

Profile Image for Steve.
251 reviews875 followers
May 24, 2013
It’s a well-known fact that dogs have a talent for smelling far better than our own. They can detect much fainter scents from much farther away. What’s more, when a stew is cooking and all we smell is stew, they can pick out each ingredient –- the potatoes, carrots, beef and even the bay leaf and parsley flakes. Close readers who are analogous to these super sniffers are the ones who will enjoy this book the most, I suspect. No worries for the rest of us, though. I’m proof that this can still be a good experience even if the only thing you can distinguish is stew.

As must be true of most Nabokov works, this book features multiple layers of intellectual fascination. There are those I recognized, those I read about after the fact, and even a few “plums” that Nabokov said were yet to be plucked years after publication. The base level is the story itself. It’s structured, cleverly enough, as a 999-line poem by a character named John Shade along with a metafictive analysis around it comprising a forward and an extended commentary by Shade’s university colleague and neighbor, Charles Kinbote. The poem is actually pretty good, though parts seemed slightly satirical. It details events in the poet’s life including encounters with death, idylls of the day-to-day and insight into the creative process. The rhymes were clever, too. However, the poem was just the starting point. The crux of the story was Kinbote’s reaction to it. We quickly realize a second level to the book –- that this fellow academic and wordsmith is off his rocker. He had long, discursive comments where he began inserting himself into the poem in ways we as readers know couldn’t be true. Kinbote’s style was literate and at times pompous – almost a caricature of a bloviating professor. To be honest, I liked it. I kept imagining Frasier Crane in the role. Nabokov was no doubt poking fun at academics, especially those who write literary criticisms.

Kinbote’s analysis was often marked by a strained (and comical) attempt to tie his own narrative to the poem. It featured a country in the far north of Europe called Zembla ruled by a certain King Charles. Is it a coincidence that this is Kinbote’s given name? I think not. Nor will you. We also learn of an assassin who was part of a Soviet-backed revolutionary group. Though slow-witted, he tracks King Charles down to the college town in Appalachia where they live and (technically this is a spoiler, though I think most would agree that the plot points were of secondary importance and therefore spoilable) .

The next layer was one I had only partial success interpreting myself. It involves the fiction within the fiction and Kinbote’s true identity. Some of the hints are obscure, but I’ll mention that the Index at the end of the book can be a help. A scarcely mentioned Russian scholar by the name of Botkine was noted as an anagram of Kinbote. Some critics have speculated that Kinbote was an invention of Shade. Others (though fewer) think it may have been the other way around. Anyway, if you’re the kind of reader who likes to try smelling what kind of onion was put in the stew, this layer will add to your pleasure.

My own enjoyment came from imagining the fun Nabokov had writing it. He could lampoon the field of literary criticism, comment on how easy it is to insert personal experiences and perspectives into an analysis (how could it be otherwise?), and demonstrate his talent as a polyglot (he grew up speaking Russian, English and French at home; studied Slavic and Romance languages at Cambridge; and must have enjoyed constructing a vaguely Germanic sounding Zemblan tongue in Kinbote’s commentary). I couldn’t help thinking of this book as a subtle but indecorous display of whimsy. It’s dressed up in formal attire, but with a T-shirt underneath that says “I’m with Stupid ”.

I took a few points off for being a tad slow, and a few more for trying too hard to be cleverer than I could perceive, but the levels of wonder left over still merit four shiny stars. Recommended for those too sheepish to read Lolita on their commuter trains.
Profile Image for Katia N.
585 reviews661 followers
October 8, 2021
My initial strong impression was - Nabokov does not care about his reader. He cares only about his craft, the process of creation and the satisfaction it brings. His ability to squeeze the aesthetic effect from the language is magical. He plays with the words, their musicality - the amount of alliteration in this short novel is more than i’ve seen in a volume of poetry. His character says: “One can harness words like performing fleas and make them drive other fleas.” And this pretty much sums up what he does - His possession of the language is the one of a virtuoso jazzmen.

He plays with the structure as well- not many writers would manage to weave a perfect poem, a fictional literary criticism and two parallel storylines into the canvas of a novel with slightly more than 200 pages. Although he does not particularly care about his plot either - it is almost a parody on a plot driven fiction with a darkly comic villain and slightly pathetic, a bit creepy main character.

Yes, I thought, he does not care about the reader. I heard recently an interview with a modern, very talented writer. She said she always wanted to write a perfect short novel. But while she was writing she was thinking: “My reader would understand that and this based upon his/her preconceptions of the world. But it is not the case in my novel. So I should write more to explain this”. And her novel grow and grow. It is definitely not about Nabokov. He does not care whether and how he would be understood by the reader. He cares much more how his sentence sounds. So, I thought, this novel is more for writers. They surely would love it. But I could not relate to it.

But slowly the magic of his work has put a spell on me. I read the poem twice and once aloud. He managed to rhyme 999 lines perfectly without any single stutter. His poem is very lyric, but it contains very profound themes as well. And simply it is amazingly beautiful.

And the notes, apart from all these literary effects, contain unlimited cerebral themes. Below, there are just few which i liked, but you can pull out as many more as you wish really:

- nature of violence: “The one who kills is always his victim inferior.”

- “As many people of little culture, Gradus was a voracious reader of newspapers, pamphlets, chance leaflets and multilingual literature that comes with nose drops and digestive tablets; but this summed up his concessions to intellectual curiosity…”. This is the perfect description of a tabloid reader! And now we have a social media to deal with. How unfortunate that these people are exercising their democratic rights based upon this cocktail of information!

- Russians’ character: “There is nothing metaphysical, or racial, about this gloom. It is merely the outward sign of congested nationalism and a provincial’s sense of inferiority - the dreadful blend so typical of Zamblans under the Extremist rule and of Russians under Soviet regime.” - not much changed there under the current regime, I am afraid. Again, nowadays it affects not only the Russians unfortunately.

But overwhelming theme of the novel is the nature of creation. Can it be influenced from outside or imposed on the creator? Can its mystery be resolved at all?

So I started from the premise that Nabokov does not care about his reader. But I changed my mind to the opposite at the end. He cares very much. He wants to lift the veil, even if ever so slightly, from the world we normally do not see. He wants us to look beyond the usual pleasure of reading and have a glimpse of this dark mysterious miracle of creation. And if he succeeds at least in a few cases, that is more than any writers could dream for.

“We are absurdly accustomed to the miracle of a few written signs being able to contain immortal imagery, involutions of thoughts, new worlds with live people, speaking, weeping, laughing. We take it for granted so simply that in a sense, by the very act of brutish routine acceptance, we undo the work of the ages, the history of the gradual elaboration of poetical description and construction, from the freeman to Browning, from the caveman to Keats. What if we awake one day, all of us, and find ourselves utterly unable to read? I wish you to gasp not only at what you read but at the miracle of its being readable.”
Profile Image for MJ Nicholls.
2,024 reviews4,071 followers
November 2, 2012
Pale Fire presents a 999-line poem from murdered poet John Shade, followed by an unreliable commentary (and earlier intro) from his stalker and apparent chum Charles Kimbote. The commentator takes an arch tone to his union with shade, exaggerating and distorting his position in the poet’s life, and uses the space to expand on the history of his homeland Zembla in lieu of discussing the poem’s content. Upon a first reading I found the book something of an extended academic titterfest, albeit larded with the usual Nabokovian puzzles for militant close readers, and upon a second read, my opinion hasn’t changed much. The digressions on Zemblan kings and princes are (intentionally, but so what?) long-winded and dreary, and the line-by-line commentary, although amusing in places, doesn’t particularly dazzle except as a series of Vlad set-pieces, like a looser Pnin, albeit with more formal ingenuity. The poem isn’t supposed to be a spoof of bad poetry, according to Vlad biographer Brian Boyd in this boxset special edition. It ain’t half bad, that poem.
Profile Image for Alan.
420 reviews181 followers
September 9, 2022
“We are absurdly accustomed to the miracle of a few written signs being able to contain immortal imagery, involutions of thought, new worlds with live people, speaking, weeping, laughing. We take it for granted so simply that in a sense, by the very act of brutish routine acceptance, we undo the work of the ages, the history of the gradual elaboration of poetical description and construction, from the treeman to Browning, from the caveman to Keats. What if we awake one day, all of us, and find ourselves utterly unable to read? I wish you to gasp not only at what you read but at the miracle of its being readable.”

I read Nabokov books at a remove – they are magnificently constructed, but don’t lend themselves to an absorbed and maniacal flipping through. Imagine jogging freely. Now imagine jogging with 10-pound weights on each ankle. Nabokov is the second. Despite that all, his works are pleasant. I am genuinely curious about the plot, and I find myself in debate with him (or his protagonists) on every page. I thought Lolita was fantastic, and I enjoyed Pnin, though not as much as the former. Pale Fire is my favourite so far.

The feeling of moving through molasses may come because Nabokov doesn’t care whether you understand him or not. I am humbled over and over again, as I’m unable to read two paragraphs smoothly, without referring to the OED. You cannot even blame him for employing too many neologisms. He just knows what he’s doing and respects the reader enough to just plop it all down and make it his/her duty to figure it out. Does this make it slightly more difficult? For sure it does. But it’s also immensely rewarding, finding out definitions for such words as “svelte” and “preterist”.

The structure of the book itself is a breath of fresh air. I have come to admit that I am a fan of experimental fiction, so I’ll try anything. When it’s so masterfully constructed, I can only stand back in awe. A poem in four cantos, dissected with overzealous detail by Kinbote, along with a foreword and index readymade. You flip back and forth between Pale Fire and its not-always-scholarly commentary, marvelling in the image that is forming. Confusing at first, made whole at the end. The poem itself is “meh” at best. The commentary is something else.

Some of the lines of Pale Fire (the poem, not the book) made me exhale air out of my nostrils at a slightly more forceful pace than usual. I can’t say with any real zest that I had favourites. I did have some favourites from the commentary. Kinbote’s annotations for line 149 made me laugh when he was 5 pages in. I saw a familiar friend in line 172 and questioned the structure of life in line 230 (“how curious that our rationality feels satisfied when we plumb for the first explanation, though, actually, the scientific and the supernatural, the miracle of the muscle and the miracle of the mind, are both inexplicable”). I wasn’t even surprised by the audacity of notes on lines 680 and 929.

A true work of art. Bravo.
Profile Image for Darwin8u.
1,559 reviews8,690 followers
November 11, 2015
“All the seven deadly sins are peccadilloes but without three of them, Pride, Lust, and Sloth, poetry might never have been born.”
― Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire


One of the funniest, most absurdly brilliant books I've ever read. I find it amazing that Nabokov would have written this novel (which oddly is a haunting retelling of my life story) without mentioning me by name at all. There must be a reason for this. Perhaps Nabokov was trying to not just protect me, but my whole family from the fame and pain that would no doubt have accompanied the public's inquisitiveness and the critics' vampirism if this information had been made plain and obvious. That is what I love about Nabokov. He is a gentle ghost of a poet that exists in many levels and in many times and in many spaces simultaneously. I think his integrity in lying about and hiding my influence is both beautiful and nobel and certainly shaking with a heterosexual, Russian poet's naiveté.
Profile Image for Parthiban Sekar.
95 reviews159 followers
March 16, 2016

Death is the termination of all biological functions that sustain a living organism*. Is that it? No! It is an eternal loss of a lively soul; a sudden departure from the precious present; an endless termination of familial bonds. Nothing can affect anyone more than a death in one’s family, especially a life purloined from us before its time. Such is the memory misery of our poor, dear poet Mr.Shade, the father of the departed bride, Hazel!

“For we die every day; oblivion thrives
Not on dry thighbones but on blood-ripe lives,
And our best yesterdays are now foul piles
Of crumpled names, phone numbers and foxed files.” [Canto 3]

Pale Fire is arguably the best book of Vladimir Nabokov. It is not easy to resist losing ourselves in the magical word play of Nabokov. To talk about it, this one opens up with a 999-liner poem in 4 cantos followed by detailed commentary of the man, the narrator, who tried saving its maker – the poet Shade. The poem takes us through an emotional musings and lugubrious reflections on his past: What starts like an impeccable portrait of spellbinding mother nature and an illustrious profile of father time (it is good to associate Nature and Time like this. Isn’t it? Credit goes to Nabokov) soon turns out to be a painted parchment in an artistic cage echoed with sonorous memories.

The poem brims with disconsolate descriptions of the lost daughter and his missive meditations on after-life. Distant events and obsolete objects bring back the vivid memories of the loving victim of the vertiginous misfortune. The mirrors don’t smile at him anymore. The lights don’t brighten his day. A dark cage with parchments of memory is what his life turned into. The growing pains have become permanent dysfunctions.

“My God died young. Theolatry I found
Degrading, and its premises, unsound.
No free man needs a God; but was I free?
How fully I felt nature glued to me…” [Canto 1]

What is the use of faith for a father who lost his precious princess? His faith fades away. The wonder lingers and the shame remains. A new friend arrives…

A king, Mr.Kinbote, after making a surreal escape through a hidden door from a closet-like coupe, befriends the poet and entrusts him with the events his princely adventures, kingly misfortunes, and masterly escapes. His desire to make this eminent poet Shade write about him tantalized him. But he is not alone. Somewhere on the other side of the world, someone is embarking on a journey with a loaded pistol with a plan of regicide. So, here they are: A king who lost his country, A poet who lost his daughter, and A man who has nothing to lose, converging in this cathartic work of an impeccable poet. Will there be another death? A death brings only another death.

* - Source:Wiki
Profile Image for Ian "Marvin" Graye.
861 reviews2,188 followers
March 26, 2022

"Canon Fire", a poem in heroic couplets, of thirty-six lines, consisting of only one canto, was composed by Ian Vinogradus (born March 4, 1957) during the last two days of his life (up to that point in time), at his residence in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia.

He started the poem on Saturday, July 16, 2016, on the evening that the military coup occurred in Turkey. He completed it the following day, Sunday, July 17, 2016, after it became clear that the coup had failed.


Canon Fire
[After and In Many of the Words of Vladimir Nabokov, John Shade and Charles Kinbote]

I have a certain liking, I admit,
For parody, that last resort of wit.
Though any jackass can rig up the stuff
In this epoch when packs of rogues can bluff
Like the prosemongers of the Grubby Group;
The Mitsein Man, the owlish Nincompoop,
And the Post-Modern Acolytes of our age
Leave but a pinch of coal dust on the page.
Readers who think there’s something you can learn,
Listen to distant cocks crow, and discern
Conmal, the hack reviewer of fat books
That staid academia overlooks,
Who inveighs against populist traction
With unpardonable satisfaction.
This pompous obtuse son of a bitch
Photographs all his books to show like kitsch.
Though he’s a stranger to modesty,
Like many near-cretins, he craves novelty.
Some regard the blockhead's demolishment
And his rave with similar detachment.
True, his Vollmann crits only loudly cry,
Each work is "a great book by a great guy."
Pretending to all that he’s contrary,
He lives too much in his library,
Not to mention various other nooks
Among the bewitched hush of buried books.
He surrounds himself with young boys and youths
Who generate likes in quanta profuse,
Mere mechanisms of haphazard lust.
His taste is something you can barely trust.
His titles possess a specious glamour,
He bangs on about them with his hammer.
Hence, devoted fools, timorous and grim,
Applaud his ev’ry pronouncement and whim,
While others respond with acrimony
To praise of books they can tell are phony.



Juxtaposition of the Elements

"Pale Fire", the novel upon which "Canon Fire" is modelled, is a swarm or flight of butterflies in a hall of mirrors.

I've always been fascinated by what happens when an author juxtaposes two or more different creative elements within the one work. What is meant by the juxtaposition? What happens as a result of the juxtaposition? Does it change the interpretation of the whole or does one element change the interpretation of the other?

In "Pale Fire", there are four such elements: a foreword, the poem itself, a commentary and an index.

Although "Pale Fire" is the name of the poem, it's also the name of the collective work as a whole. Thus, Nabokov redefines the scope of a novel, so as to extend to both a work of fiction and a (fictitious) commentary on that work.

This shaped my initial reaction to the work as a whole. It seemed that the dominant theme was the relationship of a reader's response, or an academic's criticism, to the work itself. Charles Kinbote, the academic, almost overwhelmed the author's intent or work, in his self-indulgent commentary. In a way, the work didn't live up to his expectations. Not only does he attempt to shape the interpretation of the poem, but he expresses disappointment that it doesn't live up to his inspiration or suggestions for inclusion in the poem. In a way, the muse is judging the creator.

While this point deserves and needs to be made, much more is revealed as you read on. The relationship between Kinbote and the poet John Shade is much more complex. The commentary becomes a thriller or suspense novella in its own right.

Making Ornaments of Accidents and Possibilities

A lot is revealed by the first four lines of the poem:

"I was the shadow of the waxwing slain
By the false azure of the windowpane;
I was the smudge of ashen fluff - and I
Lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky."

Who is the first person "I"?

Is it the poet or author, or is it the narrator? Or, perhaps, the poem/work itself? Or, double perhaps, the reader's response (which keeps the work alive)?

The real event is a bird hitting a windowpane, unaware that the sky it is flying towards is a reflection, a fiction, a falsity, a fraud, a semblance of reality.

The bird is not so much lost in translation, as lost in transition between reality and fiction.

The bird we think we see isn't real, but a shadow, an illusion. Yet, even if the real bird dies as it hits the windowpane, the illusion continues, it "lives on, in the reflected sky." In a way, fiction has the ability to transcend reality.

At one point, Kinbote asserts that:

"'Reality' is neither the subject nor the object of true art which creates its own special reality having nothing to do with the average 'reality' perceived by the communal eye."

Ironically, Kinbote believes that Shade's fiction should look more like his (Kinbote's) reality. This is quite different from expecting the work to look like his fiction, the fiction that he imagines as he reads the work. Both reactions are possible in this work. However, in a normal case (where a reader has had no factual input into the conceptualisation of the actual work), only the second reaction is possible.

A Monstrous Semblance of a Novel

Nevertheless, we as readers of the work approach the commentary, prepared to give some credence to Kinbote's version of the poem. His interpretation seems to reflect his intimate knowledge of its creator and its creation, as well as his purported influence on its creation.

Yet, as we read on, we become more convinced that Kinbote is misguided, egotistical, maybe even insane. Thus, bit by bit, he becomes an unreliable narrator or commentator.

We learn that other academics question Kinbote's views, in favour of their own. They stake rival claims for ownership of the frontier field of Shadean Studies.

Perhaps, this is Nabokov's way of questioning the veracity of all academic interpretation and criticism? Perhaps, he was trying to create a work so sophisticated that it would keep critics forever guessing (wrongly!) about its meaning (whether or not this is a worthwhile task at all).

Kinbote suggests (a little disingenuously):

"I have no desire to twist and batter an unambiguous apparatus criticus into the monstrous semblance of a novel."

As Nabokov himself would say:

"I do not believe in any kind of interpretation."

Perhaps, he just wanted us to enjoy the beauty of the language, and to play along with his ludicrous game.

Maybe, he just wanted us to fly into the windowpane, to pass through the looking glass, and discover the fictitious world that lies beyond, the semblance of the world of Zembla that is there?

"Engazhay and Compelling"

As if this is not possibility enough, Nabokov encourages and permits us to question whether Kinbote is the construction of Shade, or vice versa. Is one a shadow of the other? If so, which one?

If we ignore the author himself, which narrator should prevail?

Nabokov/Shade inserts a syllogism into his poem:

"Other men die; but I am not another; therefore I'll not die."

Is the first person narrator a fictional person who, unlike the author and the reader, cannot die? Is literature and its assemblage of characters capable of immortality?

"How curious that our rationality feels satisfied when we plump for the first explanation?"

"How ludicrous these efforts to translate
Into one's private tongue a public fate?
Life is a message scribbled in the dark."

This is the most ludicrous novel ever written. So far.


Conmal, Duke of Arrogance line 11, cretinous nature line 17, his presence in library line 24, identity almost revealed line 27, writing style line 11

Mitsein Man, Heideggerian henchman line 6

Vollmann, William T., The most overrated American novelist since William H. Gass, uncritical review of line 21
Profile Image for Tom Quinn.
546 reviews147 followers
March 31, 2021
Late night at the university library reference desk. The librarian on duty rubs tired eyes and lifts the receiver, silencing the desk phone's trilling ring. "Hello?"

Heavy breathing, long and unwholesome, then a choked whisper: "Nabokov."

"Yes? Did you need something by him?"

No reply but hot moist mouthbreathing. The librarian hangs up, disgusted.

Another ring. "Hello?" The breathing again, even more intense now.

"Puh... purple prose..."


Ring. Ring. Ring.


Outright panting now, lewd and unsettling. "Unreliable narrators and mm-mmm-mmmmetafictional forms!" The last husky syllable swallowed in a deep groaning sigh.

"Quit calling here, you creep!" Click!

The phone again, loud as a gunshot in the middling twilight gloom. "Now listen here, you-"

"Get out of there!" The urgent voice is the local constable's. "We traced the calls - they're coming from inside the library!"

5 stars out of 5. For a guy with such a dour reputation, Nabokov makes murder mysteries a lot of fun. Laboriously crafted, deliciously discursive, dazzlingly unconventional, Nabokov weaves a literary parlor trick that's astounding.

Profile Image for Cheryl.
464 reviews592 followers
May 27, 2015
Life is a message scribbled in the dark.

One of the reasons I’ve decided to rehash a love affair with poetry this year is because of what Jane Hirshfield says in Nine Gates: “No matter how carefully we read or how much attention we bring to bear, a good poem can never be completely entered, completely known.” When I’ve been reading a Thomas Hardy novel longer than anticipated (a novel known for its preachiness, albeit seasoned sentence structures), a narrative poem and novel like Pale Fire simply rises to the top, propelling me forward through the starkness of verse; assonance and alliteration keeping me focused, imagery helping me view melancholy in its lucidity, metaphors giving me raw emotions. I guess this is what Ezra Pound calls a mixture of logopoeia, a poem’s intellectual component, and melopoeia, a poem’s music.

Bring back the classic couplet and make it modern, shall we? For if we’re truly being honest, we’ll admit that Nabokov sexified the rhyme form. Nine hundred ninety-nine lines, four cantos, “beautifully accurate when you once make the plunge and compel yourself to open your eyes in the limpid depths under its confused surface”—says Charles Kinbote, the fictional editor of this masterpiece.
How ludicrous these efforts to translate
Into one’s private tongue a public fate!
Instead of poetry divinely terse,
Disjointed notes, Insomnia’s mean verse!

A child has committed suicide, or drowned? Her parents are left to ponder. A poet writes the story of grief before—before what transpires? I leave you to inquire. This poet's mind wanders, and parts of this poet’s contemplation reminds me of Banville’s main character’s in Ancient Light—the underlying mysteries of a long-time relationship, the death of a beloved and only daughter, grief envisioned through words, an unreliable narrator.
We have been married forty years. At least
Four thousand times your pillow has been creased
By our two heads. Four hundred thousand times
The tall clock with the hoarse Westminster chimes
Has marked our common hour. How many more
Free calendars shall grace the kitchen door?

You read this and want to feel bad for Nabokov, that he took so many literary hits for this one, from critics unable to see beyond the "confused surface," or to see, as Nabokov once said, that “all art is deception.” Try explaining intentions to the reader, Goethe said, and “the reader will always go right on demanding that which the author is trying to avoid.” Sure, I read the long poem and did not bother much with Kinbote, the peculiar narrator, for his commentary I found laborious and slightly pretentious. But the poem? Give me a break, critics; I found its arrangement and wordplay stunning:
I was the shadow of the waxwing slain
By the false azure in the windowpane;
I was the smudge of ashen fluff—and I
Lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky.
And from the inside, too, I’d duplicate
Myself, my lamp, an apple on a plate:
Uncurtaining the night, I’d let dark glass
Hang all the furniture above the grass

Profile Image for Perry.
632 reviews516 followers
September 13, 2017
Nefariously Fun Satire of Literary Criticism, Satyriasis and "Bold Virilia"

Nabokov was such a pure genius in performing brilliant magic with words of the English language, as well as in creating playful and at times side-splitting satire that lacerates the objects of its scorn. In Pale Fire, Nabokov targeted academia of literature and literary criticism and, to a degree, all males' preoccupation with sex .

Nabokov isn't my favorite author by a longshot, but given his masterpieces in Lolita and Pale Fire, I'm not going out on a limb when I say he is probably second on the list of maestros of English linguistics, right behind Shakespeare. I only include the below lengthy quotes because this is the rare occasion in which the use of the language is as important as what is said.

The novel is split into two parts: first is a 999-line poem autobiographical of a fictional John Shade, a professor of lit at a New England college; then comes the commentary--the large majority of the novel--written by a professor named Charles Kinbote in another department of the college but who lives next door to Shade and his wife.

In reading Prof. Kinbote's extensive exegesis on the poem, it becomes readily apparent that something is amiss with him, really amiss. He implies that he is the exiled king of a country called Zembla, specifically that he is “Charles II, Charles Xavier Vseslav, last King of Zembla, surnamed The Beloved.” As to his assumed name Kinbote, he derived it from the “king-bot, maggot of extinct fly that once bred in mammoths and is thought to have hastened their phylogenetic end.

Soon you wonder exactly how delusional Kinbote is, given that he believes that Shade's poem brims with references to himself (imaginary as they may seem), transforming through his commentary every few lines of the poem into a frame around himself and his fantasy realm of Zembla.

The novel is also somewhat of a mystery that you must decipher as to who killed John Shade after Kinbote tells us that he is safekeeping the "Pale Fire" poem manuscript and all notecards containing the poem.

Later, the reader learns that "immediately upon John Shade’s demise, [the head of the department] circulated a mimeographed letter that began:
Several members of the Department of English are painfully concerned over the fate of a manuscript poem, or parts of a manuscript poem, left by the late John Shade. The manuscript fell into the hands of a person who not only is unqualified for the job of editing it, belonging as he does to another department, but is known to have a deranged mind. One wonders whether some legal action, etc.”
Yet, long before this, clues abound of Kinbote's psychosis. For example,
“What would I not have given for the poet’s suffering another heart attack (see line 691 and note) leading to my being called over to their house, all windows ablaze, in the middle of the night, in a great warm burst of sympathy, coffee, telephone calls, Zemblan herbal receipts (they work wonders!), and a resurrected Shade weeping in my arms (“There, there, John”).”

[In a conversation with John Shade's wife:] “Speaking of novels,” I said, “you remember we decided once, you, your husband and I, that Proust’s rough masterpiece was a huge, ghoulish fairy tale, an asparagus dream, totally unconnected with any possible people in any historical France, a sexual travestissement and a colossal farce, the vocabulary of genius and its poetry, but no more,” and,

“In Zembla, where most females are freckled blondes, we have the saying: belwif ivurkumpf wid snew ebanumf, “A beautiful woman should be like a compass rose of ivory with four parts of ebony.”
Additionally, Kinbote has a perverted mind relating to pubescent males, including these Paphian passages in his commentary:
“the little angler, a honey-skinned lad, naked except for a pair of torn dungarees, one trouser leg rolled up, frequently fed with nougat and nuts, but then school started or the weather changed”

“When stripped and shiny in the mist of the bath house, his bold virilia contrasted harshly with his girlish grace.”
I learned a new word, "virilia." I'll let you look it up...or guess.

Often hilarious asides to the running "commentary" on the poem hit you out of the blue. Such as Kinbote's significant problems in consummating his marriage to Princess Disa.
“He farced himself with aphrodisiacs, but the anterior characters of her unfortunate sex kept fatally putting him off. One night when he tried tiger tea, and hopes rose high, he made the mistake of begging her to comply with an expedient which she made the mistake of denouncing as unnatural and disgusting. Finally he told her that an old riding accident was incapacitating him but that a cruise with his pals and a lot of sea bathing would be sure to restore his strength.”
Also, Kinbote discloses his frequent infidelities, resulting in problems with Princess Disa.
“He ... solemnly [swore] he had given up, or at least would give up, the practices of his youth; but everywhere along the road powerful temptations stood at attention. He succumbed to them from time to time, then every other day, then several times daily—especially during the robust regime of Harfar Baron of Shalksbore, a phenomenally endowed young brute.... Curdy Buff—as Harfar was nicknamed by his admirers—had a huge escort of acrobats and bareback riders, and the whole affair rather got out of hand so that Disa, upon unexpectedly returning from a trip to Sweden, found the Palace transformed into a circus”
A highest recommendation. My apologies for the size of this; I hope it's not too much to take it all in. It was not nearly as hard as I thought. I am just now coming to realize the depth of Nabokov's cunning linguistics. I wish I could hit that, or even near that level.
Profile Image for Vit Babenco.
1,425 reviews3,388 followers
August 16, 2015
To write an enigmatic and wonderful poem and then to write a book of convoluted and profound commentaries to it - only the genius of Vladimir Nabokov was capable to make this literary feat.
“I was the shadow of the waxwing slain by the false azure in the windowpane...”
A soul of a poet may burn with a pale fire but the light is too bright to look at.
Profile Image for Matthew.
1,219 reviews8,832 followers
January 5, 2022
There is brilliance in madness.

I have never quite read a book like this one. It was a bit difficult to follow and stay interested in (as evidenced in the fact that it is only 300 pages but took me about 9 months to read. But, at the same time, I enjoyed it, its themes, and its symbolism quite a lot. I think this is one that can benefit from doing some side research and interpretation while you are reading it.

The book is written as if it is a true story and the author (Charles Kinbote) is a biographer for the main character (John Shade) and is interpreting his poem, that takes up a few dozen pages, with a couple hundred pages of footnotes (which is where the main story lies). At times Charles is very frank and sincere, at other times he is borderline unhinged. While it is all fiction, it was interesting to try to extrapolate the truth from the exaggerations in the story.

If you try this one, go in knowing that it is likely unlike anything you have ever read before. Embrace the differences. Then, when confusion sets in, take a break and have a nice cup of tea – it will be waiting for you when you return!
Profile Image for Helga.
887 reviews130 followers
April 29, 2022
"The moon's an arrant thief
And her pale fire she snatches from the sun."

-William Shakespeare

Pale Fire is a work of genius. A pièce de résistance.

‘Pale Fire’ is the name of a poem in 999 lines written by our fictional poet John Shade. It is being narrated by his friend and neighbor Charles Kinbote with rather a long foreword and an even longer commentary.

Who rides so late in the night and the wind?

I must confess that in the beginning I was a bit confused. What is this? I asked myself. Was Nabokov alright when writing this book? The poem is nice and ordinary, so why should it be followed by a lengthy clarification and interpretation? And what’s up with Kinbote? Why is he so obsessed with the poem and the poet and why does he often digress and starts talking about some king in ‘Zembla’?

Before long, as I continued reading, it became clear that those clarifications are more vital and significant than the poem itself; that Kinbote is trying to tell us something; that nothing is as it seems.

Who has the stopwatch? Who rewinds the tape?
Are some less lucky, or do all escape?
A syllogism: other men die; but I
Am not another; therefore I’ll not die.
Profile Image for Mariel.
667 reviews1,054 followers
September 11, 2011
Now I shall spy on beauty as none as Spied on it yet.

I read Pale Fire under the bed. I didn't roll around in the sheets and get sweaty and come at the same time like all of the sex scenes on HBO tv shows. I hid under the bed and I didn't look first to see who the bed belonged to. So long as it wasn't mine... Another sweaty body did the dirty on top and I could feel the springs pushing into my back down below. Paranoid body on top and apprehensively hopeful body below. Just below, me. Jealous wives and possessive hospital corners and family quilts. Hand of god? Who's hand (who's bed?)? Flatulence or rubbing I cannot tell as the sounds of pleasure and bodily functions sound the same. I didn't make a sound. This isn't a function, this is pleasure.
Feet of men, surely. Shoes were on the floor. Shoes that turn into other shoes like transformers or shape shifting birds. They go with everything. Loafing loafers, leather strings and laces, swaying and strutting to leave by other beds and outside doors. Dirt on the bottoms from some place else. Shoes on my feet. Mums the word and dad said no. The traumatizing walked in and the lonely married couple and their poor, dead daughter. Eavesdropping like a compliment that is better to be savored later when you don't have to face it. I don't know what to say and am not ready to believe it compliment. Fear it won't come again and will never enjoy it compliment... Going somewhere. Is there going to be pillow talk? I'll pick the closet next time... I don't want to see their faces. I don't know what the hell happened and I can't see the whole picture, only the floor, the shoes and under the bed. I like being under it and not knowing the whole damned marriage. Or affair. Or was it a one night stand. Glow and not burn. I won't know what the hell happened. It's a weird kind of secondhand intimacy. Who WAS that guy? I've heard the theories and I was where I wanted to be in the room.
Profile Image for Ethan.
216 reviews236 followers
August 26, 2021
I debated for a long time (a long time for me; it was about two hours) whether to give this book four or five stars. Tedious and downright boring at times, it is an otherwise incredibly intricate and enjoyable account of the death of a famous poet, John Shade, and the publishing of his final poem, Pale Fire, by his close friend and neighbour Dr. Charles Kinbote. The novel is broken down rather uniquely, and the order in which you read the book matters, and is not obvious unless you've done independent research into the opinions of others who have read the book (or have already read it once yourself). Here is a numbered breakdown of the elements in the order they appear in the book, and notes on what parts to read in what order:

1. Foreword (appears in the book first and should be read first)
2. Pale Fire poem (see note to 3)
3. Commentary on the poem Pale Fire (read this at the same time as the poem in 2, flipping back and forth to the Commentary notes for the lines in the poem as you are reading them)

It is critical to read the book in this order, as the Commentary section contains information that supplements and explains parts of the poem (and thus the story as a whole), and also as you may forget what the Commentary corresponds to later if you read the book in its written order, as the poem is rather long (39 pages in my edition and 999 lines long in any edition).

Getting back to the book itself, I found it to be an unnerving trek down a winding path of madness. This book is alternately high fantasy, fictional autobiography, mystery, descent into madness, and much more. Its unreliable narrator and the tale he weaves makes you question the reality of everything you read in this novel. In Pale Fire things may be crystal clear to you, or you may find more questions than you do answers. I felt both ways throughout this book, and that's the beauty of it.

Overall, though tedious and a slog at times, the rewards far outweigh the sometimes difficult journey, and I highly recommend Pale Fire.
Profile Image for Jr Bacdayan.
211 reviews1,683 followers
November 4, 2015
I am resisting this unmistakable urge to write the review in the form of a poem supplemented with annotations. I would really like it but it just feels rather too obvious, and mind you, better reviewers than I have done it. s.penkevich and Manny Rayner have done marvelous jobs at it and so it is with a heavy heart that I have decided, with complete control over my faculties, to write a rap song called “Flameboi” instead (with four verses, 24 lines) complete with commentary from one of my dearest friends. If you’re wondering what sort of beat there is to the rap, imagine any rap beat in your head and you’re probably right. (This is more of a tribute to my lyricism skills, my rhymes being able to stand up to any beat, than a failure on my part to come up with a suitable score.)

Flameboi by JR

There once was a fat king reading pale fire
He ruled a kingdom placed on a quagmire
A haughty vignette of a tortoise force
Built a crescendo of giggle in course
So he broke down and cried hoo-hoo hoo-hoo
6 And thus was heard a great hullabaloo

Titillating Prometheus gave quack
And lifted a woman who made shingles
When Pandora was turning her back
So King Otis ate some classic Pringles
Whapack Whapack goodreads aint got yo back
12 In the end Amazon came and swooped jack

Thus is the life of a corporate hack
No King Otis, Amazon guys in black
Alas moolah was had and made five star
Tomorrow is like a greedy lemon
Who cares about reputation in mar?
18 Celebrate vile and be Agamemnon

Reading will be a constant to all folk
But pseudo-weird reviews is hard to come by
So this trash was made to spiff King Otis
Yall geeks need to chill oh my bye bye
Before I go, write what you want, true sire
24 Read your kindle fire that book called Pale Fire

(The chorus is going to be borrowed from Miranda Lambert's new pop song You Can't Ride My Little Red Wagon which I think forbids normal people from riding little firetrucks.)

Commentary by Otis Chandler*

Line 1 “fat king”: He’s probably thinking of Burger King customers. Lots of obese people wear paper crowns in that establishment. I like eating there.

Line 2 “kingdom placed on a quagmire”: That’s probably the sort of situation one can also call being “in a pickle.” I don’t eat pickles cause I like meat, especially burgers.

Line 3-4 “haughty vignette of a tortoise force”& “built a crescendo of giggle in course”: This can mean a lot of things but in my opinion I think he’s saying that slow people, probably those who eat too much burgers, when you watch them it makes you laugh. I saw JR laugh quite a few times while he read this book though.**

Line 6 “and thus was heard a great hullabaloo”: JR says that laughing at slow people isn’t a nice to thing to do, so I guess those who laughed at slow people were reprimanded and taught a lesson. Maybe they were fed less burgers.

Line 7 “Prometheus”: Is that a movie? I’m not sure. It might be the name of one of my friends’ friend. It’s really familiar.

Line 8 “lifted a woman”: I guess it’s the latter one. He got under a lady. Maybe he smelled a burger underneath her.

Line 9 “Pandora”: It’s definitely mobile radio. I listen to rap there but sometimes they play Nikki Minaj, which gives me a headache. I don’t like her songs.

Line 10: “King Otis, ate some classic Pringles”: Ohh, that’s me!! I’m king!! I like classic Pringles, but I like burgers more.

Line 12: “Amazon came and swooped jack”: It’s the Latina girls?? They always make me uncomfortable. They are lovely like Shakira but sometimes they make me anxious about myself and how good a boy I am.

Line 13-14: “corporate hack” & “No King Otis, Amazon guys in black”: This is about the black boyfriends of Latinas being better office workers than I am even though I’m the King. It’s okay, I don’t like desk jobs. I work security.

Line 15: “moolah was had and made five star”: Money is very good. Yes, because it can buy me burgers.

Line 18: “Agamemnon”: I think this is the dude who committed suicide*** because of this other dude named Troy. I think it has something to do with horses.

Line 20: “pseudo-weird reviews”: I’m writing this for a review, right? So I guess it’s kind of weird, but hey, JR says I’ll get a burger out of it later. I hope you like it. I think our agreement goes something like this – more likes, more burgers – please like this for me. I really really like burgers.

Line 21: “trash was made to spiff King Otis”: Hmmm. I’m confused?? I like trash so I don’t get why they would say it would spiff me. Sometimes you get leftover burgers from the trash if you look in the right places.

Line 24: “Read your kindle fire that book called Pale Fire”: This was the book called Pale Fire**** that JR was reading in his Kindle. I think this book is about me and about burgers because that’s what the rap is about. Maybe slow cooking burgers or something like that.


*Otis Chandler is the name of my dog. He’s a literate black pit-bull with deep appreciation for rap music. He wags his tail to the likes of Jay-Z, The Black-Eyed Peas, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, the Beastie Boys, Gorillaz, and Kendrick Lamar. He barks with outrage whenever he hears Nikki Minaj.

**Of this entire ultranovel, there was this one scene that really made an impact on me comically. This drove me into a 5-minute nonstop glorious peal of laughter. Here it is in its full-unadulterated glory for your mirth and my vindication:

“When the Zemblan Revolution broke out, she wrote the King a wild letter in governess English, urging him to come up and stay with her until the situation cleared up. The letter was intercepted by the Onhava police, translated into crude Zemblan by a Hindu member of the Extremist party, and then read aloud to the royal captive in a would-be ironic voice by the preposterous commandant of the palace. There happened to be in that letter one – only one, thank God – sentimental sentence: ‘I want you to know that no matter how much you hurt me, you cannot hurt my love,’ and this sentence (if we re-English it from the Zemblan) came out as: ‘I desire you and love when you flog me.’ He interrupted the commandant, calling him a buffoon and a rogue, and insulting everybody around so dreadfully that the Extremists had to decide fast whether to shoot him at once or let him have the original letter.”

***One of my favorite little portions in this proportioned-portionfest talks about suicide which seems much like a pamphlet that lists the suitable methods to go about killing one’s self. Shoot-self = for men. Pills = for women. Suffocation = Sissies. Wrist-Cutting = pisswads, illiterate. Jump from bridge = record divers or police sympathizers. Jump from tower = pedestrian hater. Jump from mountain = toboggan lover. Jump from plane = awesome. It’s kind of like a theological efficiency list on your life. This dark humor is getting to my funny-bone alright.

****I loved this biformature or novel or whatever this is by Vladimir Nabokov. This is a reading experience of a different kind. I had a wide grin most of the way, well not during the cantos, alright maybe a phrase or two there, but I had tons of fun throughout. This dark comedy and satire on literary criticism and literary allusions is one of the most creative works of genius I have ever read. The form is such a clever machination on Nabokov’s part divided into foreword, poem, and commentary but really is just an amazing form of virtuoso storytelling. His ability to pin down such exact words for his contexts is still staggering to read. And while the story is such a revelation, the verses are also beautiful in their entirety. The ethereal subject of a man’s reverie looking beyond the abyss due to the ramifications of his beloved’s transience is beyond moving. The juxtaposition of something so gripping and serious with something so darkly comical made for an interesting read that never fails to take your attention. Although, I would say that this is also the reason why I didn’t give it the coveted five stars. The steady flow that is necessary for a novel to achieve rhythm and traction is naturally disrupted by the book’s unique structure. Thus it sacrificed one key element to excel in another. I adore this bold move by Nabokov, but ultimately this is also the book’s shortcoming. Nonetheless, this is an amazing book that should definitely be experienced by those who love great literature. Ahhh that was deliciously good.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I gotta go feed my dog.
Profile Image for Jessica.
593 reviews3,381 followers
March 11, 2017
Nabokov has long been a huge obvious hole on my "read" shelf, which is a funny thing to say because it implies that my "read" shelf is more substantial than a few mangy pieces of string recrossed and knotted in a sad effort to make it seem as if it's not actually just one giant gaping hole of missing books that it's sad and troubling I probably won't ever manage to make it through before I die. Yes, I did read and greatly appreciated Lolita back in high school, but that was quite a ways back into the last century, a time that barely counts now as having even happened, and in the decades since I'm not sure what's happened but Nabokov has somehow gathered force in my weak mind and come to loom as some kind of fierce and frightening demigod of a writer, far too intellectual and too gifted for the mere likes of me.

In fact, I'm not sure what made me finally pick this up at the library. I can't help tying everything these days to our broiling political climate, and perhaps here I can point to the rise in virulent xenophobia (on the right of course -- but perhaps I must also take into account a touch of anti-Russian hysteria on the left...?) and anti-immigrant rhetoric. Because doesn't Nabokov himself exemplify the primal fear of the sly and infinitely resourceful immigrant who will take our job -- presuming of course that our job is writing Great American Novels -- and do it infinitely better than any of us ever could? That he will learn our language and master it so well that our own American English sounds dumb when we try, that he'll use words we'll need to look up in the OED and that when we don't find one there, and google it, we'll learn that the only recorded use of said word is in fact by this author in this very novel, and how is that for the sly and resourceful hijinks of a disruptive foreigner in our midst?

I knew absolutely zilch about Pale Fire when I opened it, which is how I prefer to begin any novel, but I will offer that it concerns the arguably sly and/or somewhat resourceful hijinks of a foreigner in the midst of Nabokov's odd map of 1959's United States. What I did not fully anticipate, but wish I'd understood earlier, is that this book isn't just the "creation of perfect beauty, symmetry, strangeness... one of the great works of art this century" that Mary McCarthy proclaims it to be, grim as a cigarette cancer warning, on the cover. Before it is any of those things (and it is all those things), it's a comedy, and it is very hilarious.

There are people on here who don't like this book, and I have a hard time understanding why. Does anyone not like things that are funny? This book is funny and pretty and it is smart. This book is what nearly everyone is looking for in a significant other (I always forgot to add "nice" to that list, back when I was dating, much to my detriment, but that's a story for another day -- of course I could tell those stories here and stay on theme, but I note from other reviews that that predictable conceit has been done to death already), only much less work. You don't even have to look up all the words you don't understand; sometimes I did and sometimes I didn't, and it didn't seem to matter much in terms of my enjoyment of the book. Easy peasy! The only tough thing is finding two bookmarks, which is not really mandatory either, depending on your chosen approach.

The most satisfying thing about this book was, for me, the sensation that it was changing and shifting shape as I read, like an animal that was squirming and growing, and I don't know, molting or metamorphosing something, right there in my hands. I don't have much tolerance for postmodern trickery and if I describe the device here it will sound high-concept in that way, but for me it felt organic. Okay, but: the novel comprises a forward, a 999-line poem in four cantos, and then is followed by notes to the poem. I read each of the four cantos in its entirety then its subsequent notes, which worked well for me. As I went the book moved and opened up and felt richer and more interesting, the opposite of the way I think a postmodern trick feels. The end result was an experience that was quite lovely at times, but above anything else, enjoyable and amusing and just really a lot of fun.

So, the happy news is that I'm no longer intimidated by Nabokov, and now I want to read everything else by him! There is not any unhappy news, except that the world around us is still melting and right now pretty much sucks. I haven't had much success lately getting a break from this reality, and Pale Fire did the trick with that, so at least I've reaffirmed that fiction's still better than drugs, when it's good, and this is.
Profile Image for FotisK.
356 reviews158 followers
January 10, 2019
Ο Ναμπόκοφ δεν είναι ένας ακόμα ετερόφωτος γραφιάς. Σε ευθεία αντίθεση με τον τίτλο του μυθιστορήματος αυτού (σεξπηρική εικόνα που παραπέμπει στη Σελήνη και στο δάνειο από τον Ήλιο φως, πάντα όμως χλωμό), ο συγγραφέας είναι ο Εωσφόρος της Τέχνης.

Τι είδους τέχνη είναι όμως αυτή την οποία φέρει το εωθινό φως της λογοτεχνίας του; Απαιτητική σίγουρα, στριφνή ακόμα, ίσως δυσπρόσιτη. Για την ακρίβεια, πρόκειται (ισχύει για το σύνολο του έργου του) για ένα ακόμα εγκεφαλικό παιχνίδι στο οποίο υποβάλλει τον αναγνώστη του, απαιτώντας αμέριστη προσοχή, πνεύμα οξύ και πειθαρχία.

Ο Ναμπόκοφ δεν γράφει ρεαλιστική λογοτεχνία (καμία άξια λόγου λογοτεχνία δεν είναι "ρεαλιστική" σύμφωνα με τα λόγια του). Είναι ένας εστέτ που αδιαφορεί για την ηθική στην τέχνη ή καλύτερα, ευαγγελίζεται την άποψη (όχι ως κήρυκας, αλλά ως λογοτέχνης) πως η αισθητική είναι ταυτόχρονα και ηθική. Όπερ εστί μεθερμηνευόμενον πως το ακαλαίσθητο είναι και ανήθικο, και τίποτε σχετικό δεν θα βρούμε στο έργο του.

Ο Ναμπόκοφ εκτός από αισθητής, ή μάλλον εξαιτίας αυτού, είναι και φιλοπαίγμων. Αρέσκεται ιδίως να παίζει με το κοινό του "εν ου παικτοίς", καθότι εκεί βρίσκεται η πρόκληση – όχι η ανούσια του ατάλαντου, αλλά η εκούσια του διανοούμενου που γράφει, όπως ο ίδιος το ορίζει, με τη σπονδυλική στήλη. Όχι μόνο με το μυαλό, όχι μόνο με το συναίσθημα, παρά με το πάθος του επιστήμονα και με την υπομονή του καλλιτέχνη.

Για ακόμα μια φορά (όπως και στη Λολίτα), ο ήρωας του βιβλίου είναι ένας απροσδιόριστος χαρακτήρας που κινείται στο… χρωματικό μεταίχμιο, ένας αδιάφορα συμπαθής αρχικά, σταδιακά αντιπαθής χαρακτήρας που διηγείται μια ιστορία, κατά το δοκούν. Εν τάχει, στο πρώτο μέρος έχουμε ένα εκτενές ποίημα που υποτίθεται άφησε πίσω του ο συγγραφέας του (και δευτερεύων ήρωας) λίγο πριν πεθάνει, ενώ το δεύτερο και πιο μακροσκελές μέρος περιλαμβάνει τον σχολιασμό του εν λόγω ποιήματος από τον φίλο (;) και κάτοχο του magnum opus του συγγραφέα, του οποίου την άκρως υποκειμενική οπτική καλούμαστε να αναγνώσουμε.

Κάθε διήγηση λοιπόν, σύμφωνα με την λογοτεχνική θεωρία του Ναμπόκοφ, αδυνατεί να είναι ρεαλιστική και ειλικρινής, καθώς εμπεριέχει σπέρματι την υποκειμενικότητα του δημιουργού της, του λογοτέχνη εν προκειμένω. Εναπόκειται στον υπομονετικό και φίλεργο αναγνώστη να ξεμπλέξει το κουβάρι της αφήγησης.

Εκεί ακριβώς κρύβεται -στα φανερά- η γοητεία του αυθεντικού έργου τέχνης. Το αφηγηματικό κουβάρι δεν βρίσκεται εκεί προς επίλυση, διότι εδώ η απάντηση δεν έχει καμία πραγματική σημασία. Το ίδιο το κείμενο, η δομή του, το ύφος του, είναι ταυτόχρονα μέσο και σκοπός, όπως ξετυλίγεται σταδιακά εμπρός στα μάτια μας. Η πειραματική διάθεση του Ναμπόκοφ είναι κάτι παραπάνω από προφανής, η διακειμενικότητα, η "αλληλοπεριχώρηση των εναντιομόρφων" που ξεπηδά από τις σελίδες και αναπόφευκτα οδηγεί στην τελική λύση, από μόνη της μια αρχή, μια επανάγνωση – ακριβώς όπως θα την ήθελε ο ίδιος ο Ναμπόκοφ, για τον οποίον η έννοια της μίας και μόνης ανάγνωσης ήταν απλά αδιανόητη.

Κάθε επίσκεψη είναι μια νέα θεώρηση, εξάλλου, επαναφέροντας αέναα το προφανές: Η Τέχνη είναι η μόνη σταθερά στο πλαίσιο ενός πεπερασμένου βίου, του οποίου το τέλος παραμένει αμετάκλητο και οριστικό.
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