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Pale Fire (1962)

by Vladimir Nabokov

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingConversations / Mentions
6,945124987 (4.24)1 / 326
In Pale Fire Nabokov offers a cornucopia of deceptive pleasures: a 999-line poem by the reclusive genius John Shade; an adoring foreword and commentary by Shade's self-styled Boswell, Dr. Charles Kinbote; a darkly comic novel of suspense, literary idolatry and one-upmanship, and political intrigue.
  1. 10
    Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov (KayCliff)
  2. 10
    Flaubert's Parrot by Julian Barnes (the_awesome_opossum)
  3. 10
    Ananios of Kleitor by George Economou (bluepiano)
  4. 00
    Tomcat in Love by Tim O'Brien (jscape2000)
    jscape2000: A narcissist reveals himself by the contortions he makes to self-justify the way he sees himself and the world with the way the world sees him.
  5. 00
    Mulligan Stew by Gilbert Sorrentino (ateolf)
  6. 00
    Trust Exercise by Susan Choi (beyondthefourthwall)
    beyondthefourthwall: Choi follows in Nabokov's footsteps here with some gutsy, unflinching, open-ended metafiction. In both cases - trying to avoid spoilers here - there is a piece of writing, mysteriously incomplete, and much of the rest of the text is by someone who claims to have been a close friend of the author. But there are some pretty weird things going on slightly below the surface, and it's clear that some kind of big traumatic event has loomed over the whole thing. A considerable amount of room for interpretation ensues.… (more)
  7. 00
    The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips (Lirmac)
    Lirmac: Another great work of metafiction where the novel comprises the work of one 'author' with notes and introductory material by another.
  8. 00
    The Dissertation: A Novel (Norton paperback fiction) by R. M. Koster (slickdpdx)
  9. 00
    Sartor Resartus and On Heroes and Hero Worship by Thomas Carlyle (slickdpdx)
  10. 00
    А Perfect Vacuum by Stanisław Lem (unctifer)
Books (27)
Romans (42)

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» See also 326 mentions

English (119)  French (1)  Italian (1)  Spanish (1)  Portuguese (1)  Hungarian (1)  All languages (124)
Showing 1-5 of 119 (next | show all)
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?

Charles Kinbote simply tosses off little observations like this for almost no reason as he wanders through his spiraling story, weaving himself back and forth in time, unfolding the death of John Shade.* It is these moments of piercing clarity amidst the chaos that make this work much more than its story, more than its craft. The hints of sorrow and fear that occasionally ring through our narrator, suggesting that he knows the truth, are what make this heartbreaking. The sparkling, joyful hideousness of Kinbote, even (especially) when he is fully invested in his own tale, is what makes it fun. (That and the fact that it's a novel written in the end notes to a poem. And the whole book is part of the story. And it is holding hands with all the author's other books. I have a thing for things like this, you see.)

Truthfully, in terms of sheer enjoyment, this one is probably about a four for me; I loved it, but not it-took-over-my-life kind of loved. I take that to be a factor of where it falls in my own reading history; having already enjoyed its literary descendants, I am hungry for a more postmodern level of complexity. Unless it's Shade? If it's Shade, I seriously missed it. Damn, what if it's Shade? Onto the reread shelf with you! This is just one of the ones I wish I had encountered much sooner, before those other things. On the other hand, if I had read it sooner, I probably would not have recognized the sheer genius apparent in Nabokov's seemingly effortless writing. The clear, astounding language itself is the star here.

I would like to say something more significant, but I'm coming up short. So many others have reviewed this so much better than I could already. If you haven't read this one yet, give it a go. Then come back and read the first several reviews on the book's first page on GR. They're better than mine. (I especially like Manny's review.)

*Things that happen on the very first page (the very first sentence in fact) do not qualify as spoilers. And, yes, this is one of those books where you read the foreword. And of course the end notes. And the index. The whole book, Goodreaders. Read the whole book.

Personal note: Read in [b:Novels, 1955-1962: Lolita / Pnin / Pale Fire / The Lolita Screenplay|7807|Novels, 1955-1962 Lolita / Pnin / Pale Fire / The Lolita Screenplay|Vladimir Nabokov|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1347492521s/7807.jpg|10855], reviewing separately. (If I end up reading the whole omnibus I'll go back and fix all the shelving to get the book and page counts right, but right now I'm mostly planning on just reading this one. Mostly.) ( )
  amyotheramy | May 11, 2021 |
You basically have two choices when you read Pale Fire: you can spend a few hours trying to puzzle out all the layers of metatextual games Nabokov troweled onto it, flipping back and forth between notes chasing what's "real" and "not real"; or you can just read it more or less straight through and treat the highbrow critical theory stuff as a neat but secondary adornment over Nabokov's typically lovely, erudite, I-can't-believe-he's-not-a-native-English-speaker prose. I mostly took the second path, because, while I always appreciate it when smart authors try to do cool stuff, I found the number of loose ends piling up as the novel progressed to be a little much, and I'm not sure that putting in the extra effort would have been rewarded.

I learned from the Wikipedia article that this type of metafiction falls into a sub-category called a "poioumenon", although the ostensible narrator's role in creating the central poem gives it an almost "Künstlerroman"-ish aspect. Then again, Kinbote's parodic professor character also hints at "roman à clef" elements as well. All these non-English terms are giving me a powerful desire to drink a domestic light beer and advocate the bombing of a foreign country, so I'll just cut to the chase. The novel's structure is four simple sections:
- a hilariously overblown Foreword, at the end of which the author, one Professor Charles Kinbote, helpfully advises us to buy 2 copies of the book so that we can better appreciate his marginal notes to a poem by John Shade, a lately deceased colleague/friend of his.
- a 999-line poem in four cantos called Pale Fire, which, while it comes off as deliberately bad, actually sort of grew on me as I was reading it (the opening lines "I was the shadow of the waxwing slain / By the false azure of the windowpane" makes me smile for some reason).
- a Commentary on the poem by Kinbote purporting to explain the poem's hidden references to the escape of the king of Zembla from his native country, which is by far the longest part of the book and where it gets weird.
- a short Index at the back containing a bunch of jokes at the reader's expense (I particularly liked the definition for Word Golf - "pale fire" itself seems to be playable, if that means anything).

The book's reputation really comes from the conceptual stuff in the Commentary, which is admittedly pretty clever. Before the Commentary really gets going, the default reader behavior is to simply take Kinbote at his word that he's just annotating this poem for his dead friend; if he seems just a little too attached to it, then it's easy to assume he's merely eccentric/obsessive/extremely boring. The town of New Wye that he lives in is obviously fake, but fake in the sense that Superman's Metropolis is fake - a story needs to be set somewhere. "Plausibly fictional", if that means anything. Then he starts really getting into the Zembla stuff, and it becomes apparent that Nabokov has made it very tricky to sort out exactly what's supposed to be "true" within the confines of the story and what's not. Obviously Shade's poem is not, as Kinbote would have it, a coded cipher of the story of the king of Zembla (and in fact seems to bear basically no relationship at all to Kinbote's exegesis), but what really is Shade's relationship to Kinbote, or Kinbote's to the king of Zembla? Maybe Kinbote is the king? Maybe Zembla, and Kinbote himself, don't actually exist at all? Many long academic papers have been written on this, and even though I'm not going to read them, it's somewhat reassuring to know that I'm not the only one who couldn't quite keep the levels of meta straight after one read.

The problem is that, despite this being a cool concept, and Nabokov's impressive abilities to conjure up all these overlapping violations of reader expectations, I found many of the actual pages of rarefied drollery kind of boring. For example, does it actually mean anything that the note to line 408 in the Commentary has the kid wearing four different types of shorts in the span of a few paragraphs ("a leopard-spotted loincloth", "ivy", "black bathing trunks", and "white tennis shorts")? Is the proto-hypertextual linking of the various notes to each other a clever way to dazzle the reader, or just a premonition of the tedious footnote-trawling gimmickry that Infinite Jest would later exploit? What do all of the subtle references to poetry, drama, previous Nabokov works, and so on eventually add up to? Do I really have to pretend that stuff like "In Zembla, where most females are freckled blondes, we have the saying: belwif ivurkumpf wid spew ebanumf, 'A beautiful woman should be like a compass rose of ivory with four parts of ebony.'" isn't sort of beneath Nabokov's talent?

Still, despite myself I did find it interesting to follow Nabokov around in the book. There's some good wordplay, and it doesn't feel bloated like Infinite Jest did. Lolita is a far better book, however. Games are cool, but I like to win them sometimes - I'm not sure there is anything to win after finishing Pale Fire. ( )
  aaronarnold | May 11, 2021 |
Another Great Work that left me cold. Looking over commentary online it seems like the ideal way to experience this is to actually pursue all the interlinked commentary to decrypt what's going on, but the ending seems to spell things out explicitly enough that I don't see any real need to go back. I didn't really hate it, but I didn't love it either. ( )
  skolastic | Feb 2, 2021 |
i read the notes first, then stanza. if there were references to other notes in that note i jumped to the referred note and read that. suffice to say i was jumping around quite a bit. pretty fun. ( )
  stravinsky | Jan 1, 2021 |
It took me years to finish this novel. I started it several times but would never make it past the first twenty pages or so. I'm no stranger to postmodern literature, but this is such an oddly shaped novel: a poem and a series of footnotes to it. Even now it's unclear to me whether the poem is supposed to have any artistic value (although, now that I've read the whole book, I'm not sure it matters), and the footnotes don't serve their intended purpose; that at least was clear from the beginning.

This time, I told myself that I'd finish the book no matter what, and I'm glad I did, because it quickly won me over. It is filled with allusions and references, both to itself and to other works, and that was initially very disruptive, but it becomes acceptable. It also helps that different parts of the book "rhyme" thematically with each other. Once the weirdness of the format fades away I could find a great deal of humanity in the main characters. John Shade, who tragically lost his daughter (and then his own life); Charles Kinbote, who is generally very disagreeable but also a tragic figure on his own right; and Gradus, who despite how negatively the narrator describes him I found some sympathy for (perhaps because of his extreme incompetence). Overall I was not too impressed, though. Given the complexity of the text I'll probably revisit in the future.

The book is a bit of a puzzle box and invites theorizing on what's real in it and what's not, and who actually wrote it. I'm not very interested in solving the puzzle myself but there's a lot of good online essays on it. It's funny that Nabokov himself has given some views on the matter of authorship. I wonder if he did that to complicate the question even more. (The Death of the Author was published five years after Pale Fire).
( )
  fegolac | Dec 26, 2020 |
Showing 1-5 of 119 (next | show all)
If the introduction and notes are eccentric, the index is of a similar quality ... Kinbote's index is a symptom of his insanity.
added by KayCliff | editNew Writing 9, Robert Irwin (Dec 12, 2010)
The integration of events described in the index into the text of Pale fire clearly qualifies this index as an example of indexes as fiction. The complex trail of cross-references by which the whole book may be alternatively read makes it possible also to regard this novel as an example of fiction as index.
added by KayCliff | editThe Indexer, Hazel K. Bell (Aug 5, 1997)
In fact, “Pale Fire” is a curiosity into which it is agreeable to dip rather than a book which can be read straight through with pleasure.

» Add other authors (67 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Nabokov, Vladimirprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Blumenfeld, RobertNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
義之, 富士川Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Drews, KristiinaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Kinbote, CharlesForewordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Rorty, RichardIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Verstegen, PeterTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Vietor, MarcNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
慎一郎, 森Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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This reminds me of the ludicrous account he gave Mr. Langton, of the despicable state of a young gentleman of good family. "Sir, when I heard of him last, he was running about town shooting cats." And then in a sort of kindly reverie, he bethought himself of his own favorite cat, and said, "But, Hodge shan't be shot: no, no, Hodge shall not be shot."

--James Boswell, the Life of Samuel Johnson
To Véra
First words
I was the shadow of the waxwing slain / By the false azure in the windowpane.
Pale Fire, a poem in heroic couplets, of nine hundred ninty-nine lines, dividen into four cantos, was composed by Francis John Shade (born July 5, 1898, died July 21, 1959) during the last twenty days of his life, at his residence in New Wye, Appalachia, U.S.A
Pale Fire, a poem in heroic couplets, of nine hundred ninety-nine lines, divided into four cantos, was composed by John Francis Shade (born July 5, 1898, died July 21, 1959) during the last twenty days of his life, at his residence in New Wye, Appalachia, U.S.A.
I have no desire to twist and batter an unambiguous apparatus criticus into the monstrous semblance of a novel.
No lips would share the lipstick of her smoke.
Shadows, the, a regicidal organization which commissioned Gradus (q.v.) to assassinate the self-banished king; its leader’s terrible name cannot be mentioned, even in the Index to the obscure work of a scholar; his maternal grandfather, a well-known and very courageous master builder, was hired by Thurgus the Turgid, around 1885, to make certain repairs in his quarters, and soon after that perished, poisoned in the royal kitchens, under mysterious circumstances, together with his three young apprentices whose pretty first names Yan, Yonny, and Angeling, are preserved in a ballad still to be heard in some of our wilder valleys.
I'm puzzled by the difference between / Two methods of composing. A, the kind / Which goes on solely in the poet's mind, / A testing of performing words, while he / Is soaping a third time one leg, and B, / The other kind, much more decorous, when / He's in his study wielding his pen.
Come and be worshiped, come and be caressed, My dark Vanessa, crimson-barred, my blest My Admirable butterfly! Explain. - It is *so* like the heart of a scholar in search of a fond name to pile a butterfly genus upon an Orphic divinity on top of the inevitable allusion to Vanhomrigh, Esther! In this connection a couple of lines from one of Swift's poems (which in these backwoods I cannot locate) have stuck in my memory: When, lo! *Vanessa* in her bloom / Advanced like *Atalanta*'s star.
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In Pale Fire Nabokov offers a cornucopia of deceptive pleasures: a 999-line poem by the reclusive genius John Shade; an adoring foreword and commentary by Shade's self-styled Boswell, Dr. Charles Kinbote; a darkly comic novel of suspense, literary idolatry and one-upmanship, and political intrigue.

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Haiku summary
The curse of the verse!
(Note: this refers to Zembla.)
So: king, or madman?

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Penguin Australia

2 editions of this book were published by Penguin Australia.

Editions: 0141185260, 0141197242

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