Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov + Giveaway

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I loved reading Vladimir Nabokov’s short stories a few months ago because his control of language is so powerful, although I did feel that some of his stories were rather odd. Nabokov’s novel Pale Fire is similar in that it is both odd and powerfully written. It is a masterwork of creation: who but Nabokov would have thought to write a book like this? In fact, Pale Fire is so odd, I have a hard time calling it a novel.

Pale Fire has two main parts. One part is a 999-line poem (about 30 pages) by the recently deceased (fictional) John Shade. The other part is (fictional) Professor Charles Kinbote’s commentary on the poem (about 185 pages). Nabokov has expertly woven a completely unrelated commentary in with a fairly coherent poem. Trust me: it is funny, in a subtle way.

In his forward, Kinbote carefully explains that we should begin with reading his commentary, and only reference the poem on occasion. Kinbote believes his commentary shares the real meaning of Shade’s poem.

I did not trust Kinbote’s instructions for reading the book, just as I didn’t trust most of what he said. And yet, there is a humor behind his conceit and pride. From the beginning of that forward, the reader began to suspect that something was not quite right with Kinbote and his commentary. Kinbote has his own story to share, all about his native country of Zembla, and he sees everything through that filter. Kinbote’s conceit got on my nerves to some extent. Others in my LibraryThing Group Reads group seemed to think it was laugh-out-loud funny. I laughed out loud a little, but by the end I was a bit tired of Kinbote’s long-winded discourses on Zembla.

I think the true genius behind this story is how the poem and the commentary do coincide. They don’t coincide in the ways that Kinbote wants them to, but there are influences of Kinbote on Shade’s text. I think it was a clever idea for Nabokov to “misinterpret” his own poem (since, of course, he actually wrote all the writing and created all the characters). It seemed to me that Nabokov is, in a sense, mocking all who analyze poetry too much: he’s showing a completely distorted “interpretation” of a poem.

But I think the deeper purposes behind this book are beyond me. On Wikipedia, there are some speculations on Nabokov’s actual meaning behind Pale Fire, including a quote from Nabokov. (The article has spoilers so I’ll avoid quoting them here.) I thought Pale Fire was making fun of people who look for hidden meanings, so I have a hard time believing in Nabokov’s own declared hidden meanings. I think he’s making fun of us there, too. But then again, I was one of the people in the group read who didn’t look up every unknown word (there are lots of them in “Kinbote’s” erudite sentences). Maybe I’m just not looking hard enough; Pale Fire, I thought, didn’t need all that much looking.

In the end, I am torn between thinking Pale Fire is genius because of how Nabokov set it up and being completely annoyed by Kinbote’s self-conceit and cluelessness. I do ackowledge that it was a fascinating concept and somewhat amusing to read, albeit irritating at points.

I read Pale Fire for the 9 for 09 Challenge (“Used.”) I purchased it for $2.50 at a used book store in November. This soft-cover, 1968 copy has a fully intact cover (albeit ugly), all the words, and yellowing pages. If you are interested in reading Pale Fire, I’ll send it you. Let me know if you are interested; I’ll choose a winner Friday.

If you have read Pale Fire, did you think it was serious or a joke? I’m leaning toward the joke myself.

Other Reviews:

If you have reviewed Pale Fire on your site, leave a link in the comments and I’ll add it here.

Reviewed on March 24, 2009

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • Rebecca, I would love to read this book! I have long wanted to read Nabokov, but have never had (or made) the opportunity to do so. What you’ve written about Pale Fire has definitely intrigued me, and I will certainly be on the look out for it at my used bookstore, if I don’t win your copy! Also, I’m definitely going to try to find some of his short stories, since you enjoyed them so much!

  • So I’m curious – how long did it take you to read this book, and how did you go about doing so? it took me two weeks last August, and I tried to follow the footnote trail whenever possible, instead of reading in order (though I read the poem and foreword first). Nabokov was big into style, and said something to the effect of story doesn’t matter, only style does. I think this book was an exercise in form, and the story mattered very little. Kinbote is indeed excruciatingly annoying, and I didn’t find this as funny as some people do. In fact, I liked Pale Fire almost the least of all the Nabokov books I’ve written, with only Transparent Things so far beneath it. It’s masterfully written, but the story itself is just so boring and pointless. Yes, I think Nabokov is laughing at us as we do acrobatics to read and comprehend even just the surface of this book. By reading it, particularly if we don’t read front to back like a normal book, we are entering his manipulation, and allowing him to push us where he wants us to go. While I love Nabokov, he was sort of an arrogant guy, so I can see him writing this either as a joke to himself (it’s obvious he often thought his own work was very funny) or to purposely manipulate readers, in a much grander way than we are normally manipulated by prose. I think this book could be studied on a thesis level all by itself, but I have no plans to revisit it any time soon.

    My review is here:

  • I think people fall into two camps about this sort of book: either it’s genius and one must look for all the connections, or it’s humorous but really just a bit of verbal trickery. I think the second option especially leaves readers feeling a bit bewildered, and maybe as if the joke is on them. I enjoyed it purely because, as you point out, Nabokov is such a master of language. Wonderful review!

  • No need to put me in the drawing as I already own this. I haven’t read it yet, however. I’ve been intimidated. 🙂 But now that I see your review, I’m much more motivated! I still don’t know when I’ll get to it, but now I can just relax and go with it. Thanks!!


  • Steph, I loved the short stories more! This one was one of those “glad I read it but can’t imagine I’ll reread it” books. I do hope you enjoy it if you do choose to read it.

    Amanda, It took me between one and two weeks. I had a hard time getting in to it. I did not follow the advice to read the notes as he recommended them. I started, but it was driving me nuts. So I read it cover to cover. In that sense, I probably did it “wrong” but I decided not to take it that seriously. I still can’t take it that seriously. I do agree that it is thesis material all itself but I am with you on probably never picking it up again! Off to read your review! (Again, I searched 5-Squared and nothing came up. Hmmm.)

    priscilla, I feel like I’m in both camps. It was genius, but I don’t have the patience to figure it out! Glad you also liked it. I’m looking forward to more Nabokov!

    Lezlie, well, you can be intimidated if you want, or you can just read it without caring if you “understand” it. That’s what I did!

    Chris, still haven’t read Lolita. Maybe it will be my next Nabokov!

  • Rebecca ~ That’s exactly how I’m reading The Faerie Queene, and I’m finding it quite enjoyable! As long as I can follow the big picture, I’m happy. There is something to be said for reading just for the sake of reading even with books we’re supposed to “get”.


  • Heather, you’re entered!

    Isabel, Actually, my cover is even uglier than the cover above. I couldn’t find a copy of my cover.

    I’m still working on my “Long” selection for 9 for 09. I really did start it in January!

  • Pale Fire is in my all time Top 10 list. I think it is a wonderful, marvelous, intricately faceted gem. I sat there flipping back and forth between the poem and annotations for days, completely absorbed. And, yes, I think it is mostly a joke — or at least a romp. Nabakov having fun.

    The whole thing is genius. But what tickled my fancy the most was the story of the escape from Zembla in the red suit and, in particular, the Zembla cultural and language references. I barked with laughter (while on a crowded plane) when I came to “a shiver of alfear (uncontrollable fear caused by elves).”

    I plan to read it over and over. It is definitely a literary one-off, so hard to categorize. But I love it.

    (I have a copy, so no need to enter me in the give-away.)

  • Rose City Reader, There are a couple people in the LibraryThing GroupsReads group who felt similarly. Here’s the discussion if you were interested in visiting; people are still finishing this week, I think.

    I couldn’t take it seriously and then Kinbote drove me nuts, so I don’t think I’ll ever revisit it. But it is definitely a book one can revisit time and again and always find something new!

  • Rose City Reader, I think I joined the Nabokov group too but I didn’t even think of mentioning that the Group Reads group was reading Pale Fire! Off to read your post!

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