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