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Pale Fire (Penguin Modern Classics) [Paperback]

Vladimir Nabokov , Mary McCarthy
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (22 customer reviews)
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Book Description

31 Aug 2000 Penguin Modern Classics

Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire, with its wildly original narrative structure, is a postmodern masterpiece from the author of Lolita, skewering the politics of academia, the struggle for interpretation, and the infinite subjectivity of human experience, published in Penguin Modern Classics.

The American poet John Shade is dead; murdered. 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 ought. Who is Charles Kinbote - could he be the exiled King Charles of Zembla, or the Russian madman, Professor Botkin? Or is he just another of John Shade's literary inventions? Nabokov's darkly witty, richly inventive masterwork is a suspenseful whodunit, a story of one-upmanship and dubious penmanship, and a glorious literary conundrum.

Vladimir Nabokov (1977-1899) was born in St Petersburg, but left Russia when the Bolsheviks seized power. His family moved to England for a brief spell and finally settled in Berlin. His first novel in English was The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, published in 1941. His other books include Ada, Laughter in the Dark, Details of a Sunset and Lolita, his best-known novel.

If you enjoyed Pale Fire, you might like Nabokov's Invitation to a Beheading, also available in Penguin Modern Classics.

'A Jack-in-the-box, a Fabergé gem, a clockwork toy, a chess problem'

Mary McCarthy

'Pale Fire must be one of the most brilliant and extraordinary novels ever written, let alone in the twentieth century'

William Boyd, author of Any Human Heart

Frequently Bought Together

Pale Fire (Penguin Modern Classics) + Pnin (Penguin Modern Classics) + Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited (Penguin Modern Classics)
Price For All Three: 25.20

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Product details

  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Classics; Re-issue edition (31 Aug 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0141185260
  • ISBN-13: 978-0141185262
  • Product Dimensions: 12.8 x 19.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (22 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 6,749 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov was born on April 23, 1899, in St. Petersburg, Russia. The Nabokov household was trilingual, and as a young man, he studied Slavic and romance languages at Trinity College, Cambridge, taking his honors degree in 1922. For the next eighteen years he lived in Berlin and Paris, writing prolifically in Russian under the pseudonym Sirin and supporting himself through translations, lessons in English and tennis, and by composing the first crossword puzzles in Russian. In 1925 he married Vera Slonim, with whom he had one child, a son, Dmitri. Having already fled Russia and Germany, Nabokov became a refugee once more in 1940, when he was forced to leave France for the United States. There he taught at Wellesley, Harvard, and Cornell. He also gave up writing in Russian and began composing fiction in English. Yet Nabokov's American period saw the creation of what are arguably his greatest works, Bend Sinister (1947), Lolita (1955), Pnin (1957), and Pale Fire (1962), as well as the translation of his earlier Russian novels into English. He also undertook English translations of works by Lermontov and Pushkin and wrote several books of criticism. Vladimir Nabokov died in Montreux, Switzerland, in 1977.

Product Description


He did us all an honour by electing to use, and transform, our language (Anthony Burgess ) --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

About the Author

Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977) was born in St Petersburg. He wrote his first literary works in Russian, but rose to international prominence as a masterly prose stylist for the novels he composed in English, most famously, Lolita. Between 1923 and 1940 he published novels, short stories, plays, poems and translations in the Russian language and established himself as one of the most outstanding Russian émigré writers.

Inside This Book (Learn More)
First Sentence
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. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
44 of 46 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Pale Fire 22 Oct 2007
At its simplest, Pale Fire is an examination of the 999-line poem in four cantos, 'Pale Fire' by respected Zemblan scholar Charles Kinbote, a friend of the recently deceased poet, John Shade. The novel becomes less simple when we realise that John Shade is a fictional poet, that Zembla may or may not exist, and that our friend Charles Kinbote is either the King of Zembla or insane, or perhaps both.

The novel opens, appropriately, with an introduction to the text about to be studied. Kinbote goes to great lengths to assure us that his land of Zembla and his 'great secret' are a major theme of the poem. He also repeatedly affirms his friendship with Shade, though the remainder of the text allows a severe amount of doubt as to the strength of their relationship.

John Shade, poet par excellence, is presented as an earthy, ugly man. Kinbote tries to exalt him to a higher plan at times, though textually we only ever see Shade for what he is - a poet, a great poet perhaps, but a poet. He isn't a God of letters or the Saviour of a nation, he is a man. But Kinbote has this to say of Shade's creative process: 'I am witnessing a unique physiological phenomenon: John Shade perceiving and transforming the world, taking it in and taking it apart, re-combing its element in the very process of storing them up so as to produce at some unspecified date an organic miracle, a fusion of image and music, a line of verse.'

Once the introduction has cleared, we are able to read the poem itself. It is 999 lines long: 166 for Canto One, 334 for Canto Two and Three, and 165 lines for Canto four. Kinbote tell us that the poem should in fact be 1,000 lines, with the first line of the poem repeated as the last, '...
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One man's madness ... 15 May 2008
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
PALE FIRE explores the wayward mind of Charles Kinbote, a university teacher brimming with outrageous delusions.
Firstly, he believes himself to be the exiled King of Zembla (Zembla being a "distant northern land" in the vain of Hyperborea or, say, Avalon).
Secondly, Kinbote is obsessed with an old poet named John Shade, who just happens to live across the street near the campus, and it's with Shade's latest and last poem that the novel begins, a poem which Kinote utterly misinteprets as being about his life in the kingdom of Zembla and his daring escape to America from a plot to assassinate him.
The result of all this delusion is a humorous, puzzling, and elegantly imaginative account of one man's insanity, a madness that turns out to be strangely endearing, and which during its exposure invites the reader to decipher the truth of what really happened.
Concisely extravagant and weirdly exotic - some say Nabokov's finest novel, some may be perturbed by the foibles of the writer - overall an intriguing mix of fantasy and reality, truth and lies.
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44 of 47 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Mad bad and glorious to know! 23 Jun 2006
Take everything you knew or thought about Vladimir Nabokov, and stuff it in the trash. Experimental novel "Pale Fire" is a strange, haunting, magical experience, and as different from most novels as it can get. Like a textured surrealist painting, that is hard to take in on only one reading, let alone describe to someone who's never read it.

"Pale Fire" is a poem, 999 lines and divided into four cantos, written by poet John Shade. It's moving, vibrant and breathtaking. And it's posthumously annotated by scholar (and head case) Charles Kinbote, supposedly from the fictional Zembla (don't ask). In the "backwoods," Kinbote overdissects and reexamines the strange poem. Increasingly he is drawn into the web of words, stuck on the poem and believing it to be about him.

A strain of subtle, dark humor runs through "Pale Fire." Not funny-ha-ha humor, but one that only becomes apparent if you study it. In a nutshell, the humor here pokes at critics who read what they want to see into literature. Everyone has seen a passage or a line that strikes them to the soul. The entirety of "Pale Fire" does this to Kinbote, and his obsession with making it about himself is weirdly hypnotic.

Most unique (and funny) is the sort of analysis that Kinbote does of "Pale Fire." It's overblown, unlikely, and tailored to his delusions. He sees what he wants to see, and tries to turn ordinary phrases into deep allusions, and even adjust the whole point of the poem. What else do literary analysts do? It's hilarious to see Kinbote bend, twist and mangle every little phrase to fit. After all, who hasn't heard that "Lord of the Rings" is about World War II or the atom bomb? Or listened to a professor pinning a mess of Freudian theory on poor Hamlet?
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars unique 3 July 2011
I first read this as a teenager, then recently decided to have another look at it with the perspective of middle-age. It didn't disappoint; it still strikes me as Nabokov's masterpiece. The brilliance of using the commentary on a narrative poem to form the storyline is a unique idea, and although at first the flipping between the poem itself and its insane commentary can seem disruptive, the reader soon gets used to it. Remember to use two bookmarks.
The poem which begins the book is written by the ageing American poet John Shade, who has recently been killed in mysterious circumstances. A deeply tragic autobiographical verse of 999 lines, it is subsequently dissected by a fellow academic who works at the same university as the poet, and who is clearly a deluded and obsessed paederast. The reader must decide for himself how much of the commentary can be believed, while enjoying an extraordinary story; at times full of gloom and foreboding, at others grandiose and bizarre - and sometimes screamingly funny. This is one of my favourite books of all time.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
2.0 out of 5 stars Not for me
This book took me ages to read. I started it a few years ago as a set text on a literature course, I only read about a quarter of it before disgarding it for books that engaged me... Read more
Published 16 days ago by CoffeeandCake
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating read
Nabokov is justly considered a great writer, and this book supports the view. Although short, and in an unusual form, it is very clever and definitely worth reading
Published 13 months ago by TML SUTCLIFFE
5.0 out of 5 stars nothing like a Mr V Nabokov piece when one is feeling controversially...
This is great... following up the explanations online about the behind-the-scenes conception of this tale makes it more than a-once-listened-to audio book.. Read more
Published 14 months ago by Lyns
5.0 out of 5 stars Watch the novel(ist) bob-and-weave as the literary critics try and pin...
This fictionalised Forward and Commentary on a fictional (but `real') poem by a fictional poet called John Shade, by a crazy Russian émigré masquerading as the exiled... Read more
Published 17 months ago by C. Skala
5.0 out of 5 stars Extraordinary
I've written a more detailed review on my blog, [...]

but for now, just to say this is one of those must read books. It is complex, challenging, but hugely enjoyable.
Published 18 months ago by DJJ
5.0 out of 5 stars A formal masterpiece
If you've never read Nabokov, this might be a tough intro. But if you're a fan of Lolita, Bend Sinister, Ada or his shorter stories, just read this. You'll be amazed.
Published 19 months ago by William Gaines
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent Edition
Thankfully, this edition does not contain Mary McCarthy's essay as an "introduction".
I will never forget the students' puzzlement and annoyance when they unwittingly read the... Read more
Published 20 months ago by Abdias
5.0 out of 5 stars Important advice
What really ticks me off about this book is Hazel Shades' riddle which you'll find in the commentary. Read more
Published 23 months ago by Stuart Weir
1.0 out of 5 stars Beyond Pretentious and extremely irritating
Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov is the story of Charles Kinbote, who following the death of his "friend" the esteemed poet John Shade, publishes Shades last work Pale Fire, a poem of... Read more
Published on 21 July 2012 by R. A. Davison
5.0 out of 5 stars My new favorite novel
I'm your typical momentum reader, locking into focus and pushing forward until I enter the hazy state of mental fatigue, where the words lose nuance and impact. Read more
Published on 24 Jun 2012 by Ethan Cooper
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