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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One man's madness ...
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...
Published on 15 May 2008 by Black Glove

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15 of 18 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Great book, but beware...
Great book, yes. Got it from the library (Everyman Classic, hardbook) and loved it. Wanted a copy of my own to read again and again, but sadly this Penguin Modern Classic paperback if full of blurred, misprinted pages, so I advise anyone who wants a copy to try another version of this classic!
Published on 23 Sept. 2010 by booksaren'tstanleyknives


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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One man's madness ..., 15 May 2008
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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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46 of 49 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Pale Fire, 22 Oct. 2007
By 
Damian Kelleher (Brisbane, Australia) - See all my reviews
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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, '...and would have completed the symmetry of the structure, with its two identical central parts, solid and ample, forming together with the shorter flanks twin wings of five hundred verses each, and damn that music.'

We are told in the introduction that the poem is about Zembla, which means that when we read Pale Fire, we are searching for references and commentary on this (presumably) mythical country. Canto One and Two incite doubt, Canto Three assures us, and Canto four confirms that there will be no references to Zembla. From the first, we are unsure of our narrator.

To the meat of the text, then. Kinbote offers to explain verses and lines, sometimes in great detail. A number of these are purely literary in explanation. He locates references, comments upon the language used (both negatively and positively), and generally acts as a normal editor would. These comments are usually clever, accurate and informed.

But the bulk of the text comes from Kinbote's other comments. As we know from the introduction, Kinbote is desperate to prove a link between the poem and himself. He is so certain of his great friendship with Shade that surely it must be inspired by his majestic Zembla? A word ('Today' on one occasion, 'parents' on another) can spark a multi-page discourse on Zembla, on Kinbote, on the perceived connections. As we read, it becomes clear the lengths that Kinbote must go to prove any connection at all. At first, this seems the enthusiastic ramblings of a friend, but as we read, it becomes clear that Kinbote is not quite sane. He spies upon Shade, he creates connections that aren't there, he believes everything is stronger than it is. Why, we are unsure. Is he a fan, become obsessed with his favourite poet?

A third story - and we are crowded with them, it seems - is that of Gradus, a man hired to assassinate the deposed Zemblan King. As the analysis of the poem approaches an end, so to does Gradus come closer to finally killing Shade. This is not a spoiler - we are told from the start that Gradus killed Shade. But what we don't know is the motive. Was it to kill the King? Or was it case of mistaken identity with a Judge? Again, we are unsure, because Kinbote is so unreliable.

I say unreliable, yet he is reasonably consistent within himself. Zembla is an astonishing construct, with history, geography, culture and customs. Add to that the fact of Kinbote working at a university teaching Zemblan, and we remain unsure as to the truth of, well, everything.

So, a detective story. It is horribly complicated, yet at the same time completely straight forward. All of the plot lines begin at the start of the novel and are resolved in a straight forward manner. Kinbote does not reveal himself to be the exiled King at first, but that is a simple matter of reading between the lines - he goes to no real effort to hide the fact. And Shade is dead, we know that from the start. No, the 'detective' aspect of Pale Fire is that we don't know what to believe. There are multiple interpretations for everything, but the only detailed interpretation we have is Kinbote's, and his is so fantastic that it should be automatically discredited. Yet we cannot, due to the sheer confidence with which he tells his story.

A word on the poem. It is by turns beautifully written and evocatively plotted. The Second Canto deals with Shade's daughter's death, and is very sad. The language is impeccable, as all poems must be. 'How to locate in blackness, with a gasp, Terra the Fair, an orbicle of jasp' is lovely.

Similarly, the rest of the novel crackles with inspired description and wordplay. Nabokov is known for his love of language, it is quite astonishing to realise that English was his second language. We have such gems as 'Would he have crept, pistol in hand, to where a sun-bathing giant lay spread-eagled, a spread eagle of hair on his chest?'.

There is a lot to consider with Pale Fire. The beauty of the novel is easy to enjoy, and the plot, for what it is, works. The greatest enjoyment comes from the mystery of what is real and what is not, but a side entertainment is certainly available in the form of Kinbote's literary criticism, some of which is biting. We may assume that this is Nabokov speaking, as he was known for his harsh judgment on literature.

To end, Pale Fire is complicated and complex, but the rewards are great. If the idea of a novel wrapped around the analysis of a poem is not appealing, then stay away. But if beautiful language, wonderful prose and excellent literature is to your taste, by all means, read Pale Fire.
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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
By 
E. A Solinas "ea_solinas" (MD USA) - See all my reviews
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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?

The poem "Pale Fire" is the soul and core of this unorthodox novel. Perhaps only in A.S. Byatt's "Possession" does another poem so completely show the soul of a fictional character. Nabokov's poetry has the classic flavor of his prose. It's delicate and evocative without being overdescriptive. "I was the shadow of the waxwing slain/In the false azure of the windowpane" is among the loveliest excerpts, from the very beginning of the first canto.

And Nabokov's narrative is both dizzying and madly brilliant. He takes us on a ride into Kinbote's very, very disturbed mind and makes the journey stranger as the book goes on. At the same time, he crafts this as a puzzle. Not a mystery, a puzzle. Hints are dropped, questions are raised, and just try to dare to overanalyze any of it.

"Pale Fire" is a book that has to be read to be believed: A satire within a poem within a novel. Unique and witty, spellbinding and avant-garde, this is a thinking reader's classic.
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4 of 4 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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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars My new favorite novel, 24 Jun. 2012
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. Then, I take a break, talk to the wife, check my sales rank on Amazon (declining), and so on, gradually replenishing for another go.

But this approach is impossible in the playful and elegant PALE FIRE, which Nabokov has written in a fashion that forces the reader to return repeatedly to a wonderful 999 line poem and reread. This rereading yields an amazing reading experience; not only does this establish the richness of the text; but it also demonstrates to poetry "apathists", such as myself, how diligence and curiosity can unlock the greatness of poetry. Hate to admit it; but for me, this was a process of discovery.

Nabokov begins the four-part PALE FIRE with an amusing introduction by Charles Kinbote, this novel's imperious but endearing poetry-loving narrator, that describes how he came to possess, and write critical commentary on, the poem PALE FIRE, the last work of John Shade, a great American poet. Here, the eloquent Kinbote offers such remarks as:

"Here he [Shade] is, I would say to myself, that is his head, containing a brain of a different brand than that of the synthetic jellies preserved in the skulls around him. He is looking from the terrace (of Prof. C's house on that March evening) at the distant lake. I am looking at him. I am witnessing a unique physiological phenomenon: John Shade perceiving and transforming the world, taking it in and taking it apart, re-combining its elements 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."

Next, Nabokov offers Shade's 999 line poem, PALE FIRE, which is a lovely, expansive, and slightly melancholy rumination on death and the hereafter. This is a wonderful poem with great insight and pathos. Here's a short sample (lines 847 through 852) where Shade considers the experience of writing.

In method B the hand supports the thought,
The abstract battle is concretely fought.
The pen stops in mid-air, then swoops to bar
A canceled sunset or restore a star,
And thus it physically guides the phrase
Toward fain daylight though the inky maze.

Then, Nabokov presents Kinbote's commentary on Shade's PALE FIRE, which is the bulk of this book. This commentary, eccentric from the start, takes the form of standard academic annotation. Some is the funny Kinbote settling scores with his rivals. Some is wonderfully insightful criticism. Some is bored or lazy or obtuse observation. But primarily, Kinbote, who worships Shade, uses his commentary to tell the story of the country of Zembla and its king, who was recently driven from his throne by a revolution. The king and Kinbote share a sensibility...

Finally, Nabokov offers an index. This is also delightful, as well as a useful resource for the conscientious reader.

A truly GREAT NOVEL and highly recommended.

P.S. I was happy to see Professor Pnin reemerge in PALE FIRE, after his comic but forlorn departure at the conclusion of his own eponymous novel.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Watch the novel(ist) bob-and-weave as the literary critics try and pin it/him to the ropes, 1 Mar. 2013
By 
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 and deposed King of the fictional sub-arctic country of Zembla is guaranteed to satisfy the most determined of lit-crit detectives. And as evidenced by the reviews on Amazon and essays published elsewhere, there is no shortage of people compelled to argue a plausible interpretation for who is really who in this playful, funny, but bitter-sweet novel.

There seems to be a compulsion to excavate down to a notional foundation stratum of this novel of playful puzzles, mis-identifications and wilful mis-representations. Is Kinbote Botkin? Is Shade Kinbote? Is Kinbote Shade? Is Shade haunting Kinbote? And did Grey kill Shade mistakenly for Kinbote or for the Judge in whose house Kinbote resides?

The answers to these questions are diverting but ultimately miss the point. The pathways of meaning are deliberately constructed by Nabokov to betray, obfuscate and delight the reader. Almost every novel he wrote was a literary dance suspended in the aether. He had little interest in Reality or historical veracity. His Muse, to whom he paid the deepest respect, enjoins him to celebrate the imaginative instinct in all its manifold immanences. As Appel termed it, Nabokov wrote `involuted' novels employing a variety of literary techniques and tropes in order to celebrate and praise the creative impulse. Imagination and the many worlds that it could conjure are the end-point and starting-point for everything that he wrote. This is what his novels are `about'. They're about excavating the creative well-spring and then placing each imaginative world that emerges into a reflected and refracted discussion with many other preceeding or concurrent imaginative worlds (novels). Hence his disdain (sadly, in my view) of writers like George Orwell.

If you are to step into his labyrinthine twists-and-turns of clues and puzzles convinced that you'll find the one-and-only Exit, like some modern-day Theseus, then you mustn't complain in finding that you've fallen into his elaborate `hall-of-mirrors' trap. That's where he wants you. So just relax and enjoy! He really is far smarter than either you or me.
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5.0 out of 5 stars `I have no desire to twist and batter an unambiguous apparatus criticus into the monstrous semblance of a novel.', 4 Nov. 2011
By 
Jennifer Cameron-Smith "Expect the Unexpected" (ACT, Australia) - See all my reviews
(TOP 500 REVIEWER)   
Pale Fire is the name of a 999 line poem, written in four cantos, by an American poet named John Shade. The poem has been published posthumously with a foreword and detailed commentary by Professor Charles Kinbote. This novel contains both the poem and Professor Kinbote's commentary, which includes both notes and an index. Vladimir Nabokov has written both.

`My work is finished. My poet is dead.'

John Shade's poem is beautiful in parts; an attempt to understand the reality of death, the pain of loss and the redeeming power of love. Kinbote's commentary quickly develops into an interpretation of the poem as a saga about the exiled king of Zembla. And how cleverly Mr Nabokov has done this: through the poem he has defined John Shade's life and created his character; and in the commentary has Charles Kinbote provide an alternate interpretation. Yes, there is common ground: both men are trying to find order in human experience, in the events of life over the passage of time. But their approaches are very different: the poet analyses and reflects, while the professor dissects and projects.
If the poem tells us about John Shade, then the commentary tells us about Charles Kinbote. We learn about Zemblan manners and court intrigue. Can Charles Kinbote really be the Zemblan king,
Charles the Beloved? And how does Kinbote's reality intersect with Shade's? All may (or may not) be clear by the end of the novel.

`I shall continue to exist.'

I enjoyed the poem in its own right, and it took me a little while to adjust to the rhythm of the commentary. But once I had gained my own sense of what Professor Kinbote was saying I became increasingly caught up by his attempt to explain how `Pale Fire' was really about him. And then, once I'd finished the novel, I was able to admire Mr Nabokov's achievement. Where the boundaries between fiction and life, and what are is the function of literary criticism?

Charles Kinbote's critical analysis of John Shade's poem tells us a lot about Charles Kinbote, and very little about John Shade. Fortunately, the poem speaks for John Shade - and speaks to many readers too, I suspect.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith
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15 of 18 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Great book, but beware..., 23 Sept. 2010
Great book, yes. Got it from the library (Everyman Classic, hardbook) and loved it. Wanted a copy of my own to read again and again, but sadly this Penguin Modern Classic paperback if full of blurred, misprinted pages, so I advise anyone who wants a copy to try another version of this classic!
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Hugely enjoyable, really makes one think, 29 Mar. 2011
For anyone who has enjoyed any of Nabokov's many other books this is essential. Brilliant in its conception and plan, with humour, horror and many surprises, it really is important to follow the author's references and notes. A hilarious lampoon of academic literary style, it repays close reading on several levels as the ambiguities multiply.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Clever, funny & moving, 29 Aug. 2010
By 
John Bradon (Reading United Kingdom) - See all my reviews
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This is a brilliant book. Other reviews describe the subject matter, but I wanted to say how genuinely funny it is.

There are close parallels with Nabokov's own life and he blends fantasy and reality into an intriguing puzzle. I've not enjoyed a book so much for a long time.
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