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Pale Fire (Penguin Modern Classics) Paperback – 31 Aug 2000
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This centaur work, half-poem, half-prose . . . is a creation of perfect beauty, symmetry, strangeness, originality and moral truth. Pretending to be a curio, it cannot disguise the fact that it is one of the great works of art of this century (Mary McCarthy)
A novel constructed around the last great poem of a fictional American poet, John Shade, and an account of his death. The poem appears in full and the narrative develops through the lengthy, and increasingly eccentric, notes by his posthumous editor.See all Product description
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It's like a house of mirrors which defies attempts to establish who or what is "real". The wikipedia page lists any number of theories as to which characters are aliases or aspects of others, which is fascinating but, I feel, misses the point: the book is satirising critics and their over-elaborate analyses.
By the way, Mary McCarthy's painfully pretentious introduction almost put me off reading it at all, but afterwards I found out that she was a noted satirist in her own right - maybe her introduction is part of the joke...?
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.
I will never forget the students' puzzlement and annoyance when they unwittingly read the essay which was tucked in as an intro in the Penguin paperback editions many years ago. Of course, nobody warned them not to read it before reading Kinbote's Foreword, Shade's Poem, Kinbote's Commentary and Index!