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on 22 October 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, '...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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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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on 15 May 2008
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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on 3 March 2016
I was prepared for this to be complex, multi-layered, dense and allusive, which it is. What I didn't expect was that it would be quite so funny. Kinbote is a hilariously pompous buffoon to rank alongside Ignatius J. Reilly, although he also, particularly at the end, displays glimmerings of self-awareness which turn him into a rather tragic figure.
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...?
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on 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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on 19 March 2001
I first read Pale Fire 30 or so years ago - I forgot the details but the recollection of an intriguing but odd story lingered. When I reread it about a year ago it all came back.
The story is buried in the critical apparatus surrounding the poem, introduction, commentary, footnotes etc. You have to piece it together yourself ( not the dry exercise it might sound ) to uncover a tale of exile, academic rivalry, jealousy, paranoia and maybe murder. As the story progresses, though not in a straight line, it becomes clear the critic is unhinged. It also becomes clear that Nabokov is having great fun at the expense of American academic life and his fellow Russian emigres. Don't worry about being expected to read commentary, poem and notes in parallel - it really isn't necessary. Just settle in and enjoy Nabokov's language. To be honest I found the poem a bit mawkish ( Mccarthy's 'touching' is generous )but maybe next time I read it I'll feel differently.
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on 23 September 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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on 11 February 2015
Set out as a commentary on a poem it tells us more about the commentator than the poet - pretty much brilliant. This strange but wonderful structure leads the reader through the madness of Charles Kinbote (King Charles Xavier).
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Although Pale Fire does not belong to my favorite genre, I actually consider it the best book I've ever read, topping both my sci-fi favorites like Asimov's Foundation, Haldeman's Forever War, Heinlein's The moon is a Harsh Mistress etc. and also my "classic" favorites like Tale of Two Cities, To Kill a Mockingbird, Catch-22 etc. This was to say, you can't easily tell whether you will appreciate Pale Fire based on what you like to read, as it is a rather one-of-a-kind book. Even though the book centers around a poem by a fictional poet, I can tell you that you don't need to have a love for poetry, as most of the focus is on the preface and commentary of the also fictional and self-appointed editor.
The book is brilliantly written and immensely amusing. You should not read anything about the "plot" beforehand, as most of the satisfaction and amusement is derived from the discoveries you make while reading and realizing that the commentary is about much more than the poem!
So, how do you know whether you are going to like it without reading a lot about it and without any other books being similar? I suggest that if you are in doubt about plunging into Pale Fire, you could first have a go at Pnin, another novel by Nabokov. Unlike Pale Fire, Pnin is a more "classic" novel, but it is a good intro to Nabokov's style and humor, plus the title character Pnin, also appears in Pale Fire, which will be a nice little treat.
More importantly, there is the issue of how to read Pale Fire. You obviously start with the preface. Then you have the poem and you try reading it by going back to look at the references in the quite extensive commentary. But the references refer to other references further along! So, you either read the references in order, or jump around following them. The good thing is that both methods work well. I read it taking the references in order, because I have a mild OCD, so I like to read things serially, and the revelations did work well enough, but I could see why the consensus is that the revelations are more "dramatic" if you follow the references and "jump around" - although that adds a bit to the bewilderment, especially when beginning.
But, yeah, even though I believe it is not a book everyone will "get" (a lot of the experience is based on humor after all, and humor is subjective), those that do are treated with a unique and satisfying experience.
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on 21 October 2015
I read this novel many years ago together with lots of other novels of Nabokov's and in my view this is his most original and wickedest. I was discussing it with a friend recently and felt the urge to re-visit it. An excellent literary read.
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