"One cannot read a book: one can only reread it. "-Vladimir Nabokov
Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov (1899 to 1971) is a wonderfully creative, very funny work of genius. The prose is dazzling in its brilliance and beauty. As I read the book I began to wonder what is Nabokov doing in this work. Sometimes it seemed like Pale Fire was an incredible work of art that speaks deeply about a large range of topics and sometimes it seemed like an elaborate semi-private joke. Of course maybe in the end it is both of these things. It is also a great commentary on the reading life and a lesson in how to read.
There are two central figures in Pale Fire, set in an imaginary small town in up state New York. One is John Shade who has written a 999 page poem called Pale Fire. The poem is part of the novel and we get to know Shade directly only through the poem. The eighteen page poem is itself a mystery. Is it supposed to be silly or we just not able to understand the great brilliance of it all? The bulk of the novel is taken up with a commentary on the poem written by Shade's very crazy neighbor, Charles Kinbote. In the mind of Kinbote, the poem Pale Fire contains great wisdom and hidden truths that it is his sacred duty to reveal to the world.
Kinbote is as crazy a character as I have encountered in a long time. He lives next door to Shade. He is an unreliable a narrator as one could find. Sometimes Kinbote seems like a crazed stalker. Much of Kinbote's commentary on the poem seems totally based on his own obsessions and multifarious delusions and has little to do with the poem. Some of the time it seems Shade and Kinbote are life time close friends and some times it seems they barely know each other. Kinbote constantly talks of the history of the "The Northern Kingdom of Zembla" and at times seems to think he is the king in exile. Kinbote wants desperately to see a hidden meaning about Zembla and its politics in the poem. . We are left wondering whether the kingdom even exists at all or if it is just a strange fantasy.
Pale Fire is, among other things, a satire on overly intellectualized literary commentary. As I was reading Pale Fire I at first tried to "understand" the book then I stepped back and simply decided to enjoy it.
Most of the works I have blogged on in the last year can be readily compared to other works. I cannot think of any easy comparisons for Pale Fire. It would well repay numerous readings. Even if it is an elaborate joke it is still a stunning work of art. When you read this book, just give yourself over to the wonder of the language and the strangeness of the narration and do not over stress on understanding it. Nabokov said that the best of literature was what he called "ecstatic fairy tales" and to me Pale Fire is in this category for sure.
A lot of people in their Goodreads.com or Amazon.com reviews of Pale Fire stress that it was a difficult to understand but quite profound work. This is no doubt true but it also accepts the joke as straight and misses the great fun of this work. I read his only really famous work, Lolita, a long time ago. I recently acquired a copy of it in a book trade and will be rereading it soon.
I have since I posted this read and posted on Lolita
I have since I posted this read and posted on Lolita
Mel, I remember my father using the term 'pale fire' in an amused manner quite a bit when I was a child. I knew it had something to do with stealing (in a way that maybe wasn't so terrible, that was perhaps expected, if that makes sense). I didn't know that it was the title of a brilliant book by Nabokov.
Perfect quote at the beginning of your excellent review of this enigmatic book!
I too have only read Lolita and had to read it slowly because I dont think I would have liked it if I rushed it. This is a new book for me so thanks for the post.
Oh, it definitely repays re-reading. Where are the Crown Jewels hidden? Just as a for example.
Suko-thanks as always
Mystica-I hope to reread Lolita very soon
Sherry=thanks-I just added this link to your blog
Amateur Reader-I found this information on eeggs.com regarding the Crown Jewels-it tends to confirm that Pale Fire is in part a private joke -
One of the plot elements in Vladimir Nabokov's frolicksome novel, "Pale Fire," is the Crown Jewels of the kingdom of Zembla, hidden away during the upset of the revolution, and searched for by incompetent Russians who never find them. In the bizarre index to the book, prepared by its supposed author, the insane Charles Kinbote, when one comes to the entry, "Crown Jewels," it says "see Hiding Place;" and at "Hiding Place" it says "_potaynik_ (q.v.);" at _potaynik_ it says "_taynik_ (q.v.);" at _Taynik_ it says "Russ., secret place; see Crown Jewels."
The book never does reveal where the Crown Jewels are hidden.
In an interview, however, an interview given some years after the book was published, and printed as No. 6 in Nabokov's "Strong Opinions," the last question of the interviewer is "[W]here, please, are the crown jewels hidden.?" And VN replies, "In the ruins, sir, of some old barracks near Kobaltana (q.v.); but do not tell it to the Russians."
If one consults the Index to "Pale Fire" one finds "Kobaltana," and reads:
"_Kobaltana_, a once fashonable mountain resort near the ruins of some old barracks now a cold and desolate spot of difficult access and of no importance but still remembered in military families and forest castles, not in the text."
This is one Nabokov book that I have wanted to read for a while. Thanks for the great review.
I have read this novel a few years ago...two times. It's a pretty smart novel but I think it's powershifting the readers. There are a lot of self-referential stuff, which is cool (takes tremendous efforts, but is cool nonetheless) but also some references stay unanswered and it's a bit frustrating.
"Even if it is an elaborate joke it is still a stunning work of art."
I think it's more than an elaborate joke. Like Lolita, it's more like an elaborate riddle.
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