Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov

Updated: 4 days ago


I'll start this Monday Musings from John C Adams Reviews by mentioning that the premise of Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov is very simple. Beyond that, nothing in this novel is what it seems.


Every word he writes is capable of multiple interpretations. But I can at least say what the book consists of without feeling that my head is about to explode, and that's a good start.


The working theory upon which Pale Fire is constructed is that poet John Shade had produced a masterpiece final work in heroic couplets (quite my least favourite verse form), in 99 lines across four cantos. Tantalisingly, the final line is missing.


A self-important, egotistical introduction by the editor/critic, who inserts himself proudly into the centre of the poem's creation, follows. Then there's the poem itself and, finally, the commentary. Both poet and critic are, of course, fictional. Every word of Pale Fire is Vladimir Nabokov's mischievous creation.


So, an introduction, a poem, and a commentary that is far longer than the poem and goes off on a frolic of its own almost immediately. All written by Vladimir Nabokov but purporting to be by other people: the poet and the deluded, insane fan. It's fiction. All of it. But fiction presented as notes, commentaries and a poem. What on earth is going on here?


Pale Fire is a work of postmodernism, a novelistic form that typically features meta-documents such as introductions and notes surrounding a core text of apparently greater simplicity. With postmodernism, form is everything. It can be challenging, but it is now widely accepted as a literary form.


Oddly, the development of texting, social media and other online interactions have made the idea of fragments of communications more natural to us. We're now more likely to view postmodern fiction, with its broken-up messages, as natural. We ourselves are becoming postmodern, not just in how we consume fiction but also in how we live our lives.


Vladimir Nabokov isn't entirely at home with postmodernism as a form. He pushes back against it here. In fact, Pale Fire is defiantly, absurdly postmodern. It's living proof of what happens if you push the boundaries of this unique and challenging form to their ridiculous conclusions.


'Charles Kinbote' (the critic who pens the foreword and notes) is the sort of joyfully unreliable narrator that only full-blown delusional insanity can account for. The reader soon learns that everything Kinbote claims to know about the poet John Shade can safely be interpreted in the absolute opposite way.


The cover of Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov shows a smouldering match inside a picture frame.
Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov

Reading the poem by 'John Shade' after the foreword, I was already smiling at Nabokov's sniping at critics for believing they understand all when they comprehend nothing. Nabokov attributes this tendency in critics to a congenital weakness that stems from egocentricity. Everything revolves around themselves. In the case of 'Charles Kinbote' this is actually true. By the time the commentary begins, we've a fair notion that 'Charles Kinbote' is utterly untrustworthy. Much of my entertainment factor from this amusing short novel arose from his inability to see anything accurately.


The commentary sheds little or no light on the poem's meaning, but vividly portrays the violently insane Kinbote and his imaginary alter ego, Charles Xavier, last King of Zembla. Far from being obsessed by the poet, Kinbote's obsession is with himself.


Vladimir Nabokov is unsurpassed at this sort of thing: the consummate literary prankster, who this time turns his ire on literary critics. It's a pale fire, of course, the kind that burns discreetly but still consumes its fuel, only to leave behind a distinct chill in the air as it flickers and goes out. I loved it.


Thank you so much for reading my review of Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov. Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below. My next post is on Friday. See you then.


You can buy Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov as an e-book here. You can subscribe to my blog here.


If you’ve enjoyed this review, you might be interested in reading my review of On the Trail of the Assassins by Jim Garrison here. Or you might like to take a look at my review of The Oxford Book of Victorian Ghost Stories here.


If you fancy something different, you might like to take a chance on my review of Ghosts here.

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