Book review: Pale Fire

Pale Fire.Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars.

I’d reached my 40s and hadn’t read any Nabokov. None. This in itself is a fairly large stain against the whole literature-at-uni education trajectory, but it’s especially galling given that now I have read some, and it turns out that the work is ridiculously good.

Like, so much better than I could’ve hoped. To think that there’s people out there who suspect that Infinite Jest takes textual explanation and sidetracking to its ultimate end. (I was one of them until today, let’s face it, even though a Russian whipped Wallace at that game 34 years earlier.)

Get in, loser. We’re gonna fuck with narrative structure.

I guess the short version is that Nabokov made me feel like an idiot for missing out on such a polished gem for such an unnecessary period of time, and likely makes other writers feel bad for even attempting to write after him.

The book is considered a poioumenon, a work about the process of creation and the boundaries of fiction. In less Pomo Fic 101 terms, it’s a playful text. The reading of the work is a delightful game, and I imagine the creation of it was an incredible headache.

Of course, the book is really a four canto, 999-line poem, bookended by an introduction and a section of explanatory notes (with index). There’s two authors involved in Pale Fire, and only one of them is reliable. Or is he? See, the poem is written by noted aged poet John Shade (who does not exist), who has been murdered. But we only see the poem through the eyes of its self-appointed editor, Charles Kinbote.

Kinbote is… an interesting editor. His commentary – and recollections – provide the bulk of the book, in the finest example of self-insertion an editor has ever undertaken. You’ll learn a lot about him – and the distant land of Zembla – throughout the course of the text. And not all of what you learn will be, uh, quite straightforward.

It’s difficult to explain what happens in the book without robbing a would-be reader of some of its joys, but suffice it to say that assassins, deaths, ghosts, Shakespeare, translation, academic travails and staff-room intrigue all feature. Dalliances, regal tradition, grief and waxwings are in there, too. And criticism.

Hoo boy, is there criticism. (Though undoubtedly not in the manner you’d expect.)

I should probably note that I did not read the work in Kinbote’s suggested manner. Instead, I read the Introduction, and then the poem, with one finger jammed in the commentary section so I could flip back and forth as necessary. Given that Kinbote’s relationship with the truth (and, indeed, reality) are dicey at best, I figure his instructions can be ignored. I do wonder whether the experience would be much different if I read the commentary and then the poem: I figure it would be, and will likely give this a whirl when enough time has passed that I forget particular details of the narration. I really shouldn’t have waited this long.

Pale Fire was something I picked up because I’d heard strong recommendations from a friend I trust. I purposely read it without knowing anything about it, and found I couldn’t get enough – I inhaled the work in the course of a day, and spent a lot of that time tickled that I was reading something at once so silly and so skilfully constructed. It’s a work that tweaks the nose of academics everywhere, pisses on poetry, royalty and jingoism, and treads the furrow between genius and insanity.

I fuckin’ loved it. I wish I could forget it so I could discover it anew.

My Goodreads profile is here.


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