Pale Fire

Caveat: Not only am I going to talk about what happens in Nabokov’s Pale Fire, I’m going to talk about my reactions to it — reactions that you may possibly not have if you read this post first. If you haven’t read Pale Fire, I cannot possibly urge you more strongly to read it before you lose any more time. It’s dazzlingly brilliant, beautiful, witty, original, serious. It blew me right out of the water.

Reading Pale Fire put me in mind of a Calder mobile. It is exquisitely crafted, perfectly balanced, and each piece is dependent on each other piece: if you touch one part, another part will spring away, another toward you. A breath of wind brings something else into your peripheral vision, spinning brightly.

The book begins with a Foreword, written by the odd but charming Charles Kinbote, who has managed — at what personal cost! — to obtain a manuscript of genius: the last poem of John Shade. He tells a good story of his developing friendship with Shade, and the treacheries of the academic community after Shade’s death. What follows is the 999-line poem itself, “Pale Fire,” four cantos of rhymed-couplet autobiography: Shade’s childhood, his daughter Hazel’s suicide, his own musings on death and the afterlife. Frankly, it feels like an interruption. Where’s my story? But I’m a good-natured reader. I get through the poem, not much deterred, and find my way back to Charles Kinbote’s annotations, the Commentary that follows the poem.

And there’s my story! I found it! This is the exciting and sometimes titillating tale of a deposed king, Charles Xavier Vseslav of Zembla, caught, imprisoned, and escaped. (It’s also extremely funny, the way Kinbote intrudes himself and this story on a commentary that’s supposed to be about Shade’s poem.) Fifty pages farther in, and I’m fairly sure I know Kinbote’s secret; a little while more, and I’m pretty sure Shade knew it, too, though to be honest, Shade doesn’t figure very largely in the narrative, except to be bitterly reproached for not having written the poem Kinbote wanted him to write, the epic saga about the Zemblan king.

But wait. How does Kinbote know so much about Gradus, the approaching regicide? And there are some inconsistencies here: I’ve never heard of Zembla. This man isn’t a king. He’s crazy. And so when John Shade is killed (by Gradus? no, surely not) I’m scrambling. Shade was the sane one all along! The Index only confirms it: almost every entry about Shade, John (S) actually has to do with the narcissistic K. It’s all gone, the whole story, and I’m left gasping and laughing.

This work is a masterpiece of cleverness. Structurally, I’ve never read anything quite like it, half poem and half prose. There is dazzling mirror-play: words and names reversed; the name of a colleage at the university re-used, quietly, backward, in a story about Zembla. (I will say that I know I did not catch the half of these references; this will take re- and re-reading.) It shimmers with wit, and the long, slow reveal of the real Charles Kinbote is brilliantly done, the unreliable narrator taken beyond its loveliest, extremest possibility. It is — I don’t want to use the word satire, because that can sometimes be so shallow — it is a commentary on academia, and the obsessive insertion of personalities into texts, but it is also an affirmation of close reading. We never would have read John Shade’s poem so carefully, and more than once, if it were not for Charles Kinbote. It is full of treasures, including some I didn’t find (where are the Crown Jewels?)

But after the dazzling, stupendous flash of all this wit and brilliance and originality, after I closed the book, there was a slow afterimage of deep seriousness. (I was the shadow of the waxwing slain.) To go back to my image of the Calder mobile, there is a point of balance without which the entire work might fall apart, or be only a delicious puzzle, or disappear up its own fundament. In the center of Pale Fire, there is “Pale Fire,” and in the center of “Pale Fire” there is someone we almost forget until the book is over: Hazel Shade, who commits suicide out of sheer unhappiness. “A blurry shape stepped off the reedy bank/ Into a crackling, gulping swamp, and sank.” How could I have forgotten? Well, Nabokov let me forget, with my cooperation, between Charles Kinbote who thought nothing of Hazel’s death, and John Shade who never forgot it. When everything else in the book turns out to be pulled out of a hat, that beauty, and that pity, remain.

I’m still not over this book, with its virtuosity and its creative power. After I finished it, I couldn’t stop thinking about it for days. It’s the best book I’ve read for years. The only other thing I’ve read by Nabokov is Lolita, and that was twenty years ago or more, when I wasn’t the reader I am now. I see humbly that I must begin again.

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27 Responses to Pale Fire

  1. litlove says:

    I’ve heard a lot about his book but never what it’s actually about! So thank you for this post (I am a fan of spoilers!). I read Lolita last year and thought it was amazing. More Nabokov is clearly the way forward.

    • Jenny says:

      I’m a fan of spoilers, too, and actually I usually don’t bother warning about them, but this post was really so spoilery I thought I’d better mention, just in case. Heh. Anyway, I am now really anticipating more Nabokov.

  2. Why ‘Pale’ Fire? I liked your review even not having read the book (and not knowing what a ‘Calder mobile’ might be). And I liked your chaise-longue picture. Are the names – e.g. Hazel Shade – sort of significant? Anyway you read well yourself. Thanks.

    • Jenny says:

      “Pale Fire” is a quotation from Timon of Athens, which gets mentioned several times in the book, and I could go into the significance of that and of the names, but maybe I’ll let you find that out for yourself. And I linked, above, to Calder mobiles! You should be able to find pictures pretty easily. Thanks for stopping by!

  3. Susan E says:

    Great review of a wonderful book. The first couplet really is a key to the whole story with “the false reflection”. Hmmm….maybe I need to read it again. Have never been able to face Lolita….

    • Jenny says:

      It’s perfect, isn’t it? As well as Kinbote’s commentary on it. As I said, I read Lolita ages ago, and while I was clever enough not to take it quite at face value, I don’t think I understood it, either. Time to read it again.

  4. Steph says:

    Your opening paragraph was enough to convince me that I need to read this book asap (and until I do, that I shouldn’t read beyond that first paragraph of your post!). Despite not having tons of luck with Lolita when I read it, I do want to try other Nabokov’s, and I did recently pick up a lovely Everyman’s LIbrary copy of this one, so I guess I need to stop dragging my feet!

    • Jenny says:

      I might be blinded by my own experience, but this is one I would recommend everyone read. I know there are people who don’t like it, who find it cold, or too puzzle-like or tricky, but that wasn’t how I read it at all.

  5. Emily says:

    What a post, Jenny! I, too, loved Pale Fire, but you remind me that I must re-read it and soon. If any book would gain ever more delightful layers on re-reads, this must be it. I’m tagging along as Bibliographing Nicole reads through Nabokov’s work chronologically, and definitely looking forward to this one in particular.

    • Jenny says:

      I keep thinking of new things! The very nature of the book made me reluctant to pull out quotations and comment on them (no Kinbote I — hah!) but there are so many little hidden treasures and layers there. It’s like a parfait. Everybody loves parfait.

  6. Jenny says:

    When I bought Pale Fire, the bookstore guy went on and on about how much better it was than Lolita, and that made me expect the book to be something like Lolita. I think I enjoyed it way less than I would have, because I was expecting it to be something completely other than what it was.

    • Jenny says:

      I know how much expectations can affect our experience of a book. I went into this knowing absolutely nothing about what it would be like, and I was just delighted by the structure, the puzzles, the humor, and the eventual sorrow of it. I don’t know if having expectations (other than that it would be good) would change that for me.

  7. Mel u says:

    I read Pale Fire a few months ago, shortly after I read Lolita. I was also totally amazed by Pale Fire and knew I was missing much of the book on a first read. I could see it as a reread in 2012-it is a marvel of misdirection!

    I loved your post on it

    • Jenny says:

      I kept finding nuggets in the Index that told me things I’d missed in the text. Oh, of course — but then — and so forth. And then I kept thinking about it for days afterward. As Emily says above, if any text will reward re-reading, it will be this one. A marvel, indeed!

  8. Alex says:

    It’s my best friends’ favorite book and I’ve never read it. I’m always waiting for be in the “serious book” mood. Still, I’m surprised that will all the raving of the people who *did* read it that it’s not more famous.

    • Jenny says:

      It is a serious book, but it’s also seriously unserious. It’s genuinely very funny, on three or four different levels at least. Also — not famous? My impression is that it’s fairly famous, anyway. Dive in!

  9. Dorothy W. says:

    Great post! I’ve read the book twice and loved it the second time around (I think I was more ready for it then). I would love to read it another time or two. And more Nabokov, definitely.

    • Jenny says:

      I think I’m going to try Pnin next, as one of my favorite students recommended it to me last year. Honestly, I can’t wait.

  10. Just look up the Crown Jewels in the index.

    When Nabokov claimed that “one cannot read a book; one can only reread it” he was slyly describing his own books. Most books, simple things, weakly conceived, thinly written, can only be read. They give up their secrets too quickly.

    • Jenny says:

      Um. I did look up the Crown Jewels in the index, and I followed the trail, but I don’t speak Russian (Zemblan?), so I lost him. Another joke!

      Surely even people like Harold Bloom read before they reread. I made a good stab at it, anyway. What a delight.

      • Reading is a necessary precondition to re-reading.

        Great fiction, in a Nabokovian aesthetic, contains a layer or two that is not only obscure on the first pass, but invisible. For example, there are actually, would you believe it, two – at least two! – solutions to the Crown Jewels puzzle, none of which undermine the wonderful joke of the circular index.

        Lolita and Pnin are similarly re-readable. Pnin is almost – what word do I want? – almost adorable. Not at all cold, as you (accurately) describe Pale Fire.

  11. Beautiful post. I must reread Pale Fire. I remember a feeling of astonishment as I read it, that anything could be so perfectly balanced between farce and high seriousness, between laughter and heartbreak.
    I don’t know why I didn’t then go through a phase of reading everything Nabokov. I’ve only read this and Lolita.

    • Jenny says:

      You put that perfectly — it was the balance that caught me right where I live, between laughter and heartbreak. Exactly right. I think I’m going to read Pnin next, and I am looking forward to it as if to something delicious.

  12. rebeccareid says:

    I read this but I totally didn’t get it. Definitely one to reread again and again.

    • Jenny says:

      Oh, don’t misunderstand me, I didn’t get it! As AR said, you can’t read this one, you can only reread it. But oh Lord, what fun getting ready to reread it!

  13. Christy says:

    I was assigned this book in college for a class called Subversive Literature (subversive in form, sometimes in subject too.) It was fun dissecting it as a class, though I remember little of it now – though your summary above helped revive my memory.

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