Dusty Myers's Reviews > Pale Fire

Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov
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's review
Jun 26, 2008

it was amazing
Read in June, 2008

A novel in the form of a work of criticism. After the death of the renowned poet John Shade, his neighbor and colleague Charles Kinbote gets hold of the 999-line autobiographical poem he'd been writing; what we read are Kinbote's foreword to Shade's poem, the poem itself, and then more than 150 pages of Kinbote's commentary on the poem. Oh, and an index. What makes the text readable like a novel (and ultimately what saves Pale Fire from being merely a fun exercise in pomo intertextualities) is that Kinbote for one reason or another is convinced that Shade's poem is a narrative of his (Kinbote's) motherland, Zembla—specifically its recent tragic revolution.

This is where most of the book's comedy comes from. Line 12 contains the phrase "that crystal land" and Kinbote makes a note here that begins "Perhaps an allusion to Zembla, my dear country," though of course nothing in the line or those surrounding it appears to make any reference of the sort. In a note about Shade's use of winter imagery, he writes: "One is too modest to suppose that the fact that the poet and his future commentator first met on a winter day somehow impinges here on the actual season." (This sentence shows up in the index, under Kinbote, Charles, Dr.; "his modesty".)

Pale Fire is probably the best novel I've read all year, except maybe for one, which was a reread, which was Lolita, so it goes without saying that I need more Nabokov in my future. He's so incredibly good at exposing villainy and heroism as false, elusive things we try in vain to hold onto as readers. See his treatment of Humbert Humbert in Lolita (alluded to here and there in PF, along with Pnin), and see here his treatment of Kinbote. It's clear from the start that Kinbote is perhaps the worst person possible to edit Shade's final poem—his reading of the text is self-serving and flat-out ridiculous at parts. But by the end of the book he becomes the best and most perfect commentator for it, with his reading lifting what is otherwise a plain and sometimes boring poem (written in rhyming heroic couplets) up to something much more strange and so much more beautiful.
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Rousse Exactly. It's how Kinbote misunderstands Shade and in his madness finds beauty in his dull poem, that makes PF such an extraordinary read. (apologies for garbled grammar, hoping the meaning's clear!)

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