Jeremy's Reviews > Pale Fire

Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov
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's review
Aug 01, 13

Read from July 15 to August 01, 2013

Wonderful book. Not sure I got it all. Not sure you're really supposed to 'get it'.

A 999 line poem written by John Shade is the presumptive crux of the poem (not really though). Before that is a fawning forward by Shade fanboy Charles Kinbote, who from the beginning is presented as being a little bit 'off'. Then you have the commentary on the poem (by Kinbote), which alternates between Kinbote's three actual intentions: a) recounting the imprisonment and escape of the king of Zembla, who is named Charles (hey guess what, the king is actually Kinbote! Not a spoiler alert, because you're meant to figure that out pretty much right away.) b) giving autobiographical data on Shade (which typically devolves into delusional accounts of his 'friendship' with his next door neighbor, Shade) and c) literary criticism (hilariously sparse, suggesting perhaps that critics are actually more concerned with themselves than their work?). The work ends with an Index prepared for us by Kinbote.

Nabokov's prose was stunning, the idea ambitious and groundbreaking. Nearly every sentence (aside from some of the more boring Zembla accounts) was beautiful without being ostentatious. Apparently Nabokov wrote this in English (his second language)? I can't even write this well in my first language. No fair!

I see Nabokov's influence everywhere. For example: 'House of Leaves' was a pretty poor amalgamation (comparatively) of Nabokov and David Foster Wallace.

Spoilers below:

Is the poem any good, or is it meant to be bad?

I don't know and I don't know. I liked it, but I'm a sap and I know nothing about poetry. Parts of it were clunky, so I wouldn't be surprised if the poem is meant to be presented as a draft form or as deliberately subpar (almost as if...somebody else wrote it?).

What the heck is going on with the clearly delusional Kinbote?

My take: Zembla doesn't exist, and neither does King Charles. Kinbote is a delusional split personality of Shade himself or of another peripheral character named Botkin (Botkin almost = Kinbote). I lean toward the Botkin hypothesis, though that's what Nabokov claimed was the 'correct' interpretation. So I'm wary of being misled by authorial misdirection.

Was Shade real?

Yes, but I'm not sure he really wrote the poem. It could have been Kinbote or Botkin or Sybil Shade for all I know. It could have been his dead daughter possessing him. The opening line: 'I was the shadow of the waxwing slain'. Shadow = Shade, who was slain. And then it alludes to some piece of fluff from the slain bird floating up into the air or something, perhaps meaning that there is a 'splintering' of Shade when he becomes Kinbote or that it's someone else writing in his name after Shade is already dead. After all, Kinbote ended up with the manuscript and since he doesn't really exist... The fact that the line is repeated once more in the poem and then appended by Kinbote as line 1000 means that it's important somehow and probably helps explain the remainder of the book. Does it matter though?

Did Shade die? Who killed him?

Yes, I think he was killed by an escaped mental patient who mistook him for someone else. Kinbote claims that the killer was a revolutionary sent to kill 'King Charles', but it's ingenious how the delusion melts away a bit after Shade's death. Even if Kinbote can't see it.

Where are the freaking crown jewels?

They don't exist, which is why Kinbote/Charles is so sure they'll never be found. They are an idea locked up in his (imaginary) head. The Index refers us in several entries to the entry for 'crown jewels', but there is no entry for it so far as I recall. Does this suggest that we shouldn't look for the 'crown jewels', namely the 'ultimate reality' underneath all the deception? What does that mean for us out here in the very real world?

What do we mean by 'real'?

Because after all, Zembla doesn't exist. I know of no place called New Wye or of a Wordsmith College. None of these things are literally real in a meta sense. But yet I want SO BADLY to know what is real within this fictional world. And I'd say we can't. Not really. Not conclusively. Is there something to that or am I over thinking it?

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Reading Progress

07/15/2013 marked as: currently-reading
08/01/2013 marked as: read

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