Saturday, June 19, 2010

Pale Fire

by Vladimir Nabokov
I began hearing about Pale Fire when I read House of Leaves in 2000 (and it is hard to believe that that was 10 years ago). Like House of Leaves, Pale Fire plays with the structure of the text and often is cited as an important example of early metafiction and hypertext. This novel written by Vladimir Nabokov (of Lolita fame), published in 1962, purports to be a 999 line poem written by poet John Shade and critical analysis of the poem in a forward and lengthy end notes by Charles Kinbote. Although the critical analysis is supposedly about the poem, it mainly provides the story of Kinbote, his supposed friendship (which comes across more as stalking) with next door neighbor John Shade, and the travails, exploits and adventures of the deposed king of the kingdom of Zembla.

I guess because I heard about this book primarily in relationship to its unusual structure and often described as difficult but important (#53 on Modern Library's 100 Best Novels), I was very pleasantly surprised to find that the story and the characters were a lot of fun. I loved that the narrator, Kinbote, could clearly not be trusted and the way he tried to insert his story of Zembla into the poem. I enjoyed the escapades of the zany king of Zembla and the frightening assassin Gradus. I appreciated the commentary on the academic life of a small New England college and its professors.

At first I tried to go back and forth between the poem and the notes but I quickly decided to read the poem through and then read the notes through, returning to the poem text once in a while. It could be read either way. Indeed, as evidenced by the many decades it has been studied and the numerous critical books and essays it has engendered, it could be read numerous times and still give the readers something new each time.

Although it is clear that the narrator cannot be trusted, it is unclear how to interpret the rest of the story. Did John Shade write both the poem and the commentary creating Kinbote as a character? Is John Shade a figure of Kinbote's imagination? Is Kinbote sane? Are his stories of Zembla and the assassin Gradus real?

I highly recommend this book. While you could spend years analyzing it, you can also simply enjoy it as a funny, witty, beautifully written story.


Shellie - Layers of Thought said...

I have just started to listen to Lolita, via audio book - narrated by Jeremy Irons. Despite my reservations around the subject matter I am finding it to be wonderful... the language and the empathy I am feeling for the main character... amazing.

I am happy to see that this too is good and within the speculative realm - which I love. I hope I can find it in an audio version as well.
Thanks for the review.:)

Moo said...

Hi Shellie,

While I appreciated Lolita and am glad that I read it, I cannot say that I really enjoyed it. Pale Fire on the other hand was both extremely well crafted and entertaining.