“An ingeniously constructed parody of detective fiction and learned commentary, Pale Fire offers a cornucopia of deceptive pleasures, at the center of which is a 999-line poem written by the literary genius John Shade just before his death. Surrounding the poem is a foreword and commentary by the demented scholar Charles Kinbote, who interweaves adoring literary analyses with the fantastical tale of an assassin from the land of Zembla in pursuit of a deposed king.”*
For those readers only familiar with Nabokov’s work Lolita, Pale Fire adopts an inherently different tone and inhabits a completely different world. Forget the darkness and step into the light of a fantastical world with a king on the run, a delusional scholar and an inept assassin. Playful at the worst of times, Pale Fire teases readers with its mystery wrapped within an imaginary world.
Fair warning – this post modern novel, written in 1962, involves an extraordinary amount of page flipping. A poem lies at the very heart of the novel, where it is book-ended by a foreword and index notes. Kinbote himself suggests reading the notes before starting the novel and clearly readers, one should obey. Of course, the notes within point to a rather untrustworthy narrator.
Concerning the novel itself, it is true that the poem has little to do with the rest of the commentary and accompanying notes. Sitting rather in the backdrop, Kinbote hijacks control of the poem and the dead poet, and conveys his own thoughts and history. Who is Kinbote, really? How did a friendship spring up between him and the poet, John Shade. And why does Kinbote insist on telling the story of a king on the run? As the reader slowly moves through the lines of the poem and the accompanying notes, the story becomes clearer. While the poem draws inexorably to a close and the death of John Shade, the story itself moves nearer to the truth. Will the poem conclude before Kinbote and the king’s adventures can be told?
What truly surprised me – and what thoroughly entertained me is the mystery behind Nabokov’s work. Nabokov plunks his reader into the middle of a story – into a fictional college where the development of characters and relationships have already been established. A death has already occurred and the poem written. It remains up to the reader to parse through Kinbote’s confused ramblings to detect and solve the real mystery of who the scholar truly is.
Verdict: Thoroughly enjoyable, it may take a moment to get into the swing of things, but once the journey is begun, readers can experience some fantastical adventures and interesting caveats. With never a dull moment, Pale Fire promises untold laughter and confusion.
*Nabokov, Vladimir. Pale Fire. New York: Everyman’s Library, 1992.