I should’ve known better.
Flipping through my library copy of Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Pale Fire, I thought to myself what an easy read it would be, clocking in at around 250 pages (fans of this blog may also remember I fell for a similar fallacy with the novel Housekeeping).
“Easy” was the exact opposite of what Pale Fire turned out to be. Unlike with other confounding novels, though, I should have had the hindsight to know that Nabokov would throw some serious doozies into his work since I have read his famous Lolita. If you’re looking for a classic novel that will leave your head itchy and irritated from all the scratching you’ll be doing as you read, look no further than Pale Fire.
This novel is designed to seem like an extended commentary on a poem. Not any ordinary poem, though: a 999-line, four-canto epic of rhyme, rhythm, and vivid language called “Pale Fire,” by one of the book’s major characters, the fictional poet John Shade. The commentary about this poem comes from Charles Kinbote, the novel’s protagonist.
Already, as I hope I’ve shown, it’s clear just from Pale Fire’s structure that this is an unconventional read. You can read it out-of-order (although I chose not to because I’m boring) since each “footnote” of Kinbote’s refers to other notes, and those notes hark back to other lines in the poem.
It gets stranger: Kinbote analyzes almost each line of every canto in “Pale Fire” and relates it to a litany of bizarre sequences: his time spent with Shade, Shade’s life, and then a rambling narrative about a king from the made-up European country of Zembla having to flee his country while pursued by an assassin. Indeed, this third story-within-a-story begins to take over Kinbote’s notes, to the point where head-spinning revelations about Kinbote’s identity/sanity come into play by the time he talks about the final lines of the poem.
The poem itself, by the way, has its own surface-level oddities, but in Kinbote’s hands, each line—heck, each word in some parts—gets blown up to have its own life.
Once I reached Kinbote’s concluding comments, I felt I had no idea what was real and what was imaginary or imagined in this novel, if it can even be called a novel. What made Pale Fire even more intense was Nabokov’s style, which everyone seems to hail as beautiful and lyrical. While I don’t disagree with that judgment at all, I will add that each paragraph sounding like a poem in itself can be a challenge.
I suspect Pale Fire has earned its critical laurels through its wacky narration and form. There aren’t too many novels out there that are willing to make a whole plot around a behemoth poem, only to throw most of that poem’s true meaning to the wayside in favor of tales about Zemblan regicide. So while Pale Fire is far from reader-friendly, even if it is just 250 or so pages long, I’d encourage you to experience the gutsiness and zaniness packed into those pages knowing that you won’t see anything remotely like this anywhere in literature.
Read what others have to say about this book on Goodreads.com here.