Pale Fire


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Pale Fire

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ag. 26, 2007, 3:51pm

From Time's list of the best 100 novels of the 20th century.

Pale Fire (1962)
Author: Vladimir Nabokov

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A bizarre, three-legged race of a novel, Pale Fire is composed of a long, narrative poem followed by a much longer set of footnotes written by an obsessive, increasingly deranged annotator. Charles Kinbote, a gay professor at a small New England college, may or may not be a noble-born expatriate from the exotic Eastern European principality of Zembla. He may or may not have stolen the manuscript he's annotating, which he is convinced is really all about him. He is unquestionably unhealthily obsessed with John Shade, the placid, Robert Frost-like poet who composed the poem. Beyond that all bets are off, and the questions ramify without end. Pale Fire is the kind of novel you can happily get lost in: a house of mirrors with no exit, a labyrinth with no endpoint.—L.G.

From the TIME Archive:
Pale Fire does not really cohere as a satire; good as it is, the novel in the end seems to be mostly an exercise in agility
—TIME Magazine, Jun. 1, 1962 (Read This Review)

david perrings

ag. 26, 2007, 4:37pm

John Shade

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

John Shade (born July 5, 1898; died July 21, 1959) is a fictional character in Vladimir Nabokov's 1962 novel Pale Fire. The novel's structure is notoriously difficult to unravel, but most readers agree that Shade is a poet married to his teenage sweetheart, Sybil. Their only child, a daughter named Hazel, apparently committed suicide some time before the novel's action opens (her body was never found). Shade lives in the college town of New Wye, amidst the Appalachian Mountains. His fame is sufficient that television pundits mention him within the same breath as his fellow poet Robert Frost, an association which Shade does not entirely enjoy, perhaps because Frost is always mentioned first.

Nabokov provides few samples of Shade's poetry besides the 999-line work, rendered in heroic couplets (rhyming pairs of lines in iambic pentameter), which is also titled Pale Fire and which provides one facet of the novel's reflexive structure. Shade's poem, in four cantos, describes his life, his obsession with the senses and his preoccupation with death. It is notable for its description of a near-death experience that Shade treats with a mixture of skepticism and reverence, and for the "faint hope" of an afterlife which it provides.

John's next-door neighbor is Charles Kinbote, who may or may not suffer delusions of grandeur. Some critics assert that Kinbote is Shade's invention, while others maintain that Shade is a literary device or a delusion which Kinbote employs to further his own ends. Other interpretations are possible.

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david perrings

ag. 26, 2007, 4:52pm

I can see where both of Time's reviews come from.

If you breeze through pale fire it seems to be more idea or exercise than novel. However the footnotes are a gripping if disjoint tale and the realization that everything is not as it seems is (without help) a slow one.

So yes, definately one of the great books but easy to dismiss at first glance

ag. 28, 2007, 4:01pm

Well i have started reading Pale Fire, I can see that it is going to take me sometime to get through the book. The interplay between the poem and the commentary is unlike anything else i have ever read. I find myself re-reading everything.

It is fun when things come together, and frustrating when things have yet to come together.


ag. 28, 2007, 4:32pm

Oh, the fun begins when you have finished reading it. Pale Fire is an unresolved puzzle as well as a self-reversing puzzle.

I've been reading and rereading it for years, always delighted, always perplexed. It is like picking up a Burr puzzle and fumbling around with it for ages, but never quite getting the pieces back together.

But fun, certainly.

ag. 28, 2007, 4:37pm


what is a Burr puzzle ?


ag. 28, 2007, 4:45pm

The interlocking wooden puzzles that children play with, although some are quite sophisticated.

ag. 28, 2007, 4:49pm

This line 26 of the poem:

"Finding your China right behind my house."

I have not been able to figure out to my satisfaction.


ag. 28, 2007, 4:55pm

Oh my, it is going to be a long ride for you, David.

What does Kinbote have to say about it? Boyd? Freud?

(Throw the map and compass away, they are useless here).

Do you drink? Sometimes that helps.

ag. 28, 2007, 5:04pm

I can see that a good bottle of Scotch will come in handy.


ag. 28, 2007, 5:06pm

Now you are talking sense.



ag. 29, 2007, 3:09pm

I came across this poem by Robert Frost:

Of a WInter Evening

The winter owl banked just in time to pass
And save herself from breaking window glass.
And her wide wings strained suddenly at spread
Caught color from the last of evening red
In a display of underdown and quill
To glassed-in children at the window sill.

To poem is in an interesting article titled:

"Shades of Frost: A Hidden Source for Naboko's Pale File"
by Abraham P. Socher.

The link is

the article discusses Frost influence on Nabokov.

David Perrings

ag. 29, 2007, 5:12pm

You'll want to read Brian Boyd on Pale Fire, his Nabokov's Pale Fire: the magic of artistic discovery - but not until you are finished reading the work itself - unless you are that odd sort that starts from the destination and works backwards. Which I am beginning to sense about you...

oct. 3, 2007, 12:00pm

I had to join this group just so I could join in the Pale Fire celebration.

I read Lolita because it is a notorious classic and on so many "must read" lists (and I must read must read list books). I admired it, even enjoyed it, but it didn't make me want to run out and read every word Nabokov wrote.

But I dutifully turned to Pale Fire when it came up on the Modern Library's Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century list. WOW! A gem. A wonderful, marvelous, intricately faceted gem. I sat there flipping back and forth between the poem and annotations for days, completely absorbed.

The whole thing is genius. But what tickled my fancy the most was the story of the escape from Zembla and, in particular, the Zembla cultural and language references. I barked with laughter (while on a crowded plane) when I came to "a shiver of alfear (uncontrollable fear caused by elves)."

Now I do want to read every book Nabokov wrote. And I want to re-read Pale Fire.

oct. 3, 2007, 12:23pm

GG: I, like Brian Boyd, think Pale Fire is Nabokov's perfect novel. I have read it several times and it never loses its appeal - in fact, each time I read it I come up with a different idea about who wrote the poem.

Zembla beckons - a crystalline fantastical world that could only come from young Vladimir's* mind - and the poem from the murky sentiment of Shade's - boy and man - and what absolute sadness as he contemplates his physical progeny, Hazel, misfitted for this world.

Have you read Speak Memory? That book creeps in under your skin and stays with you for life.

And, of course, Ada. Physical, sensual, Ada. My husband often wishes that I read nothing but Nabokov. Ahem.

*re-creating his earliest experiences of Russia with a combination of recalled sensual memories and chunky paragraphs lifted from encyclopedias and atlases.

oct. 3, 2007, 12:31pm

A helpful insight into Nabokov's referential way with words is Mary McCarthy's review, reprinted in the collection Writing on the Wall.

oct. 3, 2007, 12:43pm

Yes, I agree. Mary McCarthy then married to Edmund Wilson - what a drunken sequence of events, that - Edmund good friends of Nabokov's until their rift*. Vera didn't like either of them.

How Wilson wanted a Vera of his own.

*over Pasternak, and other things. Nabokov's take on Dr. Zhivago is bleedingly funny:

"a lyrical doctor with penny-awful mystical urges and philistine turns of speech, and an enchantress straight out of Charskaya" (Charskaya, who wrote sentimental pulp for young Russian girls).

The man could cut with a knife, certainly.

març 17, 2008, 12:48pm

I just finished it. I've rarely enjoyed reading a poem so much, of course in large part because of the notes. Fascinated, astounded, I'm torn between rereading it now or moving on to something else. (So many books....). Kinbote (or Botkin or whoever the hell he is) is so much fun. The tricks of language, humor at once subtle and boisterous, all the words I fail to recognize. What does "chtomic" mean anyway?

I raise a glass to M. Nabokov's prolificacy.

Does anyone else want to visit Zembla?

març 17, 2008, 2:10pm

Frankly, I'd like to stop my current distractions, shut the door, close the shutters, unplug the computer, TV and radio, disconnect the phone, and go back to this world.