Title: Pale Fire
Rating: 5 Stars
The plot is actually relatively straightforward (kind of). Buckle your seat belts.
There’s a beloved king of the small country of Zembla. Plotters overthrow him and he barely escapes. He ends up in America, posing as a professor (Charles Kinbote).
At the university that he teaches at, he befriends a poet, John Shade, that he not so secretly worships. They form a close friendship and they take long walks together. While walking, hoping to inspire Shade to write an epic heroic poem, Kinbote repeats tales of the great king of Zembla. Seemingly inspired, Shade commences to write a poem, but refuses to share it with Kinbote.
Just as he almost finishes it, an assassin that has tracked down the wayward king tries to shoot Kinbote. However, he misses and shoots Shade dead.
Shade happens to have the manuscript with him. Kinbote grabs it and immediately heads off to a remote location so that he can annotate what he is sure is the great last work of a great poet, featuring the adventures that he’s so gloriously narrated to Shade on their walks.
Pale Fire is the fruit of this work. It contains a foreword, the poem itself, and Kinbote’s commentary.
What’s the problem? Well, for starters, Shade’s poem has nothing to do with the king of Zembla. It is actually a touching, highly personal poem regarding the pain and search for meaning in the suicide of Shade’s daughter.
This is about as far from Zembla as you can get. However, Kinbote is undeterred. In his commentary, he scrapes for every scrap of evidence, every insinuation, every hint of Zembla and her king in this poem about the pain of loss and the search for meaning.
As Kinbote’s commentary continues, many times he just gets frustrated and tells the king’s stories in the commentary itself, at times barely even trying to connect it to the poem that he’s supposedly commenting upon. In fact, as you increasingly read between the lines, it’s pretty clear that Shade not only did not consider Kinbote to be his bosom buddy but at times actively tried to avoid him. It’s pretty clear that Kinbote was an active nuisance, overbearing busybody, pretty close to a stalker of Shade that Shade simply tolerated.
Over time, more and more of what is real becomes questioned. Is Kinbote really an exiled king? Was the assassin (Gradus) actually trying to kill Shade? Kinbote definitely seems somewhat unhinged. How much of the narrative is the madness of Kinbote?
If you do any literary research on Pale Fire, you’ll see even more interesting theories. Perhaps Shade invented Kinbote as a vehicle for his work? Or maybe Kinbote invented Shade and actually wrote the poem himself? Or possibly the ghost of Shade’s suicidal daughter inspired Kinbote’s efforts (and no, I’m not making that up).
As you can tell, we are entering post modern territory. Clearly Kinbote is an unreliable narrator. The structure of the book is itself an ironic statement on poems and the commentary that takes place on them. The fact that you posit the fact that some of these characters themselves might be characters that are products of other characters within the book is also a postmodern landmark to be on the lookout for.
Another interesting aspect to this work is that it is a very early prototype of hyperlinking. Notes point to other notes which point to parts of the poem. You can read it, if you so choose, as a kind of choose your adventure story. Since this was published, in 1962, nearly thirty years before the development of the web browser, this is truly innovative. This could potentially yield slightly different reading experiences every time that you re-read it.
There are interesting connections between Pale Fire and Lolita. In both cases, you have a failing European man (Humbert Humbert in Lolita) emigrating from Europe to America and trying (and failing) to integrate in it. They are both men of maturity with predilections for much younger partners (young girls for Humbert and young men for Kinbote). Written in the decades immediately following WW2, is this the hunger of a faded people for the fresh new world? The sophisticated past being overthrown by the guileless future?
Technically, Pale Fire is brilliant. Nabokov is simply a magician with words. Like Cormac McCarthy, he finds rare or obsolete words and uses them to perfection. I came across a word (ombrioles) and when I googled it, the entire first page of results pointed back to Pale Fire. He essentially invents a new language so that Kinbote can quote Zemblan sayings in their mother tongue.
As you can see, there is a lot to unpack here and I barely scratched the surface. I’m sure that with a carefully annotated version, I could have easily spent weeks reading / appreciating it.
It is justifiably considered one of the great works of the twentieth century.