Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov [Book Thoughts]

Pale Fire might just be a perfect novel, although bizarrely it isn’t one – indeed it has surpassed the novel in form. Along with Lolita, it is the peak of Nabokov’s writing prowess.


Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov

Nabokov was the writer of the Fire, Pale
And Lolita and Pnin and his poetic trail
Pale: surpasses the novel in 900 lines
And 99 more and the commentary shines
Explained in part by Charles Kinbote:
The last of John Shade’s poems, he
Wrote Pale Fire before he was slain
By the waxwing’s shadow in the windowpane
On it’s perfection, one need not guess


Line 1: Nabokov

Vladimir Nabokov is the Russian author who, after becoming bored of writing novels in Russian, turned to writing them in English. So incredible is his mastery of the English language that he has put first language English-speakers such as myself to shame. See the note to Line 2.

Line 2: Lolita

Pale Fire joins Lolita (click here) as one of Vlad’s most popular works and if this review sounds fawning it’s because in merely two books this Russian rogue has managed to convince me that he is one of the greatest English authors who have ever lived.

Line 3: surpasses the novel in 900 lines

Pale Fire is hard to describe in the way I usually describe a novel because, frankly, it isn’t one. It’s a work of fiction masquerading as a poem and commentary combo and since that sounds bizarre, allow me to explain. Pale Fire consists of four parts: a Foreword, a 999-line Poem titled Pale Fire, literary Commentary on Pale Fire and an Index. The Poem Pale Fire is semi-autobiographical work written by the deceased poet John Shade who, as the Foreword explains, was murdered shortly after he completed it. The Foreword and the Commentary are written by literary academic Charles Kinbote who claims to have been a close friend of Shade’s. Kinbote further claims that Pale Fire is a complex poem and that the only way to truly understand it is through his detailed commentary (which he suggests should be read both before and after reading the poem. And then once more for good measure).

Let’s start with the poem itself. If poetry is your thing, Pale Fire is a beautiful rendition of John Shade’s life and soul, separated into four parts each of which tells a story. The poem itself is fairly simple in structure, consisting of 499 and a half rhyming couplets. I present the first two lines:

“I was the shadow of the waxwing slain
By the false azure in the windowpane”

Line 5: Charles Kinbote

And if poetry isn’t your thing then thank God you have Charles Kinbote to explain it to you. Kinbote’s commentary of Pale Fire starts immediately after the poem itself but after about five pages one realisation will probably hit you: Charles Kinbote knows nothing about poetry. When he isn’t telling the reader about how deep and intimate his connection with John Shade was (the two only knew each other for six months) he’s going on wild tangents about things that annoy him or claiming that certain verses in the poem are direct references to him or his country of origin. To say more would be to ruin it so my advise is thus: please go read it.

Line 8: waxwing

The form is certainly unique but the question is ‘does it work?’ Answer: amazingly so. Both the poem and the commentary tell a cohesive story and even the Index is a work of art. Like Lolita, Pale Fire has the potential to make you burst out laughing or become visibly disturbed and it’s Nabokov so expect slick wordplay of the highest order. It’s a true novel of quality and its raucously entertaining. Really to say more would be fatuous: like Lolita, Pale Fire is an experience and it’s meant to be read, not described.

Line 9: one need not guess

Pale Fire might just be a perfect novel, although ironically it isn’t one – indeed it has surpassed the novel in form. On it’s perfection, one need not guess, it is the peak of Nabokov’s writing prowess.


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