Pale Fire

Just as promised, now with an introductory sentence relevant to today, not five months ago.

I was the shadow of the waxwing slain by the false azure in the windowpane…

Probably most famous for his 1962 novel Lolita, this was Nabokov’s fifth work written in the English language and just a note before we continue, if you get a hold of the Penguin Classics edition that I have (the one pictured above) then let me issue a quick spoiler alert regarding Mary McCarthy’s Introductory Essay. It’s a fascinating read and it does add something to the overall experience, but, and there always is one, you do not need to and probably should not read the Essay before the actual book. Part of the genius of Pale Fire is its multifaceted nature; the interflowing narratives mixing recollection with speculation and insanity; and the numerous interpretations that it has spawned. McCarthy endorses a certain, admittedly fairly well-supported, interpretation of the novel and having read about all of the signs and signifiers in the book that support a certain reading of it, before actually reading it yourself, certainly colours your perspective. To this end – this is a spoiler alert.

Ostensibly the book contains the poet John Shade’s final poem, the eponymous Pale Fire, complete with an introduction and a meandering commentary by his neighbour and fellow lecturer at Wordsmith College  – a one Charles Kinbote. It is clear from the rambling notes of the self-appointed editor that Kinbote has an unhealthy obsession with the poet, and considers himself both a special friend and major source of inspiration to Shade. This much, at least, few people disagree on. Beyond that, nothing is certain in this labyrinthine book in which Kinbote tells three stories: of his relationship with Shade; of the (possibly mythical) land of Zembla and it’s deposed ruler Charles the Beloved, and of  the assassin Gradus dispatched to kill Charles the Beloved. The story of Charles the Beloved and Zembla is one that he claims to have imparted to Shade whilst he was writing the poem, and Kinbote puts a great deal of weight to this alleged influence in his commentary. There appear to be links too with real life events, Kinbote appears to associate Shade’s killer Gray with Charles the Beloved’s intended assassin Gradus.  Probably the most commonly held view is that Kinbote is in fact Botkin, a professor at the university who is quite insane and has an unhealthy obsession with Shade. He believes himself to be the completely imaginary Charles the Beloved, and as such that the bullet that killed Shade was fired by Gradus and intended for him. Others have suggested that Kinbote is a literary device created by Shade, whilst some have suggested the opposite is true, that Kinbote is the author of the poem and has attributed it to a fictional other.

Whichever view you take, and setting side the fact that this book is at times confusing and complex, it is also highly entertaining, beautifully written and full of highly rewarding references. It’s a very important piece of technical metafiction writing and at the same time it had me grinning like an idiot in places reading it. Some have claimed that it’s unreadable and a nonsensical mess, I would argue that the sheer brilliance of Nabokov’s writing overpowers such claims, hands down.


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