There are two story-lines to Pale Fire; one takes place in a New England town, and the other takes place in a foreign country known as Zembla. John Shade, the poet of this story, and professor lives in New England where he is working on a 10,00 line poem known as ‘Pale Fire’. The poem – featured in the novel, is divided into four cantos. Unfortunately, John is assassinated before writing the final line of the poem, so it is up to his neighbour Charles Kinbote to decipher the 9,999 lines.
The novel consists of both the poem and Charles commentary.
Vladimir Nabokov was a Russian novelist who wrote his first nine novels in Russian, then later gained fame as an English prose artist. Lolita (published 1955) is his most widely regarded novel. It’s in Lolita that Nabokov shows his skill for intricate wordplay and descriptive details that later characterised his future works, including Pale Fire.
Originally published in 1962, with a corrected edition published by Vintage International in 1989, Pale Fire received mixed reviews from critics and fellow authors alike. As a result, Dwight Macdonald stated that the novel was ‘unreadable’ whereas Anthony Burgess praised Pale Fire’s structure. The structure, which I’ll mention more below, is both loved and lauded in equal amounts.
Pale Fire is ranked number 53 on the Modern Library 100 Best Novels, (Lolita ranked at #4).
As noted in the synopsis, the structure of Pale Fire is an unconventional one. Often referred to as a game of chess, Pale Fire opens with a self-indulgent foreword written by our narrator, Charles Kinbote. Inside he’s letting the reader know what they’re about to discover. Who wrote the poem, the context, and how it came to be in his possession (after the death of the writer – John Shade).
We’re then given the poem in its entirety, all 9,999 lines, which take up a good chunk of the book.
What follows is Kinbote’s commentary on the poetry’s lines, giving further context. It’s here that the novel begins to form.
The Narrator, Charles, introduces us to a foreign land known only as ‘Zembla’ and tells us of its exiled King. I don’t want to give too much away but there’s a lot going on and at times it can become a little overwhelming. It’s at this point that I suggest you flick back and forth between poem and commentary to reaffirm what’s going on, and how at times, the narrator’s trust wanes.
It’s always interesting to see a character’s perspective upon incidents because it brings in nuances such as; can we trust them? Does he have further motives? What is he set to gain? Who are they in this story? Is he delusional, maybe even mad?
These questions are slowly answered in a way that only Nabokov can convey; with his exceptional use of language and his subtly gestures.
Closing Thoughts on Pale Fire
Pale Fire is an innovative book that has changed literature in many ways, none more so than the use of character commentary and interpretation. In addition, Nabokov’s beautiful command of language comes to the forefront of this novel and is arguably his best. The novel is now widely received as being the foundation for Post-modernism because of its focus on the single narrative structure.
All things considered, I would recommend this book to anyone who has previously enjoyed Lolita but please be warned; this book is at times confusing and can be hard work but by the end thoroughly worth it.
If you would like to read Pale Fire’s Poem you can do so here.
Have you already read Pale Fire? What did you think of the novel? Is this Nabokov’s greatest achievement? Let me know your thoughts below and join the conversation.