Rohit's Realm

// / archive / 2010 / 09 / 16 / rohit-reviews-pale-fire

September 16, 2010

Rohit Reviews: Pale Fire

Pale Fire
We who burrow in filth every day may be forgiven perhaps the one sin that ends all sins.
—Charles Kinbote

Having only very recently returned to the literary world after an absence that is as staggering as it is embarrassing, I have finally achieved a pace of reading that I once maintained for years on end. (But we shall see how long this lofty pace shall last; I am, as you all well know, no stranger to all-consuming failure.) Today I review Pale Fire, the heavily analyzed and criticized 1962 novel by Vladimir Nabokov. This is the third Nabokov novel I have completed, though the first I have reviewed. The other two—the immaculate Lolita and the intensely dark Despair—I completed before I had taken to writing about books on this most dreary and dreadful of sites.

At first glance, Pale Fire appears to be the posthumous publication of a poem by the deceased poet and professor John Shade, entitled Pale Fire, along with a foreword and extensive commentary by his friend, neighbor, and self-appointed editor, Charles Kinbote. The 999-line poem in four cantos is composed in heroic couplets and supposedly covers the poet's life and thoughts about death.

But that's only what we get at a first glance. As Kinbote's Commentary, which takes the form of annotations to lines in the poem, moves forward, the reader is waylaid with a troublesome suspicion: Kinbote might very well be mad. Indeed, very shortly after beginning the annotations, Kinbote reveals that he believes he has given Shade the theme for the poem—an account of his homeland of Zembla and its deposed, exiled regent, King Charles, whom (we later find out) he believes himself to be! By the end, Shade has been murdered by the king's—and Kinbote's—would-be assassin, a Communist revolutionary named Jakob Gradus, and Kinbote has made off with Shade's draft of his last work.

Or has he? At the end, there are more questions than answers since the author of the book we have just read is clearly insane: is Zembla even a real place? Was it Gradus who murdered Shade? Or was it Kinbote? Did Shade even write the poem, or was that Kinbote too? One could ponder these questions for an eternity.

A giddy mystery with no catharsis, this was a novel I absolutely adored. The inventive nonlinear format and ingenious story make the novel fascinating, but ultimately it is through traditional avenues that it truly excels. At its heart, it is both a hilarious and biting parody of literary criticism while simultaneously capturing the very basic impulse of readers to identify with that which they read—to begin to believe, in other words, that what the author has written he has written for them and about them. So while Kinbote (if that's his real name) is almost certainly a nut, maybe we've all got a little bit of him in us.

Rating this novel is hard. Lolita remains my favorite Nabokov novel, and had I reviewed it here, it would without doubt garner a five. Despair, on the other hand, is likely no more than a four. So what to make of Pale Fire? Is it as good as Lolita?1 Probably not: four stars out of five.

^ 1 That's hardly a fair comparison though; Lolita is definitely in my top five favorite books. Alas, all of life is a comparison, no?


Add Comment





* required field

E-mail addresses will never be displayed. The following HTML tags are allowed:
a abbr acronym address big blockquote br cite del em li ol p pre q small strong sub sup ul