Posted by: Sally Ingraham | June 3, 2009

Pale Fire

Pale Fireby Vladimir Nabokov (1962)

Until just recently, my only knowledge of Nabokov came through knowing him to be the author of the book that Kubrick’s film Lolita was based on. The May issue of Wired had a 1/2 page article about him and the possible publication of the novel he was working on when he died in 1977 – The Original of Laura. My curiosity was roused by descriptions of chess problems that he embedded in the text of his stories, as well as other interesting quirks, so I trotted over to my library to see what I could find.

From among several choices I picked Pale Fire. What a deliciously strange book! It is presented as the publication of a 999-line poem written by the famous American poet John Shade, with a Forward and extensive Commentary provided by a self-appointed editor named Charles Kinbote.

Within a few pages I was well aware that Kinbote was a most intriguing character. He claimed in his Forward to have been one of Shade’s closest friends, and in the event of Shade’s death felt that he was the only rightful editor of the poem Shade had nearly completed. Swallowing his disappointment over the poem’s content – a loose autobiography of Shade’s life, and not the epic tale of the land of Zembla and it’s exiled king that Kinbote had imagined – Kinbote holed himself up in a backwoods trailer park and composed his commentary.

The 999 lines of the poem are really quite excellent. I loved a lot of Shade’s imagery, and the rhyming couplets had a driving force. I felt the need to read it out loud to myself.

The Commentary, which makes up the majority of the book, is hilarious. Kinbote makes few comments on the actual poem, instead using a word or a phrase as an excuse to launch into the tale of the Zemblian king – his fabulous boyhood, the revolution that made him a prisoner, his daring escape, etc. Details about Kinbote’s life as the neighbor and friend of Shade are also related, and the mystery surrounding Shade’s accidental death is cleared up. Kinbote tries to make the claim that Shade was indeed writing about Zembla and Charles II, referring to a few fragmented drafts and referencing details that only he could imagine describe anything resembling Zembla.

I’m pretty sure Kinbote is full of it, but his tale is entertaining and the book as a whole is so fabulously well done. I finished it yesterday afternoon and immediately flipped to the beginning and read the entire Forward again. Today I was immensely amused to find that an intense argument has been spawned by the book – who in fact wrote it? Obviously Nabokov did, but within the context of the book, did Shade write the whole thing and invent Kinbote, or did Kinbote write it all, including the poem, and invent Shade? I’ll have to find Brian Boyd’s 1997 study of the book, just for kicks and giggles, and see which interpretation I choose to accept.

For now I’ll stick with this: Pale Fire is SO COOL! And I’ll be reading more Nabokov soon. 🙂


  1. Whoa, I was just recommending Pale Fire to someone else. I wholeheartedly agree: it’s so deliciously weird! I haven’t read much criticism of it, but I’m sure that’s a whole other realm for exploration. Good review!

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