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Pale Fire, Vladimir Nabokov

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Pale Fire is like no other novel that I have read. Strictly speaking, Pale Fire is a poem of 999 lines, presented in four cantos. In a Foreword written by Charles Kinbote we are introduced to this form and given some details about Pale Fire's author, John Francis Shade. The majority of this volume is Dr. Kinbote's commentary, published after the conclusion of the poem.

Kinbote, Shade, and others discussed in the Foreword and Commentary are, of course, inventions of the novel's author, Vladimir Nabokov. Some we meet for the first time, and others (such as Professor Timofey Pnin) we fondly remember from other works written by Nabokov.

As a work of art, this work deserves the attention it receives. It is hugely ambitious and places some demands on the reader (as no doubt was true for its author!) but these demands are not senseless; the reader that endures will find the experience worthwhile.

In reading through the text, I'm reminded of something Nabokov asserted in his classes on Literature: that there is no reading, there is only re-reading. Even if following Kinbote's recommendation to read the Commentary first, then to read the poem, there will still be quite a lot of read to re-read, to fix certain details more firmly in the mind understanding how they appear at various points throughout the poem and its commentary.

Several themes emerge: one is a simple one, the personal life of John Shade, his relationship with Kinbote, his wife, and the broader University community. The larger theme is of Kinbote's native Zembla, the revolution that took place there and led to the flight of many. The similarities between Kinbote's Zembla and Nabokov's Russia are difficult not to notice when reading various details of the new government in power in Zembla, telling us such things as “the streak of stupidity that fatally runs through the most competent tyranny.“

Pale Fire is a masterpiece, a novel whose original presentation beautifully conveys a suspenseful story of intrigue, comedy, tragedy—of timeless human truth.

Created by cmcurtin
Last modified 2006-05-29 01:31 PM
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