Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov


I’ve always been attracted to books that do something interesting with form, books like House of Leaves which uses weird typography or Infinite Jest that uses multiple sets of footnotes to help tell its unusual story. I really like when an author can tell a story in a new way that I haven’t heard before.

Pale Fire is a novel told in “a poem, its commentary and an index”. Some editions place the commentary first, as if it were an introduction to the poem, but my edition (pictured above) put the poem first, with the commentary following it.

Briefly, the poem Pale Fire is the last poem, a 1000 line magnum opus, by celebrated American poet and professor, John Shade. Upon his death, his fellow university professor, Charles Kinbote, procures the manuscript and sets about writing a critical commentary to the poem, elucidating its references and themes, however, from the get go, we can tell something is not right – Kinbote veers wildly off-topic, talking not about Shade’s poem but about Kinbote’s distant homeland Zembla, of which he may or may not be king. As the book progresses, we realise we are in the hands of one of literature’s most unreliable narrators – Is he the king of Zembla? Is this place even real? Is Kinbote mad? Did he kill Shade?

My friend recommended the novel and at first I was somewhat stumped upon how to read it – do you read the poem and then the commentary/footnotes?  In the end, I plumped for a back and forth (which was all hyperlinked in my Kindle edition – which was great), following the leads and reading the footnotes when I was instructed to by our demented narrator. I came away from the novel wondering if Kinbote was telling any truth at all, and if not what the reality behind the fictions were, but more disturbing, I was left wondering if any of what was presented to me was “true” – who is the real Kinbote? Was there a real Shade at all? Who is writing the book that we are reading? These are questions that nearly fifty years on, critics still debate, and will make you want to read this book all over again.

A final note, the book is nowhere near as difficult as it may sound, and the joy of it is you can read it anyway you want – coming to the story on your own terms, just as Nabokov would’ve wanted.

You can reserve this book on South Dublin Libraries’ catalogue here.

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