Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire is more fun to read than just about any book I know. By “fun” I mean that it’s a lot more than funny, but, being a poem, plus a critical appraisal of a book (with copious footnotes), and a novel, all combined, it engages the reader — as one flips back and forth through its pages — in the same way a really great puzzle or a game does.
Pale Fire begins with a 999 line poem in four cantos written by John Shade, a famous American poet. It’s one of the most beautiful long poems in our language and begins with an unforgettable image:
I was the shadow of the waxwing slain
By the false azure in the windowpane;
I was the smudge of ashen fluff–and I
Lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky.
And from the inside, too, I’d duplicate
Myself, my lamp, an apple on a plate:
Uncurtaining the night, I’d let dark glass
Hang all the furniture above the grass,
And how delightful when a fall of snow
Covered my glimpse of lawn and reached up so
As to make chair and bed exactly stand
Upon that snow, out in that crystal land.
The striking description here of the tricks of perception a mirroring window can inflict on the eye and the mind will mirror many of the literary deceptions contained in the novel.
The poem is autobiographical and centers on the apparent suicide of Shade’s daughter Hazel, and includes discussions of death and the afterlife, glimpses of his family and writing life, and culminates with a rumination on the power of poetry to help us comprehend life and the miracle of our universe.
This beautiful, touching, and somewhat serious poem is followed by a supposed “Foreward” and “Commentary” written by Charles Kinbote, the poet’s neighbor and, Kinbote would have us believe, Shade’s closest confidant and literary executor. The Commentary is in the form of notes to lines in the poem, though each note will take us absurdly beyond the poem itself into the funhouse of Kinbote’s mind. Here’s the entry on the unexceptional word “often” in line 62:
Often, almost nightly, throughout the spring of 1959, I had feared for my life. Solitude is the playfield of Satan. I cannot describe the depths of my loneliness and distress. There was naturally my famous neighbor just across the lane, and at one time I took in a dissipated young roomer (who generally came home after midnight). Yet I wish to stress that cold hard core of loneliness which is not good for a displaced soul . . . . I kept moving from window to window, my silk nightcap drenched with sweat, my bared breast a thawing pond, and sometimes, armed with the judge’s shotgun, I dared beard the terrors of the terrace.
What the hell, the reader will ask, does any of that have to do with John Shade’s poem?
Is Kinbote mad? He may well have been Shade’s friend, but that’s drawn into question with his implicit confession that he is also Charles Xavier Vseslav, or Charles II, the deposed King of Zembla (think “semblance”), a “distant northern land”, and the target of Soviet-styled revolutionaries who may have mistakenly murdered Shade in an assassination attempt on Kinbote.
Kinbote would also have us believe that most of the credit due for Shade’s poem should go to Kinbote himself, for the inspiration he provided during long walks the two took at the time of its composition. The evidence he points to in the poem however is slim, even tortured.
Ultimately, Kinbote suggests that the poem is really entirely about himself. His note to lines 939 and 940 — ”Man’s life is a commentary to abstruse/ unfinished poem. Note for further use.” — reads, “If I correctly understand the sense of this succinct observation, our poet suggests here that human life is but a series of footnotes to a vast obscure unfinished masterpiece.” In reality, according to Kinbote, it’s not Shade’s poem, but Kinbote’s commentary, that is important. This is Pale Fire in a nutshell, and one of Nabokov’s biggest winks in the book.
Among other things, Pale Fire is a riotous satirical commentary on literary criticism, particularly the kind that focuses overmuch on the author’s life and not sufficiently on the work — the text — itself. The book also includes extensive footnotes at the end, which provide their own funhouse moments as you follow the breadcrumb trail they leave throughout the book.
Pale Fire may not be as scintillating or sexy as Lolita or Ada: or Ardor, nor as outright funny as some of Nabokov’s earlier novels written in Russian and set in Germany, but, if you’re willing to have your assumptions about what is entertaining, funny, and beautifully written turned upside down, and to enjoy a novel unlike anything else you’ve ever read, you’ll fall in love with Pale Fire.
Other recommended works: Ada: or Ardor, The Defense, Lolita (of course), Despair, Laughter in the Dark, and The Collected Short Stories.