Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov

Pale Fire

Pale Fire is a mystery. The plot-yes, but a mystery also for the reader, who asks themselves, “What am I reading?” Pale Fire (1962) changes directions at will. Is it a poem? Yes. Is it a parody of detective fiction? Yes. Is it a university level commentary on the poem Pale Fire? Yes. Yes, and so much more.
The writing is often brilliant, but the construction of the novel, isn’t fresh and often seems either synthetic or plodding.
The book takes the form of a scholarly commentary on a 999-line poem written by John Shade just before his death. Surrounding the poem is a foreword and commentary by Dr. Charles X. Kinbote. Kinbote is his neighbor and fellow professor at the University. But Kinbote is not who he seems.

I found the literary analysis to be dry as toasted and couldn’t wait for sections where commentary goes off-the-rails as Kinbote relates the fantastic tale of an assassin from the land of Zembla in pursuit of a deposed king.

For the right kind of reader this book could easily be their favorite, but it left me confused and struggling (but never bored.) Pale Fire has gained a patina over these last 60 years, one that has reduced its brilliance. In the right hands this could be polished into a wildly funny movie.

336 pages

Kindle Notes

As a rule, Shade destroyed drafts the moment he ceased to need them: well do I recall seeing him from my porch, on a brilliant morning, burning a whole stack of them in the pale fire of the incinerator before which he stood with bent head like an official mourner among the wind-borne black butterflies of that backyard auto-da-fe. – location 97-99

Nevertheless, it has been called (by Shade’s former lawyer) “a fantastic farrago of evil,” while another person (his former literary agent) has wondered with a sneer if Mrs. Shade’s tremulous signature might not have been penned “in some peculiar kind of red ink.” – location 112-14

February and March in Zembla (the two last of the four “white-nosed months,” as we call them) – location 148-49

Here he is, I would say to myself, that is his head, containing a brain of a different brand than that of the synthetic jellies preserved in the skulls around him. – location 246-47

Now I shall speak of evil as none has Spoken before. I loathe such things as jazz; The white-hosed moron torturing a black Bull, rayed with red; abstractist bric-a-brac; Primitivist folk-masks; progressive schools; Music in supermarkets; swimming pools; Brutes, bores, class-conscious Philistines, Freud, Marx, 930 Fake thinkers, puffed-up poets, frauds and sharks. – location 690-94

I leave my poet’s reader to decide whether it is likely he would have written this only a few days before he repeated its miniature themes in this part of the poem. I suspect it to be a much earlier effort (it has no year subscript but should be dated soon after his daughter’s death) which Shade dug out from among his old papers to see what he could use for Pale Fire – location 1011-14

Everybody knows how given to regicide Zemblans are: two Queens, three Kings, and fourteen Pretenders died violent deaths, strangled, stabbed, poisoned, and drowned, in the course of only one century (1700-1800). – location 1018-19

At times I thought that only by self-destruction could I hope to cheat the relentlessly advancing assassins who were in me, in my eardrums, in my pulse, in my skull, rather than on that constant highway looping up over me and around my heart as I dozed off only to have my sleep shattered by that drunken, impossible, unforgettable Bob’s return to Candida’s or Dee’s former bed. As briefly mentioned in the foreword, I finally threw him out; after which for several nights neither wine, nor music, nor prayer could allay my fears. – location 1034-38

shown several willing pupils a few of the amusing holds employed by Zemblan wrestlers and found in my coat pocket a brutal anonymous note saying: “You have has….. s real bad, chum,” meaning evidently “hallucinations,” – location 1049-51

“Just before our poet’s untimely death he seems to have been working on an autobiographical poem.” – location 1087-88

the daily press who–perhaps for political reasons–had falsified the culprit’s motives and intentions without awaiting his trial–which unfortunately was not to take place in this world – location 1088-90

Mr. Campbell who had taught several dutiful little princesses to spread butterflies and enjoy Lord Ronald’s Coronach. He had immolated his life, so to speak, at the portable altars of a vast number of hobbies, from the study of book mites to bear hunting, and could reel off Macbeth from beginning to end during hikes; but he did not give a damn for his charges’ morals, preferred ladies to laddies, and did not meddle in the complexities of Zemblan ingledom. – location 1127-30

architectonically – location 1867

The fingers of his left hand involuntarily started to twitch as if he were pulling a kikapoo puppet over it, while his eyes followed intently his interlocutor’s low-class gesture of satisfaction. – location 2048-50

I may pander to the simple tastes of theatrical critics and cook up a stage play, an old-fashioned melodrama with three principles: a lunatic who intends to kill an imaginary king, another lunatic who imagines himself to be that king, and a distinguished old poet who stumbles by chance into the line of fire, and perishes in the clash between the two figments. – location 3525-27


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3 Responses to Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov

  1. craigmaas says:

    For a period of time I read the story as an allegory for the Kennedy assassination. With Charles as Jack and Gradus as Oswald. I read Onhava as Havana. I was reading too much into the book as it predates Dallas by a year.

  2. craigmaas says:

    From Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens

    I ‘ll example you with thievery:
    The sun’s a thief, and with his great attraction
    Robs the vast sea; the moon’s an arrant thief,
    And her pale fire she snatches from the sun;
    The sea’s a thief, whose liquid surge resolves
    The moon into salt tears; the earth’s a thief,
    That feeds and breeds by a composture stolen
    From general excrement: each thing’s a thief. (4.3)

  3. craigmaas says:

    Entry for Kinbote in the Pale Fire Index

    Dr. Charles Kinbote an intimate friend of Shade, his literary adviser, editor and commentator, first meeting and friendship with Shade. poem line number(, s) – I noticed this is almost an outline of the book.

    Foreword his interest in Appalachian birds
    1 his good-natured request to have Shade use his stories
    12 his modesty
    34 his having no library in his Timonian cave
    39 his belief in his having inspired Shade
    42 his house in Dulwich Road, and the windows of Shade’s house
    47 Prof. H. contradicted and corrected
    61,71 his anxieties and insomnias
    62 the map he made for Shade
    71 his sense of humor
    79,91 his belief that the term “iridule” is Shade’s invention
    109 his weariness
    120 his sports activities
    130 his visit to Shade’s basement
    143 his trusting the reader enjoyed the note 149 boyhood and the Orient Express recalled
    162 his request that the reader consult a later note
    169 his quiet warning to Gradus
    171 his remarks on critics and other sallies endorsed by Shade
    172 his participation in certain festivities elsewhere, his being debarred from Shade’s birthday party upon coming home, and his sly trick next morning
    181 his hearing about Hazel’s “poltergeist” phase
    230 poor who?
    231 his futile attempts to have Shade get off the subject of natural history and report on the work in progress
    238 his recollection of the quays in Nice and Mentone
    240 his utmost courtesy towards his friend’s wife
    247 his limited knowledge of lepidoptera and the sable gloom of his nature marked like a dark Vanessa with gay flashes
    270 his discovery of Mrs. Shade’s plan to whisk Shade to Cedarn and his decision to go there too
    288 his attitude towards swans
    319 his affinity with Hazel
    334,348 his walk with Shade to the weedy spot where the haunted barn once stood
    347 his objection to Shade’s flippant attitude towards celebrated contemporaries
    376 his contempt for Prof. H. (not in Index)
    377 his overworked memory
    384 his meeting with Jane Provost and examination of lovely lakeside snapshots
    385 his criticism of the 403-474 lines section
    403 his secret guessed, or not guessed, by Shade, his telling Shade about Disa, and Shade’s reaction
    417 his debate on Prejudice with Shade
    470 his discussion of Shadeuicide with himself
    493 his surprise at realizing that the French name of one melancholy tree is the same as the Zemblan one of another
    501 his disapproval of certain flippant passages in Canto Three
    522 his views on sin and faith
    549 his editorial integrity and spiritual misery
    550 his remarks on a certain female student and on the number and nature of meals shared with the Shadehades
    579 his delight and amazement at a portentous meeting of syllables in two adjacent words
    596 his aphorism on the slayer and the slain
    597 his logcabin in Cedarn and the little angler, a honey-skinned lad, naked except for a pair of torn dungarees, one trouser leg rolled up, frequently fed with nougat and nuts, but then school started or the weather changed
    609 his appearance at the H—-s
    629 his severe criticism of quotational titles, from The Tempest etc., such as “pale fire,” etc.
    671 his sense of humor
    680 his arrival at Mrs. O’Donnell’s country house recalled
    691 his appreciation of a quodlibet and his doubts anent its purported authorship
    727 his loathing for a person who makes advances, and then betrays a noble and naive heart, telling foul stories about his victim and pursuing him with brutal practical jokes
    741 his not being able, owing to some psychological block or the fear of a second G, of traveling to a city only sixty or seventy miles distant, where he would certainly have found a good library
    747 his letter of April 2, 1959, to a lady who left it locked up among her treasures in her villa near Nice when she went that summer to Rome
    768 divine service in the morning and ramble in the evening with the poet finally speaking of his work
    802 his remarks on a lexical and linguistic miracle
    803 his borrowing a collection of F. K. Lane’s letters from the motor court owner
    810 his penetrating into the bathroom where his friend sat and shaved in the tub
    887 his participation in a Common Room discussion of his resemblance to the King, and his final rupture with E. (not in the Index)
    894 he and Shade shaking with mirth over tidbits in a college textbook by Prof. C. (not in the Index)
    929 his sad gesture of weariness and gentle reproach
    937 a young lecturer in Onhava University vividly recollected
    957 his last meeting with Shade in the poet’s arbor, etc.
    991 his discovery of the scholarly gardener recalled
    998 his unsuccessful attempt to save Shade’s life, and his success in salvaging the MS
    1000 his arranging to have it published without the help of two “experts,” Foreword.

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