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.
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