PALE FIRE – Vladimir Nabokov (1962)

Pale FireTo call this book fantasy is a bit of stretch, a bit of a very big stretch even. Nabokov’s seminal book takes the form of a fictional publication of a 999-line poem by fictional author John Shade who died just before completing the poem, with a preface, very elaborate notes (the bulk of the book) and even an index by Charles Kinbote, a fictional scholar.

As such, it won’t appeal to regular fantasy readers. Kinbote is crazy, and his notes often read like the ramblings of a madman. In it, he talks about “the fantastical tale of an assassin from the land of Zembla in pursuit of a deposed king”, as a synopsis online says. But, the word “fantastical” should not be taken as an indication this tale being of the “fantasy” kind, but simply as “made up by a nutter”. Zembla is more or less a metaphor for Nabokov’s native Russia, and the fleeing king echoes the Tsar’s persecution by revolutionary forces.

I had a hard time getting through the book. It is hard work, since ramblings of a madman aren’t a particularly easy read. The book is stuffed with cross-references, hidden easter eggs, interplay between the poem, the notes and the index, etc. As such, it has pleased literature scholars across the globe, and has been analysed to death. I guess it should indeed be read twice or thrice to fully appreciate Nabokov’s construction. Nabokov did a fine job there, since scholars can’t seem to agree whether Nabokov intended the scholar to be real or invented by the poet himself, or the other way around, or that there is even a third person who made up both Shade and Kinbote. It might even be possible that Kinbote is actually the exiled Zemblan king himself. Add to all that the fact that the book’s obviously meta (it’s about notes to a poem!), and you get a regular feast for the literature professional…

I didn’t really enjoy it, since Pale Fire‘s mystery didn’t really interest me. The story felt empty, and mainly a gimmick. Still, Nabokov’s mastery of language is an amazing, stunning thing to behold. There are truly magnificent sentences on nearly every page. If you just approach the preface and the notes as a long prose poem one just has to experience, immersed in a beautifully written stream of consciousness, without wanting to comprehend or unravel every little allusion or hidden trinket, the book is a masterpiece.

originally written on the 20th of September, 2015


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