Modern Fiction: Pale Fire, by Vladimir Nabokov

Pale Fire is the most fascinating novel of the 20th century. Maybe. I get into trouble when I say things like that. And I haven’t read as much as I ought. But Pale Fire is work of genius unlike any I’ve encountered. The book is a mystery – not the story, but the book itself. Its interpretation and the central question of the narrator’s true identity – and how much of what he says is true – has been the subject of fierce and largely pointless debate: Nabokov later explained the situation, but that hasn’t stopped a number of critics from claiming he misunderstood his own work & coming up with alternate readings.

Critics aren’t even sure how the book should be read ordinally – that is, in what order the pages should be consumed. This interesting and amusing question is a result of the book’s structure – the novel is contained in the endnote commentary on a substantial poem, supposedly the final work of a Robert Frostian poet named John Shade. The commentary, as well as a forward preceding the poem and a full index following the commentary, are the work of a madman college professor who, by a bizarre string of events, secured the right to edit and publish the poem. He believes himself to be the deposed King of a distant (eastern Scandinavian?) land called Zembla, and uses his notes on Shade’s poem to tell the story of his own overthrow and escape to America, which he believes is what the poem should actually have been written about.

Interwoven with the King’s story is another narrative about the man sent from Zembla to assassinate him. (The King now lives under a pseudonym teaching at a New England university and living next door to Shade.) The assassin crashes into the world of the poem itself on the day Shade finishes its last line but one, and murders not the King but Shade. The police report to the effect that the murderer had escaped from a nearby institute for the criminally insane and had come to kill the judge who put him there, for whom he mistook Shade, the “King” narrator dismisses as a malicious fabrication.

Nabokov writes a maniacally thorough picture of Zembla (which may or may not be “real” in the frame of the novel – the reader is left to work this out). Zembla has its own language, genealogy, geography and history. This isn’t unusual for a semi-fantastic novel – but the depth of the fiction is. Each name, phrase and linguistic conjuration is saturated with multiple meanings and playful allusion; each has its place in the story, in the larger fictitious world beyond the story, and in the actual world of literature beyond Nabokov’s book. The construction is ferociously, demonically intricate. A knowledge of Russian and French, and of literature and poetry – especially Joyce, Pope and Shakespeare – will come in handy. (The Library of America edition includes helpful endnotes of its own, but these are hardly complete.) As it is, I can only skim the surface. But I have a sense of having glimpsed something extraordinary, almost superhuman.

Enjoyability: 10/10

Engagingness: 10/10

Prose: 10/10

Overall Goodness Rating (OGR): 10/10

Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov. First published 1962, 224 pages.  This edition, Library of America, 1996.

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