Pale Fire

Pale Fire


In Canto 2, the poet describes his ideas about life after death. He also recounts the life and death of his daughter, Hazel. She was an awkward girl who unfortunately inherited Shade's looks. One winter night in 1957, Hazel mysteriously drowned i...

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In Canto 2, the poet describes his ideas about life after death. He also recounts the life and death of his daughter, Hazel. She was an awkward girl who unfortunately inherited Shade's looks. One winter night in 1957, Hazel mysteriously drowned in a lake.

Pale Fire is a 1962 novel by Vladimir Nabokov. The novel is presented as a 999-line poem titled "Pale Fire", written by the fictional poet John Shade, with a foreword, lengthy commentary and index written by Shade's neighbor and academic colleague, Charles Kinbote. Together these elements form a narrative in which both fictional authors are central characters.


Pale Fire has spawned a wide variety of interpretations and a large body of written criticism, which Finnish literary scholar Pekka Tammi [fi] estimated in 1995 as more than 80 studies.The Nabokov authority Brian Boyd has called it "Nabokov's most perfect novel",and the critic Harold Bloom called it "the surest demonstration of his own genius ... that remarkable tour de force". It was ranked 53rd on the list of the Modern Library 100 Best Novels and 1st on the American literary critic Larry McCaffery's 20th Century's Greatest Hits: 100 English-Language Books of Fiction.

Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov(22 April 1899– 2 July 1977), also known by the pen name Vladimir Sirin , was a Russian and American novelist, poet, translator and entomologist. His first nine novels were written in Russian (1926–38), but he achieved international prominence after he began writing English prose. Nabokov became an American citizen in 1945.




PALE FIRE. By Vladimir Nabokov.

Vladimir Nabokov is an obsessive. He arrived in the United States some twenty-two years ago, bringing with him intellectual baggage as firmly limited in weight as the forty pounds of the air traveler’s suitcase. There is nothing the matter with that. To be forcible, ideas need not to be heavy. The point is that, Mr. Nabokov, equipped with a set of admirable notions, has been parsimonious in adding to them: just how parsimonious his new novel will show.

In the public eye, this author’s most compelling idea revolves round the nymphet. This is unjust, however, to an original talent. Lolita is only one example in his work of the woes brought on by love misplaced; Margot, the usherette of “Laughter in the Dark,” is another. Mr. Nabokov cherishes an acid approach to love. He sees chiefly the disproportion between a helpless craving and its object. Even in “The Real Life of Sebastian Knight,” his most benign novel, there can be no true meeting between lovers, since the verb “to love” is for him essentially intransitive. Men love, but when they look at what they love they find nothing there: women, it is inferred, are too busy to find time for such sentimental claptrap; with so much sex and money on hand, feeling has to be dismissed as a time-waster.

When he turns to the things of the mind, Mr. Nabokov again shows self-imposed limitations. It is significant that the field in which his knowledge is most precise should be lepidopterology. At once an image springs to mind of the professor and his chloroform bottle, his green net, his leggings. Slightly absurd? Mr. Nabokov would not mind that in the least. For his idea of science is bound up with a keen sense of the ridiculous. Knowledge, he suggests, is almost as irrational as love. Pain, the one really sympathetic character in his novels, is a figure of fun in either context.

For the rest, Mr. Nabokov, whatever his passport,, remains a Czarist Russian with a number of tics. He likes inventing words—even phrases from imaginary languages. He likes mockery for its own sake. He likes submitting to the intoxication of rhetoric, so that tropes and fancies mingle with wonderfully precise pieces of observation. Trained lepidopterist as he is, the smaller the object under his microscope the better he sees it, the more lovingly he describes its rarity. He uses English—to him only one of several possible languages and not the best—as a child demonstrates a toy railway. Look, the trains go backward and forward; they dash through toy tunnels; they stop at toy stations; sometimes it is rather fun to set the points so that they fall off the rails at a corner. Then they lie on their backs and the wheels whiz uselessly in the air.

All the time, Mr. Nabokov is a moralist. He has in mind an ideal order, not unlike an Edwardian version of Mr. Huxley’s Utopia. He would wish his men all to be tough-minded but luxurious, his women all brisk but totally accessible. Politics would wither under a benevolent order; affection, tempered by acerbity, would cement the community together. It would generally be admitted that the human race is silly, futile, incoherent, so as much time as possible should be saved from daily chores in order to leave space for good conversation, painless self-improvement and lighthearted meditation.

“Pale Fire” goes further than any of his previous novels toward defining such a Utopia. Whether it be a novel at all is open to question, so unconventional is its form. Mr. Nabokov has bundled all his ideas together this time. Just as in “The Real Life of Sebastian Knight” he transformed himself into a narrator, so now he becomes Charles Kinbote, friend to the poet John Shade. The whole book is an elaborate spoof. Its central core is a narrative poem of 1,000 lines, introduced by Kinbote with appropriate reverence, and bearing the title of the book. The substance of the book is in a long series of notes to the poem—notes designed to construct a whole imaginary world, with its population, customs, royal family, philosophy, social customs, flung together at the hazard of a line-by-line commentary.

The idea is at least amusing. Mr. Nabokov pursues it with a deadpan strictness. Cross-references abound. The notes may flower into anecdote, or they may make a single laconic point. “Lines 181-182: waxwings* * *cicadas. The bird of lines 1-4 and 131 is again with us. It will reappear in the ultimate line of the poem; and another cicada, leaving its envelope behind, will sing triumphantly at lines 236-244.” That is all. And it may be contrasted with another note beginning “Through the back of John’s thin cotton shirt one could distinguish patches of pink where it stuck to the skin above and around the outline of the funny little garment he wore under the shirt as all good Americans do.” There is a similarly deadpan index.

Now, all this amounts to a good deal of fun for Mr. Nabokov. Others before him have toyed with the same procedure. Norman Douglas liked annotating limericks with fragments of arcane learning. Max Jacob wrote imaginary letters of a more or less laconic kind and adorned them with a vast elucidation. In both cases the joke was flung off with the lightest of touches, whereas Mr. Nabokov deliberately adopts a more ponderous tone: he is, as it were, pulling his own leg as well as that of his public.

He has invented a country (the kingdom of Zembla), a capital (Onhava), a royal family and a Zemblan way of life. The tone he adopts is somewhere between that of William Beckford’s oriental fantasy and Carlyle’s didactic “Sartor Resartus.” But the fantasy never gets off the ground, and the didacticism is never clearly enough directed. In order to react to the notion of an imaginary country the reader has to see it in a vivid light. He has to feel himself involved. Invented countries with the ring of imaginative truth about them, such as Lilliput, always have a certain simplicity to justify their existence. Imagine a world of dwarfs; imagine a world of giants; imagine the world in 1984; imagine life on another planet: such are the concepts that can be brought to life. But a world that has laboriously to be constructed through footnotes, is likely to intrigue its creator alone.

And then the poem. It is not a bad poem at all. Cast in heroic couplets, it reads like a decorous exercise of the Nineteen Twenties:

Out of his lakeside shack
A watchman, Father Time, all gray and bent,
Emerged with his uneasy dog and went
Along the reedy bank. He came too late.

John Shade’s poem also comes too late. It is about on a level with the work of Alfred Austin, Tennyson’s successor as Poet Laureate, who also had a bent for conversational verse: not bad, but also not good, not, in the strict sense, a poem at all. The reader, having plowed through it with mild interest, is likely to be afflicted by the disproportion between its merit and the apparatus that surrounds it. For the author has to keep up a pretense that Shade was a great man, and the poem a great poem. Yet it is also part of the joke that he does not believe this for a moment. He is carefully building a farce, assuming the mask of pedantry in order to point a grimace at his readers.

This, however, assumes that they will be willing to share the joke. Yet Mr. Nabokov is stretching his ingenuity rather than his wit. Where his book comes to life is in brief moments of irritability; he is a master of the small cruel flash. When he writes a passage of extended satire, the wit evaporates. Ronald Firbank, if he wished to evoke a fantastic court atmosphere, could do it in half a page. Mr. Nabokov, assuming the mantle of the scholar, treads ponderously through the royal palace of Onhava without bringing its extravagances to life. Even his prose sounds insecure. “She took to sleeping in a small antechamber next to his bachelor bedroom, a splendid circular apartment at the top of the high and massive South West Tower. This had been his father’s retreat and was still connected by a jolly chute in the wall with a round swimming pool in the hall below, so that the young Prince could start the day by slipping open a panel beside his army cot and rolling into the shaft whence he whizzed down straight into bright water.” “Jolly,” “whizzed”: neither word has the right ring to it, if the author is trying to keep within the assumed character of Charles Kinbote.

In fact, “Pale Fire” is a curiosity into which it is agreeable to dip rather than a book which can be read straight through with pleasure. Nothing can obliterate the fact that Mr. Nabokov has a keen intelligence, a restless and inquisitive mind, and a very personal style that constantly defeats his pretense of being a mere Kinbote. It is refreshing, too, that he has made no attempt to repeat any of the patterns that have brought him success in the past. Much of the detail in this book can be paralleled in earlier novels. For instance, his account of Professor Hurley, who is set up as the inadequate first biographer of John Shade, is very much the same as his account of Mr. Goodman, the inadequate first biographer of Sebastian Knight. But “Pale Fire” sets a course all its own. It is one more proof of Mr. Nabokov’s rare vitality. Unluckily it is not much more than that.




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