Review: Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov

Pale Fire is an experiment that cannot hide its actually conventional tendencies. It starts out with an introduction by the fictional Charles Kinbote followed by a 999-line poem by also fictional John Shade, after the poem are notes and commentary again by Charles Kinbote and then an Index apparently written by Kinbote, too. The commentary section is by far the biggest of these and as you read the notes you come to realize there is an over all plot although you sort of have to piece it together if you jump around as the notes reference other notes in the book.

I don’t think I’d count myself as Vladimir Nabokov’s greatest fan having read his most famous book, Lolita. That is actually fairly strange because I do love puns and wordplay and Nabokov is very clearly one of the great foreign practitioners of English. I guess I find that his books have too much filler in them even though they aren’t that long compared to say Leo Tolstoy or James Joyce’s late masterpieces.

Pale Fire is ultimately a worthy experiment and I commend Mr. Nabokov for having undertaken it. That being said I wouldn’t rate it as highly as equally-if-not-moreso experimental At Swim-Two-Birds, which stands as a personal favorite of mine. I guess where I stand is Nabokov is intellectually stimulating enough and wants to be fun, but he isn’t that fun. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s that his characters are ultimately rather blurry as opposed to vivid. He does a lot of telling with regards to them but he doesn’t do enough showing, something James Joyce excelled at and which Flann O’Brien perhaps self-consciously self-skewered about. If there is a Nabokov train out there, I guess I’ve simply missed it.

Final Grade: C+

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