Review: Pale Fire

Pale FirePale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wow! I was a fan of Nabokov’s prose thanks to Lolita but that book has nothing on this one. Pale Fire is many-layered, many-framed and at times makes my head spin. I wanted to knock off a few points for some incomprensible passages, but I finally decided that’s a fault of mine and not of Nabokov’s.

Pale Fire starts with a long, long poem that takes almost 1/3 of the entire book. From the advice of another reader, I skipped the poem and dived right into the meat of the actual story, which is commentary on the poem. Now, one can say that reading a commentary of a 1000-line poem sounds boring and I would even say that if I hadn’t just read this book, but trust me, it’s awesome.

Nabokov’s prose is so lyrical, so wonderful, so funny sometimes that it makes me turn green with envy. For example, this part, where the narrator was complaining about being invited to a dinner party where his hosts knew in advance of his vegetarian eating habits but still tried to serve him meat:

“I revanched myself rather neatly. Of a dozen or so invitations that I extended, the Shades accepted just three. Every one of these meals was built around some vegetable that I subjected to as many exquisite metamorphoses as Parmentier had his pet tuber undergo.”

How can one not fall in love with such a masterful command of language? Pale Fire is certainly a book that requires a dictionary or even an encyclopedia to fully enjoy. It’s hard work to read through, but it is so, so worth it. And the double entendres overflow this book if you’re into that sort of thing!

What Nabokov excels at most is his descriptions of people and their situations. Take this one for example:

“One finds it hard to decide what Gradus alias Grey wanted more at that minute: discharge his gun or rid himself of the inexhaustible lava in his bowels.”

How can diarrhea sound so good? Because it comes out of Nabokov’s pen.

Pale Fire blew my mind on several levels, but one of the biggest explosions in my mind came at the end when our narrator realizes that the poem he wanted so much to be about Zembla actually isn’t. He ends up crestfallen that his beautiful country won’t be immortalized on paper through this poem. But the mind-blowing part is that it actually ends up being immortalized on paper through his commentary on the poem. It blew my mind in the same way that I Love Lucy is a successful television show about a woman who tries unsuccessfully to break into show-biz. So meta!

A spoilered discussion of the plot follows. If you haven’t read the book but are thinking about it, please, please don’t read the spoiler. It will tarnish the experience of reading it for the first time.


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It becomes obvious early on that Charles Kinbote is the often-mentioned escaped ex-King of Zembla. Even before he starts hinting at it, an astute reader can easily figure it out. How else would someone know such fine details of the king’s life? Although I had fairly solid suspicion this was the case early in, what really sealed the deal was Kinbote’s comment about being a vegetarian himself.

Even before I suspected Kinbote as being the king, I suspected he was in love with Shade. I think this suspicion grew in parallel with my suspicion that he was gay, which probably led me to the suspicion of him being the King. It’s too coincidental to have two flamboyantly gay characters in a Nabokov novel, no?

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