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In Pale Fire Nabokov offers a cornucopia of deceptive pleasures: a 999-line poem by the reclusive genius John Shade; an adoring foreword and commentary by Shade''s self-styled Boswell, Dr. Charles Kinbote; a darkly comic novel of suspense, literary idolatry and one-upmanship, and political intrigue.

Amazon.com Review

Like Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov''s Pale Fire is a masterpiece that imprisons us inside the mazelike head of a mad émigré. Yet Pale Fire is more outrageously hilarious, and its narrative convolutions make the earlier book seem as straightforward as a fairy tale. Here''s the plot--listen carefully! John Shade is a homebody poet in New Wye, U.S.A. He writes a 999-line poem about his life, and what may lie beyond death. This novel (and seldom has the word seemed so woefully inadequate) consists of both that poem and an extensive commentary on it by the poet''s crazy neighbor, Charles Kinbote.

According to this deranged annotator, he had urged Shade to write about his own homeland--the northern kingdom of Zembla. It soon becomes clear that this fabulous locale may well be a figment of Kinbote''s colorfully cracked, prismatic imagination. Meanwhile, he manages to twist the poem into an account of Zembla''s King Charles--whom he believes himself to be--and the monarch''s eventual assassination by the revolutionary Jakob Gradus.

In the course of this dizzying narrative, shots are indeed fired. But it''s Shade who takes the hit, enabling Kinbote to steal the dead poet''s manuscript and set about annotating it. Is that perfectly clear? By now it should be obvious that Pale Fire is not only a whodunit but a who-wrote-it. There isn''t, of course, a single solution. But Nabokov''s best biographer, Brian Boyd, has come up with an ingenious suggestion: he argues that Shade is actually guiding Kinbote''s mad hand from beyond the grave, nudging him into completing what he''d intended to be a 1,000-line poem. Read this magical, melancholic mystery and see if you agree. --Tim Appelo

Review

"This centaur work, half-poem, half-prose . . . is a creation of perfect beauty, symmetry, strangeness, originality and moral truth.  Pretending to be a curio, it cannot disguise the fact that it is one of the great works of art of this century."  --Mary McCarthy

From the Inside Flap

In Pale Fire Nabokov offers a cornucopia of deceptive pleasures: a 999-line poem by the reclusive genius John Shade; an adoring foreword and commentary by Shade''s self-styled Boswell, Dr. Charles Kinbote; a darkly comic novel of suspense, literary idolatry and one-upmanship, and political intrigue.

From the Back Cover

In Pale Fire Nabokov offers a cornucopia of deceptive pleasures: a 999-line poem by the reclusive genius John Shade; an adoring foreword and commentary by Shade''s self-styled Boswell, Dr. Charles Kinbote; a darkly comic novel of suspense, literary idolatry and one-upmanship, and political intrigue.

About the Author

Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov was born on April 23, 1899, in St. Petersburg, Russia. The Nabokovs were known for their high culture and commitment to public service, and the elder Nabokov was an outspoken opponent of antisemitism and one of the leaders of the opposition party, the Kadets. In 1919, following the Bolshevik revolution, he took his family into exile. Four years later he was shot and killed at a political rally in Berlin while trying to shield the speaker from right-wing assassins.

The Nabokov household was trilingual, and as a child Nabokov was already reading Wells, Poe, Browning, Keats, Flaubert, Verlaine, Rimbaud, Tolstoy, and Chekhov, alongside the popular entertainments of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Jules Verne. As a young man, he studied Slavic and romance languages at Trinity College, Cambridge, taking his honors degree in 1922. For the next eighteen years he lived in Berlin and Paris, writing prolifically in Russian under the pseudonym Sirin and supporting himself through translations, lessons in English and tennis, and by composing the first crossword puzzles in Russian. In 1925 he married Vera Slonim, with whom he had one child, a son, Dmitri.

Having already fled Russia and Germany, Nabokov became a refugee once more in 1940, when he was forced to leave France for the United States. There he taught at Wellesley, Harvard, and Cornell. He also gave up writing in Russian and began composing fiction in English. In his afterword to Lolita he claimed: "My private tragedy, which cannot, and indeed should not, be anybody''s concern, is that I had to abandon my natural idiom, my untrammeled, rich, and infinitely docile Russian tongue for a second-rate brand of English, devoid of any of those apparatuses–the baffling mirror, the black velvet backdrop, the implied associations and traditions–which the native illusionist, frac-tails flying, can magically use to transcend the heritage in his own way." [p. 317] Yet Nabokov''s American period saw the creation of what are arguably his greatest works, Bend Sinister (1947), Lolita (1955), Pnin (1957), and Pale Fire (1962), as well as the translation of his earlier Russian novels into English. He also undertook English translations of works by Lermontov and Pushkin and wrote several books of criticism. Vladimir Nabokov died in Montreux, Switzerland, in 1977.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

INTRODUCUTION by Richard Rorty
 
[WARNING:  this Introduction not only gives away the plot of Pale Fire, but presumes to describe the reader’s reactions in the course of a first reading of the book – reactions which will not occur if the Introduction is read first. The first-time reader may wish to postpone the Introduction until he or she has finished the Index.]
 
 The imagination, Wallace Stevens said, is the mind pressing back against reality. But it is in the interest of reality – that is to say, of the imagination of the dead – to insist that no further pressure is needed: that the imagination of the living can do nothing save reiterate lessons previously learned, instantiate previously known truths. Judicious reviewers must presuppose that nothing genuinely new can be written, for only on that assumption are they in a position to judge, and in no danger of being judged by, the book they are reviewing. Like the judicious reviewer, the common reader is made nervous by books that are insufficiently like the books he or she has read in the past.
 
Vladimir Nabokov (1899–1977) wrote books which were not much like anybody else’s, and they rarely got good reviews. Most reviewers echoed Dr Johnson’s dictum that nothing odd can last, and proceeded to diagnose Nabokov’s oddities as signs of his egoistical disdain for reality, a disdain which cloaked his inability to imitate reality convincingly. Simon Raven, reviewing Pale Fire on its publication in 1962, said that it was ‘not a novel, but a blueprint’. Saul Maloff’s review explained that ‘the novelist’s immemorial purpose and justification’ was ‘to create a world’, and that Nabokov had created only ‘a constellation of elegant and marvelous bibelots, an art which is minor by definition’. Reviewer after reviewer conceded Nabokov’s skill while deploring his self-indulgence, his delight in his own tricks – tricks which made clear his lack of respect for both reality and the common reader. Dwight Macdonald called Pale Fire ‘unreadable’, emphasized that Nabokov, even at his best, was ‘minor’, and urged that ‘the technical exertions he [Nabokov] expends on the project are so obtrusive as to destroy any aesthetic pleasure on the reader’s part’. Perturbed by the fact that Mary McCarthy had called Pale Fire ‘a creation of perfect beauty, symmetry, strangeness, originality and moral truth’, Macdonald explained that both the novel and McCarthy’s review were ‘exercises in misplaced ingenuity’.
 
Nabokov had no interest whatever in creating a world like the one to which Raven, Maloff and Macdonald were accustomed. ‘We speak,’ he once said, ‘of one thing being like another thing, when what we are really craving to do is to describe something that is like nothing on earth.’ It was just that craving which annoyed so many of the reviewers. To those who wish reality to be given the respect it takes as its due, such a craving is a sign of egotistic self-indulgence. ‘Egotism’ is reality’s name for whatever calls attention to itself – whatever is odd, hard to understand, hard to follow. Those who respect reality, who are sure that it needs no further pressure, insist that what is worthwhile is already a part of reality, and merely needs to be accurately represented. What is not a part of reality is subjective, personal, idiosyncratic, silly, puerile, evanescent, not worth writing down. For reality is, to the respectful eye, the only legitimate authority. The poet’s longing to exert pressure upon reality seems not only futile but morally dubious.
 
Now, thirty years after the publication of Pale Fire, critics and literary historians have begun to concede that the book will, in fact, last. It is gradually acquiring the aura of a classic, gradually coming to be seen as the work of one of the most powerful imaginations of our century. This sort of concession is one of the means reality uses to avoid admitting that it has been dented. It is as if, in the dark of night, when no one is looking, reality sent out pseudopods to incorporate the latest oddity. By morning reality looks as smooth and unpressured as before (although just a bit bigger). Something that actually was like nothing on earth thus gets turned into one more objective terrestrial fact, waiting to be observed. Sometimes, however, when the oddity is very large or very complexly shaped, the process of assimilation is not over by morning. Then reality can be caught draining the life out of a metaphor, or reshaping a paradox into a platitude, or repackaging a scandal as a classic.
 
Lolita was like nothing Morris Bishop – a good reader, a good man, and Nabokov’s best friend at Cornell – had ever read; his revulsion from Humbert’s sliminess prevented him from finishing the manuscript. Thirty years later, Bishop’s granddaughter was assigned Lolita in high school. The more often Lolita and Pale Fire are assigned, made set books for examinations, the more Humbert Humbert and Charles Kinbote will become well-known literary characters – familiar parts of the reality within which people grow up. The more that happens, the more likely it is that those two will merge with the figure of their creator – that Nabokov’s readers will think they are reading about Nabokov when they read about these two charming monsters. The more this unconscious identification is made, the less they will remember the people whom Humbert and Kinbote manipulate – the Haze and Shade families, and, in particular, the youngest members of those families, Lolita Haze and Hazel Shade.
 
Brian Boyd, whose splendid biography serves Nabokov well by making the incorporation of his books less easy, reports that among all the characters in his novels whom Nabokov admired as human beings, Lolita stood second only to Pnin. But readers of Lolita often have trouble getting Lolita in focus. All they seem to remember is Humbert’s creature, his invention – the nymphet, rather than the little girl. So Nabokov’s suggestion that she is a splendid human being is hard to take in. Still, readers of Lolita vaguely recall, Lolita did have guts: somehow she got away from Quilty and managed to find herself a good man who would give her a child. She made a home for him and for the child who was to have been born at Christmastime – a home in Gray Star, ‘a settlement in the remotest Northwest’, where it is very cold. Nabokov, it now comes back to us, said that Gray Star was ‘the capital town of the book’. Then finally it all comes back: it was only Humbert who thought that he had invented Lolita. We were not supposed to think that. We were supposed to remember what Humbert kept forgetting: Lolita’s sobs in the night, her dead brother, the child that might have replaced the brother. How could we have forgotten?
 
We forgot because Nabokov arranged for us to forget, temporarily. He programmed us to forget first and remember later – remember in confusion and guilt. His book keeps on manhandling us even after we close it. The reason it is going to be relatively hard to turn Lolita into a classic is that we guardians of legitimacy, we servants of reality, can only make sound observations about a novel, find admirable illustrations of general truths in it, if we can get it under control. We need to stand at a distance from it in order to see it steadily and whole. But Nabokov arranges things so that, just when we thought that we had stepped back and found the proper standpoint from which to see his book in perspective, we get an uncanny sense that the book is looking at us from a considerable distance, and chuckling. The resulting discomfiture usually turns into renewed exasperation over Nabokov’s egotism, his puerile tricksiness, his silly attempts at novelty.
 
As with Lolita, so with Pale Fire. When you read the book for the first time, you find yourself absorbed in a good story, told by an odd but charming man, even before you have finished the Foreword. What follows next – the nine hundred and ninety-nine rhyming lines of ‘Pale Fire’ – seems a slightly unfortunate interruption. It is perhaps a little unfair to make us lovers of good stories trudge through a long poem on our way back to the plot. But shucks, we fair-mindedly say, it isn’t a very long poem. After being briefly troubled by the story of Hazel Shade’s suicide in Canto Two, and being a bit bored by the reflections on death in Canto Three and those on the creative process in Canto Four, we get back to the story which the poem interrupted. We have rejoined that intriguing, if dubious, Kinbote, and are becoming amused at the way he blithely intrudes himself into what is, in theory, a commentary on the poem we have already started to forget.
 
Fifty pages into Kinbote’s commentary we have forgotten all about John Francis Shade (1898–1959 – as the Foreword told us, we now recall, he died right after writing ‘Pale Fire’, poor fellow). For now we are immersed in the adventures of a much more interesting person – Charles Xavier Vseslav, last king of Zembla (1915–?: reigned 1936–1958). Whereas the only big event of Shade’s life seems to have been the unfortunate suicide of his young daughter, the story of Charles Xavier’s youth is packed with incident. Better yet, it has the deep human interest which always attaches to stories about royalty, not to mention that extra little thrill we get from reading about the copulation of faunlets.
 
A hundred pages further on, we have become convinced that Charles Kinbote and Charles Xavier are one and the same person. This realization gives us not only the satisfaction of knowing that our interest in Kinbote paid off, but the awed sense that royalty has condescended to treat us as a confidant. A sad, but handsome and well-read, ex-king trusts us enough to tell us things that very few people could have guessed. Shade turns up now and then, and we occasionally suspect that he too may have had the wit to discern, as we have, who Kinbote really is. But Shade’s reappearances are always succeeded, and made forgettable, by the revelation of some new and surprising fact about our remarkable host and commentator.
 
It is only in the final pages of the novel that we are forced once again to think fairly seriously about Shade. For now something does happen to him. He gets killed. Shade wanders back into Kinbote’s story just at the point at which Gradus, the regicide sent by the revolutionary government of Zembla, is about to carry out his assignment. Kinbote tells us how he, the endangered king:
 
“. . . instinctively backed, bellowing and spreading my great strong arms . . . in an effort to halt the advancing madman and shield John, whom I feared he might, quite accidentally, hit, while he, my sweet awkward old John, kept clawing at me and pulling me after him, back to the protection of his laurels, with the solemn fussiness of a poor lame boy trying to get his spastic brother out of the range of the stones hurled at them by schoolchildren, once a familiar sight in all countries. I felt – I still feel – John’s hand fumbling at mine, seeking my fingertips, finding them, only to abandon them at once as if passing to me, in a sublime relay race, the baton of life.
     One of the bullets that spared me struck him in the side and went through his heart.”
 
No sooner is Shade dead, however, than the novel begins to fall to pieces. Our attention is suddenly wrenched back to the poem we have long forgotten. For Gradus has appeared at the moment at which Shade has finally handed Kinbote the manuscript of ‘Pale Fire’. As Shade bleeds on the ground, Kinbote hurries inside to get a glass of water for his dead friend and to conceal the manuscript under a pile of nymphets’ galoshes on the floor of a closet. After a bit of unfortunate delay (Kinbote has to waste some time coping with Shade’s widow, the police, and the like) he is able to retrieve it. He reads it snarling, ‘as a furious young heir through an old deceiver’s testament’, realizing that the poem is not about himself but about its author.
 
We readers, who are by this time completely caught up in Kinbote’s hopes and fears, find ourselves sharing Kinbote’s overwhelming disappointment, even though we have read the poem already, and have known all the time that it was about the Shades and not about the overthrow of the Zemblan monarchy. We too wonder why Shade was so insensitive and cruel as to have made no use of the wonderful material his friend Kinbote was constantly feeding him. We sympathize with Kinbote’s outraged questions:
 
“Where were the battlements of my sunset castle? Where was Zembla the Fair? Where her spine of mountains? Where her long thrill through the mist? And my lovely flower boys, and the spectrum of the stained windows, and the Black Rose Paladins, and the whole marvelous tale?”
 
As Kinbote asks these questions, however, the doubts that we loyal monarchists have been impatiently shoving aside for two hundred pages begin to sidle back. We have, perhaps (very probably, in fact), not been the confidant of a king, but only the dupe of a loony. Zembla, we nervously remember, is not on any map we have ever seen. The sunset battlements begin to crumble before our eyes. The whole marvellous tale may have been just the invention of a mad emigre scholar, a monster of egotism who has dragged us into his preposterous fantasies. The only sane, indeed, the only decent, person around (either in the novel or in the room where we sit reading it) turns out to be the man we have forgotten about for so long, the man who wrote the poem whose central event we did not want to remember: sweet awkward old John Shade, with his old-fashioned family values.
 
As we watch those battlements crumble, we remember having been warned that cloud-capped towers are subject to dissolution. As we look rather desperately around for Nabokov, in order to ask him to take us to his own point of view, to show us where to stand to see his novel clearly, it dawns on us that he has us just where he wants us: listening to Kinbote saying ‘Well, folks, I guess many in this fine hall are as hungry and thirsty as me, and I’d better stop, folks, right here.’ It is as if Prospero, after explaining that he will shortly be drowning his book, stepped to the front of the stage to announce that oranges and ale would be offered for sale in the outer courtyard immediately after the performance, that season ticket holders were invited to meet the cast backstage, but that unfortunately the author of the play, who would have liked to be here to greet his many friends, is out of town. . . .
 

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4.5 out of 54.5 out of 5
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Top reviews from the United States

B. Wilfong
4.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
“I liked it better when expecting less.”
Reviewed in the United States on July 8, 2016
“Pale Fire” is a pretty enigmatic novel, written as a commentary on a poem called “Pale Fire” by a famous poet (and neighbor to the narrator) named John Shade. The author of the Commentary (and the novel’s narrator) is Dr. Charles Kinbote whose morality, identity and... See more
“Pale Fire” is a pretty enigmatic novel, written as a commentary on a poem called “Pale Fire” by a famous poet (and neighbor to the narrator) named John Shade. The author of the Commentary (and the novel’s narrator) is Dr. Charles Kinbote whose morality, identity and authority are questionable throughout the entire text.
The novel is divided into a Forward-the actual poem Pale Fire-the Commentary on the poem-and finally an Index. I read the novel linearly from page one to the end. You could read it by flipping back and forth between the Commentary and the poem, but you would be wasting your time, as the Commentary really has nothing to do with the poem it is supposed to be commenting on.
The novel lends itself to a myriad of interpretations, none of which I am going to examine here. Do that for yourself, I don’t want to foist an interpretation on you.
The biggest strength of “Pale Fire” is the characterization of its narrator by Vladimir Nabokov. I had read only a few pages of the Forward and Dr. Kinbote was clearly established as a real person, and he is a great character. I would have no desire to know him, but he is most certainly real. He is a delusional and very lonely man, desperately in need of companionship. And in some traits he is like most of us, and probably not in a manner we are comfortable with.
“Pale Fire” is an intriguing and very different read. Nabokov is clearly mocking academics, literary criticism, the culture of the 1950s, and even the reader themselves. It is not your usually reading experience, but it is a worthwhile one.
44 people found this helpful
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Sonnet A. Fitzgerald
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Nothing like I expected, and so much fun!
Reviewed in the United States on March 27, 2015
We read this for book club, and when I picked it up I aged through it and thought, "Oh. Fantastic. A poem and commentary from the 1950, that''s going to be a snooze-fest." I could not have been more wrong. This is possibly the best book I have ever read: hilarious... See more
We read this for book club, and when I picked it up I aged through it and thought, "Oh. Fantastic. A poem and commentary from the 1950, that''s going to be a snooze-fest." I could not have been more wrong. This is possibly the best book I have ever read: hilarious deadpan satire and a suspenseful thriller in one!

Reading it is like watching a SNL skit come to life. The poem is fabulous, let''s start there. If you like poetry at all, you''ll be enchanted by it. If you don''t, don''t worry it''s short. Then the commentary starts out kind of blah blah blah.... until you realize the neighbor who wrote it was psychotic, a narcissist, and stalking the author! His over-the-top comments are so bad, they''re hysterical. The ending commentary goes into details about the commentator''s life and escape from a fictional government uprising, and develops the whole thing into a work of fiction that twine the two men''s lives together.

10/10. Highly recommended. It''s so different than anything else out there, and I enjoyed every minute.
46 people found this helpful
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Anne Mills
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
A Beautiful Glittering Jewel of a Book
Reviewed in the United States on March 22, 2016
This beautiful and complicated novel rewards the reader on several levels, and that''s just on first reading. It is elegantly structured. The first level looks simple enough -- an introduction of a poem, the poem itself, and then a series of notes on the poem -- but this... See more
This beautiful and complicated novel rewards the reader on several levels, and that''s just on first reading. It is elegantly structured. The first level looks simple enough -- an introduction of a poem, the poem itself, and then a series of notes on the poem -- but this explodes into complexity when you begin to understand just how unreliable a narrator we are dealing with, and just how wild are his beliefs about the poem (and about everything?) That makes it into a bit of a mystery. Who is the narrator? what is his real relation to the poet. The language of course is gorgeous (this is Nabokov, after all). Finally the whole thing is terribly funny, as an examination of delusion and as a takedown of the American liberal arts college. I plan to re-read the book, and to read a book of criticism about it ( Brian Boyd''s "''Pale Fire'': The Magic of Artistic Discovery"). After that I may revise the review, but for now I can only say how glad I am that I finally read it.
33 people found this helpful
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Michael McKee
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
I stayed up past midnight reading it (spoilers)
Reviewed in the United States on April 28, 2019
Nabokov''s beautiful, deranged composition appears to inspired different reactions in everyone who read it. I looked it and saw a tale of insanity disguised as a literary critic. Our so-called hero, a closeted gay man who suffers from schizophrenic delusions and suicidal... See more
Nabokov''s beautiful, deranged composition appears to inspired different reactions in everyone who read it. I looked it and saw a tale of insanity disguised as a literary critic. Our so-called hero, a closeted gay man who suffers from schizophrenic delusions and suicidal impulses, becomes obsessed with the work of a neighboring poet who he assumes is translating his own fantasies into verse. What might be turned into a simple thriller by a less conventional writer becomes instead a rich and gripping table of madness, literature, and language that will not be swiftly forgotten.
The misplaced introduction (at least they admit that it is misplaced, to guide us away from spoilers) is interesting, although it mainly hinges on an assumption that people who read this book will either have forgotten or completely missed the dust jacket, causing them to be surprised when it turns out that their adventure story is being narrated by a madman. It has its values, but is of no importance to the larger store.
When seen through modern eyes, the book triggers terms such as "mental illness," "stalking," or even "LGBT"--words that certainly would have baffled the author were they used around him. One has to wonder how much of King Charles'' life is a glamorous distortion of Kinbote''s reality--the flight through the mountains might be an escape from a mental hospital or Russian Communists (or both), the adoring queen might morph into a coldly indifferent ex-wife, the glorious aviator king might wither into a suicidal with a weakness for high shelves. The "northern country" of Zelma could lurk anywhere from the frosty heart of Russia to the upper folds of the brain. It is impossible to say.
From the seeds of sweet poetry spring dark and delusional prose. A fine enough meditation on life and death is corrupted and magnified by one man''s desperate obsession. Nabokov bathes in glorious insanity, bending every rule of the conventional novel. He''s going on a ride to Crazytown, or a fantasy kingdom, or a college campus (don''t they all mean the same thing?) and invites us to travel with him. So take a breath and jump in, while remembering to trust nothing that you hear. And be not to skip the Index!
7 people found this helpful
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Eric
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
A fun puzzle by one of the great 20th century authors
Reviewed in the United States on May 8, 2018
This was an amazing read, and my first exposure to Nabokov. Effortless verse, beautiful prose, but most of all, an intricate, multi-layered story. Important: this book has been analyzed at length in the decades since it was published, so if you want to avoid... See more
This was an amazing read, and my first exposure to Nabokov. Effortless verse, beautiful prose, but most of all, an intricate, multi-layered story.

Important: this book has been analyzed at length in the decades since it was published, so if you want to avoid spoilers, don''t Google *anything* until you''re finished.
15 people found this helpful
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Dave Cullen
4.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Brilliant writing, but heavily a lit-world in-joke
Reviewed in the United States on July 31, 2020
Hmmmmm. I''ve rarely been so conflicted in a response. And my 4 stars should be 3.5. And I totally think I need to revisit this in 6 months, where my start could change anywhere from 3 to 5. The definitely won''t drop below 3, because the writing was brilliant,... See more
Hmmmmm. I''ve rarely been so conflicted in a response. And my 4 stars should be 3.5. And I totally think I need to revisit this in 6 months, where my start could change anywhere from 3 to 5.

The definitely won''t drop below 3, because the writing was brilliant, which is barely the word--it''s Nabokov, the master, so I guess I''ll use the rare word genius.

It''s the whole setup of it that''s in question. It was incredibly fun for awhile, and wildly inventive (Hmmmmm--I think it just went back up to at least 4 stars. I sometimes forget that Reading it NOW, 60 years later, I''m immersed in a lit world made possible by this book. "Wildly inventive" also means incredibly influential, creating other things that now make it more of a shrug.) But...

But...

The joke grew a bit tiresome for me. Also, it was such an inside joke--so much of the cleverness directed at lit criticism, lit departments (a bit), and just the lit world. Ho hum. Definitely feels like it was written by a lit prof, doing an deliciously savage satire of his rarified lit world. I just really don''t care that much.

And finally, this last "issue" is specific to me, but a lot of you, so if you''re a poetry aficionado, please ignore. The poem at the center of it wasn''t really the point, at least for me, but was a huge part of it, including the (I think) intentionally bad parts--though a quick check online demonstrated a completely divide world on that: Many contend the whole poem is a prank, intentionally awful, while others praise its beauty, even its greatness as a work unto itself. It seems like a truly wondrous and fascinating game, but available only to deep readers and true aficionados of poetry, and I don''t qualify.

(If that seems like a silly argument, try it with jazz, or much better for the poetry crowd, country music. Imagine a book built around a famous country music artist, with his/her entire lyric catalog at the core--or complete lyrics to perhaps 50 songs--and much of the joy of the experience came in appreciating the beauty of some lines/songs, and laughing at the idiocy of others. For all of you who shrug or roll your eyes at country music, and have no way in, or ability to discern--and where just wading through them is a painful chore . . . That book would be doomed in some sense -- you''re not going to get the full promise of it.

Which perhaps makes me unqualified to review it, but I think that''s nonsense: it was published for a general audience, widely read, and recommended for non poets... I think it would be fair, perhaps to segregate reviews between for poetry-lovers and non, and feel free to put me in the latter camp.

I long ago decided that I would not attempt to review how good I thought books/films/music/art are for OTHER PEOPLE--what an absurd pursuit--or objectively "best," for something so subjective, but merely what worked for me. (And when relevant, disclose my subjectivity.) This worked for about 4 stars.
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Bryan DesmondTop Contributor: Dragon Ball Z (TV Show)
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
within cells interlinked
Reviewed in the United States on July 23, 2021
It turns out that Vladimir Nabokov—one of the most acclaimed novelists of the 20th century—is a brilliant writer. Who knew? I''ve only ever known him as "the Lolita guy", but whatever I expected out of him it wasn''t this. His writing is smart, layered, witty. It''s... See more
It turns out that Vladimir Nabokov—one of the most acclaimed novelists of the 20th century—is a brilliant writer. Who knew? I''ve only ever known him as "the Lolita guy", but whatever I expected out of him it wasn''t this. His writing is smart, layered, witty. It''s contextually beautiful and expertly crafted. The man is an incredible poet, and Pale Fire is, frankly, an early postmodern tour de force.

The book is presented in three parts. An autobiographical poem by John Francis Shade, a foreword by writer Charles Kinbote introducing that poem, and then Kinbote''s commentary analyzing the same. Now, given that both of these gentlemen are fictional, as is the poem Pale Fire itself, what this really is is Nabokov completely dismantling narrative structure and reimagining what a novel can be. So, summing up. It''s a book called Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov which consists of a poem called Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov as John Shade and it includes a foreword and commentary by Vladimir Nabokov as Charles Kinbote. Capeesh?

The way he chose to write it really is fascinating. Because you end up with two vastly different narrators with vastly different voices. The poem itself is a brilliant meditation on death and what comes after, and the foreword and commentary are so different in tone and in motive that one can hardly reconcile that the same man is guiding the pen.

The fun of it comes when you realize that Kinbote is about as unreliable a narrator as they come, and then you start asking questions about our dear Zemblan exile. Because the truth, along with the motives behind possibly hiding that truth, become a puzzle. But what are those puzzle pieces made of? Questionable inentions, rampant insincerity, ingenuous praise? Or genuine warmth, legitimate admiration, overwhelming respect? Is this the height of pretension, or a touching tribute? Is this a seizing of power and platform, a slimy way to get one''s story told? Is it... all... phoney? The answers to these questions, in so far as there are any answers, probably lie somewhere in the middle of this spectrum. And therein lies the fun.
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William Adams
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Kindle format has been fixed--if it was ever bad.
Reviewed in the United States on May 31, 2015
This review is for the reader who shares my high opinion of the novel and wants to know if it is safe to buy the Kindle edition. There are several reviews, all a few years old, saying that the Kindle formatting is unacceptable. I can only say that as of May 2015, the... See more
This review is for the reader who shares my high opinion of the novel and wants to know if it is safe to buy the Kindle edition. There are several reviews, all a few years old, saying that the Kindle formatting is unacceptable. I can only say that as of May 2015, the formatting is fine. Of course, as you would expect, the poem wants to be read in landscape mode and not too large a font to preserve the integrity of the lines. And you should realize, as perhaps some of those early readers did not, that not all note references or line numbers are supposed to be hypertexted. In fact, none of the numbers in the text of the poem are footnotes, only line numbers, and you aren''t supposed to be able to click on them. Then, when you get to the commentary, and see something like "Lines 1-4: I was the shadow of a waxwing slain, etc." on a separate line by itself, you aren''t supposed to be able to click on that either. Basically, you''re meant to review a big chunk of the poem at one go, lay down a bookmark, and then go back to your Commentary bookmark and read the notes for that chunk before going back to your last poem bookmark, pretty much the way you would read it as a paper book.
[If you''ve read the book on paper, you know this is true: The poem is no more as accessible with the footnotes as without, and much easier and more pleasurable to follow with no wildly irrelevant interruptions for them. And strangely enough, the commentary is no different -- once you''ve begun it, you have enough work ahead of you teasing out its story without constantly flipping back to the _almost_ irrelevant poem, and in fact, despite my suggestion of reviewing it in chunks, you might not reread the poem at all during the commentary. I''m sure many admirers of the book do not.]
Now, _within_ the commentary, Kinbote presents additional notes that would take you out of this order of reading (under the note for Line 1-4, for instance, he says at one point "(see Foreword)" and at another ("See also lines 181-182.") _These_ notes are hypertexted for your convenience, so that you can click on them, jump to their referents, and return to place with the Back key. Those are the only kind of notes it''s useful to have in hypertext, and although I think a few -- a very few -- have been missed, in all other cases, what you should want in hypertext _is_ in hypertext.
Remember, this is not like a normal annotation-by-editor, where you might want to see hyperscripts all through the poem and be able to click on one to read the handy little note associated with it (like the meaning of a French phrase or something) and then click right back to the poem and keep going. None of _these_ notes are actually handy or useful for understanding the poem and you would never want your first reading of the poem to be interrupted by any of them. The whole commentary is a madman''s interpretation of the poem which has to be appreciated in a second reading. For that purpose, the little excerpts from particular lines that start off each of these crazy comments are all that you need, you won''t need or want to go back and re-re-read additional lines of the poem at that point, Kinbote has already told you what he is referring to.
Now, I''m not going to argue that getting around the Kindle edition is as easy as reading a cheap paperback you can dog-ear the pages of, but it''s not _hard_ to bookmark and read (easier on some models of Kindle than others, I imagine) and -- more to the point -- it is not true that the editors have made it harder by mis-formatting it. I am glad to have one of my favorite novels on the Kindle, and if you love the book and love your Kindle, don''t be afraid to try it.
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Top reviews from other countries

Hammie
4.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Buy a hard copy!
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on March 4, 2020
I came on here to say, "Don''t buy the kindle version, get a hard copy!" There is a lot of to-ing and fro-ing with the footnotes, and even if like me you give up on that and decide just to read straight through front-to-back, there are still times when you want to check the...See more
I came on here to say, "Don''t buy the kindle version, get a hard copy!" There is a lot of to-ing and fro-ing with the footnotes, and even if like me you give up on that and decide just to read straight through front-to-back, there are still times when you want to check the references- within-references, and this would all be so much easier with a hard copy. As for content, I''ve just finished and enjoyed it, but I feel the need to read some of it again as there were parts that I didn''t take in on the first reading. This could keep me going for a while...
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Martin Jones
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
An Internet Rabbit Hole From 1962
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on October 16, 2020
Pale Fire, Vladimir Nabokov’s 1962 novel, is also the name of an autobiographical poem the book contains, by fictional academic and poet John Shade – a moving and humorous piece, which sets reflections on mortality alongside riffs about such topics as Gillette razor...See more
Pale Fire, Vladimir Nabokov’s 1962 novel, is also the name of an autobiographical poem the book contains, by fictional academic and poet John Shade – a moving and humorous piece, which sets reflections on mortality alongside riffs about such topics as Gillette razor advertising. Following John Shade’s death, Pale Fire, the poem, falls into the hands of Charles Kimbote, the unfortunate poet’s neighbour, who has arrived from an imaginary east European country, called Zembla, to teach at the local university. Kimbote holes up in a motel where he works on an annotated version of Pale Fire. Through a series of bizarre and misguided factual associations, he attempts to show how the poem reflects much of his own life. I read Pale Fire as a Kindle edition, and I’m not the first to see that the book is similar to a web document. Taking the form of a commentary, there are naturally many links jumping between poem and explanatory notes. Kimbote careers around his own self-centred web of crazy connections. His thought process is reminiscent of one of those internet algorithmic cul-de-sacs that can take personal quirks and prejudices and turn them into a firm belief in a flat Earth or the evils of 5G. Using an older analogy you could say that Pale Fire is like a hall of mirrors. But we shouldn’t forget that both internet and hall of mirrors can be a source of fun. So it is fitting that Pale Fire has some very funny sections – such as the account of an assassination attempt where an incompetent hit-man has to keep interrupting the business of assassination to deal with severe diarrhoea. If you want to have fun, and learn a few things about truth and delusion, I highly recommend Pale Fire. It’s beautifully written, whether dealing with the common place or the elevated. It’s also strangely modern, seemingly waiting for the internet to really show its potential.
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S Litton
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Classic
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on March 3, 2016
I was prepared for this to be complex, multi-layered, dense and allusive, which it is. What I didn''t expect was that it would be quite so funny. Kinbote is a hilariously pompous buffoon to rank alongside Ignatius J. Reilly, although he also, particularly at the end,...See more
I was prepared for this to be complex, multi-layered, dense and allusive, which it is. What I didn''t expect was that it would be quite so funny. Kinbote is a hilariously pompous buffoon to rank alongside Ignatius J. Reilly, although he also, particularly at the end, displays glimmerings of self-awareness which turn him into a rather tragic figure. It''s like a house of mirrors which defies attempts to establish who or what is "real". The wikipedia page lists any number of theories as to which characters are aliases or aspects of others, which is fascinating but, I feel, misses the point: the book is satirising critics and their over-elaborate analyses. By the way, Mary McCarthy''s painfully pretentious introduction almost put me off reading it at all, but afterwards I found out that she was a noted satirist in her own right - maybe her introduction is part of the joke...?
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David S Welham
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Philosophical, brain-teasing and written with extraordinary panache.
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on August 22, 2019
Nabukov deploys his wide vocabulary with extraordinary panache and inventiveness, coining new words or putting old ones to surprising use. His vast learning in literature, philosophy and science is on vividly on display and you sense a real Nabukov showing off behind...See more
Nabukov deploys his wide vocabulary with extraordinary panache and inventiveness, coining new words or putting old ones to surprising use. His vast learning in literature, philosophy and science is on vividly on display and you sense a real Nabukov showing off behind characters of ambiguous and multiple identity and events which may or may not have happened. But the convoluted result - at one level the ingenious game of a precocious child - does raise real questions about what can be real in a mutable world where darkly through a glass see little yet invent much.
4 people found this helpful
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Andrew C
2.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
All structure, little substance
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on December 3, 2019
This ''novel'' takes the form of annotations to a poem that have little to do with the poem and more to do with the story of an exiled king of a non-existent country. The annotator may or may not be that king. There is an affinity with other experimental literary writers such...See more
This ''novel'' takes the form of annotations to a poem that have little to do with the poem and more to do with the story of an exiled king of a non-existent country. The annotator may or may not be that king. There is an affinity with other experimental literary writers such as Borges or Pavic but, while with their works you learn new facts and enjoy passages of beauty, this just seems a puerile version of Ruritania told pretentiously.
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