Monday, 17 January 2000

Vladimir Nabokov: Pale Fire (1961)

Edition: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1962
Review number: 421

After the notoriety gained from his first novel written in English (Lolita), Nabokov's next work was very different. It is a strange novel, written in an unusual style: it takes the form of a scholarly edition of a poem, and the story is told through the foreword and notes. In its virtuosity, it perhaps shows off Nabokov's skills as a writer better than Lolita, though the nature of that story is so powerful as to make evaluation difficult.

Pale Fire is the last work of John Shade, distinguished if old fashioned American poet. He lives in the town of New Wye, where he teaches at the Ivy League Wordsmith College. The editor of the poem is his next door neighbour, Charles Kinbote, who also teaches at the university. Kinbote is a refugee from the Eastern European state of Zembla, where a Russian backed revolution has just ousted the monarchy. In fact, he is the escaped king himself, and he attempts to prompt Shade to write a poem describing his downfall, a lament for the Zemblan monarchy. But extremists from Zembla are trying to trace him all the time, and an assassin has been despatched to kill him. The assassin accidentally kills Shade instead of Kinbote, and that is why Kinbote sets out to edit the poem, initially a disappointment when he sees that it is autobiographical not a Zemblan epic after all. He begins to feel that his adventures - a theme he felt sure no poet could resist - are reflected more subtly in the poem, until he starts to see Zemblan references in every line (a use of the word "crown", for example, must be a way to connect Shade's life with that of Kinbote).

But not everything is necessarily the way it seems, as Kinbote points out at one point. (The name Zembla, after all, is according to Kinbote derived not from its obvious source, the Russian zemlya, land, but from the French sembler, to seem.) He says that there is no way to tell whether Shade was a madman who thought himself a poet, or Kinbote one who thought himself a king. Certainly the way in which there are so many allusions scattered throughout the notes implies an unreality about the whole thing - Charles II of Zembla escapes the country passing through the town of Boscobel, for example. Kinbotes obsession with relating the poem to events in Zembla also tends to make the reader place less confidence in what he says.

Nabokov has used an experimental structure, prose full of external references (I particularly liked the one to Hurricane Lolita devastating the US), and an uncertain narrator - there is more of Kinbote than Shade, but even Shade does not seem to be as good a poet as Kinbote implies. Yet despite this intellectual content, Pale Fire is entertaining, engrossing and amusing.

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