Wednesday, December 25, 2013
Book Review: Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov
I find myself at a loss in trying to think of my own synopsis for "Pale Fire"--I don't think I can do it justice by trying to capture the essence of the novel in my own words--and so instead offer you the one given on the back of my copy: 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-manship, and political intrigue.
After reading that blurb at the bookstore when I was buying my copy of "Pale Fire," I was a little unsure of what the novel was. A poem? A commentary of a poem? And that's what makes this novel--and Nabokov--so ingenious. For those of you who are just as confused as I was prior to reading the book, "Pale Fire" presents a foreword and commentary by the fictional Dr. Charles Kinbote, who the rather peculiar main character we accompany throughout the pages. Sandwiched between his foreword and commentary is the eponymous poem "Pale Fire," which was written by John Shade, Dr. Kinbote's neighbour. Even after reading the first few pages, I was still a little confused by what the novel was meant to be, but as I continued reading Dr. Kinbote's notes in his commentary, I found myself piecing together the puzzle pieces of this strange novel until I got a clearer picture of what Nabokov is doing. It's extremely clever, what he does, even to the point where I'd say that he's creating his own genre, or, at the very least, his own distinct literary form. I've never encountered a book like this before, and the journey that you embark on as you read the novel is such a unique and exciting experience!
Another thing that makes "Pale Fire" such an incredible read is Nabokov's rich and intricate language. Reading the words of the novel was like stepping into a candy shop for book nerds like myself--whimsical, magical and so alive! The purposefully obscure and fancy diction works enticingly well with the atypical syntax of the sentences, capturing the peculiar character of Dr. Kinbote and stamping the novel with Nabokov's trademark writing style. Not only is the language hypnotizing, but the images that they create are breathtakingly beautiful as well. I'll give you an example, the opening couplet of John Shade's poem: "I was the shadow of the waxwing slain / By the false azure of the windowpane." The waxwing, knowledge that Dr. Kinbote eagerly supplies to us, is a type of bird, and those two rich lines describe a bird flying into a glass window, thinking it was the sky. Such a simple image is captured in intensely ornate language, and it's just truly captivating, is all I can say! What's also exciting and clever is the way Nabokov makes allusions to his other novels, like when he mentions Hurricane Lolita, referring to a certain nymphet I've met in his arguably most famous book. Nabokov, you cheeky master of words!
The character of Dr. Charles Kinbote, of course, must not go unmentioned when talking about "Pale Fire." Just like I did with Humbert Humbert in "Lolita," I found myself at once being drawn to and repelled by the dark yet twistedly charming hero (or, perhaps, antihero?) of the novel. You learn a great deal about him not only through the way he speaks in his commentary, but also through the things he reveals in it. He's indubitably narcissistic and passionate, not to mention sly and obsessive. I do think, however, that he puts a sort of distance between himself and his readers, unlike Humbert Humbert, who makes a deliberate attempt to appeal to his audience. It's really interesting, the way Nabokov crafts his main character through his voice and his language, and it's honestly something you have to see for yourself--or, more correctly, he's someone you have to meet for yourself.
Overall, "Pale Fire" is yet another one of Nabokov's darkly whimsical and tantalizing novels, abound with rich, ornate language, a unique novel structure, and, of course, a twisted yet alluring main character. In his novel, Nabokov reminds his readers of what exactly being a reader means, enticing us with undeniably beautiful words and wacky, sly puns. I highly recommend exploring Nabokov's works--it is a trip to a candy shop, or treasure trove, that you cannot miss out on!