I was so looking forward to reading more Nabokov, but alas, this time around was rather a disappointment. Were my expectations too high? Perhaps they were, but while the writing was quite good, the overall feeling I had while reading Pale Fire was how soon I would be done with it.
The novel is presented as a poem in four cantos, including a foreword, commentary and index. While this form was certainly unique, I got the sense that references to its cleverness would be laughed at by Nabokov rather than bowed to, yet I’m not sure which of the two he was inclined to. With references to both Lolita and Pnin in the poem, it seemed Nabokov was trying for the former, but he strikes me as a man of much more depth. Again, I got the feeling that he was poking fun of academia and the literary community in general.
The poet, John Shade, is the author of the poem entitled Pale Fire, a biographical account beginning in his boyhood up to a day or two before his death. We learn of his young daughter’s suicide and his unanswered questions of death and move the the present and his creative process. He befriends his neighbor, Charles Kinbote, much to the chagrin of his wife, Sybil. What little we learn about John Shade is gleaned through the reading of his poem.
The recent colleague and neighbor, Dr. Charles Kinbote, tries desperately to insinuate himself into his neighbors’ lives, but is prevented from doing so by Sybil Shade. Were it up to the easygoing John , Kinbote would have easily become a fixture in the Shade abode. Kinbote becomes the posthumous editor of Shade’s poem and in his commentary, does much digressing of his own life and does reel himself in for brief interpretations of the poem’s various lines. Kinbote is the man at the party that everyone fears being seated next to, yet he seems unaware of his social defects, yet quite aware of other’s shortcomings. We are left to wonder if he is, indeed, the Beloved and exiled King Charles he has recounted in great detail to John and the reader, or an unstable and overzealous fan of his beloved poet, Mr.Shade.
Nabokov captured the cluelessness of Kinbote with the pulling down of his neighbor’s shades, the absent invitations, etc. While Kinbote was clearly a self-absorbed man (evident by his own lengthy description in the index), more details of other characters would have been welcomed.
Now that I’m not so enthralled with Mr. Nabokov, perhaps I’d feel less intimidated and more at ease in his presence. I think he’d appreciate an honest, down to earth conversation rather than being in the company of those trying to impress him. Perhaps we could chat about his time at Wellesley, Harvard and Cornell.
My rating for Pale Fire is an 8 out of 10.
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