Pale Fire

“The commentator has the last word.”

Vladimir Nabokov

Pale Fire is one of the few books on my reading list last term that I actually enjoyed. And I don’t mean “enjoyed” in a trying-not-to-betray-the-literary-establishment kind of way, but in the sense that I would actually want to read it for fun.

So why, you may ask, did I not review it before Easter? The answer, Constant Reader, is, er, that I didn’t in fact finish it until yesterday.

Moving on. Pale Fire is a fiendishly clever little novel, if you can call it that. It falls into two parts: a 999-line poem by fictional American poet John Shade, and a commentary and foreword to said poem by the equally fictional Charles Kinbote. Kinbote is, it turns out, at best an obsessive egomaniac, and at worst a delusional lunatic, as his notes to the poem spiral gradually out of control and begin to tell his story instead of Shade’s.

Such fun.

Pale Fire is the only book I own that I’ve annotated sarcastically (in pencil, of course.) Kinbote is astonishingly easy to be sarcastic or just plain annoyed at. For instance:

I am also obliged to observe that I strongly disapprove of the flippancy with which our poet treats, in this canto, certain aspects of spiritual hope which religion alone can fulfil.

No. No, you are not in fact obliged to observe that, because that is not what commentators are for.

See? It’s a highly amusing novel, slightly frustrating because Kinbote won’t shut up about himself, and full of little puzzles that are never quite resolved. There’s also a huge OR IS IT? involved in the ending, which takes all your assumptions up to that point and questions them again (not to give too much away). It’s a brilliant satire on criticism, an enigmatic labyrinth, and, most importantly, a really good story.


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