The Pequod Review:
Vladimir Nabokov wrote many fine books, but Pale Fire stands above the rest as his richest and most ingeniously structured novel. The story centers on two men: John Shade, a fictional American poet who was murdered just as he finished his magnum opus, a 999-line biographical poem; and Charles Kinbote, Shade’s next-door neighbor who has taken it upon himself to assemble and publish the poem. The book is comprised of (i) Kinbote’s introduction, (ii) Shade’s poem, (iii) Kinbote’s extensive annotated commentary on the poem, and finally (iv) an index to the entire work. While one initially expects this to be a traditional literary analysis, Kinbote’s commentary grows to take over the novel in ways totally unrelated to Shade’s poem. The book becomes almost entirely about Kinbote himself, revealing his own deep delusions.
Like Humbert Humbert and Timofey Pnin before him, Charles Kinbote is one of Vladimir Nabokov’s most eccentric narrators. He is untrustworthy, narcissistic, and possibly paranoid schizophrenic. He uses the slightest reference in Shade’s poem as a pretext to talk about himself, and he twists and distorts the poem in order to make ridiculous claims about what Shade really intended. As a measure of his delusions, it is revealed over the course of the novel that Kinbote believes he is the exiled ruler of a fantasy kingdom (Zembla), and that actually he was the intended murder victim — by a Zemblan revolutionary who had been sent to assassinate him. It becomes apparent that Kinbote is regarded suspiciously by others, and maybe even feared, as he mentions his tense relationship with Shade and the fact that other Shade scholars didn’t want him to edit the poem.
Kinbote is deranged of course, but part of the book’s pleasure is the way the reader is never entirely sure whether some or all of Kinbote’s account is true. Shade is offstage (having been murdered), Kinbote’s mad voice dominates, and the narrative includes such extensive detail on Zembla that we begin to wonder what is real and what is not. Meanwhile, there are elements of the novel that hint at deeper truths — the self-absorption of literary criticism, the powers of motivated reasoning, and even the nature of reality itself. Kinbote manages to capture all of these at once when he pretentiously explains:
Let me state that without my notes Shade’s text simply has no human reality at all since the human reality of a poem such as his (being too skittish and reticent for an autobiographical work), with the omission of many pithy lines carelessly rejected by him, has to depend entirely on the reality of its author and his surroundings, attachments and so forth, a reality that only my notes can provide. To this statement my dear poet would probably not have subscribed, but, for better or worse, it is the commentator who has the last word.
I suspect if Nabokov were with us today he would be writing witty satires on postmodernism and other relativist theories of knowledge.
These examples only scratch the surface of this endlessly inventive novel. It dazzles from start to finish with alternate interpretations, amusing wordplay, and hidden cultural references. There are even hints that Shade himself may have written the entire work (including Kinbote’s commentary) from the beyond the grave; or the possibility that Kinbote is an alter-ego of a Russian professor who was disliked by Shade. The story is such an intricate puzzle that it allows for not only varying interpretations but even different ways of reading the text itself — either straight through in linear fashion, or jumping back and forth between Kinbote’s commentary and the poem. Vladimir Nabokov has placed enormous faith in the reader’s intelligence to follow him through it all. He is such a talented writer that we do.