Pale Fire is undoubtedly Nabokov’s most challenging novel. It opens with a self-indulgent “Foreword” by one Charles Kinbote and continues with a long poem (also entitled “Pale Fire”) by his late friend and colleague John Shade, a professor at a northeastern college and a poet somewhat in the mold of Robert Frost. A wayward, extended “Commentary” and a brief “Index,” both by Kinbote, conclude the novel.
Shade’s poem is written in 999 lines and divided into four cantos. An autobiographical rumination on death and the possibility of life after death, it reaches a poignant apogee in describing the suicide of Shade’s beloved but ungainly daughter Hazel. In his “Foreword,” however, Kinbote argues that the poem is actually “about” something else, and encourages readers to consult his “Commentary” before studying the poem. Kinbote has been regaling his patient friend with absurd stories involving the exiled king of Zembla, Charles the Beloved. Although there is an arctic island called Nova Zembla, there is no country called Zembla outside Kinbote’s imagination. Yet Kinbote is convinced that Shade has incorporated Kinbote’s stories into his poem, and proves it, at least to his own satisfaction, in his bizarre notes.
It may seem obvious that Kinbote is mad, although it is possible to determine from his remarks the general course of events and the particulars of his friend’s fate. Having finished (or...
(The entire section is 441 words.)