Sunday, October 30, 2016


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Pale Fire, Vladimir Nabokov, G P Putnam's Sons, 1962, 301 pp

Summary from Goodreads: An ingeniously constructed parody of detective fiction and learned commentary, Pale Fire offers a cornucopia of deceptive pleasures, at the center of which is a 999-line poem written by the literary genius John Shade just before his death. Surrounding the poem is a foreword and commentary by the demented scholar Charles Kinbote, who interweaves adoring literary analysis with the fantastical tale of an assassin from the land of Zembla in pursuit of a deposed king.  

Foreward to my review: I almost did not post these thoughts about Pale Fire. It is not really a review. It is me whining. Then I thought that most avid readers are at one time or another defeated by a novel. Whether we soldier on to the end or DNF, it can be a blow. Whether we blame the author or ourselves, it is a discouraging experience. So I post this as a tribute to readers who go outside their comfort zones and try other types of books.

My Thoughts:
I was nearly defeated as a reader by this book. I read it, off and on, for several weeks. It is the most oddly constructed novel I have ever come across: An Introduction in the Everyman's Library edition I read, written by someone else; a Foreward by the narrator Charles Kinbote; a poem in Four Cantos by the fictional poet John Shade; a lengthy commentary by Charles Kinbote who fancies himself to be John Shade's friend and the editor of his poem, deconstructing the poem almost line by line.

I skipped the Introduction, as I usually do, saving it to read after finishing the book, because Introductions often contain spoilers. On the advice of several reviewers, I attempted to read the poem and the commentary simultaneously, flipping back and forth between the two. I do not advise this method.

I could tell that Nabokov was at his satirical and literary nadir but I could not quite get a grasp of what he was trying to do. In fact, though I have read and liked some of his other novels, I grew to hate him for being unnecessarily obtuse, for making me feel he was mocking the reader, and for making me feel stupid.

Finally, I went back and read the poem all the way through, then picked up the commentary where I had left off and struggled through to the end. I figured out that Charles Kinbote was the ultimate unreliable narrator and that the satire was working on various levels. 

I have read almost all of the Goodreads reviews of Pale Fire and several others from legitimate newspaper reviews. Anyone who liked the book raves about its "ingeniously constructed parody," its wild inventiveness, wit, suspense, literary one-upmanship, political intrigue, perfect tragicomic balance.

I will grant that Nabokov did all that. I will admit that I was woefully under-prepared as a reader to even remotely appreciate it.  I doubt I ever will be prepared enough, but someday when I have read another 2000 books (the number of books I have read since 1991 when I decided to move on from reading trashy bestsellers and become "well read") I may give Pale Fire another shot.

After finally reaching the end and then reading the Introduction, still feeling like I did not get the joke, I found a review by Mary McCarthy, one of my favorite super smart female writers, and she explained everything I didn't get. "Bolt From the Blue". Despite my reading friends telling me I have read everything, I have not, but already in 1962 Mary McCarthy had.

What Vladimir Nabokov and Pale Fire did for me was restore my humility and make me more determined than ever to read all I can for the rest of my life, from ancient to modern, in all genres. Still, I reserve the right to maintain my current opinion that Mary McCarthy's review is more entertaining than Nabokov's Pale Fire

So please my blog followers and Goodreads friends, tell me: what books have defeated you as a reader? How did you feel? Did you finish those books or throw them against the wall? What have you learned by reading stuff that is over your head or outside your favorite reading categories? Let me know I am not alone!


  1. This is another of those books that I read in my Nabokov period, so long ago now that my memories of it are fuzzy at best. I do recall that it was not my favorite of the lot.

    A book that came close to defeating me was The Alchemist by Paulo Coehlo, simply because I found it utterly ridiculous. I persevered and finished it, but, unlikely all the fervent fans of the book, I remain unenlightened.

    1. You and I are alike in that we finish most books we start. I didn't know you had a Nabokov period. I am impressed. I have never attempted The Alchemist and thanks to you I probably won't ever do so!

  2. I don't think I have ever been that outsmarted by a book, but the little I read of The End of Mr Y by Scarlett Thomas came very close; I got fed up before page 20, I think. I don't have time for authors playing games.

    1. Thank you for your contribution to books that caused you a problem.

  3. Of course Judy, you are not alone. I'm sure a number of books have defeated me. I tried Henry James once when I was young -- and could've thrown a book of his against the wall. I am not a Nabokov fan. I know many think Lolita is the greatest book ever written But Not Me. Blech. So I have no doubt that I would throw Pale Fire into the fire too (so to speak). It's ok to DNF certain books!

    1. Thanks Susan! Nabokov is uneven for me but so many readers I respect were raving so I kept going. I know it is ok to DNF books but I usually have a hard time doing that. Also, many times I have been so glad I did not give up on a book by the end. Henry James is not an author I will revisit. I also gave up on Anthony Powell. I love most British authors I read but those are by women. Hm.