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Due to the unique design, exceptional prose and verse, and ability to incite analysis, deep thought and a level of complexity with the possibility to cause utter confusion among average readers, Pale Fire succeeds in affirming Nabokov’s status as one of the most exceptional writers of the twentieth century.  The text is divided into three segments of alternate genres that are generally unexpected in a work of fiction. The first, a sort of biography, explains the relationship between the story’s narrator and famed professor and poet, Dr. John Shade. What follows is a poem, written by the famous poet in the month before his death; it is moving, profound, and has the ability to elicit strong emotions of empathy and sadness in readers. The content surprises and captivates the reader to learn more about the stories being communicated and the influence of non-fiction on the author’s creation.   The final part of the text resolves the some of the mystery behind the poem’s contents. It is an extensive list of commentary and explanations about the poem that are presented in the form of footnotes or supplementary material. Through out the text, the reader want to know: What concepts are based in fiction versus those relating to real-life experiences of the author? Additionally how does one adjust to such an unconventional format?

Beginning the reading, without first examining the history and reception of the work, I was admittedly confused about the techniques Nabokov employs as author of the text. This is because he communicates text from several different viewpoint. The most prominent is via the narrator regarding his opinions and intentions for the text. Still, the more I read the poetry, said to have been composed by the elderly Professor Shade, I realized that this too was the work of Nabokov, posing as another character. The verse was so emotional in its revealing of the most pleasant and painful aspects of the poet’s existence, I was actually moved to tears. But who is intended to take credit for the creation the art, Shade or Nabokov?

He writes about the special qualities of his marriage and the love he still feels for his wife after years of life together:

“And I love you most

When with a pensive nod you greet her ghost

And hold her fist to on your palm, or look

At a postcard from her, found in a book. (43)”

The poet in the text also discusses existential questions he has pondered all his life and the impact of his young daughter disappearing one day. Regarding this experience, he discloses that while others attributed the disappearance to crime or bad luck, both mother and father knew their daughter took her own life. (50)”

After the last line of the poem is complete, the reader feels satisfied in this choice of reading material.  But what follows is a bit more disconcerting.  While admiration is due for the innovation, creativity, and genius of the author exploring new options in the world of fiction, segment three, which contains the footnotes to the poem, lacks the same emotion, clarity, and cohesiveness as the first two segments. I expected more historical background about the author of the poem,such as why he chose to discuss certain aspects in a poem written only days before his death; but, the lines highlighted and explanations given are hard to understand in the context of the poem. Nabokov creates fictive worlds, new countries and rulers.  For example, there are claims that Shade referenced “the crystal land of Zembla, (74)” in one line. Yet, while reading Shade’s poems no mention of Nabokov’s countries “Zembla or Sosed, (75)” occurs. For this reason, there appears to be a different message intended for segments two (poetry) and three (annotation). There is a pervading sense that occurs ans sometimes overwhelms a person reading due to misinterpretation or misunderstanding of Nabokov’s intentions. Still, the innovation and brilliance of much of the text makes it a must read.

While one reader may prefer a certain segment over another, I attest that the poetry makes the rest come together in an artistic and creative fashion, others may like the challenge of interpreting annotations made by Nabokov under the guise of his narrator, Charles Kinbote. For those who enjoy classic, Russian, or any untraditional works, Pale Fire delivers many worthy components.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars

Interested in Nabokov’s Life?  Check out the Pulitzer Prize Winning Biography of the author, his inspiration, guidance,  his wife Vera.:

Schiff, Stacy.  Vera: The Wife of Vladimir Nabokov. Modern Library. ISBN: 0375755349