Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Pale Fire

This is the fourth Nabokov novel I've read. The first, obviously, was Lolita. A few years ago I also read Laughter in the Dark and The Eye, neither of which I remember anything about except that I didn't particularly care for them. Ada has sat on my TBR list for at least five years. There are others by Nabokov I have long hoped to pick up as well - Pnin and Invitation to a Beheading chief among them, but when your book list runs several hundred long, it's hard to keep up.

So Pale Fire - I didn't know what to expect going in and I will admit that at first I really didn't like it. But as it went on, and the riddle of what was really up with this Kinbote guy got deeper and more bizarre, I started to enjoy it more.

In this novel - you've got this guy, Charles Kinbote, a visiting professor from the country of Zembla (imaginary or not?) who is writing a commentary on his "friend" John Shade's poem. It quickly is apparent that the commentary has nothing to do with the poem but rather dwells on the deposed king of Zembla, also named Charles. Eventually, the reader comes to understand that Kinbote is - or believes he is - this king.

Pale Fire thus presents two possibilities: (1) Kinbote is telling the truth and really is the King of Zembla or (2) he is insane. As the narrative progresses and it appears that he is stalking Shade -finding out where he is vacationing and renting a cabin at the same place - I come down on the side of insanity. But is Zembla real or not? I would guess not, but if it isn't, what the hell is Kinbote doing as a visiting professor at the University? What university would hire someone who claimed to be from an imaginary country?

The structure of the novel presents a slight challenge for reading. Kinbote suggest reading the poem, then the commentary, then the poem again, but I read them both together - a few lines of the poem and then the commentary on those lines. This seemed to work out well.

Overall, I liked Pale Fire - it was interesting and unique. While a reader - myself included - often returns to a writer expecting something similar to the first enjoyed book, and it can be disappointing to find something completely different, but there is definately something to be said for an author who can successfully switch it up for each novel. Nabokov presents something different in each book I read of his (unlike some others on the Modern Library list - James and Lawrence, I'm looking at you!), and I appreciate that. I've read enough by him to know not to expect Lolita II (if not in subject, at least style). Pale Fire really was good, and deserving of a spot on a list of top 100 novels of the 20th century.

No comments: