One of the most intricately crafted novels of all time, Pale Fire consists of an epic poem and the narrator's "academic" footnotes to same.

The narrator is a college professor in "Appalachia, USA," and the poem (the only fair copy of which the narrator takes into hiding with him) was written by a recently murdered colleague. The narrator is also totally insane, and sees in his friend's pastoral account of mid-20th century family life clues about his own delusional situation. He claims to be royalty in exile from a nonexistent far-off land and feels sure that his friend's assassin had been after him.

Thus the footnotes take over the work and twist its simple message into a vast tale of paranoia from the vantage point of a woman-hating, vegetarian, suicidal academic on the verge of total breakdown.

A perfect example of Nabokov's famed wit and skill with prose (he wrote this one in English, by the way), Pale Fire comes highly recommended. It's also a fairly quick read, terribly funny, and accessible to anyone who's experienced college literature training. I'd recommend it as a first foray for those who've not yet had the joy of reading one of the greatest prose stylists of any age.

Interesting to me that I didn't even really comment on the poetry but sang the praises of the prose only. Well done, kwyjibo, you're quite right about the poem as well.

Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov begins with a beautiful poem of symmetry. It speaks of the suicide of the poet's daughter and his search for answers. Let me copy the opening lines:

I was the shadow of the waxwing slain
By the false azure in the windowpane;
I was the smudge of ashen fluff - and I
Lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky.

The bird thinks the reflection of the sky in the window is an extension of the space around it. It strikes and kills itself on the window, and the poet projects himself in the image of this bird's soul leaving its body to fly on into the afterlife.

These lines echo some themes of death and reflection throughout the poem. While I'm not nearly as articulate enough to express my own interpretation of these lines, I find the imagery quite beautiful. The parallels of the bird to the poet's daughter, for instance, might be valid -- both were quite fragile and were 'deceived', innocently enough, by the promise shown before them.

The foreward and commentary are written by another character, one who seems quite deranged yet is humorous because of his blindness to his own faults. Through the information he supplements (if you could call it as such) to each line of the poem, two additional stories unfold. It is with great skill that, in a single piece of work, Nabokov can intertwine poetry and prose; stories of regicide, homicide, and suicide; and unrequited admiration.

This book utterly frustrated me for the first while... I remember reading Annie Dillard's Living By Fiction and thinking to myself, "She must be exaggerating... no novel could possibly require note-taking to be enjoyed." And so, having added several titles to my reading list from the selection of works Dillard uses to illustrate the principles of fiction, I picked up Pale Fire, which quickly proved me wrong about not needing to take notes. After struggling through the first fifty pages or so of the notes to the poem (But this transparent thingum does require/ Some moondrop title. Help me, Will! Pale Fire.), I gave up, got a little notebook, and started sketching out the relations between words and characters and places and things and my impressions about them as I read... there is just no way to keep up with the web of relationships and events in your head. Besides which, it's just easier to appreciate the symmetry of the structure Nabokov used to build his story.

I can safely say that Pale Fire is the first book that has actually made me work, hard! to enjoy it. I can also safely say it was worth the effort. Get a copy of Pale Fire and a notebook - it is quite a rewarding read.

The device of footnotes taking over the main body of a novel was used by Flann O'Brien in The Third Policeman, where at times the footnotes actually swamp the main body of the text, which is reduced to three or four lines at the very top of the page. It is never totally clear who is writing the footnotes, which gather together academic comments from several different sources, many of whom are as unhinged as the author they are critiquing.

Aside from the comic effect which both authors make use of, O'Brien uses this device as part of The Third Policeman's infinite spiral into the nothingness of meaning, whereas Nabokov was, I feel, primarily interested in the development of character through this and various other devices.

Nabokov’s “Baffling Mirror:” Unreliable Narration and Reality in Pale Fire

A mirror facing a mirror on an opposite wall will cast the image of any objects inside the room onto mirrors within mirrors until fading into hazy infinity. A writer attempting to imprison reality inside the confines of paper resembles the row of mirrors attempting to reflect infinity. Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire not only echoes this attempt, but it also demonstrates his desire to blur the edges of reality. In Pale Fire, Nabokov creates a maze of allusions and allegories that defy complete explication, but the sheer beauty of his prose makes it well worth the time and effort it takes to read and understand the novel. Of course, the author intends his work to be difficult to comprehend. His first literary project translated Through the Looking Glass into Russian, and his literary corpus displays an innate love for the absurd and cryptic. Besides his extraordinary cast of characters and a repertoire of deadpan humor, Nabokov employs unreliable narration to illustrate his belief that art creates its own reality. In order to understand more thoroughly what the author wishes to achieve in Pale Fire, the reader must endeavor to understand not only Nabokov’s intentions, but also exactly what constitutes unreliable narration and the many ways it can function in a literary novel, as well as how it shapes Pale Fire.

The book claims to focus on a 999-line poem divided into four cantos and written by a deceased poet named John Shade. Shade meant the poem to be a thousand lines, but a lunatic gunman murdered him just before he finished it. However, the foreword and commentary after the poem by a man named Charles Kinbote contain the real story. Nabokov creates two characters and two mythical worlds: the painfully mundane New Wye, Appalachia, and Kinbote’s supposed homeland Zembla. The complexity arises in deciding where reality leaves off and fantasy begins; readings of the novel have produced many different ideas from critics. Some believe that Zembla and even John Shade are merely figments of Kinbote’s deranged imagination, while others cling zealously to the reality of Zembla and wonder why Kinbote’s writing seems more skilled than that of the poet he venerates. Kinbote presents a classic case of an unreliable narrator, so Pale Fire leaves plenty of room for interpretation, which makes a close reading of the book difficult.

Because Nabokov employs changeable strategies to ensure confusion, the reader must approach the text without taking the printed words at face value. After all, Nabokov populates his novels with a “gallery of characters that consists almost exclusively of neurotics and lunatics” (qtd. in Wilson 88). Before deciding how to approach the novel’s scholarly quandaries, the reader must first decide how much of Kinbote’s narrative he will believe and the role played by unreliable narration, which Zerweck calls a mediator “…between the real—i.e., the extratextual elements a literary text can select from the empirical world—and the imaginary, which is evoked by the signs of the represented world” (168). The original definition of an unreliable narrator, which was coined by Wayne C. Booth in 1961, is a narrator who does not act or “{…}speak{…} in accordance with the norms of the work (which is to say the implied author’s norms)” (qtd. in Zerweck 151). Once the reader decides how he will approach the narration, he can “resolve ambiguities and textual inconsistencies” by blaming them on the unreliability of the narrator (151).

The most telling aspects of the unreliable narrator lie in the discrepancies between what the main character says and what the reader perceives by reading between the lines of what the character says. As Zerweck states, “Without being aware of it, unreliable narrators continually give the reader indirect information about their idiosyncrasies and state of mind” (157). For example, Kinbote reveals to the reader exactly how much he obsesses over Shade not only when he details spying on the poet’s windows every night, but especially when he observes the light flicking on in the bedroom window and remarks that “{…} according to my deductions, only two nights had passed since the three-thousand-nine-hundred-ninety-ninth time—but no matter” (157). Sybil, Shade’s wife, and Kinbote despise each other immediately and utterly upon meeting. Sybil calls Kinbote, “an elephantine tick; a king-sized botfly; a macaco worm; the monstrous parasite of genius” (171-172).

Conversely, Kinbote counts himself as Shade’s only true friend, but the reader observes differently when Kinbote recounts in his index the work of a V. Botkin, a Russian-bred American scholar and the “king-bot, maggot of extinct fly that once bred in mammoths and is thought to have hastened their phylogenetic end” (306). Also note the distinct similarities between Vladimir Nabokov and V. Botkin; Nabokov studied butterflies; Botkin merely studied flies. Moreover, the reader discovers that the Zemblan word for regicide is “Kinbote,” an indication that while Gradus (Jack Grey) allegedly hunts a Zemblan king, Kinbote engages in a different kind of regicide, namely that of John Shade and his prose (257).

As early in the novel as the foreword, Kinbote demonstrates his unreliability. While he never fails to refer to his looks or manners as handsome and regal, his colleagues name him the “Great Beaver,” and one woman corners him to say: “I fail to see how John and Sybil can stand you. {…}What’s more, you are insane” (24-25). Although these instances evidence his unreliability, problems within the text exist as to understanding exactly how much and what kind of an unreliable narrator Kinbote represents. Mary Patricia Martin and James Phelan recently catalogued six different kinds of unreliability: “misreporting, misreading, misevaluating, underreporting, underreading, and underregarding” (qtd. in Zerweck 152).

Kinbote’s character exhibits all of these characteristics to some extent, but he predominantly misreports, underreads, and misreads. By flipping back and forth from note to note following Kinbote’s command, the reader finds examples of misreported information. In his commentary to Line 12, Kinbote stresses that in a first draft of his poem that he did not include in the final text, Shade wrote: “Ah, I must not forget to say something / That my friend told me of a certain king” (74). Much later, in the commentary to Line 550, he confesses that “{…}the two lines given in that note {line 12} are distorted and tainted by wistful thinking” and that he had “{…}tarried, in {his} distress and disappointment, on the brink of falsification” (228).

In his commentary to lines 433-434, Kinbote, instead of discussing Sybil, the subject of the lines, continues his story detailing the Zemblan king’s escape from imprisonment in his own castle. Near the end of his commentary to these lines, Shade asks Kinbote how he could possibly know the intimate details of the King’s life, and Kinbote replies that one day he will tell him “an ultimate truth, an extraordinary secret,” (215). While the reader realizes that Shade has already guessed Kinbote’s ‘secret’, Kinbote remains unaware of this fact due to underreading.

Furthermore, when Kinbote barges into a party one day, he finds Shade saying, “That is the wrong word{.} {…}One should not apply it to a person who deliberately peels off a drab and unhappy past and replaces it with a brilliant invention” (238). Kinbote misreads the context of this defense completely and cannot supply the missing word, which the reader will guess as “lunatic” or a similar word. Aside from Kinbote’s faulty narration, Nabokov also brings word games and word play into the text to further baffle the reader. When Kinbote rants about poetry bringing people to life, Shade replies, “Sure, sure, {…}One can harness words like performing fleas and make them drive other fleas” (214). With truth within the text either non-existent or buried inside Nabokov’s mind, the readers really do resemble fleas driven by the author’s pen to near madness.

Instead of haphazard confusion, Nabokov constructs a meticulous and exact literary labyrinth. A Novel like Pale Fire takes “{…}as its target certain narrative conventions, certain habits of reading, and finally, the function and status of the novel itself” (Gibson 114). Nabokov knows what the conventions of the modern novel are, and he twists these around in a way that can leave the reader feeling lost. The reader expects some kind of problem at the beginning of the novel, but he also expects a dénouement and final resolution of the problem. What the reader does not expect is a foreword, poem, and commentary all contrived by the author and with the commentary containing the real meat of the novel.

However, the reader must note that this form of dual realization is arguably Nabokov’s most benign goal. Wily author that he is, it is likely that forcing readers to address highly volatile issues and especially bewildering academia constitutes his aim, or at least not far from it. Nabokov says:

My private tragedy, which cannot, and indeed should not, be anybody’s concern, is that I had to abandon my natural idiom, my untrammeled, rich, and infinitely docile Russian tongue for a second-rate brand of English, devoid of any of those apparatuses—the baffling mirror, the black velvet backdrop, the implied associations and traditions—which the native illusionist, frac-tails flying, can magically use to transcend the heritage in his own way. (Nabokov 288)

Nabokov even describes himself as a magician, if one of mediocre quality. Obviously, most readers perusing Nabokov’s writing will not find any lack in his use of the English language; indeed, his descriptive powers often shame those of writers whose native language is English.

As Zerweck states, “Through tantalizing allusions to a variety of genres and through an interminable intertextual network, {Nabokov} constructs an extremely intricate and entangled narrative, avoiding the ends associated with those genres and misdirecting any readerly desire for closure” (152). As an avid game (and especially chess) player, he frequently introduces chess moves and riddles into his works. Nabokov loves word play, as he proves time and time again in Pale Fire. His work demonstrates a clear love affair with the English language: “because language is entangled, its most powerful effects are experienced only from close proximity. Language is always beckoning, invoking its users into a circle together, and always drawing its overhearers up close, into its secrets” (Wilson 78).

Nabokov uses many linguistic constructs to tantalize and titillate his readers; one of his favorite types of word play involves anagrams, words with the letters rearranged to spell other words. In Lolita, for instance, “Vivian Darkbloom” is the name of a character, and it is also an anagram of Vladimir Nabokov’s name. In one of the notes from the commentary, Kinbote remembers when he and Shade discussed mirror words such as spider (redips) and T. S. Eliot (toilest). In effect, Nabokov’s characters become mirrors that reflect his own desire to play word games and reconstruct reality. This theme of the mirror image or doppelganger consistently appears in Nabokov’s works. Although Pale Fire does not employ this theme as much as some of his other works, he still uses a series of reflected images to unfurl the distant, billowing banners of Zembla, the “…land of reflections,” as Kinbote names it (265). Even the title of the novel comes from a quote from Shakespeare’s play Timon of Athens: {…}the moon's an arrant thief, and her pale fire she snatches from the sun{…},” which reflects not only Kinbote’s pallid visage as he attempts to impress his wild dreams into Shade’s poem but also the author’s attempt to capture the “fire” of existence and transcribe it to paper.

In fact, the entirety of Nabokov’s work is often a mirror reflecting the ethics and ideas of the implied author; one of the rambling notes of Kinbote’s commentary discusses the paintings on the walls of the royal castle of Zembla. The artist, Eyestein, specializes in trompe l’oeil, and “{…}among his decorations of wood or wool, gold or velvet, he would insert one which was really made of the material elsewhere imitated by paint;” Kinbote goes on to say that “{…}’reality’ is neither the subject nor the object of true art which creates its own special ‘reality’ perceived by the communal eye” (130). The paintings on the wall effectively analogize Kinbote’s situation, and Kinbote’s comment about reality not only reveals Nabokov’s feelings about art, it also specifies certain aspects of his character’s belief system.

Carefully examining statements such as those quoted above is one of the only ways to find out more about the character of Kinbote because “{t}he elusiveness of characters stems always from, not the arbitrary quantity of details that have been poured into their construction, but their perspective upon the fictional world they inhabit, the angle or, even, the ‘dialogic angle’ of their existence in that world” (Wilson 87). Nabokov often gives the readers keys to unlock the characters; however, these keys sometimes do not fit the lock by the end of the book. Much like Alice’s experiences in Wonderland, in Pale Fire, “{s}urfaces are seldom what they seem and ‘voices’ are never only the words that are heard, nor even their accents and idiolectic twists, but their ‘angles’ as well; that is, their hidden self-consciousness and the cognitive worlds (of values and beliefs) that animate their verbal articulations” (Wilson 78).

Perhaps the most effective linguistic device that Nabokov utilizes in Pale Fire is that of the riddle, defined as “…an explicit and conventional challenge to readers to ‘read’ or interpret {an} image(s), thereby ‘solving’ a puzzle or enigma, in order to arrive at an understanding of what is signified” (Isaacs 317). The fact that the poem does not include the last line frustrates critics and readers to no end. Many surmise that the ending line must be the same as the beginning, but the problem with this assumption is that while it may be probable for most conventional poems and novels, Pale Fire is an exception from the usual rules. Since the line does not exist, all conjecture becomes disputable. Although the most tongue-in-cheek conundrum in the novel comes from the missing one-thousandth line, a greater riddle exists in the poem.

Throughout his notes as Kinbote details Shade’s process of writing the poem, he feeds Shade crumbs of information about Zembla and its King, certain that Shade’s magnum opus will be a tribute to his “crystal land.” Shade keeps his work private, so Kinbote does not discover until after Shade dies and Kinbote virtually steals the manuscript from under the grieving widow’s nose that the poem is not about Zembla or him at all, a cause for much consternation on his part. However, the reader sees that there is actually much in the poem about Kinbote, just not in the way he wishes and not in a way easily reconciled with the timeline of the novel. For instance, after Kinbote takes the manuscript, he flees to a tiny motel in Utana to write his commentary. Shade writes in the poem “Pale Fire,” “Nor can one help the exile, the old man / Dying in a motel, with the loud fan / Revolving in the torrid prairie night,” which sounds eerily similar to the situation of the exiled King of Zembla (ln 609-611). The poem often refers to this old man, which leads many critics to believe that Kinbote created both Shade and “Pale Fire.”

However, the greatest quandary exists in the first few lines of the poem:

I was the shadow of the waxwing slain
By the false azure in the windowpane;
I was the smudge of ashen fluff—and I
Lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky. (33)

Notice that the lines speak not about the waxwing itself, but about the shadow of the waxwing. This shadow could represent Kinbote as the stalker or twisted reflection of Shade, a gentle poet-bird. It could also represent Gradus, the supposed assassin sent out to kill the supposed King of Zembla. Perhaps it embodies Jack Grey, alter-ego/mirror of Gradus and the escaped lunatic who aims at Kinbote because he believes him to be the judge who sentenced him to prison but misses and instead kills Shade (Pier). The answer could be any or all of these, but Nabokov never tells. As the author says:

The unraveling of a riddle is the purest and most basic act of the human mind. All thematic lines mentioned are gradually brought together, are seen to interweave or converge, in a subtle but natural art form of contact which is as much a function of art as it is a discoverable process in the evolution of personal destiny. (qtd. in Isaacs 318)

The novel, in effect, becomes one great unsolvable riddle housing lesser riddles, which the reader must examine in his search for reality within the text.

Perhaps both the most magical and the most frustrating aspect of Pale Fire is that no matter what sense the reader makes of the text, no matter what box into which he squeezes the rhetoric for categorization, all hopes of understanding its meaning must be shattered once he reads the last paragraph in which Kinbote describes what he might do after Shade’s death:

I may pander to the simple tastes of theatrical critics and cook up a stage play, an old-fashioned melodrama with three principles: a lunatic who intends to kill an imaginary king, another lunatic who imagines himself to be that king, and a distinguished old poet who stumbles by chance into the line of fire, and perishes in the clash between the two figments. (301)

With these lines, Nabokov gently brings the reader back to his nebulous world of unreliable narration and uncertainty. This world defies the constraints of the conventional novel at the same time it embraces the notion that art, a refuge from the grasping and curling fingers of time, creates a reality of its own, which springs from fanned-out sheets of white paper not entirely unlike a magician’s deck of cards.

Brief Interface with the Novel, including Sourcing Info on Zembla

Vladimir Nabokov wrote his superbly original Pale Fire novel primarily in Nice during 1960 and '61, and it was published by Putnam in April, 1962, achieving the bestseller list that summer (Boyd, 1996). It consists of three parts: a thirteen-page Foreword by one character, Charles Kinbote; the final Poem composed in four Cantos of heroic couplets (totaling 999 lines) by another character, John Shade, before he is mistakenly assassinated by a third character, Jakob Gradus; and Dr. Kinbote's 173-page Commentary, which is keyed to lines in the poem. Should a perspicacious reader be wondering what completes the couplet of line 999 ending in "lane," Nabokov intended that it urge us back to line 1:

I was the shadow of the waxwing slain.

This postmodern novel revolves (See O. Pamuk's discussion concerning finding the "center" of a novel, 2010) around a conceit, that Shade's chanson "Pale Fire" unconsciously runs the concurrent course of a plot to assassinate the deposed and escaped monarch of "a distant northern land" called Zembla. Kinbote is that former monarch using a disguised identity (or in some readers' interpretations, an insane visiting professor who believes he is a deposed monarch from Zembla). His Foreword reveals his supercilious ego, and while his thesis of the concurrency is not explicitly stated, his Commentary abundantly amasses purported Zemblan references in the text and parallels between the poem's composition over twenty-one days and the journey of Gradus via Copenhagen, Paris, Geneva, etc. to carry out the assassination plot. This structural conceit allowed Nabokov to craft a marvelously humorous farce concerning literary interpretation, which in effect embellishes his own masterpiece of verse. That proved to be one way to move a long poem into the ranks of bestsellers.

At first, I figured Zembla was simply a renaming of Martin and Sonia's imaginary Zoorland in Nabokov's Glory. When I came across a reference to "Nova Zembla" in Sterne's The Life and Opinions of Tristam Shandy (first pub. c.1761, vol. III, chp. 20) I was onto something, because Boyd failed to include Zembla in his "Notes" for the Library of America's edition of Vladimir Nabokov: novels 1955-1962. Turns out, Dutch seamen called the pair of islands (90650 sq. kilometres) in Barents Sea north of the Ural Mountains "Nova Zembla," which the Russians called Novaya Zemlya. There is also a small, uninhabited island called Nova Zembla off the northeastern coast of Baffin Island, Canada. Nabokov dropped the "Nova" and adjusted the geography in the novel to be an autonomous peninsular kingdom.


  • Nabokov, Vladimir. (1962). Pale fire, reprinted in Vladimir Nabokov: novels 1955-1962 (1996), includes "Chronology" & "Notes" by Brian Boyd. NY: Library of America.
  • Pamuk, Orhan. (2010). The naive and the sentimental novelist (translated fr. Turkish by Nazim Dikbas). Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.
  • Sterne, Laurence. (1967 reprint). The life and opinions of Tristam Shandy. Hamondsworth, Middlesex, UK: Penguin.

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