Pale Fire
by Vladimir Nabokov
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Vladimir Nabokov led a life of exile and tactical
retreat, one that spanned three continents and a
half-dozen nations.  The Nabokov family was
forced to flee the author's native St. Petersburg
following the Bolshevik
revolution.  They lived
briefly in Crimea, then
Britain, where the future
novelist studied at Cam-
bridge, before moving
to Germany.  In 1922,
Nabokov’s father was
assassinated in Berlin
by Tsarist supporter
Piotr Shabelsky-Bork, although he was not the
intended target—an event echoed in scenes of
violent, mistaken death in the author's later
work.   Nabokov remained in Berlin for 15
years, but left for France in 1937, and moved
on to the United States in 1940.   Here he
taught at Wellesley, served as curator of
lepidoptery at Harvard University's Museum of
Comparative Zoology  and wrote his best
known novels, the controversial
Lolita and Pale
.  The financial security produced by Lolita’s
unexpected bestseller status allowed him to
retire to the Montreux Palace Hotel, where he
resided for the rest of his life, continuing to
write such seminal works as
Ada and the
Speak, Memory.
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Readers who encountered Pale Fire when it was first
published in 1962 no doubt marveled over its
unrelenting cleverness.  Here was a novel that was as
smartly structured as a chess problem, as tightly
written as one of those arcane
crossword puzzles for professional
lexicons.  Only a spoilsport—in
this instance, Trotskyite-turned-
anarchist critic Dwight McDonald,
who pilloried it as "unreadable"
at the time—would demur.  I am
more aligned with Mary McCarthy
who, writing in
The New Republic,
Pale Fire as "one of the great
works of art of the century."  With
the passage of time, we can see that
Vladimir Nabokov not only constructed a work of
genius, but anticipated virtually all of the main
themes of the post-modern novel in this multi-
layered conundrum of a book.

Indeed, if this work had come out in, say, 1992, one
might suspect that it was intended as a
parody of the
textual deconstructions of the late 20th Century.  Yet
when Nabokov was first planning
Pale Fire during the
period from 1956 and 1958, Jacques Derrida was still
employed teaching the children of military personnel,
Paul De Man was working on his Ph.D, and the term
"deconstruction" was used only in the demolition
business.  Thus it is more accurate to see Nabokov as
responding to the intensely close readings of text
popularized by the practitioners of so-called
Criticism, (today it would be called old criticism) still in
ascendancy during the 1950s and 1960s, and poking
gentle fun at specific literary models, such as T.S. Eliot’s
accompanying notes to "The Waste Land," in which the
dividing line between poetry, biography and theory were
deliberately blurred.

Pale Fire is ostensibly the text of a poem of the same
name by John Shade, with introduction and commentary
provided by Charles Kinbote, as well as a supplementary
index.   A tragic human interest angle:  shortly after
Shade finished the composition of his 999 line poem, on
July 21, 1959, he was murdered, apparently by an escapee
from an institution for the criminally insane.  In the
aftermath of the crime, Shade’s neighbor Kinbote
undetook to publish and explicate his friend’s final work.

Then again, almost ever one of these "facts" is open to
second-guessing and dispute, and as the reader
progresses through the novel—either moving
sequentially through the pages, or moving back and forth
between poem and notes—a range of alternative
interpretations emerge.   The neighbor Kinbote, for
example, might really be an exiled Zemblan king, better
known as Charles the Beloved, or perhaps a mad Russian
professor—Nabokov, in an interview, nudged readers
toward the latter interpretation—but another reading,
also with some backing from the author, dispenses with
Kinbote entirely, and makes him a construction of

By the same token, the murderer might be Jack Grey. Or
he could be Zemblan Jakob Gradus.  Or it is possible
that there is no murder whatsoever, and that Shade has
concocted the whole thing—a strange but quite plausible
solution to the whole puzzle.  And what a wonderful
post-modern mystery Nabokov would have constructed
if, in fact, there were no body, and Shade not quite a

A half-century after this book first appeared, we have
grown familiar with many of its conceits.  The text-
within-a-text, the unreliable narrator and his self-
contradicting narrative, the jockeying for position
between a story and its interpretation, the characters who
seem to compete with the author for control of the
book—these have become trademarks of the post-
modern tendency in fiction.  Yet has anyone done them
more persuasively than Nabokov in this Chinese puzzle
of a book?  

Ted Gioia's latest book is The Birth (and Death) of
the Cool
New Angles on an Old Genre
Postmodern Mystery
Postmodern Mystery is a web site
devoted to experimental, unconventional
and postmodern approaches to stories
of mystery and suspense
Click on image to purchase
Further Clues:

"Freeing 'Pale Fire' from Pale Fire" by Ron Rosenbaum
(and see response here)

Vladimir Nabokov and Lionel Trilling in TV Discussion

Mary McCarthy's Review of Pale Fire from The New

Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter at
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