Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov

Pale Fire, although lesser-known among the general literary audience, was critically acclaimed and is recognised as one of the greatest 20th-century novels. It is also known as one of the most imaginative, boundary-breaking, and linguistically inventive novels of all time; which is a testimony to the essential plot of the novel, a 999 line poem called Pale Fire written by John Shade, a poet who is murdered. The poem is published by his friend Charles Kinbote, who also annotates the poem but the paradox: He goes too far and reveals more than he should have. So, like Lolita, the novel is divided into four essential parts:

– The first part of the novel is a twenty-page foreword which is narrated by Charles Kinbote. It details his friendship with John Shade, the great poet who is murdered after writing his final poem.
– The second part of the novel is the poem itself composed in 999 lines and titled ‘Pale Fire’, written in a simple language though incomprehensible largely due to the lack of background.
– The third part of the novel is a commentary by Charles Kinbote, which forms the central body of the novel. Now, the novel has already veered into uncanny and strange territory, but here is where things begin to get complex and beautiful in a thrilling fashion. It becomes a classic detective story, a postmodernist first-person narration (unreliable), and further entails global politics, intertextual references and a comical tone is attributed to the many tropes of tragic performances.
– Lastly, the index which is a must-read because it elucidates and clarifies many of the lingering doubts the novel leaves unanswered or up in the air somewhere.

This novel fits the perfect definition and image of the postmodernist novel; laden with intertextual layers of references to the works within the novel, outside of the novel and to the author’s works which are famous in classical literature. It has a complex, multi-faceted and dynamic plot with fully rounded characters (short in scope, fable-like), and the four parts represent different genres and eras of literature, borrowing tropes from tragedy, comedy, thriller and detective novels, noir and espionage fiction where political crises in the global sphere of our world affects the personal lives of characters. In short, everything in this novel has its roots in the literary realm of classical realism, yet Nabokov’s genius tweaks and transfigures the paradoxical events in the novel to make them more dazzling and entertaining. Heterodoxy is inherent in the plot, it takes up classical plotting and transforms it into modern-day issues which touch the deepest emotions of people like sexual insecurity and homosexuality but presents them in a satirical, comic light although never sacrificing the seriousness. The novel is influenced by great writers such as Jorge Louis Borges, James Joyce and the prima donna of British literature, William Shakespeare.

Inherent to the novel is the matrix-like structure, Nabokov with his wit and clever skilfulness creates multiple paradoxical layers opening endless doors to the reality. The novel works like maze in which the narrator (or narrators) tread through hundreds of flashbacks and labyrinthine memories which slowly create a faint picture of the truth; this type of presentation is typical to the postmodernist attitude of writing especially early postmodernists like Borges. Not everything is revealed, but it is the journey, full of complex riddles similar to Borges’ Ficciones that stimulates the readers’ intellectual and visceral faculty. It is a novel which combines myth and reality to form a complex analysis of human emotions and the psychological nature of its characters. It perfectly depicts how empirical reality, in the end, can be vastly different from the reality as it happened because life can be, according to postmodernism, stranger, weirder, and more coincidentally fable-like and uncanny than fiction. This supreme spirit of reality is what postmodernism intends to capture in its pursuit.

Besides all of the complexity and academic sincerity in this novel, it turns out to be an entertaining novel. It is a brilliant novel, a short read, and a compelling adventure to be a part of. If you need a reminder of what literature can do and how far it can go to cross its tepid limitations. The beauty of this novel lies not only in its inventive mastery but in its appreciation of the common and pleasurable tropes of genre literature. Most writers aim to break and to a large extent destroy genre tropes, but in this clever novel, they come together to create a spectacular tale of postmodernism. Genre tropes are borrowed from romance, thriller fiction, detective fiction, fable and philosophical literature, self-reflective novels and drama. Vladimir Nabokov’s intense study and understanding of literature come forth in a masterly fashion, and it is well composed and precise like a melody.

To conclude, Pale Fire is a brilliant novel which showcases Nabokov’s calculative prowess in terms of composing novels of dramatic intensity and invention while retaining the traditional powers of recurring motifs of classical literature. It is a testimony to brilliant literature and also, in my view, a love letter to the genres we have come to love over the years and the writers we have devoured for generations and would do so for further generations to come.

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Rajan KumarMeghna ChaturwediKartik Hirani Recent comment authors
Kartik Hirani
Kartik Hirani

I hope my friend writes a novel for me one day, haha. Great review.

Meghna Chaturwedi
Meghna Chaturwedi

High quality drama with exemplary writing. Must read.

Rajan Kumar
Rajan Kumar

A well structured review. @Kartik Nabokov wrote the novel, not his friend Charles.