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PALE FIRE by Vladimir Nabokov

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Discussed it with username and it made the most sense to just give it one thread as opposed to cutting it in half or giving the poem its own section.

 

So have at it.

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Yeah, the book doesn't necessarily have to be read from front to back in order which could have made split threads a bit difficult to manage.

 

(I'm not spoiling anything below BTW, consider it a basic intro)

 

So anyways, what exactly is Pale Fire?

 

Pale Fire is a 999 line poem written by the renowned John Shade in the final days of his life.

 

The collected Pale Fire is said poem with a foreward and extensive notes provided by his acquaintance and admirer Charles Kinbote.

 

In actuality Pale Fire is a novel by Vladimir Nabokov (just like it says in the topic title!) about a fictional poet and a fictional commentator, with their relationship and the book's various narratives coming into focus through the interplay between the included poem and commentary.

 

I just finished this myself last night and I need to stew on it a bit before I'd offer any real thoughts (plus that'd be rude to do right after the topic was put up) but I will say that this is if anything a particularly clever little book.  There are a bunch of nice little touches along the way and twists on the journey, of which the first main one a couple notes in put a huge grin on my face as I put together exactly where we were going for the next little while.

 

Two things to get out of the way for an incoming reader though.

 

One, the whole poem thing.  I'd be lying if I said I was a big poetry guy and I did have to read the first ten to twenty lines a few times before my brain shifted into the right mode, but for those who also aren't particularly into poetry it only takes up about thirty half-filled pages and goes by rather quickly.  It's also rather okay!

 

Two, I read it from front to back (with occasional flipping back to check something in an earlier section) and thought it worked the best that way.  One could also choose to read the poem and the appropriate notes concurrently, or even jump around in the notes whenever Kinbote mentions something mentioned in a later note.  I worry about that final approach in that it might reveal things earlier than anticipated, but then again enough thought seems to have been put into things that it may have been accounted for.

 

I hope you all enjoy it, and I really hope you all don't hate it!

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I've got the book (and skipped username's post entirely, seemed like he was posting detailed spoily stuff).  Yeah, it looks short enough for a one-and-done thread.  

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Man, I made sure to give as little actual info as humanly possible while still telling someone what the basic book is about.  I think you'd get more relevant to the actual story info off the back of the book itself  :)

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Sorry; skip-eddydooda, skip-eddyday.  I actively try to avoid every tiny bit of information about a piece of art once it's decided (for whatever reason) that I'm gonna consume it.  I don't even watch trailers for upcoming movies I'm excited about.  I want to go in blinder than Stan Hansen about whatever I'm going to encounter inside.  

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I'm through the poem, and about a page or two into the notes.  I'm thinking my best bet is to make a copy of the pdf and have both copies open at once so I can look at the poem and the notes at the same time.

 

I've got an opinion on it right now, but I'll hold off on posting anything about that until I actually finish.

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(Jingus picks up his library copy of Pale Fire.  Casually examines it.)  "...why the hell does it have a built-in bookmark?  (You know, the attached-string kind.)  The whole thing looks like fourteen pages long.  This novel is skinnier than my cock in cold water.  Why the hell does it need a bookmark?"

 

(Jingus starts to get worried at this point.  The cover design by Everyman's Library is worrisome enough: the front is a weird-looking profile picture of Nabokov, shot through with a hundred tiny horizontal lines which make it look like you're watching this on a shitty old rabbit-ears television.  And the side cover is printed in a font which they might as well call Ye Olde-Timey Prestige, because it endeavors to make you feel like this is one of those immutable ancient classics which might have been read by Cicero, as opposed to a book which actually came out the same year as the Cuban Missile Crisis.)

"That's... not... a... good... sign... is it?"

 

(Jingus flips the book over and looks at the back.  There is no plot summary or description whatsoever.  It's nothing but half-a-dozen brief, vague, ridiculously hyperbolic blurbs that are all telling me just how enthusiastically this book will make me cum.  It's like reading the lyrics to Tom Waits' "Step Right Up" except they're serious.  And the blurbers have a distinctly second-class appearance to them.  They don't have the London Times, but they got Time Magazine.  New York Times is also missing, substituted instead by New York Herald Tribune.  The New Yorker?  Naw, son, we got The New Republic!  Washington Post Book Review? LOL, here's some blurbs from two papers you've never heard of instead.  And the only PERSON on the list is fuckin' John Updike, which probably isn't a good sign at all.)  

 

"I dunno about this one, guys..."

 

(Jingus finally cracks the book open.  Briefly tries to read the inside cover.  His eyes cross, quickly.)  "Fuck a buncha that."  (He flips forward past the title.  There's an introduction by some guy he's never heard of.  The introduction has a footnote on the first page.  Jingus, being a diehard Terry Pratchett fan, skips directly to the footnote.  It basically says "hey, don't read this introduction before you read the book, you stupid illiterate fuck!" to the first-time reader.)  "...wow.  SERIOUSLY?  A goddamn intro which tells you not to read it, in the most condescending manner possible.  Now THAT'S something I've never seen before."  

 

(Skipping the living shit out of that intro, Jingus next stumbles upon a page entitled "Select Bibliography".  In this context, the word "select" is a bad goddamn joke.  According to this one endless run-on paragraph, in order to Fully Understand this book, you need to have already read basically every single one of Nabokov's other books.  Seriously.  Plus also these seven other books written by other authors ABOUT this book.  YES, SEVEN OF THE GODDAMN THINGS.)

 

"I'm quite seriously thinking about entirely skipping this stupid book.  Life's too short."  

 

(Reluctantly flipping another page, next is a CHRONOLOGY of Vladimir Nabokov's entire life.  Geez, this is worse than the opening credits to those movies which have like six different animated intros which proudly trumpet the involvement of six different production companies that absolutely nobody in the audience gives a single fuck about.  And the chronology is just terribly designed, stretching across both pages in an eye-watering manner, practically demanding that you go get a ruler in order to see what historical event matches up with what year.  Except the mini-paragraphs about said events are too long and seem to overlap multiple years.)  

"Was this book's editor molested by an early version of Excel when he was a wee lad?  Is there some reason for his inexplicable enmity against a clean and simple diagram?"   

 

(Jingus soldiers on.  Next is yet another title page; Jingus is pretty sure this is the fourth one of those, maybe the fifth.  Yes, the fire is pale, we get it already.  And then one of those mysterious, smug dedications which just read "to This Person" which have always pissed him off for no good reason.  And then of course a quote from someone else's writing; this one is about shooting cats.  Yes, murdering kitties.  Fun!  And now there's a Table Of Contents...)

 

"You've gotta be fuckin' kidding me!"  

 

(Jingus snaps the book closed in disgust.  A TABLE OF CONTENTS~?!?  For a novel which is no bigger than his fucking hand, laid flat upon a table?  It only said four things: Introduction, Poem, Commentary, Index.  Each one feels like a nine-inch nail being hammered into a different extremity.)

"I'm telling you, man, I've got a bad feeling about this drop.  'You always say that, Frost, you always say "I've got a baaaaad feeling about this drop".'  Okay, when we get back without you, I'll tell your folks." 

 

(After finishing his slight misquote of an utterly unrelated movie, Jingus stares at Nabokov's inscrutable, line-covered face upon the cover.  Dude totally looks like the mutant butt-baby result of a methamphetamine-filled one night stand between... someone.  Jingus thinks for a minute, finally decides upon Basil Rathbone and Lee Harvey Oswald as the likely fathers.  He continues staring at the cover.  Silence and stillness reign for minutes on end.)

"Well, I better go tell the group that there's no fucking way that I'm reading this goddamn moebius strip which is not-so-cleverly disguised as a book."

 

 

In actuality Pale Fire is a novel by Vladimir Nabokov (just like it says in the topic title!) about a fictional poet and a fictional commentator, with their relationship and the book's various narratives coming into focus through the interplay between the included poem and commentary.

 

...OH!  So it's basically "The Princess Bride by Mark Z. Danielewski"?  Well shit, why didn't someone say so?  Alright, I'm back in.  

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Looking forward to reading it, but since I got the Library of America version I couldn't help but read LOLITA first. I'm about 100 pages in and while I love Nabokov's style, I am amazed that a tale from the POV of a pedophile is considered a classic. I don't mean that it shouldn't be considered classic, just that I can't believe people could get past the many descriptions of the young girl's body to see how great it is. Absolutely fantastic writing though.

 

So I'll be joining in the BOTM discussions, hopefully before the end of the month. But eventually.

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I'm through the poem and am slowly chewing my way through the commentary.  That oh-so-casual reveal of the cause of Shade's death and then never referring back to it again until WAY later made me giggle, it's almost like a heel deliberately slapping on a rear chinlock to piss off the marks.  But the character of this commentator dude is pretty insufferable, he's totally the knob-slobbering Saint Peter to Shade's faintly amused messiah, and I hope he becomes a wee bit more bearable as things go on.  I can sometimes deal with a thoroughly arrogant first-person protagonist, sometimes, but folks from Anita Blake to this fella right here do indeed grate on the nerves.  "Okay, you've got a vocabulary, I GET it already!"

It's funny how Shade is clearly a much better writer than... fuck, what's his buddy's name?  Charlie something Made-Up-Sounding.  I know that's the entire intention, there's a bit of a Mozart/Salieri vibe going on here, but whoa jesus is that poem just so much better than the commentary upon said poem.  

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Just in the middle of the note to line 287.  Oh my god, this guy is the fucking absolute worst.   :)

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Yeah, he never quite stops... surprising you in that way.

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Got the book but I'm going to be saving it for my camping trip (since the August book probably won't be announced by the time I leave on the 1st of the month) the first week in August, so I'll be a little late commenting on it.

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I'm just starting now as I got it from the library and just a few pages in this almost feels like the Confederacy of Dunces of Academia. 

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Ha. I survived it. Eat that, Nabbie.

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I keep dipping in and out, but really struggling if I'm being honest. There have been some legitimately funny lines and I'm kinda interested in what is going on, but the general meandering nature of the character's recollections just does very little for me.

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Since i never found a copy at library or used book store, been slowly readitng it piecemeal at local BN. Slow going.

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I finished a couple of days ago.  Writeup coming.

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I'm not going to say a ton. First and foremost, I am not a poetry guy at all, so I burned through the poem and went back when I had to. My favorite parts of the book, as in the most readable, were the historical bits. Then, every now and again, he'd say something hilarious or actually clever in the commentary. 

 

I guess my main notion is that I kind of wish this was all real. If it was real, it'd be worth it. As it is, it's so much effort for relatively little payoff. It had to take an amazing amount of time and effort to write the poem and to link it all together, to move forward and backward in the writing, to really get into the head of Kinbote, to work out the history and how it intersected. I think the actual writing of the commentaries were probably pretty easy since it's like opening a floodgate and letting out every terrible, overblown first draft that you ever wished you could have. It's the writing equivalent of being a heel I guess, of just going out there and letting it go. 

 

It's hard to criticize specific things here because there are so many filters. The narrator/commentator is so dubious, but he's also extremely earnest, to the point of calling out his own desperate lie early on. It's hard to link the world of the early histories with the character we're left with at the end. I felt a real disconnect between that, as there's a skip of a couple of decades. It's more than that, though. If we saw too much of the transformation, then too much might have been revealed early. For instance, I think Shade's work as a formative piece should have been featured more in the historical bits but you get why that didn't happen. There are little easter eggs like Timon of Athens which would raise eyebrows if you hadn't worked it out yet. I think maintaining the mystery a bit longer came at the expense of developing certain parts of the book better, if that makes sense.

 

In the end, it's wildly ambitious with moments of real joy, but it was a hell of a chore to read. 

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It's hard to criticize specific things here because there are so many filters. The narrator/commentator is so dubious, but he's also extremely earnest, to the point of calling out his own desperate lie early on. It's hard to link the world of the early histories with the character we're left with at the end. I felt a real disconnect between that, as there's a skip of a couple of decades. It's more than that, though. 

 

Spoilers, obviously, but I'm not sure that any of the early histories (assuming you are referring to Kinbote) actually occurred.  The book has the sight of hand where the unreliable narrator is revealed to be even less reliable than assumed yet after finishing up and sleeping on it for a few days I was not sure that I might have still been believing his words more than I should have.  He wasn't the target of an assassin but instead a deranged narcissist, but beyond that and the probability of him being a fake king I'm not all that convinced that there even is a Zembla.  Going down that road raises a few issues such as how he got said job and house in the first place, but while I've not made up my mind I am kinda leaning towards him just being completely off to the degree that he almost inverted Keyser Soze'd the whole story he told.

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It's possible, but there is both a level of detail, and little moments, like him disputing the "nun" disguise story at the dinner party (I think it was then), that would make me feel otherwise. It's one thing to create a fantasy, but then to create an embarrassing way for other people to look at it that would annoy you? It doesn't ring true to me. It's certainly a possibility though.

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Okay, first of all, I loved the concept.  Creating one fictional character to write a poem and then another to add notes to that poem is original enough that I don't think it's ever been done anywhere else, but it's certainly not overly complex, or different for the sake of being different.  It's like, if it had never been done before, maybe it should have.

 

I enjoyed the poem too.  The theme of confronting one's mortality will pretty much always be interesting to me.  Liked the stuff with Mrs. Z where he's reluctant to get too familiar with her, showing that he knows he's never going to figure out what happens after you die.  (Looking back, though, the whole theme of the poem is probably just meant to make the second big reveal at the end that much more of a surprise.)

 

Then, since I liked the poem, I wanted the notes to actually be talking about it, and Kinbote was maddeningly determined to tell this Zembla story at the slightest provocation. To be honest, I was skimming through them early on, because I didn't see what they had to do with anything. There's this huge note to line 149 that has nothing to do with the poem, and just goes on and on.  Then it finishes with "I trust the reader has enjoyed this note," which I took to mean that he was done with that sort of thing for a while, and then less than a page later he's back at it.

 

It was around the point where he started talking about Disa that I actually started to become interested in the Zembla notes.  Then came the partially telegraphed ending, which let me know that I actually needed to be paying attention to them.

 

I like the whole idea that Kinbote has this legitimately important story to tell, but he knows he's not a good enough writer to do it justice, so he feels he has to get Shade to do it for him.  Then Shade dies, Kinbote has no real backup plan and tries to do the best he can, and he ends up not only doing a substandard job of telling his own story, but also inadvertently shits all over Shade's final work. He produces this huge pile of garbage and he's like, "Well, whatever.  Hope you all like it."  

 

We end up finding out that even though Kinbote seems to hold Shade in the absolute highest esteem, he really only values Shade's ability to tell the story that Kinbote wants him to tell, and Kinbote actually cares very little about Shade as a person.  But strangely, I still felt a little sorry for Kinbote by the end.

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It's possible, but there is both a level of detail, and little moments, like him disputing the "nun" disguise story at the dinner party (I think it was then), that would make me feel otherwise. It's one thing to create a fantasy, but then to create an embarrassing way for other people to look at it that would annoy you? It doesn't ring true to me. It's certainly a possibility though.

 

This is the kind of thing that does push me away from concluding that he made the whole thing up, yeah.  It does leave open the possibility that there is a king with said tales about him, yet said king is not Kinbote.

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Then, since I liked the poem, I wanted the notes to actually be talking about it, and Kinbote was maddeningly determined to tell this Zembla story at the slightest provocation. 

 

I like the whole idea that Kinbote has this legitimately important story to tell, but he knows he's not a good enough writer to do it justice, so he feels he has to get Shade to do it for him.  Then Shade dies, Kinbote has no real backup plan and tries to do the best he can, and he ends up not only doing a substandard job of telling his own story, but also inadvertently shits all over Shade's final work. He produces this huge pile of garbage and he's like, "Well, whatever.  Hope you all like it."  

 

We end up finding out that even though Kinbote seems to hold Shade in the absolute highest esteem, he really only values Shade's ability to tell the story that Kinbote wants him to tell, and Kinbote actually cares very little about Shade as a person.  But strangely, I still felt a little sorry for Kinbote by the end.

 

Kinda like Lars Von Trier's NYMPHOMANIAC, Pale Fire is largely a satire about academics/critics, especially those who try to bend the original text to their own meaning, and in doing so show almost no respect for the original. Having nearly finished my English PhD, I wonder if I'd enjoy it more now than I did previously.

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Sorry guys, but I couldn't finish it.  I got about halfway through, but once he started devoting EVERY FUCKING PAGE to The Epic Saga Of The Kingdom Of Bullshittia (which seemed to have ZERO connection to the poem itself), I was ready to set the goddamn book on fire.  Kinbote might be the single most unbearable first-person narrator I've ever encountered in any book in my entire life.  I ended up not giving a single shit about whatever the message ABOUT this guy was supposed to be; the process of discovering said message was such a torturous chore that I just tapped the hell out.  And even after reading half the book, I've got NO idea why Nabokov has such a lofty reputation, his prose was practically unreadable at parts and left me with the strong desire to never read any of his other books throughout the rest of my entire life.  Fuck a buncha this.  

 

 

 

Okay, first of all, I loved the concept.  Creating one fictional character to write a poem and then another to add notes to that poem is original enough that I don't think it's ever been done anywhere else, but it's certainly not overly complex, or different for the sake of being different.  It's like, if it had never been done before, maybe it should have.

I haven't seen it done elsewhere as a poem, but I've read several books that had the same basic "fictional character comments on the contents of a story written by someone else" gimmick.  The Princess Bride, Eaters of the Dead, House of Leaves, etc.  

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I read this about two years ago.  Man, I have no idea how anyone COULDN'T love Kinbote's melodramatic, self-centered Zembla story.  By far my favorite parts.  Also here is a good write up by an English professor as to the identity of the narrator:

 

http://www.rci.rutgers.edu/~wcd/palenarr.htm

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