Pale Fire, by Vladimir Nabokov

I have a few friends who keep trying to get me to read Lolita, saying it’s one of the greatest pieces of literature available. I have a hard time with the prospect of getting in a pedophile’s head so one friend offered me an alternative: Pale Fire.

Pale Fire is some of the best brain candy I’ve read in a while. Brain Candy, by my definition, is a book that doesn’t make you look too deeply. You read it, it’s fun, you enjoy it, but it doesn’t make you uncomfortable and doesn’t require a lot of post-reading musing.

Written in two parts, a 999 line poem and exhaustive liner notes, Pale Fire tells the story of a poet and a king. Our narrator tells the story both of his friendship with the poet and a story of revolution and exile in his home country, a fictional place somewhere near Russia.

I can see why my friends are so excited; Nabokov’s turn of phrase is beautiful. I love authors like J.G. Ballard who make similes where you least expect them, adds jarringly appropriate adjectives, and evokes a rich bookscape for readers like me who create images of the action in their minds as they read. I feel the reactions of the other characters to the narrator’s self-centered, overly proud behavior at the same time he justifies it. I imagine that his poet friend sees him less as a good friend and more as a source of amusement. I can tell even before it’s revealed that the poet is much more adept and perceptive than the narrator and I love the feeling of being in on the joke with Nabokov and his poet.

The method Nabokov has used to tell his story is really interesting. I’ve never encountered a novel in notes before. I read the liner notes first, then the poem because the poem becomes much richer when you know what it’s talking about. The notes also tell the story part of the novel, an action and satire-packed adventure of revolution, escape, exile, and assassination.

And the poem stands alone as a beautiful, whimsical, highly self-aware autobiography of the poet’s childhood, marriage, and the untimely loss of his young daughter.

Aside from the easy, beautiful words, I seriously enjoyed, as I mentioned earlier, being in on the joke with Nabokov and his poet. Nabokov does an excellent job of writing a man totally unaware of his boorishness. He’s just polite enough that no one really says anything but the way he describes other people’s behavior makes it clear to the socially adept reader. I always have fun guessing the twist a while before it happens; the less in advance I guess it the better. I only beat Nabokov by a chapter or two on the major twist and not much more on the more obvious one which made the book more enjoyable.

Overall, I recommend this as a shorter, less uncomfortable example of Nabokov’s mastery of language and uncanny ability to understand a man who doesn’t understand himself. It’s not too long and it’s not too heavy so it’s good light-ish reading for summer days.