Tag: Pale Fire

Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov

Posted September 27, 2016 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Classic / 2 Comments

Pale Fire by Vladimir NabokovTitle: Pale Fire (Goodreads)
Author: Vladimir Nabokov
Published: Penguin, 1962
Pages: 246
Genres: Classic
My Copy: Paperback

Buy: AmazonBook Depository (or visit your local Indie bookstore)

Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire is a novel centred around a 999 line poem of the same name by fictional poet John Shade. It is primarily focused on a literary commentary by Charles Kinbote, an academic with an obsession with the poet. Starting with the poem in four cantos, then leading into Kinbote’s analysis, Pale Fire is a wonderfully complex novel on obsession and literary criticism. While Nabokov’s 1962 post-modern masterpiece might sound dense on the surface,  I found the novel itself easy to read, but difficult to unpack.

Before sharing my thoughts on Pale Fire, I feel it is important to point out Vladimir Nabokov’s academic career in America. While in America, Nabokov worked as a lecturer mainly in Russian and European literature, most notably at Cornell University from 1948-1959. The reason why this is important is the fact that this experience would have contributed the satirical nature of Pale Fire. I often found the novel to be a tongue in cheek look at literary criticism. On reading this, I found myself laughing at the leaps Kinbote often took to explain the Shade poem. I could not help but think this was a reflection of some of the assignments Nabokov read as a lit professor.

Looking deeper into Pale Fire and there is a lot to gain from the novel. What I noticed first seems to be a popular trope for Nabokov, and that is the unreliable narrator. I cannot help but comparing Charles Kinbote to Humbert Humbert from Lolita. Not only is he unreliable but the obsession with the poet John Shade feels very similar. His obsession towards the poet and the art leads to an artistic passion, however this turns into a struggle with desire exceeding creative capability. It is here we get an interesting idea of critical commentary verses the desire to creating literature.

As things progress the novel shifts to an exploration into reality. I found myself questioning the sanity of Kinbote and maybe he is actually King Charles of Zembla. He could in fact be the exiled king or far more likely, he is suffering from dangerous delusions. From what I know after reading Lolita and Invitation to a Beheading (the only other novels I have read) Nabokov likes to play around with obsession, in particular the dangerous realities it may lead to. It is here where I wished I had read Speak Memory or a biography on Nabokov, because I get a feeling of autobiographical elements in Pale Fire. There are moments that seem to parallel his own life, in regards to fleeing the Soviet Union and even teaching literature. Zembla resembles the Soviet Union but portrayed in a nostalgic way. Like Kinbote looks at the country through rose-coloured glasses, not remembering the harsh reality.

Apart from the wonderful writing style to be found in Vladimir Nabokov’s novel, you can expect to see plenty of allegories and references. One thing I love about Russian literature (and I call Nabokov a Russian simply because he was born there) is the way they often reference other novels; it is the same joy I get from reading books about books. Pale Fire is jammed packed with references from The Brothers Karamazov, A Hero of Our Time, James Joyce, Keats, Proust and even mentions Lolita. A better review could go into a lot of detail exploring the references and what they mean to the novel but I will not go into those detail.

Pale Fire is a book that will take a lifetime to read, there is so much here to explore and that is what appeals to me. The more I read from Nabokov the more I want to read, and re-read. I do feel like I need to learn more about this author before diving back into his novels. Speak Memory will be my next read from Nabokov but I am half tempted to crack open a collection of essays I have called Lectures on Russian Literature. I am excited to return to Pale Fire in the future and talk even more about the novel.

Invitation to a Beheading by Vladimir Nabokov

Posted May 19, 2013 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Classic / 0 Comments

Invitation to a Beheading by Vladimir NabokovTitle: Invitation to a Beheading (Goodreads)
Author: Vladimir Nabokov
Published: Vintage, 1936
Pages: 240
Genres: Classic
My Copy: Personal Copy

Buy: AmazonBook Depository (or visit your local Indie bookstore)

In this bizarre and irrational world, Cincinnatus has been convicted and condemned to death by beheading for gnostical turpitude, an imaginary crime with no definition.  Cincinnatus spends his remaining days in prison where he is visited by the chimerical jailers, an executioner who masquerades as a prisoner, and his in-laws. When Cincinnatus is finally brought out to be executed, he simply wills his executioners out of existence: they disappear, along with the whole world they inhabit.

There is no denying that Invitation to a Beheading is a weird novel; often compared with Franz Kafka’s The Castle, it is important to know that Vladimir Nabokov had not read any German novels, let alone Kafka when writing this. The reason this is important is to avoid trying to compare the two novels; sure they have similarities but they are still also vastly different. Originally published as a serial, with the title Sovremennye Zapiski (Contemporary Notes), Nabokov has stated while Lolita holds his greatest affection, this novel holds his greatest esteem.

While people call this Kafkaesque, the impossible and dreamlike world reminds me more of Haruki Murakami’s style. From the very start the reader understands there is something not right about this world, this reminded me of Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. I got the feeling that this wasn’t reality but a world constructed in Cincinnatus’ mind based on his fears, doubts, and insecurities. Cincinnatus’ enemy is the society he’s created and the people of that society act according to ridiculous rules that have been set. We never know what gnostical turpitude is and this will probably remind people of Kafka’s The Trial. Cincinnatus is rebelling against the construction of this reality and the rules the people of this society observe and perhaps this is what makes him a criminal.

Maybe gnostical turpitude is the crime of being different from all the other people in this reality. Maybe Cincinnatus is being oppress for his ideas and his nature. Maybe he is so different from everyone around him; he has an internal depth that the others lack. A lot like Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov has a way about his writing that just leaves you with so many questions that you need to think through, this whole reality and society leaves me perplexed. Though this is the point; life isn’t simple and being an outsider sometimes feels like you are Cincinnatus in a bizarre reality.

While this book primarily looks at society and oppression it also looks at human connection. Cincinnatus desires to connect with his wife Marthe, despite her unfaithfulness and lack of concern for him. The one thing he craves the most is to make a connection and she felt like the logical choice; also the fact that he loved her helped. He begs her to come alone and reveal her true self to him but there is always something that interferes with the communicating.

While this was a very odd book, Vladimir Nabokov is just a brilliant writer and that really makes up for the weirdness. Also the weird and bizarre act as motifs within the narrative and without the symbolism and meaning it would just be trippy book. Nabokov does a good job of weaving his messages and ideas while entertaining the reader in unexpected ways. Most people only ever read  Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov and I think that means they miss out on his brilliance, I hope to read more; currently on my To Be Read list is Mary, Pnin and Pale Fire. Are there any others I should add?