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Pale Fire  
Nabokov palefire.jpg
First US edition of Pale Fire
Author Vladimir Nabokov
Country United States
Language English
Publisher G. P. Putnam's Sons
Publication date 1962 (corrected edition first published by Vintage International, 1989)
Pages 315
ISBN ISBN 0-679-72342-0 (Vintage)
OCLC Number 19130785
Dewey Decimal 813/.54 19
LC Classification PS3527.A15 P3 1989

Pale Fire (1962) is a novel by Vladimir Nabokov. The novel is presented as a poem titled "Pale Fire" with commentary by a friend of the poet's. Together these elements form a narrative in which both authors are central characters. Pale Fire has spawned a wide variety of interpretations and a large body of written criticism. The Nabokov authority Brian Boyd has called it "Nabokov's most perfect novel".[1]


Plot introduction

Starting with the table of contents, Pale Fire looks like the publication of a 999-line poem in four cantos ("Pale Fire") by the fictional John Shade with a Foreword, extensive Commentary, and Index by his self-appointed editor, Charles Kinbote. Kinbote's Commentary takes the form of notes to various numbered lines of the poem. Here and in the rest of his critical apparatus, Kinbote explicates the poem surprisingly little. Focusing instead on his own concerns, he divulges pieces of what proves to be the plot, some of which can be connected by following the many cross-references. Thus the narration is highly nonlinear. (In 1969, the information-technology researcher Ted Nelson obtained permission from the novel's publishers to use it for a hypertext demonstration at Brown University.[2])

The interaction between Kinbote and Shade takes place in the fictitious small college town of New Wye, Appalachia, where they live across a lane from each other, from February to July, 1959. Kinbote writes his commentary from then to October, 1959, in a tourist cabin in the equally fictitious western town of Cedarn, Utana. Both authors recount many earlier events, Shade mostly in New Wye and Kinbote mostly in Europe, especially the "distant northern land" of Zembla.

The novel's unusual structure has attracted much attention, and it is often cited as an important example of metafiction;[3][4][5] it has also been called a poioumenon.[6]

Plot summary

Shade's poem digressively describes many aspects of his life. Canto 1 includes his early encounters with death and glimpses of what he takes to be the supernatural. Canto 2 is about his family and the apparent suicide of his daughter, Hazel. Canto 3 focuses on Shade's search for knowledge about an afterlife, culminating in a "faint hope" in higher powers "playing a game of worlds" as indicated by apparent coincidences. Canto 4 offers many details on Shade's daily life and creative process, as well as thoughts on his poetry, which he finds to be a means of somehow understanding the universe.

In Kinbote's editorial contributions he tells three stories intermixed with each other. One is his own story, notably including what he thinks of as his friendship with Shade. After Shade was murdered, Kinbote acquired the manuscript, including some variants, and has taken it upon himself to oversee the poem's publication, telling readers that it lacks only line 1000. Kinbote's second story deals with Charles Xavier Vseslav, also known as Charles II, "The Beloved," the deposed king of Zembla. Charles escaped imprisonment by Soviet-backed revolutionaries, making use of a secret passage and brave adherents in disguise. Kinbote repeatedly claims that he inspired the poem by recounting Charles's escape to Shade and that possible allusions to Charles, and to Zembla, can be detected in Shade's poem, especially in rejected drafts. However, no comprehensible reference to Charles is to be found in the poem. Kinbote's third story is that of Gradus, an assassin dispatched by the new rulers of Zembla to kill the exiled King Charles. Gradus makes his way from Zembla through Europe and America to New Wye, suffering comic mishaps. In the last note, to the missing line 1000, Kinbote narrates how Gradus killed Shade by mistake.

The reader soon realizes that Kinbote himself is Charles Xavier, living incognito—or, though Kinbote builds an elaborate picture of Zembla complete with samples of a constructed language, that he is insane and that his identification with Charles is a delusion, as perhaps all of Zembla is.

Nabokov said in an interview that Kinbote committed suicide after finishing the book.[7] The critic Michael Wood has stated, "This is authorial trespassing, and we don't have to pay attention to it,"[8] but Brian Boyd has argued that internal evidence points to Kinbote's suicide.[9] One of Kinbote's annotations to Shade's poem (corresponding to line 493) addresses the subject of suicide in some detail.

Explanation of the title

As Nabokov pointed out himself,[10] the title of John Shade's poem is from Shakespeare's Timon of Athens: "The moon's an arrant thief, / And her pale fire she snatches from the sun" (Act IV, scene 3), a line often taken as a metaphor about creativity and inspiration. Kinbote quotes the passage but does not recognize it, as he says he has access only to an inaccurate Zemblan translation of the play, and in a separate note he even rails against the common practice of using quotations as titles.

Some interpreters have noted a secondary reference in the book's title to Hamlet, where the Ghost remarks how the glow-worm "'gins to pale his uneffectual fire" (Act I, scene 5).[11] The duality of the Shakespearean reference reflects the nature of this puzzle-novel; an easy and rewarding reading of the novel masks a more obscure, and therefore more rewarding, second solution

The title is first mentioned in the foreword:

"I recall seeing him from my porch, on a brilliant morning, burning a whole stack of them in the pale fire of the incinerator..."

Initial reception

The editor of a book of Nabokov criticism states that Pale Fire excited as diverse criticism as any of Nabokov's novels.[12] Mary McCarthy's review[13] was extremely laudatory; the Vintage edition excerpts it on the front cover.[14] She tried to explicate hidden references and connections. Dwight Macdonald responded by saying the book was "unreadable" and both it and McCarthy's review were as pedantic as Kinbote.[15] Anthony Burgess, like McCarthy, extolled the book,[16] while Alfred Chester condemned it as "a total wreck".[17]

Some other early reviews were less decided, praising the book's satire and comedy but noting its difficulty and finding its subject slight[18][19] or saying that its artistry offers "only a kibitzer's pleasure".[20] MacDonald called the reviews he had seen, other than McCarthy's, "cautiously unfavorable".[15]

In the 1980s, after Nabokov's reputation was rehabilitated in the Soviet Union, the novel was translated into Russian by his wife Véra, its dedicatee.[21]


Some readers concentrate on the apparent story, focusing on traditional aspects of fiction such as the relationship among the characters.[22][23] In 1997, Brian Boyd published a much-discussed study[24] arguing that the ghost of John Shade influenced Kinbote's contributions. He expanded this essay into a book in which he also argues that, in order to trigger Shade's poem, Hazel's ghost induced Kinbote to recount his Zemblan delusions to Shade.[25]

Other readers see a story quite different from the apparent narrative. "Shadeans" maintain that John Shade wrote not only the poem, but the commentary as well, having invented his own death and the character of Kinbote as a literary device. According to Boyd,[24] Andrew Field invented the Shadean theory[26] and Julia Bader expanded it;[27] Boyd himself espoused the theory for a time.[28] In an alternative version of the Shadean theory, Tiffany DeRewal and Matthew Roth argued that Kinbote is not a separate person but is a dissociated, alternative personality of John Shade.[29] "Kinboteans", a decidedly smaller group, believe that Kinbote invented the existence of John Shade. Boyd[24] credits the Kinbotean theory to Page Stegner[30] and adds that most of its adherents are newcomers to the book. Some readers see the book as oscillating undecidably between these alternatives, like the Rubin vase (a drawing that may be two profiles or a goblet).[31][32][33]

Though a minority of commentators believe or at least accept the possibility that Zembla is as "real" as New Wye,[34] most assume that Zembla, or at least the operetta-quaint and homosexually gratified palace life enjoyed by Charles Xavier before he is overthrown, is imaginary in the context of the story. The name "Zembla" (taken from "Nova Zembla", a former anglicization of Novaya Zemlya)[35] may evoke popular fantasy literature about royalty such as The Prisoner of Zenda,[20][36] signaling that it is not to be taken literally. As in other of Nabokov's books, however, the fiction is an exaggerated or comically distorted version of his own life as a son of privilege before the Russian Revolution and an exile afterwards,[37] and the central murder has resemblances (emphasized by Priscilla Meyer[38]) to Nabokov's father's murder by an assassin who was trying to kill someone else.

Some readers, starting with Mary McCarthy[13] and including Boyd, Nabokov's annotator Alfred Appel,[39] and D. Barton Johnson,[40] see Charles Kinbote as an alter-ego of the insane Professor V. Botkin, to whose delusions John Shade and the rest of the faculty of Wordsmith College generally condescend. Nabokov himself endorsed this reading, stating in an interview in 1962 (the novel's year of publication) that Pale Fire "is full of plums that I keep hoping somebody will find. For instance, the nasty commentator is not an ex-King of Zembla nor is he professor Kinbote. He is professor Botkin, or Botkine, a Russian and a madman."[10] The novel's intricate structure of teasing cross-references leads readers to this "plum". The Index, supposedly created by Kinbote, features an entry for a "Botkin, V.," describing this Botkin as an "American scholar of Russian descent"—and referring back to a note in the Commentary on line 894 of Shade's poem, in which no such individual is directly mentioned but a character suggests that "Kinbote" is "a kind of anagram of Botkin or Botkine". In this interpretation, the "Gradus" who kills Shade is an American named Jack Grey who wanted to kill Judge Goldsworth, whose house "Pale Fire's" commentator—whatever his "true" name is—is renting. Goldsworth had condemned Grey to an asylum from which he escaped shortly before mistakenly killing Shade, who resembled Goldsworth.

Still other readers de-emphasize any sort of "real story" and may doubt the existence of such a thing. In the interplay of allusions and thematic links, they find a multifaceted image of English literature,[38] criticism,[31] literary idolatry,[41] politics,[41] or glimpses of a higher world and an afterlife.[42]

Allusions and references

Like many of Nabokov's books, Pale Fire alludes to others. "Hurricane Lolita" is mentioned, and Pnin appears as a minor character. There are many resemblances to "Ultima Thule" and "Solus Rex",[43] two short stories by Nabokov, which were to have been the first two chapters of a novel in Russian that he never continued. The placename Thule appears in Pale Fire, as does the phrase solus rex (a chess problem in which Black has no pieces but the king).

The book is also full of references to culture, nature, and literature. They include:


  1. ^ Boyd, Brian (2002). "Nabokov: A Centennial Toast". in Jane Grayson, Arnold McMillin, and Priscilla Meyer (eds.). Nabokov's World. Volume 2: Reading Nabokov. Palgrave. p. 11. ISBN 0-333-96417-9.  
  2. ^ Wolf, Gary: The Curse of Xanadu Wired 3.06, June 1995. A 2009 paper also compares Pale Fire to hypertext: Volpone, Annalisa (2009). "'See the Web of the World': The (Hyper) Textual Plagiarism in Joyce's Finnegans Wake and Nabokov's Pale Fire" (pdf). Nabokov Online Journal, Volume III. Retrieved 2009-04-27.  
  3. ^ McCaffery, Larry (1982). The Metafictional Muse: The Works of Robert Coover, Donald Barthelme, and William H. Gass. University of Pittsburgh Press. p. 21. ISBN 0-8229-3462-0. Retrieved 2009-09-18.  
  4. ^ Waugh, Patricia. Metafiction: The Theory and Practice of Self-Conscious Fiction‎. Methuen & Co.. pp. 15, 85. ISBN 0-416-32630-7. Retrieved 2009-09-18.  
  5. ^ Chénetier, Marc (1996). Beyond Suspicion: New American Fiction Since 1960. University of Pennsylvania Press. p. 74. Retrieved 2009-09-18.  
  6. ^ Fowler, Alastair (1989). The History of English Literature. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. p. 372. ISBN 0-674-39664-2.  
  7. ^ Nabokov, Vladimir (1973). Strong Opinions. New York: McGraw-Hill. p. 74. ISBN 0-679-72609-8 (Vintage reissue, 1990).  
  8. ^ Wood, Michael (1994). The Magician's Doubts: Nabokov and the Risks of Fiction. Princeton University Press. p. 186. ISBN 0-691-00632-6.  
  9. ^ Boyd, Brian (2001). Nabokov's "Pale Fire": The Magic of Artistic Discovery. Princeton University Press. p. 106. ISBN 0-691-08957-4.  
  10. ^ a b Dolbier, Maurice (June 17, 1962). "Books and Authors: Nabokov's Plums". The New York Herald Tribune: p. 5.  
  11. ^ Grabes, Herbert (1995). "Nabokov and Shakespeare: The English Works". in Vladimir Alexandrov (ed.). The Garland Companion to Vladimir Nabokov. Garland Publishing, Inc. pp. 509–510. ISBN 0-8153-0354-8.   See also references therein.
  12. ^ Page, Norman (ed.) (1982). Vladimir Nabokov: The Critical Heritage (1997 ed.). Routledge and Kegan Paul. p. 29. ISBN 0415159164. Retrieved 2008-01-19.  
  13. ^ a b McCarthy, Mary (June 4, 1962). "A Bolt from the Blue". The New Republic. Retrieved 2009-04-24.   Revised version in Mary McCarthy (2002). A Bolt from the Blue and Other Essays. New York: The New York Review of Books. pp. 83–102. ISBN 1-59017-010-5.  
  14. ^ The quotation is "a creation of perfect beauty, symmetry, strangeness… one of the very great works of art of this century".
  15. ^ a b Macdonald, Dwight (Summer 1962). "Virtuosity Rewarded, or Dr. Kinbote's Revenge". Partisan Review: 437–442.   Partially reprinted in Page, Critical Heritage, pp. 137–140
  16. ^ Burgess, Anthony (November 15, 1962). "Nabokov Masquerade". Yorkshire Post.   Partially reprinted in Page, Critical Heritage, p. 143.
  17. ^ Chester, Alfred (November, 1962). "Pale Fire, by Vladimir Nabokov". Commentary.   Reprinted in Chester, Alfred (1992). Looking for Genet: Literary Essays and Reviews. Black Sparrow Press. ISBN 0876858728.   Quoted by Page, Critical Heritage, p. 29.
  18. ^ Steiner, George (July 7, 1962). "Review of Pale Fire". Reporter: 42, 44–45.   Partially reprinted in Page, Critical Heritage, p. 140.
  19. ^ Dennis, Nigel (November 11, 1962). "It's Hard to Name This Butterfly!". Sunday Telegraph. p. 6.   Reprinted in Page, Critical Heritage, pp. 142–143.
  20. ^ a b Kermode, Frank (November 9, 1962). "Zemblances". New Statesman: 671–672.   Reprinted in Page, Critical Heritage, pp. 144–148
  21. ^ Boyd, Brian (1991). Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. p. 662.  
  22. ^ Alter, Robert (1993). "Autobiography as Alchemy in Pale Fire". Cycnos 10: 135–41.  
  23. ^ Pifer, Ellen (1980). Nabokov and the Novel. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. pp. 110–118.  
  24. ^ a b c Boyd, Brian (1997). "Shade and Shape in Pale Fire". Nabokov Studies 4. Retrieved 2006-09-26.  
  25. ^ Boyd, Magic of Artistic Discovery.
  26. ^ Field, Andrew (1967). Nabokov: His Life in Art. Boston: Little, Brown. pp. 291–332.  
  27. ^ Bader, Julia (1972). Crystal Land: Artifice in Nabokov's English Novels. Berkeley: University of California Press. pp. 31–56.  
  28. ^ Boyd, Brian (1991). Vladimir Nabokov: the American Years. Princeton University Press. pp. 425–456. ISBN 0-691-06797-X. Retrieved 2006-09-25.  
  29. ^ DeRewal, Tiffany; Roth, Matthew (2009). "John Shade's Duplicate Selves: An Alternative Shadean Theory of Pale Fire". Nabokov Online Journal 3. Retrieved 2009-11-06.  
  30. ^ Stegner, Page (1966). Escape into Aesthetics. New York: Dial.  
  31. ^ a b Kernan, Alvin B. (1982). The Imaginary Library: An Essay on Literature and Society. Princeton: Princeton University Press.   Reprinted as "Reading Zemblan: The Audience Disappears in Pale Fire" in Bloom, Harold (ed.) (1987). Vladimir Nabokov. New York: Chelsea House. pp. 101–126. ISBN 1-55546-279-0.  
  32. ^ McHale, Brian (1987). Postmodernist Fiction. London: Routledge. pp. 18–19. ISBN 0-415-04513-4.  
  33. ^ See also the archives of NABOKV-L for December 1997 and January 1998. That mailing list contains many discussions of Pale Fire.
  34. ^ Tammi, Pekka (1995). "Pale Fire". in Vladimir E. Alexandrov (ed.). The Garland Companion to Vladimir Nabokov. Garland Publishing. pp. 571–585. ISBN 0815303548.  
  35. ^ Boyd notes that Swift's Battle of the Books contains "a malignant deity, call'd Criticism" that "dwelt on the Top of a snowy Mountain in Nova Zembla". Magic of Artistic Discovery, p. 79.
  36. ^ Hornick, Neil; Boyd, Brian (March 10, 2005). "Pale Fire and The Prisoner of Zenda". Retrieved 2008-01-19.   An exchange from NABOKV-L.
  37. ^ Nabokov, Speak, Memory
  38. ^ a b c Meyer, Priscilla (1989). Find What the Sailor Has Hidden: Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press. ISBN 0-8195-5206-2.  
  39. ^ Appel, Alfred Jr. (ed.) (1991). The Annotated Lolita. New York: Vintage Books. ISBN 0-679-72729-9.   Appel's annotations to Lolita also address Pale Fire, and "in place of a note on the text", Appel reproduces the last two paragraphs of Kinbote's foreword, which discuss poetry and commentary.
  40. ^ Johnson, D. Barton (1985). Worlds in Regression: Some Novels of Vladimir Nabokov. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Ardis. ISBN 0-88233-908-7.  
  41. ^ a b Vintage edition of Pale Fire, rear cover copy, 1989
  42. ^ Moynahan, Julian (1971). Vladimir Nabokov. University of Minnesota Press. pp. 40–45. ISBN 0-8166-0600-5. Retrieved 2010-01-11.  
  43. ^ Boyd (1999) reviews the resemblances.
  44. ^ a b c de Vries, Gerard (1991). "Fanning the Poet's Fire: Some Remarks on Nabokov's Pale Fire". Russian Literature Triquarterly 24: 239–267.  
  45. ^ Boyd, Magic of Artistic Discovery, pp. 278–279.
  46. ^ a b c d Boyd, Brian (1996). "Notes". in Vladimir Nabokov; Brian Boyd, ed. Nabokov: Novels 1955–1962: Lolita / Pnin / Pale Fire. Library of America. ISBN 1883011191.  
  47. ^ Appel, Alfred, Jr. (1974). Nabokov's Dark Cinema. Oxford University Press. p. 30. ISBN 0195018346.  
  48. ^ Donahue, Michael (2004-10-31). "Chapman's Homer: Definitive Statement". Post to NABOKV-L.  
  49. ^ a b Roth, Matthew (2007). "Three Allusions in Pale Fire". The Nabokovian 58: 53–60.  
  50. ^ Boyd, Magic of Artistic Discovery, p. 271.
  51. ^ Socher, Abraham (July 1, 2005). Times Literary Supplement.  . Full version available at Zembla.
  52. ^ Dolinin, Alexander (1995-12-12). "Re: Library of America queries (fwd)". Post to NABOKV-L. Retrieved 2008-09-28.  
  53. ^ Sisson, Jonathan B. (1995). "Nabokov and some Turn-of-the-Century English Writers". in Vladimir E. Alexandrov (ed.). The Garland Companion to Vladimir Nabokov. Garland Publishing. p. 530. ISBN 0815303548.  
  54. ^ McDiarmid, Angus (1815). Striking and picturesque delineations of the grand, beautiful, wonderful, and interesting scenery around Loch-Earn. John Moir. Retrieved 2008-09-28.  

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Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

It has been suggested that this article or section be merged into Vladimir Nabokov‎. (Discuss)

Pale Fire (1962) is a novel by Vladimir Nabokov. The novel is presented as a poem titled "Pale Fire" by John Shade, a fictional author, with an introduction and commentary by a fictional friend of his, Charles Kinbote. Together these elements form a narrative in which both authors are central characters.




  • The heating system was a farce, depending as it did on registers in the floor wherefrom the tepid exhalations of a throbbing and groaning basement furnace were transmitted to the rooms with the faintness of a moribund's last breath.

Pale Fire

  • I was the shadow of the waxwing slain
    by the false azure in the windowpane;
  • No free man needs a God; but was I free?
  • What moment in that gradual decay
Does resurrection choose? What year?
Who has the stopwatch? Who rewinds the tape?
Are some less lucky, or do all escape?
A syllogism: other men die; but I
Am not another: therefore I'll not die.


  • Solitude is the playfield of Satan.
  • "You have hal..... real bad, chum."
  • "What!" cried Bretwit in candid surprise, "They know at home that His Majesty has left Zembla?"
  • We can at last describe his tie, an Easter gift from a dressy butcher, his brother in law in Onhava: imitation silk, colour chocolate brown barred with red, the end tucked into the shirt between the second and third buttons - a Zemblan fashion of the ninteen thirties.
  • This brand of paper (used by macaroon makers) was not only digestible but delicious.
  • "I certainly do speak Russian. You see, it was the fashionable language par excellence, much more than French, among the nobles of Zembla at least."

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