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'Pale Fire' by Nabokov: review

Pale Fire Vladimir Nabokov cover
Pale Fire Vladimir Nabokov

Hmmmmm. I've rarely been so conflicted in a response. And my 4 stars should be 3.5. And I totally think I need to revisit this in 6 months, where my start could change anywhere from 3 to 5.

The definitely won't drop below 3, because the writing was brilliant, which is barely the word--it's Nabokov, the master, so I guess I'll use the rare word genius.

It's the whole setup of it that's in question. It was incredibly fun for awhile, and wildly inventive (Hmmmmm--I think it just went back up to at least 4 stars. I sometimes forget that Reading it NOW, 60 years later, I'm immersed in a lit world made possible by this book. "Wildly inventive" also means incredibly influential, creating other things that now make it more of a shrug.) But...


The joke grew a bit tiresome for me. Also, it was such an inside joke--so much of the cleverness directed at lit criticism, lit departments (a bit), and just the lit world. Ho hum. Definitely feels like it was written by a lit prof, doing an deliciously savage satire of his rarified lit world. I just really don't care that much.

And finally, this last "issue" is specific to me, but a lot of you, so if you're a poetry aficionado, please ignore. The poem at the center of it wasn't really the point, at least for me, but was a huge part of it, including the (I think) intentionally bad parts--though a quick check online demonstrated a completely divide world on that: Many contend the whole poem is a prank, intentionally awful, while others praise its beauty, even its greatness as a work unto itself. It seems like a truly wondrous and fascinating game, but available only to deep readers and true aficionados of poetry, and I don't qualify.

(If that seems like a silly argument, try it with jazz, or much better for the poetry crowd, country music. Imagine a book built around a famous country music artist, with his/her entire lyric catalog at the core--or complete lyrics to perhaps 50 songs--and much of the joy of the experience came in appreciating the beauty of some lines/songs, and laughing at the idiocy of others. For all of you who shrug or roll your eyes at country music, and have no way in, or ability to discern--and where just wading through them is a painful chore . . . That book would be doomed in some sense -- you're not going to get the full promise of it.

Which perhaps makes me unqualified to review it, but I think that's nonsense: it was published for a general audience, widely read, and recommended for non poets... I think it would be fair, perhaps to segregate reviews between for poetry-lovers and non, and feel free to put me in the latter camp.

I long ago decided that I would not attempt to review how good I thought books/films/music/art are for OTHER PEOPLE--what an absurd pursuit--or objectively "best," for something so subjective, but merely what worked for me. (And when relevant, disclose my subjectivity.) This worked for about 4 stars.


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