Pale Fire

by Vladimir Nabokov

For a book of average length, Pale Fire takes me a long time to read, and I know exactly why. Although unique, masterfully written, and remarkable in many ways, Pale Fire just isn't anything that compels me, from moment to moment, to keep reading. Thus it is easy to set aside for long periods of time, and its 315 pages take me two months. I don't intend to dissuade you from reading it with that bit of commentary—in fact, I think many readers would love its quirky humor and sheer oddity. That just isn't the combination of elements that makes for voracity & speed in the case of Classic Bitch.

To attempt to describe what Pale Fire is, is to lay bare another aspect of its unreadability. This is to say that the structure of the book itself is unorthodox, and reading it the way it needs to be read is cumbersome. During the reading of it, I must keep no fewer than three bookmarks working at all times! Pale Fire is not a book you read cover to cover; it won't work that way. Although I like puzzles and such, that particular avocation isn't the reason I enjoy settling in with a good book.

Curiously, even the unreliable narrator tells the reader directly at the book's beginning not to approach Pale Fire page by page in order, and this piece of advice is about the only thing this guy is dead right on! (Classic Bitch feels compelled to remind readers that the last time we were warned off reading a book in the traditional manner, page by page in order, was by a scholar of James Joyce in the intro to Finnegans Wake. If that doesn't prick your ears up and set your hair on fire, nothing will.) Pale Fire is comprised first of a phony "Foreword" (not by Nabokov but by the narrator), then a 999-line poem by a fictional college professor, then commentary on that poem by the narrator who is the poet's "biggest fan," and finally a phony "Index" compiled again by the unreliable narrator. Most of the humor in Pale Fire is derived from the tension in the relationship between the poet & the narrator, who is the poet's self-anointed Boswell of sorts. (As it turns out, some scholars of this particular Nabokov work maintain that the entire tale is a delusion of one or the other of the main characters and thus have a longstanding argument over whether the narrator is the poet's delusion or the poet the narrator's!?) The poem itself turns out to be relatively straightforward & would be readable & intelligible as a stand alone. But the narrator is convinced that the poem is about his own not-to-be-believed strange life & strains to cram it to fit his own analysis. That the guy has a screw loose is evident from the beginning—as is his egomania, homosexuality, paranoia, neurosis, & halitosis—and so the writing is laugh-out-loud funny in places.

When I was somewhere in the middle(s) of Pale Fire late last year, I happened to read the obituary of the Serbian author Milorad Pavic in The New York Times. "Mr. Pavic's narratives do away with the forced-march, page-after-page strategy to which most readers are accustomed. They are profuse with unreliable narration..." Much the same could be said of Mr. Nabokov's effort here. If truth be told, however, in the next book on the list, Classic Bitch is hoping for something she can just read read.