For a book with a relatively straight-forward plot, Pale Fire definitely had one of the stranger constructions. At first glance it’s completely normal: a foreword, a poem, and commentary. Even an index. Then the oddities begin. Everything is written by authors of Nabokov’s invention. The poem by John Shade and the remainder by Dr. Charles Kinbote, John Shade’s adoring fan. While the poem isn’t exactly short, the commentary dwarfs it. And rarely relates to it. It morphs into Kinbote’s historial reminiscences of his life in Zembla, the mythical “northern land” of his youth. In all honesty I was a little disappointed that the commentary didn’t comment on the poem. It was pretty enjoyable and I wanted more detail. But that obviously wasn’t part of Nabokov’s plan in this crazy literary adventure.
Speaking of things that may not be properly aligned with reality, intrepid commentator/fanboy Kinbote is a stellar example of an unreliable narrator! The subtle suggestions that he isn’t working with the standard issue pack start off in the foreword and only become blunter from there. He’s also impressively misogynistic, so brace yourselves for that. Women are “dishevelled hussies,” but men are “tawny angels,” to pull out one example of what I’m hoping is Kinbote’s double standard, not Nabokov’s. On the upside, he’s not homophobic! Race hardly shows up, if at all, so there’s no apparent racism. Very little violence too, although would you expect a lot of violence in a book based around a poem? Actually I take it back, there’s no reason poetry can’t be violent. There’s just almost no violence in this one. I do need to add one final content warning for suicide, however. Just so any future readers are aware.