Review of Pale Fire by Vladmir Nabokov

First read: Before the list came out (1987)
Reviewed on: 8/16/98
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I did not like it.
I liked it.
I thought it one of the Best Novels of All Time

Bruce Reznick is a math professor at the University of Illinois, simultaneously one of the most brilliant and one of the nicest people I've met there. In addition to doing first rate mathematics, he's well read and seems to be able to have interesting conversations with everyone he meets. Bruce has recommended three books to me during our 12 year acquaintanceship: The Eudaemonic Pie, Bizarro by Piraro, and Pale Fire.

I read this work of Literature by myself, with no class-discussions to tell me of all the subtleties that I was missing, and of all the symbolism lurking beneath every word. I enjoyed it immensely. The structure, of course, is the most unique thing about it. But the intro-poem-comments form wasn't just a gimmick; it really worked to tell the story. Even though our disposed Zemblan was a murderer, I never was able to dislike him. He was alternately comic and pathetic, but never seemed dangerous.

I've since come across snippets of Critical Discussion, usually in the context of reviews of other books. Supposedly there is debate as to whether the Zemblan was the "author," or if the poet was really alive and he was the author (using the line about Zembla being a fictional country as a cornerstone of the debate) There is even a school of thought that the wife killed the poet and was the "author." Now, I enjoy a good heterophenomenological debate as much as anybody does, and I've never really read the critical essays on this book, but I still think that whole controversy is… stupid. The concept of arguing who the fictional author "really" is seems to me just a way for academics to get papers published for other academics to read.

Perhaps because I haven't had a teacher tell me why this novel was Great, I don't understand why its on the list of Best Novels Ever. I enjoyed it. I'm glad I read it. I'll read it again. But I've enjoyed a lot of books. Is it the gimmick that makes people fawn over this book? Or is it like Animal Farm, in that there is a whole other level of meaning that I need someone to point out to me?

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