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Nabokov's Pale Fire:
The Magic of Artistic Discovery
Brian Boyd

One of Choice's Outstanding Academic Titles for 2000

Paperback | 2001 | $37.50 | £31.95 | ISBN: 9780691089577
320 pp. | 6 x 9 1/4
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eBook | ISBN: 9781400823192 |
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Chapter 2

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Pale Fire is regarded by many as Vladimir Nabokov's masterpiece. The novel has been hailed as one of the most striking early examples of postmodernism and has become a famous test case for theories about reading because of the apparent impossibility of deciding between several radically different interpretations. Does the book have two narrators, as it first appears, or one? How much is fantasy and how much is reality? Whose fantasy and whose reality are they? Brian Boyd, Nabokov's biographer and hitherto the foremost proponent of the idea that Pale Fire has one narrator, John Shade, now rejects this position and presents a new and startlingly different solution that will permanently shift the nature of critical debate on the novel. Boyd argues that the book does indeed have two narrators, Shade and Charles Kinbote, but reveals that Kinbote had some strange and highly surprising help in writing his sections. In light of this interpretation, Pale Fire now looks distinctly less postmodern--and more interesting than ever.

In presenting his arguments, Boyd shows how Nabokov designed Pale Fire for readers to make surprising discoveries on a first reading and even more surprising discoveries on subsequent readings by following carefully prepared clues within the novel. Boyd leads the reader step-by-step through the book, gradually revealing the profound relationship between Nabokov's ethics, aesthetics, epistemology, and metaphysics. If Nabokov has generously planned the novel to be accessible on a first reading and yet to incorporate successive vistas of surprise, Boyd argues, it is because he thinks a deep generosity lies behind the inexhaustibility, complexity, and mystery of the world. Boyd also shows how Nabokov's interest in discovery springs in part from his work as a scientist and scholar, and draws comparisons between the processes of readerly and scientific discovery.

This is a profound, provocative, and compelling reinterpretation of one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century.


"My award for Novel of the Century goes to Nabokov's Pale Fire . . . .The book that prompted these reflections and confirmed me in my choice for Novel of the Century was Brian Boyd's remarkable, obsessive, delirious, devotional study."--Ron Rosenbaum, New York Observer

"It seems impossible for any scholar to write about Pale Fire, Nabokov's novel disguised as a poem and a pseudo-scholarly consideration of that poem, without appearing to be offering a mimicry of the great work. Nabokov's Pale Fire is no exception. Writing with an intensity that would suit Pale Fire's own narrators, Brian Boyd, a leading authority on Nabokov, gives an exquisitely detailed reading of the book and advances a new thesis about which fictional character (or characters) is supposed to have written the book."--Publishers Weekly

"Brian Boyd's strength as a critic . . . is that his compendious knowledge of Nabokov's biography and writings, especially those in English, is matched by his level-headedness and attention to detail."--Catriona Kelly, Times Literary Supplement

"[Boyd] is far and away Nabokov's best-informed and most subtle critic. . . [He] bases his new interpretation on a staggering wealth of textual and extratextual detail and is clearly right on every major argument."--Choice

"A readable, elegantly written and witty guide through [the] process of discovery to which Nabokov himself invariably invites us, in what is arguably his finest novel."--Helen McLean, The Globe and Mail

"This critical study . . . is not merely a brilliant search for the 'truth' of Pale Fire--it is also a study of the way we read texts and think about existence."--Irving Malin, Review of Contemporary Fiction

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Table of Contents:

Acknowledgments xi
Introduction 3
1. Foreword 17
2. Poem 25
3. Commentary 37
4. Index 63
5. Pale Fire 67
6. Intrusions of the Real: Shade 77
7. Excursions from the Real: Kinbote 89
8. Problems: Shade and Kinbote 107
9. Transformation 129
10. From Appalachia to Zembla: A Woman Spurned 149
11. "Pale Fire": Origins and Ends 173
12. "A Poem in Four Cantos": Sign and Design 188
13. From Zembla to Appalachia: The Contrapuntal Theme 207
14. "Pale Fire," Pale Fire, palefire: The Spiral Unwinds 233
Conclusion 247
Notes 263
Bibliography 291
Index 299

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