“Pale Fire is a jack-in-the-box, a Fabergé gem, a clockwork toy, a chess problem, an infernal machine, a trap to catch reviewers, a cat-and-mouse game, a do-it-yourself kit.” — Mary McCarthy, “A Bolt from the Blue”
“In sheer beauty of form, Pale Fire may well be the most perfect novel ever written... [It] is a dazzling technical tour de force, a comic delight, an imaginative treat, a study of life and death, sanity and madness, hope and despair, love and loneliness, privacy and sharing, kindness and selfishness, creativity and parasitism, and above all a thrilling ride of discovery." -Brian Boyd, “Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years”
“I’ll example you with thievery: … the moon’s an arrant thief; and her pale fire she snatches from the sun ….” — William Shakespeare, “Timon of Athens”
INSCRIBED BY NABOKOV WITH A BUTTERFLY DRAWING TO HIS SISTER-IN-LAW: “For Sonia / [butterfly drawing] / from Vladimir / NY / 1962”.
Pale Fire is generally considered Nabokov’s most brilliant creation. Its core is a 999-line poem in heroic couplets; the thousandth and last line of which was never written since the putative poet — Professor John Shade of Wordsmith University — was killed before he had a chance to finish it. The poem is accompanied by a foreword, an index, and endnotes, all written by Shade’s university colleague Charles Kinbote. As the reader works his way through the book, it becomes clear that Kinbote is mad. He believes himself to be Charles the Beloved, the exiled king of a northern European country named Zembla, and believes Shade’s poem to be an encoded version of his reign, deposition, and escape to America — a view which is fully explicated in the endnotes. Further ambiguities emerge — many only after multiple re-readings of clues in the poem itself, in the foreword and endnotes, and even in the index — and the reader is soon left wondering whether Shade and Kinbote are both intended to be “real” within Nabokov’s fictional universe, or whether either was a creation of the other. Today, over fifty years after its publication, Pale Fire continues to engender fierce and fruitful critical debate.
But the work is not simply a sterile intellectual puzzle. The central poem itself is regarded by many as a masterpiece that can stand alone as a great work — and indeed it has been published as such. Pale Fire includes profound meditations on death and the afterlife, makes clear the anguish of Kinbote’s madness, and incorporates the fiercely tragic story of Shade’s unattractive and lonely daughter, who kills herself after being humiliated by a blind date. The reader is alternately amused, exhilarated, heart-stricken, and sobered; but above all left in awe of Nabokov’s imagination and intelligence, and of this transplanted Russian’s infallible ear for the harmonies of colloquial American English.
As both Boyd and McCarthy note in the quotations above, the novel is many things simultaneously, but certainly one of those things — and perhaps the foremost — is a brilliant and devastating put-down of the roles of the commentator, annotator, and critic, who snatch their pale fire from the works they seek to explicate. In creating an annotator whose notes engulf and take over the work he is annotating, Nabokov was perhaps (among other things) engaging in self-parody, since he had recently completed (but not yet published) a massive annotated translation of Pushkin’s novel-in-verse Eugene Onegin, a translation in which a brief mention of, say, a tree in the underlying poem could give rise to a multi-page note seeking to identify the precise species involved.
On this copy:
AN IMPORTANT ASSOCIATION COPY: First edition, third impression, presentation copy from Nabokov to his sister-in-law Sonia Slonim in the year of publication (1962), and, like many of Nabokov’s inscriptions, particularly to his wife Vera and other family members, includes a drawing of some (perhaps fictitious) species of butterfly. (In addition to being a noted author, Nabokov was throughout his life an enthusiastic lepidopterist — indeed, at one stage he studied butterfly genitalia professionally at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology — and was the author of important papers on lepidopteran taxonomy.) Sonia Slonim was Vera’s sister and a very close member of Nabokov’s family after they emigrated to the United States in 1940.
The drawing and inscription are in pencil; the butterfly with highlights in red pencil. With Nabokov’s Palace Hotel, Montreux, Switzerland bookplate on the front pastedown (as is often found in presentation copies).
WITH: A first edition, first impression (not inscribed).
New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1962. Octavo, original black cloth, original dust jacket. Inscribed with butterfly drawing on half-title. Stain below inscription, otherwise book fine; dust jacket with spine-toning, minor soiling, and small chip at base of the spine. First impression (1962, uninscribed): Near fine with only slight, general wear.
A PRESENTATION COPY TO A CLOSE FAMILY MEMBER OF ONE OF NABOKOV’S BEST BOOKS, WITH RARE BUTTERFLY DRAWING BY NABOKOV.
Price: $25,000 .