IF YOU HAVE NOT read Pale Fire, read it before reading on. You will not be able to unlock all its surprises, but you should not risk having sprung for you here what you could have had the pleasure of finding for yourself.
Pale Fire consists of four parts—a Foreword, signed Charles Kinbote; the long poem “Pale Fire,” by John Shade; Kinbote's line–byline Commentary to the poem; and his Index. 1 One of the many jokes of this very funny novel is that when we reach the end of the Foreword, we do not know which way to continue. But let us begin at the beginning, at the start of a first reading, to see how Nabokov primes us for discovery. Kinbote starts off with a sober description of the poem he is presenting to the public for the first time in this annotated edition: “Pale Fire, a poem in heroic couplets, of nine hundred ninety–nine lines, divided into four cantos, was composed by John Francis Shade (born July 5, 1898, died July 21, 1959) during the last twenty days of his life, at his residence in New Wye, Appalachia, U.S.A.” Nothing could be less like “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul … ” than this dry academic self–effacement.
All the same, the jokes have already begun, even before the playful transformation of a town in upstate New York into “New Wye, Appalachia.” Once when teaching Pale Fire I had in my graduate class, as well as bright young students, the recently retired former head of our English Department. I began to describe the book as consisting first of “a poem in heroic couplets, of nine hundred ninety–nine lines” when his white head jerked back, perplexed. Unlike the students, he had not missed the absurdity of the opening line—as if I had said that a family has nine children, all twins.