I hunted for this book for years. In the end I gave in and bought the Penguin Classic on-line. I’m so glad I did. I wanted to get beyond the wretched “Lolita” which I’d never managed to read, despite several attempts, finding it heavy going. I felt sure there must be more to Nabokov, other than his notoriety after Lolita, and I was correct.
The book was not a particularly easy read but every page offered dazzling prose, magnificent language – and this from a native Russian speaker. The language is extraordinary . I found I had to read with my notebook and pencil at hand, to record the words I didn’t recognize or understand. I later hauled out my huge Shorter Oxford Dictionary and even that august tome let me down a couple of times.
The scope of the novel is super-ambitious. Nabokov wrote a detailed foreword, followed by a poem of 999 lines in 4 Cantos, followed by a Commentary on the poem of 173 pages, which is the narrative of the story, as well as supplying a genuine commentary on the poem! He finished off with an index of nine pages : A – Z of infinite detail – a huge amount of work!
Furthermore, the actual story has two parallel threads: the story of Charles Xavier, King Charles the Beloved of Zembla (a fictitious Balkan country) who flees to exile in the USA. The second thread is the account by, Professor Charles Kinbote, neighbour and friend of John Shade, the poet. Kinbote lands up becoming the editor and custodian of Shade’s monumental poem. Are the two threads connected, or are they not? The plot is intricate – reminiscent of a set of nested Russian dolls.
And – a big plus point! – Nabokov is very funny, which in the setting of academia , literature and murder, is unexpected. He’s droll, he’s witty.
An anonymous reviewer wrote “ One of the most original and creative novelists of our time”. I don’t think this comment does justice to the novel. But the following comment by Martin Amis does do justice: “The variety, force and richness of Nabokov’s perceptions have not even the palest rival in modern fiction – the nearest thing to pure sensual pleasure that prose can offer”.
If you’re in the mood for a modern classic, something different, then read “Pale Fire.”