Monday, 21 March 2011

Pale Fire

My artwork features on the new Penguin Modern Classics edition of the Vladimir Nabokov novel Pale Fire, part of a comprehensive reissue of the author’s entire catalogue in English, designed by Pentagram and featuring the work of many leading illustrators, including David Foldvari, Michael Gillette and Marion Deuchars.

Each cover incorporates a conventional, classic unifying design – offset by illustrated elements that add a touch of playfulness and humanity.

My novel is classed as an experimental late work by Nabokov – and aside from Lolita it is probably his most celebrated book. It is indeed a very unconventional and challenging novel, containing little in the way of a traditional narrative structure. The opening section of the book is a puzzlingly opaque 999 line poem called ‘Pale Fire’. The main prose body of the book consists of the numbered footnotes which annotate the individual lines of the poem.

We learn that the poem was written by John Shade, a celebrated poet who was shot dead just before he completed this, his final work. (He never had the chance to complete the thousandth line) As we read through the annotations, a curious tale starts to emerge. The editor identifies himself as Shade’s neighbour, Charles Kinbote, who believes that he has directly influenced the poem’s content through his friendship. Kinbote, we learn, believes himself to be the deposed King Charles of Zembla, a European country whose monarchy fell in a Soviet-backed revolution.

Can this be true? The notes bear little relation to the poem and the suspicion grows that Kinbote is a fraud, and not what he claims to be.

Despite scattered clues that hint at possible explanations, Nabokov leaves no direct answers to the questions he raises in his literary puzzle.


On a rather less highbrow note, ‘Pale Fire’ is the book Ken Barlow was seen reading on Coronation Street about a year back. (Til my dying day I will rue the fact it was the old edition…)

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