'Pale Fire' is Published

No critic, Russian or not, has yet been able to lock Vladimir Nabokov in a box, except for the clumsily made critical box labeled "cleverness" — a confinement not really confining, since cleverness implies an ability to get out of boxes.

Still, by general acknowledgment, Nabokov is the cleverest author to write in Russian in the last few decades, and probably the cleverest in English since James Joyce, despite the fact that English is his third language.

But winning acknowledgment as the cleverest writer is a touchy business, a little like becoming Pope — one must not campaign for the election. Readers of Nabokov's new book, which is surely the most eccentric novel published in this decade, have considerable reason to feel that the author is campaigning. Pale Fire, like Lolita, is a monstrous, witty, intricately entertaining work whose verbal agility is often bewildering. But unlike the earlier book, Pale Fire does not really cohere as a satire; good as it is, the novel in the end seems to be mostly an exercise in agility — or perhaps in bewilderment.

In fact, “Pale Fire” is a curiosity into which it is agreeable to dip rather than a book which can be read straight through with pleasure. Nothing can obliterate the fact that Mr. Nabokov has a keen intelligence, a restless and inquisitive mind, and a very personal style that constantly defeats his pretense of being a mere Kinbote. It is refreshing, too, that he has made no attempt to repeat any of the patterns that have brought him success in the past. Much of the detail in this book can be paralleled in earlier novels. For instance, his account of Professor Hurley, who is set up as the inadequate first biographer of John Shade, is very much the same as his account of Mr. Goodman, the inadequate first biographer of Sebastian Knight. But “Pale Fire” sets a course all its own. It is one more proof of Mr. Nabokov’s rare vitality. Unluckily it is not much more than that.