Did Vladimir Nabokov ever indicate on record whether he intended Pale Fire to be read non-linearly, i.e. jumping to each line reference?

A friend and I read the book together last summer. He read the book as one normally would (sequentially, pagewise). Me, I'm a little pedantic about reading every footnote and endnote, so I ended up chasing the line references all over the book, jumping multiple levels down before "resurfacing" (like depth-first search). One cool effect of this was that I was able to skip larger and larger swaths of pages as I neared the end, since I'd already read them.

So obviously, my friend and I had completely different experiences. My experience seemed to have more clarity about the story from the beginning, and also it was interesting not having a sense of when the book would end, despite holding a physical copy. Meanwhile, my friend's experience seemed more surreal, fragments and ideas not fitting into any storyline until much later, entirely dependent on what his memory held on to, making a Joyce-like impressionist effect. I envy I'll never experience this.

I know Nabokov probably wouldn't declare there's a "right" way to read his book. But I'm curious whether he hinted his intention for readers in any note or interview. Or if not, whether there are now any professional opinions on the matter.

  • 1
    I couldn't be bothered to read the poem, so I glanced through it and then went straight to the footnotes. I'd be very curious to see if anyone actually read the poem line by line, footnote by footnote, all the way through to the end!
    – Gaurav
    Jan 18, 2017 at 20:54
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    I'd be surprised if he ever gave any such "hints," but I'll check a few books I have....
    – Kevin Troy
    Jan 24, 2017 at 5:57
  • 2
    Your link should go to XKCD instead of Wikipedia. Feb 21, 2017 at 17:38
  • @Gaurav Believe me, it's been done. One should read the book as a spiral, however that is accomplished.
    – SAH
    Aug 7, 2018 at 20:13
  • @Gaurav Oh, sorry, I missed the joke last time. That is very funny and you are very clever.
    – SAH
    Sep 4, 2018 at 3:41

1 Answer 1


This is an interesting question. I don't have a definitive answer, but here is some pertinent information.

In the foreword to the book, the fictional (and pathologically self-important) Kinbote suggests reading the notes first, then the poem (with the help of the notes), and then the notes again:

Other notes, arranged in a running commentary, will certainly satisfy the most voracious reader. Although those notes, in conformity with custom, come after the poem, the reader is advised to consult them first and then study the poem with their help, rereading them of course as he goes through its text, and perhaps, after having done with the poem, consulting them a third time so as to complete the picture. I find it wise in such cases as this to eliminate the bother of back-and-forth leafings by either cutting out and clipping together the pages with the text of the thing, or, even more simply, purchasing two copies of the same work which can then be placed in adjacent positions on a comfortable table

These instructions are not necessarily Nabokov's, however. Rather, they are used to illustrate Kinbote's ludicrous self-importance.

That said, Nabokov agrees with Kinbote that re-readings are important. In Lectures on Literature, he writes:

When we read a book for the first time... the very process of learning in terms of space and time what the book is about, this stands between us and artistic appreciation.... In reading a book, we must have time to acquaint ourselves with it. We have no physical organ (as we have the eye in regard to painting) that takes in the whole picture and then can enjoy its details. But at a second, or third, or fourth reading we do, in a sense, behave towards a book as we do towards a painting.

So regardless of in what order you read the work originally, Nabokov does expect you to re-read and re-explore it.

And it is certainly the case that in these subsequent readings, Nabokov intends you to jump around, following his leads and cross-references. He built that kind of branching structure into Pale Fire intentionally. (It is clear from recurrent passages elsewhere in his oeuvre that Nabokov has an aesthetic preoccupation with this kind of branching structure.)

Lastly, Nabokov does make a comment specifically about Pale Fire which might shed some light on your question. In this interview can be found the following exchange:

INTERVIEWER: Mention of Swift moves me to ask about the genre of Pale Fire; as a "monstrous semblance of a novel," do you see it in terms of some tradition or form?

VN: The form of Pale Fire is specifically, if not generically, new.

This response doesn't tell us much, but it does reveal that Nabokov conceived of Pale Fire as being of a new form: at the very least it is a new species of novel (if not a new genus of literature). Maybe the differentia of this species, in Nabokov's mind, is its non-linearity or hypertextuality.

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