It took me years to finish this novel. I started it several times but would never make it past the first twenty pages or so. I’m no stranger to postmodern literature, but this is such an oddly shaped novel: a poem and a series of footnotes to it. Even now it’s unclear to me whether the poem is supposed to have any artistic value (although, now that I’ve read the whole book, I’m not sure it matters), and the footnotes don’t serve their intended purpose; that at least was clear from the beginning.
This time, I told myself that I’d finish the book no matter what, and I’m glad I did, because it quickly won me over. It is filled with allusions and references, both to itself and to other works, and that was initially very disruptive, but it becomes acceptable. It also helps that different parts of the book “rhyme” thematically with each other. Once the weirdness of the format fades away I could find a great deal of humanity in the main characters. John Shade, who tragically lost his daughter (and then his own life); Charles Kinbote, who is generally very disagreeable but also a tragic figure on his own right; and Gradus, who despite how negatively the narrator describes him I found some sympathy for (perhaps because of his extreme incompetence). Overall I was not too impressed, though. Given the complexity of the text I’ll probably revisit in the future.
The book is a bit of a puzzle box and invites theorizing on what’s real in it and what’s not, and who actually wrote it. I’m not very interested in solving the puzzle myself but there’s a lot of good online essays on it. It’s funny that Nabokov himself has given some views on the matter of authorship. I wonder if he did that to complicate the question even more. (The Death of the Author was published five years after Pale Fire).