Once again Vladmir Nabokov is able to deliver a dazzling and muddled world where the truth is hidden below an undeterminable number of lies. Yet this book is by no means a repetition on a theme, the form of the book is entirely innovative. Told is the form of a posthumously-published poem in rhyming couplets by John Shade, a writer who is both an incredibly distinguished writer and English professor within the book’s universe. The poem is followed by an incredibly long line for line commentary by Charles Kinbote. Both are fascinating in their own way. Shade’s poetry reveals intense sensitivity to the world and a heart-breaking narrative that follows the poet’s life including this reflection losing friends to war:
For as we know from dreams it is so hard
To speak to our dear dead! They disregard
Our apprehension, queaziness and shame -
The awful sense that they're not quite the same.
And our school chum killed in a distant war
Is not surprised to see us at his door.
And in a blend of jauntiness and gloom
Points at the puddles in his basement room
Kinbote is a completely different character. Confused and probably quite mad his absurd story about an invented country and deposed kings is muddled and at time terrifying as what is “real,” at least in terms of the book’s world, becomes less clear as Kinbote’s obsession with Shade becomes visible.
As an interesting side note, the book can be read both straight through and by following the commentary as the poem is read. Only Nabokov would be able to create two experiences with one book.