Monday, February 26, 2018

Pale Fire online reading group, Week Seven


Mary McCarthy. Public domain photo  by Dick DeMarsico, World Telegram staff photographer - Library of Congress. Via Wikipedia bio of McCarthy. 

This week: Commentary for Lines 181-182 to commentary for Line 334. Pages 108 to 123 in my old paperback, but your mileage may vary.

Line 230 commentary: " ... his picture of Hazel is quite clear and complete; maybe a little too complete ... " Talk about an unreliable narrator, here is an unreliable commentator, actually complaining about the poem being about the poet's dead daughter, rather than the commentator!

Line 238 commentary: If you wondered what a cicada looks like:


Annual cicada: Creative Commons photo by Bruce Marlin. 

Line 247 commentary: "a king sized botfly." Could refer to Prof. Botkin, possibly Kinbote's real identity. Bot flies, also known as gadflies, have larvae that are internal parasites of mammals.


One of Poussin's Arcadian Shepherds paintings, e.g. "Et in Arcadio ego" paintings. 

Line 286 commentary, first paragraph: "Even in Arcady, am I, says Death." A translation of "Et in Arcadio ego."  Which is the title of a well-known painting.  Which connects to the work of Robert Anton Wilson. As the Wikipedia article I just linked to puts it: "The authors of the pseudohistory The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail (1982), under the false impression that 'et in arcadia ego' was not a proper Latin sentence, proposed that it is an anagram for I! Tego arcana dei, which translates to 'Begone! I keep God's secrets', suggesting that the tomb contains the remains of Jesus or another important Biblical figure." The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail theory is referenced in RAW's work. See for example RAW's reference to the painting in "Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary" in Email to the Universe.

Readers of this blog also will enjoy a private amusement that this paragraph of Nabokov's has the number 23. It's also amusing that this famous modernist novel can be connected, however fleetingly, to Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code.

I recently discovered that Mary McCarthy's famous review of Pale Fire is online. Read it here.  For a time, McCarthy was married to Edmund Wilson, once an important friend of Vladimir Nabokov.

"This centaur-work of Nabokov's, half poem, half prose, this merman of the deep, is a creation of perfect beauty, symmetry, strangeness, originality, and moral truth. Pretending to be a curio, it cannot disguise the fact that it is one of the very great works of art of this century, the modern novel that everyone thought dead and that was only playing possum." -- Mary McCarthy

15 comments:

michael said...

Kinbote's notes for line 270, "My dark Vanessa" reminded me of RAW working Swift's two "Esther" girlfriends into "Synchronicity and Isomorphism in Finnegans Wake" from Coincidance.

I increasingly like Shade's wife Sibyl, who Kinbote reveals he "was to learn later" that she referred ("alluded") to Kinbote "in public" as "an elephantine tick; a king-sized botfly; a macaco worm; the monstrous parasite of genius."

There are passages here that are stylistically so dazzling they compete with Pynchon (for me); I'm using Pound's triumvirate of phanopoeia/logopoeia/melopoeia; often the musical values (melopoeia) give me the Joycean Buzz. The long passage from last week - where Charles/Kinbote escapes from his castle - was a ridiculously great combo of images and musical writing.

I'm just blown away by Nabokov here, generally, frankly.

Oz Fritz said...

Fascinating transition into the next section: birth, death, rebirth. Last line of last week's section sez: "So much for John Shade's last birthday." - this sentence alone suggests death while celebrating birth.
Then we see "Lines 181 - 182 waxwings . . . cicadas' and we're referred to Line 1: I was the shadow of the waxwing slain." - death. The cicada indicates rebirth: "... and another cicada, leaving its envelope behind, will sing triumphantly at lines 236 - 244." (To digress slightly, we see an appearance of the # 236 that got implied before with the dual mentions of 1,888 [ 8 x 236 ]. See comment 2 weeks ago).

The cicada (to me) also indicates rebirth in line 182 of the poem. In lines 180 -181, composed on his 61st birthday, Shade declares that he is going to devote his life to the one task of finding out about life beyond death. Ironic that he will die in a matter of days and will really find out. The end of line 181 into 182 reads:
"...Waxwings
Are berry-pecking. A cicada sings."
The following stanza reads:
"The little scissors I am holding are
A dazzling synthesis of sun and star."

Once again we get a direct solar influence this time immediately following a dedication to research into the afterlife. I associate this solar influence with "A cicada sings." In my opinion, connecting the sound of a cicada with something positive about the bardo or death - the solar influence/rebirth - seems incredibly profound. The best way I can describe the sound of a cicada is that it's something like a cricket, only different (haha). You can hear the sound on YouTube.

Eric Wagner said...

Line 224 doesn't get a note. I can't imagine talking with Proust. I would have liked to have had a pleasant conversation with him.

One could make a tremendously lucrative unfaithful adaptation of Pale Fire focusing on the poltergeist activity and/or the murder of Shade - "demons fill my goetic mirror to overflow".

The father with mentally ill daughter theme parallels the lives of James Joyce and Joseph Kennedy.

The bit where Kinbote figures out the Shades' vacation destination reminds me of "What about Bob?"

michael said...

In notes to line 286 laments the "cynical age of frenzied heterosexualism" he lived in then (c.1958), but feel, were he around today, the frenzy dying down a tad. Good for him!

Eric: the bit about the Shade's vacation destination creeps me out like all the other skulking and lurking around Kinbote does with the Shade's privacy. See notes for lines 47-48 and many others. Whether Kinbote really is/was a Zemblan King, it's clear he's got some sort of mental illness and is a stalker.

Apropos of almost nothing: Edmund Wilson and Nabokov were friends before a falling out. RAW wrote a review of Wilson's _The Cold War and the Income Tax_ that I've never read. It's apparently in The Humanist, 1964, vol 24, issue 1, p.23.

I like Eric's idea of making a tremendously lucrative and wildly unfaithful adaptation of Pale Fire. I have it all worked out and, seeing Kinbote as the role Kevin Spacey was BORN to play, called his agent:

Agent: This has to be some sort of joke. Fuck you. You've read the news.
Me: No...I...what happened?
(Click)
Me: Hello?

Then I Googled it. Oh. Him Too?

Eric Wagner said...

Michael, I find it interesting that the films “Silence of the Lambs” and “What about Bob?” came out around the same time. They seemed to me to represent America’s love/hate relationship with psychology.

I recently rewatched “Back to the Future”. I find it interesting that both it and “The Empire Strikes Back” feature an incest theme. That 80’s incest theme points to President Trump and his lust for his daughter as well as the current popularity of incest porn.

“The Night of the Living Dead”...”The Blair Witch Project”...”Paranormal Activity”...”Pale Fire” - a nice sequence of low budget horror blockbusters.

Also, thanks for responding to my post. It seems that all of us have very different agendas when reading “Pale Fire”. I like reading everyone’s comments, but I haven’t come up with many comments on the comments. I tried reading a lot of Nabokov’s cross references to different parts of the book, but I got exhausted. I read the book twice already in 2018, and I wonder what it will reveal over the next few weeks.

michael said...

Incest porn is a..."thing" as the kids say? Man, I need to get out more.

A long time ago, someone commented on my defunct blog about "rape culture," a term and idea I felt dubious and also appalling. Then I checked into it. It seems to be a thing among damaged boys, but it's a hard thing to gage.

Back to Nabokovian moods: this long commentary section by Kinbote seems a tour-de-force by VN: here's a very disturbed character, who I find quite unlikeable, yet the writing is totally marvelous. How reliable is Kinbote? At this point in the novel, how "real" is Zembla? What is its ontological status, within the reality of the novel and within Kinbote's reality? At times Kinbote's aware others think he's not sane. At times he seems to know it himself. At the same time, WE know things about Kinbote he doesn't know. And how did Kinbote become such a fine - if daft - writer?

Oz Fritz said...

I found it very interesting that Kinbote gave Shade a volume of Proust's "In Search of Lost Time," also translated as "Remembrance of Things Past," - a Bible of the Stars edition (Bibliotheque de la Pleide) no less. True to form, Kinbote gives this masterpiece a bipoloar review both praising its genius and condemning it as "... snobbishness repeated and expanded to an unsufferable length..." The entirety of "Pale Fire" seems a remembrance of things past. Very little, if anything, seems to take place in the author's present time. The narrative subject matter is either Kinbote's memories (both recent and older) or his commentary on Shade's memories as expressed in the poem. Memory is a primary themes of Proust's classic. Memory appears closely related to bardo spaces as they both connect to the unravelling of the subconscious mind.

Shade's autobiographical confronting and dealing with the tragic death of his beloved daughter precedes Robert Anton Wilson doing the same in "Cosmic Trigger."

A b grade Hollywood horror version of "Pale Fire" would seem faithless to the book because the book has far more artistic depth and a much more nuanced approach to the subject of death. Nabakov almost parodies this popular misconception of death the Hollywood image machine spews out to play upon common fears of the Unknown. I would care to see a Memento-era Christopher Nolan attempt to direct a faithful rendition of the novel.

The first paragraph on p. 166 that starts "I imagine ... experienced a sensation of odd instability..." reminds me of Chapel Perilous.

Eric Wagner said...

Cool observations about Proust and "Pale Fire, Oz.

PQ said...

I must admit, in all honesty, that Kinbote has gotten so irritating it's sometimes hard to read. He'll begin commenting on Shade's poetry then quickly veer off into talking about the misadventures of his Zemblan king in ridiculously intricate detail. I know that's the point, that Nabokov is being clever and messing with us, but I find myself longing to read a legit commentary of Shade's beautiful poem instead of the psychotic ramblings of this twerp.

Is there anything redeeming about Kinbote? His love for poetry perhaps. Yet I'm often shocked at his negative criticism in commenting on certain lines.

michael said...

Kinbote writes about himself and others with great verbal wit and acuity, and yet I find him very unpleasant as well, PQ. As a literary figure I find him marvelous; as I project him into "my" world I would want to stay the fuck away from him. Egregious but compelling figures are people we've all read about in novels, but this one seems so well-drawn he draws out the dark humor in me. I suspect that's what Nabokov was after.

However we take his tales as the escaped Zemblan king, what are we to make of his omniscience about Gradus's peregrinations? Is he totally full of crap? I wonder how it'll al shake out.

Eric Wagner said...

I guess I identify so much with Kinbote I don’t find him as annoying as many people do.

Oz Fritz said...

Thank-you, Eric.
David Lynch would also get my vote to direct a "Pale Fire" film.

King Charles reminisces about meeting his wife (p.173) in the commentary on Shades' marriage. This meeting has two cross gender references, one for each polarity: "She came in male dress.." and "... (two guardsmen disguised as flower girls.)"

The second paragraph on p. 179 recalls the secret Masonic handshake.

The second paragraph in p. 180 seems to be a match of descriptions between Gradus and Aleister Crowley's first biographer, John Symonds:

"Gradus tried again - but like an expelled puppet, the wild little prompter had disappeared. Sheepishly contemplating his five stubby strangers, Gradus went through the motions of an incompetent and and half-paralyzed shadow-grapher and finally made an uncertain V-for-Victory sign. Bretwit's smile began to fade."

In his bio, "The Great Beast" (first published in 1952) Symonds recoiunts Crowley's claim to have given the V-for-Victory sign to his friend in British Intelligence to pass on to Churchill to magically counteract the Nazi swastika. Churton, in one of his subsequent bios, supplies credible evidence to support that claim. To my knowledge, Crowley is the only one to have ever made that claim. Symonds had dubbed Crowley as "The King of the Shadow Realm' hence the coined term "shadow-grapher." Symond's biography comes across as very one-sided and negative toward Crowley hence the criticisms, "incompetent and half-paralyzed..." Symonds assassinated the character of poet Crowley just as Gradus literally murders the poet Shade.

"Bretwit's smile began to fade" as Crowley's would have after seeing Symond's bio of him. Then we're told that Bretwit's name means Chess Intelligence. Crowley was known as a very talented and avid chess player. RAW mentions his chess skills in "Cosmic Trigger."

PQ said...

I guess my distaste for Kinbote is sort of like my distaste for the main character in "Phantom Thread"---it's an indication of excellent character portrayal. Have to give Nabokov credit for that.

To Eric's point, I too have noticed aspects of myself in Kinbote's character. Though I guess he represents the extreme I try to resist turning into with my own obsessive interests in favorite authors/artists.

Branka Tesla said...

Nabokov's modus operandi in the commentary section of "Pale Fire" reminds me of Wilson's "guerrilla ontology" method leaving his readers with more questions than answers and with endless interpretations; as LVX said..."I'm all questions and no answers." (Me too!); and some feel irritated like PQ,; but some like it - Eric!

I am somehow experiencing this avant garde work as a big symphony (not like Tchaikovsky; more like Alexandre Rabinovitch-Barakovsky's "Incantations") orchestra with very dramatic and occasionally funny sounds, within ironic and grotesque context. There seem so many voices: voice within voice, within voice, within voice.....ad infinitum.

Lvx said...

The linked review was very good. Too good; I had stop reading it, saving it until I'm done exhausting my own thoughts on the novel.

I can see why that's a famous review... what are some other such famous reviews, I wonder, that are worth reading? There should be an anthology.

It was RAW's review of F For Fake that led me to that (to me) greatest of all films. Which in turn opened dozens of other worthy doors over the years.

Plenty of faking in Pale Fire. I'm reveling in the questions raised by the unreliable narrator. Maybe not ready for answers yet.