Monday, March 12, 2018

Pale Fire online reading group, Week Nine

                            Terra the Fair, an orbicle of jasp. (Line 558 of the poem). See below

This week: Commentary to Lines 433-434 to Commentary to Lines 557-558 (pages 136 to 153 in my old paperback, but your mileage will likely vary.)

Commentary to Lines 433-434: The sentences about the cruelty of his marriage to the queen seem very moving to me: "Her image, and she entered and re-entered his sleep ... forever remained exactly as she looked the day he had first told her he did not love her." "...the groaning dreamer perceived the disarray of her soul and was aware that an odious, undeserved, humiliating disaster had befallen her ... "

[On what Charles plans to do in America]: "Teach. Examine literary masterpieces with brilliant and charming young people. A hobby he could now freely indulge." As a description of Nabokov's own life at Cornell this sounds like either sarcasm or an idealization, or both.

There has been discussion in the recent entries about how Nabokov's protagonist is not a sympathetic character, and Shade seems to endorse this view when he refers to the "rather appalling king." Nabokov was hard on his characters and referred to them as "galley slaves." The "galley slaves" comment seems to be echoed in Shade's comment that "One can harness words like performing fleas and make them drive other fleas."

Martin Amis says, “When I taught fiction, as I did for a few years, I told my students, ‘When you read Pride and Prejudice, if you’re a woman, don’t identify with Elizabeth Bennet, and if you’re a man, don’t identify with Fitzwilliam Darcy. In both cases, identify with Jane Austen. Identify with the author, not the character, think ‘what’s the author trying to do?'" (Source.)

Commentary to Line 470: Negro: Nabokov despised prejudice and in fact was married to a Jewish woman.

"Shade said that more than anything on Earth he loathed Vulgarity and Brutality, and that one found these two ideally united in racial prejudice." I love the sarcastic line about the "jasmine-belt lyncher and the mystical anti-Semite."

There's a lot in The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov about his experiences with anti-Semitism, and with open racial prejudice in the South.

Commentary to Line 493: The discussion of suicide seems to offer a clue to Kinbote's plans when he finishes his book.

Lines 557-558: " 'Jasp' is the old name for the semi-precious stone now known as "jasper". A quartz of varied and intense colours, it was highly valued in the Middle Ages; almost as highly as the diamond is today." (Source). 

I want to "reprint" some of Michael Johnson's comment from last week on Nabokov vs. Joyce:

"Big difference between Joyce and Nabokov for me (and I've hardly read Nabokov, while Joyce has been with me for 20+ years): Look at the personalities of Bloom, Molly, and Stephen. I'm very much with all three of them, humanistically and politically. This sort of warmth seems completely absent in Nabokov. The only one I feel affection for is Hazel, but it's pathetic. I like John and Sylvia Shade, but not like I love Leopold and Molly and Stephen.

"But as for prose pyrotechnics: Nabokov is up there with Joyce, imo. Just. WOW!"

Those who favor Nabokov would argue that he is easier on the reader. Here is Martin Amis on the two:

"If you go to Nabokov’s house, metaphorically speaking, you get his best chair, in front of his fire, with his best wine. If you go to James Joyce’s house, you come into this big drafty edifice, and there’s no one there. And then you find him tinkering around in some scullery. And he offers you two slabs of peat around a conger eel, and a glass of mead. This not loving the reader, that’s the real thing. Henry James fell out of love with the reader. His early stuff, up to about Portrait of a Lady, is full of love for the reader. Then, I think out of sheer disappointment at not getting the kind of audience he wanted, the size of audience he wanted, he fell out of love – it was separate beds, then separate rooms, then separate flats. James never gave a damn for the reader in the first place, partially because perhaps he had patrons and never had to think about it. But it’s not that you want sales or anything like that, it’s that you want to do the right thing by your readers, and you want readers. Because a story is nothing without a listener."


michael said...

Interesting juxtaposition by Amis. He's right: Joyce is more difficult, but how much of that was sorta REQUIRED when you were inventing High Modernism with guys like Pound? (Hemingway from same milieu, but style very simple: not disproving my point - I don't "think" - but showing that inventiveness in style was part of the plan? Style could go towards the ultra-simple too.)

I finished the novel last week. Boy did it deliver the esthetic arrest goods: multiple moments of feeling the hair stand up on the back of the neck from just the poetic prose. The formal structure is stellar and enough to make for RAW's highest value in a work: inexhaustibility. No wonder this book has a massive cult following.

After Eric Wagner wrote he felt sympathy for Charles, I read the last 110 pages and succeeded about 3/4 in feeling empathy for Kinbote, but Line 493 note: Kinbote justifies suicide ("We who burrow in filth every day may be forgiven perhaps the one sin that ends all sins"), while notes to Line 549 reminded me of far too many Christers who preached to me while I was young. I was never a believer (Never) in saying uncle to be "saved" and have had a semantic reaction to "sin" for as long as I could remember. Fucking crowd control ju-ju tactics; the old Army game from here to eternity.

Not (ever) being a monotheist - let alone a Believer - I never bough suicide as a "sin." It's profoundly sad, one of the great Human things. We ought lessen all the conditions that lead to it. So I'm with Kinbote in his justification for suicide: it's a very private affair, ultimately. (Usually) But then the self-hating homosexuality and dippy dead-souled defense of Xtianity later on by Charles: oy!

If Chas offs himself soon after the novel ends, it's one sort of lugubrious thing to me; Hazel's suicide I find devastating. Why? It's part of why I love this book so much.

michael said...

Guilt over gayness, mental illness, ideological monothesism, stalking Shade: All of which makes it rough for me to really sympathize with Kinbote. I can work up empathy though. The bits from 433-434 are found in countless works of history in which we read about the lives of the Kings, Princes, they're gay, but married and feel terrible they can't give Princess the Stuff she needs, etc. ("He congratulated her on her attitude, solemnly swearing that he had given up, or at least would give up, the practices of his youth; but everywhere along the road powerful temptations stood at attention.") The pun is funny...

Yep: it's all about the Oh So High Rectitude of Property and the Sacred Bloodline and, so: pfffft!

I guess what bothers me is I am angry and forever at odds with any ideology or "law" that has repressed any form of normal human sexuality...and I consider homosexuality easily "normal" enough. (Normal for me: anything short of sex with kids, anything non-consensual; pretty much everything else in the Sexual Jungle is a Go with me, not that anyone asked.) So here's the repressed Gay King lying to himself, a "sinner" who is mentally damaged (probably a lot of it from self-hatred?), justifies suicide, then plays the Holy Man game with our poet Shade, quoting Augustine, unable to DROP his primary repressor. (Yep: easy for heterosexual me in 2018 Unistat to say!)

Shade: All religions are based upon obsolete terminology.

Kinbote: What we term Original Sin can never grow obsolete.

Again: a Bronx Pffffffft! (I find it tough to "feel with" Kinbote here - sympathy - but it's all-too-human, as Nietzsche says, but I can work up empathy for him.

BTW: Leary and RAW (among other luminaries) said almost the exact same thing that Shade says here: let's get beyond the ossified Word to the biologically-based metaphysical metaphors from genuine, uncanny spiritual experience that gave rise to all those terms mouthed and foaming up dead from the lips of so many of the clueless righteous. NB the virtuoso work of RAW in using ancient religious terms and reinvigorating and translating them for us and our experience, esp in writing about the 5th-8th circuits in Prometheus Rising...For RAW and Oscar Wilde: we have a LOT to thank Eve for for thinking and acting: "Fuck it; I'm taking a bite of that apple. Knowledge seems sexy to me, and I don't give a shit what the serpent said.": Original Sin!

Eric Wagner said...

My God, MIchael, you write well. (And yes, after decades of agnosticism, I have become a monotheist again, under the influence of Ibn 'Arabi and Rafi Zabor. I spent my first thirteen years or so a Catholic before falling under the spell of Robert Heinlein.)

Tom Jackson, thank you for starting this reading group. It has certainly proved fruitful. Perhaps we should do Ulysses and The Waste Land in 2022 to mark their centennials.

I don't think Kinbote killed himself. He founded the Charles Xavier School for Gifted Youngsters. Of course, I sometimes think of Pale Fire as An Insider's Guide to John Shade.

Shade's attitude towards words reminds me of Humpty Dumpty's. "One can harness words like performing fleas."

I wonder to what famous film line 452 refers.

"poets do not like to be led" - if only Pound had not wanted Mussolini to lead him.

I wonder if "jovial Negro raised his trumpet" in line 470 refers to Louis Armstrong.

I like the note to line 475 which links Mother Time and Father Time.

LInes 481-482 "The tall clock/Kept on demolishing young root, old rock" reminds me of Shakespeare's "sluttish time".

Line 487's "Retake, retake!" extends the cinematic imagery.

The presence of the absent: Kinbote seems oblivious to the emotional meaning of the poem at this point.

If Kinbote did kill himself, I can see him in Dante's Hell turned into a tree.

Kinbote's discussion of suicide in a 1962 commentary on a traditional rhyming poem makes an interesting juxtaposition with Sylvia Plath's suicide the following year and her poem "Daddy" which seems to me superior, as poetry, to Shade's verse.

Eric Wagner said...

Line 501 and its note make me think of the film “If”.

The note to line 502 juxtaposes “HP” with a fictionalized university, making me think of H. P. Lovecraft and Miskatonic (my alma mater). Of course, this sort of digression, which has nothing to do with Nabokov, solidifies my connection with Kinbote.

Oz Fritz said...

I enjoyed Amis' formulation. Deleuze says that writers of what he terms "minority literature" write for a "people to come." Their audience doesn't exist when they write, their literature has to find readers who will grasp it. This seems similar to Nietzsche's philosophy. Joyce wrote for readers of the future. You have to become smarter and broaden your awareness to comprehend his later works. Nabakov teaches how to be such a reader. He creates a bridge for the current reader to become one of those "people to come" who will understand and appreciate Joyce and perhaps realize Nietzsche's or Crowley's philosophy. Twice already, through Kinbote, Nabakov explicitly expresses an intention to teach, putting the word "teach" in a sentence by itself or with one other word to emphasize this intention.

Back in the commentary for "Line 408 A male hand," Kinbote informs us that these lines were written on Shade's 33rd index card. In the commentary for Lines 433 - 434 the number 33 shows up three times in the title of this section and the first sentence. The gematria for 33 = "spring, fountain" and also "Sorrow; wept, mourned" and "To destroy." This points to the "Against the Day" theme which could also maybe be called against life. After mentioning the 33rd index card, Kinbote starts talking about Gradus, Shade's murderer. The section of the poem starting from line 433 begins with alluding to Hazel Shade's conception and ends with her tragic death. The commentary of this hashes out the King's failed marriage with his confession to the Queen that he doesn't love her and we find: "the shock had fatally starred the mirror, and thenceforth in his dreams her image was infected with the memory of that confession as with some disease..."

The "Against the Day" theme continues with the discussion on suicide, a discussion with a great deal of double entendre. Kinbote/the King may have been abused in his childhood by "Grimm, the old groom..." (p. 220). This may play into his rationalization and desire for suicide and/or guilt about his homosexuality. The suicide section concludes: "So what can stop one from effecting the transition? What can help us to resist the intolerable temptation..." What kind of pain must one be in to look at suicide as a temptation?

Oz Fritz said...

The mention of Rabelais and the Institute of Preparation for the Hereafter circumstantially implicates Nabakov in the Crowley conspiracy. Rabelais' literary Abbey of Theleme inspired Crowley's actual Abbey of Thelema. The only rule in Rabelais' Abbey was "Do what you will" which Crowley changed to "Do what thou wilt" for reasons I've explained elsewhere. Rabelais Abbey didn't prepare its members for the hereafter, as I recall. Nabakov apparently makes this connection between magick and life after death as presented in Crowley's ideology despite not receiving much attention or even realized by many of Crowley's followers.

This sentence from p. 214 sounds like magick: "Once transmuted by you into poetry, that stuff will be true, and the people will come alive." The word "will" gets italicized in the text both times it appears in this sentence. Many of Crowley's rituals and inspired writings appear like poems.

PQ said...

I echo Eric's comment that Michael the OG writes well.

Oz, great stuff on writing for "people to come"-- thank you.