Photo of Robert Frost published in 1941
This week: From Commentary on Line 347 to Commentary on Line 431 (pages 123 to 136 in my old paperback).
Commentary to Line 376: The poem Shade is attacking is "Four Quartets" by T.S. Eliot, as I found when I Googled the words that Hazel Shade asks about: "chthonic semipiternal grimpen."
Commentary to Lines 385-386: If our unreliable narrator can be trusted, the most dramatic event in the poem Pale Fire turns on a misunderstanding. Compare with "white fountain" versus "mountain," lines 750-802 in the poem.
Commentary to Line 426
Was it really true once, or is it true now, that every American knows Robert Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," as Kinbote asserts? I don't have that much faith in American schools. (But Eric Wagner, who is an English teacher, says many students know the poem -- see his comment below. So maybe I just don't know.) I encountered the poem when my father pulled out one of his old college textbooks and showed it to me. And I agree with Kinbote that it is "one of the greatest short poems in the English language." For your convenience, here it is:
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
Andrew Pitzer, in her The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov, writes that Nabokov did readings with Frost, "once being in the unenviable position of opening for him in Boston." She says Edmund Wilson despised Frost.
I think a lot of American students knew that Frost poem. I remember Tony Soprano's kids discussed in on "The Sopranos".
I am from Croatia and I remember Robert Frost and T.S.Eliot being a real hit. Both poets used to be among mandatory readings in high schools. (I hope they still are.)
Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening:
Zaustavljen uz šumu u snježnoj noći
Znam čiji je ovo hrastov gaj
Dolje u selu živi taj
I neće me vidjet’ gdje u tišini
Gledam snijegom pokriven kraj.
Konjiću mom ludo se čini
Da stojimo tu u divljini
Između šuma i jezera
Najmračnije noći u godini.
I remember his poem The Road Not Taken being very popular:
Staza kojom nisam pošao
Šumska staza se račvala na dvije
A ja sam, putnik tek jedan,
Stao ne znajuć’ kojom bih prije
I gledao niz prvu dok se nije
Zavila u gustiš neprovidan.
(I hope you had fun reading it in Croatian.)
Line 408 notes: One of many voices here. Kinbote narrates - Nabokov dazzles - about Gradus trying to catch up near Nice. "Gordon" seems like he'd be a wet dream for Kinbote. We learn later why he's not a target for erotic dalliance for Gradus.
So: is Kinbote full of shit here or how does he "know" these bits? If he "is" just insane and making it all up, how can we trust anything from him? Is Kinbote's quasi-omniscience vis a vis events surrounding Gradus a narratological POV conceit by Nabokov? (I've read far ahead in the text and still don't know if this is revealed.)
These and many other "problems" with Kinbote's commentary make this a truly great book for me, and one I'll no doubt read many times before I do the Mortal Coil Shuffle.
Joyce always gives me the feeling he was a synesthete; we know Nabokov was. My gawd the style.
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!
Nowadays most people don't even know that it can be sung to "Hernando's Hideaway."
Lvx, I agree with you about the brilliance of Mary McCarthy's review of "Pale Fire." She describes the qabalistic aspect of it in the first paragraph:
"When the separate parts are assembled, according to the manufacturer's directions, and fitted together with the help of clues and cross-references, which must be hunted down as in a paper-chase, a novel on several levels is revealed, and these "levels" are not the customary "levels of meaning" of modernist criticism but planes in a fictive space, rather like those houses of memory in medieval mnemonic science, where words, facts, and numbers were stored till wanted in various rooms and attics, or like the Houses of astrology into which the heavens are divided."
This week Nabakov's qabalistic lesson concerns reversing words. Line 347 gets two commentaries - p. 185 and p. 193 in my edition. The first commentary discusses a haunted old barn where the owner died. The second short commentary on "She twisted words" discusses word reversals. Reversing words, i.e. palindromes, has a prominent place in the linguistic bag of qabalistic tricks. I remember seeing a well done YouTube video on the Beatles "Paul Is Dead" conspiracy that showed Crowley's teachings about thinking and learning to write backwards claiming that as an inspiration for the backwards masking they put in their music. A well known usage of palindrome occurs in "The Book of the Law:" "Is a god to live in a dog? ..." This makes me consider the line: "... he interrupted me to indicate a natural grotto in the mossy rocks by the side of the path under the flowering dogwoods." (p.185) in a different light.
I've been flipping thru Brian Boyd's book "Nabokov: The American Years" which has an interesting chapter dedicated to "Pale Fire."
For starters, he lavishes some over-the-top praise:
"In sheer beauty of form, Pale Fire may well be the most perfect novel ever written."
"More than any other novel, Pale Fire is committed to the excitement of discovery."
He comments extensively on the structure of the poem and of the book itself, providing some interesting insights on the perfect opposites represented by Shade and Kinbote.
Boyd also declares "English poetry has few things better to offer than "Pale Fire." [the poem] --- while I haven't read much poetry overall, I do indeed find Shade's poem to be sublime.
I don't recall if this was discussed in the group yet, but Boyd argues that Shade has in fact written the entire book. In this view, his rendering of Kinbote amounts to, among other things, an homage to his wife Sybil Shade, ever the loyal protector and defender of the poet. The logic he uses is a little twisted and I'm not at all convinced, but he thinks Nabokov suggested this same interpretation and he certainly builds a thorough argument (too thorough for me to get into here).
@PQ The Nabokov bio you mention is earlier than Boyd's "Nabokov's Pale Fire: The Magic of Artistic Discovery (1999)" in which Boyd says he has changed his mind about his theory about the novel! I'm reading the Boyd Pale Fire book, but I don't have the full scoop on his theory yet.
Ah ok, that makes sense. I didn't find the Shade-as-author-of-the-commentary theory convincing at all.
Alas, I do think English poetry has a lot of better things to offer than Pale Fire (as poetry), such as the work of Shakespeare, Pound, Yeats, Donne, Zukofsky, etc.
Michael, I agree I do not feel much warmth for the characters in Pale Fire, especially compared with Joyce's characters. Spider Robinson wrote that different writers have sympathies for different sorts of people. Nabokov chose to write about people in Pale Fire for whom I have limited sympathy, even though I relate a lot to Kinbote.
I find it interesting that line 409 mentions "Aeolian wars" and line 410 mentions "quartet". I don't think Shade intended either of these as musical references, but who knows?
Mild musical synchronicity: Next January 30 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Beatles rooftop concert. Some friends and I plan to learn the five tunes the Liverpool quartet played that day. Line 418 has the phrase "on the roof". Oz Fritz, you know 418 meant a lot to Crowley (who appeared on the Sgt. Pepper cover). I doubt either Shade or Kinbote would like the Beatles.
Re Frost: Leslie Fiedler wrote a great essay on Frost and Pound. I loved Donald Hall's book Their Ancient Glittering Eyes Were Gay (an enlargement of his earlier book Remembering Poets) which tells of his encounters with Pound , Frost, and other poets.
The Zemblan Revolution started on May Day, 1958. This makes me think of the Cuban scenes in Godfather Part II. Perhaps Coppola should direct Pale Fire, or at least Pale Fire Part II.
Re: Americans and "Stopping By The Woods":
I just watched "Robert Frost: A Lover's Quarrel with the World," a 55 min documentary (1963 Shirley Clarke) that was aired on Turner Classic Movies in February (I DVRed it.) Won an Oscar for Best Doc. I'm probably the only one who posts here that hadn't seen it yet. Anyway...
At about the 21 minute mark, Frost, quite elderly, is giving a talk at what looks someplace like Wellesley. One of the Sisters. Half of the young women look like Cybill Shepherd in The Last Picture Show, but that came out 8 years later, although...nevermind.
Frost: The other day I asked, "How many of you don't know 'Stopping By Woods'?" One person in two or three thousand raised his hand...shamelessly.
(adoring crowd gives big laffs)
...and a lady asked me to say it. And I said "What do you want me to say it for when you all know it better than I do?
...But I said it.
...Just out of lenience."
Interesting story, Michael. I have not seen that documentary. My mom attended Wellesley in the late fifties.
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