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Post Books

Here is a spot to discuss books of all kinds, except books on film--that already has a thread.


I just finished reading Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire, the reigning novelistic monarch of formal invention. Pale Fire is a 999 line poem of rhyming couplets in iambic pentameter, sung by the late John Shade, deceased fictional poet. The novel itself develops within the commentary on the poem by a deranged would-be-ex-king Charles Kinbote, constantly haunted by fear of regicide and the onset of complete descent into madness.

As befitting a former monarch, Kinbote is completely self-obsessed, and this makes for the hilarity of the novel. He twists all the lines of Shade's poem to be about his own trials and tribulations as a persecuted king in the fantastic land of Zembla, which seems to be near both Scandinavia and Russia. What makes for the humor here is especially how Kinbote twists the "objective" genre of scholarly commentary into his own subjective concerns, like this:

"A methodical man, John Shade usually copied out his daily quota of completed lines at midnight but even if he recopied them again later, as I suspect he sometimes did, he marked his card or cards not with the date of his final adjustments, but with that of his Corrected Draft or first Fair Copy. I mean, he preserved the date of actual creation rather than that of second or third thoughts. There is a very loud amusement park right in front of my present lodgings.

...[T]here remained to be written only one line of the poem (namely verse 1000) which would have been identical to line 1 and would have completed the symmetry of the structure, with its two identical central parts, solid and ample, forming together with the shorter flanks twin wings of five hundred verses each, and damn that music."

Besides the hilarity of Kinbote's self-obsession, the novel also has a good deal of self-parody on Nabokov's part. Nabokov's aristocratic family was destroyed and dispersed by the Russian revolution, and he had no sympathy for socialism, to say the least. Neither does his character, Charles Kinbote, but since he is such a ridiculous character, snobbish denunciation of socialism is parodied to no end in the novel. In the same way, Nabokov's own hyper-intellectual/detached existence meets its caricature in Kinbote. As far as I know, this parody signifies no change in Nabokov's opinions or lifestyle. It only signifies that he had a sense of humor about his own self, a difficult and wonderful thing to accomplish. It makes me think of G.K. Chesterton.

All of the usual lexical fireworks are present in the poem/novel hybrid, such as the word "lemniscate," meaning to move in a figure eight motion (or to trace the sign of infinity) (this word is also used in McCarthy's Blood Meridian to describe the end of a shotgun barrel, no less). And he puts all this to good use: the sentences are intoxicating, and one finds oneself returning to the novel like a drug.

What's below the glittering surface is a meditation on finding meaning in pattern, as Shade says in his poem:

"Just this: not text, but texture; not the dream
But topsy-turvical coincidence,
Not flimsy nonsense, but a web of sense.
Yes! It sufficed that I in life could find
Some kind of link-and-bobolink, some kind
Of correlated pattern in the game
Plexed artistry, and something of the same
Pleasure in it as they who played it found...

[And so] Making ornaments
Of accidents and possibilities"

The reading of Pale Fire is itself an exercise in finding patterns and making a web of sense out of little fragments that offer hints as to what all this might mean, letting one occasionally penetrate the veil hung by its delirious narrator. It is this esoteric hermeneutic that Nabokov subtly encourages us to apply to our own frequently maddening experience of life itself.

Now I'm on to reading Cormac McCarthy's first novel, The Orchard Keeper, with his sentences that seem to fall out of Heaven itself, perfections of no earthly imagining, and all that while describing Hell. Only through the first chapter, but it is certainly something else so far.


Thu Apr 12, 2012 7:33 am
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Post Re: Books

Hey Mnemosyne, nice idea and all but we already have such a thread.

Would it be okay if I move your post over there and delete this topic?

“Bisogna essere molto forti per amare la solitudine.” - P.P. Pasolini

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Thu Apr 12, 2012 7:42 am
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Post Re: Books

Ah! I searched for 'books' and 'novels'. Yes, please move it!

Thu Apr 12, 2012 7:43 am
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