Think of this week’s column as a play list for the overeducated, the media-saturated, the culturally jaded: things you may have missed, things you ought not miss, things you still can see and hear. Things “arts journalists” have not covered. Cultural news for those people who, unlike your correspondent, have a life. Not having one allows me to multi-task massive reading and viewing consumption and select choice revelations for your benefit.
In a way, it goes back to the spirit of the early Edgy Enthusiast columns, which were numbered riffs on cultural obsessions. Playlists, even—dare I say it? —pre-blog blogging. Not really: but ….
1 Did you know that Jorn Barger, the guy generally known as the inventor of the Weblog—both the thing itself and the word for it (he coined the term, according to Wired)—is back? After a temporary retirement, Mr. Barger is blogging again with his unique mixture of intellectual provocations, polymath erudition and cryptically worded (occasionally crackpot) links (www.robotwisdom.com). I’d been a regular visitor to his site until a particularly long hiatus; I only learned of his return recently from Blogebrity, (www.blogebrity.com), which is a lot of fun to read in a different way.
Anyway, I want to get right to an important disclosure about the greatest novel of the past century; shift to an astonishing performance of Shakespeare’s exquisitely obscene poem, Venus and Adonis, featuring Claire Bloom (Claire Bloom!); and make a stop along the way to celebrate the birth of a remarkable underground literary form, one that has concealed itself in the thickets of the Amazon.com “Customer Reviews.”
So let’s continue with …
2 A new conjecture about Nabokov’s Pale Fire.
Last winter, I received an e-mail from David Glenn, a writer at The Chronicle of Higher Education, who said he’d been traveling through Oberlin, Ohio, and had seen a flyer for a forthcoming Oberlin College lecture on Nabokov’s debt to Robert Frost in Pale Fire.
I believe Mr. Glenn thought I’d be interested because of past columns I’d devoted to Pale Fire—either that or my more recent essay on the “cryptomnesia” controversy (The Observer, April 19, 2004): the claim, last year, by a German academic, Michael Maar, that Nabokov derived the title and theme of Lolita from a little-known 1916 German short story about a young girl named Lolita and her affair with an older man. Mr. Maar argued that Nabokov might have read the 1916 “Lolita” when he lived in Berlin in the 20’s. Mr. Maar believed it wasn’t plagiarism (although some misinterpreted it as that), but rather a case of a submerged memory (“cryptomnesia”)—one that Nabokov wasn’t aware of when he wrote his nymphet novel in the 1950’s.
But the controversy raised issues about the creative process of perhaps the greatest writer of the modern age and the secondhand description of the forthcoming Oberlin lecture on Pale Fire seemed to promise to raise similar questions.
I immediately got in touch with the Oberlin lecturer, Abraham Socher, a professor of intellectual history, who told me that his talk would focus on the famous opening lines—“I was the shadow of the waxwing slain”—of the poem in Nabokov’s Pale Fire. The poem, composed by Nabokov’s fictional John Shade and entitled “Pale Fire,” is a 999-line work in rhyming couplets that is the subject of the fantastical commentary by the now-iconic Charles Kinbote, whose half-crazed footnotes form the bulk of this amazing novel. The poem is, I believe—even embedded in a novel—perhaps the greatest American verse work of the 20th century.
Professor Socher wasn’t claiming plagiarism or cryptomnesia, or anything quite so scandalous, but an influence that gave us an insight into the way Nabokov conceals and reveals his sources. To me, in the literary realm it was a headline-making assertion.
I’m sure I don’t have to explain this for most Observer readers, a literate bunch. But just to remind those who haven’t reread Pale Fire recently, here is that opening quatrain:
I was the shadow of the waxwing slain
By the false azure in the windowpane;
I was the smudge of ashen fluff—and I
Lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky.
The reason that the origin of these four lines is worthy of attention and investigation is that they capture, in compressed form, the preoccupation of Pale Fire with the question of art and life, art and afterlife, of artistic “originality,” with fiction as the “reflected sky,” the distinction between primary experiences and their afterlife in aesthetic reflections of it.
Indeed, it is often forgotten that the mystery of the afterlife itself is at the heart of the poem whose ostensible subject is the suicide of the poet’s daughter and his subsequent meditation on the possibility of finding her in the afterlife.
That waxwing—a bird deceived by an image, by a reflection (the “false azure in the windowpane”)—smashed into the window and died, but “lived on” after death, “flew on” in the afterlife of art, the “reflected sky.”
While Robert Frost is a figure in the poem, (John Shade, Nabokov’s fictional author, ruefully characterizes himself as “one oozy footstep” behind Frost in poetic reputation) no one has heretofore suggested that Frost himself was a source of the “waxwing” image.
In the past, the passage from Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens that gave Nabokov his title (“The moon’s an arrant thief / And her pale fire she snatches from the sun”) has been considered the most salient thematic source for Pale Fire.
Professor Socher wasn’t alleging theft from Frost on Nabokov’s part—far from it. But when I asked him to send me a draft of his Oberlin lecture, it turned out that he believes he’s found what you might call the sun to the “waxwing” quatrain’s moon: a little-known Robert Frost poem that could well be the origin of the waxwing/window image.
I thought Professor Socher’s lecture made a persuasive case; I suggested that he try to get it published in the U. K. Times Literary Supplement, which had published Mr. Maar’s “cryptomnesia” essay. And, in fact, he did—you can read a 4,000-word version of it in the July 1 TLS. (I hope he puts it online as well.)
Now for the Frost poem itself, a short work that first appeared in a 1958 issue of The Saturday Review of Literature (Pale Fire was published in 1962) under the title “Of a Winter Evening.” Professor Socher quotes these lines:
The winter owl banked just in time
And save herself from breaking
And her wings straining suddenly
Caught color from the last of
In a display of underdown and quill
To glassed-in children at the
Professor Socher carefully builds his case for the owl being the source of the waxwing by adducing some surprising (to me) connections between Nabokov and Frost (the Nabokovs rented a house that had once been occupied by Frost; the two did a couple of readings together; Frost lost a child to suicide, the ostensible subject of “Pale Fire.” Also, Nabokov once said that he knew only “one short poem” by Frost, never identified.) And Professor Socher notes that the issue of The Saturday Review with Frost’s owl poem featured a commentary by John Ciardi on Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”—more reason to suspect that Nabokov, who knew Ciardi, might have read that issue.
The most convincing evidence (which Professor Socher expanded on in an e-mail to me after the TLS piece came out), was that Kinbote, Nabokov’s unreliable fictional narrator, “seems to have profited from [Ciardi's Saturday Review commentary]”—in other words, Kinbote’s creator, Nabokov, seems to have read Ciardi, which would place that issue of The Saturday Review in Nabokov’s hands, with only a few pages between the Ciardi piece and the owl poem.
I’m persuaded by Professor Socher’s scrupulous essay that this could be a major discovery, the source or inspiration for the signature image in one of the great works of literature of our time, and a further clue to Nabokov’s creative method: the way he invokes Frost overtly while making use of him covertly. (Professor Socher told me that Nabokov biographer Brian Boyd had e-mailed him to say that he’d also found his conjecture convincing.)
I asked Professor Socher how he’d made the connection, and he told me that while the book he was writing was on the 18th-century Jewish heretic Solomon Maimon, he’d been reading both Nabokov and Frost since his youth, and that he’d come across the owl poem in Frost’s last collection of poems. That he’d traced it (under a different title) to the original issue of The Saturday Review he’d found in a university library, where the presence of the Ciardi commentary allowed him to solidify his conjecture that Nabokov had read the owl poem further on in the issue.
I would only add something that Professor Socher and I politely disagree upon. It seems to me that the owl poem demonstrates something I’ve always felt: that Robert Frost is a vastly overrated poet and that “Pale Fire,” the poem itself, is one of the most underrated American poems of the past century.
That owl poem—so crude, so poshlust, as Nabokov would say: “Oooh, look at Nature, so red in tooth and claw!” So scary and all—the thin pane of glass demonstrates how little separates us from predatory death, etc., etc. Snooze.
Meanwhile, the poem called “Pale Fire,” perhaps because of its peculiar place within a novel, has often been denied its due as a poem. Some have mistakenly called it a parody; some have shown that it demonstrates the justness of Shade’s self-deprecatory characterization of himself as an “oozy footstep” behind Frost. In fact, taken on its own, it surpasses in every respect anything that Frost has ever done. Deal with it, Frostians.
One thing people sometimes forget when thinking about Pale Fire is just how funny it is (another contrast with Frost, who is, to my mind, utterly humorless). And, in fact, it was Pale Fire that led me to the discovery of—what should I call it?—a new genre, the hilarious comic novels in progress being written in the form of Amazon “Customer Reviews.” I’m speaking of …
3 The ongoing work of the pseudonymous Mister Quickly (and certain others). This work came to my notice, actually, from a peculiar posting on the Nabokov discussion listserv. Someone wrote in to the list asking about a strange-sounding “review” of Pale Fire that had appeared in the Amazon “Customer Reviews” section for the book.
Here is the review in full:
“HHH Beyond the Pale Fire
Reviewer: Mister Quickly “Amazon epicurean” (Victoria, BC Canada)
"Fire—a timeless subject. Perhaps rivalling the wheel in terms of its importance in human development, fire has been an important companion in our teleological quest towards perfection. This book didn’t really directly tackle the subject of fire as poignantly as would suit my tastes. If you’re interested in furthering your knowledge of fire I recommend the movie ‘Quest for Fire,’ or the song ‘Fire’ by Arthur Brown, and ‘Backdraft.’”
End of “review.” Brilliant! A kind of pitch-perfect higher cluelessness that really says more than it seems to, Kinbote style.
Which someone on the Nabokov list picked up on and posted:
“I did a quick search: Mister Quickly is a joke and writes silly reviews as a hobby. See www.amazon.com/gp/ cdp/member-reviews/A2752XIGJY2Y H6/.”
The U.R.L. took you to a list of 49 Amazon reviews by Mister Quickly (a pseudonym that must be a variant on Shakespeare’s Mistress Quickly), almost all of them as hilarious—and ingeniously so—as “Beyond the Pale Fire.”
I particularly liked his reviews of gadgets and guidebooks: His thoughts on the “Rowenta Genuine Replacement Steam Cleaner Hose Pipe,” for instance (who knew you could get it on Amazon?), offer a metaphysical speculation on hoses and pipes.
And his review of Caring for Your Miniature Donkey has a tragic poignancy (with a possible note of pervy horror): “This is an excellent book, and a most welcome read after the disastrous experiences I had with my first 3 miniature donkeys …. I’m only thankful that this wonderful edition has helped me prolong the life expectancy of my current miniature donkey, Gerhardt.”
Through a chance conversation with a writer friend, I was initially persuaded that Mister Quickly was the pseudonym for Christopher Sorrentino, a New York City novelist (Trance, his much praised new work, is just out). But when I contacted him, he said that while he often did write pseudonymous Amazon reviews (which he suggested we call SPAMAZON Lit), he wasn’t the pseudonymous Mister Quickly. (Mark Felt then, maybe?)
He only revealed one pseudonym of his own that he’d had a special fondness for: “J.S. Mason, a.k.a. the Blind Architect,” whose fictional life, Mr. Sorrentino told me, “followed an arc that each successive review extended. His ‘fans’ learned about his wife, his blindness, his professional career, his setbacks.”
See Amazon reviews, which we all know goes on. This is a genuine literary form that Amazon has inadvertently nourished.
There are others out there in the Amazon underbrush. Well, at least two, maybe three (several years ago, Slate linked to some guy calling himself “Henry Roddicks,” I think. Is Henry Roddicks a different person from Mr. Quickly? Henry posed as a bitter, middle-aged, half-soused Brit “reviewer” before he disappeared from Amazon. (I think Amazon removed his “reviews.”)
What does all this have to do with …
4 The live reading of Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis, featuring Claire Bloom (Claire Bloom!) at the 92nd Street Y?
First of all, I still find it hard to believe I was fortunate enough to witness something so rare, so rich and so strange. A one-night-only, two-person performance at the 92nd Street Y that was revelatory about a poem I’d always appreciated for its over-the-top eroticism, though one that’s always seemed a bit precious on the page.
But given living, breathing embodiment by Claire Bloom and her co-reader, noted U.K. Shakespearean John Neville (and directed by Robert Scanlan), it turned into a tour-de-force drama, its pentameter galloping like a hot-blooded racehorse, like a pounding heart, through the erotic struggle being waged at the heart of the poem.
As someone whose life was changed by Peter Brook’s justly legendary A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I haven’t had many moments in the theater that equaled its exhilarating intensity. This one did. Ms. Bloom and Mr. Neville’s riveting delivery gave the poem a superbly three-dimensional incarnation. It was dramatic, it was sexy, it was funny, and it was ironic and provocative on many levels, from the physical to the mythic and metaphysical. (Furthermore, it was introduced by my learned onetime Observer editor David Yezzi, now head of the Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center, which presented the reading.)
What was strange was that NOBODY WROTE ABOUT IT. (Nothing I could find; it transpired on May 24 of this year.) I subsequently learned from a person at the Y that there’s an unwritten rule in the city’s theatrical media that nobody writes about productions which appear for only one night.
While on the surface, this might seem to make some sense (readers wouldn’t be able to see what was written about), I think, in the larger sense—or at least in this instance—it’s insane. Something like the Bloom/Neville Venus and Adonis should have had a dozen people writing about it from a dozen angles; it was at least that multifaceted. The great narrative poem from a primarily dramatic poet, the poem that made Shakespeare’s literary reputation. One of the great Shakespearean actresses of our age … come on!
And yet, instead, plays that deserve to close after one night get written about all the time. Something is wrong here.
Yes, it’s true you’d be writing about it for readers who couldn’t see it, but maybe by doing so, you could encourage a return, a reprise. Maybe, at the very least, you could memorialize the historical fact that such a genuinely sensational event had occurred. Where were all the “arts journalists” that night?
All right, I won’t go on about this anymore. I will just offer one remarkable way in which it relates to—surprise!—Pale Fire.
there was a line I’d noticed with special attention this time—a line that I’d suggest may have been the ür-source for both Frost’s owl and Nabokov’s waxwing.
It comes almost precisely at the center of Shakespeare’s 1,200-line narrative poem, right after a hard-to-specify sexual encounter between Venus and Adonis that leaves Venus frustrated.
At which point, Shakespeare offers up this simile for Venus’ frustrated condition:
Even so poor birds deceiv’d with
Do surfeit by the eye and pine the
It’s a simile traceable back to classical Greek sources, particular to the story of Zeuxis, an artist who supposedly painted grapes so lifelike that birds came to peck at them and turned away frustrated. It’s the locus classicus of the meditation on Art and Nature that recurrently preoccupies great artists.
But there it is: the bird deceived if not doomed by art, just as Frost’s owl was initially deceived by the transparency of the glass, Nabokov’s waxwing by the reflection in the pane.
Of course, I can’t prove that either Frost or Nabokov read or remembered that image from Shakespeare. But as anyone who has read Pale Fire (or Bend Sinister) can testify, Nabokov knew Shakespeare inside and out. Inside and out: a distinction lost, alas, on the waxwing.
5 I’m running out of space, but don’t forget to read Gerald Howard’s splendid essay on Gravity’s Rainbow in the special Pynchon issue of Bookforum. I will postpone for another time the discussion about the distinction between modernism and postmodernism (and my preference for The Crying of Lot 49) that I had with the estimable Mr. Howard. But he has an amazing story to tell about Pynchon and that book, if he’ll let me tell it.