Friday, July 15, 2005

From Ron Rosenbaum's recent column in the New York Observer (because I love Pale Fire almost as much as I love you, dear reader):

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
to pass
And save herself from breaking
window glass.
And her wings straining suddenly
Caught color from the last of
evening red
In a display of underdown and quill
To glassed-in children at the
window sill.

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.

If you want to read the whole thing, do it now. According to my top-secret source (check out his top-secret wedding pics!), they only leave 'em up for a week or so.


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