Stochastic Bookmark

abstruse unfinished commentary

about correspondence


Pale Fire: A Primer

Or, Yet Another Authorship Controversy;
Or, Yet Another Remisreading.

An ongoing academic debate (or circular reasoning amongst turtlenecked acolytes) revolves around the 'internal authorship' of Pale Fire. This concoction consists of the poem "Pale Fire" by John Shade (a Popean scholar), in 4 cantos (documenting his early life, his daughter Hazel's truncated life, investigation into afterlife, and final ruminations on life), bracketed by a preface, commentary and index attributed to Charles Kinbote, who to all appearances hijacks the poem in order to lay out his own sordid and deluded tale, about the abdication and exile of Zemblan king Charles II. This poses unique danger to prospective critics, whose efforts are hilariously lampooned (with reference to Pope's Dunciad) for usurping (and exiling) the author and expropriating his text; nonetheless, many spiral around Pale Fire like moths. The following summarizes this debate, but shall remain mercifully light on close reading.

On first impression (which is, oddly, what the First Edition proclaims itself), Kinbote is an expatriate scholar, unfamiliar with American customs and mores; on closer inspection, he suffers from paranoid delusions of grandeur, and may actually be an anagrammatic academic from another department. But Kinbote possesses so much privileged knowledge about his subject that critics proposed that either Shade made up Kinbote as an excuse to adumbrate his poem, or that Kinbote invented Shade as a vehicle for his story. (History of this back-and-forth available at the aptly named Zembla website.) Nabokov's best biographer, Brian Boyd, stepped in it, suggesting Shade influenced Kinbote from beyond life's pale, then revised his view in Nabokov's Pale Fire: the magic of artistic discovery to incorporate spectral influence from Hazel. Whether or not one accepts his thesis (which, while supportable, I think is overstated and too tightly wrapped, but then, Boyd graciously cited my NYT bookchat in a follow-up Nabokov Studies article for pointing out, in support of his thesis, that 'Vanessa' points to "The Vane Sisters", a prior short story with acrostic ghosts), the book is valuable for its identification of sources in Pope and Eliot (Four Quartets as well as The Waste Land) and subreferences to e.g. Goethe, even teasing significance from seeming throw-away lines ("Here Poppa pisses" plays on Robert Browning's Here Pippa Passes, but I suspect The Ring and the Book also has some oblique relevance). Not exhaustive (but nothing is), and with amendment welcomed.

Carolyn Lukin Kunin* entered the picture in NYT bookchat and Nabokov Listserv with a stroke of genius: putting together Shade's first episode of illness [L139-160], heralded by a clockwork toy (in the form of a tin gardener pushing a barrow), with Kinbote's commentary on this ([C143] "By a stroke of luck I have seen it!" followed in the next comment [C149] by an excursion that allegorizes the subjective pathology of suffering a stroke, replete with blockages, flashes of light, dull rumblings, and culminating with reference to the explosion at the Glass Factory) and the final lines of the poem:
And through the flowing shade and ebbing light
A man, unheedful of the butterfly--
Some neighbor's gardener, I guess--goes by
Trundling an empty barrow up the lane.

with its attendent commentary showing Shade exhibiting symptoms of stroke externally, shambling heavily, stumbling ... much as in Canto IV, Shade's speech degrades ("Now I shall speak ...") while his shaving cream becomes rather gory. Kunin's analysis ties this to RLStevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to argue that this stroke unleashes a previously repressed monstrous, perverse aspect of Shade's personality (his muse a versipal), and suggests that Kinbote's notes are composed not in Cedarn, Utana, as stated, but in institutional settings to which Shade is remanded. While this sketch cannot do justice to her, I find this argumentation less convincing, and prefer to think that rather than some latent identity surfacing, Kinbote constitutes a reconstruction of identity eradicated by the stroke, making use of whatever shards and fragments of memory scattered by the trauma can be reassembled. I further think that this occurs not in objective time, but within Shade's shattered consciousness, much as occurs on Owl Creek Bridge (which pulls the reader up short simultaneously with Peyton Farquhar). (Why C1000 to a 999-line poem? Why are the Crown Jewels in Kobaltana, "not in the text"?) This also temptingly ties to the sea-change undergone by Timon of Athens, the title's purported source, and to the career of a garden-variety poet, Andrew Marvell, upon whom I shall expound in a subsequent post.

But to the larger context: While Kunin prefers her 'solution' to Boyd's, I prefer to keep them in suspension. The textual evidence for both are strong, and they may operate in complementary rather than contradictory fashion, leaving the question of an afterlife up in the air in the same way that Melville's The Confidence-Man (the closest precursor to Pale Fire, with a similar density of allusion) leaves unresolved the ambiguities of faith. The focus upon internal authorship as the defining issue to sharp resolution, the key to the puzzle, the light at the end of the tunnel, detracts from a full appreciation of the design.

* Kunin also later helped elucidate another authorial controversy (sparked by Michael Maar) by providing a translation (.doc) of von Lichberg's older Lolita story.


Nabokov's Theme

Which book was it that Edmund Wilson thought Nabokov had constructed as a game of chess?

No, not The Defense (which is to chess what Kawabata's The Master of Go is to ...):
With his prickly competitiveness, Wilson attempted to ensure he would never be caught out by Nabokov, and as a result imagined hoaxes that had never existed. He telephoned Nabokov shortly after reading The Real Life of Sebastian Knight to tell him he had discovered that the whole novel was built as a chess game. Nabokov told him, truthfully, that this was not the case. Wilson wrote back to say: "I don't believe a word you may say about your book and am furious at having been hoaxed by it ..." (Brian Boyd, VN:The American Years)

Wilson would have been on safer ground had he chosen a chess problem as the governing metaphor. Nabokov was competent in chess problem composition, collecting his efforts in Poems and Problems (the latter only linkable in Italian); but his notoriety elsewhere were what gave his problems interest (though this stream of invention has not been without tributaries -- the form of the cited "Nabokov Theme" problem here being a helpmate, in which the sides conspire to uniquely arrive at the mating matrix -- another unorthodox form, known as the selfmate, may provide an interpretive matrix for The Defense).

Nabokov discusses his experience with chess problems in Chapter 14 §3 of Speak, Memory:
It is a beautiful, complex and sterile art related to the ordinary form of the game only insofar as, say, the properties of a sphere are made use of both by a juggler in weaving a new act and by a tennis player in winning a tournament. Most chess players, in fact, amateurs and masters alike, are only mildly interested in these highly specialized, fanciful, stylish riddles, and though appreciative of a catchy problem would be utterly baffled if asked to compose one.
Problems have been called the poetry of chess; Nabokov here comes closest to giving the game away on how he wrote, and how he wanted to be read:
... it is only when [themes] are combined in a certain way that a problem is satisfying. Deceit, to the point of diabolism, and originality, verging upon the grotesque, were my notions of strategy; and although in matters of construction I tried to conform, whenever possible, to classical rules, such as economy of force, unity, weeding out of loose ends, I was always ready to sacrifice purity of form to the exigencies of fantastic content, causing form to bulge and burst like a sponge-bag containing a small furious devil.
[...] It should be understood that competition in chess problems is not really between White and Black but between the composer and the hypothetical solver (just as in a first-rate work of fiction the real clash is not between the characters but between the author and the world), so that a great part of a problem's value is due to the number of "tries"--delusive opening moves, false scents, specious lines of play, astutely and lovingly prepared to lead the would-be solver astray ...

But this itself has led many commentators astray, into believing that there is an unambiguous resolution to the meaning of his texts, and attempting to decipher it. Instead, the informed, to the point reading is accomplished by indirection, in the by-play and try-play:
... The unsophisticated might miss the point of the problem entirely, and discover its fairly simple, "thetic" solution without having passed through the pleasurable torments prepared for the sophisticated one. The latter would start by falling for an illusory pattern of play based on a fashionable avant-garde theme ... which the composer had taken the greatest pains to "plant"... Having passed through this "antithetic" inferno the by now ultrasophisticated solver would reach the simple key move ... as somebody on a wild goose chase might go from Albany to New York by way of Vancouver, Eurasia and the Azores. The pleasant experience of the roundabout route (strange landscapes, gongs, tigers, exotic customs, the thrice-repeated circuit of a newly married couple around the sacred fire of an earthern brazier) would amply reward him for the misery of the deceit, and after that, his arrival at the simple key would provide him with a synthesis of poignant artistic delight.
There is a much richer lode of thought to be mined in considering thematic comparisons between themes in literature and in chess problems (some of which sound almost literary: interference, cyclic-, critical- and changed-play; doubling, dual avoidance, chameleon echoes), accumulations of practices from prior art and allusions thereto, coalescence into schools of thought.

Nabokov himself makes use of this cross-over potential in a variety of ways, some less obvious than others. It may be going out on a limn to assert the relevance of Poe and Carroll, two prime resources for Lolita, sharing not only a predeliction for too-young girls (asked what scenes he would have liked to seen filmed, Nabokov included: "Poe's wedding. Lewis Carroll's picnics."), but also for essaying chess (Poe in Maelzel's Chess-Player, Carroll in Wonderland); nevertheless, Humbert's relation to Quilty is much that of would-be solver to composer. In Pale Fire, King Alfin's old flame Iris Acht (d. 1888), may be seen as translating to Iris Eight, i.e., i8 (or eye-8), in chess notation referring to a square just off the 8x8 board (which only goes up to h8); her irisated photograph hangs above the trapdoor escape that King Charles/Kinbote ("a king-in-the-corner waiter of the solus rex type") uses to evade capture. This passage was first discovered whilst his guardians were diverted by A Game of Chess, this being the name of the second part of Eliot's The Waste Land parodied by Shade in the poem "Pale Fire" in L653-664 and L408-427, with Pope's The Rape of the Lock in the background of the latter (per Boyd) -- meanwhile, the guards are now playing lasquenet (a card game appearing just before "lass" in the dictionary, for word golf fans), but this takes me too far afield, as Nabokov's cascading allusions are wont to do ...

So, to return to chess problems, the scope for cross-over the other way is quite limited for such an hermetic art. There is a typographical variant, the "letter problem", in which the piece configuration approximates an alphabetic character. This is more like occasional poetry (or perhaps ASCII-Art), less art than clever craft or curiosity, though it can have its moments. Nabokov did not essay this, but he did attempt to blend typography with typology from his other truly professional field, lepidoptery. This was the last short story he worked on (but did not complete), "The Admirable Anglewing"; his notes for it were published in Nabokov's Butterflies (Boyd & Pyle) in 2000. In quick sketch, it centers on discovery of a new species of butterfly for which the "type specimen" becomes a problem; this new discovery is apparently related to the Question-Mark Anglewing (Polygonia interrogationis) with its own distinctive markings: "maroon marked underside with a silvery exclamation mark beneath on the hindwing" (last notecard, in full).

This permits me to effect this reverse cross-over, punctuating Nabokov's unfinished story with an unpublished curiousity of my own, for which I'll resuscitate the 19th century convention of titling chess problems: I give you "The Admirable Anglewing".
W: Kg1; Ne3,e7; Bf6
B: Kd4; Nb6,e5
Helpmate in 3
Solution: 1. Kc5 Nc8 2. Nc6 Na7 3. Nd4 Be7
Piece configuration changes from "?" in initial setting to "!" as W executes coup de grace. (But then, "?!" is standard chess annotation for "dubious" ...)


Home Again

Today's installation of a new sculpture exhibit by Saint-Gaudens Memorial fellows, in ground floor alcoves of a Midtown Manhattan office building, incorporates an unintended irony: velvet ropes restrict access only to the one work that seems to invite it. Perhaps it's security concerns ...


Dear Bunny, Dear Volodya

Dear me.

I here recount my most literary evening, while still fresh, enticed as I was to it by the synchronicity of a publication party for Edmund Wilson's biographer, Lewis Dabney, and a discussion at Columbia University of "Lolita at 50" empanelling Azar Nafisi (Reading Lolita in Tehran), Alfred Appel Jr. (The Annotated Lolita), and Stacy Schiff (Vera: Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov).

The former event, at Gotham BookMart, was a first for me; saw many familiar faces there, not counting the staff -- they've earned a loyal (and bookloving) clientele -- and was glad to be counted among these regulars (even though I'm more ir-). I'm not the sort that mixes particularly well, but everyone was at their ease, making things easy, and so easily I transgressed, if slightly: Introducing myself to Mr. Dabney, I mention how my interest in Wilson derives from that in Nabokov, just as Terry Quinn comes by -- and I describe my evening in the same terms as this post is titled, blissfully unaware that he had adapted the letters for the stage (and performed same, as had Dmitri Nabokov in the centennial festival in '99). (oops.) Later, Dabney notes for all that Gotham BookMart features twice in the biography: once when, at Wilson's behest, proprietress Frances Steloff diverted her rent to save Dos Passos' farm, and later when Wilson met Anais Nin on the premises to then-present wife Mary McCarthy's slightly-panged annoyance.

So. Up to Columbia, for Lolita at 50. I'd never been, but the nearest stair up from the subway put me at the door of the Miller Theatre. Pick up the ticket, grab a quick coffee, then on to the grounds for a quick cigarette, where I'm asked the only directions I know, to the Miller Theatre. Near-full house. NYT's Bill Goldstein introduces the panel and reads an email from Dmitri for the occasion, then asks about publishing history of Lolita to get things started. Nafisi speaks of the sensuousness of the language, the color it evokes, which Appel seconds, noting the landscape painter behind the words, exampled in pp152-3*. Appel was the only one present who knew Nabokov personally, relating how mischievous the latter was (like a grammar-school best friend adept at making you laugh at the proceedings); Appel had himself been infected, and stole the show with lecture tricks undiminished since his retirement from teaching. (Not to say that Nafisi and Schiff didn't enter into this same spirit.) Added to which, the Nabokovian twist, that some thought Appel an invention of Nabokov, a persistent problem even his nephew encountered in the mid-eighties. Much of the talk was familiar ground to me; the false salaciousness, the solipsism; how the art took precedence (and Vera's husbandry of it), how seemingly quotidian detail was teased into new shape by fresh eyes, the incorporation of pop-culture, of slapstick ... Humbert the attractive monster, one you root for like the proantagonist in gangster movies ... While Appel and Schiff counted Lolita and Speak, Memory as favorites (Schiff Pale Fire as well), Nafisi said she was more "promiscuous with books", but that Lolita was the most ... exceptional, the most daring, even for Nabokov. Then, on to the Q&A -- someone asked about voice, I followed up with a question about, given how the panel had described how Nabokov's language makes the ordinary extraordinary, how this differs from poshlust's extraordinary ordinariness, just in the packaging? but I couldn't make the delivery, as I am physically averse to speaking in crowds, so stumbled over adrenaline ... but all was erased by the next questioner, a New Jersey highschool student and self-proclaimed top Nafisi fan, who said that his school wouldn't allow work on Lolita but had assigned Reading Lolita in Tehran! After Nafisi's response, Appel brought out part of what drives such irony: fashion pages from the (woman-edited) Elle ('91) and the NYT mag ('93) pandering to the Lolita look, the objectification that Nabokov's novel denounces. Appel closes with describing to us, as he had to Nabokov, how an unpromising student had shown his gut appreciation for the pp152-3 passage, how it took him to road trips with his father, since deceased, and how that passage would stay with him -- and how Nabokov took this, as praise higher than any critic could bestow.

Nabokov brings me back to Gotham; recently induced me to indulge in everything Gotham had in stock by Cees Nooteboom, who in Rituals invokes shades of Pale Fire (my favorite book, my Lit. 202); an early reference to Nova Zembla put all systems on alert, and the bird flew in the following passage:
... There the third dove appeared to him, and it did something he had never yet seen a dove do: it created a work of art, for which,as is fitting, it was prepared to make a great sacrifice. With tremendous force it flew straight at Bender's store window, behind which the grand pianos and harpsicords stood waiting motionlessly for future geniuses. It caused a loud bang. For a moment it looked as if the bird was stuck to the glass for good. But, to avoid crashing to the ground, it fluttered desparately in place and then flew off like an airplane out of control. What remained was a work of art, for just above the head level on the windowpane, there appeared in street dust the perfect shape of a dove in flight, feather by feather, with outspread wings. The crash had imprinted the dove's incorporeal double on the glass.
What was it these doves were trying to tell him? He did not know, but decided that this latest sibyllic communication, prophecy, warning, could be no truly sinister portent. After all, unlike its dead colleague, this dove had, unsteadily, flown away into the azure sky, leaving behind only its spirit, albeit in the form of dust.

Much more than a shadow of the waxwing slain. (This book also prompted me to pick up Kawabata's Thousand Cranes this past evening, as Wilson's Shock of Recognition pointed me to Cummings' The Enormous Room.) And, on the train home, I reach the halfway point of Nooteboom's The Following Story, with Part 2 epigraphed by the end of Nabokov's Transparent Things:
This is, I believe, it: not the crude anguish of physical death, but the incomparable pangs of the mysterious mental maneuver needed to pass from one state of being to another. Easy, you know, does it, son.

* a couple pages farther on in my edition

Addendum (21Sep): Lopate adds to what Yardley and Toibin said about Dabney's bio, and what Menand said about Wilson. About Pale Fire I'll have more to say presently, but then, I always will.



About a year ago, I read RKMerton & EBarber's "The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity: A Study in Sociological Semantics and the Sociology of Science" (a field making paternal claims upon Merton). The core text (which becomes a bit repetitious, with the dullness of an academic monograph, about halfway through, but the book is then thoroughly redeemed by its Afterword, being Merton's autobiographical reflections on the topic: the familiar discursivity returns, with footnotes as well) remained unpublished for 45 years, but sparked "On the Shoulders of Giants", which footnotes it. There's this weird father-son entanglement involved: I read Merton fils first, two decades back, on financial option modeling, seminal work that created not just a market (ntm my then programming job), but a whole ecosystem of "derivatives" (pdfs here and here), one which was, in some sense, a self-fulfilling prophecy (as Merton pere coined it in a seminal paper in '48, in reference to financial institutions among other things). Merton fils' research was specifically to fix the value that chance, as manifested by price diffusion over time, contributes to contingent claims aka financial options; so pere's research into diffusion of something chancy contributing to scientific claims was of especial interest. One disappointment was that certain epistemological consequences weren't followed up -- Feynman does crop up, but not the significance of what he termed his 'personal toolbox' of methods, differing from the standard set and giving him a different perspective (so that problems others found hard were much less so for him, and helped build his reputation in student days -- cf Surely You're Joking) -- given the breadth and depth of human knowledge, no one's encyclopaedic any longer, and interdisciplinary studies are limited in scope -- but I can't complain that it missed one hot button amongst the many it hit, and I gladly settled for the excursus upon the recursivity of certain concepts and other otsogiana, reprise.

Anyway, it was this last 'ecosystem' link on performativity, with reference to Tlön in the defunct NYT Borges forum, that led to a recounting of Herbert Hacke as the model for a character therein. But this was further brought to mind by two current newspaper articles, one on yet another financial modeling exercise {WSJ, $}, once again demonstrating the deterministic effect of a probabilistic model, "How a Formula Ignited Market That Burned Some Big Investors":

All this traces back, in a sense, to a day eight years ago when a Chinese-born New York banker got to musing about love and death -- specifically, how people tend to die soon after their spouses do. Therein lies a tale of how a statistician unknown outside a small coterie of finance theorists helped change the world of investing.
The banker, David Li, came up with a computerized financial model to weigh the likelihood that a given set of corporations would default on their bond debt in quick succession. [...]
The model fueled explosive growth in a market for what are known as credit derivatives: investment vehicles that are based on corporate bonds and give their owners protection against a default. This is a market that barely existed in the mid-1990s. Now it is both so gigantic -- measured in the trillions of dollars -- and so murky that it has drawn expressions of concern from several market watchers. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York has asked 14 big banks to meet with it this week about practices in the surging market. [...]
The model Mr. Li devised helped estimate what return investors in certain credit derivatives should demand, how much they have at risk and what strategies they should employ to minimize that risk. Big investors started using the model to make trades that entailed giant bets with little or none of their money tied up. Now, hundreds of billions of dollars ride on variations of the model every day.
Mr. Li's solution drew inspiration from a concept in actuarial science known as the "broken heart": People tend to die faster after the death of a beloved spouse. Some of his colleagues from academia were working on a way to predict this death correlation, something quite useful to companies that sell life insurance and joint annuities.
"Suddenly I thought that the problem I was trying to solve was exactly like the problem these guys were trying to solve," says Mr. Li. "Default is like the death of a company, so we should model this the same way we model human life."
His colleagues' work gave him the idea of using copulas: mathematical functions the colleagues had begun applying to actuarial science. Copulas help predict the likelihood of various events occurring when those events depend to some extent on one another. Among the best copulas for bond pools turned out to be one named after Carl Friedrich Gauss, a 19th-century German statistician. [...]

"Gaussian copula" sounds like a less certain grammatical identity, almost surely.
The other article, on breaking faith with the reality-based community, has broader application: a feedback loop into culture, politics, and, more generally, narrativity ... Reality: who says it isn't what you think?

(thanks to d-squared for the MacKenzie pointer)



Continuing with literary biography this weekend, Symons' The Quest for Corvo chronicles a life even stranger than Roussel's via Caradec/Monk; unlike the latter case, the literary interest of this biography probably exceeds its subject (though I have no plans to confirm this by reading Hadrian VII; unlike Roussel, Baron Corvo/Fr.Rolfe [the provenance of his Italianate title dubious, and Fr short for Frederick in spite of clerical ambitions] exercised little influence downstream, despite D.H.Lawrence's praises [odd though that Graham Greene should again be implicated in discovery, as he was with Lolita], and even though Symons himself was something of a connoisseur). Both Corvo and Roussel shared a certain superficiality behind their total dedication or ambition (serendipiteously I'm now reading Voinovich's The Fur Hat): Where Corvo/Rolfe is a neologist (and, supposedly, a canny observer behind an imperturbable mask), Roussel's method was more nearly algorithmic, triggered by making sense of similar sounds, driving meaning from puns in a style not far removed from Magritte's. This points to something larger in literature, seemingly a philological aspect inherited from philosophy, an overliteral argument from etymology (which philosophy itself subsumed in aphorism, perhaps culminating in Nietzsche before Wittgenstein went meta and Borges reclaimed it for literature).

I've been temporarily thwarted in following up on this interest up an avenue, named Empson, the Valveteen Rabbit John Holbo first set me on, as Harvard U Press isn't stocking The Structure of Complex Words at present; per Empson himself: “Of the prose books, [7 Types of] Ambiguity examines the complexity of meaning in poetry; [Some Versions of] Pastoral examines the way a form for reflecting a social background without obvious reference to it is used in a historical series of literary works, and Complex Words is on both these topics; it offers a general theory about the interaction of a word’s meaning and takes examples which cover rather the same historical ground as Pastoral. Roughly, the moral is that a developing society decides practical questions more by the way it interprets words it thinks obvious and traditional than by its official statements of current dogma”.

My appetite was further whetted by Beerbohm (to whom, as well as Corvo via Sholto Douglas, Dwight MacDonald's Parody first introduced me). In Zuleika Dobson, he sends up Oxford (where Rolfe was a hanger-on, and from which Empson was sent down), with mention the Great Tom, which another strand of my own questing uncovered last spring, and which led, in an addendum to the comments there, inexorably back to Poe, and a perfect convergence of sound and sense.

Addendum: The quirkiness involutes further and leads elsewhere. Symons' last and most fertile source of original (so-called) Baron Corvo manuscripts was a Mr. Maundy Gregory (additionally ex-Oxford), who apparently was in the business of titles:
"My favourite wealthy collector is the late Maundy Gregory. He was not a billionaire but had in the 1920s what amounted to a licence to print money. He sold honours. For £10,000 (about $1 million now) he could get you an earldom; knighthoods were a bit cheaper. You could, in fact, sign a cheque to him in your expected new name--only cashable when you assumed the title. He liked rare books, especially the works of the fantastical Frederick Rolfe (Baron Corvo.) In some cases (according to AJA Symons in 'Quest for Corvo') he would pay his agents to track down supposedly unfindable books, money no object. In the case of one particularly difficult book his agents hunted down the original printer, long defunct, and found four mint copies in a cellar. One wonders how much money it would take to track down a copy of James Joyce's first book 'Et tu Healy' (no copies known) or 'Questions at the Well' (Ford Madox Ford under the name Fenil Haig--only copy known was in the British Museum but has been stolen.)"
-- via Nigel Burwood; I think a coincidence of names (with an MI5 operative, amongst other things linked to the Zinoviev letter, either as conduit or forger) misleads The Lost Club, or perhaps not, but I'm still glad I found it.