NABOKV-L post 0014085, Thu, 16 Nov 2006 18:29:01 EST

Re: "Pale Fire" Quality of?

From Charles Harrison Wallace

Don Johnson's mention of the article by J.Morris on the topic of PF as
poetry, which I have just read, is extraordinarily welcome (to me). I found it
more, much more, than excellent.

In an ideal world, before submitting our comments, we should read everything
written by VN, as well as everything written about him. For myself, like the
character in Shaw's Back to Methusaleh, I would die of discouragement before
I began, and cannot offer any further comment.

I noticed that in my question about what VN really believed about literal
translation I misdated his second strong opinion to 1990. It must have been
written, published, in 1964, ie about ten or so years after his first opinion.

I also noticed that in an earlier posting I mysteriously and quite
unconsciously portmanteaued "Helen Vendler" into "Velen". Inexplicable. More
Carrollian than Nabokovian.

Re the quality of Pale Fire, the poem, again. In an effort to get a better
fix on VN as a poet writing in English, I have just read through the contents
of his "Poems", 1959, which arrived here in Shetland from Alabama this
morning. If I were reviewing it for some literary rag, I would call it as
interesting and by no means no worse than any other slim volume of occasional verse.
"Critic", of course, was Beckett's ultimate term of abuse.

Two instances of life imitating art. I have already mentioned the sad case
of Filippa Rolf, the mildly homosexual semi-aristocrat living in America as an
exile from a northern land, who aspired to poetry, and perhaps hoped to
succeed in English, which was not her native tongue. I have recently heard from
someone who knew her much better than I did, in America from 1965 onwards that
she "killed herself. She was always a melancholic, and her slow decline
began early." Because of the Swedish allusions in PF I couldn't help assuming
that, in part at least, art was imitating life. but the dates don't fit, and it
now seems as if life imitated art. Good prose writing in a non-native tongue
is exceptionally difficult. I would not attempt to judge the performances of
Beckett and Wilde, but Conrad still strikes me as un-English, although Munthe
and Blixen are excellent. I think it's easier for Scandinavians to make the
transition. VN is, naturally, astonishing. But I believe him to have been
virtually bi-lingual at an early age. When it comes to poetry, however, even
bi-lingualism is insufficient, since one language will still predominate, and
force the subordinate language aside. Poetry, imho, arises from a most intimate
and exclusive love-affair with the language itself. I wouldn't like to
comment on the Latin verse of, say, Marvel or Milton, although well-educated
Englishmen of that era might be thought of as virtually bi-lingual.

The second instance also derives from a personal connection. A university
contemporary of mine went to live in America in about 1961. This is a man who,
to lift a phrase from PF, has a mind which is a library, not a debating hall.
In New York (not New Wye) he then fell in with a most dashing and romantic
exile from darkest Europe, and found himself ghosting this fantasist's
literary aspirations into literate English, an exercise which engaged his utmost
concentration, and for which he was paid, though sworn to secrecy on his
identity and employment. The book duly went on to win the National Book Award, and
was ecstatically praised for its Nabokovian mastery of the English language. I
received an excited letter from my contemporary at the time, revelling in
his anonymous and totally unrecognized achievement. Some years later it was
revealed that the dashing exile had not written his masterpieces himself, and,
whether the direct cause was this exposure or not, he committed suicide.

I can't help reflecting on these reflections.

End for today.

Charles Harrison Wallace

In a message dated 16/11/2006 21:27:23 GMT Standard Time, chtodel@COX.NET

From: Don Johnson:

Our beloved editors (who, I'm sure, got more than they bargained for when
they magnanimously volunteered to assume their posts) recently urged
contributors to check the extensive NABOKV-L Archives BEFORE submitting their
comments (where appropriate). I would add that checking ZEMBLA as well may be
profitable. Quite by chance, I ran across there the item below which on its second
page gives an excellent discussion of the virtues of the "Pale Fire" and
VN's attitude toward it.

Genius and Plausibility: Suspension of Disbelief in Pale Fire
by _J. Morris_ (

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