I had lunch on Memorial Day with poet R.S. Gwynn and his lovely wife Donna, the day before their 33rd anniversary, in a cosy little Mexican cafe on California Avenue. But Sam was sitting on a little secret he didn’t share with me. Or perhaps I merely hadn’t had a chance to worm it out of him before the two visiting Texans swapped me for the more pedestrian charms of the Pacific coast.
Now he’s at the center of the storm: Ron Rosenbaum, writing in Slate, announces the next hot Nabokov controversy, and the story is making the rounds in the blogosphere. The poem “Pale Fire” is about to be liberated from Pale Fire. The 900-line poem at the center of what many call Vladimir Nabokov‘s finest novel, written presumably by the murdered John Shade, will be published separately by Ginkgo Press: “Nabokov wrote it, and the question of why he wrote it and who he modeled Shade on is the subject of what will be an equally controversial essay accompanying the edition, by poet and poetry professor R.S. Gwynn.”
Wait! Wait! Don’t dash for the exits in your excitement!
“I know, I know, this may seem to be more esoteric, it doesn’t have the built-in intrigue of a manuscript in a Swiss safe-deposit box. But it’s no tempest in a teapot, not to those familiar with the long-simmering controversy over the poem ‘Pale Fire.’ And with the unbearable beauty and delight both the poem and novel offer. But when you’re dealing with how to read—on the most basic level—the central node of perhaps the greatest work of the supreme artist of the English language of our era, the stakes are high and worth, I believe, my attempt to explain what it’s all about for non-Nabokov readers. (Needless to say, I’d prefer all of you latecomers to run out to read or reread the novel; it is a work of pure pleasure, eminently accessible, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, despite its deceptive “experimental novel” outer architecture.)
“I was particularly struck by the degree of erudition about contemporary American poetry that Gwynn brought to his case that Nabokov meant ‘Pale Fire’ to be a reproof to over-casual, over-personal, over-trivial trends in American poetry. A reproof to the belief that formal poetics could not capture deep feeling in traditional verse forms. And that Nabokov had modeled John Shade on the well-known traditionalist American poet Yvor Winters, who was a partisan of formal poetics.
I’ve written about Nabokov’s brief, but fruitful, residency in Palo Alto here, in a little house on Sequoia Avenue so close to my own home that I occasionally walk my dog past it. At that time, I was exploring the connection between Humbert Humbert and, believe it or not, the founder of the Stanford Slavic Department, Henry Lanz. Sam had queried me about the connection between Yvor Winters and Nabokov, and I wrote to Helen Pinkerton on the subject: she seemed to have a vague memory of poet Janet Lewis, Winters’s wife, washing dishes with him at the Winters home in Los Altos. She finally tracked down the reference in Larry McMurtry‘s “The Return of Janet Lewis,” in the New York Review of Books (June 11, 1998) — “a delightful essay on her and all of her work.” McMurtry writes:
“Janet too is very polite, but she’s neither fussy nor chilly. She’s lived in that smallish but cheerful house for sixty-four years and is thoroughly the mistress of it; there she raised her family, there she watched war come and war be over, there she entertained generations of poets, artists, musicians, and even the occasional lepidopterist such as Vladimir Nabokov, who showed up at her door with his butterfly net one day in 1941. The Nabokovs and the Winterses hit it off; the exiles came often for meals. I had heard that Navokov enjoyed himself so much in her kitchen that he sometimes helped her wash up; when I asked her about this she chuckled and said, ‘Why, I wouldn’t be surprised if he had.'”
Sam told me at the time “there doesn’t seem to be any record of their having met or corresponded after that. … For obvious reasons, the trail is pretty cold.”
That was then; this is now. Rosenbaum promises the essay will be controversial: “Was I right that Paul Berman‘s book would cause a brawl or what?”
UPDATE: From Sam: “If anyone has any information about the Nabokov-Winters friendship, please post a comment here.” Read his post in the “comment” section below.