Posts Tagged ‘R.S. Gwynn’

Nabokov biographer Brian Boyd replies – and offers a pretty good sales pitch

Tuesday, July 24th, 2012


Yesterday, we wrote about the new edition of Vladimir Nabokov‘s  “Pale Fire” poem, liberated from the pages of the the Pale Fire book and published as a stand-alone work.  We also mentioned Stephen Gertz’s reservation about the Gingko Press’ effort – principally that this book is not the first time “Pale Fire” was published all by its lonesome; Arion Press published the poem in 1994.

We received a charming reply today from the eminent Nabokov biographer Brian Boyd, who edited the small volume and wrote a commentary (in another letter below, R.S. Gwynn writes that Boyd’s “close reading of the poem is masterly”). It’s so much fun we thought we would publish the note as a separate post. Boyd writes:

999-line poem on file cards, as the author intended.

“I was also an adviser on the 1994 Arion Press edition of “Pale Fire,” which is an exquisite thing, with a moiré cloth box and cover that manage to capture the interplay of sun and moon in the passage of “Timon of Athens” from which Nabokov and Shade pick the phrase “pale fire.” But that was a limited fine edition of the whole novel (at $600 on release), including the poem of course, but also with a separate booklet for the poem (also in a moiré cloth cover), as part of the same boxed set, typeset as if typed on index cards and bound into booklet form.

What makes the Gingko edition so unprecedented–and here the credit belongs, if first to Vladimir Nabokov, then next to artist Jean Holabird, who proposed the project, is:

a) that it is of the poem alone;

A poet as well as novelist, and perhaps a pugilist, too


b) that the poem appears as if handwritten on index cards (just as Kinbote describes it), with the last 50 lines as if in first draft rather than fair copy (and with the twelve cards of legitimate variants kept by Shade also downloadable from Ginkgo), as if the reader has direct access to what Shade wrote, without the intervention of Kinbote;

c) that the poem is also presented as a booklet, for easier reading, almost as if it might have been published had Shade been real, and Kinbote had not intervened (with a brief note About the Author and a page listing Other Books by the Author), and with Jean Holabird’s delicate art work, as it were, belatedly launching Shade’s last poetry volume;

d) that there is also a booklet with two essays, by R.S. Gwynn and myself, that focus only on the poem. The focus on the poem, in design and detail, the play throughout with the fiction that readers are for the first time allowed immediate access to a major American poem of 1959, is unique to the Gingko edition, and the result of an admiration for the poem, and a sense of regret that it has been overshadowed by the novel as a whole, however much we might like it (it’s my favorite novel in the world), that is shared by Jean Holabird, Mo Cohen of Gingko Press (and those at the press who became entranced by the project), and Sam Gwynn and myself.

And the Gingko “Pale Fire” pack is not a fine limited edition, but both a literary intervention–very successful, indeed, in inviting people to read and discuss the poem as poem–and “an almost ridiculously lovely package” selling for only $35!

Nabokov’s “Pale Fire” on its own: Does it work? The jury deliberates…

Monday, July 23rd, 2012

Some time ago we wrote about Sam Gwynn (a.k.a. the poet R.S. Gwynn) and his newest venture:

Ron Rosenbaum, writing in Slateannounces 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.”

David Orr‘s New York Times review writes that the the long poems comes in “an almost ridiculously lovely package”: “the poem itself is printed in a small booklet, the note cards upon which Shade ‘wrote’ the poem are recreated (complete with faux ink stains), and an accompanying critical text contains helpful essays from the Nabokov scholar Brian Boyd and the poetry critic R. S. Gwynn (who makes a smart case for Nabokov having used couplets partly as a response to Robert Lowell’s early work).”

“But does it work? Can the poem ‘Pale Fire’ exist without the novel Pale Fire? [You see, contra Josh Landy, here is where the Chicago Manual comes in handy. The finky New York Times style italicizes “Pale Fire” both as poem and novel. I have corrected the ugliness. – ED.]
There are reasons to think it cannot. In a New Yorker blog post last year, Paul Muldoon conceded that ‘Pale Fire’ is ‘a quite wonderful poem,’ but he asked, ‘Isn’t it like one of those tall buildings which incorporates in its core the very crane that raised it?'”

Sam at the helm

What can I say.  I wanted to reach out across the continent, shake them both, and cry out:  ” Dr. Zhivago!  What of the poems of Yuri Zhivago in Doctor Zhivago?” They’ve been published separately for years and years and years.

“I’m very fond of Pasternak’s poems from Doctor Zhivago,” Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky told Solomon Volkov. “They’re remarkable poems, especially ‘Christmas Star.’ I think of them often.”  No talk of buildings and cranes here.

However, Orr continues:  “This is beautifully put, but there is another way to look at things. When authors write ‘as’ a character, particularly in a third-person novel, we usually understand that the text created by that character is subordinate to the world in which the character exists. In Persuasion, for example, Jane Austen brings the novel to its emotional peak with a letter written by Frederick Wentworth — which we understand is really written by Austen and dependent for its resonance on the world of Anne Elliot, the Musgroves, Lady Russell and the rest. It’s hard to imagine anyone reading the letters of Frederick Wentworth for their own sake … In general, the writing of fictional characters is dependent on the larger work, and it is the larger work that reflects the author’s worldview.”

Orr makes a bigger point, about the lyrical “I,” which is a mask and the poet at once.  “There is obviously great potential for confusion as to who is saying what in this arrangement,” he writes.  I’m not quite sure why it matters at all.  In the end, he rather concludes the same: “No poem is ever on its own. And the poem is not Nabokov’s any more than it is John Shade’s. ‘Pale Fire’ is a voice within a voice — a mirrored and thoroughly modern sensibility. And that sensibility, whatever name we give it, is one hell of a poet.”

On the other hand, Booktryst’s Stephen Gertz has a two-year-old bone to pick with Rosenbaum and Gingko Press, publisher of the new “stand-alone” edition of the poem “Pale Fire”:

There’s just one problem. The poem ‘Pale Fire’ was “freed from the at last to be a poem on its own,” extracted from the novel and published in its first separate edition in 1994, by Arion Press in San Francisco.

Like the Gingko edition, it’s reproduced just as Nabokov described it in the novel – on file cards.  Read the rest here.

Robert Conquest is “Getting On”: A great poem after a century of living

Friday, October 1st, 2010


One of life’s unforgettable moments: a great poet hands you a typescript copy of an unpublished poem.  Its strike-outs and marginalia still mark the page.  It hasn’t found its readers yet, and there is no body of opinion about it to influence your own.

So, sitting in an immaculate Stanford condo on a balmy August afternoon, with the his forebears’ books and maritime paintings as a backdrop (the family goes back pretty much to the Conquest), I felt a quiet thrill when Robert Conquest handed me his latest poem, “Getting On,” which opens:

Into one’s ninetieth year.
Memory? Yes, but the sheer
Seethe as the half-woken brain’s
Great gray search-engine gains
Traction on all one’s dreamt, seen, felt, read,
Loathed, loved…
.              .              And on one’s dead.
-Which makes one’s World, one’s Age, appear
Faint wrinkles on the biosphere
Itself the merest speck in some
Corner of the continuum.

“Great poet and even greater historian" (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

It won’t be quite the same thrill for you, but you can now read the whole poem online — Dave Lull, patron saint of bloggers, tipped me off that it’s finally been published in the October 2nd edition of the British magazine Standpointhere.  “I don’t think any poet has written as well about aging as he has,” said R. S. Gwynn, Bob Conquest‘s friend and fellow poet.

The 93-year-old poet is also the courageous historian who wrote  the landmark books that exposed Soviet Communism in the years when too many were defending it — The Great Terror and Harvest of Sorrows.  He published his seventh collection of poems last year and a book of limericks this year. He and his absolutely charmer of a wife Liddie were fretting about the health of their close friend Christopher Hitchens when I dropped by; Hitchens had just been diagnosed with esophogeal cancer, and cancelled his usual visit in for Bob’s birthday on July 15.  Hitchens wrote in his new memoir, Hitch-22, that Conquest is “great poet and even greater historian.”

Bob finished his 200-line poetic summa about the same time he handed it to me.  I wrote then that this poem might prove to be among his greatest.  See if you agree (though I could have done without the Goldie Hawn reference.)

Not into great poems?  Try a few of his limericks here.

No rejection letter will ever seem quite that bad again

Thursday, August 26th, 2010

Wonder what the first edition goes for...

Here is news that will cheer writers everywhere.  This is a December 1953 review of the then-unpublished Lolita manuscript:

“It is overwhelmingly nauseating, even to an enlightened Freudian. To the public, it will be revolting. It will not sell, and will do immeasurable harm to a growing reputation…. I recommend that it be buried under a stone for a thousand years.”

Five leading publishers rejected the manuscript:  Doubleday; Farrar, Straus; New Directions; Simon & Schuster; and Viking.  When it was finally published, 55 years ago next month, John Gordon of the Sunday Express denounced it as “about the filthiest book I’ve ever read” and “sheer unrestrained pornography.”  This, about a book that is curiously sexless — where the porn is largely projected onto the book by the mind of the reader.  But that’s okay.  Dorothy Parker described the pretentious Humbert Humbert as a man of “taste and culture.”  The book would seem to be a Rorschach test — or perhaps a mirror.

The quotations above are the latest gleanings from the Library of America’s new blog, Reader’s Almanac. We’ve written about R.S. Gwynn‘s theory that Pale Fire‘s John Shade is actually poet Yvor Winters here.  And I’ve written about the bruited link between Humbert Humbert and the founder of Stanford’s Slavic Department, Henry Lanz over here.

I still think one of the best opinions of the book was offered in Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran (2003): “This is the story of a twelve-year-old girl who had nowhere to go. Humbert had tried to turn her into his fantasy, into his dead love, and he had destroyed her. The desperate truth of Lolita’s story is not the rape of a twelve-year-old by a dirty old man but the confiscation of one individual’s life by another.”

Elizabeth Janeway expressed something of the same idea when the book came out:

“Humbert is every man who is driven by desire, wanting his Lolita so badly that it never occurs to him to consider her as a human being, or as anything but a dream-figment made flesh 3/4 which is the eternal and universal nature of passion. … As for its pornographic content, I can think of few volumes more likely to quench the flames of lust than this exact and immediate description of its consequences.”

My neighbor Vladimir Nabokov himself recognized the consequences, while reflecting on the work that pleased him most:

I would say that of all my books Lolita has left me with the most pleasurable afterglow—perhaps because it is the purest of all, the most abstract and carefully contrived. I am probably responsible for the odd fact that people don’t seem to name their daughters Lolita any more. I have heard of young female poodles being given that name since 1956, but of no human beings.

Dana Gioia: After the NEA

Saturday, August 7th, 2010

I hadn’t seen Dana Gioia since his 2007 commencement address at Stanford.  All our communication had occurred via email and phone lines, including the interview I did when he was awarded the Laetare Medal.

The last time I actually made the trek to the poet’s California home was even farther back in time — before his appointment to the National Endowment for the Arts chairmanship in Washington D.C. – eight years ago. In that era, I lived in the Sierra Nevada foothills, and the long winding journey to the hills above Santa Rosa seemed to me to be a temporary return to an urban center and blessed civilization.

That was then; this is now.  Driving from my new life in downtown Palo Alto on a sunny Friday, the miles along 101N north of the Golden Gate seemed instead a return in the opposite direction — back to the hinterlands, driving four hours in almost continuous traffic through the vineyards, the yellow hills dotted with green trees, miles and miles past Petaluma, Cotati, and Santa Rosa.

Surprise:  It was not only a return to the hinterlands but, after three years of city life, a return to a kind of sanity.  Or maybe it was just the presence of Dana — one of the busiest and level-headed people I know, and also one of the most generous I have ever met.  The Gioias’ spacious white house has been stripped of many of the furnishings I remembered – most of their things remain in Washington – and a stone walkway to the house now gives it the settled flavor of time.  A few santos collected in the Southwest have replaced their familiar bric-a-brac.

Dana, Mary, and I sipped wine on the balcony overlooking the valley and the hills.  We talked about the increasing commercialization of society, where marketed celebrities famous for being famous in turn market corporate brands for us to buy — how to keep Guess jeans, Netflix, Jimmy Choo shoes, and apps from monopolizing our remaining memory banks and our lives?  We discussed the crazily increasing speed of 21st century communications and life.  He liked, he said, living in a place where impressions are taken in and thought occurs no faster than the speed of walking.  August notwithstanding, the wind gave the air a bite, and Mary and I wrapped in blankets and watched the deer nibbling on the newly clipped lawn below.

Commencement 2007 (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Back in his study, in a separate white building that looks like a New England church, he offered some CDs from his popular Big Read program at the NEA: Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” Naguib Mahfouz’s “The Thief and the Dogs,” and Rudolfo Anaya’s “Bless Me, Ultima” for the road, packing them in a leftover Thomas Garraway canvas tote, along with a few extra books — among them  the Longman Masters of Short Fiction, which he edited with R.S. Gwynn, and The Wilderness of Vision: On the Poetry of John Haines.  But the book that intrigued me was the fine anthology he edited a quarter-century ago with William Jay SmithPoems from Italy.  Dana’s name is among the translators, an eminent crew including W.S. Di Piero, Seamus Heaney, Geoffrey Chaucer, Jonathan Galassi, Anthony Burgess, James Merrill, Leigh Hunt, and others. Here’s Dana’s  translation of a poem by Mario Luzi (1914-2005), a poet previously unknown to me:

Night washes over the mind.

After a while we are here, as you well know,
a line of ghosts along the mountain ledge,
ready to leap, almost in chains.

On the page of the sea someone
traces a sign of life, fixes a point.
Rarely does a gull appear.

The evening in the wine country had a magical glow, and the three of us ended over late-night coffee and blueberry pie, as Dana read his newest poems, the first after a long pause while he was preoccupied with the NEA.  I think they will be quite a surprise when they are published, and are likely to be his best ever – I qualify “likely to be” because I’m always mistrustful of what the ear takes in, and how discernment can be lulled by good company, good conversation, and an excellent reader like Dana.  I will have to wait for bound copies, and meanwhile rely on those overloaded memory banks, where the poems will jostle for space with computer passwords and drupal.  With the Thomas Garraway bag and CDs, I headed back into the darkness for the quick return to Palo Alto after midnight, with no traffic at all, and a stack of “Big Read” CDs.