Monday, August 16, 2010

Pale Fire — Vladimir Nabokov

Cover of "Pale Fire"Cover of Pale FireOn Saturday evening I finished reading Vladimir Nabokov's 1963 novel Pale Fire, a work that appears on a number of lists purporting to identify the greatest novels of the twentieth century.

I wouldn't dare to attempt a literary analysis of Pale Fire. It's been a staple of English literature classes for over forty years, and countless reviews and scholarly studies have been created for it; also a number of study guides, replete with pseudo-analyses. These are readily found on the Internet.

Recently I posted an article on this blog about the movie Bright Star, about the life of the romantic poet John Keats. Now here I am, writing a reminiscence of a novel titled Pale Fire, about a poem of the same name by a fictional poet John Shade. The title similarity amuses me.

Of course, that coincidence means nothing.

For readers unfamiliar with Nabokov's novel, the basic story goes like this: The main character is a lunatic named Charles Kinbote, who claims to be the deposed and exiled King Charles the Beloved from Zembla, located "far to the north." He moves in right next to John Shade and his wife Sybil. Shade is a highly respected poet who teaches at a college in Appalachia. Kinbote, a Shakespeare expert, has come there to teach at the same college, and befriends Shade. It becomes clear rather quickly that Shade has only courteously pretended interest in his neighbor, whereas Kinbote is sycophantically obsessed by Shade, who is hard at work on a new lengthy poem, which turns out to be autobiographical, but which Kinbote imagines will be about Zembla and his role there as king. While waiting anxiously for the completed poem, Kinbote makes a pest of himself to the Shades. Sybil Shade refers to Kinbote as "an elephantine tick; a king-sized botfly; a macao worm; the monstrous parasite of a genius." He has not endeared himself to the Shade household.

In the end, on the day Shade completes his poem, another lunatic, a man known as Gradus, appears out of nowhere, and shoots John Shade dead. Kinbote is convinced that the man was a professional but inept assassin whose real target was the escaped King. The police determine he is really an escapee from an asylum for the criminally insane who has come to kill a judge who sent him up, but who stupidly kills the wrong man, both in the real part of the story, and in Kinbote's imagined version of it. Kinbote steals the poem, goes into hiding, and writes the commentary that constitutes the bulk of the book.

I've obviously left out a lot, but there is far more to this novel than the story. Most unusual is its structure, which on the surface consists of a Foreword written by Dr. Charles Kinbote, followed by the 999-line poem "Pale Fire" by John Shade, and 250 pages of commentary on the poem, once again by Dr. Charles Kinbote, including an index of about ten pages. Outwardly, the book looks like a scholarly book of literary analysis. However, every word of the Foreword, poem, commentary, and index are fiction written by Vladimir Nabokov, and form a complete and engrossing novel.

Rather than write more about the story, which is obtainable elsewhere, I wish to comment on the copy I had in my possession, which came from the general circulation shelves of the Bexley Library.

After reading every single word on the jacket and in the front-matter before the novel's text begins (there's very little), I concluded that I held in my hands an genuine first edition, first impression of one of the great novels in English literature.

The cover says "Pale Fire/ A New Novel by Vladimir Nabokov/ Author of Lolita".

At the top of the inside front cover flap are the words "First Impression", and flush right at the same height it says PF/ $5.00. (Might PF stand for "prix fixe"?)

On the copyright page it says "© 1962 by G.P. Putnam's Sons," etc. There's a Library of Congress Catalog Card Number, but no ISBN number, as ISBN numbers were first instituted in 1966. And at the bottom of that few lines of text, separated by some blank space, in small caps, are once again the words "FIRST IMPRESSION".

The rest, until the back jacket cover is all Nabokov's work. On the inside back flap is a one-paragraph biography of Nabokov, current to 1962, and on the back cover, only a photo of Nabokov, with no words whatever.

The book is in excellent condition. Of course the library has stuck its own goo on it, such as the cellophane cover over the jacket, and various stickers and stamps. The binding started to come loose from the cover, but it's been well mended. On about six pages here are the scribblings of a child from a black ball point pen. (Regrettable.)

I'm humbled by the realization of what I'd been permitted to bring home from the library, to treat no differently than if it were a Sunset book on gardening or a collection of Garfield cartoons. (Which, as a respecter of library property, is carefully, regardless of content, but not everyone is so inclined.)

Pale Fire probably doesn't get checked out very often. This is the sort of item that an unscrupulous person might claim was "lost" and then resell for far more than the cost of a replacement, which would likely be some later edition, not a collector's item.

I'm no rare books collector, but for very rough comparison I found a resource on the Internet about determining the value of first edition novels that used Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five as an example. At the time it was written, the numbers looked like this, depending on the condition of the book:

Fine / Fine:$1,500
Fine / Near Fine:$1,250
Near Fine / Very Good+:$750
Very Good+ / Very Good:$400
Very Good / Very Good-:$250
Good / Good:$100

It pointed out that the first edition first pressing of Slaughterhouse Five was rather small, so available copies are extremely rare. I can't say how collectors might value a copy of Pale Fire as compared with a copy of Slaughterhouse Five in the same condition.

I wondered if the library tracks these things, so when I returned it today, I asked a librarian about it. She said that the library has no way to take special care of rare books, that the book was probably bought new and has just been on the shelves all this time. Yes, it's possible that someone could report it missing, pay the replacement cost, and sell it for personal profit.

No, I'm not thinking of doing it myself.

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Sunday, August 08, 2010

Can You Guess How Oold I Am?

Una joven mano es capaz de arrancar una leve s...Image via Wikipedia
Have you ever noticed how some older people like to tell you their age? It seems I've reached that point in life where I'm anxious to tell people my age, sometimes looking for excuses to do so. It's a pretty sorry state to be in — not being the age I am, but being so anxious to tell others about it, as though there were something special about it.

(Crackly old man voice.) Let me tell you how ooold I am!

SCENE: Lynn meets a young dude at the track.

Lynn: How ya doin'?

Dude: Not bad. You?

Lynn: Okay. I'm aching, though. Can't run like I used to, you know.

Dude: I guess I can see why.

Lynn: Yep. Gettin' too oold I guess.

Dude: Happens to everyone, eh?

Lynn: Yep. Do you have any idea how ooold I am?

Dude: Haven't a clue.

Lynn: Guess.

Dude: Oh, I couldn't. Got no idea.

Lynn: Go on, just guess.

Dude: How would I know?

Lynn: Just guess!!

Dude: Seventy-three.

Lynn: I'm sixty-seven years old!

Dude: That's amazing. I never would have guessed.

Lynn: Yep, and I feel it every day.

Dude: I suppose so. Happens to everyone, eh?

Lynn: Believe it or not, I used to be able to run nine-minute miles!

Dude: Ooh.

Lynn: Can't do that any more, of course. Doubt that I ever will.

Dude: I suppose not.

Lynn: Training now just to get back in shape, maybe do another ultra or two.

Dude: Groovy.

Lynn: Did I mention how ooold I am?

Dude: I think you may have mentioned it. What was it? Seventy-two?

Lynn: I'm sixty-seven years old!

Dude: That's amazing. I never would have guessed. Look, I've gotta ...

Lynn: What did you say you're training for?

Dude: I didn't.

Lynn: So what are you training for?

Dude: The Olympic Marathon trials.

Lynn: Cool! Couple of years ahead of schedule, aren't you?

Dude: But I've got a long way to go.

Lynn: What's your PR?

Dude: 2:14:30

Lynn: Sounds like you'll make it.

Dude: Sure hope to. Errr, as I started to say ...

Lynn: Want a tip from an old-timer?

Dude: Ummm. Oh sure, why not?

Lynn: Don't go out too fast. I see all these kids jump off the start early and then die early in the race.

Dude: Got it. I'll try to remember that. Thanks.

Lynn: Take it from me. I'm sixty-seven years old, y'know, and have seen a thing or two in my day.

Dude: Sixty-seven? That's amazing. I never would have guessed.
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Saturday, August 07, 2010

Metropolis — 2010 Restoration

Last night we saw the recently restored version of Franz Lang's 1927 masterpiece silent film Metropolis, the progenitor of almost every later science fiction action film. The venue was one of my favorite places in Columbus, the Wexner Center for the Arts on The Ohio State University campus, in the theater that holds about 600 people. (It's the same place we saw What's Up Doc? a few months ago, with director Peter Bogdanovich present in person.) It was a packed house, and I hear it's sold out for tonight's showing as well.

This version of the film, of which I had never seen any part, has twenty-five minutes of additional footage over the 2002 version, previously thought to be definitive. The original was two hours and thirty-three minutes, but was cut down to ninety minutes by the first distributors, who were afraid no one would want to see a movie that long. The film now runs for two hours and twenty-seven minutes, so not it's 100% complete, but they've recovered just about everything. The new version was first shown on February 12, 2010.

The copy with the missing footage, thought to have vacated the planet, was discovered in Argentina (where it was made) in 2008. Work proceeded immediately on cleaning up the missing pieces and merging them into the 2002 edition. It's not hard to tell what parts are new, because the the print they worked from had deteriorated badly, and the aspect ratio of the screen is narrower than what later became standard. Some of it is so scratched it's like looking through a room through a curtain of glass beads.  Fortunately, it doesn't take long to get used to this and to accept it for what it is. This has all been converted to digital format for distribution, of course. The visual quality overall is superb.

Metropolis has everything a movie-goer could ask for: a great plot with revolutionary and eschatological themes; good acting, all stylized with exaggerated and melodramatic facial and physical gestures characteristic of silent films of the day; fabulous cinematography; almost non-stop action; enormous and complex sets; a profusion of special effects that are decades ahead of their time technically, including the flooding of a city as big as New York, the transformation of a robot into a woman, burning a "witch" (actually the robot), and depictions of massive machinery; difficult stunts such as people falling off roofs; a non-stop musical score written for the original film, with Wagnerian leitmotifs, and references to everything from "Dies Irae" to "La Marseillaise"; thousands of extras; endless shots of hundreds of people at a time rushing around in panic at top speed, in tightly packed mobs, like a school of fish (not good for extras with claustrophobia); and of course, epic length.

This is highly recommended viewing for any lover of classic film. I understand it's been circulating in art theaters across the country. I don't know if it's available from places like Netflix, but I gather it is not, so watch for it at a venue near you.
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