Thursday, December 13, 2012

Still in quest of a buried treasure - art as puzzle

Himadri, the Argumentative Old Git, wants more confessional writing on book blogs: “why don’t you write a post about a passage from your reading that is of particular significance to you, and explain why it is significant?”  Because it’s none of your business, that’s why – I mean, sure, how about this.

A., Baron, Oswin Affenpin, last Baron of Aff, a puny traitor, 286.

Acht, Iris, celebrated actress, d. 1888, a passionate and powerful woman, favorite of Thurgus the Third (q.v.), 130. [I’ll skip the rest of this entry]

Alfin, King, surnamed The Vague, 1873-1918, reigned from 1900; K.’s father; a kind, gentle, absent-minded monarch, mainly interested in automobiles, flying machines, motorboats and, at one time, seashells; killed in airplane accident, 71.

Andronnikov and Niagarin, two Soviet experts in quest of a buried treasure, 130, 681, 741; see Crown Jewels.

I am, of course, copying out the beginning of the Index at the end of Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire (1962).  Should a novel have an index?  The numbers refer to the line numbers of S.’s poem and K.’s commentary on it.  Nabokov's novel, not straightforward to begin with, seems to have ended yet here are nine more pages.  What does one do with it?  Some people read it.  I did, twenty-five years ago.  Now, how to read it.  I will follow the directions, this time at least.

Crown Jewels, 130, 681; see Hiding Place.

One of the directions, at least, since I could also turn to line 130 or line 681 or line 741.  A good reader should do that sometime, but for now I will stay in the index.

Hiding Place, potaynik, (q.v.).


Potaynik, taynik (q.v.).

Hmm hmm.

Taynik, Russ., secret place; see Crown Jewels.

All right, you got me.  But I am not done yet.  I can go back to the relevant lines, or take another stab at the Index.  This looks familiar:

Niagarin and Andronnikov, two Soviet “experts” still in quest of a buried treasure, 130, 681, 741; see Crown Jewels.

And then there is one more entry I will omit since it contains the solution to the puzzle of where the Crown Jewels are hidden, or one of the solutions.

All works of art are puzzles.  Nabokov is merely unusually direct and specific about the kind of puzzle he has created, but every text is a code that assumes a set of rules and methods for decipherment.  Some of these shared rules fall in the categories of “language” and “reading,” but otherwise the types and meaning of the puzzles vary endlessly.  The greatest writers invent their own puzzles.  “Puzzle” has now become a metaphor, I admit.

To squeeze the metaphor, we all make a start on each literary jigsaw puzzle, but the best ones are so complex that we rarely finish them, or when we do there are pieces left over, suggesting that if I combined the pieces differently I would see another picture.  I am amazed how many readers assemble a portion of the border and then plop the box on top of the mound of pieces – look, I have finished the puzzle, isn’t it beautiful – but that is another story.

Anyway, this was all revelatory, this index of clues and paradoxes.  “Flatman, Thomas, 1637-88, English poet, scholar and miniaturist, not known to old fraud, 894” for example – this is an obscure puzzle, but a good one.  One of the neatest tricks is how the last line of the index is effective as the last line of the novel.

Someday I will rewrite this post and substitute “magic tricks” for “puzzles” (this is from Kinbote's Foreward):

Shade’s poem is, indeed, that sudden flourish of magic: my gray-haired friend, my beloved old conjuror, put a pack of index cards in his hat – and shook out a poem.


  1. Very nice indeed.

    This is one of the books I am most looking forward to reading, but I admit I am a little in awe of it as well, hence my inertia when it comes to actually opening the pages.

    Your puzzle ruminations remind me that I recently read the Oulipoians considered inviting Nabokov to join, but decided not to extend the offer (possibly fearing (expecting?) a refusal).

  2. None of my business? *Mankind* is my business, mate! - as Marley's ghost would tell you!

    Of course, Joyce had footnotes in sections of Finnegans Wake, but that doesn't count as no-one reads it. And the 19th century Bengali writer Bankim Chandra Chatterjee (no relation to me, sadly) vented his rather weird sense of humour by providing often nonsensical footnotes in some of his satirical writings, but since he is not known outside the Bengali-speaking world (and frequently not even there) I guess he doesn't count either. In any case, I don't think anyone used annotations on a scale comaparable to Nabokov's.

    I think it is true that there is a mystery at the heart of any work of art. I guess this is because there is a mystery at the heart of life itself, and if art does not have a mystery, it is not holding up the mirror to nature as Prince Hamlet insisted it should. When the puzzle element is introduced so deliberately in art - as Nabokov does here, as Joyce does elsewhere - there is, I suppose, a danger that the work will be seen purely in terms of the puzzle, as a sort of highbrow crossword. But the point surely is, as you suggest, that unlike the crossword, the solution is not the point; that, quite frequently, there *is* no solution. At this point, crossword enthusiasts will no doubt throw up their arms and say "What's the point of that, then?" But that's their problem.

    Hamlet laughed at Rosencrantz and Guildenstern trying to "pluck out the heart of [his] mystery". I wonder what Prince Hamlet would think of Sparks notes.

    1. Yes, because Sparknotes removes the space in between the reader and the author and that space is the heart beat of the book, which must always be read, otherwise it is just a pile of paper.
      All the same, the mystery of what someone chooses to read, and what they publicly admit moved or impressed them, well, the business of our hearts lies there as well. Academic indifference is a pretense.

  3. I particularly like the footnotes in Flann O'Brien's "The Third Policeman," which carry on their own narrative about the hapless de Selby. Alphonse Allais also made fine use of footnotes in his Captain Cap stories, using them to give recipes for the cocktails he and the Captain enjoyed during their discussions. Nice additions in both cases.

    My favorite use of an index is in Daniel Spoerri's "Anecdoted Topography of Chance" (a memoir based on the items on Spoerri's breakfast table), which sends the reader ambling off on different paths through the book.

  4. Nabokov was not a joiner - he was a Marxian of the Groucho variety - so the Oulipians made the wiser choice.

    Pale Fire definitely deserves some awe, although in practice it is often surprisingly like reading other novels. There is this level, and then there is that level - Nabokov just asks his reader to keep up with both.

    Some other cousins of Pale Fire, some cousins once removed, are Cortazar's Hopscotch and certain Borges stories, a number of Oulipian-affiliated works, The Dictionary of the Khazars, and as Doug says the lunatic Third Policeman which I also find as funny as Pale Fire. And now I want to read Bankim Chandra Chatterjee - there is quite a bit available in English, mostly published recently. And Doug's suggestions sound great, too.

    I have not read all of the books I mentioned, but part of the achievement of the ones I know is that the puzzle actually becomes meaningful, which itself is quite a trick.

    But it would be a mistake, one that has often tempted me, to assume that this one class of puzzle is the aim of fiction, however amazing it is to see a truly great magician at work. One can see here and there my inclination to turn any book into a puzzle book. Mostly I resist; sometimes I am right.

    soveryvery - so true, it is the act of reading, the act of interpretation that is meaningful. How sad that so many people find it just a meaningless chore.

  5. There have been competing approaches to the reading and writing of fiction for some time now. There is literature as a puzzle to solve, an intellectual exercise, and then there is literature as something to be experienced, an emotional engagement.
    John Williams, author of the highly regarded novels Stoner and Augustus, during an interview defended the last approach by complaining ' about the attitude to the text as if a novel or poem is something to be studied and understood rather than experienced '
    Wooley [the interviewer] then suggested playfully, "It's to be exegeted, in other words." "Yes. As if it were a kind of puzzle." "And literature is written to be entertaining?" "Absolutely. My God, to read without joy is stupid."

  6. Thanks for the Williams quotation. I wonder if he can possibly mean what he says given:

    1. Nabokovians and other puzzle-readers read with joy and find the sorts of novels mentioned above to be hugely entertaining.
    2. Readers can simultaneously think and "experience." I can do two things at once, sometimes even more.
    3. The one Williams novel I have read, Butcher's Crossing, is in fact about the dangers of experience cut off from thinking!

    The idea that the Emerson and Melville epigraphs to that book are not clues to its meaning, or can somehow be purely "experienced" - but fiction writers are notorious liars.

  7. This is the reason why I read your blog: you always surprise me and/or enlighten me; I would never have pegged you as a reader of a writer like John Williams.
    What made me post that quote about the dichotomy between emotional reading/playful reading was the fact that your blog entry about literary puzzles came in response to a request by Himadri for a post about a passage that was emotionally significant to you.
    In my experience character-based fiction tends to belong to the emotional side(think Don Quixote, Dickens, Victor Hugo), likewise intellectually playful writers tend to focus more on the plot side (think Poe, Borges, Nabokov). Of course there is nothing pure in this ying yang world. After all, Nabokov wrote Pnin and Don Quixote is full of intellectual games as well.

  8. Strictly speaking, Himadri does not ask for an emotionally significant passage. The thing about confessional blogging was just my joke.

    Some readers reject the emotional or intellectual side, and I am sure that is what Williams was responding to. I see bloggers do it all the time. I am not sure why they do it. You want both to be a good critic, I would think.

    Although the kind of emotion is relevant - I read with far more laughter than tears, regardless of the book.

  9. Well, I decided to just dive into the book. I'm a little over a third through, and it's as I expected - playful, acerbic and frequently hilarious.

    My awe was probably misplaced: as with so many great books, it's the writing that demands attention. The structure is great fun, but secondary. Although I do find having 2 bookmarks on the go handy.

  10. Every reader of Pale Fire has a different approach to the poem. Some ignore it, which is going too far, but two bookmarks seems wise.

  11. I have, both times I've read Pale Fire, followed what I think was Nabokov's recommendation: read the poem, then read the notes, then read the poem again. Check the poem against the notes as you go along. I've read it twice as a novel about a guy named Kinbote; next time, I'll read it as a novel about a guy named Vladimir Nabokov and see where that gets me.

  12. Next time read it as a novel about a guy named Botkin. That is really getting into the weeds. But it's in the book.

    Kinbote recommends buying two copies of the book and tearing the poem out of one of them to have it handy. When Kinbote says this, many professional writers suddenly decide that he is not so crazy after all.

    1. When Kinbote says this, many professional writers suddenly decide that he is not so crazy after all.

      I fully intend to do this someday, too. I also want to get the new edition Bryan Boyd has put out without any of the notes--just the poem, to be read as a poem on its own. A new experiment. I was the shadow of a reader slain/by the false endnotes on a poem so plain?

  13. The new Brian Boyd edition has not no notes but rather entirely different notes. A Kinbotian publication.

    Boyd is a great champion of the poem itself.

  14. I'm reading Pale Fire and enjoying it very much; it's totally different than Ada or Ardor. The foreword was a great appetizer for what was to come, the poem, well, I don't think Nabokov was a good poet, but the commentary has been priceless in the way it slowly reveals the insanity of Kinbote, his egotism and his obsession with Zembla.

  15. Nabokov wrote "On Translating 'Eugene Onegin'" which is a terrific poem, making him at least a good poet. Why this is relevant here I do not know, since the poem you read is by John Shade.

    I used to think more negatively of the poem "Pale Fire," but Boyd is pretty convincing.

    Pale Fire is a book anyone genuinely interested in fiction should read as soon as possible.

  16. It's easier to state his case against, actually:

    "No wonder especially after what we see... of Kinbote, that Shade's world can seem insipid, especially when encased in a verse form that fell out of fashion in English almost two centuries ago."

    This is from Nabokov's Pale Fire: The Magic of Artistic Discovery, 1999, Princton UP, pp. 27-8.

    The case for runs through the book, but is especially concentrated in a chapter of close reading of the poem from Shade's point of view, as if it's a creation of his, that it includes, for example, a complex parody of Eliot's "Four Quartets."

    But there is a lot to be said for reading the poem as a failure of some sort. Maybe it is "meant" (by Nabokov, not by Shade) to be a failure.

    1. Those are certainly interesting points that I have not taken into account; I shall try to accommodate them into my reading, even though it's almost at an end.

    2. It may be a fool's errand to even bother separating the poem from the novel and pretending it can stand on its own. What is a critic but a species of fool?

    3. I was thinking just the same at the gym this morning; if Nabokov integrated it in the whole that is Pale Fire, why remove it from it? Close reading it from Shade's pov seems just wrong to the spirit of the novel, since Kinbote does everything to obliterate his existence in lieu of his beloved Zembla and his personal story.

    4. The novel encourages - maybe requires - readers to push back against Kinbote in various ways. You don't want Kinbote to set the agenda, right? He's nuts.

      On the other hand, this artifact is also a bit nuts.

    5. I don't know, Kinbote is so endearing in his madness, I'm quite happy being led by the nose by him.

      Anyway, Boyd's edition, frankly, seems like a clever greedy scheme to make money out of the book.