Nabokov’s “Pale Fire ,” a virtu oso astoni shment ...
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From Baker, an ode to poetic rhyme for those long past Mother Goose
By Jeff Simon
NEWS BOOK REVIEWER
Updated: September 07, 2009, 10:04 AM
Here is a 21st century masterwork about poetry from a writer who is wonderfully obsessive, compulsive and disorderly. And thereby hangs a journalistic tale.
There is, of course, already a great 20th century American fictional masterpiece about a poet and a splendidly gaudy breakdown in prose. You could even argue that it is America’s first bonafide post-modern masterpiece. That novel is Vladimir Nabokov’s “Pale Fire,” a virtuoso astonishment that accelerated faux scholarship into madness and made loony poetry out of fictional obsession.
In its own gloriously radical way, it was just Nabokov’s latest tale of obsession with a rictus grin, a clearcut American relative of his much earlier emigre novel of chess madness from Berlin, “The Luzhin Defense” (which was, itself, a cousin of a slightly later tale of chess obsession, Stefan Zweig’s novella “The Royal Game”). If Nabokov had not himself been translating and annotating Pushkin’s “Eugene Onegin,” would he have invented a venerable American poet named John Shade and his mad-as-a-hatter annotater Charles Kinbote, the royal fantasist of Zembla?
Nicholson Baker’s “The Anthologist” turns “Pale Fire” upside down for a new century. Nabokov’s masterwork was a fiction about a poet who uses mock scholarship and art to send characters whirling off into a glorious, widening gyre of lunacy.
Baker uses a fiction about breakdown to send us ever deeper into poetry and sanity. Nabokov’s “Pale Fire” isn’t really about poetry at all, except incidentally. Baker’s “Anthologist” is about nothing else, but it is also a novel which, frankly, doesn’t give a flying fig that it’s not really a novel at all.
That’s the post-modern 21st century way. Lydia Davis — whose collected “stories” are coming out in October — writes stories that aren’t necessarily stories. Eliot Weinberger’s essays might be essays, they might be poems in disguise or pensees or God only knows what.
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Jeff Simon is the Arts and Books Editor of the News.
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