Old, Dusty, and Wonderful: Part II

Another flashback to high school: me and a group of friends listening to music. Chris P. was a huge Police fan, and he asked, “So, in ‘Don’t Stand So Close to Me’ what’s the book by Nabakov?”

No one knew. We weren’t into asking our English teacher, who I am sure would have known, and whipping out an iphone to ask Siri was not an option in 1980, so we shrugged and went on with our lives.

Of course, as an English major in college, I did discover Nabakov and Lolita. I still wonder if my high school classmates ever figured it out. It was an interesting book, but this post is about the falling-apart paperback I recently rescued from its long-held position on the back of the book shelf: Pale Fire. Nothing like Lolita, this book begins with a poem and continues with the extremely strange and often rather dull explication of the poem.

It wasn’t until the reading was complete and I had gone back to several passages a second and third time that I actually marveled and giggled at the satire within. I’m a little slow that way. Digging deeper, I found reasons to laugh at myself and at the incredibly self-absorbed nature of humans in general. I also just liked a few ideas that were presented.

Some passages that struck my fancy:

1) Because I live half my life in a fantasy world — either reading or writing — this one rang true:      ” . . . ‘reality’ is neither the subject nor the object of true art which creates its own special reality having nothing to do with the average ‘reality’ perceived by the communal eye.”

2) Because I have been a “teacher” and have seen the work of many teachers in my children’s lives, I loved this one:     “A Child should have 30 specialists to teach 30 subjects, and not one harassed schoolmarm to show him a picture of a rice field and tell him this is China because she knows nothing about China, or anything else, and cannot tell the difference between longitude and latitude.”

I have known so many teachers (with masters degrees in education) who knew how to teach but did not know their subject matters. They know how to teach a math concept because a book told them what to say, but they don’t understand the math concept. They presume to teach poetry, but they don’t like poetry. If the answer given was not the answer on the answer key provided, there is no chance that creativity will be rewarded.

3) Because I studied literature and had to write so many papers on literature, it made me laugh when one of the main characters talked about how stupid his students sounded when pointing out symbols, etc. This idea from him is so perfect:     “First of all, dismiss ideas and social background, and train freshman to shiver, to get drunk on the poetry of Hamlet and Lear, to read with his spine and not with his skull.”

Ironically, satirically, this is the exact opposite of the “commentary” section of the novel. Brilliant.

4) In this passage the narrator defends the desire of a believer in God to commit suicide:    “When the soul adores Him Who guides it through mortal life, when it distinguishes His sign at every turn of the trail, painted on the boulder and notched in the fir trunk, when every passage of the book of one’s personal fate bears His watermark, how can one doubt that He will also preserve us through all eternity?   So what can stop one from effecting the transition? What can help us to resist the intolerable temptation? What can prevent us from yielding to the burning desire for merging with God?   We who burrow in filth every day may be forgiven perhaps the one sin that ends all sins.”

5) And finally, there is this passage directed at the unbelieving character: “With no Providence the soul must rely on the dust of its husk, on the experience gathered in the course of corporeal confinement, and cling childishly to small-town principles, local by-laws and a personality consisting mainly of the shadows of its own prison bars. Such an idea is not to be entertained one instant by the religious mind. How much more intelligent it is — even from the proud infidel’s point of view! — to accept God’s Presence — a faint phosphorescence at first, a pale light in the dimness of bodily life, and a dazzling radiance afterward.”

Okay, enough quotes. Pale Fire. Strange, thought-provoking. Worthy of a permanent spot on my books shelf? Not this time.

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