"I am 3/4ths Canadian, and one 4th New Englander - I had ancestors on both sides in the Revolutionary war." - Elizabeth Bishop

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Wednesday Wonder Question II: Bishop and Nabokov?

...not Nicholas Nabokov, by the by, who was Vladimir Vladimirovich's cousin, a musician and composer somewhat-more-than-noddingly acquainted with our Bishop (not Morris Bishop, chair of the Department of Romance Literature at Cornell University when Nabokov taught there, "known on campus for his wit and his oratorical panache," [Boyd, 135] nor even M. B.'s wife, Alison Bishop, "a talented painter in a style not unlike the wittier style of Benois or Somov," [Boyd, ibid.] -- both of them close friends of Nabokov (V.) and his wife Vera). No. I have in mind Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov himself, author of the notorious Lolita and the notarial Pale Fire. I'd like to speculate here a bit on what Bishop (henceforward "E.") may have found in Nabokov ("V.")'s work, and how that work intersects with hers.

The two writers met, insofar as I have been able to determine, only once in corpore. It happened (if it happened -- it was a large gathering, we are told, so perhaps this was an Akhmatovian non-meeting, two looks exchanged as if by chance across a crowded room, a sea of heads) on Friday, May 25, 1951, sometime between five and eight p.m. The enchanted evening was a ceremony held by the National Institute of Arts and Letters, at which E., V., Brendan Gill, and Randall Jarrell were awarded grants of one thousand dollars apiece. Jarrell describes it in a letter to Sara Starr, inviting her to attend:
You'll probably never see more prominent-authors-sculptors-painters-and-musicians all together; and you'll also get given refreshments and have to listen to an organ prelude by Henry Cowell, a speech by Mark van Doren, and an organ postlude by Virgil Thomson. [Jarrell, 249]
E., Gill, and Jarrell are reported to have read from their work: I wonder what poem or poems E. might have chosen? Later, riding a bus with Jarrell after the ceremony, V. was nonplussed to find that Jarrell did not speak about poetry, but only about the reputations of other poets. [Boyd, 198].

Mentions of V. in E.'s published correspondence are few; of E. in V.'s non-existent. She harrumphs a bit to Robert Lowell about the 1960 elections to the American Academy of Arts and Letters:
Yes, I saw that Mary and Randall got in -- and Levin! -- and Nabokov refused -- and Calder's in, too. I think we might have some quite funny dinners in our old ages, don't you? [Travisano/Hamilton, 318]

A few years later E. writes Lowell about reading Pale Fire with Lota and Mary McCarthy's review of the novel:
PALE FIRE is great fun -- much better to read it first and Mary's review afterwards. Her review is clever, but seems meant for those who don't intend to read the book -- she tells so much! Lota is now working on PALE FIRE -- so much of it depends on plays on words, etc. that she has to get my help once in a while. [Travisano/Hamilton, 418]
In March, 1970, Lowell mentions V.'s novel Ada in his account to E. of accepting the National Book Award in her stead:
Ah, the award! I like to make a cut at boldness occasionally, this I think I had to do. The rather curious jury, due to Rexroth, left Pound off the listings of poets to be considered (Meredith put him on). No one even noticed the omission, but there was a great clamor about Ada and Portnoy not being listed. [Travisano/Hamilton, 669]
While Lowell was indignant about Rexroth's omission of Pound, he may not have been too concerned about the failure to include Ada, in which V. had included a parody of Lowell as the character "Lowden" (Lowell's mother's name was Ada); the two men had previously exchanged swipes in letters to the editor of Encounter, who did not publish any of of them. Lowell's included an attack on Pale Fire; V.'s were counter-thrusts claiming that Lowell was an incompetent translator:
The couplets that Mr. Lowell refers to are not at the end but at the beginning of Pale Fire. This is exactly the kind of lousy ignorance that one might expect from the mutilator of his betters -- Mandelstam, Rimbaud, and others."[Nabokov/Bruccoli, 385]
V. then improved upon this four days later in a substitute reply:
To the Editor:

I do not mind Mr. Lowell's disliking my books, but I wish he would stop mutilating his betters -- Mandelstam, Rimbaud, and others. I regret not having entitled my article "Rhyme and Punishment" [Nabokov/Bruccoli, 386]
E. had tried to spare Lowell just such attacks five years earlier, when she suggested revisions to Imitations, his collection of free translations: "I don't think you should lay yourself open to charges of carelessness or ignorance or willful perversity..." [Travisano/Hamilton, 356]. I wonder if she would have caught the parody of Lowell in Ada -- we know from a letter to Randall Jarrell that she had read both it and Portnoy's Complaint. [Giroux/Schwartz, 867].

I wonder, too, where E. began her reading of Pale Fire. With the Foreword, perhaps? I don't suppose that readers acquainted with her biography can do anything but pause in astonishment when they reach this passage of Kinbote's apologia:
Another tormentor inquired if it was true that I had installed two ping-pong tables in my basement. I asked, was it a crime? No, he said, but why two? "Is that a crime, I countered, and they all laughed. [Nabokov 1962, 7].
Of course, E. had only one ping-pong table, and it was in her dining room, not in the basement. Perhaps, though, E. skipped the Foreword and plunged immediately into the poem itself. What might her reaction have been as she made her way through the poem portion of Pale Fire? Would lines 20-21 have evoked "Trouvée"? Would she have tasted a swift sweet moment of recognition in lines 30-31 ("My eyes were such that literally they / took photographs [...]")? What would she have made of line 86, I wonder ("I was brought up by dear bizarre Aunt Maud")? Would the objects in Aunt Maud's room have brought Marianne Moore to mind? -- Maud's room, like Moore's eventually was to be, has been kept intact:

"[...] Its trivia create
A still life in her style: the paperweight
Of convex glass enclosing a lagoon,
The verse book open at the Index (Moon,
Moonrise, Moor, Moral), the forlorn guitar,
The human skull; and from the local Star
A curio: Red Sox Beat Yanks 5-4
On Chapman's Homer
, thumbtacked to the door." [lines 91-98]

Manners and morals, morals as manners... Moore might well have come to E.'s mind again when she reached lines 243-244: "[...] LaFontaine was wrong: / Dead is the mandible, alive the song." V.'s fictive poet John Shade, or his persona in the poem, had a clockwork toy that brings to my mind at least the one portrayed in "Cirque d'Hiver" -- Shade's is a tin boy trundling a tin wheelbarrow, who comes to life in the poem's final lines. Did the 'trk' at the end of line 470 recall the 'slp' of the river in "In the Village"? Did the 'Click. Clunk.' of the horseshoes being tossed (in line 991), the last one described as "leaning against its lamppost like a drunk" (in line 992), summon the click of the dredge in "The Bight", and perhaps a vision of Nate, a parodic echo of the Clang from "In the Village"?

These, though, are only some bezeled pebbles on the End of March beach that is Pale Fire. I think what would most have struck E.'s fancy would have been the poem's central conceit: Shade's near-death vision of a white fountain, his excitement when his vision seems confirmed in a newspaper article; alas, the confirmation vanishes when the 'white fountain' of the report turns out to have been a misprint for 'white mountain' -- or does it?

Life EVerlasting, based on a misprint!
I mused as I drove homeward: take the hint,
And stop investigating my abyss?
But all at once it dawned on me that this
Was the real point, the contrapuntal theme;
Just this: not text, but texture; not the dream
But a topsy-turvical coincidence,
Not flimsy nonsense, but a web of sense.

It was just such a newspaper misprint that gave E. her Man-Moth. Did she think of her moon, the Man-Moth's moon, -- so battered and shiny when Lota, her hair freshly washed, asks for help with a word in the poem ("What's grimpen?") from the next room, -- but now in "The Man-Moth" just battered, just a small hole at the top of the sky, as E. comes to lines 464-474 of Pale Fire, and listens to the trk-trk-trk of the moon-shaped channel changer, and then

Oh, switch it off! And as life snapped we saw
A pinhead life dwindle and die in black

-- and did she think of her "Chemin de Fer" and its dirty hermit when she read the next words:

                   Out of his lakeside shack
A watchman, Father Time, all gray and bent,
Emerged with his uneasy dog and went
Along the reedy bank. He came too late.



[Boyd]. Brian Boyd. Vladimir Nabokov: the American Years. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991).

[Giroux/Schwartz]. Robert Giroux and Lloyd Schwartz, (eds.). Elizabeth Bishop. Poems, Prose, and Letters. (New York: Library of America, 2008).

[Jarrell]. Mary Jarrell, (ed.) Randall Jarrell's letters: an autobiographical and literary selection. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1985).

[Nabokov/Bruccoli]. Dmitri Nabokov and Matthew Bruccoli (eds.) Vladimir Nabokov: Selected Letters, 1940-1977. (San Diego: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1989).

[Nabokov 1962]. Vladimir Nabokov. Pale Fire. (New York: Putnam, 1962).

[Nabokov 1969]. Vladimir Nabokov. Ada, or Ardor: a Novel. (New York: McGraw Hill, 1969).

[Travisano/Hamilton]. Thomas Travisano with Saskia Hamilton (eds.) Words in Air. The Complete Correspondence between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2008).

I'm grateful to my colleague, Yuri Leving, for help locating the letters associated with the Nabokov/Lowell Encounter tiff, and for the reference to Boyd's account of the 1951 awards ceremony. I'd also like to thank Susan Lemcke, who gave me my copy of Words in Air, and has been the source of innumerable kindnesses.

1 comment:

  1. Hi John,

    Bishop and Nabokov met at the ceremony, but only to say "how do you do." Interesting his take on Jarrell!