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Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

Guild Publishing, 1982, 233 p. First published 1817.

 Northanger Abbey cover

This is Austen’s first novel in order of writing, but the sixth to be published. It is certainly a lighter read than Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice but it is refreshing too in that its content is not over-familiar, not having been adapted to death for film and television in the way others of her works have.

From the outset it adopts a more satirical tone than those two books, seems to have a more acid eye to cast on polite society. It was Austen’s commentary on the sort of gothic novel which was seen as trifling, probably thought to be fit only for women to read.

It could even be said to be meta-fictional in that it addresses the reader directly, comments on itself (and on the attitudes of characters in novels to the reading of novels as somehow being unworthy,) while the narrator castigates her fellow novelists for their disparagement of their craft and enumerates the iniquities of reviewers but the overall story arc follows the pattern of romantic fiction.

Heroine Catherine Morland’s mother “had three sons before Catherine was born; and instead of dying in bringing the latter into the world, as anybody might expect, she still lived on.” Catherine herself is said to be as plain as any – no one “would have supposed her born to be a heroine” – seemingly with no outstanding qualities at all. Catherine’s fairly restricted life is opened up when she is asked to accompany the Allens on a trip to Bath for a few weeks’ stay. Here we have the vacuousness of trips to the Pump Room, the tedium of balls where the attendee knows no-one, either to converse or to dance with but soon enough Catherine falls into the orbit of Isabella Thorpe, the object of Catherine’s brother James’s affections, and Isabella’s brother, John, one of those men who insist on their own plans being followed, and who quickly takes it into his head that he and Catherine have formed an attachment. However, Catherine’s attentions soon lock onto Henry Tilney, via his sister Eleanor, and she is at pains to disabuse Isabella of any attraction to John.

It is past, though, the middle of the book before we come to Northanger Abbey, the Tilney’s residence, to where Henry and Eleanor’s father, the Colonel, invites Catherine. Her fascination with old architecture, coloured as it is by her slightly lurid imaginings (derived from gothic novels, naturally) ensures she is almost as delighted at the prospect of seeing Northanger Abbey as she is at prolonged contact with the Tilney siblings.

As fits Austen’s satirical intent, elements from the gothic (there are frequent references to the novel referred to as Udolpho) intrude at various points but while she has Catherine wondering about the appearance and contents of the room she is given at Northanger Abbey, what secrets it might conceal, and having all sorts of unworthy thoughts about Colonel Tilney related to the death of his wife or the possibility that she remains alive and sequestered, Austen draws back from excess. Given the milieu it is of course necessary that the path of true love does not run smooth – not for James as Isabella’s inconstancy is revealed, nor for Catherine when the Colonel is informed that she is not as ideal a match for his son as he had been led to believe.

There are Austenisms such as, “A woman, especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can,” to please the aficionados and an aside on men’s indifference to a new gown (or indeed any new clothing) on a woman. What the book demonstrates beyond anything else though, is the importance of money and prospects to the society Austen portrays.

Modern sensibilities might be offended by John Thorpe’s observation that the Colonel is, “as rich as a Jew.”

Pedant’s corner:- “the Miss Thorpes” (x 2, the Misses Thorpe,) “Miss Thorpe’s, progress” (no comma needed,) by the bye (I prefer ‘by the by’,) “her acquaintance with the Tilney’s” (with the Tilneys,) a missing comma at the end of a piece of direct speech, another before the start of one, “in the general” (in the General, several instances of General with a lower case ‘g’,) “the Lady Frasers” (strictly, the Ladies Fraser,) “the whole family were immediately at the window” (the whole family was immediately at the window,)

The Rector and The Doctor’s Family by Mrs Oliphant

Chronicles of Carlingford. Virago, 1993, 196 p, plus xii p Introduction by Penelope Fitzgerald.

 The Rector and The Doctor’s Family  cover

Being two shorter works The Rector, not even novella length, and the more substantial The Doctor’s Family.

In The Rector, the old Rector (profoundly Low Church, “lost in the deepest abysses of Evangelicalism”) has died. Mr Proctor – Fellow of All-Souls Oxford – has come to replace him but finds the practice of ministry very different from the academic life he has left. When his aged mother joins him she divines instantly that at least one of the churchwarden’s two daughters will be “intended” for him. He is terrified and reflects, “But have not women been incomprehensible since ever there was in this world a pen with sufficient command of words to call them so? …. And is it not certain that …. every soul of them is plotting to marry somebody? …. Who could fathom the motives of a woman?” Meanwhile his mother, “watched him as women do often watch men, waiting till the creature should come to itself again and might be spoken to.” That fear, combined with Mr Proctor’s total inability to cope with the needs of a dying parishioner and the demands of sociability lead him to reconsider his position.

The Doctor’s Family.
Dr Edward Rider, not the pre-eminent physician in Carlingford – that would be Dr Marjoribanks – has the medical care of the less well-off of Carlingford society. His only burden is that of his waster of a brother Fred, back from the colonies under a cloud, indolent to a fault and an almost permanent resident in an easy-chair. Two ladies arrive at the door one day and Edward is astonished to find that Fred has a wife, Susan – and three more or less uncontrolled children – come over from Australia with Susan’s sister Nettie, who in turn has just about the means to support them. Nettie is the practical one, arranging lodgings for the ensemble in St Roques’s cottage, and undertaking all the work of the household. Edward becomes enamoured of Nettie, but her sense of duty to her sister’s family is so strong that she will not contemplate leaving them for anything.

It is reasonably clear from Edward’s first encounter with Nettie where all this will be going. There are of course minor complications to the narrative, a potential rival for Nettie’s affections in the person of the permanent curate of St Roques’s church, a tentative leaning towards Miss Marjoribanks while Edward works through his irritation at Nettie’s refusal of his own, but even when Fred dies, drowned in a canal after a night in the pub, Nettie will not abandon her duty. Only the entrance of Richard Chatham, another Australian, (un)distinguished by a luxuriant beard – not common in Carlingford in those days, only Mr Lake has such an affectation and his is very much subdued by comparison – changes the dyamic.

Oliphant’s style is wordy, she was a nineteenth century novelist after all, but her eye for the human heart, for its predicaments, is sure.

Pedant’s corner:- In the Introduction, a missing comma before a quote of direct speech, and one missing at the end of such a quote, Freddie (x 2; the text has Freddy,) “between man and women” (men and women.) Otherwise; “the two Miss Woodhouses” (several times; the two Misses Woodhouse,) “‘It did not use to be’” (used to be,) St Roques’ (St Roques’s.)

Adrift on the Nile by Naguib Mahfouz

Anchor Books, 1994, 172 p. Translated from the Arabic, Thartharah Fawq al Nīl, by Frances Liardet.

 Adrift on the Nile cover

This novel features a group of friends who regularly meet in the evening on a houseboat on the River Nile to talk about the issues of the day but mainly to smoke kif through a water-pipe.

The viewpoint starts off as that of Anis Zaki, a civil servant with troubles at work and whose wife and daughter died many years previously. Anis’s mind can wander and he has occasional illusions – of the Caliph Harun-al-Rashid, of a whale in the Nile, of conversing with the pharaoh Thutmose III. Sometimes, however, the narrative focus shifts to something more objective.

Others of the company are Ahmad Nasr, notoriously faithful to his wife; Mustafa Rashid, a well-known lawyer; Ali al-Sayid, a famous art critic; Khalid Azzuz, a writer; Ragab al-Qadi, the group’s womaniser in chief. Women are not excluded; Layla Zaydan, a translator, is introduced to new members as “beautiful and cultured” not least in that her golden hair is real, not a wig, while Saniya Kamil turns up whenever her husband has committed an indiscretion. The houseboat is looked after by general factotum Amm Abduh, huge in stature, who mostly keeps himself to himself but when summoned will refresh the water-pipe. As well as making the call-to-prayer at the local mosque he will procure street girls for the members. The group’s female members, despite occasionally spending the night in rooms on the boat, are contrasted to the street girls in that, “‘they are respectable ladies,’” the rationale being, “‘They don’t sell themselves. They give and take, just like men.’”

The text is mostly dialogue, there is not much of a plot here. There is some disquiet one evening when Ragab appears with the teenage Sana al-Rashidi, a student; even more when journalist Samara Barghat arrives, the object of suspicion due to her calling (possibly not unjustified suspicion, revealed when Anis takes the opportunity to rummage in her handbag one evening and filches a notebook which contains a scenario and characters for a play – all based on the houseboat’s habituees.) The only incident occurs on a car journey out of the city, to which Anis had only reluctantly acceded, when, travelling too fast on their return, they hit a pedestrian. But all agree to keep quiet about it.

By showing us a slice of middle-class Egyptian life in the 1960s (when the book was first published in Arabic,) Adrift on the Nile reveals the uneasy connection between Egypt’s past and its then present by subtle indirection.

Pedant’s corner:- Translated into USian (except handbag and purse are used in the British sense.) Anis’ (Anis’s, many instances,) “is a that any description” (no ‘a’,) protozoan (protozoon,) “‘people who will praise you work’” (your work.)

The Century’s Daughter by Pat Barker

Virago, 1986, 286 p. (This novel is also known as Liza’s England.)

The Century's Daughter cover

Stephen is a social worker, troubled by the youths down at what passes for the local centre, and also by his parents who are uncomfortable with (or in his mother’s case unaware of) his homosexuality. He is assigned to Liza Jarrett, an old woman living with a parrott called Nelson (whom she inherited from a pub landlord when the pub closed down) in a terraced house scheduled for demolition but which she is unwilling to give up. Liza was born on the stroke of midnight at 1899’s turn into 1900 and dubbed ‘Daughter of the Century’ by the local newspaper, a clipping of which her father was very proud. This made her one of that generation who lost brothers in one war and sons in the next. The novel is, though, more a tale of female resilience in and around that century’s defining landmarks (which it deals with only tangentially, even if their repercussions impact mightily on Liza’s life.) It intersperses Liza’s memories with Stephen’s experiences in the present as he comes to appreciate her and her determination to make the best of things, to fend for herself, to depend on nobody, and, with its present being the 1980s, illuminates the passing of a sense of community, of worth, “‘that’s where it all went wrong you know. It was all money. You’d’ve thought we had nowt else to offer. But we did. We had a way of life, a way of treating people.’”

There is some ground here to which Barker would return in her Regeneration trilogy (in particular the Great War and its munitions workers known as canaries.) While it tends to the bleak there are some moments of wry humour. At Stephen’s dad’s funeral, “‘It’s like a wedding in there,’ Stephen said. ‘No it isn’t,’ said Christine. Weddings aren’t that cheerful.’”

This was Barker’s third novel and while the characterisation is good her writing had not quite yet attained the maturity it would display later. The story is engaging though and Liza’s life reflects the stoicism of the women of her generation and class not often exhibited in fiction with the novel overall a threnody for a lost solidarity.

Pedant’s corner:- a missing comma before a piece of direct speech (x 2,) wrack and ruin (OK, it’s a legitimate alternative but to me wrack is a seaweed, so, rack and ruin), minaly (mainly,) “from his dying from his dying body” (only one ‘from his dying’ needed.) “Most of the crowd were young” (Most of the crowd was young.)

Bookshelf Travelling for Insane Times – Translated Fiction

Time for Reader in the Wilderness’s meme again.

These shelves contain my paperbacks of fiction translated from languages other than English. Evidence here of my usual suspects – Bohumil Hrabal, Mario Vargas Llosa, Naguib Mahfouz, Diego Marani, Gabriel García Márquez, Irène Némirovsky, Orhan Pamuk, but nearly all of these have been worth reading. In fact I would say there are no real duds here. The English language books on the lower shelf belong to the good lady and are shelved there because they fit into the space:-

Translated Fiction Bookshelves 1

Several really large hardbacks are too big to sit on the above shelves so have to be kept separately. These are not all translations but there is more Orhan Pamuk, more Naguib Mahfouz, more Irène Némirovsky, and then the English language Salman Rushdie. The John Updike omnibus is the good lady’s:-

Large Books Shelf

Cloud Cuckoo Land by Naomi Mitchison

The Traveller’s Library, 1928, 348 p.

Cloud Cuckoo Land cover

This contains a dedication which I would have thought to be quite daring for the 1920s, “To my lover.”

The book is set during the Pelopponesian War, starting off on the island of Poieëssa in the Aegean Sea. Here young Alxenor is caught between the wishes of his brother, Euripaides, to support Sparta against the island’s overlord Athens, and those of Chromon, the brother of the girl he likes, Moiro, in favour of the democrats. When the revolt aganist Athens comes, Alxenor is only able to save Moiro with the help of a Spartan, Leon and find she ha smade an enemy of Chromon. He and Moiro flee to Athens where he is taken in by Theramenes, a trader, and marries Moiro. He is only able to make money by enlisting as a rower on one of Theramenes’s triremes but it is never enough and he and Moiro live more or less hand-to-mouth, even when they have a son, Timas. Moiro is pregnant again when Alxenor has to make another sailing trip and he advises her to keep the new child if it’s a boy or else expose it (in the Greek way) if it is a girl. It’s a girl and his wishes are followed by the household. Thereafter things between Moiro and Alxenor are broken and he takes care not to make her pregnant again.

On one of Alxenor’s trips he receives news that Sparta’s navy has defeated that of Athens at Aegospotami and the fall of the city becomes a foregone conclusion. Thus it is that Alxenor and his family end up in Sparta at the household of Leon’s cousin where Moiro has an affair with Leon and the inevitable happens. Her loyal slave attempts to get rid of the child but it goes wrong and Moiro dies. Here the Spartans offer to bring up Timas as one of their own. Alxenor is willing at first but another non-Spartan who is undergoing the same training as intended for Timas secretly warns him not to allow it. He and Timas make their escape and head for Poieëssa.

This is another illustration of Mitchison’s clear love for ancient times as in The Corn King and the Spring Queen and Travel Light (and also Blood of the Martyrs.) Her knowledge of the times and customs shines through but I would perhaps have enjoyed this more if I’d had a wider knowledge of the Pelopponesian war than merely that it was a contest between Athens and Sparta.

As a novel, though, this has a peculiar ending in that it doesn’t seem to have a conclusion. It just stops. And I still can’t quite see in what context the title Cloud Cuckoo Land is apposite.

Pedant’s corner:- Theramenes’ (Theramenes’s. All names ending in ‘s’ in this book are treated similarly, though,) shrunk (x 2, shrank,) “he dare not” (past tense, dared not,) “none of the Spartans were back” (none … was back,) slipt (archaic spelling of slipped – or is it Scots?) “two fellow-servants of Isadas’ went” (doesn’t need that apostrophe after Isadas,) “wouldn’t leave go” (wouldn’t let go.) “None of them were …” (None of them was… .) mistress’ (mistress’s,) sunk (sank.) T S Elliot (in a chapter epigraph. T S Eliot.) “‘Aren’t I ever going back’” (Please. ‘Amn’t I ever going back?’)

The Fish Can Sing by Halldór Laxness

Harvill Panther, 2001, 252 p, including i p note on pronunciation and ii p map of Iceland. Translated from the Icelandic, Brekkukanstannáll, (Helgafell, Iceland, 1957,) by Magnus Magnusson.

 The Fish Can Sing  cover

There is something almost mythic, or fabular, about the origins of narrator Álfgrímur Hanson, born in the mid-loft of Brekkukot, a dimly lit turf-roofed shack on the outskirts of what would become Reykjavík, and who never saw his mother again, as she was in transit to the US, sponsored by the Mormons or some such. Instead he was brought up by the pair who lived in Brekkukot, whom he called grandfather and grandmother even though they were no relation at all. Grandfather Björn is a lumpfisherman, wedded to the old ways, plying his trade by hand. He never changes the price of his fish; neither when a surplus lowers others’ nor when a shortage makes his catch more valuable. Brekkukot is also a way-station for those with nowhere else to go, packed with adults sleeping in the same cramped space, always available to house those needing a bed. Such is the atmosphere that surrounds him, though, that Álfgrímur does not realise he could be considered poor until almost into adulthood. Not that he ever thought about it, he simply didn’t question Brekkukot’s place in the world.

His grandfather has a firm sense of what is right and proper with his “conviction that the money which people considered theirs by right was unlawfully accumulated, or counterfeit, if it exceeded the average income of a working man; and therefore that all great wealth was inconsistent with common sense.”

In many ways, perhaps due to similarly inclement climates, Icelanders’ attitudes to the world as shown here have something of the Scots sense of endurance about them. Álfgrímur tells us, “I could swear on oath that growing up I never heard the word ‘happiness’ except on the lips of a crazy woman who lodged in the mid-loft with us for a time.” He instances many Icelandic phrases with this kind of sentiment. ‘They have plenty of salt fish,’ = they’re doing all right, ‘Oh, he’s fat enough,’ = he’s well, ‘Oh, you can see it on him’, = he’s unwell, ‘He’s a bit low,’ = he’s more dead than alive, ‘He’s off his food these days,’ = dying of old age, ‘he’s packing his bags now, poor fellow,’ = on his deathbed. When a married couple separated, ‘Yes, there’s something wrong there I believe,’ was said. Or is this stoicism simply due to Álfgrímur’s particular circumstances? “At Brekkukot every word was precious, even the little words.”

The book is set at a time when change is coming to the country yet still before Iceland had gained independence from Denmark. The prickly relationship between the island and its then ruler is alluded to often in unflattering mentions of the Danish king and brought into sharper focus by the sentence, “The only insult that can really rile an Icelander is to be called a Dane.” And Icelanders had apparently always considered what the Pope said about religious faith laughable.

A lot of the novel is taken up with the saga of Garðar Hólm, of Hríngjarabær, close to Berkkukot. He is apparently the only world-renowned Icelander, a singer, known to crowned heads and the Pope. His returns to the island are eagerly awaited, promoted in the newspaper, the Ísafold, but often found to be only rumour or called off at the last minute. Yet he makes unheralded appearances in Reykjavík and the odd visit to Brekkukot. He and Álfgrímur strike up a relationship of sorts, especially after Álfgrímur is employed by Pastor Jóhann as a singer at funerals and learns of the concept of the one pure note. On one occasion he and Álfgrímur even exchange footwear. Yet Álfgrímur notes Garðar Hólm’s rather dressed down appearance. The singer is said to be unmarried (a very minor sub-plot has the daughter of the owner of Gúðmúndsen’s Store – an institution in Reykjavík – hankering after him) but there are also tales of a woman with two children in a hut in Jutland. Garðar Hólm exerts a large influence on Álfgrímur. In one of their conversations, he tells Álfgrímur in relation to wealth that, “The man who is worth anything never gets a jewel,” in another that in encyclopaedias, “murderers, particularly multiple murderers, command much more space than the greatest geniuses and men of intellect.” There are heavy allusions to the possibility that Garðar Hólm’s fame is nothing of the sort and is a sort of trick pulled off by Gúðmúndsen to bolster Icelanders’ thoughts of themselves.

Perhaps it is Álfgrímur’s almost naïve acceptance of things but there is in all this a dislocation almost like that encountered when reading fiction by South American writers. It can’t though be said to be magic realism because the writing is resolutely realistic throughout. There are things undoubtedly lost in translation and others that perhaps only Icelanders could fully understand. But the point of reading translated fiction is to help expand your view of the world. Laxness’s writing fulfils that function very well.

Pedant’s corner:- “the kind of audience he attracted there were” (the kind of audience… was,) “for a long rime now” (a long time, I think,) “‘And for that reason she does not want you not to drown in the Soga Stream’” (omit that second ‘not’,) galoshes (galoshes, x 2,) “a horde of fat men comes running over waving cheque books and hire him” (plus points for ‘comes’ but it then also ought to be ‘hires’.)

Fiction Bookshelf Travelling for Insane Times

This week my contribution to Judith Reader in the Wilderness’s meme is my shelves of recent fiction written in English. They include UK, US, Irish, Canadian, Australian, Nigerian, Malaysian and Egyptian writers and even one part Vietnamese author. Click on the photos to enlarge.

There’s barely a dud here. Notable to me are Philip K Dick’s non-Science Fiction novels (stretching recent there a bit.) Sadly these were not published till after his death.

Also there, though, is Samuel R Delany’s autobiographical book The Motion of Light in Water not to mention some commemorative china and wooden elephants.

English Language Fiction Books

Peter Ackroyd’s The House of Doctor Dee would be there too if the good lady hadn’t swiped it for her 20 Books of Summer reads.

However that would be on the next shelf stacked on its side as it’s one of those large paperbacks. I put those and some hardbacks from below upright to take the photo below. (The James Wellard is also hardly recent.)

English Language Fiction Tall Books

The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel

Fourth Estate, 2020, 889 p, including 4p Author’s Note and 1 pAcknowledgements, plus ii p Contents, vi p Cast of Characters and ii p Tudor and Plantagenet descendant family trees.

The Mirror and the Light cover

As we have come to expect of Mantel this is exquisitely written. Each word, it seems, has been chosen with care, the prose burnished to perfection. At nearly 900 pages, though, it is not a quick read.

This final instalment of Mantel’s Tudor trilogy is bookended by two executions, that of Anne Boleyn and Cromwell’s own. Despite the reader’s knowledge of its narrator’s ultimate fate (surely no-one coming to this book could be unaware of it?) there is no sense of tension defrayed. We are in the moment – often in his past moments – with Thomas Cromwell in his efforts to serve Henry VIII and to frustrate the king’s enemies both at home and abroad (and for Cromwell to climb the greasy pole as high as possible while incidentally enriching himself, his family and his entourage.)

The Tudor dynasty is still on insecure ground, its already tenuous claim to the throne threatened by the lack of a male heir, Catholic pretenders (the Poles and the Courtenays) intriguing against Henry with the Spanish Emperor’s envoy and with the Pope, gossiping and insinuating against Cromwell but in the aftermath of Anne Boleyn’s death the most urgent task in the king’s households seems to be to chip out the HA HA insignia from all the heraldic emblems on the walls and to unstitch them from the embroidered cushions. Meanwhile the king’s latest marriage – to Jane Seymour – goes well, bringing benefits to the Seymours and Cromwell both, not least the marriage of Cromwell’s son into the Seymour family. Then, after producing a legitimate son for Henry, Jane dies; and, though Prince Edward thrives, everything is thrown into the air again.

This is an easy to absorb foray through the history of the times as seen through the eyes of one of its prime actors; the uprising against the King’s religious policies in the North of England that became known as The Pilgrimage of Grace, allayed by worthless promises and later crushed by the Duke of Norfolk; the diplomatic dance surrounding the marriages of James V of Scotland with French heiresses; the dissolution of the monasteries and the bounty that brings, both to the crown and to its servants; the arm’s length negotiations for Henry’s marriage with Anne of Cleves; that project’s dismal failure on the pair’s first sight of each other; the insinuation by the Duke of Norfolk of his flighty niece Katherine Howard into the King’s orbit; rumours that Cromwell seeks to marry the King’s first daughter, the Lady Mary. All goes well for Cromwell until suddenly it doesn’t, things he said in innocence are twisted against him, hoist by his own petard.

There are some quotable moments. Thinking of his dead wife, Cromwell remembers, “She kept a list of his sins, in the pocket of her apron: took it out and checked it from time to time.” (She needed to write them down?) Under questioning by Cromwell, Margaret Pole comments on the position of aristocratic women, “‘I have noticed’” she says, “‘common men often love their mothers. Sometimes they even love their wives.’” At one point Cromwell reflects that, “men pay for crimes, but not necessarily their own.”

However, at times I found myself struggling to concentrate on the text, perhaps due to this third Cromwell book’s length (or even its weight) or that I was reading it during lockdown with other things on my mind.

It is obvious in retrospect, though, that the whole trilogy has been the thoughts of Cromwell on the scaffold, scrolling through his life as he awaits the axe.

Overall, this trilogy is a tour-de-force, a great feat of evoking another time, of imagining another mind, and a brilliant achievement.

Pedant’s corner:- “her family sweep in” (sweeps in.) “None of them have kept their looks” (None of them has kept her looks.) “‘I am sure you she remembers you’” (no need for the ‘you’, or else ‘I assure you’ was meant,) burger (x2, burgher,) dottrels (dotterels.) “‘Did you not use to be’” (Did you not used to be’,) “lands at the town of Fife” (Fife is not a town, it’s a county, though it’s still sometimes referred to as the Kingdom of Fife.) “His party travel” (His party travels,) pyxs (pyxes,) “to see that that” (only one ‘that’ needed,) “spout it from their maws” (a maw is a stomach, not a mouth.)

Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov

Penguin, 1991, 236 p, plus xviii p Introductory essay by Mary McCarthy and 12 p Index.

 Pale Fire   cover

On the face of it an exploration of the last work of a recently murdered US poet, John Shade of Wordsmith College, New Wye, Appalachia, with a foreword by the narrator, Charles Kinbote, the poem itself and the narrator’s commentary on it, Pale Fire (that poem’s title as well as this novel’s) is actually something else again. Or several things again.

The foreword gives the narrator’s account of how the poem was written (on eighty index cards) and how he came to be in charge of both its editing and publication but also provides hints of the shifting ground the text in front of the reader embodies. Kinbote’s relationship with Shade and his wife Sybil (names here tend to the symbolic,) is not particularly friendly; Kinbote comes across as something of a stalker and voyeur. Other academics’ doubts about the poem or its significance are dismissed as nonsense. Kinbote slips in references to his origins in the country of Zembla and his translations of previous Shade poems into Zemblan. That Kinbote lives in a house rented from a Professor Goldsworth – also of Wordsmith College – rings bells to a Spoonerist (compare Wordsworth and Goldsmith, noted poets.) In this section Kinbote suggests his commentary ought to be read before Shade’s poem. Perhaps I should have taken that advice but I doubt it makes much difference. The book seemed to read perfectly well in the printed order and the poem is comprehensible enough on its own in any case.

The poem itself, in four Cantos of two different lengths but symmetrical overall, amounting to 999 lines – each an iambic pentameter – is comprised of rhyming couplets but never at any time reduces to doggerel. Kinbote asserts the poem is actually 1000 lines long, as its first was also to be its last but was never written down. (For the symmetry, it would have to be.)

The meat of the book is in the commentary, though, where Kinbote’s conviction that he supplied Shade with the idea for his poem with his reminiscences of Zembla becomes increasingly hard to credit, mixed up as it is with his potted history of Zembla and its last king, Charles the Beloved, its revolution and the king’s unlikely escape though an underground passage used by his grandfather for illicit liaisons with an actress in the theatre where she performed. Kinbote parallels the writing of the poem to and with the journey from Zembla to the US of Jakob Gradus, a gunman hired by the new Zemblan regime’s secret police to kill the king. Gradus is also known as Jacques d’Argus, Jacques Derges and Jack Grey. This last is the name Shade’s killer, an escapee from a lunatic asylum, gave to the police. Through it all Kinbote, whose name is more likely Botkin, a refugee from Zembla teaching in the Russian Department at Wordsmith’s, gradually reveals his true identity as that last king (or, at least, of his belief in that identity) and that he was the intended target of the gunman. But even his account of the shooting is suspect, as the two witnesses, Gradus and a gardener who intervened to restrain him, recall things differently in later statements to the police. Nabokov is not only presenting us with an unreliable narrator but also an unreliable commentator.

Perhaps I ought to mention that at one point Kinbote relays to us Shade’s disquisition on the use of the word “coloured” to refer to “negroes.”

Mary McCarthy’s essay calls the book, “a Jack-in-the-box, a Fabergé egg, a clockwork toy, a chess problem, an infernal machine, a trap to catch reviewers, a cat and mouse game, a do-it-yourself kit.” It is all of these and more. Pale Fire is an astonishing feat of construction. An intellectual maze, a hall of distorting mirrors, but still utterly readable. A portrait of an unhinged mind convinced it is entirely rational, a fillip to those who delight in the use of such words as pudibundity, fatidic and inenubilable (even if they have to look them up.) Food for the mind, if not quite the heart.

Pedant’s corner:- In the Introductory essay; Gradus’ (Gradus’s.) For some of the others I wasn’t sure these were real typos or indications that Kinbote was deranged: sleezy (sleazy,) “another boy, another boy” (why the repetition?) “the harmonies hiving in the man” (hiving?) Keats’ (Keats’s,) momento (memento,) demolishment (demolition, but this was in dialogue,) John Slade (Shade,) sprung (sprang,) “harebreath escapes” (hairsbreadth escapes,) confusely (confusedly,) hoplessness (hopelessness,) Ukranian (Ukrainian,) remindful (reminiscent,) ginko (ginkgo.)

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