Despite numerous recommendations, I'd been wary of reading Pale Fire for a couple of reasons. One is that despite the fact that Lolita was mind-blowing enough that I became an English major — I hadn't previously realized that books could be that good — the other Nabokov I'd read had taken the waves of self-indulgence that Lolita surfs on and instead wiped out worse than Greg Brady in the tiki episode. The other is that I knew the structure of Pale Fire — a 999-line poem followed by notes on that poem by a fictional commentator — and since I don't really get poetry, I thought it best to demur. But I finally gave it a shot, and was pleasantly surprised. The poem is sufficiently old-fashioned for me to understand and enjoy — it rhymes, and attempts (successfully) to be beautiful — and the commentary turned out to tell its own story rather than just being an abstruse literary game beyond my ken. The commentator, we quickly learn, while passing himself off as the poet's bosom friend, is no such thing but rather a distinctly creepy stalker, devastated that the poem is about the poet's own life rather than about him and his farcical homeland. He's such an egomaniac, in fact, that he seizes on any coincidence and even invents coincidences in an attempt to convince the reader that the poem actually is about him; moreover, for every explicative note there's one such as the one where he replies to the very American poet's line that "I never bounced a ball or swung a bat" by remarking, "Frankly I too never excelled in soccer and cricket; I am a passable horseman, a vigorous though unorthodox skier, a good skater, a tricky wrestler, and an enthusiastic rock-climber." Once again, Nabokov pulls off the very neat trick of writing passages that are, if not simultaneously hilarious and tragic as in Lolita, at least simultaneously funny and sad: the sheer gall of the narrator and the unintentional-to-him, intentional-to-the-author comedy of his annotations make for much amusement, while at the same time it's a bit sad to see the poem trashed in this way — the most affecting sequences are invariably dismissed by the commentator, who far prefers the occasional moments of self-indulgent verbal gimmickry, and the poem, with the poet's life contained therein, is largely overwritten by the five-times-longer endnotes, containing the story of the commentator's life. As Nabokov (through the poet) says what he's been doing, fifty lines from the end of the poem: "Man's life as commentary to abstruse / Unfinished poem. Note for further use."

Of course, this is the form; we also need the content to flesh out the form, and while this is often good — as noted, the poem is generally good, often excellent, and the comments have their moments too — it's also flawed: the anecdotes in the commentary can get pretty darn tiresome, and then we have the flights of (here it is again) self-indulgence, where Nabokov takes a moment to once again express his dislike for Freud and Marx — for someone who insists that literature should have nothing to do with reality but should instead be a matter of creating its own special reality, Nabokov certainly takes every opportunity to go on a tangent about the world outside the book. I mean, you've already got political commentary in the form of the Extremist revolution in Zembla — why then explicitly talk about Marx? You've got endless opportunities to advance ideas about poetry — why tack on a heavyhanded Socratic dialogue? I went in afraid that Pale Fire would be too subtle for me, but instead the modus operandi seems to be to introduce something subtle, masterfully present it such that even I can get it while still thinking myself clever for catching it — and then suddenly break out the megaphone and shout "HEY, LOOK AT THAT!" so that all subtlety is lost. Still, well worth reading — better than the inflight magazine, at any rate.

I brought another book with me to Canada, but wanting to save it for the return flight, I yoinked one off the Sweeneys' shelves to fill odd moments. This was Thomas Cahill's How the Irish Saved Civilization, an account of how, after the fall of Rome, only Irish monasteries were willing to copy and thereby preserve pagan literature like the Aeneid. Cahill eventually admits that Greek lit was being pretty well preserved in Byzantium, and so really what was at risk of being lost was pre-Christian Latin lit... important, absolutely, but not what I'd call synonymous with Civilization. But then, Cahill is given to wild overstatement that really undermines his credibility, such as when he calls St. Patrick "the first human being in the history of the world to speak out unequivocally against slavery." Y'know, as if a thousand years earlier Gautama Siddhartha hadn't attempted to abolish slavery, declaring the slave trade absolutely incompatible with samma-ajivo, or Right Livelihood, part of the Noble Eightfold Path. For all his complaints that historians seem blinkered regarding the Celts, Cahill seems even more blinkered to the entire world outside Europe: not only does he, as above, throw around terms like "in the history of the world" when he really means "in European history, and then only maybe," but comes up with astonishing lines like his assertion that the Irish saved civilization because it lent energy to Christianity and that without Ireland, "when Islam began its medieval expansion, it would have encountered scant resistance to its plans" — as if this were the Taliban we were talking about and not the civilization widely considered the most advanced and enlightened in the world by the year 1100 or so, actively engaging with the European classics rather than just copying them, and later reintroducing them to Europe, launching the Renaissance. Cahill, we quickly learn, is a partisan, and his book is not an even-handed piece of history with a provocative title, but a jingoistic one all the way through.

That said, it's certainly a page turner, at least when he's actually discussing the societies he's dealing with (first Rome, then Ireland) and their real history rather than their verse and sagas (as noted elsewhere, with the exception of the Greeks', I tend to find mythology deadly boring.) I'll take history that's a bit too gossipy over an overly ponderous treatment any day.

On Friday it rained in the morning and looked like it might remain that way for the rest of the day, so we went down to R&S Video to rent a movie. I let Bridget and Meredith decide what to get, hoping that it wouldn't be either (a) something I really didn't want to see or (b) something I really did want to see, on DVD and without people wandering in and out. Luckily, the choice was Guy Ritchie's Snatch, which fell neatly into category (c): a movie that I'd neither mind seeing nor mind having various bits talked over, cropped off and such. It turns out to be a total pastiche of movies like Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Go: you have the caper gone wrong, the colorfully-named crooks, the briefcase holding the McGuffin, the banter among thieves and hitmen... you even have someone being hit by a car and then a flashback to fill in the other half of the equation. However, all these movies it's borrowing from are really good, and consequently Snatch turns out to be good as well. Profound? Nah. But way more entertaining than I was expecting. (Then on cable we saw bits of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. "This is my happening, and it freaks me out!" Hee hee hee.)

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