Tuesday, December 05, 2006

# 53 Pale Fire – Vladimir Nabokov

An executive at ESPN recently informed the centathlete that ESPN.com attracts approximately 20 million unique visitors per month. The centathlete knocked the mud out of his cleats, spat on the dugout steps, and grunted that he is a longtime member of that deep, deep team.

He did not add that he has never participated in one of the web site’s innumerable
polls nor its stats-driven fantasy sports competitions (“rotisserie baseball,” the first fantasy league, was created in 1979-1980 by Daniel Okrent—later the first public editor of The New York Times—and his friends who frequented the now-defunct New York City restaurant, La Rôtisserie Française). By refraining from such interactivity, the centathlete indulges his self-image as merely, ahem, a casual fan. Ahem.

Through its allure of vicarious, gladiatorial virility or, in the
words of Salon.com’s Cathy Young, “... a new Amazonian vision of womanhood that includes sweat and strength, competitiveness and even ferocity,” sports can eclipse virtually all other activities. This contemporary preeminence is not lost on Noam Chomsky, the linguist and political provocateur, as he recorded in Understanding Power:
“... I have the habit when I'm driving of turning on these radio call-in programs, and it's striking when you hear the ones about sports... First of all, the audience obviously is devoting an enormous amount of time to it all. But the more striking fact is, the callers have a tremendous amount of expertise, they have detailed knowledge of all kinds of things, they carry on these extremely complex discussions...”
In light of this keen grasp of the obvious, it’s clear that Noam-y don’t tailgate. Sports for Chomsky is another opiate, a tool of distraction foisted by the elite on the masses. He concluded:
“...And I suppose that's also one of the basic functions [sports] serves society in general: it occupies the populations, and it keeps them from trying to get involved with things that really matter. In fact, I presume that's part of the reason why spectator sports are supported to the degree they are by the dominant institutions.”
Point taken, as Dave Zirin
registered in The Nation:
“Chomsky correctly highlights how people use sports as a balm to protect themselves from the harsh realities of the world. He is also right that the intelligence and analysis many of us invest in sports far outstrips our dissecting of the broader world. It is truly amazing how we can be moved to fits of fury by a missed call or a blown play, but remain too under-confident to raise our voices in anger when we are laid off, lose our healthcare, or suffer the slings and arrows of everyday life in the United States.”
But Zirin proceeded to slap his hands on the hardwood, assume an aggressive man-to-man defensive crouch, intercept a cross-court pass, speed-dribble twice, and slam down two points for his fellow enthusiasts:
“The weakness in Chomsky's argument, however, is that it disregards how the very passion we invest in sports can transform it from a kind of mindless escape into a site of resistance. It can become an arena where the ideas of our society are not only presented but also challenged. Just as sports can reflect the dominant ideas of our society, [it] can also reflect struggle...”
Chomsky was also counterattacked, or just co-opted, in a cryptic manner by the
Cosmic Baseball Association, a fantasy “game of the imagination,” in which the linguist was a catcher/infielder for the Alphatown Ionians. (Years after his lunches at La Rôtisserie, Okrent became the owner of the now-deactivated Valhalla Minstrels.)

Even a drooling, supine, apolitical TV spectator recognizes that sports can occasionally stir the mental porridge and, gasp, educate. For example, a pro hockey goalie clued the centathlete into the proper identification of a certain Top 100 author.
Evgeni Nabokov’s surname is uttered “nuh-BAH-kahf” on ESPN and Hockey Night broadcasts in Canada.

Most Americans (and the British songster Sting, as
evidenced in The Police’s “Don’t Stand So Close to Me”), know the Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov as “NAH-buh-koff.” The writer himself issued this rhyming verse to assist us butchers:

“The querulous gawk of

A heron at night
Prompts Nabokov
To write.”

He also stressed that his first name
sounds like “redeemer.” (In Cosmic Baseball, Nabokov pitched for Okrent’s Minstrels.)

Silicon Valley can lay some claims to both Nabokovs: Evgeni, the Kazakh native, minds the nets for the San Jose Sharks; Vladimir taught in 1941 at Stanford University in Palo Alto, where he lived on Sequoia Avenue.

By 1962, when he published Pale Fire, the author had moved to Switzerland’s
Montreux Palace Hotel, where he lived with his wife Vera until his death in 1977. They are both buried nearby.

Several years ago, the centathlete found himself at a summertime engagement party
north of Montreux in Basel, dining alfresco on grilled sausage, guardedly conversing with a group of Swiss physicians and their significant others, when Nabokov’s name somehow arose. After marveling at the author’s mastery of English prose despite his Russian upbringing, the centathlete was summarily notified by an orthopedist or otolaryngologist that Nabokov, as a child, had an English governess. A dollop of cultural literacy isn’t the best condiment for wurst.

In fact, Nabokov learned to
read English before Russian. He also became proficient in French at the hands of a French governess in St. Petersburg, where he lived with his family until 1917. His trilingualism would not have raised many eyebrows in Switzerland, where many speak, in addition to English, two or three of their four national languages: German, French and Italian (the fourth, Rumantsch, is not commonly employed).

Montreux is known internationally for its annual
jazz festival, begun in 1967. The city was central in music history when, on December 4, 1971, at the Montreux Casino, Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention were playing a concert and a fire erupted and devastated the building. The event was commemorated in the 1972 song “Smoke on the Water” by Deep Purple:

"We all came out to Montreux
On the Lake Geneva shoreline
To make records with a mobile
We didn't have much time
Frank Zappa and The Mothers
Were at the best place around
But some stupid with a flare gun
Burned the place to the ground

Smoke on the water
A fire in the sky
Smoke on the water..."

All of Zappa’s equipment was destroyed. Bad was followed by

“...six days later Zappa was pushed off-stage at London's Rainbow theatre, crushing his larynx (lowering his voice a third), damaging his spine and keeping him wheelchair-bound for the best part of a year.”

(According to the Cosmic Baseball Association, Frank Zappa played three seasons as an
outfielder for the Delta Dragons and the Paradise Pisces. In 1997 he posthumously owned the Franklinton Zappas.)

For the centathlete and many fans of 1970’s hard rock,
Deep Purple is linked with Jethro Tull on account of their frequent radio play on album-oriented rock stations, ubiquitous concert T-shirts, and ever-changing lineups. In 1996 Jethro Tull’s singer/flutist Ian Anderson performed on “Play, Minstrel, Play” by Blackmore’s Night, the renaissance-inspired project of Ritchie Blackmore, the former Deep Purple guitarist.

The 1971 Jethro Tull song “
Aqualung,” an AOR standard like “Smoke on the Water,” compassionately addressed a homeless man, as did 1991’s “Even Flow” by Pearl Jam, though the American band eschewed the mutating musical arrangement of the prior generation and maintained one tempo and consistent instrumentation.

Here now is an alternative set of lyrics for “Aqualung” that the centathlete composed in his head while
listening to his virtual IPOD, trundling and contemplating the course, the authors and the books:

Anti-hero schmuck-mensch
Blooming consciousness out from the trench
War is running hot and cold
Novel shrapnel piercing palace gold
Paris in the old sun
Boozing as the shadow motives run
Squandering the last buck
Liberty hangs on desperate rebels’ luck

One hundred tolls,
A century’s row of spires
How conscience ought to sound.
Playful and sad
As we finger two proud bookends,
We shiver and we burn
With hyperlinks.
Movies dethroned
The say-so of the word,
Ironic and absurd seems
‘Tathlon, your end
In a labyrinth of mazes--
The Exit sign sprayed over with a Yes.

Modernists dismember
The hypocrite in state,
Squirming still as
Science storms the morgue and
Chants its therapy.
And the body coughs up new breaths
That hadn’t been let out,
All the gases swirl like
Madness in the air.


Overlaying new lyrics on existing tunes has long been fashionable for
parody (à la Weird Al Yankovic, who cites Frank Zappa as an influence), for martial inspiration (ex. “Yankee Doodle Dandy” was a ditty in southern Europe in the 1400’s), for religious devotion (ex. Franz Schubert actually wrote “Ave Maria” for an excerpt from the poem "The Lady of the Lake" by Sir Walter Scott, which was translated into German by Adam Storck), and for other ostensibly good reasons.

John Shade, the poet of Pale Fire, would not have cared for “Aqualung” with the centathlete’s lyrics or in its original form; a stuffy codger who “loathes such things as jazz” (recalling the suave ‘80’s British trio,
Johnny Hates Jazz) surely would dislike crude hard rock.

Nabokov himself was no music lover, as he stated in a
1964 interview with Playboy:

“I have no ear for music, a shortcoming I deplore bitterly. When I attend a concert— which happens about once in five years—I endeavor gamely to follow the sequence and relationship of sounds but cannot keep it up for more than a few minutes. Visual impressions, reflections of hands in lacquered wood, a diligent bald spot over a fiddle, these take over, and soon I am bored beyond measure by the motions of the musicians. My knowledge of music is very slight; and I have a special reason for finding my ignorance and inability so sad, so unjust: There is a wonderful singer in my family—my own son. His great gifts, the rare beauty of his bass, and the promise of a splendid career—all this affects me deeply, and I feel a fool during a technical conversation among musicians. I am perfectly aware of the many parallels between the art forms of music and those of literature, especially in matters of structure, but what can I do if ear and brain refuse to cooperate? I have found a queer substitute for music in chess—more exactly, in the composing of chess problems.”

While he didn’t care for music, Nabokov did revel in rhythms and sounds: Pale Fire shows off a 999-line poem (also called “Pale Fire”) with rhymed
pentameter couplets, nestled like a near-flawless diamond among folds of velvet prose commentary.

Decidedly not for the careless reader, Pale Fire is a puzzle of linguistic, cultural and aesthetic pieces arrayed splendidly on various levels (the centathlete thinks of the tri-dimensional game of
Space Chess on Star Trek). Consider the following excerpt from the poem:

“...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.”

The last line “combines popular and literary culture,” as
stated on GradeSaver.com. Nabokov’s Shade is punning on John Keats's poem "On First Looking Into Chapman's Homer” via a newspaper headline about a home run by Ben Chapman, an actual pro baseball player from 1930-1946.

Daniel Okrent, Nabokov’s Cosmic Baseball general manager, would have been pleased with such a figurative strikeout from his pitcher and he likely would have egged on his
bench jockeys: “We want a batter, not a broken ladder!”

You can’t escape sports.

Coming soon...

Howards End