More Light Than Heat

books burning

This week is Banned Books Awareness week, so I dutifully read some Nabokov. Ok, ok, it wasn’t Lolita, to be honest, but Pale Fire. Dutifully, did I say? With pleasure. It’s a jewel of an example of Menippean satire—self-reflective, digressive, allusive, macaronic (gently so), nonlinear, logophilic, indulgent, rambunctious, layered, reckless, precise, exasperating, lush. But this post is not about Pale Fire, oh no. It’s about an unexpected gift.

Whether this gift came from Bede or Brigid, patron saints of scholarship, or St. Philip Neri, patron of clowns, whether from Hermes or Theuth or Loki, whether from my guardian angel or my dear Wormwood, graphology has not yet been able to determine. Perhaps it came from some Nabokovian agent, perhaps from Pale Fire itself, for “Books are not absolutely dead things,” etc., etc. All I can say for sure is that when I opened my copy of Pale Fire, first UK edition, 1962, acquired in a used bookstore in Oxford for 4 quid, a gaunt and jaundiced letter slipped from the austere black hardcover of its dam like some reprobate fledgling Puritan runt, and fluttered to my feet with Cervantick gravity.

It was one of those windfalls of fate, as sometimes happens when a junior scholar is handed the Iliad in Homer’s own hand, or when a copy of Beowulf turns up signed by the author and unsinged by fire, or when the office of Dombey and Son accidentally mails you, and not the late departed Mr. Krook, a newly discovered authorized conclusion to a famously unfinished Victorian novel, dusty from the recesses of an old curiosity shop in The City. Fate sometimes throws scholarly melons at the feet of the unworthy. Apples of gold in settings of silver. Things yet unpublished in prose or rhyme. There it lay on the floor beside my bookcase, argent with the cold spirituality of moonbeams.

The letter, written in a bold hand, contained a complete copy of that singular poem we can now only ascribe to the “Palaverous Pedant,” a masterful devotee of the school of Ogden Nash and Julia A. Moore (poets so similar in technique, tone, and purpose that scholars have often pondered if one is a nom de plume of the other). This in itself was a priceless find, but in a much more timid script, behold! There were explanatory notes, written by one Aaron Theeph, notes which solved many of the hot debates surrounding Palaverous Pedant scholarship of the last century. I have reason to believe that this Aaron Theeph (a name I suspect to be pseudonymous, and belonging to one whose personality I cannot entirely reconstruct, due to the variety of ways he crossed his T’s) was granted access to the inmost recesses of the mind of the Palaverous Pedant. The notes are so coherent, and the luminous flux of his ideas so revelatory, that I could not bear to keep this treasure to myself. Rather than subject the world to a trial of patience, to the obstacle of having to pre-order a copy of this work while awaiting publication— verily, rather than subject myself to the onerous task of having to choose one publisher among a slough of equally reputable and solicitous academic houses (a task more epic and more inevitable than the judgment of Paris, had I chosen to go the traditional route of scholarly publication)— indeed I have decided a gift this rare and precious must be made freely available to all (or at least, all who read Reflection & Choice). When the British Library’s Treasures Gallery contacts me for permission to showcase the original manuscript, I will update my readers of this, as well. Dutifully and with pleasure.

With the patience of Griselda, I have scrutinized each mote, each heavenly serif launched from each stroke of each letter in the manuscript, and have compared the newfound manuscript with related holdings in the Bodleian and the Beinecke. Having attended to the slightest of textual variants, I am confident in affirming the authenticity of my good fortune. As for Aaron Theeph, he must have been a much younger but intimate friend of the P.P., who had begun adding his commentary shortly after the poem was written, but whose labors must have ended only recently, since the pages are yellow but some notes contain references to recently published works, since the notes are unevenly spaced, and since there are differences in the level of iron gall ink corrosion from note to note. What is most relevant, however (as the careful reader will undoubtedly discover), is the fact that the notes’ engagement with the poem obviously betrays a spiritual kinship between vatic poet and precocious commentator.

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