Nabokov, Shakespeare, and Johnson

I started reading Pale Fire the other day because I was finding that for whatever reason, the time I spent reading during any day was very little. Often nothing. Part of the issue may be that we are as a planet in the as-yet uncontrolled midst of a global pandemic, and that the country that is doing the least about its own situation (the US) also is facing a threat to its democracy, and that country shares a border with my beloved Canada. That kind of thing can put you off “having a little read” while details from what Rachel Maddow reported on last night are swirling in your head a bit. Actually, I think the bigger contributing factor to my doing so little reading was that there is so little published that is truly great. Yes, granted, I am not on top of the publishing scene in English fiction all over the world, and, yes, granted, Pale Fire is a pretty high bar to set for comparisons — but still.

I’ve finished Kinbote’s odd introduction and am now in canto 2 of the equally and differently odd poem. It’s such a relief — the term I use is “palate cleanser” for a reading experience like this. It will just wash away so much other bad and mediocre fare I’ve started to read and given up on.

If you know the book, you know that it has (can I use the word “odd” again?) — an interesting epigraph. It’s a passage from Boswell’s Life of Johnson:

This reminds me of the ludicrous account he gave Mr. Langton, of the despicable state of a young gentleman of good family. “Sir, when I heard of him last, he was running about town shooting cats.” And then in a sort of kindly reverie, he bethought himself of his own favorite cat, and said, “But Hodge shan’t be shot: no, no, Hodge shall not be shot.”

Hodge was so important in his life that he has his own sculpture just outside Dr Johnson’s House in Bolt Court in London (photo by Elliott Brown (flickr)). There’s a shooting in Pale Fire as well, and a crazy man (or two), so

as with everything with Nabokov, there are no accidents and coincidences.

Today I finished the first advanced draft of the chapter of my book dealing with Sam’s edition of Shakespeare’s plays. I say “advanced” because my usual way of writing is to proceed systematically, trying to finesse each sentence and paragraph, and the whole flow, as I go, so that in the end I don’t have to go back and do a major re-writing. Of course, I’ll re-read and edit and also have a professional editor read it as well when the time comes, but it won’t be a “rough” draft in the sense of all my thoughts just thrown there, no attention to order or wording, with the plan for major revision later in the process.

In preparation for writing the chapter on Shakespeare, I read Sam’s proposal for the book — the announcement of what he planned to do and that it would be by subscription — and also the preface. The latter has a defensive and even snarky tone to it at times. He talks about the “stupidity, negligence, ignorance, and asinine tastelessness of the former editors,” and is particularly brutal with Lewis Theobald:

Of his notes I have generally retained those which he retained himself in his second edition, except when they were confuted by subsequent annotators, or were too minute to merit preservation. I have sometimes adopted his restoration of a comma, without inserting the panegyrick in which he celebrated himself for his achievement. The exuberant excrescence of diction I have often lopped, his triumphant exultations over Pope and Rowe I have sometimes suppressed, and his contemptible ostentation I have frequently concealed; but I have in some places shewn him, as he would have shewn himself, for the reader’s diversion, that the inflated emptiness of some notes may justify or excuse the contraction of the rest.

So, so much for Johnson on Shakespeare for now. I’ll next likely be moving on to the chapter on the dictionary.

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