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My Nabokovian Winter

In my previous post I wrote about my major physical project of the Winter, rebuilding my broken down 62-year-old body. In this column I address what I have been doing to keep my mind active.

Winters are long in Western New York and one can easily develop a bad case of cabin fever, especially if you limit yourself to watching television and browsing the other vast wasteland of the Internet.

Although I have been a voracious reader for most of my life, I confess that in the last 15 years or so, since the rise of the Internet (and especially since getting an iPad), most of my reading has been of the online variety. Although some would say that there are no accidents, it was an unexpected twist of fate that restored my love of books.

While participating in the Lima Farmers Market last fall, I took a quick break to grab a cup of coffee from a local convenience mart. In the store I discovered a local library group had placed a bookshelf of free books.

Not expecting to find much of any interest, I made a quick scan of the titles. Much to my surprise I found two titles by Vladimir Nabokov: “Ada or Ardor” and “King, Queen, Knave.” Although I had read Lolita a number of times and counted it one of my favorite books, I had never tried to read any of his other work, so I picked them both up and left a small donation for the library.

When the farm season wound down I picked up Ada and tried to read it. I had no idea of the difficulty of the task. I later learned that the first few chapters of Ada are considered to be the most difficult that Nabokov has ever written.

It was almost impossible to decipher what was happening in the plot, almost as if the author was deliberately trying to scare off the casual reader. Of course, any work by Nabokov is a House of Mirrors in which nothing is ever quite what it seems, but Ada, published in 1969, the 16th of his 19 novels, may be the most extreme case.

Luckily, before I gave up, I happened upon an online version of the text which was annotated (at least up to page 200 of the 600 page tome.) With the help of the annotation I was able to decipher not only the plot, but the many puns, literary allusions and the many untranslated sections of  French and Russian phrases!

Once you can read it at the level, you will quickly find yourself in a most amusing Fun House with a least one chuckle or an outright howler in almost every paragraph. After finally finishing Ada, I found the much more conventional King, Queen, Knave much easier going.

Written originally in Russian in 1928, and then translated into English and revised by the author in 1968, KQN was Nabokov’s second novel. The plot is easily followed, despite a few surprising twists, but the literary talent is already obvious. I was hooked!

In rapid succession I have devoured the novels “Pale Fire,” ” Pnin” (twice!), “Bend Sinister”and Nabokov’s first novel in English, “The Real Life of Sebastian Knight,” written in 1938, but not published until 1941. Along the way I also read his autobiography “Speak, Memory” that covers his first 40 years before coming to America.

Currently I have his two last completed works “Transparent Works” and “Look at the Harlequins” on order as well as another of his Russian language originals “Despair” from 1934, also translated and revised by the author in 1965.

When I finish all that I can’t wait to re-read Lolita again, the annotated version of course! In addition to reading the books I also keep my computer by my side to look up all the unfamiliar vocabulary words and references.

Upon finishing each book I go online to try to figure out what I have just read. It is gratifying to me to discover that I am not alone in being perplexed. If even the greatest experts have trouble untangling the ambiguity that Nabokov loves so much, who am I to worry about it?

In any case it has been great fun and I highly commend all of these works, or really anything that he wrote, to the serious reader, although I would not recommend that you start with Ada! Pnin, or Pale Fire might be the most easily accessible.

To have such an obsession with the works of one writer is not that unusual for me. Earlier in my life I went through similar infatuations with the works of Henry Miller, Doris Lessing, Carl Jung,  John Updike and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. (In fact I took a little break in January to re-set my pallet with Marquez’s “Autumn of the Patriarch.” )

While I still love all these authors I bow down to the new master: Nabokov must surely be the greatest literary stylist of all time!

Der Kaffeeklatsch

For the last few years I was a member of a very small but remarkable group that met once a week at a local coffee shop. In fact there were only three regular members of this group, with my 61 years roughly equalling the age difference between the other two: my friend Bridgette, who is in her early 20s and expecting her first child and my long-time friend Bob Redden who died this week at age 96.

I would have called this group a coffee clatch, but I think that Bob would have appreciated that I googled the term to find the correct spelling and came up with the original German for the title which translates as “coffee chat.”

Bob was many things but most of all a scholar. He had a PhD from Syracuse and was chairman of the Geography Department at SUNY Buffalo before coming to Geneseo in the 1960s to eventually become Dean of Instruction. Although I liked to kid him by telling him that most of his knowledge was “out of date,” the fact was that he read voraciously, particularly in the areas of history and foreign policy.

On Friday mornings he would stop into the cafe for a short visit while his wife was having her hair done next door. The three of us would sit down to solve the problems of the world over a cup of coffee.

We never did solve all those problems but we did share a great deal of fun and both Bridgette and I benefitted greatly from Bob’s long perspective and his gift for friendship. We were even able to reconvene our group a few times at the County Nursing Home  where Bob spent his mercifully short, final days.

I can attest that Bob’s mind was remarkably sharp right to the end, but sadly, he lost the will to live after having to give up his home of many years on Westview Crescent. He knew the end was near and died peacefully in his sleep last Sunday night.

There will be a memorial service today at 11am at the Catholic Church in Geneseo. It seems appropriate that it should be on this day and time because that was the day and time of our weekly coffee klatsch.

So Bob we will meet one more time before you move on to that Great Coffee Klatch in the sky. Save us a seat!

BTW I know I have spelled Kaffeeklatsch four different ways in this short piece but, as Bob would no doubt correctly quote, “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Bob’s was certainly not a little mind. In fact he could probably tell you not only who said that (Ralph Waldo Emerson), but also what a Hobgoblin is.

Bob saw the great sweep of life in this world for 96 years and despite growing up in the Depression, experiencing prejudice against his Irish Catholic roots and seeing the horror of war in WWII, he maintained a great and abiding faith in our country and the ability of good to triumph over evil. I hope you were right Bob!