In the names of vintage wines or plump courtesans

“Do you like quotes?” says Mary Svevo, Kirsten Dunst’s character in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. She does; she rattles off some good ones from Pope and from Nietzsche. I do, too, although on the face of it there’s something weird about liking quotes. It’s like liking laws, or food. Surely one should like some, and not others? And is it different to like quotes than to like sentences? It certainly is, based on the practice that I have observed and never fully understood, often carried out by the people who make greeting cards and those tiles you can hang up in your kitchen* and various internet-based sites of inspiration, which is that they put some quote up and attribute it to “anonymous”. The quote’s the important thing, not even whose quote it is. The person creating these sites of inspiration seems to think: It’s not important that you take Eleanor Roosevelt or Dr. Seuss or Ralph Waldo Emerson’s word for it; it’s only important that you don’t have to take mine.


*(I at first tried searching for an instance of this by googling “anonymous quotes” and I received instead, as I should have guessed, a bunch of stuff about nonconformity with pictures of Guy Fawkes masks, Anonymous having gone through a weird verbal process and become, at least on the internet, a name; something like Odysseus with the cyclops.)

Anyway here’s a quote:

Such titles display a specious glamour acceptable maybe in the names of vintage wines or plump courtesans but degrading in regard to the talent that substitutes the easy allusiveness of literacy for original fancy and shifts onto a bust’s shoulders the responsibility for ornateness since anybody can flip through A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Romeo and Juliet, or, perhaps, the Sonnets and take his pick.

That’s Nabokov’s Charles Kinbote, in Pale Fire, being the special kind of idiot that Kinbote is. I don’t think he would get the impulse toward anonymized tagging either; he might not even like quotes. Why not? What separates Kinbote from me and Mary Svevo?

First some background on the various shot through Kinbote’s complaint: this long sentence comes in Kinbote’s footnote to a line in the poem he’s supposedly annotating (Kinbote’s delusional, self-obsessed misreading of the poem “Pale Fire” make up most of the novel) that refers to a volume of poetry by John Shade, the author of “Pale Fire.” Kinbote doesn’t like that Shade has named one of his books of poetry The Untamed Seahorse*, which is a reference to “My Last Duchess” by Robert Browning, and, unsatisfied with pointing out the reference, grumbles in that fun, long, dismissive sentence about the kind of people who title things after references to well known

*Nabokov has a weird genius, in Pale Fire and in The Real Life of Sebastian Knight particularly, of coming up with book titles — like The Untamed Seahorse — that sound, more than anything else, like the names of book fictional book titles. The essence of these titles, their family resemblance, is something that I would be very pleased indeed if I could one day describe better than just listing them off.

My favorite accidental piece of (near) Nabokovania

And so here of course are the jokes: this novel and this poem are actually of course titled after a line from Shakespeare; only it’s not a line from something like the Sonnets or Romeo and Juliet, it is from Timon of Athens, which is not really a Shakespeare play much beloved or known by non-experts (the “anybody” at the end of that sentence getting some qualification in Nabokov’s own case). The fact that it is from Timon of Athens leads to a series of other narrative high jinks and low jinks that I will avoid describing here and merely direct the unfamiliar reader who likes that kind of thing to Kinbote’s endnotes themselves.

Kinbote is an annotator, and so I am, I guess, so it is up to me to try to learn things from how bad at his job he is. One reason that I always think of this sentence — the “shifts onto a bust’s shoulders” sentence — so quickly when I think about Kinbote* is that it does so much of what he does that is awful: it is dismissive, fussy, it outlandishly misses the point of the things he’s supposed to be annotating. And yet it’s a kind of a delightfully formed sentence. His examples — the vintage wines and plump courtesans — are funny, and they come after both “acceptable maybe” and then the staccato monosyllables of “in the names of,” which set them up with the maximum amount of amusing derision (it amused me, anyway). Mary-Svevo style quotation would slow Kinbote down and screw him up and detract from what he thinks he is doing.

*(which is kind of often; the other sentence I usually think of, in obvious circumstances, is his early non-sequitur outburst, “There is a very loud amusement park right in front of my present lodgings.”)

That sentence also has almost no commas. There is no comma in that sentence between “ornateness” and “since,” speeding it up a little more than it ought to be sped, as if Kinbote were so worked up that he had to get to his fussy condemnation of the more popular of Shakespeare’s plays (and his implicit denunciation of Shade and Shade’s wife) as quickly as possible while still maintaining his verbal delight in rattling through all those paratactic clauses. I know this because when I was typing the sentence above from my copy of Pale Fire I kept putting the commas in and then I had to go back and delete them.

I am myself, I confess, a fussy man. I like the contemptuous rush of that sentence probably for reasons not unlike those that Kinbote does. I am not averse to a good “acceptable maybe” type construction. However, Kinbote is terrible, and the temptations of his swift and seductive prose ought to be mostly resisted, and I plan to do resist. One reason that he is so inviting is that he goes so engrossingly fast; that he will not break for commas. What I will do, to make myself tolerable and to try to live decently, will always be to insist on inserting my own commas.


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