28 June 2005



    PALE FIRE (1962)

This work is justifiably  regarded as a masterpiece.  It's probably far more likely to be enjoyed by those who can share the author's vocabulary, however, and even  they will probably have to look up words and puzzle over some of the connections, for Nabokov is given to word play.

I balk at most stories that turn out to be difficult puzzles. A novel shouldn't be an intellectual exercise, a puzzle to solve, I tell myself. And yet many people have found Finnegans Wake a fascinating and enjoyable challenge.  I just haven't ever felt up to tackling it.

Why didn't I decide I wasn't up to Pale Fire

It began as a 999-line poem that I thoroughly enjoyed. By the time I got to the substantial number of footnotes appended to the poem by the poet John Shade's stalker, Kinbote, I was completely sucked into the story of John Shade and hoping that Kinbote's notes would shed further light on Shade's life--and death.

A more careful reader might have read the footnotes as they occurred in the poem but I read the poem first and then turned to the notes.

Early on, the reader has hints that Charles Kinbote, the assiduous scholar who has attached himself to Shade (by being a near neighbor), is less than trustworthy in his opinion of himself.

As the footnotes move along at a leisurely pace, Kinbote's digressions become more and more frequent until at some point any reader would probably say, "Wait--is this book about the poet John Shade or about Charles Kinbote--or about the King of the fictitious country of Zembla with which Kinbote seems inordinately fascinated?"

There is a point in the footnotes where the reader realizes that the King and Kinbote are one and the same, and from then on the matter of Shade's death becomes more important than ever.

I disagree with the introduction by Richard Rorty in the edition of this novel that I read. Rorty claims that Nabokov tricks his readers by deflecting our attention from a genuinely disturbing bit of information--the tragic death of Shade's 23-year-old daughter--and finally making us feel guilty for having forgotten about it because we were so distracted by the rich and amazing story unfolding before us as Kinbote keeps spinning out the yarn involving the King.

However, I was one reader who was almost bored by the events surrounding the life of King Charles Xavier.  I kept wondering why Kinbote couldn't get on with the poem he was annotating--and being reminded of a celebrated New Yorker piece by Frank Sullivan (April 19, 1941) called "A Garland of Ibids," where what purports to be a scholarly piece of writing winds up with the footnotes more or less taking over. And I was indeed wondering about Shade's daughter Hazel.

I felt that Kinbote was getting regrettably off the topic--and that that was a large part of Kinbote's problem: his almost total self-absorption, so total that he cannot even focus on the poem and its author long enough to get the annotation done without bringing himself into the picture.

I thought that Nabokov was poking fun at all scholars in the literary criticism world, suggesting that every literary critic is probably an author manqué, bitterly envious and yearning to be center stage.

So he weaves the intricate tale about a King, complete with a fabricated language for the country of Zembla, a story full of intrigue and escapes, and while he's at it he clutters up the cast by narrating some of his grievances against colleagues whom he loathes--including the head of the English Department at Wordsmith College who considers Kinbote to be "deranged."

And all along, willy nilly, he's revealing just how zealous he has been in his stalking of John Shade--so zealous that, with Shade lying suddenly dead at his feet, he makes certain he secures the manuscript of the long poem called "Pale Fire."

Kinbote is a dangerous person, and Nabokov might be suggesting that many literary scholars are dangerous  to the lives and peace of mind of those authors on whom the scholars prey.

24 December 2013



The author has been a pediatrician. She lost her husband a few years ago due in part to some mismanagement of his medical data.  She gives details about his illness as she proceeds with her collection of valuable suggestions for anyone facing medical procedures.

Her book is very valuable because she is speaking with insider knowledge. She knows enough about hospitals and doctors to be aware of where the potential problems are.

She urges patients to get hold of their medical records AND to comb through them carefully, being alert for errors and omissions.  
Radiologists' reports seem especially apt to have important omissions, possibly because the radiologist is typically remote from the actual patient. 

Dr. Nathanson also recommends having a spouse or relative or friend with you in the hospital to act as a "sentinel."  She gives special attention to the long waits as hospital inpatients are taken for Xrays and other procedures and outlines specific details about how best to transport the person to and from the location and what to do while waiting.  She stresses the importance of making sure that any catheters or IVs connected to the patient will be trouble-free during the long waits.

Her fundamental message is one that needs to be stressed: Patients shouldn't accept medical procedures and advice unquestioningly. They should question the qualifications of the persons they are dealing with. They should question the substance of anything in writing concerning their case.  They should even make sure that any specimens taken are actually theirs and not somebody else's, as mistakes do happen.

4 May 2011



Ten stories, apparently written before 1942, and translated here, complete with their French titles.

The first story, "Dimanche" ("Sunday"), is slight but somewhat reflective, stressing the different perspectives of an older woman and her daughter.

Of more interest and substance is "Brotherhood," about an encounter between two men who share a last name, Rabinowitsch. One is partly Jewish and quite successful--though very anxious about his fate now that anti-Semitism is becoming so prevalent in Europe. The other is a poor Jewish man of about  50, who has been in Paris for 15 years, since leaving Germany. He is very frightened of Hitler.

"The Spectator," set in Paris in August 1939, involves Hugo, admired for his wealth and taste and possessing one of the largest fortunes in Uruguay, and Magda, an American who is older than Hugo but more robust, who has just bought a house in New Jersey.  Hugo, who is politically neutral, and Magda seem to be watching the war start in a detached, theoretical say--while handily escaping from it in luxury--until Hugo is on a neutral ship that is torpedoed. This is an imaginative and powerful story.

"Monsieur Rose," which is very short, reads like a true anecdote. It concerns Mark, a young man who has been wounded while fleeing towards the Loire along with Monsieur Rose,  an older man, who refuses to leave Mark behind when he himself has an opportunity to join some friends in a vehicle. Then the bridge the vehicle was crossing is blown up, and the car goes up in flames.

The author is dealing with a time she herself lived through, when the boundaries of countries were shifting and peoples were being transported against their will to remote parts of the world. She has captured some of the fear and tension that must have characterized the years immediately before the outbreak of the Second World War.

5 September 2014


This remarkable work of fiction, which consists of the first two parts of what was to be a five-part novel, came to light only recently although it was written in 1942. The author, originally Russian Jewish but living in France for many years though without French citizenship, was imprisoned in Auschwitz, where she soon died, at the age of 39. Her husband met a similar fate though he survived without imprisonment for long enough after her incarceration to make many futile efforts at finding her. The couple left two daughters, and one of them rescued this manuscript at the time of her mother's deportation--but could not bring herself to read it until many years later.

The book includes some correspondence, including letters from Irène Némirovsky as well as letters exchanged between her husband and various authorities and friends (and her publishers) as he tried to save his wife.

She had already published several works of fiction in France and was fairly well known.

The novel segments here concern French characters struggling under the Nazi occupation--including a household where a German officer is billeted. He turns out to be handsome, well bred, a talented musician, and polite to a fault. He is also married. The tension in the story is created by the way in which Lucile, the young married woman living in the house with her mother-in-law while her husband is a prisoner of war, fights to keep herself from falling in love with him.

I kept waiting for the German officer's "true colors" to come into focus, but apparently the author meant for him to be an admirable person. Reading the notes and correspondence, we find out that the German officer would eventually be killed, thus ending the problem posed here--of whether he and Lucile really loved each other enough to forsake their spouses and get together after the war.

Knowing the circumstances in which the author was writing--in fear for her own and her family's life under the Nazi occupation--one wonders if she was reluctant to include anything even vaguely critical of the Nazi regime. While she includes mention of people shot by the Nazis, she says nothing whatsoever about Jews.

The author's own story is so catastrophic that it is difficult to be objective about her fiction....

12 December 2008




A strong theme in this story seems to be the author's perceived need for socialist reforms. Pelle’s adolescence and early manhood are spent as an apprentice cobbler. 

The story has been made into a fine movie.

30 November 2000


Writing and reading supplies were strictly forbidden to slaves in the US south. Slave-owners must have been keenly aware of the danger of the written word, and they would not have wanted any record of the conditions their slaves endured.

It was fortunate for them that so few slaves and ex-slaves managed to keep a record. Performing back-breaking labor during every waking moment, often accompanied by daily lashings, what slave would have had the time or energy to keep much of a record even if literacy training had been available?

But there have been a few exceptions, and one of them is Solomon Northup's meticulous and highly readable account of the twelve years he spent as a slave, having been (apparently) drugged with belladonna and kidnapped into slavery even though he had been free all his life and was the son of a freedman.

How very unlucky for slave-holders that this account slipped out and into the public eye, at approximately the same time as Uncle Tom's Cabin.

It sounds as if Solomon Northup dictated his account to one David Wilson, who wrote it down. Regardless of how it was written, it is carefully documented, including affidavits from the people who had to file them, testifying to their knowledge of him as a free man in New York State, before he could be released from bondage and returned to his wife and children.

He describes in detail the typical food and lodging of the slaves among whom he lived in Louisiana, where he both picked cotton and harvested sugar cane.

He had considerable skill in playing the violin and asserts that without his violin to cheer him he did not think he could have survived.

He gives detailed accounts of the misfortunes that befell some of his fellow slaves, creating a picture of a world that must have prefigured the Nazi concentration camps in its cruelty and unremitting exploitation of human labor.

This is not primarily a polemical book. Its author is not on an abolitionist platform. His aim is to relate his experience and to let people know what slave life really was. He knows that many people believe the myth of the contented slave who is "really better off" being supervised by masters whose white skin automatically seems to grant them superiority. He grants that some of the masters under whom he served were kindly and well-intentioned, and he describes ways in which the slaves themselves were sometimes able to work around the worst aspects of the system--as when he had to lash other slaves but merely pretended to hit them with the whip, and they in turn pretended to scream with pain.

These bits of subterfuge were probably rare, however, in comparison with the severe beatings routinely meted out by the "drivers" for very slight infractions of the rigid rules.

Northup also describes the heart-breaking tragedy involved in separating families just because these people were seen as pieces of property who could be bought and sold like inanimate objects.

When I was in school, hearing the myth of the benevolent plantation owners who treated their slaves so kindly that they didn't want to be free and wanted to stay on as slaves, I wish we had been obliged to read this account.  It would have been a much-needed corrective to the syrupy southern fairy tales propagated by our teachers and textbooks.

12 December  2014


Ana Kovac was a Hungarian Jewish girl of 14 when she was taken from a train and shipped to Plaszow and then Auschwitz. Already an aspiring writer, she used whatever scraps of paper or notebooks she could lay her hands on to record her journal while she was held in the camps.

Most of her written record was apparently destroyed because it was illegible, but this volume contains what was salvageable. This is a remarkably perceptive work, written under conditions of extreme deprivation and suffering. Some of the details aren't always clear, but the author reconstructed the remnants of the journal after the passage of many years.

She conveys specific details about life in Plaszow and Auschwitz that are often missing in Holocaust memoirs--what the diet was like, what clothes the prisoners were allowed to wear, for instance.

19 October 2006


This is a very tragic story of a doctor whose extraordinary discovery of the cause of childbed fever, which had taken a heavy toll in maternity wards, wasn't accepted by his colleagues. It is also the story of how one brilliant man's personality may have been an obstacle to successful promulgation of his ideas. Ignac Semmelweis (1818-1865) was practicing in Hungary at a time  when the medical profession was structured rigidly and hierarchically. This rigidity may have been another obstacle to the success of his ideas.

He discovered that puerperal fever was caused by the unhygienic practices of medical professionals, who were in the habit of attending women in labor right after handling cadavers in post mortems without bothering to wash their hands. Semmelweis was of course right when he called those doctors who refused to take this hygienic measure "murderers," but it wasn't a way to win supporters for his cause.

Semmelweis apparently became so agitated by the situation he found himself in that he had to be committed to an insane asylum, where he died only two weeks later, quite possibly as a result of having been brutally beaten.

The author (who is a medical doctor) has written an absorbing and informative account of this remarkable man.

(7 October 2008)

No comments: