Sunday (Monday!) miscellany 12

GASP – the first time I’ve failed to post on a Sunday in twelve weeks! Life gets in the way. Some quick notes on last week’s reading, though:

First of all, I womanned up and read Pale Fire. And thank God I did, because it’s definitely one of the best books I’ve read this year. It’s also insane. I feel like I need a support group of Pale Fire Finishers. The premise is pretty well known, I think; it takes the form of a made-up lyric poem by fictional American poet John Shade, with a foreword and commentary by the now-dead poet’s so-called dearest friend, Charles Kinbote, an academic at the same small liberal arts college on the US Eastern seaboard. Kinbote’s paratext is about ten times the length of the poem he’s nominally commenting on, and it doesn’t take very many pages before it becomes painfully obvious that Kinbote himself is delusional, maybe even sinister. For one thing, he clearly believes his relationship to Shade was much closer than we can tell it was; for another, he appears to believe that he is the deposed monarch of Zembla, a fictional Central European country. His obvious hope is that Shade’s poem was going to use material about Zembla that Kinbote had provided (no doubt entirely unbidden), and his disappointment at discovering that it is in fact a deeply personal, lyrical meditation on grief, love and death is mitigated by his capacity to write a commentary that reads every line the way he wants it. Personally, I rather liked the idea of a megalomaniacal, decadently homosexual king in hiding in middle America, but Nabokov seeded clues throughout the book to suggest that even Kinbote’s “secret” identity as Charles the Beloved of Zembla is a delusion, and that he is in fact a Professor Botkin, who also teaches at the same liberal arts college and who has apparently created several layers of delusion or illusion. I don’t like this solution nearly as much, because it’s not as whimsical. It does, however, rely heavily on the trajectory of the notes and commentary, which send the reader forward and backward within the text, discovering things and learning about events out of chronological order. It’s not hard to see how people write theses about Pale Fire. Oh, and also–everyone talks about it as though it’s funny, and in one particular barbed mid-century way I suppose it is, but what surprised me was its sadness. If Kinbote is Charles the Beloved, then he’s homesick and desperately lonely, and his overbearing behaviour, while creepy, is also tragic. If Kinbote is Botkin, then he’s insane and desperately lonely, and his behaviour is still both creepy and tragic.

Anyway, I’ve finished my Russian Spring Reading Challenge by tackling it, so! There’ll be a wrap-up post on that coming shortly.

I also read Joseph Sassoon’s The Global Merchants this past week, a family history of the Sassoon merchant dynasty (which he is only distantly and vaguely related to). They throve on opium, cotton and silk production, and–Buddenbrooks-like, a comparison he makes more than once–managed to rise and fall in the space of three generations. I’d like a novel about some of these people, frankly: most specifically, about Farha Sassoon, who at the age of nineteen married her thirty-seven-year-old great-uncle Suleiman, had an apparently blissful and mutually devoted marriage, then seized the reins of the company upon Suleiman’s death and ran a multinational business almost single-handedly as a woman of colour in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. (She was later ousted by her short-sighted male relatives, and–perhaps not coincidentally–the business started to go downhill not long afterwards.) The big unanswered question is that of morality: how could a business based on fomenting addiction and slavery justify its own existence? Sassoon, probably wisely, steers away from this. It’s obvious that the Sassoons failed to diversify quickly enough, that they dug in their heels to defend the opium trade long after the point at which public and legislative opinion had turned, and his project is to account for the trajectory of the family and the business, not an attempt to make judgments about historical conditions. The reader is left to consider for herself the ultimate source of the money that the family donated so regularly to the founding of hospitals, schools, libraries, and other charities. (The other thing that doomed the business, by the way, was Anglicization. The family start out as Baghdadi Jews, move to India, and eventually set their sights on entering British high society. Once they’ve made it into the nobility there, the descendants of the original merchant, David Sassoon, cease to care about the business for its own sake; lassitude and overspending set in. All very Trollopean.)

Finally: I got hold of the second and third books of NK Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy from the library, so I reread The Fifth Season to get myself back up to speed with the plot, tore through The Obelisk Gate in a day, and am now partway through The Stone Sky. They’re just so incredibly compelling–I’ve had to stop myself from Wiki’ing them because I want to KNOW HOW ALL OF IT WORKS AND FITS TOGETHER RIGHT NOW GODDAMMIT. I have a bad feeling about what’s going to happen when Nassun and Schaffa and Essun all meet each other, which they obviously will, at the end of the third book. And who the fuck were the stone eaters, before they were the stone eaters?! Aaaahhhh.

AOB: We bought two new bookshelves from Ikea! M put them together and I rearranged our library to fill them. There’s not a lot of space left over, but now nothing is piled up in front of anything else. Happy day.

8 thoughts on “Sunday (Monday!) miscellany 12

  1. I read Pale Fire about 8 years ago, was mesmerised, and also didn’t pick up most of the nuances. Not sure I have the strength to re-read. We shall see how the winter progresses. If prolonged rain keeps me housebound, I might. I tore through books 1 & 2 of the Broken Earth Trilogy, struggled a little with Bk 3. I enjoyed the world building and concepts around orogeny most of all. However, I didn’t keep the set, sold them on; while it was a compelling read, it wasn’t a must-keep-&re-read set.

    1. Yes, that’s why I rented the second and third from the lib – I think the first one is the strongest in terms of grounding us in the world. But discovering just how much bigger the underlying situation is than we realized from the first book alone has been pretty fun! I would recommend Pale Fire if you do have a day or two stuck inside; it’d be perfect to dig into under those circumstances.

  2. Your Russian themed reading sounds interesting – I won’t say fun because the Russians tend to be quite dark don’t they. What prompted you to do this?

    1. I really don’t know! I just kept thinking “gosh I’d like to read some more Russians” and also “gosh I’d like to read more deeply into a particular area instead of bouncing around all the time” and… it turned into this.

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