Sixty-One Year Old: John Shade

There was the day when I began to doubt

Man’s sanity: How could he live without

Knowing for sure what dawn, what death, what doom

Awaited consciousness beyond the tomb?

And finally there was the sleepless night

When I decided to explore and fight

The foul, the inadmissible abyss

Devoting all my twisted life to this                                       180

One task. Today I’m sixty-one. Waxwings

Are berry-picking. A cicada sings.

Commentary

Line 167: There was a time, etc.

The poet began Canto Two (on his fourteenth card) on July 5, his sixtieth birthday (see note to line 181, ‘today’). My slip – change to sixty-first.

Line 181: Today

Namely, July 5th, 1959, 6th Saturday after Trinity. Shade began writing Canto Two ‘early in the morning’ (thus noted at the top of Card 14). He continued (down to line 208) on and off throughout the day. Most of the evening and a part of the night were devoted to what his favourite eighteenth-century writers have termed ‘the Bustle and Vanity of the World.’ After the last guest had gone (on a bicycle), and the ashtrays had been emptied, all the windows were dark for a couple of hours; but then, at about 3 a.m., I saw from my upstairs bathroom that the poet had gone back to his desk in the lilac light of his den, and this nocturnal session brought the canto to line 230 (card 18). On another trip to the bathroom an hour and half later, at sunrise, I found the light transferred to the bedroom, and smiled indulgently, for, according to my deductions, only two nights had passed since the three-thousand-nine-hundred-ninety-ninth time – but no matter. A few minutes later all was solid darkness again, and I went back to bed.

Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire

Published in: 61 Years Old | on January 1st, 2012 | 1 Comment »

Fifty-Two Year Old: Professor Timofey Pnin

 

 

The elderly passenger sitting on the north-window side of the inexorably moving railway coach, next to an empty seat and facing two empty ones, was none other than Professor Timofey Pnin. Ideally bald, sun-tanned, and clean-shaven, he began rather impressively with that great brown dome of his, tortoise-shell glasses (masking an infantile absence of eyebrows), apish upper lip, thick neck, and strong-man torso in a tightish tweed coat, but ended, somewhat disappointingly, in a pair of spindly legs (now flannelled and crossed) and frail-looking, almost feminine feet.

His sloppy socks were of scarlet wool with lilac lozenges; his conservative black Oxfords had cost him about as much as all the rest of his clothing (flamboyant goon tie included). Prior to the 1940s, during the staid European era of his life, he had always worn long underwear, its terminals tucked into the tops of neat socks, which were clocked, soberly coloured, and held up on his cotton-clad calves by garters. In those days, to reveal a glimpse of that white underwear by pulling a trouser leg too high would have seemed to Pnin as indecent as showing himself to ladies minus collar and tie; for even when decayed Mme Roux, the concierge of the squalid apartment house in the Sixteenth Arrondissement of Paris where Pnin, after escaping from Leninized Russia and completing his college education in Prague, had spent fifteen years – happened to come up for the rent while he was without his faux col, prim Pnin would cover his front stud with a chaste hand. All this underwent a change in the heady atmosphere of theNew World. Nowadays, at fifty-two, he was crazy about sunbathing, wore sport shirts and slacks, and when crossing his legs would carefully, deliberately, brazenly display a tremendous stretch of bare skin. Thus he might have appeared to a fellow passenger; but except for a soldier asleep at one end and two women absorbed in a baby at the other, Pnin had the coach to himself.

Vladimir Nabokov, Pnin

Published in: 52 Years Old | on October 25th, 2011 | No Comments »