Thursday, January 24, 2008

Table-talk of Parkus Grammaticus for January 24

I. While Ron Rosenbaum drums up drama over at Slate regarding the fate of The Original of Laura, we Table-Talkers were reminded of another, more crucial Nabokovian debate: Did VN ever read Harry Stephen Keeler?

Sounds like a bad joke, eh? We-ell...

Finally available at The Unarchivable is my (our?) unprecedented work of Naboko-Keelerian scholarship, "The Oblique Case," originally published in Keeler News way back in 2000. (A brief variation on the same topic appeared from our pen in 2004 in the PTSNBN.) Here is a taste:

The tale of detection embraces contests of mind; the more devilish the design, roughly, the more successful the mystery. Perhaps the same impulse in the human imagination seeks out both puzzles and stories. Strange, then, that the “serious” reader should balk at fiction that seems cross-bred. A story that engages our sense of play is reduced to a toy—or worse, a machine, coldly contrived to spit out a result. The artifice is too apparent, and the writer is deemed an egghead (or a fool). Can such works be anything more than glorified parlor games?

This note concerns a single such parlor game, as played by two writers rarely mentioned in the same breath: Harry Stephen Keeler and Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov. They were rough contemporaries, with the latter’s years transposed about a decade forward. Their legacies could not be more dissimilar: recent Nabokovian garlands include a biography of his wife and a second celluloid version of Lolita, while Keeler’s work remains obscure.

Stylistically they are at opposite ends of the spectrum, if not the universe. Even Nabokov’s interview responses read like prose poems, whereas no Keeler creation would be complete without stunningly awkward descriptions and breathless dialogue that barely has time to reflect upon itself. (It is possible we cherish one writer for his scruples, the other for his shamelessness.)

Y. Cheung, Business Detective
(1939) and “The Vane Sisters” (written 1951; first published 1959) appear to be as different as their creators. The former is a novel about a Chinese American sleuth who takes on, as it were, two cases—one professional, the other cryptogrammatic. In Nabokov’s dozen pages, a professor of French learns of an acquaintance’s death, and reflects upon her theories of undead communication.

We are startled, then, to find at the heart of each story a “death message”—and to discover that both unlock to the same key.

II. Actually, it was as much RR's Laura piece as this delightful story (via the PF) about a Thai poet who acrostitched a political message into a Valentine's Day poem (and got thrown into the slammer for his efforts). The message was "Power Crazy Than Shwe," which perplexed me all of yesterday, until I realized "Than" was the first name of General Shwe, the victim of this encrypted attack!

Bonus: A decidedly odd picture of the culprit, in which he's shown holding...a computer monitor...with his head circled in white...

III. New Bookforum is out...Levi directs me to the fact that Kingsley Amis wrote three books on drinking:
How’s Your Glass? is neither worth reprinting nor buying secondhand unless for the purpose of completing a Kingsley Amis collection. It consists of difficult and dated quiz questions unlikely to be of use even to men on the lavatory: “Can you define the following: a. Tokay Aszru, b. Tokay Escencia, c. Tokay Szamorodni?”
(Hmm, there's that "completist" construction, about which Parkus Grammaticus has advised: Avoid!)

IV. In Melanie Rehak's review of Jennifer 8. Lee's book on Chinese food (it was weird just now typing that "8."), she apostrophizes:

I had to read up only to page 31 before stumbling across the name of my beloved noodle palace in her chapter on the birth of Chinese-food delivery in New York in 1976, “The Menu Wars.” Oh, Hunan Balcony, what sweet memories of you I cherish. This was where I learned to eat with chopsticks and where my sister and I poured obscene amounts of sugar into our tea....

Taking a little stroll with a visiting Levi a couple weeks ago, we passed Hunan Balcony; he did a double take. "I thought it said Human Balcony."

—Ed 8. Park

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