Chasing Nabokov in Amagansett

A section of the cover of the Everyman's Library edition of Nabokov's "Pale Fire."
A section of the cover of the Everyman’s Library edition of Nabokov’s “Pale Fire.”

Kara Westerman considers herself a Vladimir Nabokov stalker.

Ms. Westerman, an East Hampton writer, memoir instructor and editor, has loved reading the work of the controversial postmodern novelist, best known for his obsessive 1955 novel “Lolita,” for decades. But this past summer, her obsession with Nabokov took a deeper turn.

Kara Westerman
Kara Westerman

It started simply enough. Seems the East Hampton Library was throwing away copies of Brian Boyd’s two-volume Nabokov biography. Ms. Westerman ran across the wayward volumes on a trip to the library and brought them home to live with her. They were each more than 800 pages long. She took them with her everywhere all summer, devouring the text.

“I’ve always loved him, but I started to think, ‘this is what I should be teaching. I really get it,'” she said in an interview with The Beacon on Saturday.

Starting this Thursday, Ms. Westerman is embarking on a four-week long sleuthing expedition at the Amagansett Library to discover the inner workings of Nabokov’s 1962 novel “Pale Fire,” believed by critics to be one of Nabokov’s greatest works.

The structure of the novel turns conventional form on its head.

“It is read as a commentary on a poem, a very long poem, 999 lines,” said Ms. Westerman. “The character who wrote the poem dies and a neighbor absconds with the text of the poem and writes his own commentary on it. It becomes more and more crazy as the guy thinks the poem is about him, but it’s not about him. He believes himself to be a deposed king from a make-believe country called Zembla, where everything is backwards.”

“There’s a lot of controversy about who created who. It may be that the main character may have created the character who commented on the poem,” she said.

The poem that is central to the story, which is in iambic pentameter, has also recently been published on its own, leading to another controversy over whether it was ever meant to be taken seriously as a poem.

“Everybody always assumed he was writing the poem tongue-in-cheek, that it wasn’t a good poem,” she said. “I do think it’s a good poem. Some of it is extremely silly, and some of it is beautiful. But I’m not a big fan of poems.”

The book can be read straight through, or readers can follow the commentary, which sends them further into a maze of footnotes upon footnotes.

“The other night, at 1 a.m., I had my dog-eared, mildewy copy and I had my fingers on five points and I realized ‘I can’t remember where I’m at,'” she said. “It must be Nabokov’s glee that I can’t remember, when I’m in a footnote to a footnote to a footnote. I started laughing. I was having so much fun. It’s not a snobby literary trick. It’s like having fun solving a chess problem.”

“He’s obviously a genius. Underneath this all is the belief that this is how consciousness is working on a greater game level,” she added. “We have to be jolted out of our safe places and make meaning out of these random patterns. He’s very philosophical about life, leaving enough bread crumbs for you to come with him and take the journey.”

“You need to know that you’re not going to get it all, and relax. This is not meant to make you look stupid,” she said. “The “Ah-Ha” moment of discovery is the best part of literature. It’s a real gift. He’s asking you to be a co-creator with him, like in films and video games where, at a certain point, the game asks you which road you want to take.”

Ms. Westerman, who has taught memoir writing and done a similar workshop on “Lolita” at the East Hampton Library, is expecting some of her former students — visual artists, playwrights, music promoters and folks who refuse to read and just want to listen — to take part in the four-week session, which will meet Thursday nights from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Jan. 9 through 30.

“It’s going to be a free-for-all, a melee. It’s going to be a hell of a lot of fun,” she said.

To register for the free series, call the Amagansett Library at 631.267.3810. Ms. Westerman is asking attendees to bring a copy of the book and to have read the forward before the first session.

 

Beth Young

Beth Young has been covering the East End since the 1990s. In her spare time, she runs around the block, tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

3 thoughts on “Chasing Nabokov in Amagansett

  • January 9, 2014 at 10:15 am
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    Fantastic – I cant believe you really got down all that I said!
    Love your Beacon!

    Reply
  • January 9, 2014 at 10:16 am
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    This is great!
    I put it up on my FB page.
    This is a great addition to the slim periodical pickings on the East End!

    Reply

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