Lunar New Year Reads # 29 & #30

Technically speaking, only one of the two books was a Lunar New Year read, the other was a study, and was a book I studied off-and-on for more than a year. Still, as I completed it this year, I am including it in my log of books for purposes of memory, and of interest.

한국어 1, Language Education Institute, Seoul National University. 1993.
Pale Fire, by Vladimir Nabokov. 1962.

Book #29: 한국어 1 (Korean Level 1), Language Education Institute, Seoul National University. 1993.

On the face of it, it seems a little pathetic that at the close of my fourth year in Korea, I am only now finishing Volume 1 of this series. And, I own up to the fact that I have not studied Korean as hard as I could have. I probably could have finished Volume 2 or 3 of the series by now, and would have if I were not doing other things, such as writing novels and (until last October or so) playing in a band. However, I feel (in part due to my own embarrassment) that it is necessary to point out that this is not the first or only Korean textbook I have studied. I very nearly completed book 1 of a totally different series by the same name, published by Korea University’s press, and I have also pursued my study of Korean in other ways, which is perhaps part of the reason I didn’t work so hard on the book: a great deal of the content in latter chapters was things I already knew, and yet I didn’t feel I could proceed on to book 2 until book 1 was completed.

Well, a week ago, I finally finished off book 1, and I thought I’d post some thoughts on the book itself as a study tool, as well as mention what else I shall do in terms of studies.

First, the book. I find this book is the best I’ve encountered in a long time. While the Korea University book starts out easy, it becomes painfully difficult around chapter #15: cripplingly difficult, in fact. The Seoul National University book follows a rather smooth trajectory through very common and important bits of grammar.

The layout is the same as in all other Korean language study textbooks I’ve seen: cute line-ink pictures and a conversation; some vocabulary and grammar explanations; exercises; and finally, some listening (which I didn’t do because I don’t have a tape player, and wasn’t inclined to purchase one for language study alone). My colleague Chullsung said that he thinks this formula needs to be changed, as it’s the standard in all Korean language textbooks, but for me, it worked fine, and in fact I preferred it to the approaches used in ESL textbooks. I, unlike many of my students of English, am not a false beginner in Korean. I couldn’t handle being pushed into discussion and use of a new grammar structure without at least some explicit outlining of how it works and how to use it.

I like the fact that the book doesn’t ask questions about the dialogue that begins each chapter until late into the chapter; this forces me to go back and read the opening dialogue, and to retain what I read, in order to answer the question. I like the fact that the exercises simply force me to drill away at a specific language structure because, honestly, that’s precisely what I need in order to firm up my grasp on that particular point. I have no shortage of themes and subjects I’d like to talk about, and a book supplying me with them seems a bit — I don’t know, maybe it’s an overstatement but it seems smilingly fascistic. I hate textbooks that tell me and my class that this week our theme is SMILE! or DANCE DANCE DANCE! Those themes aren’t the standard ones in EFL textbooks, but that doesn’t mean they’re good themes. Some themes work, like illness or problem/advice things, and family, though kind of boring, is something that one often talks about. But I much prefer, for my own study, when a book simply hammers away cumulatively at specific grammar points, because once I master them, I set out my own themes in short order.

The main criticisms I have to offer have little or nothing to do with the methodology of the book. One of the criticisms is that there are some things which are conceptually in error. For example, I was annoyed at having to answer questions that were basically regurgitations of Korean misconceptions about foreigners; being prompted to write in Korean things like, “No, I can’t eat kimchi because it’s too spicy,” was stupid and annoying. And why is it that every Korean book I’ve seen suggests that people go to dabangs for coffee? They don’t. They go to coffee shops, or coffee machines. The weirdness of seeing foreign men inviting Korean women along to dabangs for coffee was just disturbing. Maybe things have changed since 1993, but these days, dabangs are, roughly speaking, soft-core sex trade businesses. Older (and younger) men order coffee from them, with the understanding that coffee can come with “other services”, or go into the dabang to check out “the goods” and bring a girl home, sometimes it is claimed only if she is willing. Yes, yes, I have known one or two men and women who went to dabangs simply for the atmosphere and the cheap coffee, but largely it’s quietly acknowledged that dabangs are part of the sex trade. I can understand not wanting to get into all of that in a language textbook for beginners, of course. What I can’t understand is presenting the idea that dabang is the word for coffeeshop, when the Korean word for coffeeshop is 카페, from the Anglo-French “café”.

The other shortcoming of the book, I think, is that it doesn’t push nearly as much new vocabulary as the Korea National University book did. Of course, the truly engaged student is seeking out other sources of input, and thus running into all kinds of other vocabulary, all the time, and I agree that often vocabulary learned from a book doesn’t really stick as well as vocab learned from real life, but still, I think some degree of vocabulary acquisition can be accelerated if one is forced to encounter the same words in many ways, even if this only predisposes one to retain it better when it is later encountered in real life. So I think more vocabulary, integrated into the content in general, would be good.

In all, I am quite satisfied with the book. While I have picked up a different book altogether, on the recommendation of my friend John — Book 2 of the series 배우기 쉬운 한국어, which is published by the language center at Sungkyungwan University — it looks even slightly less challenging, and I have a vague feeling I’ll be returning to the Seoul University series for book 2, which I’ve had on my shelf since the summer, waiting to be dug into.

Book #30: Pale Fire, by Vladimir Nabokov. 1962.

In graduate school, it seemed to me as if everyone had read this book. It seemed to me, in fact, that far too many people had read this book. There was a fellow in my Creative Writing Workshop class during my first year in Montréal who was in fact trying his hand at a Japan-set emulation of the book — the story of a mad scholar annotating an ancient Pillow Book from the court at Nara. Discussions in the workshop focused on the similarities and differences between his story and Nabokov’s.

The book, as discussed by my classmates, sounded more like a gimmick than the piece of genius creativity that I now know it to be. At the time, I thought it was pathetic that someone would write a story so beholden to another’s creative work — even as a genre writer, which is what most everyone else in the class considered me with my SF novel-in-progress, I thought the idea of a piece of writing so derivative as this neo-Pale Fire being abhorrent.

Having read the book now, though, I can see why he was attracted to it as a model. I still think that to write a serious novel after the model would be fatal to the book’s chances of being worthwhile, but I do see the value in a youthful attempt; I think a writer could learn a lot in attempting his own Pale Fire.

Reviews like this one are painfully worthless for any sense of the novel, though:

Pale Fire is, I think, a brilliant parody of Literary Criticism. However, it’s barely a novel and it hardly warrants it’s 200 pages, so I don’t think it should make the list.

The structure of Pale Fire is unique. It contains a long poem by “John Shade” & then 200+ pages of commentary on the poem by “Charles Kinbote”. Kinbote emerges as a complete lunatic over the course of his commentary, reading meanings into Shade’s work that are obviously unsupportable.

Nabokov, thus, shows that critics bring such a subjective perspective to the works they critique, that they can hardly be considered an appropriate prism through which to view the original work. I heartily agree with the point, but it becomes somewhat labored when stretched to this length.


Grade: (B)

Indeed, I have to wonder if the unnamed reviewer even bothered to read the whole novel, or text, or whatever we might decide to call it. For while it is painfully obvious that the criticism of Kinbote is, like much of literary criticism, almost completely unrelated to the text and furthermore mainly rooted in the predilections and obsessions of the critic, I hardly think this is Nabokov’s main point in the novel. In fact, to assign any single such “main point” to a novel of this complexity is just insulting.

But I warn you that the rest of this discussion contains spoilers and that if you intend on ever reading the book — and that you ought to — you should put off reading the rest of this discussion until you have completed it.

The rough sketch of the book — though it cannot do the masterpiece justice — is this: it is the edition — including commentary and foreword — by one fictional character (Charles Kinbote) of a 1000-line poem by a second fictional character (named John Shade). The poet-character’s work is generally somewhat mediocre, but this is unarguably the perfect springboard for the mad commentaries of Kinbote, who hints and finally very clearly implies that he is in fact the king-in-exile of a “distant northern land” called Zembla–which is apparently taken from the Russian word for “land”, though in the narrative itself the mad commentator Kinbote claims it is rather from the word “semblance”. The commentaries chronicle the youth and adulthood of King Charles the Beloved — who semi-secretly (and with decreasing secrecy as the commentaries continbue on) is Kinbote — until his flight from the country and exile after an Extremist revolution; his residency and work at a University in the Appalachians, his uneasy friendship with the Shades, and his encouragement of Shade to poeticise his life in verse, as well as the killing of Shade by a fugitive mental patient whom Kinbote imagines to be an assassin sent by the Extremists to kill him… all is put forth in the form of cleverly constructed misreadings and tangents from the criticism of the text.

Zembla and Semblance are words Kinbote himself holds up as etymologically linked, and this makes sense by the logic of the novel. There are whole chains of strange semblances in Kinbote’s mind, after all: a single word in one context affords him an opportunity to reflect on something resembling it within the story he himself wishes to tell, and suddenly we’re in Zembla again, accompanying princes down secret corridors or the fleeing King being led up a mountain by a lustful country maid.

Almost all of the characters have doubles: Gradus and Grey and Nabokov-as-author (strongly and convincingly argued-for in this paper by William Dowling); Kinbote and Botkin and Charles the Beloved; the man whom Kinbote imagined Shade to be, and the real man whom we glimpse through Kinbote’s sometimes clueless descriptions of him.

As many of my classmates knew, Nabokov (like his character John Shade) was a fan of the the word-puzzle, the brain-teaser; Nabokov loved the literary mystery-as-puzzle, and I think this book is, unarguably, exactly such an artifact. It is a novel, to be sure, and a spoof, but more than anything I think it is a kind of high-literary mystery. I think Nabokov himself is present in it, more than just as the padded shoulder in the library mentioned by Dowling in the link above, though.

For one thing, there are mentions of his other books. Both Lolita and Pnin are referred to by name in the text of the commentaries in Pale Fire; this I only realized because I read Pale Fire out of a novel-collection signed out from the library, a collection including both of these earlier novels of Nabokov’s. The mention of one book would probably be understandable as an in-joke, especially the reference to Lolita; but Pnin is mentioned several times, especially towards the end of the novel. While I haven’t read the novel — and will not for some time get a chance, since this book needs to be returned to the library today — I am extremely curious to read it, to see why Pnin got such a large cameo in the novel, even if it was all by mention and not direct appearance.

For another, one begins to sense, as the commentary rolls on, that there are other secrets built like the hidden subterranean tunnels of Charles the Beloved’s childhood adventures into unexpected places in the book. Kinbote’s spelling out of words like gradus — the surname of his ostensible would-be assassin — out of the ends and beginnings of other words in spots in the poem suggest other hidden, encrypted textual references, phrases or words encoded into the poem just as cleverly by the overarching author who created Shade, Gradus, and Kinbote, who created the riddle entire.

But to spin this out would take multiple reads, many readings, and this book is due at the library today. While I can happily note another trend that interests me — encryption in Nabokov’s novel brings to mind encryption in the Cantos of Pound, which I am still reading these days — I also acknowledge that I shall have to read more of the man — and would like to! — and shall have to return to Pale Fire several more times before I shall begin to have any idea about what else he encrypted into the poem, and the commentary. I so have this inkling, however, that the biggest part of the riddle is the finding of the true riddle. And to walk away from a book feeling that way — even if it’s a mistaken reading — is a profoundly pleasurable experience. It brings to mind how one of my onetime co-editors used to refuse to read the endings of the books she enjoyed the most, because that way it could feel for her as if the book had never really ended. In the case of Pale Fire, I have that feeling even right after I read the final page of the novel.

There is a part of me that feels as if this might be the criterion for a literary masterpiece, this feeling. But in any case, as for Pale Fire, I eagerly rate it very highly and recommend it with the strongest vehemence.

For those interested, an excellent Nabokov-related website can be found here.

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