I've finally read Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire, at the third or fourth attempt. Which, if nothing else, allowed me to savour for the first time such linguistic dim sum as "...an old but unused pocket diary optimistically maturing there until its calendric correspondencies came round again" or "...when I hear a critic speaking of an author's sincerity I know that either the critic or the author is a fool." And it's not even his first language, the bastard. Now I start to understand why the likes of Martin Amis turn into swooning schoolgirls at the merest whisper of Nabokov's name, and why his long-awaited posthumous novel is provoking such drooling anticipation; it's not just the one about James Mason being a nonce.
It's important to explain Pale Fire's unusual structure: it consists of a foreword; a four-canto, 999-line poem, 'Pale Fire', by the late John Shade; a wildly discursive commentary on the poem, by Charles Kinbote; and a brief index. In the course of the commentary (by far the longest section of the text), we learn that the three-way relationship between Kinbote, Shade and reality is not as it may seem, although the fine details of what the internal truth may be are still getting thrashed out by Nabokovians.
So how did I manage to get through it this time? Simple: I skipped the poem, which is where I came to grief at previous attempts. As I've said before, I seem to have lost the ability to process poetry; but 'Pale Fire', the poem, as far as I can deduce, is a MacGuffin, a framework upon which Kinbote hangs his delusions. The notes are the important bit.
As Shane Richmond pointed out a few months back, Tolstoy's historical ruminations in War and Peace are sometimes excised from the main text and put in their own appendix, which is surely an implicit admission of skippability. But is this justifiable? Isn't it like reading a Reader's Digest Condensed Book, or going into an exam with nothing but CliffsNotes in your head?
David Frum, sometime speechwriting wonk to the soon-to-be-ex-President of the United States, developed an intellectual defence of such superficiality:
When I was in law school, I devised my own idiosyncratic solution to the problem of studying a topic I knew nothing about. I'd wander into the library stacks, head to the relevant section, and pluck a book at random. I'd flip to the footnotes, and write down the books that seemed to occur most often. Then I'd pull them off the shelves, read their footnotes, and look at those books. It usually took only 2 or 3 rounds of this exercise before I had a pretty fair idea of who were the leading authorities in the field. After reading 3 or 4 of those books, I usually had at least enough orientation in the subject to understand what the main questions at issue were - and to seek my own answers, always provisional, always subject to new understanding, always requiring new reading and new thinking...
Except that the last bit sounds like wishful, rather than new thinking.
So, what's the biggest thing you've read or seen or heard or done, without really doing it properly?