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Two Professors Murdered! And What about Those Manuscripts?

August 6, 2010 by Reader's Connection

Gone TomorrowGeorge Canaris is a professor and writer-in-residence at a college in Ohio–as is P. F. Kluge, author of the novel Gone Tomorrow. Canaris is killed in a hit-and-run “accident,” which I´m glad to say hasn´t happened to Kluge, and after Canaris´s death there is a search for the manuscript of a novel that he was supposed to have been writing forever. A manuscript is found, but rather than being a massive novel it´s a funny, fascinating memoir of life on campus.

I first encountered Kluge when I read his essay The File Cabinet,which now appears on his website. He writes there of journals and memoirs that were kept by his parents and an uncle; and he compares their writing with what he asks of his writing students:

My relatives weren’t interested in entertaining an audience of strangers, which is what I teach my students to do. I ask them to use their lives, their experience, their memories as a point of departure. I invite them to imagine, conjecture, speculate, to take what is true to fiddle with it. The moment always comes when I ask them … require them … to lie in the service of truth. My folks had a different approach. They reduced, they distilled, they boiled down language, narrowed focus, lost the kind of audience they never wanted and drove a stake through my heart. An audience of one. What is, and will be litter to anyone else is literature to me.

Kluge’s brilliant,  moving essay makes literature of his folks’ writings, after all, and helps me–a member of his audience of strangers–appreciate what he has done in Gone Tomorrow, which is, as he admits on his website, a fictional portrait of his home, Kenyon College.

 

Pale FireKluge´s novel set me to thinking of Vladimir Nabokov´s Pale Fire, in which Professor John Francis Shade is shot to death, only to have the manuscript of his last poem abducted by his next-door neighbor, Charles Kinbote. Pale Fire consists of Shade’s thousand-line poem and Kinbote’s commentary.  This may not sound like much of a novel, but wait until you read the commentary.

I first encountered Pale Fire as a post-adolescent with identity problems, and I thought Nabokov was inviting his readers to relish the feeling of being more clever than everyone else. I enjoyed the illusion of superiority, but later felt stupid about it and thought less of Nabokov.

Re-reading the book a few decades later, I’ve decided that I misunderstood what Nabokov was doing. I don’t want to give away much about what goes on in the book, but for the Everyman edition philosopher Richard Rorty has written a wonderul introduction which, as Rorty himself says, you shouldn’t read until you’ve already finished the novel, and which manages to be  a work of art on its own while illuminating what Nabokov was doing with his unorthodox tale.

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