Sunday, April 11, 2021

' A Very Fine Cat Indeed'

My middle son, a third-year midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy, is reading Pale Fire for the first time, and doing it the right way; that is, on his own, not as a classroom assignment. Michael is twenty years old, about a year older that I was when I first read Nabokov’s novel, long before the writer was just another name on a freshman reading list. He was still an exotic, a not-quite American, though an American patriot, who came with his family to the U.S. in 1940 and became an American citizen five years later. I have read Pale Fire more often than any other Nabokov title. The saddest death in all of literature (rivalled only by Rudy Bloom’s in Ulysses) is Hazel Shade’s. Readers who accuse Nabokov of heartlessness are tone-deaf. Michael is a cat-lover and dog-hater, so I will remind him of the epigraph Nabokov affixes to Pale Fire, taken from Boswell’s Life of Johnson: 

“This reminds me of the ludicrous account which he gave Mr. Langton, of the despicable state of a young Gentleman of good family. ‘Sir, when I heard of him last, he was running about town shooting cats.’ And then in a sort of kindly reverie, he bethought himself of his own favorite cat, and said, `But Hodge shan't be shot; no, no, Hodge shall not be shot.’”


I won’t suggest to Michael the implications of the epigraph for the novel. Here is the paragraph preceding the one used by Nabokov, dated by Boswell to 1783, the year before Johnson’s death:


“I never shall forget the indulgence with which he treated Hodge, his cat: for whom he himself used to go out and buy oysters, lest the servants having that trouble should take a dislike to the poor creature. I am, unluckily, one of those who have an antipathy to a cat, so that I am uneasy when in the room with one; and I own, I frequently suffered a good deal from the presence of this same Hodge. I recollect him one day scrambling up Dr. Johnson's breast, apparently with much satisfaction, while my friend smiling and half-whistling, rubbed down his back, and pulled him by the tail; and when I observed he was a fine cat, saying, `Why yes, Sir, but I have had cats whom I liked better than this;’ and then as if perceiving Hodge to be out of countenance, adding, `but he is a very fine cat, a very fine cat indeed.’”


Like me, Michael is more Johnsonian than Boswellian when it comes to cats and other matters. Go here to see the statue of Hodge, installed in 1997 outside the house in Gough Square he shared with Johnson. Note the empty oyster shells in front of Hodge, who is seated on a copy of Johnson’s Dictionary. The inscription reads “a very fine cat indeed.”

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