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This item is taken from PN Review 208, Volume 39 Number 2, November - December 2012.

Some years ago I visited Edgar Allan Poe's house in Baltimore with my Maryland cousins. To gain access we located a caretaker who lived nearby and obligingly unlocked the house, raised the blinds and set the video going. Though not much frequented, it was a suggestive writer's house, not least for its small scale, its emptiness and Poe's palpable absence. Leaving, I bought a large badge that says Poe Evermore, with a raven in the middle.

It is hardly surprising to read in the Baltimore Sun of 4 October that the house at 203 North Amity Street has a history of financial troubles. The city is to pay the B&O Railway Museum $180,000 to develop a scheme that will make it a self-sufficient tourist attraction. The decision seems politic, optimistic. The Mayor wants to make it 'one of Baltimore's premier cultural attractions'. The building's scale and relative marginality to Poe's creative life (he lived there on and off in a small room with his aunt and her family from 1833 to 1935), the down-at-heel neighbourhood, and the limited number of aficionados, add to the challenge. Hitherto visitor numbers have fluctuated between 3000 and 5000 a year. The house was closed to the public the week before the announcement, after thirty-three years of being maintained by the city on an annual budget of just over $80,000.

This year marks the 160th anniversary of Poe's decisive, though posthumous, arrival in French. There he found a place from which his purchase on American and British writing has been secured. His translators included Baudelaire, who first read him in 1847 and experienced 'a strange commotion': he had already half-thought, half-imagined, what Poe had written. Poe's essays 'provided the first scriptures of the Symbolist Movement', Edmund Wilson said. Indefinition, the refusal to provide a sens trop précis; the development of synaesthesia... What drew the French writers 'was what had distinguished him from most of the other Romantics of the English-speaking countries: his interest in aesthetic theory. The French have always reasoned about literature [...]; they always want to know what they are doing and why they are doing it'.

The Goncourt brothers in their Journal entry for 16 July 1856 - Poe had been dead a mere seven years - wrote farsightedly: 'After reading Edgar Allan Poe. Something the critics have not noticed: a new literary world, pointing to the literature of the twentieth century. Scientific miracles, fables on the pattern A + B; a clear-sighted, sickly literature. No more poetry, but analytic fantasy.' This is Borges's point in his lecture on the detective story: Poe invented a genre and, by extension, the reader of that genre. In the aftermath that reader, multiplied millions of times, makes demands on future writers with his or her techniques of suspicious reading, every detail interrogated and weighed. 'Something monomaniacal,' the Goncourts continue. 'Things playing a more important part than people; love giving way to deductions and other sources of ideas, style, subject, and interest; the basis of the novel transferred from the heart to the head, from the passion to the idea, from the drama to the denouement.' They understood Poe's subversive and irreversible presence.

Reading from the distance of another language, they did not register how he 'makes use of what is at hand, the banalities filling the popular reader's mind'. He was writing against the emerging American literary culture represented by Longfellow, Thoreau and Emerson, their idealisms, their up-beat that did not answer to his experience of language or of the world. They had no sense of the flowers of evil Baudelaire was to pluck. 'Put in something about the Supernal Oneness,' said Poe; 'Don't say a syllable about the Infernal Twoness.' He belongs with Melville, Hawthorne and Dickinson on the dark side of the American moon.

Yet his clarity as critic and story-writer is willed. This the Goncourts note: the deliberation, the construction of his writing. Nothing is second nature, no givens, everything interrogated and deliberately chosen. Is this not a necessary strategy for writers resisting commercial, artistic or moral convention? France, a French setting, the use of French phrases, the insistence on a difference the reader cannot verify, provide a freedom Poe populates with voices. There is something of the actor in him. N. Bryllion Fagin placed Poe in the experimental Francophile tradition of American letters: in constructing a story, 'Poe, who usually uses the first person for vividness, did not imaginatively live the parts but acted them - hence the impression of reality while we read and the feeling when we finish the story that it never happened.' We are back with the Goncourts' 'things playing a more important part than people'. In his portraits, Poe resembles that failed actor John Wilkes Booth. Amity Street is one of the theatres from which he cast his voice as far as Paris.

Charles Kinbote, quite as much as Humbert Humbert, is Poe's heir, and in his account of the fall of Zembla in Pale Fire he evokes the epic-scale art of the Eystein who 'among his decorations of wood or wool, gold or velvet, [...] would insert one which was really made of the material elsewhere imitated by paint,' intended 'to enhance the effect of his tactile and tonal values'. It was a harsh comment on Eystein's talent and it underlined 'the basic fact that "reality" is neither the subject nor the object of true art which creates its own special reality having nothing to do with the average "reality" perceived by the communal eye'. It is hard to recommend wholeheartedly Nabokov's Collected Poems, newly translated by Dmitri Nabokov and introduced by Thomas Karshan (Penguin Classics, £20). The absolute 'special reality' of the fiction is breached time after time by incursions of the other real.

Published from Manchester, PN Review after several years of being edited from Glasgow is moving its editorial office back to England, to St John's College, Cambridge, next door to Trinity where the young Nabokov pursued his studies. This is the first issue to appear from this new editorial address.

This item is taken from PN Review 208, Volume 39 Number 2, November - December 2012.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to
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