cook-out chef apron, grateful mongrel & Great Dane in Pale Fire

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Sun, 09/09/2018 - 11:04

According to Kinbote (Shade’s mad commentator who imagines that he is Charles the Beloved, the last self-exiled king of Zembla), in a conversation with him Shade (the poet in VN’s novel Pale Fire, 1962) compared Shakespeare to a Great Dane and himself, to a grateful mongrel:


Speaking of the Head of the bloated Russian Department, Prof. Pnin, a regular martinet in regard to his underlings (happily, Prof. Botkin, who taught in another department, was not subordinated to that grotesque "perfectionist"): "How odd that Russian intellectuals should lack all sense of humor when they have such marvelous humorists as Gogol, Dostoevski, Chekhov, Zoshchenko, and those joint authors of genius Ilf and Petrov."

Talking of the vulgarity of a certain burly acquaintance of ours: "The man is as corny as a cook-out chef apron." Kinbote (laughing): "Wonderful!"

The subject of teaching Shakespeare at college level having been introduced: "First of all, dismiss ideas, and social background, and train the freshman to shiver, to get drunk on the poetry of Hamlet or Lear, to read with his spine and not with his skull." Kinbote: "You appreciate particularly the purple passages?" Shade: "Yes, my dear Charles, I roll upon them as a grateful mongrel on a spot of turf fouled by a Great Dane." (note to Line 172)


In a letter of c. Nov. 7, 1825, to Vyazemski Pushkin says that he just finished Boris Godunov (a play in blank verse written under the strong influence of Shakespeare) and that, after rereading it aloud, he clapped his hands and exclaimed: Ay da Pushkkin, ay da sukin syn! (“What a Pushkin, what a son of a bitch!"):


Поздравляю тебя, моя радость, с романтической трагедиею, в ней же первая персона Борис Годунов! Трагедия моя кончена; я перечёл её вслух, один, и бил в ладоши и кричал, ай-да Пушкин, ай-да сукин сын!


In the same letter to Vyazemski Pushkin calls Krylov (the fat fabulist) preoriginal’naya tusha (a most original hulk) and quotes Karamzin who points out (in the “History of the Russian State”) that in the old days the word smerd meant “man of the common people:”


Ты уморительно критикуешь Крылова; молчи, то знаю я сама, да эта крыса мне кума. Я назвал его представителем духа русского народа — не ручаюсь, чтоб он отчасти не вонял. — В старину наш народ назывался смерд (см. господина Карамзина). Дело в том, что Крылов преоригинальная туша, граф Орлов дурак, а мы разини и пр. и пр....


In Krylov’s fable Kot i povar (“The Cat and the Cook”) the cat’s name is Vaska. In Domik v Kolomne (“A Small Cottage in Kolomna,” 1831), a mock epic in octaves, Pushkin mentions kot Vas’ka (Vaska the cat) that regretted most the loss of the cook Mavra:


Об ней жалели в доме, всех же боле
Кот Васька. (XXVIII: 1-2)


In his mock epic Pushkin compares the poet to Tamerlane or even to Napoleon himself:


Как весело стихи свои вести
Под цифрами, в порядке, строй за строем,
Не позволять им в сторону брести,
Как войску, в пух рассыпанному боем!
Тут каждый слог замечен и в чести,
Тут каждый стих глядит себе героем,
А стихотворец... с кем же равен он?
Он Тамерлан иль сам Наполеон. (V)


In his poem The Nature of Electricity (quoted in full by Kinbote in his Commentary) Shade mentions Shakespeare and the torments of a Tamerlane:


The dead, the gentle dead—who knows?—
In tungsten filaments abide,
And on my bedside table glows
Another man’s departed bride.

And maybe Shakespeare floods a whole
Town with innumerable lights,
And Shelley’s incandescent soul
Lures the pale moths of starless nights.

Streetlamps are numbered, and maybe
Number nine-hundred-ninety-nine
(So brightly beaming through a tree
So green) is an old friend of mine.

And when above the livid plain
Forked lightning plays, therein may dwell
The torments of a Tamerlane,
The roar of tyrants torn in hell. (note to Line 347)


In his review of Sirin’s novels and stories in the Paris émigré review Chisla (“Numbers,” 1930, #1) G. Ivanov calls Sirin (VN’s Russian nom de plume) samozvanets (impostor), kukharkin syn (a female cook’s son) and smerd:


Однако всё-таки он самозванец, кухаркин сын, чёрная кость, смерд.


The characters of “Boris Godunov” include the Impostor. Smerd brings to mind Smerdyakov, a character in Dostoevski’s “Brothers Karamazov” (1880). In his autobiography Speak, Memory (1951) VN says that among his fellow writers whom he met in Paris in the 1930s there were a few Smerdyakovs:

Vladislav Hodasevich used to complain, in the twenties and thirties, that young émigré poets had borrowed their art form from him while following the leading cliques in modish angoisse and soul-reshaping. I developed a great liking for this bitter man, wrought of irony and metallic-like genius, whose poetry was as complex a marvel as that of Tyutchev or Blok. He was, physically, of a sickly aspect, with contemptuous nostrils and beetling brows, and when I conjure him up in my mind he never rises from the hard chair on which he sits, his thin legs crossed, his eyes glittering with malevolence and wit, his long fingers screwing into a holder the half of a Caporal Vert cigarette. There are few things in modern world poetry comparable to the poems of his Heavy Lyre, but unfortunately for his fame the perfect frankness he indulged in when voicing his dislikes made him some terrible enemies among the most powerful critical coteries. Not all the mystagogues were Dostoevskian Alyoshas; there were also a few Smerdyakovs in the group, and Hodasevich’s poetry was played down with the thoroughness of a revengeful racket. (Chapter Fourteen, 2)


In Canto Three of his poem Shade tells about IPH (a lay Institute of Preparation for the Hereafter) and mentions Fra Karamazov, mumbling his inept “all is allowed:”


In later years it started to decline:
Buddhism took root. A medium smuggled in
Pale jellies and a floating mandolin.
Fra Karamazov, mumbling his inept

All is allowed, into some classes crept;
And to fulfill the fish wish of the womb,
A school of Freudians headed for the tomb. (ll. 638-644)


Describing his devil to Alyosha, Ivan Karamazov (who thinks that, since God does not exist, all is allowed) calls his visitor samozvanets and mentions the devil’s khvost kak u datskoy sobaki (tail like a Great Dane’s):


 Чёрт! Он ко мне повадился. Два раза был, даже почти три. Он дразнил меня тем, будто я сержусь, что он просто чёрт, а не сатана с опалёнными крыльями, в громе и блеске. Но он не сатана, это он лжёт. Он самозванец. Он просто чёрт, дрянной, мелкий чёрт. Он в баню ходит. Раздень его и наверно отыщешь хвост, длинный, гладкий, как у датской собаки, в аршин длиной, бурый…


“The devil! He's taken to visiting me. He's been here twice, almost three times. He taunted me with being angry at his being a simple devil and not Satan, with scorched wings, in thunder and lightning. But he is not Satan: that's a lie. He is an impostor. He is simply a devil -- a paltry, trivial devil. He goes to the baths. If you undressed him, you'd be sure to find he had a tail, long and smooth like a Danish dog’s, one arshin long, dun colour..." (Part Four, Book Eleven, chapter X)


According to Ivan Karamazov, the devil’s tail is buryi (brown). At the beginning of his article Pisatel' Burov ("The Writer Burov," 1951) G. Ivanov quotes Burov's words from his book V tsarstve teney ("In the Realm of Shades," 1951):

"Стократ блестяще написанные повести и рассказы... сегодня художественные пустяки.
Чернила умерли, мертвецами бездушными стали слова... Сегодня это больше никому не нужно... Нужны - книги... что потрясать могли бы леса и горы".
И в заключение этих фраз, как вывод из них, властное требование - "Подайте нам Шекспира!"...
Кто это говорит и к кому обращается? Это говорит писатель-эмигрант, обращаясь к современности. Говорит от лица того собирательного русского человека, который за "Ночь" (т. е. за годы последней войны с её безграничной жестокостью и не менее безграничной бессмыслицей) "вырос и прозрел" и которому, чтобы запечатлеть трагические события последних лет, необходим "новый Шекспир" - новый мировой гений, с новыми словами и образами, "потрясающими леса и горы"...

According to Burov, we need a new Shakespeare - a new planetary genius, with new words and images "that would shake forests and mountains."


In his poem Kak v Gretsiyu Bayron, o, bez sozhalen'ya… ("Like Byron to Greece, o without regret…" 1928) G. Ivanov mentions blednyi ogon' (pale fire):

Как в Грецию
Байрон, о, без сожаленья,
Сквозь звёзды и розы, и тьму,
На голос бессмысленно-сладкого пенья:
- И ты не поможешь ему.

Сквозь звёзды, которые снятся влюблённым,
И небо, где нет ничего,
В холодную полночь - платком надушённым.
- И ты не удержишь его.

На голос бессмысленно-сладкого пенья,
Как Байрон за бледным огнём,
Сквозь полночь и розы, о, без сожаленья:
- И ты позабудешь о нём.


In his “Ode to Count Khvostov” (1825) Pushkin compares Khvostov (a poetaster whose name comes from khvost, “tail”) to Byron. In a poem with which he begins his letter of Nov. 7, 1825, to Vyazemski Pushkin mentions Khvostov, “the father of toothed pigeons:”


В глуши, измучась жизнью постной,
Изнемогая животом,
Я не парю — сижу орлом
И болен праздностью поносной.


Бумаги берегу запас,
Натугу вдохновенья чуждый,
Хожу я редко на Парнас,
И только за большою нуждой.


Но твой затейливый навоз
Приятно мне щекотит нос:
Хвостова он напоминает,
Отца зубастых голубей,
И дух мой снова позывает
Ко испражненью прежних дней.


According to Pushkin, he suffers from dyspepsia and does not soar like an eagle, but sits like that bird (a well-known euphemism). In Chapter Ten (II: 3-4) of Eugene Onegin Pushkin mentions ne nashi povara (not our cooks) who plucked the two-headed eagle near Bonaparte’s tent. Pushkin destroyed Chapter Ten of EO on October 19, 1830 (“a day of good resolutions,” the Lyceum anniversary). Kinbote completes his work on Shade’s poem and commits suicide on Oct. 19, 1959. The last word in Kinbote’s Commentary is Gradus (the name of Shade’s murderer). According to Kinbote, at the moment of the assassination Gradus suffered from an acute indigestion:


One finds it hard to decide what Gradus alias Grey wanted more at that minute: discharge his gun or rid himself of the inexhaustible lava in his bowels. As he began hurriedly fumbling at the car door, unfastidious Emerald leaned, close to him, across him, almost merging with him, to help him open it - and then, slamming it shut again, whizzed on to some tryst in the valley. My reader will, I hope, appreciate all the minute particulars I have taken such trouble to present to him after a long talk I had with the killer; he will appreciate them even more if I tell him that, according to the legend spread later by the police, Jack Grey had been given a lift, all the way from Roanoke, or somewhere, by a lonesome trucker! One can only hope that an impartial search will turn up the trilby forgotten in the Library - or in Mr. Emerald's car. (note to Line 949)


In EO (Three: IV: 13-14) Onegin fears that Mme Larin’s lingonberry water may not unlikely do him harm. Brusnichnaya voda (lingonberry water) brings to mind the color of Chichikov’s tailcoat in Gogol’s Myortvye dushi (“Dead Souls,” 1842): brusnichnyi s iskroy (lingonberry-colored with flecks). The name of one of the landowners visited by Chichikov, Sobakevich, comes from sobaka (dog). In VN’s novel Pnin (1957) Sobakevich is the name of the Cockerells’ cocker spaniel. In Pnin VN satirizes G. Ivanov and his friend G. Adamovich (VN’s faithful Zoilus) as Zhorzhik Uranski, an influential literary critic:

One of her admirers, a banker, and straightforward patron of the arts, selected among the Parisian Russians an influential literary critic, Zhorzhik Uranski, and for a champagne dinner at the Ougolok had the old boy devote his next feuilleton in one of the Russian--language newspapers to an appreciation of Liza's muse on whose chestnut curls Zhorzhik calmly placed Anna Akhmatov's coronet, whereupon Liza burst into happy tears--for all the world like little Miss Michigan or the Oregon Rose Queen. Pnin, who was not in the know, carried about a folded clipping of that shameless rave in his honest pocket-book, naively reading out passages to this or that amused friend until it got quite frayed and smudgy. Nor was he in the know concerning graver matters, and in fact was actually pasting the remnants of the review in an album when, on a December day in 1938, Liza telephoned from Meudon, saying that she was going to Montpellier with a man who understood her 'organic ego', a Dr Eric Wind, and would never see Timofey again. An unknown French woman with red hair called for Liza's things and said, well, you cellar rat, there is no more any poor lass to taper dessus--and a month or two later there dribbled in from Dr Wind a German letter of sympathy and apology assuring lieber Herr Pnin that he, Dr Wind, was eager to marry 'the woman who has come out of your life into mine.' (Chapter Two, 5)


At the end of VN’s novel Pnin leaves Waindell taking a stray dog with him.


I suspect that, after finishing Pale Fire, VN exclaimed: Ay da Sirin, ay da kukharkin syn! (“What a Sirin, what a female cook’s son!")

Since that thread is a bit too cluttered for further discussion, to this we turn: 

The double reference to Dane, as in the play Hamlet, is well plausible (although, the dog breed one works fine too especially considering the wonderful image of rolling and mucking about). I went back re-read the relevant portions of Hamlet, there the expression "Dane" is often used a shorthand denoting the royal personage - the King himself. Considering both Nabokov and Joyce (among others), considered the Old (Ghost) King as a stand-in for Shakespeare himself, the allusion is further strengthened. As for the Karamazov Brothers, I re-read that chapter (the one about Ivan's hallucinations; nice jog to memory, thanks!) carefully -  you (Alexey) must admit that the Great Dane epithet is gradually built up, not as a throwaway (improvisation) like Nabokov does in PF. I mean, "from running off between the tail between the legs" (Bk. 11, Ch. 9) to "an ass's tail" it's hard to shed off its satiric purposes. However, if now you would like connect the 'prop-dog=devil' motif to Despair, I will probably smile shyly.

I would be more interested if someone could fish out something about a mongrel rolling about in poop from Shakespeare. As an incentive, let me just introduce here the now famous image-clusters in Shakespeare (my source is A D Nuttall; please Googlebook it) "Shakespeare it seems could not think of dogs without thinking within a few lines, of sweetmeats."