orbicle of jasp in Pale Fire; one orbicular millenium in Glory; Terra the Fair in Ada

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Thu, 12/12/2019 - 05:15

In Canto Three of his poem John Shade (the poet in VN’s novel Pale Fire, 1962) speaks of IPH (a lay Institute of Preparation for Hereafter) and mentions “Terra the Fair, an orbicle of jasp:”


While snubbing gods, including the big G,

Iph borrowed some peripheral debris

From mystic visions; and it offered tips

(The amber spectacles for life's eclipse) -

How not to panic when you're made a ghost:

Sidle and slide, choose a smooth surd, and coast,

Meet solid bodies and glissade right through,

Or let a person circulate through you.

How to locate in blackness, with a gasp,

Terra the Fair, an orbicle of jasp.

How to keep sane in spiral types of space.

Precautions to be taken in the case

Of freak reincarnation: what to do

On suddenly discovering that you

Are now a young and vulnerable toad

Plump in the middle of a busy road,

Or a bear cub beneath a burning pine,

Or a book mite in a revived divine. (ll. 549-566)


According to Kinbote (Shade’s mad commentator who imagines that he is Charles the Beloved, the last self-exiled king of Zembla), “How to locate in blackness, with a gasp, Terra the Fair, an orbicle of jasp” is the loveliest couplet in this Canto. “An orbicle of jasp” brings to mind “a perfect image of one orbicular millennium” that Archibald Moon, a character in VN’s novel Podvig (“Glory,” 1932”), wanted to give in his book on Russia:


Профессором русской словесности и истории был в ту пору небезызвестный Арчибальд Мун. В России он прожил довольно долго, всюду побывал, всех знал, всё перевидел. Теперь, черноволосый, бледный, в пенсне на тонком носу, он бесшумно проезжал на велосипеде с высоким рулём, сидя совсем прямо, а за обедом, в знаменитой столовой с дубовыми столами и огромными цветными окнами, вертел головой, как птица, и быстро, быстро крошил длинными пальцами хлеб. Говорили, единственное, что он в мире любит, это - Россия. Многие не понимали, почему он там не остался. На вопросы такого рода Мун неизменно отвечал: "Справьтесь у Робертсона" (это был востоковед) "почему он не остался в Вавилоне". Возражали вполне резонно, что Вавилона уже нет. Мун кивал, тихо и хитро улыбаясь. Он усматривал в октябрьском перевороте некий отчетливый конец. Охотно допуская, что со временем образуется в Советском Союзе, пройдя через первобытные фазы, известная культура, он вместе с тем утверждал, что Россия завершена и неповторима, - что её можно взять, как прекрасную амфору, и поставить под стекло. Печной горшок, который там теперь обжигался, ничего общего с нею не имел. Гражданская война представлялась ему нелепой: одни бьются за призрак прошлого, другие за призрак будущего, - меж тем, как Россию потихоньку украл Арчибальд Мун и запер у себя в кабинете. Ему нравилась её завершённость. Она была расцвечена синевою вод и прозрачным пурпуром пушкинских стихов. Вот уже скоро два года, как он писал на английском языке её историю, надеялся всю её уложить в один толстенький том. Эпиграф из Китса ("Создание красоты - радость навеки"), тончайшая бумага, мягкий сафьяновый переплёт. Задача была трудная: найти гармонию между эрудицией и тесной живописной прозой, дать совершенный образ одного округлого тысячелетия.


At that time the chair of Russian literature and history was occupied by the distinguished scholar Archibald Moon. He had lived fairly long in Russia, and had been everywhere, met everyone, seen everything there. Now, pale and dark-haired, with a pince-nez on his thin nose, he could be observed riding by, sitting perfectly upright, on a bicycle with high handlebars; or, at dinner in the renowned hall with oaken tables and huge stained-glass windows, he would jerk his head from side to side like a bird, and crumble bread extremely fast between his long fingers. They said the only thing this Englishman loved in the world was Russia. Many people could not understand why he had not remained there. Moon’s reply to questions of that kind would invariably be: “Ask Robertson” (the orientalist) “why he did not stay in Babylon.” The perfectly reasonable objection would be raised that Babylon no longer existed. Moon would nod with a sly, silent smile. He saw in the Bolshevist insurrection a certain clear-cut finality. While he willingly allowed that, by-and-by, after the primitive phases, some civilization might develop in the “Soviet Union,” he nevertheless maintained that Russia was concluded and unrepeatable, that you could embrace it like a splendid amphora and put it behind glass. The clay kitchen pot now being baked there had nothing in common with it. The civil war seemed absurd to him: one side fighting for the ghost of the past, the other for the ghost of the future, and meanwhile Archibald Moon quietly had stolen Russia and locked it up in his study. He admired this finality. It was colored by the blue of waters and the transparent porphyry of Pushkin’s poetry. For nearly two years now he had been working on an English-language history of Russia, and he hoped to squeeze it all into one plump volume. An obvious motto (“A thing of beauty is a joy forever”), ultrathin paper, a soft Morocco binding. The task was a difficult one: to find a harmony between erudition and tight picturesque prose, to give a perfect image of one orbicular millennium. (chapter XVI)


A distant northern land, Kinbote's Zembla has a lot in common with Martin's and Sonia's Zoorland in "Glory." As to Archibald Moon, he brings to mind Aunt Maud’s verse book open at the Index (Moon, Moonrise, Moor, Moral):


I was brought up by dear bizarre Aunt Maud,

A poet and a painter with a taste

For realistic objects interlaced

With grotesque growths and images of doom.

She lived to hear the next babe cry. Her room

We've kept intact. Its trivia create

A still life in her style: the paperweight

Of convex glass enclosing a lagoon,

The verse book open at the Index (Moon,

Moonrise, Moor, Moral), the forlorn guitar,

The human skull; and from the local Star

A curio: Red Sox Beat Yanks 5-4

On Chapman's Homer, thumbtacked to the door. (ll. 86-98)


On First Looking into Chapman's Homer (1816) is a sonnet by Keats:


Much have I travell'd in the realms of gold,

And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;

Round many western islands have I been

Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.

Oft of one wide expanse had I been told

That deep-brow'd Homer ruled as his demesne;

Yet did I never breathe its pure serene

Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies

When a new planet swims into his ken;

Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes

He star'd at the Pacific—and all his men

Look'd at each other with a wild surmise—

Silent, upon a peak in Darien.


Describing the last moments of Shade’s life, Kinbote uses the word “demesne” (used by Keats in his sonnet):


One minute before his death, as we were crossing from his demesne to mine and had begun working up between the junipers and ornamental shrubs, a Red Admirable (see note to line 270) came dizzily whirling around us like a colored flame. Once or twice before we had already noticed the same individual, at that same time, on that same spot, where the low sun finding an aperture in the foliage splashed the brown sand with a last radiance while the evening's shade covered the rest of the path. One's eyes could not follow the rapid butterfly in the sunbeams as it flashed and vanished, and flashed again, with an almost frightening imitation of conscious play which now culminated in its setting upon my delighted friend's sleeve. It took off, and we saw it next morning sporting in an ecstasy of frivolous haste around a laurel shrub, every now and then perching on a lacquered leaf and sliding down its grooved middle like a boy down the banister on his birthday. Then the tide of the shade reached the laurels, and the magnificent, velvet-and-flame creature dissolved in it. (note to Lines 993-995)


Shade’s poem is almost finished, when the author is killed by Gradus. Kinbote believes that, to be completed, Shade’s poem needs but one line (Line 1000, identical to Line 1: “I was the shadow of the waxwing slain”). But it seems that, like some sonnets, Shade's poem also needs a coda (Line 1001: “By its own double in the windowpane”). Dvoynik ("The Double") is a short novel (1846) by Dostoevski and a poem (1909) by Alexander Blok. The L disaster that happened on Demonia (aka Antiterra, Earth's twin planet on which VN's novel Ada, 1969, is set) in the beau milieu of the 19th century and seems to correspond to the mock execution of Dostoevski and the Petrashevskians on Jan. 3, 1850 (NS), in our world:


The details of the L disaster (and I do not mean Elevated) in the beau milieu of last century, which had the singular effect of both causing and cursing the notion of ‘Terra,’ are too well-known historically, and too obscene spiritually, to be treated at length in a book addressed to young laymen and lemans — and not to grave men or gravemen.
Of course, today, after great anti-L years of reactionary delusion have gone by (more or less!) and our sleek little machines, Faragod bless them, hum again after a fashion, as they did in the first half of the nineteenth century, the mere geographic aspect of the affair possesses its redeeming
comic side, like those patterns of brass marquetry, and bric-à-Braques, and the ormolu horrors that meant ‘art’ to our humorless forefathers. For, indeed, none can deny the presence of something highly ludicrous in the very configurations that were solemnly purported to represent a varicolored map of Terra. Ved’ (‘it is, isn’t it’) sidesplitting to imagine that ‘Russia,’ instead of being a quaint synonym of Estoty, the American province extending from the Arctic no longer vicious Circle to the United States proper, was on Terra the name of a country, transferred as if by some sleight of land across the ha-ha of a doubled ocean to the opposite hemisphere where it sprawled over all of today’s Tartary, from Kurland to the Kuriles! But (even more absurdly), if, in Terrestrial spatial terms, the Amerussia of Abraham Milton was split into its components, with tangible water and ice separating the political, rather than poetical, notions of ‘America’ and ‘Russia,’ a more complicated and even more preposterous discrepancy arose in regard to time — not only because the history of each part of the amalgam did not quite match the history of each counterpart in its discrete condition, but because a gap of up to a hundred years one way or another existed between the two earths; a gap marked by a bizarre confusion of directional signs at the crossroads of passing time with not all the no-longers of one world corresponding to the not-yets of the other. It was owing, among other things, to this ‘scientifically ungraspable’ concourse of divergences that minds bien rangés (not apt to unhobble hobgoblins) rejected Terra as a fad or a fantom, and deranged minds (ready to plunge into any abyss) accepted it in support and token of their own irrationality. (1.3)


Darkbloom ('Notes to Ada'): beau milieu: right in the middle.

Faragod: apparently, the god of electricity.

braques: allusion to a bric-à-brac painter.


According to Van Veen (the narrator and main character in Ada), the real destination of poor mad Aqua (the twin sister of Van's, Ada's and Lucette's mother Marina) was Terra the Fair:


Actually, Aqua was less pretty, and far more dotty, than Marina. During her fourteen years of miserable marriage she spent a broken series of steadily increasing sojourns in sanatoriums. A small map of the European part of the British Commonwealth — say, from Scoto-Scandinavia to the Riviera, Altar and Palermontovia — as well as most of the U.S.A., from Estoty and Canady to Argentina, might be quite thickly prickled with enameled red-cross-flag pins, marking, in her War of the Worlds, Aqua’s bivouacs. She had plans at one time to seek a modicum of health (‘just a little grayishness, please, instead of the solid black’) in such Anglo-American protectorates as the Balkans and Indias, and might even have tried the two Southern Continents that thrive under our joint dominion. Of course, Tartary, an independent inferno, which at the time spread from the Baltic and Black seas to the Pacific Ocean, was touristically unavailable, though Yalta and Altyn Tagh sounded strangely attractive… But her real destination was Terra the Fair and thither she trusted she would fly on libellula long wings when she died. Her poor little letters from the homes of madness to her husband were sometimes signed: Madame Shchemyashchikh-Zvukov (‘Heart rending-Sounds’). (ibid.)


In the first line of his poem Priblizhaetsya zvuk... (“A sound approaches...” 1912) Alexander Blok mentions shchemyashchiy zvuk (a heart-rending sound):


Приближается звук. И, покорна щемящему звуку,
Молодеет душа.
И во сне прижимаю к губам твою прежнюю руку,
Не дыша.


Снится - снова я мальчик, и снова любовник,
И овраг, и бурьян,
И в бурьяне - колючий шиповник,
И вечерний туман.


Сквозь цветы, и листы, и колючие ветки, я знаю,
Старый дом глянет в сердце моё,
Глянет небо опять, розовея от краю до краю,
И окошко твоё.


Этот голос - он твой, и его непонятному звуку
Жизнь и горе отдам,
Хоть во сне твою прежнюю милую руку
Прижимая к губам.


After the L disaster electricity was banned on Antiterra. In his Commentary Kinbote quotes Shade's poem "The Nature of Electricity" that appeared in the New York magazine The Beau and the Butterfly after the poet’s death:


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.


Science tells us, by the way, that the Earth would not merely fall apart, but vanish like a ghost, if Electricity were suddenly removed from the
world. (note to Line 347)


In his poem Nedvizhnyi strazh dremal na tsarstvennom poroge… (“The stirless sentinel dozed at the royal threshold…” 1824) Pushkin says that Napoleon (sey tsar, "this king") vanished like a dream, like dawn's shade:


То был сей чудный муж, посланник провиденья,
Свершитель роковой безвестного веленья,
Сей всадник, перед кем склонилися цари,
Мятежной вольности наследник и убийца,
         Сей хладный кровопийца,
Сей царь, исчезнувший, как сон, как тень зари.


In the next stanza Pushkin mentions plamya blednoe (the pale fire) of Napoleon's frowning eyes:


Ни тучной праздности ленивые морщины,
Ни поступь тяжкая, ни ранние седины,
Ни пламя бледное нахмуренных очей
Не обличали в нем изгнанного героя,
          Мучением покоя
В морях казненного по манию царей.


In his poem Pushkin mentions "the lindens of Tsarskoe Selo and the towers of Gibraltar:"


И делу своему владыка сам дивился.
Се благо, думал он, и взор его носился
От Тибровых валов до Вислы и Невы,
От сарскосельских лип до башен Гибралтара:
          Всё молча ждёт удара,
Всё пало — под ярем склонились все главы.


"From the hills of the Tiber’s banks to the Vistula and the Neva, / from the lindens of Tsarskoe Selo to the towers of Gibraltar" brings to mind "from Scoto-Scandinavia to the Riviera, Altar and Palermontovia" on a small map of the European part of the British Commonwealth mentioned by Van in Ada. While Palermontovia blends Palermo (a city in and the capital of Sicily) with Lermontov (the author of “The Demon,” 1829-40, and of the prophetical "Prediction," 1830, whose name begins with L), Altar hints at Gibraltar.


The Latin name of Palermo is Panormus. In his essay Panorama Moskvy (“The Panorama of Moscow,” 1834) Lermontov calls the Kremlin altar’ Rossii (“the altar of Russia”) and compares it to phoenix (the legendary bird that is reborn from ashes):


Что сравнить с этим Кремлём, который, окружась зубчатыми стенами, красуясь золотыми главами соборов, возлежит на высокой  горе, как державный венец на челе грозного владыки?..

Он алтарь России, на нём должны совершаться и уже совершались многие жертвы, достойные отечества... Давно ли, как баснословный феникс, он возродился из пылающего своего праха?..


Shade's murderer, Gradus is a member of the Shadows (a regicidal organization). In Russia in the Shadows (1921), a series of articles that H. G. Wells wrote after visiting the Soviet Russia, the author of The War of the Worlds (1898) calls Lenin "the Kremlin dreamer."


In the last game of Flavita (Russian Scrabble) that Van ever played with Ada and Lucette at Ardis Lucette’s letters formed the word Kremlin:


Je ne peux rien faire,’ wailed Lucette, ‘mais rien — with my idiotic Buchstaben, REMNILK, LINKREM...’

‘Look,’ whispered Van, ‘c’est tout simple, shift those two syllables and you get a fortress in ancient Muscovy.’

‘Oh, no,’ said Ada, wagging her finger at the height of her temple in a way she had. ‘Oh, no. That pretty word does not exist in Russian. A Frenchman invented it. There is no second syllable.’

‘Ruth for a little child?’ interposed Van.

‘Ruthless!’ cried Ada.

‘Well,’ said Van, ‘you can always make a little cream, KREM or KREME — or even better — there’s KREMLI, which means Yukon prisons. Go through her ORHIDEYA.’

‘Through her silly orchid,’ said Lucette. (1.36)


Van's and Ada's half-sister Lucette commits suicide by jumping from the deck of Admiral Tobakoff into the Atlantic. In his poem Net, ya ne Bayron, ya drugoy… (“No, I’m not Byron, I’m another…” 1832) Lermontov compares his soul to the ocean in which nadezhd razbitykh gruz (a load of broken hopes) lies:


Нет, я не Байрон, я другой,
Ещё неведомый избранник,
Как он, гонимый миром странник,
Но только с русскою душой.
Я раньше начал, кончу ране,
Мой ум немного совершит;
В душе моей, как в океане,
Надежд разбитых груз лежит.
Кто может, океан угрюмый,
Твои изведать тайны? Кто
Толпе мои расскажет думы?
Я — или Бог — или никто!


No, I'm not Byron, I’m another
yet unknown chosen man,
like him, a persecuted wanderer,
but only with a Russian soul.
I started sooner, I will end sooner,
my mind won’t achieve much;
in my soul, as in the ocean,
lies a load of broken hopes.
Gloomy ocean, who can
find out your secrets? Who
will tell to the crowd my thoughts?
Myself – or God – or none at all!


The last word in Lermontov’s poem is nikto (nobody). Nik. T-o was I. Annenski’s penname. One of the essays in Annenski’s Kniga otrazheniy (“Book of Reflections,” 1906) is entitled Dostoevskiy do katastrofy (“Dostoevski before the Disaster”). In his essay Problema Gamleta (“The Problem of Hamlet”) included in “The Second Book of Reflections” (1909) Annenski says that Hamlet is not Salieri:


Видите ли: зависть художника не совсем то, что наша...
Для художника это - болезненное сознание своей ограниченности и желание делать творческую жизнь свою как можно полнее. Истинный художник и завистлив и жаден... я слышу возражение - пушкинский Моцарт. - Да! Но ведь Гамлет не Сальери. Моцарта же Пушкин, как известно, изменил: его короткая жизнь была отнюдь не жизнью праздного гуляки, а сплошным творческим горением. Труд его был громаден, не результат труда, а именно труд.


In Pushkin’s little tragedy “Mozart and Salieri” (1830) Mozart uses the phrase nikto b (none would):


Когда бы все так чувствовали силу
Гармонии! Но нет: тогда б не мог
И мир существовать; никто б не стал
Заботиться о нуждах низкой жизни;
Все предались бы вольному искусству.


If all could feel like you the power

of harmony! But no: the world

could not go on then. None would

bother with the needs of lowly life;

all would surrender to free art. (Scene II)


Nikto b is Botkin (Shade's, Kinbote's and Gradus's "real" name) in reverse. An American scholar of Russian descent, Professor Vsevolod Botkin went mad and became Shade, Kinbote and Gradus after the tragic death of his daughter Nadezhda (Hazel Shade of Kinbote’s commentary). There is a hope (nadezhda) that, when Kinbote completes his work on Shade’s poem and commits suicide (on Oct. 19, 1959, the anniversary of Pushkin’s Lyceum), Botkin, like Count Vorontsov (a target of Pushkin’s epigrams, “half-milord, half-merchant, etc.”) will be full again.

'Orbicular' always brings to mind a description from Melville's Bartleby (a strange cousin of Gogol's Overcoat) where a rich client Astor is described: "I do not speak it in vanity, but simply record the fact, that I was not unemployed in my profession by the late John Jacob Astor; a name which, I admit, I love to repeat, for it hath a rounded and orbicular sound to it, and rings like unto bullion." The phrasing is impeccable in Melville. 

Sorry for being away and inactive, but may I query of two things: does Kern and Charski have their full name mentioned somewhere in Gift, or is it just engineer Kern and lawyer Charski throughout?

At first I wanted to mention in my post Adam Krug, the main character in VN's novel Bend Sinister (1947) whose surname means "circle" in Russian and "mug" in German, but decided not to do it so as not to cram my post with superfluous information.


It seems that the full names of engineer Kern and lawyer Charski are not mentioned in "The Gift." Tomorrow I will write a separate post (I hope it will be funny) on engineer Kern who intimately knew the late Alexander Blok.