Modems & Karlists in Pale Fire

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Sat, 07/03/2021 - 16:54

Describing the Zemblan Revolution, Kinbote (in VN’s novel Pale Fire, 1962, Shade's mad commentator who imagines that he is Charles the Beloved, the last self-exiled king of Zembla) mentions the Modems (Moderate Democrats):


In simple words I described the curious situation in which the King found himself during the first months of the rebellion. He had the amusing feeling of his being the only black piece in what a composer of chess problems might term a king-in-the-corner waiter of the solus rex type. The Royalists, or at least the Modems (Moderate Democrats), might have still prevented the state from turning into a commonplace modern tyranny, had they been able to cope with the tainted gold and the robot troops that a powerful police state from its vantage ground a few sea miles away was pouring into the Zemblan Revolution. Despite the hopelessness of the situation, the King refused to abdicate. A haughty and morose captive, he was caged in his rose-stone palace from a corner turret of which one could make out with the help of field glasses lithe youths diving into the swimming pool of a fairy tale sport club, and the English ambassador in old-fashioned flannels playing tennis with the Basque coach on a clay court as remote as paradise. How serene were the mountains, how tenderly painted on the western vault of the sky! (note to Line 130)


In a letter of December 1, 1823, from Odessa to Alexander Turgenev in St. Petersburg Pushkin says that the other day he wrote an imitation of the fable by the moderate democrat Jesus Christ:


Эта строфа ныне не имеет смысла, но она писана в начале 1821 года — впрочем это мой последний либеральный бред, я закаялся и написал на днях подражание басне умеренного демократа Иисуса Христа (Изыде сеятель сеяти семена своя):


Свободы сеятель пустынный...

[An anchoretic sower of freedom...]


In the same letter of Dec. 1, 1823, Pushkin informs Turgenev that he writes a new poem, Eugene Onegin, and that two cantos are already finished:


Жуковскому грех; чем я хуже принцессы Шарлотты, что он мне ни строчки в три года не напишет. Правда ли, что он переводит «Гяура»? а я на досуге пишу новую поэму, «Евгений Онегин», где захлёбываюсь желчью. Две песни уже готовы.


In his letter to Turgenev Pushkin complains that Zhukovski does not write to him. In a letter of Feb. 25 – Mar. 8, 1837 (a month after Pushkin's death), to Count Benckendorff (the chief of the political police of Nicholas I) Zhukovski says that Pushkin was an enemy of the July Revolution and a Karlist (advocate of Charles X, king of France in 1824-30):


Пушкин был враг Июльской революции. По убеждению своему он был карлист…


The supporters of Charles the Beloved, the last king of Zembla, are known as the Karlists:


A group of especially devout Extremists calling themselves the Shadows had got together and swore to hunt down the King and kill him wherever he might be. They were, in a sense, the shadow twins of the Karlists and indeed several had cousins or even brothers among the followers of the King. No doubt, the origin of either group could be traced to various reckless rituals in student fraternities and military clubs, and their development examined in terms of fads and anti-fads; but whereas an objective historian associates a romantic and noble glamor with Karlism, its shadow group must strike one as something definitely Gothic and nasty. (note to Line 171)


In his Commentary Kinbote calls Sybil Shade (the poet’s wife) “a domestic anti-Karlist:”


Line 12: that crystal land


Perhaps an allusion to Zembla, my dear country. After this, in the disjointed, half-obliterated draft which I am not at all sure I have deciphered properly:


Ah, I must not forget to say something

That my friend told me of a certain king.


Alas, he would have said a great deal more if a domestic anti-Karlist had not controlled every line he communicated to her! Many a time have I rebuked him in bantering fashion: "You really should promise to use all that wonderful stuff, you bad gray poet, you!" And we would both giggle like boys. But then, after the inspiring evening stroll, we had to part, and grim night lifted the drawbridge between his impregnable fortress and my humble home. (note to Line 12)


Kinbote calls Shade "bad grey poet." Walt Whitman was "a good grey poet." Sasha Chyorny's poem Pervaya lastochka ("The First Swallow," 1931) is addressed to President Hoover and written "in the manner of Walt Whitman." The “real” name of both Sybil Shade and Queen Disa (the wife of Charles the Beloved) seems to be Sofia Botkin, born Lastochkin. At the end of Pamyati A. M. Chyornogo ("In Memory of A. M. Chyorny," 1932) VN mentions Chyorny's gentle, charming shade:


Мне неприятно, повторяю, соваться со своей автобиографией, да и кажется, не я один могу вспомнить его помощь, - мне только хотелось как-нибудь выразить запоздалую благодарность, теперь, когда я уже не могу послать ему письма, писание которого почему-то откладывал, теперь, когда все кончено, теперь, когда от него осталось только несколько книг и тихая, прелестная тень.


Chyornyi means “black.”Kinbote compares the King to the only black piece in what a composer of chess problems might term a king-in-the-corner waiter of the solus rex type. Kinbote hoped that Shade would entitle his poem Solus Rex:


We know how firmly, how stupidly I believed that Shade was composing a poem, a kind of romaunt, about the King of Zembla. We have been prepared for the horrible disappointment in store for me. Oh, I did not expect him to devote himself completely to that theme! It might have been blended of course with some of his own life stuff and sundry Americana - but I was sure his poem would contain the wonderful incidents I had described to him, the characters I had made alive for him and all the unique atmosphere of my kingdom. I even suggested to him a good title - the title of the book in me whose pages he was to cut: Solus Rex, instead of which I saw Pale Fire, which meant to me nothing. I started to read the poem. I read faster and faster. I sped through it, snarling, as a furious young heir through an old deceiver's testament. Where were the battlements of my sunset castle? Where was Zembla the Fair? Where her spine of mountains? Where her long thrill through the mist? And my lovely flower boys, and the spectrum of the stained windows, and the Black Rose Paladins, and the whole marvelous tale?

Nothing of it was there! The complex contribution I had been pressing upon him with a hypnotist's patience and a lover's urge was simply not there. Oh, but I cannot express the agony! Instead of the wild glorious romance - what did I have? An autobiographical, eminently Appalachian, rather old-fashioned narrative in a neo-Popian prosodic style - beautifully written of course - Shade could not write otherwise than beautifully - but void of my magic, of that special rich streak of magical madness which I was sure would run through it and make it transcend its time. (note to Line 1000)


“The Black Rose Paladins” bring to mind a black rose in a goblet of Ay (champagne) in Alexander Blok’s poem V restorane (“In a Restaurant,” 1910):


Я сидел у окна в переполненном зале.

Где-то пели смычки о любви.

Я послал тебе чёрную розу в бокале

Золотого, как нёбо, аи.


I sat by the window in a crowded room.

Distant bows were singing of love.

I sent you a black rose in a goblet

Of champagne, golden as the sky.


One of Blok’s poems begins Ne zatem velichal ya sebya paladinom… (“Not for that I called myself a paladin…” 1908):


Не затем величал я себя паладином,

Не затем ведь и ты приходила ко мне,

Чтобы только рыдать над потухшим камином,

Чтобы только плясать при умершем огне!


Или счастие вправду неверно и быстро?

Или вправду я слаб уже, болен и стар?

Нет! В золе ещё бродят последние искры,

Есть огонь, чтобы вспыхнул пожар!


At the end of Blok’s poem Dvenadtsat’ (“The Twelve,” 1918) Jesus Christ appears carrying a blood-red flag:


Так идут державным шагом —
Позади — голодный пёс,
Впереди — с кровавым флагом,
И за вьюгой невидим,
И от пули невредим,
Нежной поступью надвьюжной,
Снежной россыпью жемчужной,
В белом венчике из роз —
Впереди — Исус Христос.


So they march with sovereign tread ...
Behind them limps the hungry dog,
and wrapped in wild snow at their head
carrying a blood-red flag
soft-footed where the blizzard swirls,
invulnerable where bullets crossed
crowned with a crown of snowflake pearls,
in a white wreath of roses,
ahead of them goes Jesus Christ.


In Zembla red is the royal color:


It was a lovely breezy afternoon. with a western horizon like a luminous vacuum that sucked in one's eager heart. The King, now at the most critical point of his journey, looked about him, scrutinizing the few promenaders and trying to decide which of them might be police agents in disguise, ready to pounce upon him as soon as he vaulted the parapet and made for the Rippleson Caves. Only a single sail dyed a royal red marred with some human interest the marine expanse. Nitra and Indra (meaning "inner" and "outer"), two black islets that seemed to address each other in cloaked parley, were being photographed from the parapet by a Russian tourist, thickset, many-chinned, with a general's fleshy nape. His faded wife, wrapped up floatingly in a flowery écharpe, remarked in singsong Moscovan "Every time I see that kind of frightful disfigurement I can't help thinking of Nina's boy. War is an awful thing."

"War?" queried her consort. "That must have been the explosion at the Glass Works in 1951 - not war." They slowly walked past the King in the direction he had come from. On a sidewalk bench, facing the sea, a man with his crutches beside him was reading the Onhava Post which featured on the first page Odon in an Extremist uniform and Odon in the part of the Merman. Incredible as it may seem the palace guard had never realized that identity before. Now a goodly sum was offered for his capture. Rhythmically the waves lapped the shingle. The newspaper reader's face had been atrociously injured in the recently mentioned explosion, and all the art of plastic surgery had only resulted in a hideous tessellated texture with parts of pattern and parts of outline seeming to change, to fuse or to separate, like fluctuating cheeks and chins in a distortive mirror. (note to Line 149)


According to Kinbote, the king escaped from Zembla clad in bright red clothes:


A professor of physics now joined in. He was a so-called Pink, who believed in what so-called Pinks believe in (Progressive Education, the Integrity of anyone spying for Russia, Fall-outs occasioned solely by US-made bombs, the existence in the near past of a McCarthy Era, Soviet achievements including Dr. Zhivago, and so forth): "Your regrets are groundless" [said he]. "That sorry ruler is known to have escaped disguised as a nun; but whatever happens, or has happened to him, cannot interest the Zemblan people. History has denounced him, and that is his epitaph."

Shade: "True, sir. In due time history will have denounced everybody. The King may be dead, or he may be as much alive as you and Kinbote, but let us respect facts. I have it from him [pointing to me] that the widely circulated stuff about the nun is a vulgar pro-Extremist fabrication. The Extremists and their friends invented a lot of nonsense to conceal their discomfiture; but the truth is that the King walked out of the palace, and crossed the mountains, and left the country, not in the black garb of a pale spinster but dressed as an athlete in scarlet wool." (note to Line 894)


At the beginning of a poem that he contributed to the school magazine Victor Wind (in VN’s novel Pnin, 1957, Liza Bogolepov’s son who imagines that his father is a king) mentions Mona Lisa’s nun-pale lips:


Leonardo! Strange diseases
strike at madders mixed with lead:
nun-pale now are Mona Lisa's
lips that you had made so red. (Chapter Four, 5)


Duchess of Payn, of Great Payn and Mone, Queen Disa seems to be a cross between Leonardo’s Mona Lisa and Desdemona, Othello’s wife in Shakespeare’s Othello. At the end of his note to Line 894 Kinbote compares Gerald Emerald (a young instructor at Wordsmith University) to a disciple in Leonardo’s Last Supper (a painting that features Jesus Christ):


In the meantime, at the other end of the room, young Emerald had been communing with the bookshelves. At this point he returned with the T-Z volume of an illustrated encyclopedia.

"Well, said he, "here he is, that king. But look, he is young and handsome" ("Oh, that won't do," wailed the German visitor). "Young, handsome, and wearing a fancy uniform," continued Emerald. "Quite the fancy pansy, in fact."

"And you," I said quietly, "are a foul-minded pup in a cheap green jacket."

"But what have I said?" the young instructor inquired of the company, spreading out his palms like a disciple in Leonardo's Last Supper.

"Now, now," said Shade. "I'm sure, Charles, our young friend never intended to insult your sovereign and namesake."

"He could not, even if he had wished," I observed placidly, turning it all into a joke.

Gerald Emerald extended his hand - which at the moment of writing still remains in that position.