mascana fruit & Iris Acht in Pale Fire

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Sat, 08/28/2021 - 06:16

Upon the ex-king’s arrival in America, Sylvia O’Donnell (in VN’s novel Pale Fire, 1962, the mother of Odon, world-famous Zemblan actor who helps the king to escape from Zembla) offers Kinbote (Shade’s mad commentator who imagines that he is Charles the Beloved, the last self-exiled king of Zembla) a mascana fruit (Kinbote is a confirmed vegetarian):


A tray with fruit and drinks was brought in by a jeune beauté, as dear Marcel would have put it, nor could one help recalling another author, Gide the Lucid, who praises in his African notes so warmly the satiny skin of black imps.

"You nearly lost the opportunity to meet our brightest star," said Sylvia who was Wordsmith University's main trustee (and, in point of fact, had been solely responsible for arranging my amusing lectureship there). "I have just called up the college - yes, take that footstool - and he is much better. Try this mascana fruit, I got it especially for you, but the boy is strictly hetero, and, generally speaking, Your Majesty will have to be quite careful from now on. I'm sure you'll like it up there though I wish I could figure out why anybody should be so keen on teaching Zemblan. I think Disa ought to come too. I have rented for you what they say is their best house, and it is near the Shades." (note to Line 691)


The non-existing mascana fruit (plod maskany in Vera Nabokov’s Russian translation) seems to hint at Pietro Mascagni (1863-1945), the Italian operatic composer, author of Cavalleria Rusticana (Rustic Chivalry, 1890). In his poem Gastrol’ Vaal’yary (“Iris” Maskan'yi) (“The Tour of Vaaliara. Mascagni’s Iris”) Igor Severyanin, the author of Ananasy v shampanskom (“Pineapples in Champagne,” 1915), describes a performance in the Royal Theater of Mascagni’s opera Iris (1898):


В королевском театре
Ваальяру рассматривая,
Королева прослушала год не шедшую «Ирис».
Автор сам дирижировал,
А король игнорировал
Потому платья нового помрачительный вырез.
Убаюканный тактами,
Развлекаемый антрактами,
Проводимыми весело в императорской ложе,
Был Масканья блистательный
В настроеньи мечтательном,
И Ее Светозарности было солнечно тоже…
Королевскими просьбами
Привлеченная, гроздями
Бриллиантов сверкавшая, в дверь вошла Ваальяра, —
Прима колоратурная, —
Вся такая ажурная,
Как изыски Бердслеевы, как bеrсеusе’ы Годара
И блестя эполетами,
Бонбоньерку с конфетами,
В виде Леды и Лебедя, предлагает ей Эрик.
Ваальяра кокетничает,
А придворные сплетничают —
Открыватели глупые небывалых Америк…
Композитор признательно,
Правда, очень старательно,
Ей целует под веером надушенную руку.
И король комплиментами,
Загораясь моментами,
Угощает дающую крылья каждому звуку.
Королевой же ласково
(Что там скрыто под маскою?)
Ободряется пламная от смущенья актриса.
И полна благодарности, —
Дар Ее Светозарности
Примадонна пришпилила к лифу ветку ириса.


Mascagni’s seldom performed opera brings to mind Iris Acht, the celebrated Zemblan actress, favorite of Thurgus the Third:


Acht, Iris, celebrated actress, d. 1888, a passionate and powerful woman, favorite of Thurgus the Third (q. v.), 130. She died officially by her own hand; unofficially, strangled in her dressing room by a fellow actor, a jealous young Gothlander, now, at ninety, the oldest, and least important, member of the Shadows (q. v.) group. (Index)


Shadows, the, a regicidal organization which commissioned Gradus (q. v.) to assassinate the self-banished king; its leader's terrible name cannot be mentioned, even in the Index to the obscure work of a scholar; his maternal grandfather, a well-known and very courageous master builder, was hired by Thurgus the Turgid, around 1885, to make certain repairs in his quarters, and soon after that perished, poisoned in the royal kitchens, under mysterious circumstances, together with his three young apprentices whose first names Yan, Yonny, and Angeling, are preserved in a ballad still to be heard in some of our wilder valleys. (ibid.)


Thurgus the Third, surnamed the Turgid. K 's grandfather, d .1900 at seventy-five, after a long dull reign; sponge-bag-capped, and with only one medal on his Jaegar jacket, he liked to bicycle in the park; stout and bald, his nose like a congested plum, his martial mustache bristing with obsolete passion, garbed in a dressing gown of green silk, and carrying a flambeau in his raised hand, he used to meet, every night, during a short period in the middle-Eighties, his hooded mistress, Iris Acht (q. v.) midway between palace and theater in the secret passage later to be rediscovered by his grandson, 130. (ibid.)


The son of Igor II, King Thurgus the Third, surnamed the Turgid, seems to hint at Turgenev. At the end of his sonnet Turgenev (1925) Severyanin mentions Pauline Viardot, the French opera singer of Spanish descent in whose nest Turgenev was allowed to live:


Седой колосс, усталый, старый лев
С глазами умирающей газели,
Он гордый дух, над ним всю жизнь висели
Утесы бед и смерть, оскалив зев…

Как внятен женских русских душ напев
Ему в его трагичной карусели
От Франции и до страны метели,
Где тлел к нему неправый, мелкий гнев…

Его натуре хрупкой однолюба,
Кому претило все, что в жизни грубо,
Верна любовь к певунье, в чье гнездо

Он впущен был, и — горькая победа, —
Ему давала в роли Людоеда
Тургеневу! — Полина Виардо…


Turgenev is the author of Dvoryanskoe gnezdo (“Nest of the Gentry,” 1859). In Canto One of his poem Shade speaks of his dead parents and mentions a preterist, one who collects cold nests:


I was an infant when my parents died.

They both were ornithologists. I've tried

So often to evoke them that today

I have a thousand parents. Sadly they

Dissolve in their own virtues and recede,

But certain words, chance words I hear or read,

Such as "bad heart" always to him refer,

And "cancer of the pancreas" to her.


A preterist: one who collects cold nests.

Here was my bedroom, now reserved for guests.

Here, tucked away by the Canadian maid,

I listened to the buzz downstairs and prayed

For everybody to be always well,

Uncles and aunts, the maid, her niece Adéle

Who'd seen the Pope, people in books, and God. (ll. 71-85)


In Canto Three of his poem Shade describes IPH (a lay Institute of Preparation for the Hereafter) and mentions the preterist again:



Was a larvorium and a violet:

A grave in Reason's early spring. And yet

It missed the gist of the whole thing; it missed

What mostly interests the preterist;

For we die every day; oblivion thrives

Not on dry thighbones but on blood-ripe lives,

And our best yesterdays are now foul piles

Of crumpled names, phone numbers and foxed files. (ll. 514-522)


According to Shade, he and his colleagues called I.P.H. “If” (“big if!”):


L'if, lifeless tree! Your great Maybe, Rabelais:

The grand potato.

                                    I.P.H., a lay

Institute (I) of Preparation (P)

For the Hereafter (H), or If, as we

Called it - big if! - engaged me for one term

To speak on death ("to lecture on the Worm,"

Wrote President McAber).

                                                      You and I,

And she, then a mere tot, moved from New Wye

To Yewshade, in another, higher state. (ll. 501-509)


O, esli b (“O, if only”) and A esli net (“And if not”) are poems by Severyanin (the "ego-futurist”). In his epigram on Severyanin Shasha Chyorny calls Severyanin galantnyi bradobrey (“the gallant barber”):


Весь напомаженный, пустой поэзофат

Бесстыдно рявкнул, легких не жалея:

«Поэт, как Дант, мыслитель, как Сократ,

Не я ль достиг в искусстве апогея?!»


Достиг, увы… Никто из писарей

Не сочинил подобного «изыска»…

Поверьте мне, галантный брадобрей,—

Теперь не миновать вам обелиска.


In his Foreword to Shade’s poem Kinbote mentions his brown beard:


Alas, my peace of mind was soon to be shattered. The thick venom of envy began squirting at me as soon as academic suburbia realized that John Shade valued my society above that of all other people. Your snicker, my dear Mrs. C., did not escape our notice as I was helping the tired old poet to find his galoshes after that dreary get-together party at your house. One day I happened to enter the English Literature office in quest of a magazine with the picture of the Royal Palace in Onhava, which I wanted my friend to see, when I overheard a young instructor in a green velvet jacket, whom I shall mercifully call Gerald Emerald, carelessly saying in answer to something the secretary had asked: "I guess Mr. Shade has already left with the Great Beaver." Of course I am quite tall, and my brown beard is of a rather rich tint and texture; the silly cognomen evidently applied to me, but was not worth noticing, and after calmly taking the magazine from a pamphlet-cluttered table, I contented myself on my way out with pulling Gerald Emerald's bow-tie loose with a deft jerk of my fingers as I passed by him. There was also the morning when Dr. Nattochdag, head of the department to which I was attached, begged me in a formal voice to be seated, then closed the door, and having regained, with a downcast frown, his swivel chair, urged me "to be more careful." In what sense, careful? A boy had complained to his adviser. Complained of what, good Lord? That I had criticized a literature course he attended ("a ridiculous survey of ridiculous works, conducted by a ridiculous mediocrity"). Laughing in sheer relief, I embraced my good Netochka, telling him I would never be naughty again. I take this opportunity to salute him. He always behaved with such exquisite courtesy toward me that I sometimes wondered if he did not suspect what Shade suspected, and what only three people (two trustees and the president of the college) definitely knew.


The Barber of Seville is an opera by Rossini. While the surname Rossini comes from the Italian word for "red," the surname Verdi (of another operatic composer) comes from the Italian word for "green." The red-and-green opposition is important in Pale Fire.


In Canto Four of his poem Shade describes shaving:


Since my biographer may be too staid

Or know too little to affirm that Shade

Shaved in his bath, here goes: "He'd fixed a sort

Of hinge-and-screw affair, a steel support

Running across the tub to hold in place

The shaving mirror right before his face

And with his toe renewing tap-warmth, he'd


Sit like a king there, and like Marat bleed."

The more I weigh, the less secure my skin;

In places it's ridiculously thin;

Thus near the mouth: the space between its wick

And my grimace, invites the wicked nick.

Or this dewlap: some day I must set free

The Newport Frill inveterate in me.

My Adam's apple is a prickly pear:

Now I shall speak of evil and despair

As none has spoken. Five, six, seven, eight,

Nine strokes are not enough. Ten. I palpate

Through strawberry-and-cream the gory mess

And find unchanged that patch of prickliness. (ll. 887-906)


According to Severyanin, Pauline Viardot made Turgenev perform in the role of Lyudoed (L’ogre, libretto by Turgenev). In his epigram on Maxim Gorki Sasha Chyorny mentions lyudoed (presumably, Lenin) from whom Gorki managed to escape:


Пролетарский буревестник,

Укатив от людоеда,

Издает в Берлине вестник

С кроткой вывеской «Беседа».

Анекдотцы, бормотанье,—

(Буревестник, знать, зачах!) —

И лояльное молчанье

О советских палачах…


At the end of his poem Po spravedlivosti ("In All Fairness," 1918) Severyanin calls Lenin moy dvoynik (my double):


Его бесспорная заслуга

Есть окончание войны.

Его приветствовать, как друга

Людей, вы искренне должны.


Я – вне политики, и, право,

Мне все равно, кто б ни был он.

Да будет честь ему и слава,

Что мир им, первым, заключен.


Когда людская жизнь в загоне,

И вдруг – ее апологет,

Не все ль равно мне – как: в вагоне

Запломбированном иль нет?..


Не только из вагона – прямо

Пускай из бездны бы возник!

Твержу настойчиво-упрямо:

Он, в смысле мира, мой двойник.


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”).


In his memoir essay Groza v Gertsegovine (“A Thunderstorm in Herzegovina,” 1940) Severyanin (who lived in Estonia) describes his trip with Iris (as Severyanin calls his companion) to Yugoslavia at the end of 1930 and mentions King Alexander (who received cordially Russian writers):


Отсияло лето 1930 года, веселое и журчливое, уехала в Таллинн моя неизменная спутница-форелистка, готовая ловить «алокрапчатых стрелок» и под проливным дождем, и снова Тойла, спрятав до весны свое рядное зеленое платье с сиреневой отделкой, облачилась в затрапезную желтую кофту осени…

Прихрамывая, приближался октябрь. В его седой улыбке таилась безнадежность.

— На юг? — спросил я Ирис. Она ответила утвердительно. В эту осень мы решили поехать в Югославию Билеты купили до Белграда. Мы там не знали решительно никого. Одно нам было известно: к русским писателям там относятся бережно и радушно. Незадолго перед этим в Белграде был съезд зарубежных писателей. Король Александр принимал их сердечно. (I)


On Oct. 9, 1934, king Alexander I of Yugoslavia was assassinated by the Bulgarian Vlado Chernozemski, during a state visit to France. At the end of Canto Three of his poem Shade mentions the murder of a Balkan king:


Yes! It sufficed that I in life could find

Some kind of link-and-bobolink, some kinde

Of correlated pattern in the game,

Plexed artistry, and something of the same

Pleasure in it as they who played it found.


It did not matter who they were. No sound,

No furtive light came from their involute

Abode, but there they were, aloof and mute,

Playing a game of worlds, promoting pawns

To ivory unicorns and ebon fauns;

Kindling a long life here, extinguishing

A short one there; killing a Balkan king;

Causing a chunk of ice formed on a high

Flying airplane to plummet from the sky

And strike a farmer dead; hiding my keys,

Glasses or pipe. Coordinating these

Events and objects with remote events

And vanished objects. Making ornaments

Of accidents and possibilities.


Stormcoated, I strode in: Sybil, it is

My firm conviction - "Darling, shut the door.

Had a nice trip?" Splendid - but what is more

I have returned convinced that I can grope

My way to some - to some - "Yes, dear?" Faint hope. (ll. 811-834)


The assassination of Alexander I of Yugoslavia took place in Marseille. In his poem Piroskaf (“Pyroscaphe,” 1844) Baratynski says that he had solved many restless questions, before the hands of the Marseille sailors weighed the anchor, a symbol of hope:


Дикою, грозною ласкою полны,
Бьют в наш корабль средиземные волны.
Вот над кормою стал капитан.
Визгнул свисток его. Братствуя с паром,
Ветру наш парус раздался недаром:
Пенясь, глубоко вздохнул океан!

Мчимся. Колеса могучей машины
Роют волнистое лоно пучины.
Парус надулся. Берег исчез.
Наедине мы с морскими волнами,
Только что чайка вьется за нами
Белая, рея меж вод и небес.

Только вдали, океана жилица,
Чайке подобна, вод его птица,
Парус развив, как большое крыло,
С бурной стихией в томительном споре,
Лодка рыбачья качается в море,-
С брегом набрежное скрылось, ушло!

Много земель я оставил за мною;
Вынес я много смятенной душою
Радостей ложных, истинных зол;
Много мятежных решил я вопросов.
Прежде чем руки марсельских матросов
Подняли якорь, надежды символ!

С детства влекла меня сердца тревога
В область свободную влажного бога:
Жадные длани я к ней простирал,
Темную страсть мою днесь награждая,
Кротко щадит меня немочь морская:
Пеною здравья брызжет мне вал!

Нужды нет, близко ль, далеко ль до брега!
В сердце к нему приготовлена нега.
Вижу Фетиду; мне жребий благой
Емлет она из лазоревой урны:
Завтра увижу я башни Ливурны,
Завтра увижу Элизий земной!


The “real” name of Hazel Shade (the poet’s daughter who “always nursed a small mad hope” and who was born in 1934) seems to be Nadezhda Botkin. After her tragic death, her father, Professor Vsevolod Botkin, went mad and became Shade, Kinbote and Gradus. Nadezhda means “hope.” There is a hope 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.


Baratynski wrote “Pyroscaphe” (btw., pyros is Greek for “fire”), one of his last poems, in the spring of 1844, on a steamboat bound for Italy. In the poem’s last two lines Baratynski (who suddenly died on July 11, 1844, in Naples) says that tomorrow he will see the towers of Livorno, the earthly Elysium. Pietro Mascagni was born in Livorno. Baratynski is the author of Piry ("The Feasts," 1821).


At the end of his poem Shade says that he is reasonably sure that he will wake at six tomorrow, on July the twenty-second:


I'm reasonably sure that we survive

And that my darling somewhere is alive,

As I am reasonably sure that I

Shall wake at six tomorrow, on July

The twenty-second, nineteen fifty-nine,

And that the day will probably be fine;

So this alarm clock let me set myself,

Yawn, and put back Shade's "Poems" on their shelf. (ll. 977-984)


Shade is sure that his daughter somewhere is alive. In his poem Moy Elizey (“My Elysium,” 1831) written soon after Delvig’s death Baratynski says that in his Elysium (that the shades of the dead inhabit) Delvig is alive and over the bowl is still joking with him:


Не славь, обманутый Орфей,
Мне Элизийские селенья:
Элизий в памяти моей
И не кропим водой забвенья.
В нём мир цветущий старины
Умерших тени населяют,
Привычки жизни сохраняют
И чувств её не лишены.
Там жив ты, Дельвиг! там за чашей
Ещё со мною шутишь ты,
Поёшь веселье дружбы нашей
И сердца юные мечты.


Do not glorify, deceived Orpheus,
Elysian villages for me:
Elysium in my memory
Is not sprinkled with the water of oblivion.
In it is the world of blooming antiquity
The shades of the dead inhabit,
Keep the habits of life
And are not deprived of its feelings.
There you are alive, Delvig! there over the bowl
You are still joking with me
Sings the fun of our friendship
And the heart’s young dreams.


King Alexander I of Yugoslavia was born on March 28, 1888. VN’s father was assassinated on March 28, 1922, in Berlin (VN was reading to his mother Alexander Blok’s poem about Florence in which Florence is compared to a smoky iris, when the telephone rang). Dvadtsat’ vosem’ (“Twenty-Eight,” 1931) is a poem by Severyanin written at Colonel Slivinski’s Adriatic villa Flora Mira near Dubrovnik (Ragusa):


Мы взбираемся на Ловчен.
Мы бежим под облака.
Будь на поворотах ловче,
Руль держащая рука!

Сердце старое не старо,
Молодо хотя б на час:
У подножья гор Каттаро
Двадцать восемь встало раз!

Почему так много? — спросим.
На вопрос ответ один:
Потому что двадцать восемь,
Двадцать восемь серпантин!

Мы пьянеем, пламенеем
От развернутых картин.
Грандиозным вьются змеем
Двадцать восемь серпантин!

Адриатика под нами,
Мы уже в снегах вершин.
В тридцать километров знамя —
Двадцать восемь серпантин!