windowpane in Pale Fire

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Thu, 09/09/2021 - 16:45

At the beginning of his poem John Shade (the poet in VN’s novel Pale Fire, 1962) says that he was the shadow of the waxwing slain by the false azure in the windowpane:


I was the shadow of the waxwing slain

By the false azure in the windowpane;

I was the smudge of ashen fluff - and I

Lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky. (ll. 1-4)


In his travel book Fregat Pallada (“The Frigate Pallada,” 1858) Goncharov describes his visit to Japan (a closed country in those days) and quotes the words of the admiral (the captain of the Fregate Pallada) who told to Kavadzi (an official who met the Russians) “your windows are glued up with paper, it is cold and dark in the rooms from this, we shall bring you glass and teach you how to make it, it is better than paper and cheap:”


Однажды в частной беседе адмирал доказывал, что японцы напрасно боятся торговли; что торговля может только разлить довольство в народе и что никакая нация от торговли не приходила в упадок, а, напротив, богатела.

Приводили им в пример, чем бы иностранцы могли торговать с ними. "Вон, например, у вас заметен недостаток в первых домашних потребностях: окна заклеены бумагой, – говорил адмирал, глядя вокруг себя, – от этого в комнатах и темно, и холодно; вам привезут стекла, научат, как это делать. Это лучше бумаги и дешево стоит". "У нас, – далее говорил он, – в Камчатке и других местах, около лежащих, много рыбы, а соли нет; у вас есть соль: давайте нам ее, и мы вам же будем возить соленую рыбу, которая составляет главную пищу в Японии. Зачем употреблять вам все руки на возделывание риса? употребите их на добывание металлов, а рису вам привезут с Зондских островов – и вы будете богаче…" – "Да, – прервал Кавадзи, вдруг подняв свои широкие веки, – хорошо, если б иностранцы возили рыбу, стекло да рис и тому подобные необходимые предметы; а как они будут возить вон этакие часы, какие вы вчера подарили мне, на которые у нас глаза разбежались, так ведь японцы вам отдадут последнее…" А ему подарили прекрасные столовые астрономические часы, где кроме обыкновенного циферблата обозначены перемены луны и вставлены два термометра. Мы все засмеялись, и он тоже. "Впрочем, примите эти слова как доказательство только того, что мне очень нравятся часы", – прибавил он.


According to Kinbote (Shade’s mad commentator who imagines that he is Charles the Beloved, the last self-exiled king of Zembla), Gradus (Shade’s murderer) was in the glass business:


Gradus never became a real success in the glass business to which he turned again and again between his wine-selling and pamphlet printing jobs. He started as a maker of Cartesian devils--imps of bottle glass bobbing up and down in methylate-filled tubes hawked during Catkin Week on the boulevards. He also worked as a teazer, and later as a flasher, at governmental factories--and was, I believe, more or less responsible for the remarkably ugly red-and-amber windows in the great public lavatory at rowdy but colorful Kalixhaven where the sailors are. He claimed to have improved the glitter and rattle of the so-called feuilles-d'alarme used by the grape growers and orchardmen to scare the birds. I have staggered the notes referring to him in such a fashion that the first (see note to line 17) where some of his other activities are adumbrated) is the vaguest while those that follow become gradually clearer as gradual Gradus approaches in space and time. (note to Line 171)


Describing Gradus’ day in New York, Kinbote mentions a Zemblan moppet who cried to her Japanese friend: Ufgut, ufgut, velkam ut Semblerland! (Adieu, adieu, till we meet in Zembla!):


He [Gradus] began with the day's copy of The New York Times. His lips moving like wrestling worms, he read about all kinds of things. Hrushchov (whom they spelled "Khrushchev") had abruptly put off a visit to Scandinavia and was to visit Zembla instead (here I tune in: "Vï nazïvaete sebya zemblerami, you call yourselves Zemblans, a ya vas nazïvayu zemlyakami, and I call you fellow countrymen!" Laughter and applause.) The United States was about to launch its first atom-driven merchant ship (just to annoy the Ruskers, of course. J. G.). Last night in Newark, an apartment house at 555 South Street was hit by a thunderbolt that smashed a TV set and injured two people watching an actress lost in a violent studio storm (those tormented spirits are terrible! C. X. K. teste J. S.). The Rachel Jewelry Company in Brooklyn advertised in agate type for a jewelry polisher who "must have experience on costume jewelry (oh, Degré had!). The Helman brothers said they had assisted in the negotiations for the placement of a sizable note: "$11, 000, 000, Decker Glass Manufacturing Company, Inc., note due July 1, 1979," and Gradus, grown young again, reread this this twice, with the background gray thought, perhaps, that he would be sixty-four four days after that (no comment). On another bench he found a Monday issue of the same newspaper. During a visit to a museum in Whitehorse (Gradus kicked at a pigeon that came too near), the Queen of England walked to a corner of the White Animals Room, removed her right glove and, with her back turned to several evidently observant people, rubbed her forehead and one of her eyes. A pro-Red revolt had erupted in Iraq. Asked about the Soviet exhibition at the New York Coliseum, Carl Sandburg, a poet, replied, and I quote: "They make their appeal on the highest of intellectual levels." A hack reviewer of new books for tourists, reviewing his own tour through Norway, said that the fjords were too famous to need (his) description, and that all Scandinavians loved flowers. And at a picnic for international children a Zemblan moppet cried to her Japanese friend: Ufgut, ufgut, velkam ut Semblerland! (Adieu, adieu, till we meet in Zembla!) I confess it has been a wonderful game - this looking up in the WUL of various ephemerides over the shadow of a padded shoulder. (note to Line 949)


The Zemblan name of Zembla, Semblerland seems to blend sembler (French for “to appear, to seem”) with Sember, the Tatar name of Ulyanovsk. Simbirsk (Ulyanovsk’s old name) is the home city of Goncharov. It was renamed Ulyanovsk in 1924, after Lenin’s death (Vladimir Ulyanov was born here in 1870). Kinbote mockingly calls Gradus “Vinogradus” and “Leningradus.”


The Admiral (as Goncharov calls vice-admiral Putyatin, the captain of the frigate “Pallada”) brings to mind the Red Admiral, a butterfly mentioned (as “a dark Vanessa”) by Shade at the end of his poem:


But it's not bedtime yet. The sun attains

Old Dr. Sutton's last two windowpanes.

The man must be - what? Eighty? Eighty-two?

Was twice my age the year I married you.

Where are you? In the garden. I can see

Part of your shadow near the shagbark tree.

Somewhere horseshoes are being tossed. Click, Clunk.

(Leaning against its lamppost like a drunk.)

A dark Vanessa with crimson band

Wheels in the low sun, settles on the sand

And shows its ink-blue wingtips flecked with white.

And through the flowing shade and ebbing light

A man, unheedful of the butterfly -

Some neighbor's gardener, I guess - goes by

Trundling an empty barrow up the lane. (ll. 985-999)


In his Commentary Kinbote writes:


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)


It is so like the heart of a scholar in search of a fond name to pile a butterfly genus upon an Orphic divinity on top of the inevitable allusion to Vanhomrigh, Esther! In this connection a couple of lines from one of Swift's poems (which in these backwoods I cannot locate) have stuck in my memory:


When, lo! Vanessa in her bloom

Advanced like Atalanta's star


As to the Vanessa butterfly, it will reappear in lines 993-995 (to which see note). Shade used to say that its Old English name was The Red Admirable, later degraded to The Red Admiral. It is one of the few butterflies I happen to be familiar with. Zemblans call it harvalda (the heraldic one) possibly because a recognizable figure of it is borne in the escutcheon of the Dukes of Payn. In the autumn of certain years it used to occur rather commonly in the Palace Gardens and visit the Michaelmas daisies in company with a day-flying moth. I have seen The Red Admirable feasting on oozy plums and, once, on a dead rabbit. It is a most frolicsome fly. An almost tame specimen of it was the last natural object John Shade pointed out to me as he walked to his doom (see, see now, my note to lines 993-995).

I notice a whiff of Swift in some of my notes. I too am a desponder in my nature, an uneasy, peevish, and suspicious man, although I have my moments of volatility and fou rire. (note to Line 270)


In Canto Two of his poem Shade addresses his wife and calls her “my dark Vanessa:”


Come and be worshiped, come and be caressed,

My dark Vanessa, crimson-barred, my blest

My Admirable butterfly! Explain

How could you, in the gloam of Lilac Lane,

Have let uncouth, hysterical John Shade

Blubber your face, and ear, and shoulder blade? (ll. 169-274)


Sybil Shade (the poet’s wife) and Queen Disa (the wife of Charles the Beloved) seem to be one and the same person whose “real” name is Sofia Botkin, born Lastochkin. Goncharov was a friend of Vasiliy Botkin, the author of Pis’ma ob Ispanii (“Lettres about Spain,” 1851). In Gogol’s story Zapiski sumasshedshego (“The Notes of a Madman,” 1835) Poprishchin (who imagines that he is Ferdinand VIII, the king of Spain) says that Spain and China are one and the same country: write on paper “Spain” and you will read “China.”  


According to Goncharov, in his conversation with Kavadzi the admiral mentioned Kamchatka. O Kamchatke (“About Kamchatka,” 1837) is the last unfinished article by Pushkin. The maiden name of Pushkin’s wife was Goncharov. In January 1837 (less than three weeks before his fatal duel with d’Anthès) Pushkin received from K. T. Khlebnikov who had lived in America (where he had first read Pushkin's works) a letter offering Pushkin, the editor of Sovremennik (The Contemporary), Khlebnikov's "Introduction into a Historical Review of Russian [Colonial] Possessions in America:"


Милостивый государь Александр Сергеевич.
Один из здешних литераторов, будучи у меня в квартире, прочитал писанное мной для себя введение в историческое обозрение российских владений в Америке и, не знаю почему одобрив его, советовал напечатать в Вашем или другом журнале, принимая на себя труд передать мою рукопись. Не привыкши к посредничеству, я решился представить Вам, милостивый государь, эту записку и если Вы удостоите её прочесть и найдете достойною поместить в Вашем журнале, тогда предоставляю её в Ваше полное распоряжение с покорнейшею просьбою поправить не исправный слог человека, не готовившегося быть писателем и почти полудикаря. Если бы случилось, что некоторые мысли мои будут противны Вашим, тогда их можно уничтожить; но буде Вам угодно будет на что либо пояснения, тогда по первой повестке за особенную честь себе поставлю явиться к Вам, или куда назначите, для ответа.
Извините меня, милостивый государь, что осмелился беспокоить Вас вызовом моим с представлением ничтожного маранья. Моё дело было и есть удивляться Вашим образцовым произведениям, с которыми ознакомился, проживая в новом свете, и которые обязали меня быть к Вам всегда с полным уважением и преданностию милостивый государь покорнейшим слугой Кирил Хлебников
Января 7 дня 1837 года


In his poem on Pushkin’s death Tyutchev calls d’Anthès tsareubiytsa (a regicide). According to Kinbote, his name means in Zemblan “regicide.” Shade’s murderer, Gradus is a member of the Shadows (a regicidal organization). Teni sizye smesilis'... (The blue-gray shadows got commingled," 1835) is a poem by Tyutchev. Ni khrupkie teni Yaponii (“Neither the delicate shadows of Japan,” 1915) is a poem by Velimir Khlebnikov:


Ни хрупкие тени Японии,

Ни вы, сладкозвучные Индии дщери,

Не могут звучать похороннее,

Чем речи последней вечери.


Пред смертью жизнь мелькает снова,

Но очень скоро и иначе.

И это правило – основа

Для пляски смерти и удачи.


Neither the delicate shadows of Japan,

nor you, the sweet-voiced daughters of India,

can sound more funereal

than the talks of the Last Supper.


Before death life can be glimpsed again,

but very quickly and differently.

And this rule is the basis

for the dance of death and luck.


In his poem Tam, gde zhili sviristeli (“There where the waxwings lived…” 1908)  Khlebnikov mentions besporyadok dikiy teney (a wild confusion of shadows):


Там, где жили свиристели,
Где качались тихо ели,
Пролетели, улетели
Стая лёгких времирей.
Где шумели тихо ели,
Где поюны крик пропели,
Пролетели, улетели
Стая легких времирей.
В беспорядке диком теней,
Где, как морок старых дней,
Закружились, зазвенели
Стая лёгких времирей.
Стая лёгких времирей!
Ты поюнна и вабна,
Душу ты пьянишь, как струны,
В сердце входишь, как волна!
Ну же, звонкие поюны,
Славу легких времирей!


In VN’s story Rozhdestvo (“Christmas,” 1924) the boy in his diary calls Goncharov’s “Frigate” a deadly bore:


— Пожалуйста, убери,— повторил Слепцов и нагнулся над принесенным ящиком. В нем он собрал вещи сына — сачок, бисквитную коробку с каменным коконом, расправилки, булавки в лаковой шкатулке, синюю тетрадь. Первый лист тетради был наполовину вырван, на торчавшем клочке осталась часть французской диктовки. Дальше шла запись по дням, названия пойманных бабочек и другие заметы: «Ходил по болоту до Боровичей...», «Сегодня идет дождь, играл в шашки с папой, потом читал скучнейшую «Фрегат Палладу», «Чудный жаркий день. Вечером ездил на велосипеде. В глаз попала мошка. Проезжал, нарочно два раза, мимо ее дачи, но ее не видел...»


Please take it away,” repeated Sleptsov, and bent over the case he had brought. In it he had gathered his son’s belongings—the folding butterfly net, the biscuit tin with the pear-shaped cocoon, the spreading boards, the pins in their lacquered box, the blue notebook. Half of the first page had been torn out, and its remaining fragment contained part of a French dictation. There followed daily entries, names of captured butterflies, and other notes:


Walked across the bog as far as Borovichi . . .

Raining today. Played checkers with Father, then read Goncharov’s “Frigate,” a deadly bore.

Marvellous hot day. Rode my bike in the evening. A midge got in my eye. Deliberately rode by her dacha twice, but didn’t see her. . . .


In his Notes VN says that his story “Christmas” oddly resembles the type of chess problem called “selfmate.” It seems that exactly the same can be said of Pale Fire. At the end of his Commentary Kinbote says that he will continue to exist. But on Oct. 19, 1959 (the anniversary of Pushkin's Lyceum), after completing his work on Shade's poem, Kinbote commits suicide. There is a hope that, after Kinbote's death, Botkin, like Count Vorontsov (a target of Pushkin’s epigrams, “half-milord, half-merchant, etc.”), will be full again. 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’s “real” name). Nadezhda means “hope.”


In Greek mythology Athena Pallada was the goddess of wisdom who was born out of the head of Zeus. Shade borrowed the title of his last poem from Shakespeare's Timon of Athens.


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 Goncharov's novel Obryv ("The Precipice," 1869) Rayski asks Vera if she has a dvoynik (double):


— Есть ли такой ваш двойник, — продолжал он, глядя на нее пытливо, — который бы невидимо ходил тут около вас, хотя бы сам был далеко, чтобы вы чувствовали, что он близко, что в нем носится частица вашего существования, и что вы сами носите в себе будто часть чужого сердца, чужих мыслей, чужую долю на плечах, и что не одними только своими глазами смотрите на эти горы и лес, не одними своими ушами слушаете этот шум и пьете жадно воздух теплой и темной ночи, а вместе...

Она взглянула на него, сделала какое-то движение, и в одно время с этим быстрым взглядом блеснул какой-то будто внезапный свет от ее лица, от этой улыбки, от этого живого движения. Райский остановился на минуту, но блеск пропал, и она неподвижно слушала.

— Тогда только, — продолжал он, стараясь объяснить себе смысл ее лица, — в этом во всем и есть значение, тогда это и роскошь, и счастье. Боже мой, какое счастье! Есть ли у вас здесь такой двойник, — это другое сердце, другой ум, другая душа, и поделились ли вы с ним, взамен взятого у него, своей душой и своими мыслями?.. Есть ли?

— Есть! — с примесью грудного шепота произнесла она.

— Есть! Кто же это счастливое существо? — с завистью, почти с испугом, даже ревностью, спросил он.

Она помолчала немного.

— А... попадья, у которой я гостила: вам, верно, сказали о ней! — отвечала Вера и, встав со стула, стряхнула с передника крошки от сухарей.

— Попадья! — недоверчиво повторил Райский.

— Да, она — мой двойник: когда она гостит у меня, мы часто и долго любуемся с ней Волгой и не наговоримся, сидим вон там на скамье, как вы угадали... Вы не будете больше пить кофе? Я велю убрать... (Part Two, chapter XVI)


According to Vera, her dvoynik is popad'ya (the priest's wife). The surname Rayski comes from ray (paradise). The capital of Zembla, Onhava seems to hint at heaven. Vera's younger sister Marfen'ka is a namesake of Cincinnatus' wife in VN's novel Priglashenie na kazn' ("Invitation to a Beheading," 1935).