glass houses in Pale Fire

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Fri, 09/10/2021 - 10:53

According to 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), he once told Shade "people who live in glass houses should not write poems:"


Today it would be impossible for me to describe Shade's house in terms of architecture or indeed in any terms other than those of peeps and glimpses, and window-framed opportunities. As previously mentioned (see Foreword), the coming of summer presented a problem in optics: the encroaching foliage did not always see eye to eye with me: it confused a green monocle with an opaque occludent, and the idea of protection with that of obstruction. Meanwhile (on July 3 according to my agenda) I had learned - not from John but from Sybil - that my friend had started to work on a long poem. After not having seen him for a couple of days, I happened to be bringing him some third-class mail from his box on the road, adjacent to Goldsworth's (which I used to ignore, crammed as it was with leaflets, local advertisements, commercial catalogues, and that kind of trash) and ran into Sybil whom a shrub had screened from my falcon eye. Straw-hatted and garden-gloved, she was squatting on her hams in front of a flower bed and pruning or tying up something, and her close-fitting brown trousers reminded me of the mandolin tights (as I jokingly called them) that my own wife used to wear. She said not to bother him with those ads and added the information about his having "begun a really big poem." I felt the blood rush to my face and mumbled something about his not having shown any of it to me yet, and she straightened herself, and swept the black and gray hair off her forehead, and stared at me, and said: "What do you mean – shown any of it? He never shows anything unfinished. Never, never. He will not even discuss it with you until it is quite, quite finished." I could not believe it, but soon discovered on talking to my strangely reticent friend that he had been well coached by his lady. When I endeavored to draw him out by means of good-natured sallies such as: "People who live in glass houses should not write poems," he would only yawn and shake his head, and retort that "foreigners ought to keep away from old saws." Nevertheless the urge to find out what he was doing with all the live, glamorous, palpitating, shimmering material I had lavished upon him, the itching desire to see him at work (even if the fruit of his work was denied me), proved to be utterly agonizing and uncontrollable and led me to indulge in an orgy of spying which no considerations of pride could stop. (note to Lines 47-48)


In Tynyanov's novel Pushkin (1936) Vasiliy Lvovich Pushkin describes his trip to Paris and praises Mme Récamier's mansion to his Moscow friends: Steklo, steklo i steklo. Vezde steklo. ("Glass, glass and glass. Glass is all around.") (Part One, Chapter Four, 5). A constant visitor of Mme Récamier's salon was Chateaubriand. Describing the King’s arrival in America, Kinbote mentions Chateaubriand:


John Shade's heart attack (Oct .17, 1958) practically coincided with the disguised king's arrival in America where he descended by parachute from a chartered plane piloted by Colonel Montacute, in a field of hay-feverish, rank-flowering weeds, near Baltimore whose oriole is not an oriole. It had all been perfectly timed, and he was still wrestling with the unfamiliar French contraption when the Rolls-Royce from Sylvia O'Donnell's manor turned toward his green silks from a road and approached along the mowntrop, its fat wheels bouncing disapprovingly and its black shining body slowly gliding along. Fain would I elucidate this business of parachuting but (it being a matter of mere sentimental tradition rather than a useful manner of transportation) this is not strictly necessary in these notes to Pale Fire. While Kingsley, the British chauffeur, an old and absolutely faithful retainer, was doing his best to cram the bulky and ill-folded parachute into the boot, I relaxed on a shooting stick he had supplied me with, sipping a delightful Scotch and water from the car bar and glancing (amid an ovation of crickets and that vortex of yellow and maroon butterflies that so pleased Chateaubriand on his arrival in America) at an article in The New York Times in which Sylvia had vigorously and messily marked out in red pencil a communication from New Wye which told of the poet's hospitalization. I had been looking forward to meeting my favorite American poet who, as I felt sure at the moment, would die long before the Spring Term, but the disappointment was little more than a mental shrug of accepted regret, and discarding the newspaper, I looked around me with enchantment and physical wellbeing despite the congestion in my nose. Beyond the field the great green steps of turf ascended to the multicolored coppices; one could see above them the white brow of the manor; clouds melted into the blue. Suddenly I sneezed, and sneezed again. Kingsley offered me another drink but I declined it, and democratically joined him in the front seat. My hostess was in bed, suffering from the aftereffects of a special injection that she had been given in anticipation of a journey to a special place in Africa. In answer to my "Well, how are you?" she murmured that the Andes had been simply marvelous, and then in a slightly less indolent tone of voice inquired about a notorious actress with whom her son was said to be living in sin. Odon, I said, had promised me he would not marry her. She inquired if I had had a good hop and dingled a bronze bell. Good old Sylvia! She had in common with Fleur de Fyler a vagueness of manner, a languor of demeanor which was partly natural and partly cultivated as a convenient alibi for when she was drunk, and in some wonderful way she managed to combine that indolence with volubility reminding one of a slow-speaking ventriloquist who is interrupted by his garrulous doll. Changeless Sylvia! During three decades I had seen from time to time, from palace to palace, that same flat nut-colored bobbed hair, those childish pale-blue eyes, the vacant smile, the stylish long legs, the willowy hesitating movements. (note to Line 691)


In Tynyanov's story Voskovaya Persona ("The Wax Person," 1931) Stockholm is mentioned as Stekol'nyi gorod ("Glass city”), an old Russian corruption of the name of the Swedish Capital. In Tynyanov's Pushkin (Part One, Chapter Six, 2) Montfort (Pushkin's tutor, "a homeless Frenchman") recites Scarron's famous lines about the Otherworld:


Tout pres de l'ombre d'un rocher
J'apercu l'ombre d'un cocher,
Qui, tenant l'ombre d'une brosse,
En frottait l'ombre d'un carrosse.


According to Kinbote, after line 274 of Shade's poem there is a false start in the draft: "I like my name: Shade, Ombre, almost 'man' / In Spanish...":


John Shade and Sybil Swallow (see note to line 247) were married in 1919, exactly three decades before King Charles wed Disa, Duchess of Payn. Since the very beginning of his reign (1936-1958) representatives of the nation, salmon fishermen, non-union glaziers, military groups; worried relatives, and especially the Bishop of Yeslove, a sanguineous and saintly old man, had been doing their utmost to persuade him to give up his copious but sterile pleasures and take a wife. It was a matter not of morality but of succession. As in the case of some of his predecessors, rough alderkings who burned for boys, the clergy blandly ignored our young bachelor's pagan habits, but wanted him to do what an earlier and even more reluctant Charles had done: take a night off and lawfully engender an heir.

He saw nineteen-year-old Disa for the first time on the festive night of July the 5th, 1947, at a masked ball in his uncle's palace. She had come in male dress, as a Tirolese boy, a little knock-kneed but brave and lovely, and afterwards he drove her and her cousins (two guardsmen disguised as flower-girls) in his divine new convertible through the streets to see the tremendous birthday illumination, and the fackeltanz in the park, and the fireworks, and the pale upturned faces. He procrastinated for almost two years but was set upon by inhumanly eloquent advisers, and finally gave in. On the eve of his wedding he prayed most of the night locked up all alone in the cold vastness of the Onhava cathedral. Smug alderkings looked at him from the ruby-and-amethyst windows. Never had he so fervently asked God for guidance and strength (see further my note to lines 433-434).

After line 274 there is a false start in the draft:


I like my name: Shade, Ombre, almost "man"

In Spanish...


One regrets that the poet did not pursue this theme - and spare his reader the embarrassing intimacies that follow. (note to Line 275)


Shade’s poem is almost finished, when the author is killed by Gradus (who never became a real success in the glass business to which he turned again and again between his wine-selling and pamphlet printing jobs). 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”). At the beginning of his essay “Pushkin and Tyutchev” (1926) Tynyanov says that beside Pushkin, without moving a step away from him, lives and develops his dvoynik (double), his shadow – “Pushkin in ages:”


Рядом с Пушкиным, не отходя от него ни на шаг, живет и развивается его двойник, его тень — «Пушкин в веках».


Ne otkhodya ot nego ni na shag (without moving a step away from him) brings to mind ne otkhodya ni shagu proch’ (not stirring a step away), a phrase used by Pushkin at the beginning of Eugene Onegin (One: I: 8):


Мой дядя самых честных правил,
Когда не в шутку занемог,
Он уважать себя заставил
И лучше выдумать не мог;
Его пример другим наука;
Но, Боже мой, какая скука
С больным сидеть и день и ночь,
Не отходя ни шагу прочь!
Какое низкое коварство
Полуживого забавлять,
Ему подушки поправлять,
Печально подносить лекарство,
Вздыхать и думать про себя:
Когда же чёрт возьмет тебя!»


“My uncle has most honest principles:

when he was taken gravely ill,

he forced one to respect him

and nothing better could invent.

To others his example is a lesson;

but, good God, what a bore to sit

by a sick person day and night, not stirring

a step away!

What base perfidiousness

to entertain one half-alive,

adjust for him his pillows,

sadly serve him his medicine,

sigh — and think inwardly

when will the devil take you?”


The author of Opasnyi sosed ("The Dangerous Neighbor," 1811), Vasiliy Lvovich Pushkin was Alexander Pushkin’s uncle. In a letter of Sept. 9, 1830, to Pletnyov (to whom Eugene Onegin is dedicated) Pushkin quotes the last words of his uncle (who died on Aug. 20, 1830): Kak skuchny statyi Katenina! ("How dull are the articles of Katenin!"):


Бедный дядя Василий! знаешь ли его последние слова? приезжаю к нему, нахожу его в забытьи, очнувшись, он узнал меня, погоревал, потом, помолчав: как скучны статьи Катенина! и более ни слова. Каково? вот что значит умереть честным воином, на щите, le cri de guerre a la bouche!


Just before Shade is killed by Gradus, Kinbote (Shade’s dangerous neighbor) invites the poet to a glass of Tokay at his place:


"Well," I said, "has the muse been kind to you?"

"Very kind," he replied, slightly bowing his hand-propped head. "exceptionally kind and gentle. In fact, I have here [indicating a huge pregnant envelope near him on the oilcloth] practically the entire product. A few trifles to settle and [suddenly striking the table with his fist] I've swung it, by God."

The envelope, unfastened at one end, bulged with stacked cards.

"Where is the missus?" I asked (mouth dry).

"Help me, Charlie, to get out of here," he pleaded. "Foot gone to sleep. Sybil is at a dinner-meeting of her club."

"A suggestion," I said, quivering. "I have at my place half a gallon of Tokay. I'm ready to share my favorite wine with my favorite poet. We shall have for dinner a knackle of walnuts, a couple of large tomatoes, and a bunch of bananas. And if you agree to show me your 'finished product,' there will be another treat: I promise to divulge to you why I gave you, or rather who gave you, your theme."
"What theme?" said Shade absently, as he leaned on my arm and gradually recovered the use of his numb limb.
"Our blue inenubilable Zembla, and the red-caped Steinmann, and the motorboat in the sea cave, and-"
"Ah," said Shade, "I think I guessed your secret quite some time ago. But all the same I shall sample your wine with pleasure. Okay, I can manage by myself now." (note to Line 991)


In his poem Otvet Kateninu (“Reply to Katenin,” 1828) Pushkin quotes a line from Derzhavin’s poem Filosofy p’yanyi i trezvyi (“Philosophers, Drunk and Sober,” 1789), Ne p’yu, lyubeznyi moy sosed! (“I do not drink, my gent neighbor!”):


Напрасно, пламенный поэт,
Свой чудный кубок мне подносишь
И выпить за здоровье просишь:
Не пью, любезный мой сосед!
Товарищ милый, но лукавый,
Твой кубок полон не вином,
Но упоительной отравой:
Он заманит меня потом
Тебе во след опять за славой.
Не так ли опытный гусар,

Вербуя рекрута, подносит
Ему весёлый Вакха дар,
Пока воинственный угар
Его на месте не подкосит?
Я сам служивый ― мне домой
Пора убраться на покой.
Останься ты в строях Парнаса;
Пред делом кубок наливай
И лавр Корнеля или Тасса
Один с похмелья пожинай.


Pushkin’s poem is a reply to Katenin’s Staraya byl’ (“A True Story of Old,” 1828), a parody on Pushkin’s Stansy (“Stanzas,” 1826). Pushkin’s "Stanzas" begin as follows:


V nadezhde slavy i dobra
Smotryu vperyod ya bez boyazni…


In the hope of glory and good
I look forward without fear…


Hazel Shade’s “real” name seems to be Nadezhda Botkin. After her tragic death her father, Professor Vsevolod Botkin (an American scholar of Russian descent) 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.


In a letter of Apr. 11, 1831, to Pletnyov Pushkin asks Pletnyov (who was slow to reply to Pushkin’s letters) if he is still alive and calls him ten’ vozlyublennaya (the beloved shade):


Воля твоя, ты несносен: ни строчки от тебя не дождёшься. Умер ты, что ли? Если тебя уже нет на свете, то, тень возлюбленная, кланяйся от меня Державину и обними моего Дельвига.


Re "almost man:" Chelovek ("Man") is a sonnet by Nik. T-o ("Mr. Nobody," I. Annenski's penname):


Я завожусь на тридцать лет,

Чтоб жить, мучительно дробя

Лучи от призрачных планет

На "да" и "нет", на "ах!" и "бя",


Чтоб жить, волнуясь и скорбя

Над тем, чего, гляди, и нет...

И был бы, верно, я поэт,

Когда бы выдумал себя,


В работе ль там не без прорух,

Иль в механизме есть подвох,

Но был бы мой свободный дух -


Теперь не дух, я был бы бог...

Когда б не пиль да не тубо,

Да не тю-тю после бо-бо!..


In his poem O veshchaya dusha moya... ("O my prophetic soul," 1855) Tyutchev says that his soul lives in two worlds:


О вещая душа моя,
О сердце, полное тревоги, –
О, как ты бьешься на пороге
Как бы двойного бытия!...

Так ты – жилица двух миров,
Твой день – болезненный и страстный,
Твой сон – пророчески-неясный,
Как откровение духо́в...

Пускай страдальческую грудь
Волнуют страсти роковые –
Душа готова, как Мария,
К ногам Христа навек прильнуть.