Otar, Arnor & one alin in Pale Fire

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Fri, 09/17/2021 - 10:49

Describing the death of Queen Blenda, 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 his platonic pal Otar, a pleasant and cultured adeling with a tremendous nose and sparse hair:


Her [Queen Blenda] he remembered - more or less: a horsewoman, tall, broad, stout, ruddy-faced. She had been assured by a royal cousin that her son would be safe and happy under the tutelage of admirable Mr. Campbell who had taught several dutiful little princesses to spread butterflies and enjoy Lord Ronald's Coronach. He had immolated his life, so to speak, at the portable altars of a vast number of hobbies, from the study of book mites to bear hunting, and could reel off Macbeth from beginning to end during hikes; but he did not give a damn for his charges' morals, preferred ladies to laddies, and did not meddle in the complexities of Zemblan ingledom. He left, for some exotic court, after a ten-year stay, in 1932 when our Prince, aged seventeen, had begun dividing his time between the University and his regiment. It was the nicest period in his life. He never could decide what he enjoyed more: the study of poetry - especially English poetry - or attending parades, or dancing in masquerades with boy-girls and girl-boys. His mother died suddenly on July 21, 1936, from an obscure blood ailment that had also afflicted her mother and grandmother. She had been much better on the day before - and Charles Xavier had gone to an all-night ball in the so-called Ducal Dome in Grindelwood: for the nonce, a formal heterosexual affair, rather refreshing after some previous sport. At about four in the morning, with the sun enflaming the tree crests and Mt. Falk, a pink cone, the King stopped his powerful car at one of the gates of the palace. The air was so delicate, the light so lyrical, that he and the three friends he had with him decided to walk through the linden bosquet the rest of the distance to the Pavonian Pavilion where guests were lodged. He and Otar, a platonic pal, wore tails but they had lost their top hats to the highway winds. A strange something struck all four of them as they stood under the young limes in the prim landscape of scarp and counterscarp fortified by shadow and countershadow. Otar, a pleasant and cultured adeling with a tremendous nose and sparse hair, had his two mistresses with him, eighteen-year-old Fifalda (whom he later married) and seventeen-year-old Fleur (whom we shall meet in two other notes), daughters of Countess de Fyler, the Queen's favorite lady in waiting. One involuntarily lingers over that picture, as one does when standing at a vantage point of time and knowing in retrospect that in a moment one's life would undergo a complete change. So here was Otar, looking with a puzzled expression at the distant window's of the Queen's quarters, and there were the two girls, side by side, thin-legged, in shimmering wraps, their kitten noses pink, their eyes green and sleepy, their earrings catching and loosing the fire of the sun. There were a few people around, as there always were, no matter the hour, at this gate, along which a road, connecting with the eastern highway, ran. A peasant woman with a small cake she had baked, doubtlessly the mother of the sentinel who had not yet come to relieve the unshaven dark young nattdett (child of night) in his dreary sentry box, sat on a spur stone watching in feminine fascination the luciola-like tapers that moved from window to window; two workmen, holding their bicycles, stood staring too at those strange lights; and a drunk with a walrus mustache kept staggering around and patting the trunks of the lindens. One picks up minor items at such slowdowns of life. The King noticed that some reddish mud flecked the frames of the two bicycles and that their front wheels were both turned in the same direction, parallel to one another. Suddenly, down a steep path among the lilac bushes - a short cut from the Queen's quarters - the Countess came running and tripping over the hem of her quilted robe, and at the same moment, from another side of the palace, all seven councilors, dressed in their formal splendor and carrying like plum cakes replicas of various regalia, came striding down the stairs of stone, in dignified haste, but she beat them by one alin and spat out the news. The drunk started to sing a ribald ballad about "Karlie-Garlie" and fell into the demilune ditch. It is not easy to describe lucidly in short notes to a poem the various approaches to a fortified castle, and so, in my awareness of this problem, I prepared for John Shade, some time in June, when narrating to him the events briefly noticed in some of my comments (see note to line 130, for example), a rather handsomely drawn plan of the chambers, terraces, bastions and pleasure grounds of the Onhava Palace. Unless it has been destroyed or stolen, this careful picture in colored inks on a large (thirty by twenty inches) piece of cardboard might still be where I last saw it in mid-July, on the top of the big black trunk, opposite the old mangle, in a niche of the little corridor leading to the so-called fruit room. If it is not there, it might be looked for in his upper-floor study. I have written about this to Mrs. Shade but she does not reply to my letters. In case it still exists, I wish to beg her, without raising my voice, and very humbly, as humbly as the lowliest of the King's subjects might plead for an immediate restitution of his rights (the plan is mine and is clearly signed with a black chess-king crown after "Kinbote"), to send it, well packed, marked not to be bent on the wrapper, and by registered mail, to my publisher for reproduction in later editions of this work. Whatever energy I possessed has quite ebbed away lately, and these excruciating headaches now make impossible the mnemonic effort and eye strain that the drawing of another such plan would demand. The black trunk stands on another brown or brownish even larger one, and there is I think a stuffed fox or coyote next to them in their dark corner. (note to Line 71)


Otar brings to mind otara ovets (flock of sheep) mentioned by Chekhov at the beginning of his story Schast’ye (“Happiness,” 1887):


У широкой степной дороги, называемой большим шляхом, ночевала отара овец. Стерегли ее два пастуха. Один, старик лет восьмидесяти, беззубый, с дрожащим лицом, лежал на животе у самой дороги, положив локти на пыльные листья подорожника; другой — молодой парень, с густыми черными бровями и безусый, одетый в рядно, из которого шьют дешевые мешки, лежал на спине, положив руки под голову, и глядел вверх на небо, где над самым его лицом тянулся Млечный путь и дремали звезды.


FLOCK of sheep was spending the night on the broad steppe road that is called the great highway. Two shepherds were guarding it. One, a toothless old man of eighty, with a tremulous face, was lying on his stomach at the very edge of the road, leaning his elbows on the dusty leaves of a plantain; the other, a young fellow with thick black eyebrows and no moustache, dressed in the coarse canvas of which cheap sacks are made, was lying on his back, with  his  arms under  his  head, looking  upwards at the sky, where the stars were slumbering and the Milky Way lay stretched exactly above his face.


In Canto One of his poem Shade describes his childhood and mentions the Milky Way:


The regular vulgarian, I daresay,

Is happier: he sees the Milky Way

Only when making water. Then as now

I walked at my own risk: whipped by the bough,

Tripped by the stump. Asthmatic, lame and fat,

I never bounced a ball or swung a bat.


I was the shadow of the waxwing slain

By feigned remoteness in the windowpane.

I had a brain, five senses (one unique);

But otherwise I was a cloutish freak.

In sleeping dreams I played with other chaps

But really envied nothing - save perhaps

The miracle of a lemniscate left

Upon wet sand by nonchalantly deft

Bicycle tires. (ll. 125-139)


In his note to Line 137 (a lemniscate) Kinbote mentions a Zemblan herdsman:


"A unicursal bicircular quartic" says my weary old dictionary. I cannot understand what this has to do with bicycling and suspect that Shade's phrase has no real meaning. As other poets before him, he seems to have fallen here under the spell of misleading euphony.

To take a striking example: what can be more resounding, more resplendent, more suggestive of choral and sculptured beauty, than the word coramen? In reality, however, it merely denotes the rude strap with which a Zemblan herdsman attaches his humble provisions and ragged blanket to the meekest of his cows when driving them up to the vebodar (upland pastures).


Chekhov’s story “Happiness” is dedicated to Yakov Polonski. The author of Progulka po Tiflisu (“A Ramble in Tiflis,” 1846), an epistle to Lyov Sergeevich Pushkin (the poet’s brother), Polonski lived in Tiflis (now Tbilisi) in 1846-51. Otar is a Georgian name. Iosif Dzhugashvili (Stalin’s real name) was a Georgian. In Stalin there is alin (according to Kinbote, Countess de Fyler beat all seven councilors by one alin). Polonski is the author of Prishli i stali teni nochi (“The shadows of the night came and mounted guard at my door,” 1842), a poem that Gogol has copied out in his notebook:


Пришли и стали тени ночи
На страже у моих дверей!
Смелей глядит мне прямо в очи
Глубокий мрак её очей;

Над ухом шепчет голос нежный,
И змейкой бьётся мне в лицо
Её волос, моей небрежной
Рукой измятое, кольцо.

Помедли, ночь! густою тьмою
Покрой волшебный мир любви!
Ты, время, дряхлою рукою
Свои часы останови!

Но покачнулись тени ночи,
Бегут, шатаяся, назад.
Её потупленные очи
Уже глядят и не глядят;

В моих руках рука застыла,
Стыдливо на моей груди
Она лицо своё сокрыла…
О солнце, солнце! Погоди!


The third word in Polonski's poem, stali ("mounted"), brings to mind Stalin. According to Kinbote, the terrible name of the leader of the Shadows (a regicidal organization) cannot be mentioned, even in the Index to the obscure work of a scholar:


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. (Index)


Polonski translated into Russian Bourdillon’s poem “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes:”


Ночь смотрит тысячами глаз,

А день глядит одним;

Но солнца нет — и по земле

Тьма стелется, как дым.


Ум смотрит тысячами глаз,

Любовь глядит одним;

Но нет любви — и гаснет жизнь,

И дни плывут, как дым.


The night has a thousand eyes,

      And the day but one;

Yet the light of the bright world dies

      With the dying sun.


  The mind has a thousand eyes,

      And the heart but one:

Yet the light of a whole life dies

      When love is done.


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,” 1862) is a poem by Polonski:


Я шёл и не слыхал, как пели соловьи,

И не видал, как звёзды загорались,

И слушал я шаги — шаги, не знаю чьи,

За мной в лесной глуши неясно повторялись.

Я думал — эхо, зверь, колышется тростник;

Я верить не хотел, дрожа и замирая,

Что по моим следам, на шаг не отставая,

Идёт не человек, не зверь, а мой двойник.

То я бежать хотел, пугливо озираясь,

То самого себя, как мальчика, стыдил...

Вдруг злость меня взяла — и, страшно задыхаясь,

Я сам пошел к нему навстречу и спросил:

— Что ты пророчишь мне или зачем пугаешь?

Ты призрак иль обман фантазии больной?

— Ах!— отвечал двойник,— ты видеть мне мешаешь

И не даёшь внимать гармонии ночной;

Ты хочешь отравить меня своим сомненьем,

Меня — живой родник поэзии твоей!..

И, не сводя с меня испуганных очей,

Двойник мой на меня глядел с таким смятеньем,

Как будто я к нему среди ночных теней —

Я, а не он ко мне явился привиденьем.


In Polonski’s poem the Double tells to the Poet: “you prevent me from seeing and do not let me listen to the nocturnal harmony (vnimat’ garmonii nochnoy). The last day of Shade’s life has passed in a sustained low hum of harmony:


Gently the day has passed in a sustained

Low hum of harmony. The brain is drained

And a brown ament, and the noun I meant

To use but did not, dry on the cement.

Maybe my sensual love for the consonne

D'appui, Echo's fey child, is based upon

A feeling of fantastically planned,

Richly rhymed life. I feel I understand

Existence, or at least a minute part

Of my existence, only through my art,

In terms of combinational delight;

And if my private universe scans right,

So does the verse of galaxies divine

Which I suspect is an iambic line. (ll. 963-976)


In his essay “F. I. Tyutchev. The Meaning of his Work” Bryusov points out that Tyutchev loved what the French call consonne d'appui (intrusive consonant):


Самая форма стиха у Тютчева, при первом взгляде, кажется небрежной. Но это впечатление ошибочное. За исключением немногих (преимущественно написанных на политические злобы дня), большинство стихотворений Тютчева облечено в очень изысканные метры. Напомним, например, стихи «Грустный вид и грустный час». При беглом чтении не замечаешь в их построении ничего особенного. Лишь потом открываешь тайну прелести их формы. В них средние два стиха первой строфы (3-й и 4-й) рифмуются со средними стихами второй строфы (9-м и 10-м). Притом, чтобы ухо уловило это созвучие, разделенное четырьмя стихами, Тютчев выбрал рифмы особенно полные, в которых согласованы не только буквы после ударяемой гласной, но и предыдущая согласная (которую французы называют consonne d'appui): «гробовой – живой», тумана – Лемана». Примерами не менее утонченного построения могут служить стихотворения: «Поэзия», «Вдали от солнца и природы», «Слезы людские, о слезы людскиe», «Двум сестрам», «Венеция», «Первый лист», «Кончен пир, умолкли хоры». (IV)


Drugu moemu Ya. P. Polonskomu (“To my Friend Ya. P. Polonski,” 1865) is a poem by Tyutchev (the author of “The blue-gray shadows have commingled,” 1836):


Нет боле искр живых на голос твой приветный –
Во мне глухая ночь, и нет для ней утра́...
И скоро улетит – во мраке незаметный –
Последний, скудный дым с потухшего костра.


A ribald ballad about "Karlie-Garlie" brings to mind karlik (as Tyutchev calls Count Nesselrode, the Russian minister of foreign affairs in the reign of Nicholas I):


Нет, карлик мой! трус беспримерный!
Ты, как ни жмися, как ни трусь,
Своей душою маловерной
Не соблазнишь Святую Русь…


and sosna Dalekarlii (a pine of Dalekarlien) mentioned by Bryusov in his poem Stokgol’m (“Stockholm,” 1906):


Словно над глубями зеркала
Ты из гранита возник,
В зыби стремительной Мэлара
Свой разбивая двойник.


Сын вечно женственной родины,
Весь ты в любимую мать!
Трудно ль в осанке усвоенной
Нежность души угадать!


Ты, как сосна Далекарлии, —
Строен, задумчив и прям.
Годы тебя не состарили,
Снегом скользнув по кудрям.


Витязь пленительный Севера,
Ты головой не поник!
Весело в зеркале Мэлара
Твой ускользает двойник.


Bryusov compares Stockholm to a pine of Dalekarlien (a historical province in middle Sweden also known as Dalarna). Dalarna brings to mind the society sculptor and poet Arnor:


Our Prince was fond of Fleur as of a sister but with no soft shadow of incest or secondary homosexual complications. She had a small pale face with prominent cheekbones, luminous eyes, and curly dark hair. It was rumored that after going about with a porcelain cup and Cinderella's slipper for months, the society sculptor and poet Arnor had found in her what he sought and had used her breasts and feet for his Lilith Calling Back Adam; but I am certainly no expert in these tender matters. Otar, her lover, said that when you walked behind her, and she knew you were walking behind her, the swing and play of those slim haunches was something intensely artistic, something Arab girls were taught in special schools by special Parisian panders who were afterwards strangled. Her fragile ankles, he said, which she placed very close together in her dainty and wavy walk, were the "careful jewels" in Arnor's poem about a miragarl ("mirage girl"), for which "a dream king in the sandy wastes of time would give three hundred camels and three fountains."


On ságaren werém tremkín tri stána

Verbálala wod gév ut trí phantána


(I have marked the stress accents).

The Prince did not heed this rather kitschy prattle (all, probably, directed by her mother) and, let it be repeated, regarded her merely as a sibling, fragrant and fashionable, with a painted pout and a maussade, blurry, Gallic way of expressing the little she wished to express. Her unruffled rudeness toward the nervous and garrulous Countess amused him. He liked dancing with her - and only with her. He hardly squirmed at all when she stroked his hand or applied herself soundlessly with open lips to his cheek which the haggard after-the-ball dawn had already sooted. She did not seem to mind when he abandoned her for manlier pleasures; and she met him again in the dark of a car or in the half-glow of a cabaret with the subdued and ambiguous smile of a kissing cousin. (note to Line 80)


Bryusov translated into Russian Antoine Arnault's poem La Feuille ("The Leaf," 1815). In his poem Razocharovanie (“Disappointment,” 1922) Bryusov asks Lilith to call him back one more time:


Вот замолкла, заснула, закуталась
Черным ворохом чуткая полночь.
Дверь в миры отперта; из-за купола
Марс мерцает приближенный. Полно!
Ты — мой бред! ты — мой призрак! Лилит моя!
Мозг пилить невозможным ты снова ль?
Что мы? — капля, в вселенную влитая,
Нить, где взвита в бездонность основа!
Те мечты я сотру, мел на аспиде!
Сеть каналов твоих смажу тушью!
Прокричи из ночи еще раз: «Приди!»
Мне ль углей мировых внять удушью?
Пусть нигде, пусть никто, всех семи планет,
Нам не отзыв, не зов: лед и зной лишь!
Вечность нас зевом медленным выплюнет, —
Мы — лишь бедный цветок, ах! весной ли?
Прежде, после, — ей что? наших выкладок
Ей не брать, — единиц в биллионе!
Звезд ряды строить в небе привыкла так,
Что меня, здесь во тьме, для нее — нет!


In the last line of his poem Sandril’yone (“To Cendrillon,” 1912) Bryusov mentions Cendrillon’s slipper:


Осенний воздух полон ласки.
К моей груди цветок прикалывая,
Ты улыбалась, словно в сказке.
Сменила сказку проза длительная,
В туман слилось очарованье.
Одно, как туфелька пленительная,
Осталось мне — воспоминанье.
Когда, играя, жизнь нас связывает
В беседе тусклой и случайной,
Твой взгляд спокойный не высказывает,
Кем ты была в день свадьбы тайной.
Но мне мила мечта заманчивая, —
Что, нарушая все законы,
Тебе я вновь, свой долг заканчивая,
Надену туфлю Сандрильоны.


At the end of his poem “Stockholm” Bryusov mentions Stockholm’s dvoynik (double) that evades v zerkale Melara (in the mirror of Lake Mälaren). The poems in Bryusov’s collection Zerkalo teney (“The Mirror of Shadows,” 1912) include Prizraki (“The Ghosts”). Describing the forty days after his mother’s death, Kinbote mentions the strong ghost of Queen Blenda and Sudarg of Bokay (Jakob Gradus in reverse), a mirror maker of genius:


Her presence at night did not kill insomnia, but at least kept at bay the strong ghost of Queen Blenda. Between exhaustion and drowsiness, he trifled with paltry fancies, such as getting up and pouring out a little cold water from a decanter onto Fleur's naked shoulder so as to extinguish upon it the weak gleam of a moonbeam. Stentoriously the Countess snored in her lair. And beyond the vestibule of his vigil (here he began falling asleep), in the dark cold gallery, lying all over the painted marble and piled three or four deep against the locked door, some dozing, some whimpering, were his new boy pages, a whole mountain of gift boys from Troth, and Tuscany, and Albanoland.

He awoke to find her standing with a comb in her hand before his - or rather, his grandfather's - cheval glass, a triptych of bottomless light, a really fantastic mirror, signed with a diamond by its maker, Sudarg of Bokay. She turned about before it: a secret device of reflection gathered an infinite number of nudes in its depths, garlands of girls in graceful and sorrowful groups, diminishing in the limpid distance, or breaking into individual nymphs, some of whom, she murmured, must resemble her ancestors when they were young – little peasant garlien combing their hair in shallow water as far as the eye could reach, and then the wistful mermaid from an old tale, and then nothing. (note to Line 80)