little Christopher & Grimm, old groom in Pale Fire

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Thu, 09/23/2021 - 10:04

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), his note to Line 493 of Shade’s poem (She took her poor young life) is not an apology of suicide:


The following note is not an apology of suicide – it is the simple and sober description of a spiritual situation.

The more lucid and overwhelming one's belief in Providence, the greater the temptation to get it over with, this business of life, but the greater too one's fear of the terrible sin implicit in self-destruction. Let us first consider the temptation. As more thoroughly discussed elsewhere in this commentary (see note to line 550), a serious conception of any form of afterlife inevitably and necessarily presupposes some degree of belief in Providence; and, conversely, deep Christian faith presupposes some belief in some sort of spiritual survival. The vision of that survival need not be a rational one, i. e., need not present the precise features of personal fancies or the general atmosphere of a subtropical Oriental park. In fact, a good Zemblan Christian is taught that True faith is not there to supply pictures or maps, but that it should quietly content itself with a warm haze of pleasurable anticipation. To take a homely example: little Christopher's family is about to migrate to a distant colony where his father has been assigned to a lifetime post. Little Christopher, a frail lad of nine or ten, relies completely (so completely, in fact, as to blot out the very awareness of this reliance) on his elders' arranging all the details of departure, passage and arrival. He cannot imagine, nor does he try to imagine, the particular aspects of the new place awaiting him but he is dimly and comfortably convinced that it will be even better than his homestead, with the big oak, and the mountain, and his pony, and the park, and the stable, and Grimm, the old groom, who has a way of fondling him whenever nobody is around.


Little Christopher is a namesake of Father Hristofor, the old priest in Chekhov’s novella Step’. Istoriya odnoy poyezdki (“The Steppe: The Story of a Journey,” 1888). In his novella Chekhov evokes a chaise journey across the steppe through the eyes of Yegorushka, a boy of nine sent to live away from home, along with several companions, including his parish priest and his uncle, a merchant. Chekhov was awarded the Pushkin Prize for “The Steppe.” In a letter of Oct. 9, 1888, to Mme Lintvaryov (the owner of a farm in Ukraine where Chekhov spent the previous summer) Chekhov says that the prize award will be officially announced at the Academy on October 19:


Получил я известие, что Академия наук присудила мне Пушкинскую премию в 500 р. Это, должно быть, известно уже Вам из газетных телеграмм. Официально объявят об этом 19-го октября в публичном заседании Академии с подобающей случаю классической торжественностью. Это, должно быть, за то, что я раков ловил.

Премия, телеграммы, поздравления, приятели, актёры, актрисы, пьесы — всё это выбило меня из колеи. Прошлое туманится в голове, я ошалел; тина и чертовщина городской, литераторской суеты охватывают меня, как спрут-осьминог. Всё пропало! Прощай лето, прощайте раки, рыба, остроносые челноки, прощай моя лень, прощай голубенький костюмчик.


Прощай, покой, прости, мое довольство!
Всё, всё прости! Прости, мой ржущий конь,
И звук трубы, и грохот барабана,
И флейты свист, и царственное знамя,
Все почести, вся слава, всё величье
И бурные тревоги славных войн!

Простите вы, смертельные орудья,
Которых гул несется по земле,
Как грозный гром бессмертного Зевеса!


Если когда-нибудь страстная любовь выбивала Вас из прошлого и настоящего, то то же самое почти я чувствую теперь. Ах, нехорошо всё это, доктор, нехорошо! Уж коли стал стихи цитировать, то, стало быть, нехорошо!


Chekhov quotes Othello’s speech in Shakespeare’s Othello (3.3) in Veynberg’s translation:


Farewell the tranquil mind! farewell content!
Farewell the plumed troop, and the big wars,
That make ambition virtue! O, farewell!
Farewell the neighing steed, and the shrill trump,
The spirit-stirring drum, the ear-piercing fife,
The royal banner, and all quality,
Pride, pomp and circumstance of glorious war!
And, O you mortal engines, whose rude throats
The immortal Jove's dead clamours counterfeit,


In the next scene (3.4) of Shakespeare's tragedy Othello mentions a two-hundred-year-old Egyptian sibyl who gave his mother a magic handkerchief:


'Tis true. There’s magic in the web of it.

A sibyl, that had numbered in the world

The sun to course two hundred compasses,

In her prophetic fury sewed the work.

The worms were hallowed that did breed the silk,

And it was dyed in mummy which the skillful

Conserved of maidens' hearts.


In his Commentary Kinbote calls Sybil Shade (the poet's wife) “Sybil Swallow:”


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. (note to Line 275)


Duchess of Payn, of Great Payn and Mone, Queen Disa seems to be a cross between Leonardo's Mona Lisa and Othello's wife Desdemona. In fact, Sybil Shade and Queen Disa seem to be one and the same person whose "real" name is Sofia Botkin, born Lastochkin (lastochka is Russian for "swallow").


In Shakespeare’s history play Richard III Richmond says that true hope is swift and flies with swallow’s wings:


True hope is swift, and flies with swallow’s wings.

Kings it makes gods, and meaner creatures kings. (Act V, scene 2)


In a letter of June 11, 1831, to Vyazemski Pushkin asks Vyazemski if Sofia Karamzin reigns on the saddle and quotes King Richard's famous words at the end of Shakespeare’s play (5.4):


Что Софья Николаевна? царствует на седле? A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse!


“A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse!” is the epigraph to Vyazemski's poem Progulka v stepi ("A Ride in the Steppe," 1831) dedicated to Sofia Karamzin (the historian’s daughter). In a letter of July 14 and 15, 1831, to Pushkin Vyazemski calls Alexander Turgenev (who was Vyazemski’s guest at Ostafievo and who wrote a postscript to Vyazemski’s letter) nash malen’kiy Grimm-piligrim ("our little Grimm the pilgrim," after Baron Friedrich Melchior von Grimm, 1723-1807, a German critic mentioned by Pushkin in Eugene Onegin, One: XXIV: 10):


Ты так стал акуратен в переписке своей, что по неволе подозреваю тебя в боязни холеры: ты не хочешь умереть с долгами на совести. Вот и холера к чему-нибудь пригодилась. Нет, батюшка государь мой Александр Сергеевич, ста рублей не придам Вам за мебли: сказать по совести, довольно будет с Вас и того, что я ни гроша не беру за прокат и что можете пользоваться ими до приезда моего. Пожалуй, придам еще и проценты, которые с Вас не возьму за деньги мною отданные Вам заимообразно. Вот видите, и я готовлюсь на всякий случай предать душу богу и холере и очищаю себя богоугодными делами. Очень жалею за тебя, что Жуковского не будет в Царском Селе. Пожалуй, давай готовить альманах: дорожная котомка нашего маленького Гримма-пилигрима у меня в руках. Пили Гримма, да и полно! Страниц дватцать или тритцать напилим славных.


In his postscript Alexander Turgenev says that the teaching of Jesus embraces the whole man and is infinite, if, raising the thought to heaven, does not make us even here dobrymi zemlyakami (good earthlings):


В письме к Чад.<аеву> о его рукописи много справедливого. Поставь на место католицизма — христианство, и всё будет на месте; но в том-то и ошибка его и предтечей его: Мейстера, Бональда, Ламене, Свечиной. — На словах и в записочках я часто бесил сию превосходно мыслящую четверку тем же замечанием; но они не сдаются ни на рассуждения, ни на историю, в коей видят только Рим и церковь, а не мир и религию. Чадаев попал на ту же мысль, или лучше увлечен ими на ту же дорогу, хотя он — выслушивает и другую сторону: т. е. читает и протестантов; но находит в них или подтверждение своему взгляду на историю, или слабые доказательства, кои спешит обессилить, или устраняется от состязания когда доводы противников слишком сильны. — Это кабинетное занятие было бы спасительно и для его ментально-физического здоровья, о котором пишу к Жуковскому, — но болезнь, т. е. хандра его, имеет корень в его характере и в неудовлетворенном самолюбии, которое впрочем всем сердцем извиняю, и постигаю. Мало по малу я хочу напомнить ему, что учение христ.<ово> объемлет всего человека и бесконечно, естьли, возводя мысль к небу, не делает нас и [на земле] здесь добрыми земляками и не позволяет нам уживаться с людьми в англ.<ийском> Московском клобе; деликатно хочу напомнить ему, что можно и должно менее обращать на себя и на das liebe Ich внимания, менее ухаживать за собою, а более за другими, не повязывать пять галстуков в утро, менее даже и холить свои ногти и зубы и свой желудок; а избыток отдавать тем, кои и от крупиц падающих сыты и здоровы. Тогда и холеры и гемороя менее будем бояться: до нас ли? сказал один мудрец в 30 лет, за жизнь коего в Царе-граде, во время греческого восстания, страшился брат в П.<етер>Бурге. Тогда и жизнь и смерть — и болезнь — и всё получит смысл; но не это письмо: à l'impossible nul n'est tenu.


The word zemlyak (fellow countryman) used by Turgenev in the sense zemlyanin (earthling) comes from zemlya (earth, land). At the beginning of his poem Tsar’ Nikita i sorok ego docherey (“Tsar Nikita and his Forty Daughters,” 1822) Pushkin mentions zemlya:


Царь Никита жил когда-то
Праздно, весело, богато,
Не творил добра, ни зла,
И земля его цвела.

Tsar Nikita lived once upon a time
idly, merrily, rich,
doing nor a good, nor an evil thing
and his land flourished.


Describing Gradus’ day in New York, Kinbote mentions Nikita Khrushchov’s visit to Zembla:


He 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: "Vi 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 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, velkum 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)


In Pushkin’s frivolous poem tsar Nikita’s forty daughters are beautiful but lack one little thing:


Словом, с головы до ног
Душу, сердце всё пленяло.
Одного не доставало.
Да чего же одного?
Так, безделки, ничего.
Ничего иль очень мало,
Всё равно - не доставало.

In a word, from head to toe
all captivated one’s soul, heart;
Only one thing was missing.
But what was is it?
So, a gaud, nothing.
Nothing or very little,
All the same - it was lacking.


In a letter of Dec. 1, 1826, to Alekseev Pushkin makes a self-reference by quoting a line in his poem (well known to Alekseev, Pushkin’s Kishinev friend) about tsar Nikita and his forty daughters:


Nadezhdy net il’ ochen’ malo.
There is no hope or very little.


In his poem Nadezhdoy sladostnoy mladencheski dysha ("Breathing youthfully with sweet hope," 1823) Pushkin says that, had he believed in immortality of his soul, he would destroy life, urodlivyi kumir (the ugly idol):


Надеждой сладостной младенчески дыша,
Когда бы верил я, что некогда душа,
От тленья убежав, уносит мысли вечны,
И память, и любовь в пучины бесконечны, -
Клянусь! давно бы я оставил этот мир:
Я сокрушил бы жизнь, уродливый кумир,
И улетел в страну свободы, наслаждений,
В страну, где смерти нет, где нет предрассуждений,
Где мысль одна плывёт в небесной чистоте...


Но тщетно предаюсь обманчивой мечте;
Мой ум упорствует, надежду презирает...
Ничтожество меня за гробом ожидает...
Как, ничего! Ни мысль, ни первая любовь!
Мне страшно... И на жизнь гляжу печален вновь,
И долго жить хочу, чтоб долго образ милый
Таился и пылал в душе моей унылой.


Ot tlen'ya ubezhav (having fled decay) in the poem's third line brings to mind tlen'ya ubezhit ([my soul] will flee decay), a phrase used by Pushkin his poem Exegi monumentum (1836):


Нет, весь я не умру — душа в заветной лире
Мой прах переживёт и тленья убежит —
И славен буду я, доколь в подлунном мире
Жив будет хоть один пиит.


No, I’ll not wholly die. My soul in the sacred lyre
Is to survive my dust and flee decay;
And I’ll be famed while there remains alive
In the sublunar world at least one poet.


In his Eugene Onegin Commentary (vol. II, pp. 310-311) VN points out that in Exegi monumentum Pushkin stanza for stanza parodies Derzhavin’s Pamyatnik (“The Monment,” 1796). The poem's last line, I ne osporivay gluptsa (and do not contradict the fool), although ostensibly referring to reviewers, slyly implies that only fools proclaim their immortality.


The “real” name of Hazel Shade (the poet’s daughter who took her poor young life) 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 (the poet’s murderer). 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.


Btw., it was Alexander Turgenev who in 1811 helped to enroll Pushkin in the Lyceum and who in February, 1837, accompanied Pushkin’s coffin to the Svyatye Gory monastery where the poet was buried.


Chekhov’s story Zhizn’ prekrasna! (“Life is Beautiful!” 1885) has the subtitle Pokushayushchimsya na samoubiystvo (To Those who Want to Commit Suicide).


On the other hand, Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723) is the English architect who built St. Paul's Cathedral in London. Legend says that Apostle Paul was beheaded by Emperor Nero’s order. His head struck the earth in three different places in which fountains sprang forth. Abbazia delle Tre Fontane (Abbey of the Three Fountains), an abbey in Rome on the spot of Apostle Paul's execution, brings to mind tri phantana (three fountains) in Arnor's poem about a miragarl:


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)


In his poem Tri klyucha ("Three Springs," 1827) Pushkin (the author of "The Fountain of Bakhchisaray," 1821-23) twice mentions mirskaya step' (the mundane steppe):


В степи мирской, печальной и безбрежной,
Таинственно пробились три ключа:
Ключ юности, ключ быстрый и мятежный,
Кипит, бежит, сверкая и журча.
Кастальский ключ волною вдохновенья
В степи мирской изгнанников поит.
Последний ключ — холодный ключ забвенья,
Он слаще всех жар сердца утолит.


Three springs in life's unbroken joyless desert
Mysteriously issue from the sands:
The spring of youth, uneven and rebellious,
Bears swift its sparkling stream through sunny lands;
Life's exiles drink the wave of inspiration
That swells the limpid fount of Castaly;
But 'tis the deep, cold wellspring of oblivion
That slakes most sweetly thirst and ecstasy.

(tr. A. Yarmolinsky)


Volnoyu vdokhnoven'ya (with the wave of inspiration) in the poem's fifth line brings to mind gradus vdokhnoven'ya (the degree of inspiration), a phrase used by Dostoevski in a letter of Oct. 31, 1838, to his brother Mikhail:


Друг мой! Ты философствуешь как поэт. И как не ровно выдерживает душа градус вдохновенья, так не ровна, не верна и твоя философия. Чтоб больше знать, надо меньше чувствовать, и обратно, правило опрометчивое, бред сердца.


My friend, you philosophize like a poet. And just because the soul cannot be forever in a state of exaltation, your philosophy is not true and not just. To know more one must feel less, and vice versa. Your judgment is featherheaded – it is a delirium of the heart.


A student of the Military Engineer School, Dostoevski wrote his letter in the Mikhaylovski Castle (where the tsar Paul I was assassinated on March 11, 1801). In his ode Vol'nost' ("Liberty," 1817) Pushkin describes the assassination of Paul I and calls the Mikhaylovski Castle pustynnyi pamyatnik tirana, zabven'yu broshennyi dvorets (forlorn memorial of a tyrant, a palace to oblivion cast):


Когда на мрачную Неву
Звезда полуночи сверкает,
И беззаботную главу
Спокойный сон отягощает,
Глядит задумчивый певец
На грозно спящий средь тумана
Пустынный памятник тирана,
Забвенью брошенный дворец —


When down upon the gloomy Neva
The star Polaris scintillates
And peaceful slumber overwhelms
The head that is devoid of cares,
The pensive poet contemplates
The grimly sleeping in the mist
Forlorn memorial of a tyrant,
A palace to oblivion cast.


The emperor Paul I seems to correspond to Uran the Last, the emperor of Zembla mentioned by Kinbote in his Commentary and Index:


When I was a child, Russia enjoyed quite a vogue at the court of Zembla but that was a different Russia - a Russia that hated tyrants and Philistines, injustice and cruelty, the Russia of ladies and gentlemen and liberal aspirations. We may add that Charles the Beloved could boast of some Russian blood. In medieval times two of his ancestors had married Novgorod princesses. Queen Yaruga (reigned 1799-1800) his great-great-granddam, was half Russian; and most historians believe that Yaruga's only child Igor was not the son of Uran the Last (reigned 1798-1799) but the fruit of her amours with the Russian adventurer Hodinski, her goliart (court jester) and a poet of genius, said to have forged in his spare time a famous old Russian chanson de geste generally attributed to an anonymous bard of the twelfth century. (note to Line 681)


Uran the Last, Emperor of Zembla, reigned 1798-1799; an incredibly brilliant, luxurious, and cruel monarch whose whistling whip made Zembla spin like a rainbow top; dispatched one night by a group of his sister's united favorites, 681. (Index)


According to Kinbote, if he were a poet he would make an ode to suicide:


If I were a poet I would certainly make an ode to the sweet urge to close one's eyes and surrender utterly unto the perfect safety of wooed death. Ecstatically one forefeels the vastness of the Divine Embrace enfolding one's liberated spirit, the warm bath of physical dissolution, the universal unknown engulfing the minuscule unknown that had been the only real part of one's temporary personality. (note to Line 493)


The characters in Ivan Turgenev's novella Veshnie vody ("The Torrents of Spring," 1872) include Maria Nikolaevna's groom.


See also the updated version of my previous post, “tri stána verbálala & trí phantána in Pale Fire.”