on ságaren werém & tremkín in Pale Fire; Blanche's cameo profile in Ada

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Fri, 09/24/2021 - 08:29

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), in his poem about a miragarl ("mirage girl") the society sculptor and poet Arnor mentioned a dream king in the sandy wastes of time:


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)


On ságaren werém (in the sandy wastes of time) brings to mind sredi pustyn’ vremyon (among the wastes of times) in Gumilyov’s poem about Théophile Gautier:


Вперёд, всегда вперёд, и вдруг заметит глаз
Немного зелени, обрадовавшей нас:
Лес кипарисовый и плиты снега чище.
Чтоб отдохнули мы среди пустынь времён,
Господь оазисом нам указал кладбище:
Больные путники, вкусить спешите сон.


…To make us take a rest among the wastes of times,

The Lord as an oasis pointed to us at cemetery:

Sick travelers, hurry up to taste of sleep.


Gumilyov translated into Russian Théophile Gautier’s Émaux et Camées (“Enamels and Cameos,” 1852). Describing his first morning at Ardis, Van Veen (the narrator and main character in VN’s novel Ada, 1969) mentions Blanche’s cameo profile:


The front door proved to be bolted and chained. He tried the glassed and grilled side door of a blue-garlanded gallery; it, too, did not yield. Being still unaware that under the stairs an in conspicuous recess concealed an assortment of spare keys (some very old and anonymous, hanging from brass hooks) and communicated though a toolroom with a secluded part of the garden, Van wandered through several reception rooms in search of an obliging window. In a corner room he found, standing at a tall window, a young chambermaid whom he had glimpsed (and promised himself to investigate) on the preceding evening. She wore what his father termed with a semi-assumed leer ‘soubret black and frissonet frill’; a tortoiseshell comb in her chestnut hair caught the amber light; the French window was open, and she was holding one hand, starred with a tiny aquamarine, rather high on the jamb as she looked at a sparrow that was hopping up the paved path toward the bit of baby-toed biscuit she had thrown to him. Her cameo profile, her cute pink nostril, her long, French, lily-white neck, the outline, both full and frail, of her figure (male lust does not go very far for descriptive felicities!), and especially the savage sense of opportune license moved Van so robustly that he could not resist clasping the wrist of her raised tight-sleeved arm. Freeing it, and confirming by the coolness of her demeanor that she had sensed his approach, the girl turned her attractive, though almost eyebrowless, face toward him and asked him if he would like a cup of tea before breakfast. No. What was her name? Blanche — but Mlle Larivière called her ‘Cendrillon’ because her stockings got so easily laddered, see, and because she broke and mislaid things, and confused flowers. His loose attire revealed his desire; this could not escape a girl’s notice, even if color-blind, and as he drew up still closer, while looking over her head for a suitable couch to take shape in some part of this magical manor — where any place, as in Casanova’s remembrances could be dream-changed into a sequestered seraglio nook — she wiggled out of his reach completely and delivered a little soliloquy in her soft Ladoran French:

Monsieur a quinze ans, je crois, et moi, je sais, j’en ai dixneuf. Monsieur is a nobleman; I am a poor peat-digger’s daughter. Monsieur a tâté, sans doute, des filles de la ville; quant à moi, je suis vierge, ou peu s’en faut. De plus, were I to fall in love with you — I mean really in love — and I might, alas, if you possessed me rien qu’une petite fois — it would be, for me, only grief, and infernal fire, and despair, and even death, Monsieur. Finalement, I might add that I have the whites and must see le Docteur Chronique, I mean Crolique, on my next day off. Now we have to separate, the sparrow has disappeared, I see, and Monsieur Bouteillan has entered the next room, and can perceive us clearly in that mirror above the sofa behind that silk screen.’

‘Forgive me, girl,’ murmured Van, whom her strange, tragic tone had singularly put off, as if he were taking part in a play in which he was the principal actor, but of which he could only recall that one scene.

The butler’s hand in the mirror took down a decanter from nowhere and was withdrawn. Van, reknotting the cord of his robe, passed through the French window into the green reality of the garden. (1.7)


Darkbloom (‘Notes to Ada’): Monsieur a quinze ans, etc.: You are fifteen, Sir, I believe, and I am nineteen, I know.... You, Sir, have known town girls no doubt; as to me, I’m a virgin, or almost one. Moreover...

rien qu’une petite fois: just once.


A French handmaid at Ardis, Blanche is associated with Cendrillon (Cinderella). In his essay Théophile Gautier (1920) Gumilyov mentions Gautier’s poem Symphonie en blanc majeur ("Symphony in White"):


Стилистом Теофиль Готье является одновременно могучим и изысканным. По привычке образно выражаться, он говорил, что хотел бы иметь столько пиастров или рублей, сколько слов он ввел в обиход поэзии после Малерба. И он же требовал, чтобы была образована особая комиссия, которая допускала бы неологизмы и словарь с той же строгостью, с какой принимают членов в Жокей-клуб. По его мненью, тот, кого захватывает мысль самая сложная или виденье самое сокровенное, но без слов, чтобы их выразить, тот не писатель. Как это далеко от мненья русского поэта, провозгласившего, что «мысль изреченная есть ложь». Теофиля Готье слова учили невидимым ему самому оттенкам мысли, сопоставленья их придавали его образам неожиданную глубину и таинственность. Бессознательно следуя духу своей расы, превыше всего поставившей ясность, он избегал сложных метафор, заменяя их чисто восточным богатством сравнений. На этом он строил целые стихотворения, как, например, «Симфония ярко-белого», где во всех восемнадцати строфах-стансах повторяется эпитет «белый» и дается соответственный ему образ. (II)


According to Gumilyov, Gautier avoided complex metaphors. In ‘Ursus” (the best Franco-Estotian restaurant in Manhattan Major) Van, Ada and their half-sister Lucette become mixed metaphors and double-talk:


Knowing how fond his sisters were of Russian fare and Russian floor shows, Van took them Saturday night to ‘Ursus,’ the best Franco-Estonian restaurant in Manhattan Major. Both young ladies wore the very short and open evening gowns that Vass ‘miraged’ that season — in the phrase of that season: Ada, a gauzy black, Lucette, a lustrous cantharid green. Their mouths ‘echoed’ in tone (but not tint) each other’s lipstick; their eyes were made up in a ‘surprised bird-of-paradise’ style that was as fashionable in Los as in Lute. Mixed metaphors and double-talk became all three Veens, the children of Venus. (2.8)


Ursus is the traveling artist in Victor Hugo’s novel L’Homme qui rit (“The Laughing Man,” 1869). In his essay Gumilyov points out that Gautier was a pupil of Hugo:


Еще в юности Теофиль Готье объявил себя пажом Гюго и солдатом романтизма и остался верен своему вождю и знамени до конца жизни. Он пришел в литературу позже Ламартина, Виньи и Мюссе, едва ли превосходил их талантом, но его место в истории романтизма первое за учителем. Там, где Гюго произносил лозунги, Готье приводил их в исполненье, где Гюго, как титан, бросал глыбы, Готье складывал из них стройное зданье. (II)


Tremkín (a dream king) in Arnor’s poem about a miragarl brings to mind Anna Akhmatov’s poem Seroglazyi korol’ (“Gray-Eyed King,” 1910):


Слава тебе, безысходная боль!

Умер вчера сероглазый король

Вечер осенний был душен и ал,

Муж мой, вернувшись, спокойно сказал: 


"Знаешь, с охоты его принесли,

Тело у старого дуба нашли. 


Жаль королеву. Такой молодой!...

За ночь одну она стала седой". 


Трубку свою на камине нашел

И на работу ночную ушел.  


Дочку мою я сейчас разбужу,

В серые глазки ее погляжу.


А за окном шелестят тополя:

"Нет на земле твоего короля..."


Glory to you, inescapable pain!

The gray-eyed king died yesterday.


The autumn evening was sultry and red,

My husband returned and quietly said:


"You know, they brought him back from the hunt,

They found his corpse by the old oak tree.


I pity the queen. He was so young!..

In just one night her hair turned white."


He found his pipe on the mantelpiece

And went out to his nighttime shift.


I'll go and wake my daughter now,

I'll look into her little gray eyes.


 While outside the rustling poplars say:

"Your king is no longer upon this earth..."


Anna Akhmatov was Nikolay Gumilyov’s wife. In his poems Florentsiya ("Florence," 1913) and Ot'yezzhayushchemu ("To the Departing Man," 1913) Gumilyov mentions the Arno (the river that flows in Florence).


Arnor Tordsson jarlaskald was an Icelandic skald of the eleventh century. In his poem Vstrechnoy ("To a Woman Occasionally Met," 1908) Alexander Blok calls himself potomok severnogo skal'da (a descendant of the northern skald):


Я только рыцарь и поэт,
Потомок северного скальда.
А муж твой носит томик Уайльда,
Шотландский плэд, цветной жилет…
Твой муж — презрительный эстет.


Shotlandskiy pled (the Scottish plaid) of the lady's husband brings to mind Van's tartan lap robe in which he drapes himself in the Night of the Burning Barn (when Van and Ada make love for the first time):


That night because of the bothersome blink of remote sheet lightning through the black hearts of his sleeping-arbor, Van had abandoned his two tulip trees and gone to bed in his room. The tumult in the house and the maid’s shriek interrupted a rare, brilliant, dramatic dream, whose subject he was unable to recollect later, although he still held it in a saved jewel box. As usual, he slept naked, and wavered now between pulling on a pair of shorts, or draping himself in his tartan lap robe. He chose the second course, rattled a matchbox, lit his bedside candle, and swept out of his room, ready to save Ada and all her larvae. The corridor was dark, somewhere the dachshund was barking ecstatically. Van gleaned from subsiding cries that the so-called ‘baronial barn,’ a huge beloved structure three miles away, was on fire. Fifty cows would have been without hay and Larivière without her midday coffee cream had it happened later in the season. Van felt slighted. They’ve all gone and left me behind, as old Fierce mumbles at the end of the Cherry Orchard (Marina was an adequate Mme Ranevski).

With the tartan toga around him, he accompanied his black double down the accessory spiral stairs leading to the library. Placing a bare knee on the shaggy divan under the window, Van drew back the heavy red curtains. (1.19)


Van calls himself "Ramses the Scotsman:"


As two last retainers, the cook and the night watchman, scurried across the lawn toward a horseless trap or break, that stood beckoning them with erected thills (or was it a rickshaw? Uncle Dan once had a Japanese valet), Van was delighted and shocked to distinguish, right there in the inky shrubbery, Ada in her long nightgown passing by with a lighted candle in one hand and a shoe in the other as if stealing after the belated ignicolists. It was only her reflection in the glass. She dropped the found shoe in a wastepaper basket and joined Van on the divan.

‘Can one see anything, oh, can one see?’ the dark-haired child kept repeating, and a hundred barns blazed in her amber-black eyes, as she beamed and peered in blissful curiosity. He relieved her of her candlestick, placing it near his own longer one on the window ledge. ‘You are naked, you are dreadfully indecent,’ she observed without looking and without any emphasis or reproof, whereupon he cloaked himself tighter, Ramses the Scotsman, as she knelt beside him. For a moment they both contemplated the romantic night piece framed in the window. He had started to stroke her, shivering, staring ahead, following with a blind man’s hand the dip of her spine through the batiste. (ibid.)


Ramses is an one-act play (1919) by Alexander Blok. In his memoir essay “Gorki” (1940) Korney Chukovski says that, when Blok read his Egyptian play Ramses, Gorki stretched out his arms, like an ancient Egyptian, and remarked that every phrase of Blok’s play should be placed in profile:


Нужно сознаться, что его речи на наших заседаниях часто бывали речами художника, необычными в профессорской среде. Когда Александр Блок прочитал в нашей секции «Исторических картин» свою египетскую пьесу «Рамзес», Горький неожиданно сказал:

— Надо бы немного вот так.

И он вытянул руки вбок, как древний египтянин.

— Надо каждую фразу поставить в профиль!

Блок понимающе кивнул головой. Он понял, что Горькому фразеология «Рамзеса» показалась слишком оторванной от египетской почвы.


Describing his first visit to Villa Venus (Eric Veen's floramors), Van mentions three Egyptian squaws dutifully keeping in profile:


Three Egyptian squaws, dutifully keeping in profile (long ebony eye, lovely snub, braided black mane, honey-hued faro frock, thin amber arms, Negro bangles, doughnut earring of gold bisected by a pleat of the mane, Red Indian hairband, ornamental bib), lovingly borrowed by Eric Veen from a reproduction of a Theban fresco (no doubt pretty banal in 1420 B.C.), printed in Germany (Künstlerpostkarte Nr. 6034, says cynical Dr Lagosse), prepared me by means of what parched Eric called ‘exquisite manipulations of certain nerves whose position and power are known only to a few ancient sexologists,’ accompanied by the no less exquisite application of certain ointments, not too specifically mentioned in the pornolore of Eric’s Orientalia, for receiving a scared little virgin, the descendant of an Irish king, as Eric was told in his last dream in Ex, Switzerland, by a master of funerary rather than fornicatory ceremonies. (2.3)