Oswin Bretwit in Pale Fire

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Mon, 10/11/2021 - 07:46

Describing Gradus’ activities in Paris, 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 Oswin Bretwit, the former Zemblan consul in Paris:


I, too, was wont to draw my poet’s attention to the idyllic beauty of airplanes in the evening sky. Who could have guessed that on the very day (July 7) Shade penned this lambent line (the last one on his twenty-third card) Gradus, alias Degré, had flown from Copenhagen to Paris, thus completing the second lap of his sinister journey! Even in Arcady am I, says Death in the tombal scripture.

The activities of Gradus in Paris had been rather neatly planned by the Shadows. They were perfectly right in assuming that not only Odon but our former consul in Paris, the late Oswin Bretwit, would know where to find the King. They decided to have Gradus try Bretwit first. That gentleman had a flat in Meudon where he dwelt alone, seldom going anywhere except the National Library (where he read theosophic works and solved chess problems in old newspapers), and did not receive visitors. The Shadows’ neat plan sprung from a piece of luck. Suspecting that Gradus lacked the mental equipment and mimic gifts necessary for the impersonation of an enthusiastic Royalist, they suggested he had better pose as a completely apolitical commissioner, a neutral little man interested only in getting a good price for various papers that private parties had asked him to take out of Zembla and deliver to their rightful owners. Chance, in one of its anti-Karlist moods, helped. One of the lesser Shadows whom we shall call Baron A. had a father-in-law called Baron B., a harmless old codger long retired from the civil service and quite incapable of understanding certain Renaissance aspects of the new regime. He had been, or thought he had been (retrospective distance magnifies things), a close friend of the late Minister of Foreign Affairs, Oswin Bretwit’s father, and therefore was looking forward to the day when he would be able to transmit to “young” Oswin (who, he understood, was not exactly persona grata with the new regime) a bundle of precious family papers that the dusty baron had come across by chance in the files of a governmental office. All at once he was informed that now the day had come: the documents would be immediately forwarded to Paris. He was also allowed to prefix a brief note to them which read:


Here are some precious papers belonging to your family. I cannot do better than place them in the hands of the son of the great man who was my fellow student in Heidelberg and my teacher in the diplomatic service. Verba volant, scripta manent.


The scripta in question were two hundred and thirteen long letters which had passed some seventy years ago between Zule Bretwit, Oswin's grand-uncle, Mayor of Odevalla, and a cousin of his, Ferz Bretwit, Mayor of Aros. This correspondence, a dismal exchange of bureaucratic platitudes and fustian jokes, was devoid of even such parochial interest as letters of this sort may possess in the eyes of a local historian - but of course there is no way of telling what will repel or attract a sentimental ancestralist - and this was what Oswin Bretwit had always been known to be by his former staff. I would like to take time out here to interrupt this dry commentary and pay a brief tribute to Oswin Bretwit.

Physically, he was a sickly bald-headed man resembling a pallid gland. His face was singularly featureless. He had café-au-lait eyes. One remembers him always as wearing a mourning band. But this insipid exterior belied the quality of the man. From beyond the shining corrugations of the ocean I salute here brave Bretwit! Let there appear for a moment his hand and mine firmly clasping each other across the water over the golden wake of an emblematic sun. Let no insurance firm or airline use this insigne on the glossy page of a magazine as an ad badge under the picture of a retired businessman stupefied and honored by the sight of the technicolored snack that the air hostess offers him with everything else she can give; rather, let this lofty handshake be regarded in our cynical age of frenzied heterosexualism as a last, but lasting, symbol of valor and self-abnegation. How fervently one had dreamed that a similar symbol but in verbal form might have imbued the poem of another dead friend; but this was not to be... Vainly does one look in Pale Fire (oh, pale, indeed!) for the warmth of my hand gripping yours, poor Shade! (note to Line 286)


A king of Deira in northern England, Oswin (died Aug. 20, 651) was the son of Osric (a cousin of king Edwin of Northumbria). In Shakespeare’s Hamlet (5.2) Horatio calls Osric (the courtier sent by Claudius to invite Hamlet to participate in the duel with Laertes) “this lapwing:”


This lapwing runs away with the shell on his head.


Chibisy (“Lapwings,” 1906) is a poem by Ivan Bunin:


Заплакали чибисы, тонко и ярко

Весенняя светится синь,

Обвяла дорога, где солнце - там жарко,

Сереет и сохнет полынь.


На серых полях - голубые озёра,

На пашнях - лиловая грязь.

И чибисы плачут - от света, простора.

От счастия - плакать, смеясь.


In VN’s play Sobytie (“The Event,” 1938) Pyotr Nikolaevich (one of the guests at Antonina Pavlovna’s birthday party, the famous writer) “quotes” Shakespeare ("Zad, as Shakespeare would have said, zad iz zyk veshchan"):


Куприков. Из этого я заключил, что он замышляет недоброе дело, а потому обращаюсь снова к вам, Любовь Ивановна, и к тебе, дорогой Алёша, при свидетелях, с убедительной просьбой принять максимальные предосторожности.
Трощейкин. Да! Но какие, какие?
Писатель. "Зад, -- как сказал бы Шекспир, -- зад из зык вещан". (Репортёру.) А что вы имеете сказать, солнце моё? (Act Two)


A recognizable portrait of Bunin, Pyotr Nikolaevich combines Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky with Lyov Nikolaevich Tolstoy. In a letter of March 16, 1890, to Modest Tchaikovsky (the composer’s brother, librettist) Chekhov says that, in Russian art, Tchaikovsky occupies now the second place, right after Tolstoy:


Через 1½—2 недели выйдет в свет моя книжка, посвященная Петру Ильичу. Я готов день и ночь стоять почетным караулом у крыльца того дома, где живет Петр Ильич, — до такой степени я уважаю его. Если говорить о рангах, то в русском искусстве он занимает теперь второе место после Льва Толстого, который давно уже сидит на первом. (Третье я отдаю Репину, а себе беру девяносто восьмое.) Я давно уже таил в себе дерзкую мечту — посвятить ему что-нибудь. Это посвящение, думал я, было бы частичным, минимальным выражением той громадной критики, какую я, писака, составил о его великолепном таланте и какой, по своей музыкальной бездарности, не умею изложить на бумаге. К сожалению, мечту свою пришлось осуществить на книжке, которую я не считаю лучшею. Она состоит из специально хмурых, психопатологических очерков и носит хмурое название, так что почитателям Петра Ильича и ему самому мое посвящение придется далеко не по вкусу.


The action in “The Event” takes place on the fiftieth birthday of Antonina Pavlovna Opoyashin (Troshcheykin’s mother-in-law), the lady writer whose name and patronymic hints at Chekhov. The portrait painter Troshcheykin compares the famous writer to ferz' (the chess queen) and all other guests of Antonina Pavlovna, to peshki (the pawns):


Трощейкин. А вот почему вы, Антонина Павловна, пригласили нашего маститого? Всё ломаю себе голову над этим вопросом. На что он вам? И потом, нельзя так: один ферзь, а все остальные -- пешки.
Антонина Павловна. Вовсе не пешки. Мешаев, например. (Act One)


Ferz’ brings to mind Ferz Bretwit, Mayor of Aros. According to Kinbote, the name Bretwit means Chess Intelligence:


His smile gone, Bretwit (the name means Chess Intelligence) got up from his chair. In a larger room he would have paced up and down - not in this cluttered study. Gradus the Bungler buttoned all three buttons of his tight brown coat and shook his head several times.

"I think," he said crossly, "one must be fair. If I bring you these valuable papers, you must in return arrange an interview, or at least give me his address."

"I know who you are," cried Bretwit pointing. "You're a reporter! You are from the cheap Danish paper sticking out of your pocket" (Gradus mechanically fumbled at it and frowned). "I had hoped they had given up pestering me! The vulgar nuisance of it! Nothing is sacred to you, neither cancer, nor exile, nor the pride of a king" (alas, this is true not only of Gradus - he has colleagues in Arcady too).

Gradus sat staring at his new shoes - mahogany red with sieve-pitted caps. An ambulance screamed its impatient way through dark streets three stories below. Bretwit vented his irritation on the ancestral letters lying on the table. He snatched up the neat pile with its detached wrapping and flung it all in the wastepaper basket. The string dropped outside, at the feet of Gradus who picked it up and added it to the scripta.

"Please, go," said poor Bretwit. "I have a pain in my groin that is driving me mad. I have not slept for three nights. You journalists are an obstinate bunch but I am obstinate too. You will never learn from me anything about my kind. Good-bye."

He waited on the landing for his visitor's steps to go down and reach the front door. It was opened and closed, and presently the automatic light on the stairs went out with the sound of a kick. (note to Line 286)


Bretwit mistakes Gradus (Shade's murderer) for a reporter. The guests at Antonina Ivanovna’s birthday party include reportyor ot Solntsa (a reporter from “The Sun”) who was invited by Troshcheykin and whom the famous writer calls solntse moyo (my sun).


A European bird, northern lapwing (Vanellus vanellus) brings to mind waxwing, the bird mentioned by Shade at the beginning (and, presumably, at the end) of his poem:


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 story Ten' ptitsy ("The Shadow of the Bird," 1907) Bunin quotes Saadi's words "No one seeks shelter in the shadow of the owl, even if the Huma bird does not exist:"


Кто знает, что такое птица Хумай? О ней говорит Саади:
"Нет жаждущих приюта под тенью совы, хотя бы птица Хумай и не существовала на свете!"
И комментаторы Саади поясняют, что это -- легендарная птица и что тень её приносит всему, на что она падает, царственность и бессмертие.


The Persian Huma bird seems to be related to Gamayun (Hamayun), a bird of Russian myths. Gamayun, ptitsa veshchaya ("Gamayun, the Prophetic Bird," 1899) is a poem by Alexander Blok. Like Sirin i Alkonost, ptitsy radosti i pechali ("Sirin and Alkonost, the Birds of Joy and Sadness," 1899), it was inspired by a painting of Viktor Vasnetsov. VN's Russian nom de plume was Sirin (a bird of Russian folklore, sirin is also the name of a small owl). In his poem Vozmezdie ("Retribution," 1910-21) Blok mentions sovinye kryla (the wings of an owl) that Pobedonostsev (a reactionary statesman, adviser to three Tsars) spread over Russia and ten' ogromnykh kryl (the shadow of the huge wings):


В те годы дальние, глухие,
В сердцах царили сон и мгла:
Победоносцев над Россией
Простёр совиные крыла,
И не было ни дня, ни ночи
А только - тень огромных крыл;
Он дивным кругом очертил
Россию, заглянув ей в очи
Стеклянным взором колдуна;
Под умный говор сказки чудной
Уснуть красавице не трудно, -
И затуманилась она,
Заспав надежды, думы, страсти... (Chapter Two, Introduction)


On the other hand, lapwing reminds one of “the Lap of the Lord” mentioned by Kinbote in his apology of suicide:


Of the note very many ways known of shedding one's body, falling, falling, falling is the supreme method, but you have to select your sill or ledge very carefully so as not to hurt yourself or others. Jumping from a high bridge is not recommended even if you cannot swim, for wind and water abound in weird contingencies, and tragedy ought not to culminate in a record dive or a policeman's promotion. If you rent a cell in the luminous waffle, room 1915 or 1959, in a tall business center hotel browing the star dust, and pull up the window, and gentle--not fall, not jump--but roll out as you should for air comfort, there is always the chance of knocking clean through into your own hell a pacific noctambulator walking his dog; in this respect a back room might be safer, especially if giving on the roof of an old tenacious normal house far below where a cat may be trusted to flash out of the way. Another popular take-off is a mountaintop with a sheer drop of say 500 meters but you must find it, because you will be surprised how easy it is to miscalculate your deflection offset, and have some hidden projection, some fool of a crag, rush forth to catch you, causing you to bounce off it into the brush, thwarted, mangled and unnecessarily alive. The ideal drop is from an aircraft, your muscles relaxed, your pilot puzzled, your packed parachute shuffled off, cast off, shrugged off--farewell, shootka (little chute)! Down you go, but all the while you feel suspended and buoyed as you somersault in slow motion like a somnolent tumbler pigeon, and sprawl supine on the eiderdown of the air, or lazily turn to embrace your pillow, enjoying every last instant of soft, deep, death-padded life, the voluptuous crucifixion, as you stretch yourself in the growing rush, in the nearing swish, and then your loved body's obliteration in the Lap of the Lord. 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 miniscule unknown that had been the only real part of one's temporary personality. (note to Line 493)


Two days after her mother’s fiftieth birthday, on her dead son’s fifth birthday, Troshcheykin’s wife Lyubov commits suicide (by stabbing herself, like Shakespeare’s Othello) and in the sleep of death dreams of Salvator Waltz, the main character of VN’s play Izobretenie Val’sa (“The Waltz Invention,” 1938). Immediately after completing his work on Shade's poem (on Oct. 19, 1959, the anniversary of Pushkin's Lyceum), Kinbote commits suicide. There is a hope that, after Kinbote's death, Botkin (Shade's, Kinbote's and Gradus' "real" name), 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). At her birthday party Antonina Pavlovna tells to Eleonora Shnap (Lyubov's former midwife) that she has two daughters, Lyubov (Love) and Vera (Faith), but, alas, no Nadezhda (hope).


See also the updated version of my previous post, "Kinbote's powerful Kramler & Parthenocissus Hall in Pale Fire."