red fufa, Oswin Bretwit & Colonel Starbottle in Pale Fire

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Wed, 10/13/2021 - 08:41

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), the King escaped from Zembla clad in bright red clothes. A policeman asked him to take off his red fufa and red cap:


Three hours later he trod level ground. Two old women working in an orchard unbent in slow motion and stared after him. He had passed the pine groves of Boscobel and was approaching the quay of Blawick, when a black police car turned out of a transverse road and pulled up next to him: "The joke has gone too far," said the driver. "One hundred clowns are packed in Onhava jail, and the ex-King should be among them. Our local prison is much too small for more kings. The next masquerader will be shot at sight. What's your real name, Charlie?" "I'm British. I'm a tourist," said the King. "Well, anyway, take off that red fufa. And the cap. Give them here." He tossed the things in the back of the car and drove off. (note to Line 149)


Fufa seems to hint at fufayka, Russian for “jersey.” In his review of Andrey Bely’s Zapiski chudaka (“The Notes of an Eccentric,” 1922) Mandelshtam says that theosophy is a vyazanaya fufayka (knitted jersey) of degenerating religion:


Теософия — вязаная фуфайка вырождающейся религии. Издали разит от неё духом псевдонаучного шарлатанства. От этой дамской ерунды с одинаковым презрением отшатываются и профессиональные почтенные мистики, и представители науки.


In the National Library Oswin Bretwit (the former Zemblan consul in Paris) reads theosophic works and solves chess problems in old newspapers:


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(note to Line 286)


According to Kinbote, the name Bretwit means in Zemblan Chess Intelligence. In the first stanza of his poem Dekabrist (“The Decembrist,” 1917) Mandelshtam mentions chess being played nearby:


"Тому свидетельство языческий сенат,-

Сии дела не умирают"

Он раскурил чубук и запахнул халат,

А рядом в шахматы играют.


Честолюбивый сон он променял на сруб

В глухом урочище Сибири,

И вычурный чубук у ядовитых губ,

Сказавших правду в скорбном мире.


Шумели в первый раз германские дубы,

Европа плакала в тенетах,

Квадриги черные вставали на дыбы

На триумфальных поворотах.


Бывало, голубой в стаканах пунш горит,

С широким шумом самовара

Подруга рейнская тихонько говорит,

Вольнолюбивая гитара.


Еще волнуются живые голоса

О сладкой вольности гражданства,

Но жертвы не хотят слепые небеса,

Вернее труд и постоянство.


Все перепуталось, и некому сказать,

Что, постепенно холодея,

Все перепуталось, и сладко повторять:

Россия, Лета, Лорелея.


The pagan senate is your proof

That deeds like these will never die!"

He lit his pipe and wrapped his dressing gown around

While chess was being played nearby.


Ambitious dreams he'd traded for a hut

In Siberia's wild reaches,

And a fancy pipe between acid lips

That spoke truth in a sorrowful world.


And German oaks rustled for the first time,

While Europe wept in snares,

And black teams of four reared up

On crossroads of triumph.


Punch used to burn blue in their glasses,

And accompanied by the samovar's hiss

A friend from the Rhine,

A freedom-loving guitar, murmured softly.


Lively voices would still get exercised

About society's sweet freedom.

But blind heaven, rejecting sacrifice,

Prefers hard work and loyalty.


All is muddled, and there's no one to recount

That everything grows gradually cold,

All is muddled, yet how lovely to repeat:

Russia, Lethe, Lorelei.


The poem’s last line, Rossiya, Leta, Loreleya (Russia, Lethe, Lorelei), brings to mind Lethe that leaks in the dreary terms of defective plumbing in Kinbote’s Commentary:


We all know those dreams in which something Stygian soaks through and Lethe leaks in the dreary terms of defective plumbing. Following this line, there is a false start preserved in the draft-and I hope the reader will feel something of the chill that ran down my long and supple spine when I discovered this variant:

Should the dead murderer try to embrace
His outraged victim whom he now must face?
Do objects have a soul? Or perish must
Alike great temples and Tanagra dust?

The last syllable of Tanagra and the first three letters of "dust" form the name of the murderer whose shargar (puny ghost) the radiant spirit of our poet was soon to face. "Simple chance!" the pedestrian reader may cry. But let him try to see, as I have tried to see, how many such combinations are possible and plausible. "Leningrad used to be Petrograd?" "A prig rad (obs. past tense of read) us?"

This variant is so prodigious that only scholarly discipline and a scrupulous regard for the truth prevented me from inserting it here, and deleting four lines elsewhere (for example, the weak lines 627-630) so as to preserve the length of the poem. (note to Line 596)


VN's home city, St. Petersburg was renamed Petrograd in 1914 (after the beginning of World War I) and, ten years later (after Lenin’s death), Petrograd was renamed Leningrad. Peterburg (“Petersburg,” 1913) is a novel by Andrey Bely. Its characters include Graf Dubl’ve (Count Double-u), Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov’s antagonist whose name hints at Count Witte (on Sept. 5, 1905, Witte, Korostovets and K. D. Nabokov signed the Treaty of Portsmouth that ended the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05). Oswin Bretwit seems to blend Oswin (a king of Deira in northern England, died Aug. 20, 651) with Bret Harte (an American writer, 1836-1902) and Count Witte (1849-1915). Bret Harte’s story Colonel Starbottle’s Client (1892) brings to mind Starover Blue, the astronomer at Wordsmith University who was nicknamed by the students “Colonel Starbottle:”


Presumably, permission from Prof. Blue was obtained but even so the plunging of a real person, no matter how sportive and willing, into an invented milieu where he is made to perform in accordance with the invention, strikes one as a singularly tasteless device, especially since other real-life characters, except members of the family, of course, are pseudonymized in the poem. 

This name, no doubt, is most tempting. The star over the blue eminently suits an astronomer though actually neither his first nor second name bears any relation to the celestial vault: the first was given him in memory of his grandfather, a Russian starover (accented, incidentally, on the ultima), that is, Old Believer (member of a schismatic sect), named Sinyavin, from siniy, Russ. "blue." This Sinyavin migrated from Saratov to Seattle and begot a son who eventually changed his name to Blue and married Stella Lazurchik, an Americanized Kashube. So it goes. Honest Starover Blue will probably be surprised by the epithet bestowed upon him by a jesting Shade. The writer feels moved to pay here a small tribute to the amiable old freak, adored by everybody on the campus and nicknamed by the students Colonel Starbottle, evidently because of his exceptionally convivial habits. After all, there were other great men in our poet's entourage – for example, that distinguished Zemblan scholar Oscar Nattochdag. (note to Line 627: The great Starover Blue)


Kinbote is tempted to insert the variant with Tanagra dust instead of the lines 627-630 (in which the great Starover Blue is mentioned):


The great Starover Blue reviewed the role

Planets had played as landfalls of the soul.

The fate of beasts was pondered. A Chinese

Discanted on the etiquette at teas...


Kreshchyonyi kitayets (“The Christened Chinaman,” 1927) is an autobiographic novel by Andrey Bely. Stella Lazurchik brings to mind Bely’s collection of poetry Zoloto v lazuri (“Gold in Azure,” 1904) and Stella, a name mentioned by the physics teacher in Sasha Chyorny’s story Zhitomirskaya markiza (“The Zhitomir Marquise,” 1926):


А физик тоже хвост павлиньим веером распустил.

— Как ваше имя? Не могу же я, сударыня, называть вас, например, «лейденской банкой»… У всякого предмета должно быть свое имя. И уж, наверно, у такого исключительного предмета и имя исключительное. Стелла? Фелиция? Олимпиада?.. Почему же вы молчите, как последняя ученица какая-нибудь? Я, знаете, упорный. Танцевать с вами буду, за ужином рядом сяду, домой сам отвезу… Никакого снисхождения.

Маркиза вздрогнула.

— Непременно отвезу. Во-первых, вы очаровательны, как…

— Как Медуза Горгона, — подсказала присевшая рядом медичка Варенька.


According to jealous nurse Varenka, the pretty Marquise (actually, a disguised schoolboy) is as charming as Meduza Gorgona (the Medusa). Kinbote’s landlord, Judge Goldsworth resembles a Medusa-locked hag:


In the Foreword to this work I have had occasion to say something about the amenities of my habitation. The charming, charmingly vague lady (see note to line 691), who secured it for me, sight unseen, meant well, no doubt, especially since it was widely admired in the neighborhood for its "old-world spaciousness and graciousness." Actually, it was an old, dismal, white-and-black, half-timbered house, of the type termed wodnaggen in my country, with carved gables, drafty bow windows and a so-called "semi-noble" porch, surmounted by a hideous veranda. Judge Goldsworth had a wife, and four daughters. Family photographs met me in the hallway and pursued me from room to room, and although I am sure that Alphina (9), Betty (10), Candida (12), and Dee (14) will soon change from horribly cute little schoolgirls to smart young ladies and superior mothers, I must confess that their pert pictures irritated me to such an extent that finally I gathered them one by one and dumped them all in a closet under the gallows row of their cellophane-shrouded winter clothes. In the study I found a large picture of their parents, with sexes reversed, Mrs. G. resembling Malenkov, and Mr. G. a Medusa-locked hag, and this I replaced by the reproduction of a beloved early Picasso: earth boy leading raincloud horse. I did not bother, though, to do much about the family books which were also all over the house - four sets of different Children's Encyclopedias, and a stolid grown-up one that ascended all the way from shelf to shelf along a flight of stairs to burst an appendix in the attic. Judging by the novels in Mrs. Goldsworth's boudoir, her intellectual interests were fully developed, going as they did from Amber to Zen. The head of this alphabetic family had a library too, but this consisted mainly of legal works and a lot of conspicuously lettered ledgers. All the layman could glean for instruction and entertainment was a morocco-bound album in which the judge had lovingly pasted the life histories and pictures of people he had sent to prison or condemned to death: unforgettable faces of imbecile hoodlums, last smokes and last grins, a strangler's quite ordinary-looking hands, a self-made widow, the close-set merciless eyes of a homicidal maniac (somewhat resembling, I admit, the late Jacques d'Argus), a bright little parricide aged seven ("Now, sonny, we want you to tell us -"), and a sad pudgy old pederast who had blown up his blackmailer. (note to Lines 47-48)


In his poem Zhaloby obyvatelya (“A Common Man’s Complaints,” 1906) Sasha Chyorny says that his yardman is starover (an Old Believer):


Моя жена - наседка,
Мой сын - увы, эсер,
Моя сестра - кадетка,
Мой дворник - старовер.

Кухарка - монархистка,
Аристократ - свояк,
Мамаша - анархистка,
А я - я просто так...

Дочурка - гимназистка
(Всего ей десять лет)
И та социалистка -
Таков уж нынче свет!..


Sasha Chyorny’s poem ends in the lines:


Проклятья посылаю
Родному очагу
И втайне замышляю -
В Америку сбегу!..


I send curses

To my native hearth,

And secretly plan

To escape to America!..


In his epigram on Andrey Bely (whose name means “white”) Sasha Chyorny (whose name means “black”) says that the King is naked as ever:


Ради шаткой клички «гений»,
Оскопив слепой талант,
Хлещет бредом откровений
Пифианский симулянт.

Каждый месяц две-три книжки,
А король все гол и гол…
Ах, заумный сей футбол
Надоел нам до отрыжки!


At the end of his obituary essay Pamyati A. M. Chyornogo ("In Memory of A. M. Chyorny," 1932) VN mentions Chyorny's gentle, charming shade:


Мне неприятно, повторяю, соваться со своей автобиографией, да и кажется, не я один могу вспомнить его помощь, - мне только хотелось как-нибудь выразить запоздалую благодарность, теперь, когда я уже не могу послать ему письма, писание которого почему-то откладывал, теперь, когда все кончено, теперь, когда от него осталось только несколько книг и тихая, прелестная тень." 


The “real” name of the poet Shade, his commentator Kinbote and his murderer Gradus seems to be Vsevolod Botkin. The maiden name of Botkin's wife was Sofia Lastochkin (the “real” name of both Sybil Shade, the poet’s wife, and Queen Disa, the wife of Charles the Beloved). Hagia Sophia (1912) is a poem by Mandelshtam included in his collection Kamen' ("Stone," 1915). Sasha Chyorny's poem Pervaya lastochka ("The First Swallow") addressed to the American President Hoover is written "in the manner of Walt Whitman." Walt Whitman was called "the good gray poet." Kinbote in jest calls Shade "bad gray poet:"


Alas, he would have said a great deal more if a domestic anti-Karlist had not controlled every line he communicated to her! Many a time have I rebuked him in bantering fashion: "You really should promise to use all that wonderful stuff, you bad gray poet, you!" And we would both giggle like boys. But then, after the inspiring evening stroll, we had to part, and grim night lifted the drawbridge between his impregnable fortress and my humble home. (note to Line 12)


"A domestic anti-Karlist" (as Kinbote calls Sybil Shade) brings to mind chance that, in one of its anti-Karlist moods, helped the Shadows.