roofs of Paris & glass houses in Pale Fire

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Thu, 01/13/2022 - 13:27

Describing Gradus’ visit to Oswin Bretwit (the former Zemblan consul 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 the roofs of Paris:


But to return to the roofs of Paris. Courage was allied in Oswin Bretwit with integrity kindness, dignity, and what can be euphemistically called endearing naïveté. When Gradus telephoned from the airport, and to whet his appetite read to him Baron B.'s message (minus the Latin tag), Bretwit's only thought was for the treat in store for him. Gradus had declined to say over the telephone what exactly the "precious papers" were, but it so happened that the ex-consul had been hoping lately to retrieve a valuable stamp collection that his father had bequeathed years ago to a now defunct cousin. The cousin had dwelt in the same house as Baron B., and with all these complicated and entrancing matters uppermost in his mind, the ex-consul, while awaiting his visitor, kept wondering not if the person from Zembla was a dangerous fraud, but whether he would bring all the albums at once or would do it gradually so as to see what he might get for his pains. Bretwit hoped the business would be completed that very night since on the following morning he was to be hospitalized and possibly operated upon (he was, and died under the knife). (note to Line 286)


Sous les toits de Paris (“Under the Roofs of Paris,” 1930) is a French film directed by René Clair. In Alain-René Le Sage’s novel Le Diable boiteux (“The Devil upon Two Sticks,” 1707) Don Cleophas Leandro Perez Zambullo, a Madrid gallant, accidentally frees a demon from captivity. In gratitude, the demon takes him up to a high place and makes all the roofs of Madrid transparent so he can see what is going on everywhere. The demon describes to him the people he can see, and their histories. The stories of true and false love, star-crossed lovers, robberies, duels, enslavements and liberations make up the bulk of the book, and the follies, vices and corruption of the ancien régime are mercilessly satirised in dozens of character sketches of people of every kind.


Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters (1955) is a novella by J. D. Salinger. In Salinger's Franny and Zooey Zooey Glass (by profession, an actor, a leading man, in television) mentions his colleague LeSage:


Franny, looking at him, now had a hand visored over her eyes. Zooey was sitting in the main shaft of sunlight in the room. She might have altered her position on the couch, if she meant to go on looking at him, but that would have disturbed Bloomberg, in her lap, who appeared to be asleep. "Do you really have an ulcer?" she asked suddenly. "Mother said you have an ulcer."

"Yes, I have an ulcer, for Chrissake. This is Kaliyuga, buddy, the Iron Age. Anybody over sixteen without an ulcer's a goddam spy." He gave the snowman another, more vigorous shake. "The funny part is," he said, "I like Hess. Or at least I like him when he's not shoving his artistic poverty down my throat. At least he wears horrible neckties and funny padded suits in the middle of that frightened, super-conservative, super-conforming madhouse. And I like his conceit. He's so conceited he's actually humble, the crazy bastard. I mean he obviously thinks television's good enough to deserve him and his big, bogus-courageous, 'offbeat' talent-which is a crazy kind of humility, if you feel like thinking about it." He stared at the glass ball till the snowstorm had abated somewhat. "In a way, I sort of like LeSage, too. Everything he owns is the best-his overcoat, his two-cabin cruiser, his son's grades at Harvard, his electric razor, everything. He took me home to dinner once and stopped me in the driveway to ask me if I remembered 'the late Carole Lombard, in the movies.' He warned me I'd get a shock when I met his wife, she was such a dead ringer for Carole Lombard. I suppose I'll like him for that till I die. His wife turned out to be a really tired, bosomy, Persian-looking blonde." Zooey looked around abruptly at Franny, who had said something. "What?" he asked.

"Yes!" Franny repeated - pale, but beaming, and apparently fated, too, to like Mr. LeSage till death.


According to Kinbote, Gradus (Shade’s murderer) never became a real success in the glass business. Trying to find out something about Shade’s new poem, Kinbote tells Shade "people who live in glass houses should not write poems:”


Today it would be impossible for me to describe Shade's house in terms of architecture or indeed in any terms other than those of peeps and glimpses, and window-framed opportunities. As previously mentioned (see Foreword), the coming of summer presented a problem in optics: the encroaching foliage did not always see eye to eye with me: it confused a green monocle with an opaque occludent, and the idea of protection with that of obstruction. Meanwhile (on July 3 according to my agenda) I had learned - not from John but from Sybil - that my friend had started to work on a long poem. After not having seen him for a couple of days, I happened to be bringing him some third-class mail from his box on the road, adjacent to Goldsworth's (which I used to ignore, crammed as it was with leaflets, local advertisements, commercial catalogues, and that kind of trash) and ran into Sybil whom a shrub had screened from my falcon eye. Straw-hatted and garden-gloved, she was squatting on her hams in front of a flower bed and pruning or tying up something, and her close-fitting brown trousers reminded me of the mandolin tights (as I jokingly called them) that my own wife used to wear. She said not to bother him with those ads and added the information about his having "begun a really big poem." I felt the blood rush to my face and mumbled something about his not having shown any of it to me yet, and she straightened herself, and swept the black and gray hair off her forehead, and stared at me, and said: "What do you mean - shown any of it? He never shows anything unfinished. Never, never. He will not even discuss it with you until it is quite, quite finished." I could not believe it, but soon discovered on talking to my strangely reticent friend that he had been well coached by his lady. When I endeavored to draw him out by means of good-natured sallies such as: "People who live in glass houses should not write poems," he would only yawn and shake his head, and retort that "foreigners ought to keep away from old saws." Nevertheless the urge to find out what he was doing with all the live, glamorous, palpitating, shimmering material I had lavished upon him, the itching desire to see him at work (even if the fruit of his work was denied me), proved to be utterly agonizing and uncontrollable and led me to indulge in an orgy of spying which no considerations of pride could stop. (note to Lines 47-48)


An orgy of spying brings to mind the lines at the beginning of Canto Four of Shade’s poem:


Now I shall spy on beauty as none has

Spied on it yet. Now I shall cry out as

None has cried out. Now I shall try what none

Has tried. Now I shall do what none has done.

And speaking of this wonderful machine:

I'm puzzled by the difference between

Two methods of composing: A, the kind

Which goes on solely in the poet's mind,

A testing of performing words, while he

Is soaping a third time one leg, and B,

The other kind, much more decorous, when

He's in his study writing with a pen. (ll. 835-846)


In Franny and Zooey Zooey (while sitting in a tub) tells his mother (who gives the shower curtain an X-ray-like look):


“Listen, I don't care what you say about my race, creed, or religion, Fatty, but don't tell me I'm not sensitive to beauty. That's my Achilles' heel, and don't you forget it. To me, everything is beautiful. Show me a pink sunset, and I'm limp, by God. Anything. Peter Pan. Even before the curtain goes up at Peter Pan I'm a goddamn puddle of tears.”


A pink sunset brings to mind “a jet's pink trail above the sunset fire” in Canto Two of Shade’s poem:


I love you when you're standing on the lawn

Peering at something in a tree: "It's gone.

It was so small. It might come back" (all this

Voiced in a whisper softer than a kiss).

I love you when you call me to admire

A jet's pink trail above the sunset fire.

I love you when you're humming as you pack

A suitcase or the farcical car sack

With round-trip zipper. And I love you most

When with a pensive nod you greet her ghost

And hold her first toy on your palm, or look

At a postcard from her, found in a book.


She might have been you, me, or some quaint blend:

Nature chose me so as to wrench and rend

Your heart and mine. At first we'd smile and say:

"All little girls are plump" or "Jim McVey

(The family oculist) will cure that slight

Squint in no time." And later. "She'll be quite

Pretty, you know"; and, trying to assuage

The swelling torment: "That's the awkward age."

"She should take riding lessons," you would say

(Your eyes and mine not meeting). "She should play

Tennis, or badminton. Less starch, more fruit!

She may not be a beauty, but she's cute." (ll. 281-304)


“Some quaint blend” brings to mind Queen Blenda (the mother of Charles the Beloved). Kinbote calls his mother “a tweedy and horsy queen.” Sybil Shade (the poet’s wife) would say to her husband that their daughter Hazel should take riding lessons. Sybil Carpenter is a little girl in Salinger’s story A Perfect Day for Bananafish. In Salinger’s novel The Catcher in the Rye Hazel Weatherfield is the kid detective in Phoebe Caulfield's fiction stories.


In VN's novel Lolita (1955) Humbert Humbert says that he often felt he and Lolita lived in a lighted house of glass:  


I often felt we lived in a lighted house of glass, and any moment some thin-lipped parchment face would peer through a carelessly unshaded window to obtain a free glimpse of things that the most jaded voyeur would have paid a small fortune to watch. (2.5)


In Canto Three of his poem Shade describes his heart attack and mentions hurricane Lolita that swept from Florida to Maine and gloomy Russian spies:


It was a year of Tempests: Hurricane

Lolita Swept from Florida to Maine.

Mars glowed. Shahs married. Gloomy Russians spied.

Lang made your portrait. And one night I died. (ll. 679-682)


Pink (as Kinbote calls a professor of physics at Wordsmith University) believes in the Integrity of anyone spying for Russia:


A professor of physics now joined in. He was a so-called Pink, who believed in what so-called Pinks believe in (Progressive Education, the Integrity of anyone spying for Russia, Fall-outs occasioned solely by US-made bombs, the existence in the near past of a McCarthy Era, Soviet achievements including Dr. Zhivago, and so forth): "Your regrets are groundless" [said he]. "That sorry ruler is known to have escaped disguised as a nun; but whatever happens, or has happened to him, cannot interest the Zemblan people. History has denounced him, and that is his epitaph."

Shade: "True, sir. In due time history will have denounced everybody. The King may be dead, or he may be as much alive as you and Kinbote, but let us respect facts. I have it from him [pointing to me] that the widely circulated stuff about the nun is a vulgar pro-Extremist fabrication. The Extremists and their friends invented a lot of nonsense to conceal their discomfiture; but the truth is that the King walked out of the palace, and crossed the mountains, and left the country, not in the black garb of a pale spinster but dressed as an athlete in scarlet wool." (note to Line 894)


According to Kinbote, Shade's heart attack almost coincided with the disguised king's arrival in America:


John Shade's heart attack (Oct. 17, 1958) practically coincided with the disguised king's arrival in America where he descended by parachute from a chartered plane piloted by Colonel Montacute, in a field of hay-feverish, rank-flowering weeds, near Baltimore whose oriole is not an oriole. It had all been perfectly timed, and he was still wrestling with the unfamiliar French contraption when the Rolls-Royce from Sylvia O'Donnell's manor turned toward his green silks from a road and approached along the mowntrop, its fat wheels bouncing disapprovingly and its black shining body slowly gliding along. Fain would I elucidate this business of parachuting but (it being a matter of mere sentimental tradition rather than a useful manner of transportation) this is not strictly necessary in these notes to Pale Fire. While Kingsley, the British chauffeur, an old and absolutely faithful retainer, was doing his best to cram the bulky and ill-folded parachute into the boot, I relaxed on a shooting stick he had supplied me with, sipping a delightful Scotch and water from the car bar and glancing (amid an ovation of crickets and that vortex of yellow and maroon butterflies that so pleased Chateaubriand on his arrival in America) at an article in The New York Times in which Sylvia had vigorously and messily marked out in red pencil a communication from New Wye which told of the poet's hospitalization. I had been looking forward to meeting my favorite American poet who, as I felt sure at the moment, would die long before the Spring Term, but the disappointment was little more than a mental shrug of accepted regret, and discarding the newspaper, I looked around me with enchantment and physical wellbeing despite the congestion in my nose. Beyond the field the great green steps of turf ascended to the multicolored coppices; one could see above them the white brow of the manor; clouds melted into the blue. Suddenly I sneezed, and sneezed again. Kingsley offered me another drink but I declined it, and democratically joined him in the front seat. My hostess was in bed, suffering from the aftereffects of a special injection that she had been given in anticipation of a journey to a special place in Africa. In answer to my "Well, how are you?" she murmured that the Andes had been simply marvelous, and then in a slightly less indolent tone of voice inquired about a notorious actress with whom her son was said to be living in sin. Odon, I said, had promised me he would not marry her. She inquired if I had had a good hop and dingled a bronze bell. Good old Sylvia! She had in common with Fleur de Fyler a vagueness of manner, a languor of demeanor which was partly natural and partly cultivated as a convenient alibi for when she was drunk, and in some wonderful way she managed to combine that indolence with volubility reminding one of a slow-speaking ventriloquist who is interrupted by his garrulous doll. Changeless Sylvia! During three decades I had seen from time to time, from palace to palace, that same flat nut-colored bobbed hair, those childish pale-blue eyes, the vacant smile, the stylish long legs, the willowy hesitating movements. (note to Line 691)


Sylvia O'Donnell's son Odon is the world-famous actor and Zemblan patriot who helps the king to escape from Zembla. At the end of his Commentary Kinbote says that he may join forces with Odon (who lives in Paris) in a new motion picture, Escape from Zembla:


"And you, what will you be doing with yourself, poor King, poor Kinbote?" a gentle young voice may inquire.

God will help me, I trust, to rid myself of any desire to follow the example of two other characters in this work. I shall continue to exist. I may assume other disguises, other forms, but I shall try to exist. I may turn up yet, on another campus, as an old, happy, healthy, heterosexual Russian, a writer in exile, sans fame, sans future, sans audience, sans anything but his art. I may join forces with Odon in a new motion picture: Escape from Zembla (ball in the palace, bomb in the palace square). I may pander to the simple tastes of theatrical critics and cook up a stage play, an old-fashioned Melodrama with three principals: a lunatic who intends to kill an imaginary king, another lunatic who imagines himself to be that king, and a distinguished old poet who stumbles by chance into the line of fire, and perishes in the clash between the two figments. Oh, I may do many things! History permitting, I may sail back to my recovered kingdom, and with a great sob greet the gray coastline and the gleam of a roof in the rain. I may huddle and groan in a madhouse. But whatever happens, wherever the scene is laid, somebody, somewhere, will quietly set out - somebody has already set out, somebody still rather far away is buying a ticket, is boarding a bus, a ship, a plane, has landed, is walking toward a million photographers, and presently he will ring at my door - a bigger, more respectable, more competent Gradus. (note to Line 1000)