One of the three main characters in VN’s novel Pale Fire (1962), Kinbote imagines that he is Charles the Beloved, the last self-exiled king of Zembla. A distant northern land, Zembla has Embla Point and Emblem Bay:
Now that he was safely out of the country, the entire blue bulk of Zembla, from Embla Point to Emblem Bay, could sink in the sea for all she [Queen Disa, K.’s wife] cared. That he had lost weight was of more concern to her than that he had lost a kingdom. Perfunctorily she inquired about the crown jewels; he revealed to her their unusual hiding place, and she melted in girlish mirth as she had not done for years and years. (note to ll. 433-34)
From Kinbote’s Index to PF:
Embla, a small old town with a wooden church surrounded by sphagnum bogs at the saddest, loneliest, northmost point of the misty peninsula, 149, 433.
Emblem, meaning "blooming" in Zemblan; a beautiful bay with bluish and black, curiously striped rocks and a luxurious growth of heather on its gentle slopes, in the southmost part of W. Zembla, 433.
In his essay Balmont-lirik (“Balmont the Lyric Poet”) included in Kniga otrazheniy (“Book of Reflections,” 1906) Nik. T-o (Innokentiy Annenski’s penname) complains that we do not want to look at poetry seriously and mentions emblema (the emblem):
Да и не хотим мы глядеть на поэзию серьёзно, т. е. как на искусство. На словах поэзия будет для нас, пожалуй, и служение, и подвиг, и огонь, и алтарь, и какая там ещё не потревожена эмблема, а на деле мы всё ещё ценим в ней сладкий лимонад, не лишённый, впрочем, и полезности, которая даже строгим и огорчённым русским читателем очень ценится. Разве можно думать над стихами? Что же тогда останется для алгебры? (II)
According to Annenski, we still appreciate in poetry “sweet lemonade.” The reference is to Derzhavin’s ode Felitsa (1782):
Поэзия тебе любезна,
Приятна, сладостна, полезна,
Как летом вкусный лимонад.
Poetry is dear to you,
Pleasant, sweet, wholesome,
Like a nice lemonade in summer. (ll. 148-150)
At the beginning of Pokhvala komaru (“In Praise of the Mosquito,” 1807) Derzhavin mentions, among the poets whom he wants to imitate, Homer and Pope. In the Second Epistle of his Essay on Man (1717) Pope mentions Zembla:
At Greenland, Zembla, or the Lord knows where.
Among the “emblems” mentioned by Annenski in his essay on Balmont are podvig (feat, exploit), ogon’ (fire) and altar’ (altar). All of them occur in Pushkin’s sonnet Poetu (“To a Poet,” 1830) in which the author tells to a poet: “you are a king, live alone:”
Поэт! не дорожи любовию народной.
Восторженных похвал пройдёт минутный шум;
Услышишь суд глупца и смех толпы холодной,
Но ты останься твёрд, спокоен и угрюм.
Ты царь: живи один. Дорогою свободной
Иди, куда влечёт тебя свободный ум,
Усовершенствуя плоды любимых дум,
Не требуя наград за подвиг благородный.
Они в самом тебе. Ты сам свой высший суд;
Всех строже оценить умеешь ты свой труд.
Ты им доволен ли, взыскательный художник?
Доволен? Так пускай толпа его бранит
И плюет на алтарь, где твой огонь горит,
И в детской резвости колеблет твой треножник.
Poet! do not cling to popular affection.
The temporary noise of ecstatic praises will pass;
You will hear the fool’s judgment, the laugh of the cold crowd,
But you must remain firm, calm, and morose.
You are a king; live alone. By way of the free road
Go wherever your free mind draws you,
Perfecting the fruits of your beloved thoughts,
Not asking any rewards for your noble feat.
They are inside you. You are your highest judge;
More strictly than anyone can you appraise your work.
Are you satisfied with it, exacting artist?
Satisfied? Then let the crowd treat it harshly
And spit on the altar, where your fire burns
And shake your tripod in childish playfulness.
(transl. Diana Senechal)
In Koleblemyi trenozhnik (“The Shaken Tripod,” 1921), a speech written for the eighty-fourth anniversary of Pushkin’s death, Hodasevich says that Pushkin is the parole, the password, by which cultured Russians will recognize each other in the “encroaching darkness” of the twilight of civilization (note eblem in the queer participle koleblemyi). In his essay Ob Annenskom (“On Annenski,” 1935) Hodasevich points out that Annenski’s penname Nik. T-o (“Mr. Nobody”) is a translation of Greek Outis, the name under which Odysseus (the main character in Homer’s Odyssey) conceals his identity from the Cyclops Polyphemus:
Тот, чьё лицо он видел, подходя к зеркалу, был директор гимназии, смертный никто. Тот, чьё лицо отражалось в поэзии, был бессмертный некто. Ник. Т-о -- никто -- есть безличный действительный статский советник, которым, как видимой оболочкой, прикрыт невидимый некто. Этот свой псевдоним, под которым он печатал стихи, Анненский рассматривал как перевод греческого Outis, никто, -- того самого псевдонима, под которым Одиссей скрыл от циклопа Полифема своё истинное имя, свою подлинную личность, своего некто. Поэзия была для него заклятием страшного Полифема -- смерти. Но психологически это не только не мешало, а даже способствовало тому, чтобы его вдохновительницей, его Музой была смерть.
According to Hodasevich, Annenski’s Muse was death.
In VN’s novel Lolita (1955) the characters include the Reverend Rigger, a teacher at Beardsley College whom the girls call Rigor Mortis (Lat., stiffening of the body after death). In Ramsdale Humbert Humbert (the narrator and main character in Lolita) is afraid that Charlotte (Lolita’s mother) will bundle off her daughter to St. Algebra. In Pushkin’s little tragedy Mozart and Salieri (1830) Salieri says that he cut up music like a corpse and measured harmony by algebra:
Музыку я разъял, как труп. Поверил
Я алгеброй гармонию.
Having stifled sounds,
I cut up music like a corpse. I measured
Harmony by algebra. (scene I)
In his essay on Balmont (see the quote above) Annenski asks: “How can one meditate about verses? What will then remain for algebra?”
In Pushkin’s little tragedy Mozart mentions harmony and uses the phrase nikto b (none would):
Когда бы все так чувствовали силу
Гармонии! Но нет: тогда б не мог
И мир существовать; никто б не стал
Заботиться о нуждах низкой жизни;
Все предались бы вольному искусству.
If only all so quickly felt the power
Of harmony! But no, in that event
The world could not exist; none would care
About the basic needs of ordinary life,
All would give themselves to free art. (scene II)
Nikto b is Botkin backwards. In his Commentary Kinbote mentions Professor Botkin and quotes Shade’s words about Russian humorists:
Speaking of the Head of the bloated Russian Department, Prof. Pnin, a regular martinet in regard to his underlings (happily, Prof. Botkin, who taught in another department, was not subordinated to that grotesque "perfectionist"): "How odd that Russian intellectuals should lack all sense of humor when they have such marvelous humorists as Gogol, Dostoevski, Chekhov, Zoshchenko, and those joint authors of genius Ilf and Petrov." (note to Line 172)
The first essay in Annenski’s “Book of Reflections” is entitled Problema gogolevskogo yumora (“The Problem of Gogol’s Humor”). The title of the second essay is Dostoevskiy do katastrofy (“Dostoevski before the Disaster”). Before the disaster (the tragic death of his daughter) the poet Shade, his Commentator Kinbote and his killer Gradus were one and the same person and their name was Botkin. An American scholar of Russian descent, Professor Vsevolod Botkin went mad and became Shade, Kinbote and Gradus after the suicide of Nadezhda Botkin (Hazel Shade of Kinbote’s Commentary). Gradus kills Shade on July 21, 1959. In a letter of July 21, 1822, to his brother Lev and his sister Olga Pushkin asks his brother to refute the news that Batyushkov went mad:
Мне писали, что Батюшков помешался: быть нельзя; уничтожь это вранье.
Batyushkov is the author of Na smert’ Pnina (“On the Death of Pnin,” 1805). Batyushkov’s poem Besedka muz (“The Bower of Muses,” 1917) begins as follows:
Под тению черёмухи млечной
И золотом блистающих акаций
Спешу восстановить олтарь и муз и граций,
Сопутниц жизни молодой.
In the shade of milky racemosa
and gold-glistening pea trees
I hasten to install the altar of muses and Graces,
the companions of young life.
In Chapter Six (VII: 8-12) of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin Zaretski (Lenski’s second) found shelter beneath the racemosas and the pea trees and plants cabbages like Horace:
Как я сказал, Зарецкий мой,
Под сень черёмух и акаций
От бурь укрывшись наконец,
Живёт, как истинный мудрец,
Капусту садит, как Гораций,
Разводит уток и гусей
И учит азбуке детей.
As I've said, my Zaretski,
beneath the racemosas and the pea trees
having at last found shelter
from tempests, lives like a true sage,
plants cabbages like Horace,
breeds ducks and geese,
and teaches [his] children the A B C.
In his EO Commentary VN points out that in his great poem Exegi monumentum (1836) Pushkin line for line parodies Derzhavin’s Pamyatnik (“The Monument,” 1795). Derzhavin’s poem is an imitation of Horace’s Ode 30 (Book III). Russian for “ode,” oda rhymes with “coda” (a term mentioned and explained by Gogol in his fragment “Rome,” 1842). According to G. Ivanov (who once attacked VN in the Paris émigré review Numbers), when he asked Blok (one of the speakers at the Pushkin evening in February, 1921) “does a sonnet need a coda,” Blok replied that he did not know what a coda is. It seems that, to be completed, Shade’s almost finished poem needs not only Line 1000 (identical to Line 1) but, like some sonnets, also a coda (Line 1001):
I was the shadow of the waxwing slain
By its own double in the windowpane.
Dvoynik (“The Double,” 1914) is a poem by Blok and a short novel (1846) by Dostoevski. The disaster in Dostoevski’s life happened in 1849 when he was arrested and imprisoned in the Peter-and-Paul fortress (whose commander was general Ivan Nabokov, brother of VN’s great-grandfather). On Jan. 3, 1850 (NS), the writer was nearly executed. Like Belye nochi (“The White Nights,” 1848) and Netochka Nezvanov (1849), “The Double” was written before the disaster. The head of Botkin’s department, Dr. Oscar Nattochdag (whose surname means in Swedish “night and day”) was nicknamed Netochka:
There was also the morning when Dr. Nattochdag, head of the department to which I was attached, begged me in a formal voice to be seated, then closed the door, and having regained, with a downcast frown, his swivel chair, urged me "to be more careful." In what sense, careful? A boy had complained to his adviser. Complained of what, good Lord? That I had criticized a literature course he attended ("a ridiculous survey of ridiculous works, conducted by a ridiculous mediocrity"). Laughing in sheer relief, I embraced my good Netochka, telling him I would never be naughty again. I take this opportunity to salute him. He always behaved with such exquisite courtesy toward me that I sometimes wondered if he did not suspect what Shade suspected, and what only three people (two trustees and the president of the college) definitely knew. (Foreword)
Shade, Kinbote and Gradus share their birthday: July 5. But, while Shade was born in 1898, Kinbote and Gradus were born in 1915. 1915 - 1898 = 17. In a letter of Oct. 31, 1838 (Dostoevski’s seventeenth birthday), to his brother Dostoevski says that he failed his algebra examination and twice uses the word gradus (degree). The name of Shade’s murderer, Gradus also brings to mind Pushkin’s poem Vertograd moey sestry… (“My sister’s garden…” 1825). In Pushkin’s poem Ne day mne bog soyti s uma… (“The Lord forbid my going mad…” 1833) the epithet yarkiy (bright), in the line ne yarkiy golos solov’ya (not a nightingale’s bright voice), signals Pushkin’s awareness of Batyushkov’s madness.
Shade’s poem is written in heroic couplets. In the next paragraph of his essay on Balmont Annenski mentions samye geroicheskie razmery (the most heroic meters):
Но ещё хуже обстоят дела поэзии, если стихотворение покажется читателю неморальным, точно мораль то же, что добродетель, и точно блюдение оной на словах, хотя бы в самых героических размерах, имеет что-нибудь общее с подвигом и даже доброй улыбкой. Поэтическое искусство, как и все другие определяется прежде всего тем, что одарённый человек стремится испытывать редкое и высокое наслаждение творчеством. Само по себе творчество - аморально, и наслаждаться им ли или чем другим отнюдь не значит жертвовать и ограничивать самого себя ради ближних, сколько бы блага потом они ни вынесли из нашего наслаждения. (II)
Annenski points out that creative work is in itself immoral and to indulge in it does not mean sacrifice and limit oneself for one’s neighbors’ sake, whatever profit they would later derive from our pleasure.
In his poem Velikoe Nichto (“The Great Nothing,” 1903) from the cycle Zemlya (“Earth”) Balmont compares his soul to a temple in which the shades breathe and mentions edinorog, emblema sovershenstva (the unicorn, an emblem of perfection):
Моя душа — глухой всебожный храм,
Там дышат тени, смутно нарастая.
Отраднее всего моим мечтам
Прекрасные чудовища Китая.
Дракон — владыка солнца и весны,
Единорог — эмблема совершенства,
И феникс — образ царственной жены,
Слиянье власти, блеска и блаженства. (I)
In Canto Three of his poem Shade mentions ivory unicorns:
It did not matter who they were. No sound,
No furtive light came from their involute
Abode, but there they were, aloof and mute,
Playing a game of worlds, promoting pawns
To ivory unicorns and ebony fauns;
Kindling a long life here, extinguishing
A short one there; killing a Balkan king… (ll. 816-822)
In VN’s novel Podvig (“Glory,” 1932) the maiden name of Martin’s mother, Indrikov, comes from Indrik (a legendary animal of Russian fairy tales, unicorn). Zoorland, a distant northern land invented in Podvig by Martin and Sonya, has a lot in common with Kinbote’s Zembla. The characters of Podvig include the writer Bubnov (Sonya’s lover to whom she gives away the secret of Zoorland). In Gorky’s play Na dne (“At the Bottom,” 1902) one of the inhabitants of the doss-house is Bubnov. Gorky’s real name, Peshkov, comes from peshka (pawn). The penname Gorky means “bitter.” In Paradiso, the third part of “The Divine Comedy,” Dante complains about the bitter taste of others’ bread:
Tu lascerai ogne cosa diletta
più caramente; e questo è quello strale
che l’arco de lo essilio pria saetta.
Tu proverai sì come sa di sale
lo pane altrui, e come è duro calle
lo scendere e ’l salir per l’altrui scale.
You shall leave everything you love most dearly:
this is the arrow that the bow of exile
shoots first. You are to know the bitter taste
of others’ bread, how salt it is, and know
how hard a path it is for one who goes
descending and ascending others’ stairs. (17. 55-60)
According to Kinbote, Villa Disa was at first called Villa Paradiso:
In 1933, Prince Charles was eighteen and Disa, Duchess of Payn, five. The allusion is to Nice (see also line 240) where the Shades spent the first part of that year; but here again, as in regard to so many fascinating facets of my friend's past life, I am not in the possession of particulars (who is to blame, dear S.S.?) and not in the position to say whether or not, in the course of possible excursions along the coast, they ever reached Cap Turc and glimpsed from an oleander-lined lane, usually open to tourists, the Italianate villa built by Queen Disa's grandfather in 1908, and called then Villa Paradiso, or in Zemblan Villa Paradisa, later to forgo the first half of its name in honors of his favorite granddaughter. There she spent the first fifteen summers of her life; thither did she return in 1953, "for reasons of health" (as impressed on the nation) but really, a banished queen; and there she still dwells. (note to Lines 433-434)
Dante’s words are quoted by Pushkin in Pikovaya dama (“The Queen of Spades,” 1833):
В самом деле, Лизавета Ивановна была пренесчастное создание. Горек чужой хлеб, говорит Данте, и тяжелы ступени чужого крыльца, а кому и знать горечь зависимости, как не бедной воспитаннице знатной старухи?
And, in truth, Lizaveta Ivanovna was a very unfortunate creature. The bread of the stranger is bitter, says Dante, and his staircase hard to climb. But who can know what the bitterness of dependence is so well as the poor companion of an old lady of quality? (II)
In Pushkin’s story Hermann ends up in the madhouse. It seems that Kinbote writes his Commentary, Index and Foreword (in that order) to Shade’s poem in a madhouse. The last word in Kinbote’s Commentary is Gradus:
"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 the other two 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, health 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 principles: 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)
In Latin gradus means “step.” There is a hope that, when Kinbote completes his work on Shade’s poem and commits suicide (on Oct. 19, 1959, the Lyceum anniversary), Botkin will be “full” again.
Indrik + slava + gogol’ + dar + us = Sirin + dva + alkogol’ + Gradus
slava – glory; fame; Slava (“Fame,” 1942), a poem by VN
gogol’ – golden-eye (the bird Clangula bucephala); N. V. Gogol (1809-52), a writer
dar – gift; Dar (“The Gift,” 1937), a novel by VN
us – mustache hair; whisker; antenna, feeler; tendril
Sirin – a bird of Russian fairy tales; VN’s Russian nom de plume
dva – 2
alkogol’ – alcohol