telephone, Charlie, crab apple & Dr Solov in Signs and Symbols

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Fri, 11/15/2019 - 18:48

At the end of VN’s story Signs and Symbols (1948) the telephone rings several times:


The telephone rang. It was an unusual hour for it to ring. He stood in the middle of the room, groping with his foot for one slipper that had come off, and childishly, toothlessly, gaped at his wife. Since she knew more English than he, she always attended to the calls.

”Can I speak to Charlie?” a girl’s dull little voice said to her now.

“What number do you want? . . . No. You have the wrong number.”

She put the receiver down gently and her hand went to her heart. “It frightened me,” she said.

He smiled a quick smile and immediately resumed his excited monologue. They would fetch him as soon as it was day. For his own protection, they would keep all the knives in a locked drawer. Even at his worst, he presented no danger to other people.

The telephone rang a second time.

The same toneless, anxious young voice asked for Charlie.

“You have the incorrect number. I will tell you what you are doing. You are turning the letter ‘o’ instead of the zero.” She hung up again.

They sat down to their unexpected, festive midnight tea. He sipped noisily; his face was flushed; every now and then he raised his glass with a circular motion, so as to make the sugar dissolve more thoroughly. The vein on the side of his bald head stood out conspicuously, and silvery bristles showed on his chin. The birthday present stood on the table. While she poured him another glass of tea, he put on his spectacles and reexamined with pleasure the luminous yellow, green, and red little jars. His clumsy, moist lips spelled out their eloquent labels—apricot, grape, beach plum, quince. He had got to crab apple when the telephone rang again. (3)


The last phone call seems to signal the boy’s suicide. In his poem Telefon (“The Telephone,” 1918) Mandelshtam calls the telephone drug polnochnykh pokhoron (a friend of midnight burials), proklyataya shkatulka (an accursed casket) and zarnitsa samoubiystva (a sheet lightning of suicide):


На этом диком страшном свете

Ты, друг полночных похорон,

В высоком строгом кабинете

Самоубийцы — телефон!


Асфальта чёрные озёра

Изрыты яростью копыт,

И скоро будет солнце — скоро

Безумный петел прокричит.


А там дубовая Валгалла

И старый пиршественный сон:

Судьба велела, ночь решала,

Когда проснулся телефон.


Весь воздух выпили тяжёлые портьеры,

На театральной площади темно.

Звонок — и закружились сферы:

Самоубийство решено.


Куда бежать от жизни гулкой,

От этой каменной уйти?

Молчи, проклятая шкатулка!

На дне морском цветёт: прости!


И только голос, голос-птица

Летит на пиршественный сон.

Ты — избавленье и зарница

Самоубийства — телефон!


In dreadful world of grim oppressor
You, midnight burials’ gruesome friend,
In suicide’s strict lofty dresser
The telephone tells of the end.


The asphalt blackened lakes are pitted
As angry horse hooves clatter by,
Comes soon the sun; then soon emitted
Will be the senseless ashen cry.


And oak Valhalla there presided
In deep indulgent restful sleep;
And fate was told, the night decided,
When telephone began to leap.


The heavy curtains’ draft the atmosphere was thinning
The light was draining from the Theatre Square.
A ring – again the spheres are spinning:
Decision’s made to end it there.


So how to flee reverberation,
And how escape its dreaded weight?
Be still, accursed bell’s vibration!
I’m sorry! Seabed’s blooms elate!


Its birdsong voice with all is clashing,
It sends to sleep, its mournful drone.
You are salvation, lightning’s flashing.
It’s suicide – the telephone.

(tr. R. Moreton)


In his memoir essay Disk (“House of Arts,” 1939) Hodasevich describes the life in Petrograd in 1920-22 and points out that even in those hungry years Mandelshtam could not live without sweets:


К гостиной примыкала столовая, зверски отделанная дубовой резьбой, с витражами и камином - как полагается. Обеды в ней были дорогие и скверные. Кто не готовил сам, предпочитал ходить в столовую Дома литераторов. Однако и здесь часов с двух до пяти было оживлённо: сходились сюда со всего Петербурга ради свиданий - деловых, дружеских и любовных. Тут подавались пирожные - роскошь военного коммунизма, погибель Осипа Мандельштама, который тратил на них всё, что имел. На пирожные он выменивал хлеб, муку, масло, пшено, табак - весь состав своего пайка, за исключением сахару: сахар он оставлял себе.


Комната М.Л. Лозинского, истинного волшебника по части стихотворных переводов, имела форму глаголя, а соседнее с ней обиталище Осипа Мандельштама представляло собою нечто столь же фантастическое и причудливое, как и он сам, это странное и обаятельное существо, в котором податливость уживалась с упрямством, ум с легкомыслием, замечательные способности с невозможностью сдать хотя бы один университетский экзамен, леность с прилежностью, заставлявшей его буквально месяцами трудиться над одним недающимся стихом, заячья трусость с мужеством почти героическим - и т.д. Не любить его было невозможно, и он этим пользовался с упорством маленького тирана, то и дело заставлявшего друзей расхлёбывать его бесчисленные неприятности. Свой паёк, как я уже говорил, он тотчас же выменивал на сласти, которые поедал в одиночестве. Зато в часы обеда и ужина появлялся то там, то здесь, заводил интереснейшие беседы и, усыпив внимание хозяев, вдруг объявлял:

- Ну, а теперь будем ужинать!


At the end of his Commentary 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, and whom Shade and others call Charlie) quotes a Zemblan saying that, as a child, he has heard from his nurse:


Many years ago--how many I would not care to say--I remember my Zemblan nurse telling me, a little man of six in the throes of adult insomnia: "Minnamin, Gut mag alkan, Pern dirstan" (my darling, God makes hungry, the Devil thirsty). Well, folks, I guess many in this fine hall are as hungry and thirsty as me, and I'd better stop, folks, right here.
Yes, better stop. My notes and self are petering out. Gentlemen, I have suffered very much, and more than any of you can imagine. I pray for the Lord's benediction to rest on my wretched countrymen. My work is finished. My poet is dead.


At the age of six the boy in Signs and Symbols suffered from insomnia like a grown-up man:


The boy, aged six—that was when he drew wonderful birds with human hands and feet, and suffered from insomnia like a grown-up man. (2)


In the opening lines of his poem Shade (whose parents were ornithologists) compares himself to the shadow of a bird that hit a window. Kinbote calls Gradus (Shade’s murderer) “a cross between bat and crab:”


For almost a whole year after the King's escape the Extremists remained convinced that he and Odon had not left Zembla. The mistake can be only ascribed to the streak of stupidity that fatally runs through the most competent tyranny. Airborne machines and everything connected with them cast a veritable spell over the minds of our new rulers whom kind history had suddenly given a boxful of these zipping and zooming gadgets to play with. That an important fugitive would not perform by air the act of fleeing seemed to them inconceivable. Within minutes after the King and the actor had clattered down the backstairs of the Royal Theater, every wing in the sky and on the ground had been accounted for - such was the efficiency of the government. During the next weeks not one private or commercial plane was allowed to take off, and the inspection of transients became so rigorous and lengthy that international lines decided to cancel stopovers at Onhava. There were some casualties. A crimson balloon was enthusiastically shot down and the aeronaut (a well-known meteorologist) drowned in the Gulf of Surprise. A pilot from a Lapland base flying on a mission of mercy got lost in the fog and was so badly harassed by Zemblan fighters that he settled atop a mountain peak. Some excuse for all this could be found. The illusion of the King's presence in the wilds of Zembla was kept up by royalist plotters who decoyed entire regiments into searching the mountains and woods of our rugged peninsula. The government spent a ludicrous amount of energy on solemnly screening the hundreds of impostors packed in the country's jails. Most of them clowned their way back to freedom; a few, alas, fell. Then, in the spring of the following year, a stunning piece of news came from abroad. The Zemblan actor Odon was directing the making of a cinema picture in Paris!

It was now correctly conjectured that if Odon had fled, the King had fled too: At an extraordinary session of the Extremist government there was passed from hand to hand, in grim silence, a copy of a French newspaper with the headline: L'EX-ROI DE ZEMBLA EST-IL À PARIS? Vindictive exasperation rather than state strategy moved the secret organization of which Gradus was an obscure member to plot the destruction of the royal fugitive. Spiteful thugs! They may be compared to hoodlums who itch to torture the invulnerable gentleman whose testimony clapped them in prison for life. Such convicts have been known to go berserk at the thought that their elusive victim whose very testicles they crave to twist and tear with their talons, is sitting at a pergola feast on a sunny island or fondling some pretty young creature between his knees in serene security - and laughing at them! One supposes that no hell can be worse than the helpless rage they experience as the awareness of that implacable sweet mirth reaches them and suffuses them, slowly destroying their brutish brains. A group of especially devout Extremists calling themselves the Shadows had got together and swore to hunt down the King and kill him wherever he might be. They were, in a sense, the shadow twins of the Karlists and indeed several had cousins or even brothers among the followers of the King. No doubt, the origin of either group could be traced to various reckless rituals in student fraternities and military clubs, and their development examined in terms of fads and anti-fads; but, whereas an objective historian associates a romantic and noble glamor with Karlism, its shadow group must strike one as something definitely Gothic and nasty. The grotesque figure of Gradus, a cross between bat and crab, was not much odder than many other Shadows, such as, for example, Nodo, Odon's epileptic half-brother who cheated at cards, or a mad Mandevil who had lost a leg in trying to make anti-matter. (note to Line 171)


“A cross between bat and crab” brings to mind the crab apple jam in Signs and Symbols. In VN’s story Opoveshchenie (“Breaking the News,” 1935) that in many respects resembles Signs and Symbols Eugenia Isakovna’s son Misha died in Paris, falling into an elevator shaft from the top floor. According to Kinbote, of the not very many ways known of shedding one's body, falling, falling, falling is the supreme method:


I am choosing these images rather casually. There are purists who maintain that a gentleman should use a brace of pistols, one for each temple, or a bare botkin (note the correct spelling), and that ladies should either swallow a lethal dose or drown with clumsy Ophelia. Humbler humans have preferred such sundry forms of suffocation, and minor poets have even tried such fancy releases as vein tapping in the quadruped tub of a drafty boardinghouse bathroom. All this is uncertain and messy. Of the not 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)


At the end of VN's novel Zashchita Luzhina ("The Luzhin Defense," 1930) the grandmaster Luzhin commits suicide falling to his death from the bathroom window. In Signs and Symbols the boy's cousin is a famous chess player.


Kinbote believes that, to be completed, Shade's almost finished poem needs but one line (Line 1000 identical to Line 1: “I was the the shadow of the waxwing slain”). But it seems that, like some sonnets, Shade’s poem also needs a coda (Line 1001: “By its own double in the windowpane”). Dvoynik ("The Double") is a short novel (1846) by Dostoevski and a poem (1909) by Alexander Blok. In yabloko (apple) there is Blok. In the last poem of his cycle Solov'inyi sad ("The Nightingale Garden," 1915) Blok mentions serye spruty (grey octopuses) and krab vspolokhnutyi (a crab flushed out):


И оттуда, где серые спруты

Покачнулись в лазурной щели,

Закарабкался краб всполохнутый

И присел на песчаной мели.


Я подвинулся, - он приподнялся,

Широко разевая клешни,

Но сейчас же с другим повстречался,

Подрались и пропали они...


Soloveychik being a diminutive of solovey (nightingale), the title of Blok's cycle brings to mind one of the Soloveychiks (whom Rebecca Borisovna's daughter married in Minsk). Apart from the Soloveychiks, in Signs and Symbols there are Mrs. Sol (the old couple's next-door neighbor whose hat is a cluster of brookside flowers) and Dr. Solov (who is mentioned by the boy's mother):


It was nearly midnight when, from the living room, she heard her husband moan, and presently he staggered in, wearing over his nightgown the old overcoat with the astrakhan collar that he much preferred to his nice blue bathrobe.

«I can’t sleep!» he cried.

«Why can’t you sleep?» she asked. «You were so tired.»

"I can’t sleep because I am dying, " he said, and lay down on the couch.

«Is it your stomach? Do you want me to call Dr. Solov?»

"No doctors, no doctors, " he moaned. «To the devil with doctors! We must get him out of there quick. Otherwise, we’ll be responsible…. Responsible!» He hurled himself into a sitting position, both feet on the floor, thumping his forehead with his clenched fist.

"All right, " she said quietly. «We will bring him home tomorrow morning.»

"I would like some tea, " said her husband and went out to the bathroom. (3)


Volos (a hair) in reverse, Solov is anagram of slovo (word). In his poem Slovo (1921) Gumilyov mentions chisla (numbers):


А для низкой жизни были числа,
Как домашний, подъяремный скот,
Потому что все оттенки смысла
Умное число передаёт.


And the creeping forms had numbers,
like tame, load-bearing oxen —
because a knowing number
says everything, says it all.

(tr. Burton Raffel)


In his story Usta k ustam (“Lips to Lips,” 1931) VN satirizes the editors of Chisla (“Numbers”), a literary review whose first issue contained an offensive article on Sirin (VN’s Russian nom de plume). The title of VN's story seems to hint at k ustam usta (lips to lips), the last words in Blok’s poem Ne stroy zhilishch u rechnykh izluchin… (“Don’t build your abodes at the bends of rivers," 1905).


On March 28, 1922, VN was reading to his mother Blok's poem about Florence, when the telephone rang and VN learnt of his father's assassination.


Telefon ("Telephone," 1918) is also a poem by Gumilyov. The two poets who could not stand each other, Blok and Gumilyov died almost simultaneously in August 1921 (the year when Kinbote and Gradus were six). In his poem Pamyat’ (“Memory,” 1920) Gumilyov mentions muki goloda i zhazhdy (the torments of hunger and thirst):


Знал он муки голода и жажды,

Сон тревожный, бесконечный путь,

Но святой Георгий тронул дважды

Пулею не тронутую грудь.


He knew the pains of hunger and thirst,
Sleep disturbed, the endless road,
But St. George twice touched
His breast untouched by a bullet.


In his poem Gumilyov says that, unlike snakes, we change souls, not bodies:


Только змеи сбрасывают кожи,

Чтоб душа старела и росла.

Мы, увы, со змеями не схожи,

Мы меняем души, не тела.


Only snakes shed their skin,

So their souls can age and grow.

We, alas, do not resemble snakes,

We change souls, not bodies.


Like Hermann Karlovich (the narrator and main character in VN's novel "Despair," 1934), Professor Vsevolod Botkin (an American scholar of Russian descent who went mad and became Shade, Kinbote and Gradus after the tragic death of his daughter Nadezhda) attempts to change not only his soul but also his body.

The above poems by Gumilyov, Blok and most of all - Mandelshtam are very good. One is always wary of the translations though, is there any link to the English transliterations somewhere? Haven't got a hang of the Cyrillic characters yet. . .

However, for me; Kinbote's description of Gradus as "half-mad and half man" brings to mind Kolin from Mashenka, who saw himself as  “Verlaine’s 'half Pierrot and half Gavroche” rather than Pushkin's felicitous phrase. Unless of course, the Russian Pale Fire (undertaken by VéN) has a striking resemblance.

And as an addendum to the 'Great Dane' let me just cite something from ur-Pale Fire (Solus Rex and Ultima Thule, respectively)

"You remember him, don’t you, that strange Swede or Dane—or Icelander, for all I know—anyway, that lanky, orange-tanned blond fellow with the eyelashes of an old horse, who introduced himself to me as “a well-known writer,” . . . .commissioned me to make a series of illustrations for the epic poem Ultima Thule, which he had just composed in his language." (this is Sineusov addressing his dead wife)


"The fact remains, however, that this magical measure promptly pacified the country. Later, under his grandson, when the Danes attempted to impose upon us their protégé, and he landed with immense forces, what happened?" (this is Prince Adulf speaking, the notorious 'ultra-urningist')

Yes, Rupert Moreton's rhymed translation of the Mandelshtam poem is rather inexact. The anonymous English version of Gumilyov's "Memory" (see below) is much more precise. I couldn't find a link to the English transliterations.

Thanks for drawing my attention to Kolin (who, it is true, has very little in common with Gradus) from "Mary." I now see that "half-man" is a reference to on igraet uslugami polulyudey (he plays with the services of half-men), a line in Mandelshtam's satire on Stalin. My next post will be even more interesting!

Yes, Gradus leaves Onhava on the Copenhagen plane, but I fail to see any connection between the Great Dane mentioned by Shade and Hamlet. VN's allusions are subtler than they may seem.

Forgot to say that in 1921 (the year of Blok's and Gumilyov's death) Kinbote and Gradus were six (Kinbote was a little man of six when his nurse told him that God makes hungry, the Devil thirsty).

Also, apart from Dr Solov, in Signs and Symbols there are Mrs. Sol (the old couple's next-door neighbor) and one of the Soloveychiks (whom Rebecca Borisovna's daughter married in Minsk). Soloveychik is a diminutive of solovey (nightingale).


Only snakes shed their skin,

So their souls can age and grow.

We, alas, do not resemble snakes,

We change souls, not bodies.


Memory, with the hand of a giantess

You lead life like a horse by the reins,

You will tell me about those who lived

In this body before it was mine.


The very first was plain and thin,

And loved only forests in twilight,

He was a fallen leaf, a magic child

Who stopped the rain with a word.


A tree and a red dog -

These he took as friends.

Memory, memory, you will not find proof,

You will not convince the world he was me.


And the second...He loved a wind from the south,

Heard the ring of the lyre in every noise,

Said that life was a friend to him,

And the world a carpet beneath his feet.


I don't like him at all, it was he

Who wanted to be God and king,

He hung the sign of a poet

Over the doors of my silent house.


I like freedom's chosen one,

The seafarer and rifleman.

Ah, the waters clearly sang to him

And the clouds were full of envy.


His tent was on high ground,

The mules were strong and frisky

He drank in like wine the sweet air

Of a country unknown to the white man.


Memory, you weaken year to year,

Was it that one or another one

Who traded happy freedom

For a sacred, long-awaited battle.


He knew the pains of hunger and thirst,

Sleep disturbed, the endless road,

But St. George twice touched

His breast untouched by a bullet.


I am the somber and stubborn builder

Of a temple rising up in the gloom.

I covet the glory of Savaoth,

Both in heaven and on earth.


My heart will be scorched to the depths by flame

Until the day when the walls of the New Jerusalem

Will rise up clean

From the fields of my native land.


And then a peculiar wind will blow. 

And a terrible light will pour from the sky -

The Milky Way will unexpectedly bloom

Like a garden of blinding planets.


An unknown traveler will appear before me,

Hiding his face; but I'll understand al

l When I see the lion following his tracks,

And the eagle flying toward him.


I will cry out...but who can prevent

My soul from dying?

Only snakes shed their skin

We change souls, not bodies.