Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0027388, Sun, 14 May 2017 13:31:55 +0300

L'if & grand potato in Pale Fire
At the beginning of Canto Three of his poem Shade mentions l’if, lifeless
tree, and Rabelais’ great Maybe, “the grand potato:”

L'if, lifeless tree! Your great Maybe, Rabelais:
The grand potato.
I.P.H., a lay
Institute (I) of Preparation (P)
For the Hereafter (H), or If, as we
Called it--big if!--engaged me for one term
To speak on death ("to lecture on the Worm,"
Wrote President McAber).

Kinbote’s note to Line 501: L’if

The yew in French. It is curious that the Zemblan word for the weeping
willow is also 'if’ (the yew is tas).

There is tis (Russian for “yew”) in Outis (Gr., Nobody). In his essay Ob
Annenskom (“On Annenski,” 1934) Khodasevich compares Annenski to Ivan
Ilyich Golovin (the main character in Tolstoy’s story “The Death of Ivan
Ilyich,” 1886) and points out that Annenski regarded his penname Nik. T-o
(Mr. Nobody) as a translation of Greek Outis, the pseudonym under which
Odysseus concealed his identity from Polyphemus (the Cyclops in Homer’s

Чего не додумал Иван Ильич, то знал Анненс
кий. Знал, что никаким директорством, ника
ким бытом и даже никакой филологией от см
ерти по-настоящему не загородиться. Она у
ничтожит и директора, и барина, и филолог
а. Только над истинным его "я", над тем, что
отображается в "чувствах и мыслях", над ли
чностью -- у неё как будто нет власти. И он
находил реальное, осязаемое отражение и у
тверждение личности -- в поэзии. Тот, чьё л
ицо он видел, подходя к зеркалу, был дирек
тор гимназии, смертный никто. Тот, чьё лиц
о отражалось в поэзии, был бессмертный не
кто. Ник. Т-о -- никто -- есть безличный дейс
твительный статский советник, которым, ка
к видимой оболочкой, прикрыт невидимый не
кто. Этот свой псевдоним, под которым он п
ечатал стихи, Анненский рассматривал как
перевод греческого "утис", никто, -- того са
мого псевдонима, под которым Одиссей скры
л от циклопа Полифема своё истинное имя, с
вою подлинную личность, своего некто. Поэ
зия была для него заклятием страшного Пол
ифема -- смерти. Но психологически это не т
олько не мешало, а даже способствовало то
му, чтобы его вдохновительницей, его Музо
й была смерть.

According to Khodasevich, Annenski’s Muse was death. Just before Shade’s
death Kinbote asks him, if the muse was kind to him:

"Well," I said, "has the muse been kind to you?"

"Very kind," he replied, slightly bowing his hand-propped head:
"Exceptionally kind and gentle. In fact, I have here (indicating a huge
pregnant envelope near him on the oilcloth) practically the entire product.
A few trifles to settle and [suddenly striking the table with his fist] I've
swung it, by God." (note to Line 991)

Kinbote’s note to Line 502: The grand potato

An execrable pun, deliberately placed in this epigraphic position to stress
lack of respect for Death. I remember from my schoolroom days Rabelais’
soi-disant "last words" among other bright bits in some French manual: Je
m’en vais chercher le grand peut-être.

In a letter of October 17, 1908, to Ekaterina Mukhin, I. Annenski says that
people who ceased to believe in God but who continue to fear the devil
created this otzyvayushchiysya kalamburom (smacking of a pun) terror before
the smell of sulfuric pitch, Le grand Peut-Etre:

Люди, переставшие верить в бога, но продол
жающие трепетать чёрта... Это они создали
на языке тысячелетней иронии этот отзыва
ющийся каламбуром ужас перед запахом сер
ной смолы - Le grand Peut-Etre. Для меня peut-etre - не т
олько бог, но это всё, хотя это и не ответ,
и не успокоение…

Annenski and his correspondent lived in Tsarskoe Selo (not far from
Pushkin’s Lyceum). Kinbote completes his work on Shade’s poem and commits
suicide on October 19, 1959 (the Lyceum anniversary). There is cedar (a
tree) in Cedarn (the city where Kinbote writes his Foreword, Commentary and
Index). Annenski’s last collection of poetry, Kiparisovyi larets (“The
Cypress Box”), appeared in 1910, soon after the poet’s death. In Canto Two
of his poem Shade mentions the talks with Socrates and Proust in cypress

So why join in the vulgar laughter? Why
Scorn a hereafter none can verify:
The Turk's delight, the future lyres, the talks
With Socrates and Proust in cypress walks,
The seraph with his six flamingo wings,
And Flemish hells with porcupines and things? (ll. 221-226)

A translator of Euripides, Annenski could speak with Socrates in the
latter’s native tongue.

There is a hope that, after Kinbote’s suicide, Botkin (Shade + Kinbote +
Gradus; nikto b, “none would,” backwards) will be “full” again. An
American scholar of Russian descent, Professor Vsevolod Botkin went mad and
became Shade, Kinbote and Gradus after the suicide of his daughter Nadezhda
(Hazel Shade of Kinbote’s Commentary).

Annenski is the author of two books of critical essays, Knigi otrazheniy
(“Books of Reflections”). Shade’s poem begins as follows:

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)

It seems that, to be completed, Shade’s almost finished poem needs not one,
but two lines:

I was the shadow of the waxwing slain

By its own double in the windowpane. (ll. 1000-1001)

Dvoynik ("The Double," 1904) is a poem by Nik. T-o. It begins as follows:

Не я, и не он, и не ты,

И то же, что я, и не то же:

Так были мы где-то похожи,

Что наши смешались черты.

Not I, and not he, and not you,

Both what I am, and what I am not:

We were so alike somewhere

That our features got mixed.

and ends in the following stanza:

И в мутном круженьи годин

Всё чаще вопрос меня мучит:

Когда наконец нас разлучат,

Каким же я буду один?

And, in the turbid whirling of years,

The question torments me ever more often:

When we will be separated at last,

What kind of person I will be alone?

Alexey Sklyarenko

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