Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0027440, Wed, 26 Jul 2017 23:37:18 +0300

torments of Tamerlane & theatrical ululations in Pale Fire;
noble-winged seraphs & Diana in Lolita; Kingdom by the Sea in LATH
In the last stanza of his poem “The Nature of Electricity” John Shade (the
poet in VN’s novel Pale Fire, 1962) mentions the torments of a Tamerlane:

The dead, the gentle dead--who knows?--
In tungsten filaments abide,
And on my bedside table glows
Another man's departed bride.

And maybe Shakespeare floods a whole
Town with innumerable lights,
And Shelley's incandescent soul
Lures the pale moths of starless nights.

Streetlamps are numbered, and maybe
Number nine-hundred-ninety-nine
(So brightly beaming through a tree
So green) is an old friend of mine.

And when above the livid plain
Forked lightning plays, therein may dwell
The torments of a Tamerlane,
The roar of tyrants torn in hell. (note to Line 347).

Tamerlane (1827) is a poem by E. A. Poe (1809-49). Poe is the author of
Ulalume (1847), a ballad. Describing Hazel Shade’s investigations in the
Haunted Barn, Kinbote mentions the electric storm and its theatrical
ululations and flashes:

Her parents permitted her to make a nocturnal visit to the barn only under
the condition that Jane P.--deemed a pillar of reliability--accompany her.
Hardly had the girls settled down when an electric storm that was to last
all night enveloped their refuge with such theatrical ululations and flashes
as to make it impossible to attend to any indoor sounds or lights. (ibid.)

According to Kinbote, Hazel Shade spent a night in the Haunted Barn in
October of 1856:

This barn, or rather shed, where "certain phenomena" occurred in October
1956 (a few months prior to Hazel Shade's death) had belonged to one Paul
Hentzner, an eccentric farmer of German extraction, with old-fashioned
hobbies such as taxidermy and herborizing.

In Poe’s Ulalume the action takes place in October:

The skies they were ashen and sober;

The leaves they were crisped and sere―

The leaves they were withering and sere;

It was night in the lonesome October

Of my most immemorial year:

It was hard by the dim lake of Auber,

In the misty mid region of Weir―

It was down by the dank tarn of Auber,

In the ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir.

Hazel Shade’s “real” name seems to be Nadezhda Botkin (after her suicide
her father, Professor Vsevolod Botkin, went mad and became Shade, Kinbote
and Gradus). Nadezhda means in Russian “hope.” In Ulalum Poe mentions a
light’s Sybilic splendor beaming with Hope and in Beauty:

I replied―"This is nothing but dreaming:

Let us on by this tremulous light!

Let us bathe in this crystalline light!

Its Sybilic splendor is beaming

With Hope and in Beauty to-night:―

See!―it flickers up the sky through the night!

Ah, we safely may trust to its gleaming,

And be sure it will lead us aright―

We safely may trust to a gleaming

That cannot but guide us aright,

Since it flickers up to Heaven through the night."

“Sybilic splendor” brings to mind Sybil Shade, the poet’s wife (whose
“real” name seems to be Sofia Botkin, born Lastochkin).

In his poem My napryazhyonnogo molchan’ya ne vynosim… (“We cannot bear
strained silence…” 1913) Mandelshtam mentions a man out of a nightmare who
is reading Ulalume:

Мы напряжённого молчанья не выносим ―
Несовершенство душ обидно, наконец!
И в замешательстве уж объявился чтец,
И радостно его приветствовали: просим!

Я так и знал, кто здесь присутствовал незр
Кошмарный человек читает ?Улялюм?.
Значенье ― суета, и слово только шум,
Когда фонетика ― служанка серафима.

О доме Эшеров Эдгара пела арфа.
Безумный воду пил, очнулся и умолк.
Я был на улице. Свистел осенний шёлк...
И горло греет шёлк щекочущего шарфа...

According to Mandelshtam, meaning is mere vanity and the word is only noise,
when phonetics is sluzhanka serafima (the seraph’s handmaid). At the
beginning of VN’s novel Lolita (1955) Humbert Humbert mentions the seraphs:

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs,
the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle
of thorns. (1.1)

VN’s novel begins as follows:

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the
tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at
three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. (ibid.)

In his poem Otchego dusha tak pevucha (“Why is the soul is so melodious…”
1911) Mandelshtam complains that dear names are so few:

Отчего душа так певуча
И так мало милых имён,
И мгновенный ритм ― только случай,
Неожиданный Аквилон?

Он подымет облако пыли,
Зашумит бумажной листвой
И совсем не вернётся ― или
Он вернётся совсем другой.

О, широкий ветер Орфея,
Ты уйдёшь в морские края, ―
И, несозданный мир лелея,
Я забыл ненужное ?я?.

Я блуждал в игрушечной чаще
И открыл лазоревый грот...
Неужели я настоящий
И действительно смерть придёт?

Why is the soul so lyrical

And so few are the names I love

And the ready rhythm but a miracle

Like Aquillon from above?

He will raise clouds of dust in a hurry

He will leaf through the paper stack

And he will not come back -- or maybe

As another he will come back?

Winds of Orpheus are embracing -

You will leave for the sea and sky -

And, the world not created praising,

I forgot the superfluous "I".

In a toy thicket I wandered

And into an azure grotto delved.

Am I really real, I ponder,

And death will claim my true self?

(tr. I. Shambat)

Igrushechnaya chashcha (a toy thicket) in the poem’s last stanza brings to
mind Shade’s clockwork toy (a tin wheelbarrow pushed by a tin boy) that he
kept as a kind of memento mori:

By a stroke of luck I have seen it! One evening in May or June I dropped in
to remind my friend about a collection of pamphlets, by his grandfather, an
eccentric clergyman, that he had once said was stored in the basement. I
found him gloomily waiting for some people (members of his department, I
believe, and their wives) who were coming for a formal dinner. He willingly
took me down into the basement but after rummaging among piles of dusty
books and magazines, said he would try to find them some other time. It was
then that I saw it on a shelf, between a candlestick and a handless alarm
clock. He, thinking I might think it had belonged to his dead daughter,
hastily explained it was as old as he. The boy was a little Negro of painted
tin with a keyhole in his side and no breadth to speak of, just consisting
of two more or less fused profiles, and his wheelbarrow was now all bent and
broken. He said, brushing the dust off his sleeves, that he kept it as a
kind of memento mori--he had had a strange fainting fit one day in his
childhood while playing with that toy. We were interrupted by Sybil's voice
calling from above; but never mind, now the rusty clockwork shall work
again, for I have the key. (note to Line 143)

Like Ulalume and “ululations,” Lolita has two L’s in it. In Canto Three
of his poem Shade mentions Hurricane Lolita that swept from Florida to

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)

Shade suffered a heart attack on October 17, 1958:

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. (note to
Line 691)

E. A. Poe died in Baltimore on October 7, 1849.

In Lolita’s Russian version (1967) Gumbert Gumbert calls the seraphs
Edgarovy serafimy (Edgar’s seraphs):

Уважаемые присяжные женского и мужеского
пола! Экспонат Номер Первый представляет
собой то, чему так завидовали Эдгаровы се
рафимы - худо осведомленные, простодушны
е, благороднокрылые серафимы... Полюбуйте
сь-ка на этот клубок терний. (1.1)

Edgarovy serafimy are “the wingèd seraphs of Heaven” mentioned by E. A.
Poe in his poem Annabel Lee (1849):

I was a child and she was a child,

In this kingdom by the sea,

But we loved with a love that was more than love―

I and my Annabel Lee―

With a love that the wingèd seraphs of Heaven

Coveted her and me.

Shade’s mad commentator, Kinbote imagines that he is Charles the Beloved,
the last self-exiled king of Zembla (a distant northern land). In Pale Fire
Zembla is Kinbote’s “kingdom by the sea.” The name of Zembla’s capital,
Onhava, hints at Heaven.

In VN’s novel Look at the Harlequins (1974) the list of Vadim’s novels
includes A Kingdom by the Sea (1962). It appeared in the same year as VN’s
Pale Fire, but its plot is closer to that of Lolita. The name of the novel’
s heroine, Ginny, hints at Poe’s wife Virginia. In Poe’s story The Cask of
Amontillado (1846) the action takes place during a carnival in Italy and one
of the main characters, Fortunato, wears an harlequin’s costume:

It was about dusk, one evening during the supreme madness of the carnival
season, that I encountered my friend. He accosted me with excessive warmth,
for he had been drinking much. The man wore motley. He had on a
tight-fitting parti-striped dress, and his head was surmounted by the
conical cap and bells. I was so pleased to see him that I thought I should
never have done wringing his hand.

In Canto Four of his poem Shade mentions the damp carnival of his books:

Dim Gulf was my first book (free verse); Night Rote
Came next; then Hebe's Cup, my final float
in that damp carnival, for now I term
Everything "Poems," and no longer squirm.
(But this transparent thingum does require
Some moondrop title. Help me, Will! Pale Fire.) (ll. 957-962)

In his fragment Rim (“Rome,” 1842) Gogol (who was born in the same year as
Poe and who outlived the American writer only by a couple of years)
describes a carnival in Rome and mentions the Italian sonnetto colla coda
(sonnet with a coda). It seems that, to be completed, Shade’s almost
finished poem needs not only Line 1000 (identical to Line 1: “I was the
shadow of the waxwing slain”), but \xa8C like some sonnets \xa8C also a coda
(Line 1001: “By its own double in the windowpane”). In LATH Vadim
describes a doctor’s visit and compares it to “a most artistic coda:”

Annette rang up James Lodge, and he, out of the misdirected kindness of his
heart, had an old little physician of Russian extraction examine me. The
poor fellow drove me even crazier than I was by not only insisting on
discussing my symptoms in an execrable version of the language I was trying
to shed, but on translating into it various irrelevant terms used by the
Viennese Quack and his apostles (simbolizirovanie, mortidnik). Yet his
visit, I must confess, strikes me in retrospect as a most artistic coda. (2.

At the beginning of LATH Vadim mentions Gogol’s play Revizor (“The
Inspector,” 1836):

Some time during the Easter Term of my last Cambridge year (1922) I happened
to be consulted, "as a Russian," on certain niceties of make-up in an
English version of Gogol's Inspector which the Glowworm Group, directed by
Ivor Black, a fine amateur actor, intended to stage. He and I had the same
tutor at Trinity, and he drove me to distraction with his tedious miming of
the old man's mincing ways--a performance he kept up throughout most of our
lunch at the Pitt. The brief business part turned out to be even less
pleasant. Ivor Black wanted Gogol's Town Mayor to wear a dressing gown
because "wasn't it merely the old rascal's nightmare and didn't Revizor, its
Russian title, actually come from the French for ‘dream,’ rêve?" I said I
thought it a ghastly idea. (1.1)

The name of Vadim’s first wife (Ivor Black’s sister), Iris, means
“rainbow” and brings to mind a living rainbow in Lolita:

Oh, disaster. Some confusion had occurred, she had misread a date in the
Tour Book, and the Magic Cave ceremonies were over! She took it bravely, I
must admit-and, when we discovered there was in kurortish Wace a summer
theatre in full swing, we naturally drifted toward it one fair mid-June
evening. I really could not tell you the plot of the play we saw. A trivial
affair, no doubt, with self-conscious light effects and a mediocre leading
lady. The only detail that pleased me was a garland of seven little graces,
more or less immobile, prettily painted, bare-limbed \xa8C seven bemused
pubescent girls in colored gauze that had been recruited locally (judging by
the partisan flurry here and there among the audience) and were supposed to
represent a living rainbow, which lingered throughout the last act, and
rather teasingly faded behind a series of multiplied veils. I remember
thinking that this idea of children-colors had been lifted by authors Clare
Quilty and Vivian Darkbloom from a passage in James Joyce, and that two of
the colors were quite exasperatingly lovely \xa8C Orange who kept fidgeting all
the time, and Emerald who, when her eyes got used to the pitch-black pit
where we all heavily sat, suddenly smiled at her mother or her protector.

The play that Humbert Humbert and Lolita saw must be The Lady who Loved
Lightning. According to HH, his photogenic mother was killed by lightning
when he was three (1.2). In a letter to Lolita Mona Dahl describes the
performance of The Enchanted Hunters (another play by Quilty) and mentions
the terrific electric storm outside:

“Dolly-Lo: Well, the play was a grand success. All three hounds lay quiet
having been slightly drugged by Cutler, I suspect, and Linda knew all your
lines. She was fine, she had alertness and control, but lacked somehow the
responsiveness, the relaxed vitality, the charm of my \xa8C and the author's \xa8C
Diana; but there was no author to applaud us as last time, and the terrific
electric storm outside interfered with our own modest offstage thunder. Oh
dear, life does fly. Now that everything is over, school, play, the Roy
mess, mother's confinement (our baby, alas, did not live!), it all seems
such a long time ago, though practically I still bear traces of the paint.”

In a poem that he composed for Rita (a girl whom he picked up after Lolita
had been abducted by Quilty) Humbert Humbert mentions Diana:

In the silent painted park where I walked her and aired her a little, she
sobbed and said I would soon, soon leave her as everybody had, and I sang
her a wistful French ballad, and strung together some fugitive rhymes to
amuse her:

The place was called Enchanted Hunters. Query:

What Indian dyes, Diana, did thy dell

endorse to make of Picture Lake a very

blood bath of trees before the blue hotel?

She said: "Why blue when it is white, why blue for heaven's sake?" and
started to cry again, and I marched her to the car, and we drove on to New
York, and soon she was reasonably happy again high up in the haze on the
little terrace of our flat. (2.26)

Diana is the Roman goddess of hunting and of the moon. In Ulalume Poe
compares Astarte’s bediamonded crescent (Venus) to Dian (the moon):

And I said―"She is warmer than Dian:

She rolls through an ether of sighs―

She revels in a region of sighs:

She has seen that the tears are not dry on

These cheeks, where the worm never dies,

And has come past the stars of the Lion

To point us the path to the skies―

To the Lethean peace of the skies―

Come up, in despite of the Lion,

To shine on us with her bright eyes―

Come up through the lair of the Lion,

With love in her luminous eyes."

Alexey Sklyarenko

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