Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0018250, Mon, 27 Apr 2009 12:48:08 -0400

Re: THOUGHTS: Roth/DeRewal article in NOJ
Matt Roth responding to Alexey:

Thanks for your very kind words, Alexey, and also for your corrections and
suggestions. I concede the point about "New Eye." I realized this small
mistake myself after the article was already accepted, alas. I always
thought "New I" was a better reading of New Wye anyway (more on that in a
post or article to come!). I agree that the Solus Rex and Ultima Thule links
are there and are probably significant. Unfortunately, as things stand we
were already way over the stated article length limit for most journals.

Finally, let me take up your point about Prince Vseslav. My source for the
info on Vseslav was Jakobson and Szeftel's "The Vseslav Epos," which I
believe is still the most extensive article on the topic available in
English. I relied on this article in part because we have documentary
evidence that VN himself read it and was interested in it. Therefore, it is
likely that his own views on Vseslav were heavily influenced by the article.
As for the transliterations of "Polock" and "Volx," I have simply used the
spellings given by Jakobson and Szeftel. I realize these are obsolete, but
in a longer version of that section of our article, I found it confusing to
quote the authors using one spelling while using a different spelling in my
own prose. I probably should have noted this in a footnote. You also say
that Prince Vseslav and the magician Volkh Vseslav'evich are not the same.
All I can say is that J&S thought they shared the same source. Allow me to
quote from their article:

"The hero of the bylina about the prince-werewolf is called Volx (or Vol'x)
Vseslav'evic in the text of its oldest variant (D), and Seslav'evic in its
title. The form volx originates in the common noun volxv meaning 'magician'.
. . . The name Vseslav is rare in Russian tradition. The combination of the
nouns Volx and Vseslav to make the full name Volx Vseslav'evic clearly
reveals its origin. We find both these nouns linked in the Primary Chronicle
(Povest' vremennyx let) in the biography of Vseslav of Polock, who ruled
there from 6552/1044 and died in 6609/1101. . . . The great Russian
historian S. Solov'ev [et tu, Sergei???] connected the bylina's account of
Volx's miraculous coming into the world with the legend in the Chronicle
about Vseslav's magical birth."

The authors then go on (in great detail) to make the case that the myths
about the prince and the magician are part of the same overall myth. They
argue that the Vseslav legend was created "by the prince's contemporaries,"
who may have wanted to emulate the legends attached to Alexander of
Macedonia, "the most glorified conqueror in medieval literature." They point
out that Alexander's attributes ("wizarldy wisdom and slyness, superhuman
swiftness, vampiric passion, and beastlike habits") very closely match those
of Prince Vseslav. That is not to say that the prince's contemporaries
created the werewolf myth:

"The werewolf myth is obviously much older than the reign of Vseslav, but
the ascribing of this myth to the Polock prince is easily understandable.
The unusual, one might say even fantastic, life of the militant Vseslav, his
unexpected appearances and vanishings, the lightning-like seizure of
powerful Novgorod, the sudden change of the prisoner of the day before into
the ruling prince of Kiev, and, in general, his miraculous good luck and
supernatural transitions from ruin to glory, from nothingness to triumph and
vice versa--all this demanded an explanation. In the eyes of his
contemporaries the only explanation of the hero's charmed career lay in his
secret powers."

We should also note that in the Onegin translation, VN says that Prince
Vseslav is "a kind of Slavic Michael Scot," a reference to the nearly
contemporaneous Scottish magician. This implies, I think, that VN himself
connected the prince with the Volx Vseslav'evic (magician) legend.

Matt Roth

>>> On 4/27/2009 at 2:35 AM, in message
<000401c9c707$0abf56a0$391c1154@ALEX1>, Alexey Sklyarenko
<skylark05@MAIL.RU> wrote:
from Alexey Sklyarenko:

I read with great interest Matt Roth & Tiffany DeRewal's article in NOJ.
Although I'm not a Pale Fire specialist, the article seems to me a major
event in the Pale Fire scholarship, being a kind of synthesis of Carolyn
Kunin's multiple personality and Brian Boyd's Shadean theories. But just
like the authors call Pale Fire "a near-perfect work of art", their article
can be called "a near-flawless piece of criticism". I have permitted myself
to point out a few minor errors that don't undermine the authors' theory and
that could have been easily avoided.

Prince Vseslav of Polotsk (the alternative transliteration "Polock" is
incorrect) and Volkh (not "Volx"!) Vseslavovich are two different men. While
the former, Prince Vseslav Brechislavovich, is a real person, the Kievan
prince who lived in the XIth century and who is mentioned in Slovo o polku
Igoreve, the latter, Volkh (this name comes not from volk, "wolf", but from
volkhv, "magician, sourcerer") Vseslav'evich, is a hero of Russian
folklore, son of Marfa Vseslav'evna by a snake. You can see here the bylina
(Russian traditional heroic poem) about him included in Kirsha Danilov's
collection: http://feb-web.ru/feb/byliny/texts/bpu/bpu-089-.htm (in
Russian). It is probably irrelevant, but Kirsha = sharik ("little sphere")*
= riksha ("rickshaw")

One might be tempted to hear New Eye in New Wye, the Appalachian town in
Pale Fire (1962), but The Eye, the English version of Nabokov's
Soglyadatay (1930), appeared only in 1965. Until then Nabokov hardly knew
what new title he will give to his old Russian novella.

The authors of the article speak a lot of The Eye and Despair but don't
even mention Solus Rex, Nabokov's last Russian novel that was to remain
unfinished (its two chapters, Solus Rex and Ultima Thule were published as
separate stories in 1940 and 1942, respectively). It is much closer to Pale
Fire than any other work by Nabokov. The artist Sineusov,** the hero of
Ultima Thule, and K. (the king in chess notation), the hero of Solus Rex
(which is set in a distant northern island), seem to be one and the same
person. K.'s first cousin, Prince Adulf, the only son of King Gafon and heir
to the throne who is to be assassinated by extremists, is eclectic in his
sexual tastes. Adam Falter, a character in Ultima Thule, is a medium, like
Hazel Shade in Pale Fire. There are many more parallels.

These comments will do for now.

*Sharik is the name of the dog that is surgically transformed into a human
being in Bulgakov's story Sobach'e serdtse ("The Dog's Heart", 1926).
Whether VN knew this story (it was first published only in the 1980s, but
the author had read it in Moscow to a number of fellow writers, some of
whom, like Zamyatin, might later emigrate) is a tantalizing question.

**The name Sineusov hints at Sineus, the legendary Varangian prince who is
said to have come to Russia with Ryurik. Whether Sineus comes from siniy us
(Russian from "blue moustache hair") or sine hus (corrupted old-Swedish for
"his kin") is a different question.

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