Lost glove, Arnor, miragarl, Charlie & kot or in PALE FIRE

Submitted by dana_dragunoiu on Mon, 07/02/2018 - 09:06


In his Foreword to Shade’s poem Kinbote (Shade’s mad commentator who imagines that he is Charles the Beloved, the last self-exiled king of Zembla) quotes a Zemblan proverb the lost glove is happy:


As mentioned, I think, in my last note to the poem, the depth charge of Shade's death blasted such secrets and caused so many dead fish to float up, that I was forced to leave New Wye soon after my last interview with the jailed killer. The writing of the commentary had to be postponed until I could find a new incognito in quieter surroundings, but practical matters concerning the poem had to be settled at once. I took a plane to New York, had the manuscript photographed, came to terms with one of Shade's publishers, and was on the point of clinching the deal when, quite casually, in the midst of a vast sunset (we sat in a cell of walnut and glass fifty stories above the progression of scarabs), my interlocutor observed: "You'll be happy to know, Dr. Kinbote, that Professor So-and-so [one of the members of the Shade committee] has consented to act as our adviser in editing the stuff." 

Now "happy" is something extremely subjective. One of our sillier Zemblan proverbs says: the lost glove is happy. Promptly I refastened the catch of my briefcase and betook myself to another publisher.


In his autobiography Speak, Memory (1951) VN mentions a white kid glove lost by his languid and melancholy English governess, Miss Norcott:


There was lovely, black-haired, aquamarine-eyed Miss Norcott, who lost a white kid glove at Nice or Beaulieu, where I vainly looked for it on the shingly beach among the colored pebbles and the glaucous lumps of sea-changed bottle glass. Lovely Miss Norcott was asked to leave at once, one night at Abbazia. She embraced me in the morning twilight of the nursery, pale-mackintoshed and weeping like a Babylonian willow, and that day I remained inconsolable, despite the hot chocolate that the Petersons’ old Nanny had made especially for me and the special bread and butter, on the smooth surface of which my aunt Nata, adroitly capturing my attention, drew a daisy, then a cat, and then the little mermaid whom I had just been reading about with Miss Norcott and crying over, too, so I started to cry again. (Chapter Four, 4)


In the Russian version of his autobiography, Drugie berega (“Other Shores,” 1954), VN says that Miss Norcott was asked to leave because she turned out to be a Lesbian:


Была томная, черноволосая красавица с синими морскими глазами, мисс Норкот, однажды, потерявшая на пляже в Ницце белую лайковую перчатку, которую я долго искал среди всякой пёстрой гальки, да ракушек, да совершенно округлённых и облагороженных морем бутылочных осколков; она оказалась лесбиянкой, и с ней расстались в Аббации.


"Der Handschuh" ("The Glove," 1797) is a ballad (translated by Zhukovski as Perchatka) by F. Schiller. In VN’s novel Lolita (1955) Dolores Haze (Lolita’s full name) marries Richard F. Schiller. The characters in Lolita include Miss Lester and Miss Fabian. A Lesbian couple, Miss Lester and Miss Fabian are Humbert Humbert’s and Lolita’s neighbors at Beardsley (where Lolita goes to a school for girls). Kinbote is Shade’s neighbor in New Wye.


In his Afterword to Lolita, “On a Book Entitled Lolita” (1956), VN mentions the language of his first governess:


Around 1949, in Ithaca, upstate New York, the throbbing, which had never quite ceased, began to plague me again. Combination joined inspiration with fresh zest and involved me in a new treatment of the theme, this time in English - the language of my first governess in St. Petersburg, circa 1903, a Miss Rachel Home. The nymphet, now with a dash of Irish blood, was really much the same lass, and the basic marrying-her-mother idea also subsisted; but otherwise the thing was new and had grown in secret the claws and wings of a novel.


VN was born in 1899, the year when Chekhov’s stories Dushechka (“The Darling”) and Dama s sobachkoy (“The Lady with the Lapdog”) appeared. In Speak, MemoryVN says that the grandparents of Box II (the Nabokovs’ dachshund that followed its masters into exile) were Chekhov’s Quina and Brom. In Chekhov’s story “The Lady with the Lapdog” the heroine loses her lorgnette in the crowd on the Yalta pier. In his Afterword to Chekhov’s story “The Darling” Leo Tolstoy mentions Schiller:


Автор заставляет её любить смешного Кукина, ничтожного лесоторговца и неприятного ветеринара, но любовь не менее свята, будет ли её предметом Кукин, или Спиноза, Паскаль, Шиллер, и будут ли предметы её сменяться так же быстро, как у "Душечки", или предмет будет один во всю жизнь.


The author makes her love the absurd Kukin, the insignificant timber merchant, and the unpleasant veterinary surgeon, but love is no less sacred whether its object is Kukin or Spinoza, Pascal, Schiller, and whether the objects of it change as rapidly as with the Darling, or whether the object of it remains the same throughout the whole life.


In his review of Peterburg (1914), Andrey Bely’s novel brought out by the Sirin publishing house, Andrey Polyanin (Sofia Parnok’s penname) quotes Tolstoy’s words from his Afterword to “The Darling:”


С благоговением вспоминается фраза Льва Толстого из чудесного его "Послесловия" к рассказу Чехова "Душечка:" "Любовь не менее свята, будет ли её предметом Кукин или Спиноза, Паскаль, Шиллер".


At the end of the first poem in her collection Loza (“The Vine,” 1922) Sofia Parnok (Marina Tsvetaev’s Lesbian friend) mentions Sugdeyskaya Sibilla (“the Sugdeyan Sybil;” Sugdeya is a poetic name of Sudak, a place in the Crimea):


Там родина моя, где восходил мой дух,
Как в том солончаке лоза; где откипела
Кровь трудная моя, и окрылился слух,
И немощи своей возрадовалось тело.

Там музыкой огня звучал мне треск цикад
И шорохи земли, надтреснутой от зноя,
Там поднесла ты мне прохладный виноград
К губам обугленным - причастие святое...

И если то был сон, то, чтобы я
Сна незабвенного вовеки не забыла,
О, восприемница прекрасная моя,
Хотя во снах мне снись, Сугдейская Сибилла!


The “real” name of Shade’s wife Sybil (and of Kinbote’s wife, Queen Disa) seems to be Sofia Botkin (born Lastochkin). Lastochka (“The Swallow,” 1920) is a poem by Osip Mandelshtam. At the end of her review of Mandelshtam’s collection Kamen’ (“The Stone,” 1916) Sofia Parnok (“Andrey Polyanin”) says that in Mandelshtam’s poem Ya ne slykhal rasskazov Ossiana… (“I never heard the stories of Ossian…”) sculpture and music have become friends:


И, наконец, в прекрасных стихах: «Я не слыхал рассказов Оссиана», в которых скульптура и музыка сдружились, покорствуя поэту, в стихах, которые хочется знать наизусть — чувствуется та духовная и, следовательно, формальная напряжённость, по которой из сотни стихотворений сразу отличила настоящее, и которая есть верная примета подлинности произведения искусства.


In his Commentary to Shade’s poem Kinbote mentions the society sculptor and poet Arnor:


Our Prince was fond of Fleur as of a sister but with no soft shadow of incest or secondary homosexual complications. She had a small pale face with prominent cheekbones, luminous eyes, and curly dark hair. It was rumored that after going about with a porcelain cup and Cinderella's slipper for months, the society sculptor and poet Arnor had found in her what he sought and had used her breasts and feet for his Lilith Calling Back Adam; but I am certainly no expert in these tender matters. Otar, her lover, said that when you walked behind her, and she knew you were walking behind her, the swing and play of those slim haunches was something intensely artistic, something Arab girls were taught in special schools by special Parisian panders who were afterwards strangled. Her fragile ankles, he said, which she placed very close together in her dainty and wavy walk, were the "careful jewels" in Arnor's poem about a miragarl ("mirage girl"), for which "a dream king in the sandy wastes of time would give three hundred camels and three fountains.


          /                      /                 /            /

On sagaren werem tremkin tri stana
            /                    /            /            /
Verbalala wod gev ut tri phantana


(I have marked the stress accents.) (note to Line 80)


The name Arnor seems to hint at Arno (a river that flows in Florence), Parnok and Norcott; miragarl blends “mirage” with “girl” and “Arles” (a city in S France). In his Pesenka (“A Little Song,” 1913) Mandelshtam says that he creates his mirages and disturbs everybody in their work:


Я запачкал руки в саже,

На моих ресницах копоть,

Создаю свои миражи

И мешаю всем работать.


In Mandelshtam’s poem “Cinematograph” (1913) the heroine of the movie sukhim izmuchena mirazhem (is tormented by the dry mirage). In Mandelshtam’s poem Ya molyu, kak zhalosti i milosti… (“I beg, like pity and mercy…” 1937) Arle (in Arles) rhymes with “Charlie:” 


А теперь в Париже, в Шартре, в Арле
Государит добрый Чаплин Чарли —


And now in Paris, in Chartres, in Arles

Reigns the good Chaplin Charlie.


A policeman and Odon (a world-famous Zemblan actor and patriot who helps the King to escape from Zembla) both call the disguised king “Charlie:”


Three hours later he trod level ground. Two old women working in an orchard unbent in slow motion and stared after him. He had passed the pine groves of Boscobel and was approaching the quay of Blawick, when a black police car turned out of a transverse road and pulled up next to him: “The joke has gone too far,” said the driver. “One hundred clowns are packed in Onhava jail, and the ex-King should be among them. Our local prison is much too small for more kings. The next masquerader will be shot at sight. What’s your real name, Charlie?” “I’m British. I’m a tourist,” said the King. “Well, anyway, take off that red fufa.  And the cap.  Give them here.” He tossed the things in the back of the car and drove off. (note to Line 140)


Waiting for the Russian couple to recede, the King stopped beside the bench. The mosaic-faced man folded his newspaper, and one second before he spoke (in the neutral interval between smoke puff and detonation), the King knew it was Odon. “All one could do at short notice,” said Odon, plucking at his cheek to display how the varicolored semi-transparent film adhered to his face, altering its contours according to stress. “A polite person,” he added, “does not, normally, examine too closely a poor fellow’s disfigurement.” “I was looking for shpiks (plainclothesmen)” said the King. “All day,” said Odon, “they have been patrolling the quay. They are dining at present.” “I’m thirsty and hungry,” said the King. “There’s stuff in the boat. Let those Russians vanish. The child we can ignore.” “What about that woman on the beach?” “That’s young Baron Mandevil—chap who had that duel last year. Let’s go now.” “Couldn’t we take him too?” “Wouldn’t come—got a wife and a baby. Come on Charlie, come on, Your Majesty.” “He was my throne page on Coronation Day.” Thus chatting, they reached the Rippleson Caves. I trust the reader has enjoyed this note. (ibid.)


The red fufa mentioned by the policeman seems to hint at vyazanaya fufayka vyrozhdayushcheysya religii (a knitted jersey of degenerating religion), as in his review of Andrey Bely’s Zapiski chudaka (“The Notes of an Eccentric,” 1922) Mandelshtam calls theosophy:


Теософия — вязаная фуфайка вырождающейся религии. Издали разит от неё духом псевдонаучного шарлатанства. От этой дамской ерунды с одинаковым презрением отшатываются и профессиональные почтенные мистики, и представители науки.


The King’s phrase “I’m thirsty and hungry” brings to mind a Zemblan proverb quoted by Kinbote in the last note of his Commentary:


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. (note to Line 1000)


Minnamin (“my darling” in Zemblan) and Kinbote’s sufferings bring to mind Lev Mei’s Russian version (set to music by Tchaikovsky, a composer who died of cholera after drinking a glass of unboiled water) of Mignon’s song in J. W. Goethe’s novel Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (“Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship,” 1796):


Нет, только тот, кто знал

Свиданья жажду, 

Поймёт, как я страдал 

И как я стражду. 


Гляжу я вдаль... нет сил, 

Тускнеет око... 

Ах, кто меня любил 

И знал - далёко! 


Вся грудь горит... Кто знал 

Свиданья жажду, 

Поймёт, как я страдал 

И как я стражду.


No, only he, who knew

the longing of tryst,

will understand who I suffered

and how I still suffer…


In his poem Khleby (“The Breads,” 1918) Khodasevich addresses his wife and says that in her simple attire she is more beautiful than all Cendrillons and all Mignons:


Слепящий свет сегодня в кухне нашей.

В переднике, осыпана мукой,

Всех Сандрильон и всех Миньон ты краше

        Бесхитростной красой.


Вокруг тебя, заботливы и зримы,

С вязанкой дров, с кувшином молока,

Роняя перья крыл, хлопочут херувимы...

        Сквозь облака


Прорвался свет, и по кастрюлям медным

Пучками стрел бьют жёлтые лучи.

При свете дня подобен розам бледным

        Огонь в печи.


И эти струи будущего хлеба

Сливая в звонкий глиняный сосуд,

Клянется ангел нам, что истинны, как небо,

        Земля, любовь и труд.


In his poem Khodasevich (the author of Sofia Parnok’s obituary) says that, by daylight, the fire in the stove looks like pale roses. In his poem Izmuchen zhizn’yu, kovarstvom nadezhdy… (“By life tormented, and by cunning hope…” 1864) Fet mentions ognennye rozy (fiery roses) on which the living altar of universe smolders:


И неподвижно на огненных розах

Живой алтарь мирозданья курится,

В его дыму, как в творческих грёзах,

Вся сила дрожит и вся вечность снится.


And motionless upon fiery roses

the living altar of universe smolders

and in its smoke, as in creative slumber,

all forces quiver, eternity's a dream.


Afanasiy Fet-Shenshin was married to Maria Botkin. The real name of Hazel Shade (the poet’s daughter) seems to be Nadezhda Botkin. Her father, Professor Vsevolod Botkin, went mad and became Shade, Kinbote and Gradus (the poet’s murderer) after Nadezhda’s tragic death. There is a hope that, when Kinbote completes his work on Shade’s poem and commits suicide, Botkin will be “full” again.


In Speak, Memory VN describes the pain he felt when a drop of hot sealing wax fell on his finger and mentions the pallor of a candle flame by daylight:


At his retirement, Alexander the Third offered him [Dmitri Nabokov, VN’s grandfather who was the minister of justice in the reign of Alexander II and Alexander III] to choose between the title of count and a sum of money, presumably large—I do not know what exactly an earldom was worth in Russia, but contrary to the thrifty Tsar’s hopes my grandfather (as also his uncle Ivan, who had been offered a similar choice by Nicholas the First) plumped for the more solid reward. (“Encore un comte raté,”dryly comments Sergey Sergeevich.) After that he lived mostly abroad. In the first years of this century his mind became clouded but he clung to the belief that as long as he remained in the Mediterranean region everything would be all right. Doctors took the opposite view and thought he might live longer in the climate of some mountain resort or in Northern Russia. There is an extraordinary story, which I have not been able to piece together adequately, of his escaping from his attendants somewhere in Italy. There he wandered about, denouncing, with King Lear-like vehemence, his children to grinning strangers, until he was captured in a wild rocky place by some matter-of-fact carabinieri. During the winter of 1903, my mother, the only person whose presence, in his moments of madness, the old man could bear, was constantly at his side in Nice. My brother and I, aged three and four respectively, were also there with our English governess; I remember the windowpanes rattling in the bright breeze and the amazing pain caused by a drop of hot sealing wax on my finger. Using a candle flame (diluted to a deceptive pallor by the sunshine that invaded the stone slabs on which I was kneeling), I had been engaged in transforming dripping sticks of the stuff into gluey, marvelously smelling, scarlet and blue and bronze-colored blobs. The next moment I was bellowing on the floor, and my mother had hurried to the rescue, and somewhere nearby my grandfather in a wheelchair was thumping the resounding flags with his cane. She had a hard time with him. He used improper language. He kept mistaking the attendant who rolled him along the Promenade des Anglais for Count Loris-Melikov, a (long-deceased) colleague of his in the ministerial cabinet of the eighties. “Qui est cette femme—chassez-la!” he would cry to my mother as he pointed a shaky finger at the Queen of Belgium or Holland who had stopped to inquire about his health. Dimly I recall running up to his chair to show him a pretty pebble, which he slowly examined and then slowly put into his mouth. I wish I had had more curiosity when, in later years, my mother used to recollect those times.

He would lapse for ever-increasing periods into an unconscious state; during one such lapse he was transferred to his pied-à-terre on the Palace Quay in St. Petersburg. As he gradually regained consciousness, my mother camouflaged his bedroom into the one he had had in Nice. Some similar pieces of furniture were found and a number of articles rushed from Nice by a special messenger, and all the flowers his hazy senses had been accustomed to were obtained, in their proper variety and profusion, and a bit of house wall that could be just glimpsed from the window was painted a brilliant white, so every time he reverted to a state of comparative lucidity he found himself safe on the illusory Riviera artistically staged by my mother; and there, on March 28, 1904, exactly eighteen years, day for day, before my father, he peacefully died. (Chapter Three, 1)


“Our English governess” mentioned by VN is Miss Norcott (see Drugie berega). On the day of his father’s assassination (March 28, 1922) VN was reading to his mother Blok’s poem about Florence, when the telephone rang and he learnt of the tragedy in a Berlin lecture hall. In Speak, Memory VN says that his father proposed to his mother during a bicycle ride:


There was the room which in the past had been reserved for her mother’s pet hobby, a chemical laboratory; there was the linden tree marking the spot, by the side of the road that sloped up toward the village of Gryazno (accented on the ultima), at the steepest bit where one preferred to take one’s “bike by the horns” (bïka za roga) as my father, a dedicated cyclist, liked to say, and where he had proposed; and there was, in the so-called “old” park, the obsolete tennis court, now a region of moss, mole-heaps, and mushrooms, which had been the scene of gay rallies in the eighties and nineties (even her grim father would shed his coat and give the heaviest racket an appraisive shake) but which, by the time I was ten, nature had effaced with the thoroughness of a felt eraser wiping out a geometrical problem. (Chapter Two, 3)


Tolstoy’s Afterword to Chekhov’s “Darling” ends as follows:


Я учился ездить на велосипеде в манеже, в котором делаются смотры дивизиям. На другом конце манежа училась ездить дама. Я подумал о том, как бы мне не помешать этой даме, и стал смотреть на неё. И, глядя на нее, я стал невольно всё больше и больше приближаться к ней, и, несмотря на то, что она, заметив опасность, спешила удалиться, я наехал на неё и свалил, то есть сделал совершенно противоположное тому, что хотел, только потому, что направил на неё усиленное внимание.

То же самое, только обратное, случилось с Чеховым: он хотел свалить Душечку и обратил на неё усиленное внимание поэта и вознес её.


I learnt to ride a bicycle in a hall large enough to drill a division of soldiers. At the other end of the hall a lady was learning. I thought I must be careful to avoid getting into her way, and began looking at her. And as I looked at her I began unconsciously getting nearer and nearer to her, and in spite of the fact that, noticing the danger, she hastened to retreat, I rode down upon her and knocked her down— that is, I did the very opposite of what I wanted to do, simply because I concentrated my attention upon her.

The same thing has happened to Chekhov, but in an inverse sense: he wanted to knock the Darling down, and concentrating upon her the close attention of the poet, he raised her up.


In Canto One of his poem Shade mentions a lemniscate left upon wet sand by nonchalantly deft bicycle tires: 


I was the shadow of the waxwing slain
By feigned remoteness in the windowpane.

I had a brain, five senses (one unique),

But otherwise I was a cloutish freak.
In sleeping dreams I played with other chaps
But really envied nothing--save perhaps
The miracle of a lemniscate left
Upon wet sand by nonchalantly deft
Bicycle tires. (ll. 131-138)


In his Commentary Kinbote writes:


“A unicursal bicircular quartic” says my weary old dictionary. I cannot understand what this has to do with bicycling and suspect that Shade's phrase has no real meaning. As other poets before him, he seems to have fallen here under the spell of misleading euphony.

To take a striking example: what can be more resounding, more resplendent, more suggestive of choral and sculptured beauty, than the word coramen? In reality, however, it merely denotes the rude strap with which a Zemblan herdsman attaches his humble provisions and ragged blanket to the meekest of his cows when driving them up to the vebodar (upland pastures). (note to Line 137: lemniscate)


One wonders what is Zemblan for “glove”? A lemniscate is the infinity symbol . In his poem “” (1904) I. Annenski (who published poetry and critical essays under the penname Nik. T-o, “Mr. Nobody”) says that the infinity symbol resembles the tumbled down numeral 8:


Девиз Таинственной похож
На опрокинутое 8:
Она — отраднейшая ложь
Из всех, что мы в сознаньи носим.

В кругу эмалевых минут
Её свершаются обеты,
А в сумрак звёздами блеснут
Иль ветром полночи пропеты.

Но где светил погасших лик
Остановил для нас теченье,
Там Бесконечность — только миг,
Дробимый молнией мученья.


The first line of the second stanza, V krugu emalevykh minut (“In the circle of enameled minutes”), brings to mind the clock hand and dial in Sofia Parnok’s sonnet included in Loza and beginning with the phrase Kotoryi chas? (“What is the time?”):


«Который час?» — Безумный — Смотри, смотри:
Одиннадцать, двенадцать, час, два, три
В мгновенье стрелка весь облетает круг.
Во мне ль, в часах горячечный этот стук?

Он гонит сердце биться скорей, скорей
Скороговоркой бешеною своей...
Ах, знаю, — скоро я замечусь сама,
Как этот маятник, который сошёл с ума,

И будет тускло-тускло гореть ночник,
И разведет руками мой часовщик,
И будет сердце биться, хрипя, стеня,
И на груди подпрыгивать простыня...

Где будешь ты в ту полночь? Приди, приди,
Ты, отдыхавшая на моей груди!


According to Kinbote, kot or is Zemblan for “what is the time:”


A handshake, a flash of lightning. As the King waded into the damp, dark bracken, its odor, its lacy resilience, and the mixture of soft growth and steep ground reminded him of the times he had picnicked hereabouts - in another part of the forest but on the same mountainside, and higher up, as a boy, on the boulderfield where Mr. Campbell had once twisted an ankle and had to be carried down, smoking his pipe, by two husky attendants. Rather full memories, on the whole. Wasn't there a hunting box nearby - just beyond Silfhar Falls? Good capercaillie and woodcock shooting - a sport much enjoyed by his late mother, Queen Blenda, a tweedy and horsy queen. Now as then, the rain seethed in the black trees, and if you paused you heard your heart thumping, and the distant roar of the torrent. What is the time, kot or? He pressed his repeater and, undismayed, it hissed and tinkled out ten twenty-one. (note to Line 149)


In his essay Ob Annenskom (“On Annenski,” 1921) Khodasevich compares Annenski to Ivan Ilyich Golovin, the main character in Tolstoy’s story Smert’ Ivana Ilyicha(“The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” 1886). Tolstoy is the author of Vlast’ t’my (“The Power of Darkness,” 1886), a play subtitled Kogotok uvyaz, vsey ptichke propast’ (“If the claw is caught, the bird is lost,” a proverb), and Pyotr Khlebnik (“Peter the Baker,” 1894), another play. In Chapter One (XXXV: 12) of Eugene Onegin Pushkin mentions nemets, khlebnik akkuratnyi (the baker, a punctual German):


Что ж мой Онегин? Полусонный

В постелю с бала едет он:

А Петербург неугомонный

Уж барабаном пробуждён.

Встаёт купец, идёт разносчик,

На биржу тянется извозчик

С кувшином охтенка спешит,

Под ней снег утренний хрустит.

Проснулся утра шум приятный.

Открыты ставни; трубный дым

Столбом восходит голубым,

И хлебник, немец аккуратный,

В бумажном колпаке, не раз

Уж отворял свой васисдас.


And my Onegin? Half asleep,

he drives from ball to bed,

while indefatigable Petersburg

is roused already by the drum.

The merchant's up, the hawker's out,

the cabby to the hack stand drags,

the Okhta girl hastes with her jug,

the morning snow creaks under her.

Morn's pleasant hubbub has awoken,

unclosed are shutters, chimney smoke

ascends in a blue column, and the baker,

a punctual German in a cotton cap,

has more than once already

opened his vasisdas.


A word that comes from was ist das (“what is it?” in German), vasisdas rhymes with kotoryi chas (“what is the time?”). A word that comes from khleb (bread), khlebnikbrings to mind Khlebnikov, the author of Tam, gde zhili sviristeli… (“There, where the waxwings lived…” 1908). At the beginning (and, according to Kinbote, at the end) of his poem Shade calls himself “the shadow of the waxwing.” A son of the celebrated ornithologist, Velimir Khlebnikov was a futurist poet. In Canto One of his poem Shade tells about his parents (both of whom were ornithologists) and calls himself “a preterist:” 

I was an infant when my parents died. 

They both were ornithologists. I've tried 

So often to evoke them that today

I have a thousand parents. Sadly they 

Dissolve in their own virtues and recede, 

But certain words, chance words I hear or read, 

Such as "bad heart" always to him refer, 

And "cancer of the pancreas" to her.


A preterist: one who collects cold nests. (ll. 77-86)

Dvoryanskoe gnezdo (“A Nest of the Gentry,” 1859) is a novel by Turgenev. In his Commentary and Index Kinbote mentions his grandfather, Thurgus the Third, surnamed the Turgid:

One August day, at the beginning of his third month of luxurious captivity in the South West Tower, he was accused of using a fop's hand mirror and the sun's cooperative rays to flash signals from his lofty casement. The vastness of the view it commanded was denounced not only as conducive to treachery but as producing in the surveyor an airy sense of superiority over his low-lodged jailers. Accordingly, one evening the King's cot-and-pot were transferred to a dismal lumber room on the same side of the palace but on its first floor. Many years before, it had been the dressing room of his grandfather, Thurgus the Third. After Thurgus died (in 1900) his ornate bedroom was transformed into a kind of chapel and the adjacent chamber, shorn of its full-length multiple mirror and green silk sofa, soon degenerated into what it had now remained for half a century, an old hole of a room with a locked trunk in one corner and an obsolete sewing machine in another. It was reached from a marble-flagged gallery, running along its north side and sharply turning immediately west of it to form a vestibule in the southwest corner of the Palace. The only window gave on an inner court on the south side. This window had once been a glorious dreamway of stained glass, with a fire-bird and a dazzled huntsman, but a football had recently shattered the fabulous forest scene and now its new ordinary pane was barred from the outside. On the west-side wall, above a whitewashed closet door, hung a large photograph in a frame of black velvet. The fleeting and faint but thousands of times repeated action of the same sun that was accused of sending messages from the tower, had gradually patinated this picture which showed the romantic profile and broad bare shoulders of the forgotten actress Iris Acht, said to have been for several years, ending with her sudden death in 1888, the mistress of Thurgus. In the opposite, east-side wall a frivolous-looking door, similar in turquoise coloration to the room's only other one (opening into the gallery) but securely hasped, had once led to the old rake's bedchamber; it had now lost its crystal knob, and was flanked on the east-side wall by two banished engravings belonging to the room's period of decay. They were of the sort that is not really supposed to be looked at, pictures that exist merely as general notions of pictures to meet the humble ornamental needs of some corridor or waiting room: one was a shabby and lugubrious Fête Flammande after Teniers; the other had once hung in the nursery whose sleepy denizens had always taken it to depict foamy waves in the foreground instead of the blurry shapes of melancholy sheep that it now revealed. (note to Line 130)

Thurgus the Third, surnamed the Turgid. 's grandfather, d. 1900 at seventy-five, after a long dull reign; sponge-bag-capped, and with only one medal on his Jaegar jacket, he liked to bicycle in the park; stout and bald, his nose like a congested plum, his martial mustache bristing with obsolete passion, garbed in a dressing gown of green silk, and carrying a flambeau in his raised hand, he used to meet, every night, during a short period in the middle-Eighties, his hooded mistress, Iris Acht (q.v.) midway between palace and theater in the secret passage later to be rediscovered by his grandson, 130. (Index)

Jaeger is German for “hunter.” Turgenev is the author of Zapiski okhotnika (“A Hunter’s Notes,” 1852). Acht is German for “eight.” In his poem about Florence (that VN read to his mother on the day of his father’s assassination) Alexander Blok compares Florence to a smoky iris. Blok’s poem Dvoynik (“The Double,” 1909) ends in the lines:

Быть может, себя самого

Я встретил на глади зеркальной?


Perhaps, I met myself

On the smooth surface of the mirror?

Kinbote believes that, to be completed, Shade’s almost finished poem needs only Line 1000 (identical to Line 1: “I was the shadow of the waxwing slain”). But it seems that Shade’s poem also needs a coda (Line 1001: “By its own double in the windowpane”). In his extremely unreliable memoirs Peterburgskie zimy (“The St. Petersburg Winters,” 1931) G. Ivanov says that to his question “does a sonnet need a coda” Blok replied that he did not know what a coda was. In his poem Kak v Gretsiyu Bayron – o, bez sozhalen’ya… (“Like Byron to Greece – o, without regret…” 1928) G. Ivanov mentions blednyi ogon’ (pale fire). In Canto Three of his poem Shade describes his heart attack and says that no aorta could report regret:

                                                  Give me now 

Your full attention. I can't tell you how 

I knew - but I did know that I had crossed 

The border. Everything I loved was lost 

But no aorta could report regret. 

A sun of rubber was convulsed and set; 

And blood-black nothingness began to spin 

A system of cells interlinked within 

Cells interlinked within cells interlinked 

Within one stem. And dreadfully distinct 

Against the dark, a tall white fountain played. (ll. 697-707)

According to Shade, he realized that this tall white fountain “was made not of our atoms.” In his essay Literaturnyi smotr (“A Literary Review,” 1940) VN mentions G. Ivanov’s novel Raspad atoma (“An Atom’s Disintegration,” 1937):

Наконец, pour la bonne bouche, находим статью В. Злобина о книжице Г. Иванова "Распад атома". Автор статьи договаривается до бездн, стараясь установить, почему эта книжица была так скоро забыта. Ему не приходит в голову, что, может быть, так случилось потому, что эта брошюрка с её любительским исканием Бога и банальным описанием писсуаров (могущим смутить только самых неопытных читателей) просто очень плоха. И Зинаиде Гиппиус, и Георгию Иванову, двум незаурядным поэтам, никогда, никогда не следовало бы баловаться прозой.

According to VN, two gifted poets, Zinaida Hippius and G. Ivanov, should have never indulged in prose. In her review of Bely’s Peterburg Sofia Parnok says good poets usually write a bad prose and vice versa:

В заключение, несколько слов о «Петербурге», как о прозе поэта. 

Вопрос о том, управляется ли искусство прозаического письма теми же законами, какими управляется искусство письма поэтического (стихотворного), всегда вставал перед нами при чтении скверных стихов хорошего прозаика и скверной прозы хорошего поэта. Интерес к этому вопросу побудил нас к некоторой статистической любознательности в области истории литературы, и результатом этой любознательности явилось весьма, на наш взгляд, любопытное наблюдение: хорошие прозаики писали дурные стихи, а дурные поэты — хорошую прозу; и только вершинные художники умели найти в своём гении совокупность тех условий, которые потребны для творчества и в поэзии (стихотворстве), и в прозе.

According to Sofia Parnok, only great artists can find in their genius a sum of those conditions that are necessary for writing good poetry and good prose. In Pale Fire VN proves that he is such an artist.

In 1930 G. Ivanov attacked Sirin (VN’s Russian nom de plume) in the Paris émigré review Chisla (“Numbers”). In her poem Chisla (1902) Zinaida Hippius (who, after reading VN’s first collection of poetry, asked VN’s father to tell his son that he will never be a writer) says that the divine numbers are given to us, like second names:

 Бездонного, предчувственного смысла

И благодатной мудрости полны,

Как имена вторые, — нам даны

Божественные числа.


И день, когда родимся, налагает

На нас печать заветного числа;

До смерти наши мысли и дела

Оно сопровождает.


И между числами — меж именами —

То близость, то сплетенье, то разлад.

Мир чисел, мы, — как бы единый сад,

С различными цветами.


Земная связь людей порою рвётся,

Вот — кажется — и вовсе порвалась...

Но указанье правды — чисел связь —

Навеки остаётся.


В одеждах одинаковых нас трое.

Как знак различия и общности легло

На ткани алой белое число,

Для каждого — родное.

Наш первый — 2. Второй, с ним, повторяясь,

Свое, для третьего, прибавил — 6.

И вот, в обоих первых — третий есть,

Из сложности рождаясь.

Пусть нет узла — его в себе мы носим.

Никто сплетённых чисел не рассек.

А числа, нас связавшие навек —

2, 26 и 8.

At the beginning of his Afterword to Chekhov’s story “The Darling” Tolstoy quotes a story in the Book of Numbers: 

Есть глубокий по смыслу рассказ в «Книге Числ» о том, как Валак, царь Моавитский, пригласил к себе Валаама для того, чтобы проклясть приблизившийся к его пределам народ израильский. Валак обещал Валааму за это много даров, и Валаам, соблазнившись, поехал к Валаку, но на пути был остановлен ангелом, которого видела ослица, но не видал Валаам. Несмотря на эту остановку, Валаам приехал к Валаку и взошел с ним на гору, где был приготовлен жертвенник с убитыми тельцами и овцами для проклятия. Валак ждал проклятия, но Валаам вместо проклятия благословил народ израильский.

23 гл. (11) «И сказал тогда Валак Валааму: что ты со мной делаешь? Я взял тебя, чтобы проклясть врагов моих, а ты вот благословляешь?

(12) И отвечал Валаам и сказал: не должен ли я в полности сказать то, что влагает господь в уста мои?

(13) И сказал ему Валак: пойди со мной на другое место... и прокляни его оттуда».

И взял его на другое место, где тоже были приготовлены жертвы.

Но Валаам опять вместо проклятья благословил. Так было и на третьем месте.

24 гл. (10) «И воспламенился гнев Валака на Валаама, всплеснул он руками своими, и сказал Валак Валааму: я призвал тебя проклясть врагов моих, а ты благословляешь и вот уж третий раз.

(11) Итак, ступай на свое место; я хотел почтить тебя, но вот господь лишает тебя чести».

И так и ушел Валаам, не получив даров, потому что вместо проклятья благословил врагов Валака.

То, что случилось с Валаамом, очень часто случается с настоящими поэтами-художниками. Соблазняясь ли обещаниями Валака — популярностью или своим ложным, навеянным взглядом, поэт не видит даже того ангела, который останавливает его и которого видит ослица, и хочет проклинать, и вот благословляет.

Это самое случилось с настоящим поэтом-художником Чеховым, когда он писал этот прелестный рассказ «Душечка».

Автор, очевидно, хочет посмеяться над жалким, по его рассуждению (но не по чувству), существом «Душечки», то разделяющей заботы Кукина с его театром, то ушедшей в интересы лесной торговли, то под влиянием ветеринара считающей самым важным делом борьбу с жемчужной болезнью, то, наконец, поглощенной вопросами грамматики и интересами гимназистика в большой фуражке. Смешна и фамилия Кукина, смешна даже его болезнь и телеграмма, извещающая об его смерти, смешон лесоторговец с своим степенством, смешон ветеринар, смешон и мальчик, но не смешна, а свята, удивительна душа «Душечки» с своей способностью отдаваться всем существом своим тому, кого она любит.

There is a story of profound meaning in the Book of Numbers which tells how Balak, the King of the Moabites, sent for the prophet Balaam to curse the Israelites who were on his borders. Balak promised Balaam many gifts for this service, and Balaam, tempted, went to Balak, and went with him up the mountain, where an altar was prepared with calves and sheep sacrificed in readiness for the curse. Balak waited for the curse, but instead of cursing, Balaam blessed the people of Israel.

Ch. xxiii., V. 11: “And Balak said unto Balaam, What hast thou done unto me? I took thee to curse mine enemies, and, behold, thou hast blessed them altogether.

“It is a dark world, but Chekhov brings light into it. There is no other author who gives so little offence as he shows us offensive things and people. Here is a writer who desires above all to see what men and women are really like--to extenuate nothing and to set down naught in malice.”

“12. And he answered and said, Must I not take heed to speak that which the Lord hath put in my mouth?

“13. And Balak said unto him, Come, I pray thee, with me into another place . . . and curse me them from thence.”

But again, instead of cursing, Balaam blessed. And so it was the third time also.

Ch. xxiv., V. 10: “And Balak’s anger was kindled against Balaam, and he smote his hands together: and Balak said unto Balaam, I called thee to curse my enemies, and, behold, thou hast altogether blessed them these three times.

“11. Therefore now flee thee to thy place: I thought to promote thee unto great honour; but, lo, the Lord hast kept thee back from honour.”

And so Balaam departed without having received the gifts, because, instead of cursing, he had blessed the enemies of Balak.

What happened to Balaam often happens to real poets and artists. Tempted by Balak’s gifts, popularity, or by false preconceived ideas, the poet does not see the angel barring his way, though the ass sees him, and he means to curse, and yet, behold, he blesses.

This is just what happened to the true poet and artist Chekhov when he wrote this charming story “The Darling.”

The author evidently means to mock at the pitiful creature—as he judges her with his intellect, but not with his heart—the Darling, who after first sharing Kukin's anxiety about his theatre, then throwing herself into the interests of the timber trade, then under the influence of the veterinary surgeon regarding the campaign against the foot and mouth disease as the most important matter in the world, is finally engrossed in the grammatical questions and the interests of the little schoolboy in the big cap. Kukin's surname is absurd, even his illness and the telegram announcing his death, the timber merchant with his respectability, the veterinary surgeon, even the boy -- all are absurd, but the soul of The Darling, with her faculty of devoting herself with her whole being to any one she loves, is not absurd, but marvelous and holy.

Like Chekhov, VN (the author of Lolita who “set the entire world adreaming of his poor girl”) can be compared to Balaam. Arnor’s miragarl for whom “a dream king in the sandy wastes of time would give three hundred camels and three fountains” seems to be Lolita. In Canto Three of his poem Shade mentions Hurricane Lolita that swept from Florida to Maine:

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)

In his Commentary Kinbote writes:

Major hurricanes are given feminine names in America. The feminine gender is suggested not so much by the sex of furies and harridans as by a general professional application. Thus any machine is a she to its fond user, and any fire (even a "pale" one!) is she to the fireman, as water is she to the passionate plumber. Why our poet chose to give his 1958 hurricane a little-used Spanish name (sometimes given to parrots) instead of Linda or Lois, is not clear. (note to Line 680)

The author Raspad atoma and Tretiy Rim (“The Third Rome,” 1929), a novel that remained unfinished, G. Ivanov died in 1958. In his fragment Rim (“Rome,” 1842) Gogol (who burned the second volume of his “Dead Souls”) describes a carnival in Rome and mentions the Italian sonetto colla coda (“sonnet with a tail”).

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