Sybil Shade's real name

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Thu, 08/23/2018 - 10:41

From Kinbote’s Commentary to Shade’s poem:


Line 247: Sybil


John Shade's wife, nee Irondell (which comes not from a little valley yielding iron ore but from the French for "swallow"). She was a few months his senior. I understand she came of Canadian stock, as did Shade's maternal grandmother (a first cousin of Sybil's grandfather, if I am not greatly mistaken).

From the very first I tried to behave with the utmost courtesy toward my friend's wife, and from the very first she disliked and distrusted me. I was to learn later that when alluding to me in public she used to call me "an elephantine tick; a king-sized botfly; a macaco worm; the monstrous parasite of a genius." I pardon her--her and everybody.


In the first of the two stanzas of his poem On Translating "Eugene Onegin" (1955) written after the meter and rhyme scheme of the EO stanza VN mentions the parasites who are pardoned, if he (VN) has Pushkin’s pardon:

What is translation? On a platter
A poets pale and glaring head,
A parrot's screech, a monkey's chatter,
And profanation of the dead.
The parasites you were so hard on
Are pardoned if I have your pardon,
O, Pushkin, for my stratagem:
I traveled down your secret stem,
And reached the root, and fed upon it;
Then, in a language newly learned,
I grew another stalk and turned
Your stanza patterned on a sonnet,
Into my honest roadside prose--
All thorn, but cousin to your rose.


In Chapter Two (XXX: 5-6) of Eugene Onegin Pushkin mentions Princess Alina, a Moscow maiden cousin (who appears in Chapter Seven of EO) of Tatiana’s and Olga’s mother:


Она любила Ричардсона
Не потому, чтобы прочла,
Не потому, чтоб Грандисона
Она Ловласу предпочла;
Но в старину княжна Алина,
Её московская кузина,
Твердила часто ей об них.
В то время был ещё жених
Её супруг, но по неволе;
Она вздыхала о другом,
Который сердцем и умом
Ей нравился гораздо боле:
Сей Грандисон был славный франт,
Игрок и гвардии сержант.


The reason she loved Richardson

was not that she had read him,

and not that Grandison

to Lovelace she preferred;

but anciently, Princess Alina,

her Moscow maiden cousin,

would often talk to her about them.

Her husband at that time still was

her fiancé, but against her will.

She sighed after another

whose heart and mind

were much more to her liking;

that Grandison was a great dandy,

a gamester, and an Ensign in the Guards.

In a letter of the end of January, 1825, to Bestuzhev Pushkin offers his criticism of Griboedov's play in verse Gore ot uma (“Woe from Wit,” 1824) and points out that it is not clear if Sofia (Famusov’s daughter with whom Chatski is in love) is a whore or moskovskaya kuzina (a Moscow cousin):


Драматического писателя должно судить по законам, им самим над собою признанным. Следственно, не осуждаю ни плана, ни завязки, ни приличий комедии Грибоедова. Цель его — характеры и резкая картина нравов. В этом отношении Фамусов и Скалозуб превосходны. Софья начертана не ясно: не то <блядь>, не то московская кузина.


According to Pushkin, Famusov and Skalozub (a character in “Woe from Wit”) are superb. The name Skalozub hints at zuboskal (scoffer). A similar transposition of syllables in Botkine (the name Botkin in French spelling) gives Kinbote.


In Chapter Eight of Eugene Onegin Pushkin compares Onegin to Chatski (the main character in “Woe from Wit”):


Он возвратился и попал,
Как Чацкий, с корабля на бал.


He returned and found himself,

Like Chatski, come from boat to ball. (XIII: 13-14)


At the beginning of Chapter Eight of EO Pushkin mentions Derzhavin:


Старик Державин нас заметил

И, в гроб сходя, благословил.


the aged Derzhavin noticed us — and blessed us

as he descended to the grave. (II: 3-4)

Derzhavin is the author of Lastochka (“The Swallow,” 1792-94), a poem written after the death of ‘Plenyra’ (Derzhavin’s first wife). In the poem’s closing lines Derzhavin compares his soul to a swallow:


Душа моя! гостья ты мира:
Не ты ли перната сия? —
Воспой же бессмертие, лира!
Восстану, восстану и я, —
Восстану, — и в бездне эфира
Увижу ль тебя я, Пленира?

My soul! You are a guest of the world:

is you not that feathered creature?

Sing of immortality, my lyre!

I too, I too will resurrect,

I’ll resurrect – and in the abyss of ether

will I see you, my Plenyra?


Kinbote calls Shade's wife "Sybil Swallow:"


John Shade and Sybil Swallow (see note to line 247) were married in 1919, exactly three decades before King Charles wed Disa, Duchess of Payn. (note to Line 275)


It seems thus that Sybil Shade’s (and Queen Disa's) “real” name is Sofia Botkin (born Lastochkin).


In Canto Four of his poem Shade writes:


I'm reasonably sure that we survive

And that my darling somewhere is alive,

As I am reasonably sure that I

Shall wake at six tomorrow, on July

The twenty-second, nineteen fifty-nine,

And that the day will probably be fine;

So this alarm clock let me set myself,

Yawn, and put back Shade's "Poems" on their shelf. (ll. 977-984)


Shade’s poem is almost finished, when the author is killed by Gradus. Gradus is an anagram of Guards (cf. an Ensign in the Guards with whom Dame Larin was in love when she was a girl). According to Kinbote, Gradus’ wife, a beader in Radugovitra, had left him with a gypsy lover:


At his hotel the beaming proprietress handed him a telegram. It chided him in Danish for leaving Geneva and told him to undertake nothing until further notice. It also advised him to forget his work and amuse himself. But what (save dreams of blood) could be his amusements? He was not interested in sightseeing or seasiding. He had long stopped drinking. He did not go to concerts. He did not gamble. Sexual impulses had greatly bothered him at one time but that was over. After his wife, a beader in Radugovitra, had left him (with a gypsy lover), he had lived in sin with his mother-in-law until she was removed, blind and dropsical, to an asylum for decayed widows. Since then he had tried several times to castrate himself, had been laid up at the Glassman Hospital with a severe infection, and now, at forty-four, was quite cured of the lust that Nature, the grand cheat, puts into us to inveigle us into propagation. No wonder the advice to amuse himself infuriated him. I think I shall break this note here. (note to Line 697)


At the beginning of his letter to Bestuzhev Pushkin says that Ryleev (the master of Batovo, a country place that later belonged to the Nabokovs; according to VN, le Chemin du Pendu in the park of Batovo received its name after Ryleev, one of the five Decembrists who were hanged) will bring to Bestuzhev a manuscript copy of his poem Tsygany ("The Gypsies," 1824):


Рылеев доставит тебе моих «Цыганов». Пожури моего брата за то, что он не сдержал своего слова — я не хотел, чтоб эта поэма известна была прежде времени — теперь нечего делать — принуждён её напечатать, пока не растаскают её по клочкам.


In her Russian translation of Pale Fire Vera Nabokov renders "a beader from Radugovitra" as bisershchitsa iz Radugovitry. Bisershchitsa (female beader) comes from biser (the beads). In the same letter to Bestuzhev Pushkin uses the phrase metat' biser (to cast pearls):


Теперь вопрос. В комедии «Горе от ума» кто умное действующее лицо? ответ: Грибоедов. А знаешь ли, что такое Чацкий? Пылкий, благородный и добрый малый, проведший несколько времени с очень умным человеком (именно с Грибоедовым) и напитавшийся его мыслями, остротами и сатирическими замечаниями. Всё, что говорит он, очень умно. Но кому говорит он всё это? Фамусову? Скалозубу? На бале московским бабушкам? Молчалину? Это непростительно. Первый признак умного человека — с первого взгляду знать, с кем имеешь дело, и не метать бисера перед Репетиловыми и тому под.


According to Pushkin, a clever person would not cast pearls before Repetilov (a character in "Woe from Wit") and his likes.


In his poem Na smert’ A. Bloka (“On the Death of Alexander Blok,” 1921) VN compares Pushkin to raduga po vsey zemle (a rainbow over the whole Earth) and Lermontov, to the Milky Way over the mountains:


Пушкин - радуга по всей земле,

Лермонтов - путь млечный над горами,

Тютчев - ключ, струящийся во мгле,

Фет - румяный луч во храме.


Все они, уплывшие от нас

в рай, благоухающий широко,

собрались, чтоб встретить в должный час

душу Александра Блока. (II)


In VN's poem the four poets who meet the soul of Alexander Blok in paradise are Pushkin, Lermontov, Tyutchev and Fet. The author of Lastochki ("The Swallows," 1884), Afanasiy Fet was married to Maria Botkin.


In Canto One of his poem Shade mentions the Milky Way:


A thousand years ago five minutes were

Equal to forty ounces of fine sand.

Outstare the stars. Infinite foretime and

Infinite aftertime: above your head

They close like giant wings, and you are dead.

The regular vulgarian, I daresay,

Is happier: he sees the Milky Way

Only when making water. (ll. 120-127)


Kinbote completes his work on Shade’s poem and commits suicide on Oct. 19, 1959 (the Lyceum anniversary). At the beginning of Chapter Eight of EO Pushkin mentions the Lyceum’s gardens:


В те дни, когда в садах Лицея

Я безмятежно расцветал,

Читал охотно Апулея,

А Цицерона не читал,

В те дни в таинственных долинах,

Весной, при кликах лебединых,

Близ вод, сиявших в тишине,

Являться муза стала мне.


In those days when in the Lyceum's gardens

I bloomed serenely,

would eagerly read Apuleius,

did not read Cicero;

in those days, in mysterious valleys,

in springtime, to the calls of swans,

near waters shining in the stillness,

the Muse began to visit me. (I: 1-8)


In Canto Four of his poem Shade mentions his odd muse:


And that odd muse of mine,

My versipel, is with me everywhere,

In carrel and in car, and in my chair. (ll. 946-948)


Chapter Eight of EO has an epigraph from Byron:


Fare thee well, and if for ever
Still for ever fare thee well.



In his poem Net, ya ne Bayron, ya drugoy… (“No, I’m not Byron, I’m another…” 1832) Lermontov mentions nadezhd razbitykh gruz (a load of broken hopes) that lies in his soul as in the ocean. An American scholar of Russian descent, Professor Vsevolod Botkin went mad and became Shade, Kinbote and Gradus after the tragic death of his daughter Nadezhda (Hazel Shade of Kinbote’s Commentsry). There is nadezhda (a hope) that, after Kinbote’s death, Botkin, like Count Vorontsov (half-milord, half-merchant, etc.), will be full again.


parasite + dar/rad = paradise + rat/art


Dar (“The Gift,” 1937) is a novel by VN

Rad - Germ., wheel; cf. "A prig rad (obs. past tense of read) us?" in Kinbote's note to Line 596