forty years, free calendars, heir & misprint in Pale Fire

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Tue, 09/04/2018 - 11:48

In Canto Two of his poem John Shade (the poet in VN's novel Pale Fire, 1962) says that he and his wife Sybil have been married forty years and mentions free calendars:


We have been married forty years. At least
Four thousand times your pillow has been creased
By our two heads. Four hundred thousand times
The tall clock with the hoarse Westminster chimes
Has marked our common hour. How many more
Free calendars shall grace the kitchen door? (ll. 275-280)


In his Commentary Kinbote (who imagines that he is Charles the Beloved, the last self-exiled king of Zembla) writes:


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. Since the very beginning of his reign (1936-1958) representatives of the nation, salmon fishermen, non-union glaziers, military groups; worried relatives, and especially the Bishop of Yeslove, a sanguineous and saintly old man, had been doing their utmost to persuade him to give up his copious but sterile pleasures and take a wife. It was a matter not of morality but of succession. As in the case of some of his predecessors, rough alderkings who burned for boys, the clergy blandly ignored our young bachelor's pagan habits, but wanted him to do what an earlier and even more reluctant Charles had done: take a night off and lawfully engender an heir.

He saw nineteen-year-old Disa for the first time on the festive night of July the 5th, 1947, at a masked ball in his uncle's palace. She had come in male dress, as a Tirolese boy, a little knock-kneed but brave and lovely, and afterwards he drove her and her cousins (two guardsmen disguised as flower-girls) in his divine new convertible through the streets to see the tremendous birthday illumination, and the fackeltanz in the park, and the fireworks, and the pale upturned faces. He procrastinated for almost two years but was set upon by inhumanly eloquent advisers, and finally gave in. On the eve of his wedding he prayed most of the night locked up all alone in the cold vastness of the Onhava cathedral. Smug alderkings looked at him from the ruby-and-amethyst windows. Never had he so fervently asked God for guidance and strength (see further my note to lines 433-434). (note to Line 275)


The King’s uncle Conmal, Duke of Aros, is the Zemblan translator of Shakespeare. According to Kinbote (note to Line 962), Conmal’s first work (the translation of Shakespeare’s Sonnets) was the outcome of a bet with a fellow officer. In the first quatrain of Sonnet 1 Shakespeare mentions “tender heir:”


From fairest creatures we desire increase,
That thereby beauty’s rose might never die,
But as the riper should by time decease,
His tender heir might bear his memory:


But thou, contracted to thine own bright eyes,
Feed’st thy light’st flame with self-substantial fuel,
Making a famine where abundance lies,
Thyself thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel.


Thou that art now the world’s fresh ornament
And only herald to the gaudy spring,
Within thine own bud buriest thy content

And, tender churl, makest waste in niggarding.

Pity the world, or else this glutton be,
To eat the world’s due, by the grave and thee.


In the first line of Sonnet 2 Shakespeare mentions “forty winters:”


When forty winters shall besiege thy brow,
And dig deep trenches in thy beauty's field,
Thy youth's proud livery, so gazed on now,
Will be a tatter'd weed, of small worth held:

Then being ask'd where all thy beauty lies,
Where all the treasure of thy lusty days;
To say, within thine own deep-sunken eyes,
Were an all-eating shame and thriftless praise.


How much more praise deserved thy beauty's use,
If thou couldst answer 'This fair child of mine
Shall sum my count and make my old excuse,'

Proving his beauty by succession thine!

This were to be new made when thou art old,
And see thy blood warm when thou feel'st it cold.


In his note to Three: IV: 5-14 of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin (EO Commentary, vol. II, p. 328) VN paraphrases the sonnet’s opening line:


“Dame Larin… a very nice old lady,” une petite vieille très aimable. At least “forty winters had besieged her brow,” to paraphrase Shakespeare’s Sonnet II. (See n. to Two: XXX: 13-14.)


Three: IV of Pushkin’s EO begins as follows:


Они дорогой самой краткой
Домой летят во весь опор17


They by the shortest road

fly home at full career.17

In his note to Three: IV: 2 VN mentions Pushkin’s note 17 that refers to the misprint Zimoy (“in winter”) for Domoy (“homeward”). In his note 17 Pushkin says that in his novel the chronology has been worked out calendrically (po kalendaryu):


В прежнем издании, вместо домой летят, было ошибкою напечатано зимой летят (что не имело никакого смысла). Критики, того не разобрав, находили анахронизм в следующих строфах. Смеем уверить, что в нашем романе время расчислено по календарю.


A misprint in the earlier edition [of the chapter] altered “homeward they fly” to “in winter they fly” (which did not make any sense whatsoever). Reviewers, not realizing this, saw an anachronism in the following stanzas. We venture to assert that, in our novel, the chronology has been worked out calendrically.

The misprint Zimoy for Domoy in Chapter Three of Pushkin’s EO brings to mind the misprint “fountain” for “mountain” in Canto Three of Shade’s poem:


                                     I also called on Coates.
He was afraid he had mislaid her notes.
He took his article from a steel file:
"It's accurate. I have not changed her style.
There's one misprint--not that it matters much:
Mountain, not fountain. The majestic touch."

Life Everlasting--based on a misprint!
I mused as I drove homeward: take the hint
And stop investigating my abyss?
But all at once it dawned on me that this
Was the real point, the contrapuntal theme;
Just this: not text, but texture; not the dream
But topsy-turvical coincidence,
Not flimsy nonsense, but a web of sense.
Yes! It sufficed that I in life could find
Some kind of link and bobolink, some kind
Or correlated pattern in the game,
Plexed artistry, and something of the same
Pleasure in it as they who played it found.


It did not matter who they were. No sound,
No furtive light came from their involute
Abode, but there they were, aloof and mute,
Playing a game of worlds, promoting pawns
To ivory unicorns and ebony fauns;
Kindling a long life here, extinguishing
A short one there; killing a Balkan king;
Causing a chunk of ice formed on a high-
Flying airplane to plummet from the sky
And strike a farmer dead; hiding my keys,
Glasses or pipe. Coordinating these
Events and objects with remote events
And vanished objects. Making ornaments
Of accidents and possibilities.

Stormcoated, I strode in: Sybil, it is
My firm conviction--"Darling, shut the door.
Had a nice trip?" Splendid--but what is more
I have returned convinced that I can grope
My way to some--to some--"Yes, dear?" Faint hope. (ll. 797-834)


In Canto Two of his poem Shade speaks of his daughter who “always nursed a small mad hope” (Line 383). In Shakespeare’s Richard III (Act 5, scene 2) Richmond says:


True hope is swift, and flies with swallow’s wings.

Kings it makes gods, and meaner creatures kings.


Kinbote calls the poet’s wife (née Irondell) “Sybil Swallow.” Unlike Sybil, Hazel Shade (the poet’s daughter) is never mentioned by name in her father’s poem. In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet Mercutio mentions Benvolio’s hazel eyes:

Thou wilt quarrel with a man for cracking nuts, having no other reason but because thou hast hazel eyes. (
Act III, scene 1)


Eyo glaza (“Her Eyes,” 1828) is a poem by Pushkin. In his note to Three: IV: 10 of EO, kakie glupye mesta (what silly country) VN quotes Tyutchev’s poem Pesok sypuchiy po koleni… (The crumbly sand is knee-high…” 1830) and says that, as has been pointed out by Russian critics, the image in lines 7-8 (“Grim night like a hundred-eyed beast looks out of every brush”) is an improvement upon a metaphor in Goethe’s Willcommen und Abschied: “Wo Finsternis aus dem Gesträuche mit hundert schwarzen Augen sah.” (EO Commentary, vol. II, pp. 328-329)


Smug alderkings who look at the King praying in the Onhava cathedral from its ruby-and-amethyst windows bring to mind Goethe’s poem Erlkönig. Its opening lines (“Who rides so late through night and wind”) are a leitmotiv in Shade’s poem. “A hundred-eyed beast” in Tyutchev’s (and Goethe’s) poem brings to mind giant wings mentioned by Shade in Canto One of his poem:


And there's the wall of sound: the nightly wall

Raised by a trillion crickets in the fall.

Impenetrable! Halfway up the hill

I'd pause in thrall of their delirious trill.

That's Dr. Sutton's light. That's the Great Bear.

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. (ll. 115-125)


At the end of his poem Shade mentions old Dr Sutton’s last two windowpanes:


But it’s not bedtime yet. The sun attains
Old Dr. Sutton's last two windowpanes.
The man must be--what? Eighty? Eighty-two?
Was twice my age the year I married you. (ll. 985-988)


Shade’s poem is almost finished when he is killed by Gradus. Kinbote believes that, to be completed, Shade’s poem needs but one line (Line 1000, identical to Line 1: “I was the shadow of the waxwing slain”). But it seems that, like some sonnets, Shade’s poem also needs a coda (Line 1001: “By its own double in the windowpane”).


According to Kinbote, the King first met Disa on July 5, 1947. July 5 is Shade’s, Kinbote’s and Gradus’ birthday (Shade was born in 1898, Kinbote and Gradus were born in 1915). 1915 – 1898 = 17. In Pushkin’s story Pikovaya dama (“The Queen of Spades,” 1833) Hermann becomes a lunatic and ends up in a madhouse where he occupies Ward Seventeen:


Германн сошёл с ума. Он сидит в Обуховской больнице в 17-м нумере, не отвечает ни на какие вопросы и бормочет необыкновенно скоро: «Тройка, семёрка, туз! Тройка, семёрка, дама!..»


Herman became a lunatic. He was confined in Ward Seventeen of the Obukhov hospital, where he spoke to no one, but kept constantly murmuring in a monotonous tone: “The tray, seven, ace! The tray, seven, queen!”


The three main characters of Pale Fire, Shade, Kinbote and Gradus seem to represent three different aspects of Botkin’s personality. An American scholar of Russian descent, Professor Vsevolod Botkin went mad and became Shade, Kinbote and Gradus (the poet’s murderer) after the tragic death of his daughter Nadezhda (Hazel Shade of Kinbote’s Commentary). There is a hope (nadezhda) that, when Kinbote completes his work on Shade's poem and commits suicide (on Oct. 19, 1959, the anniversary of Pushkin's Lyceum), Botkin, like Count Vorontsov (a target of Pushkin's epigrams, "half-milord, half-merchant, etc."), will be full again.


Hazel Shade drowned in Lake Omega. According to Aleksandra Smirnov (the author of spurious Memoirs quoted by Merezhkovski in his essay Pushkin, 1896), Pushkin called Goethe’s Faust (1808-32) “the last word of German literature… alpha and omega of human thought from the times of Christianity:”


Вот как русский поэт понимает значение «Фауста»: «„Фауст“ стоит совсем особо. Это последнее слово немецкой литературы, это особый мир, как „Божественная Комедия“; это — в изящной форме альфа и омега человеческой мысли со времён христианства». (chapter IV)


Pushkin compares Faust to Dante’s Divine Comedy. Pushkin’s Sonet (“The Sonnet,” 1830) begins: Surovyi Dant ne preziral soneta (“Severe Dante didn’t scorn the sonnet”). It is closely modeled on Wordsworth’s Sonnet whose first line was used by Pushkin as the epigraph. Like his friend Coleridge (the author of Kubla Khan, a poem in which Alph, the sacred river, is mentioned), Wordsworth was a Lake Poet. In his Commentary Kinbote mentions two other lakes, Ozero and Zero:


Higher up on the same wooded hill stood, and still stands I trust, Dr. Sutton's old clapboard house and, at the very top, eternity shall not dislodge Professor C.'s ultramodern villa from whose terrace one can glimpse to the south the larger and sadder of the three conjoined lakes called Omega, Ozero, and Zero (Indian names garbled by early settlers in such a way as to accommodate specious derivations and commonplace allusions). (note to Lines 47-48)


Ozero is Russian for "lake." The name Onegin comes from Onega, a river and a lake in NW Russia. In Onega there is nega (mollitude), in ozero there is zero. S ozera veet prokhlada i nega… (“Coolness and mollitude waft up from the lake…”) is a poem by Tyutchev:


                            Es lächelt der See...


С озера веет прохлада и нега, –
Отрок заснул, убаюкан у брега.
Блаженные звуки
Он слышит во сне;
То ангелов лики
Поют в вышине.


И вот он очнулся от райского сна, –
Его, обнимая, ласкает волна,
И слышит он голос,
Как ропот струи:
«Приди, мой красавец,
В объятья мои!»


Coolness and mollitude waft up from the lake.

The youth has dozed off, lulled on the shore.

Blissful sounds

he hears in his sleep;

the faces of angels

singing on high.


And now he's come out of his heavenly slumber,

embraced and caressed by the swell,

and he hears a voice,

like the thrumming of strings;

Come, handsome boy,

to my embrace!

(transl. F. Jude)


Tyutchev’s poem is a translation from Schiller’s Wilhelm Tell. Describing Lenski (a character in EO), Pushkin mentions the sky of Schiller and of Goethe:


Негодованье, сожаленье,
Ко благу чистая любовь
И славы сладкое мученье
В нем рано волновали кровь.
Он с лирой странствовал на свете;
Под небом Шиллера и Гете
Их поэтическим огнём
Душа воспламенилась в нём;
И муз возвышенных искусства,
Счастливец, он не постыдил:
Он в песнях гордо сохранил
Всегда возвышенные чувства,
Порывы девственной мечты
И прелесть важной простоты.


Indignation, compassion,

pure love of Good,

and fame's delicious torment

early had stirred his blood.

He wandered with a lyre on earth.

Under the sky of Schiller and of Goethe,

with their poetic fire

his soul had kindled;

and the exalted Muses of the art

he, happy one, did not disgrace:

he proudly in his songs retained

always exalted sentiments,

the surgings of a virgin fancy, and the charm

of grave simplicity. (Two: IX)


Pushkin admits the possibility that Lenski, if he had not died in his duel with Onegin, would have had a gout at forty:


А может быть и то: поэта
Обыкновенный ждал удел.
Прошли бы юношества лета:
В нём пыл души бы охладел.
Во многом он бы изменился,
Расстался б с музами, женился,
В деревне счастлив и рогат
Носил бы стёганый халат;
Узнал бы жизнь на самом деле,
Подагру б в сорок лет имел,
Пил, ел, скучал, толстел, хирел,
И наконец в своей постеле
Скончался б посреди детей,
Плаксивых баб и лекарей.


And then again: perhaps,

an ordinary lot awaited

the poet. Years of youth would have elapsed:

in him the soul's fire would have cooled.

He would have changed in many ways,

have parted with the Muses, married,

up in the country, happy and cornute,

have worn a quilted dressing gown;

learned life in its reality,

at forty, had the gout,

drunk, eaten, moped, got fat, decayed,

and in his bed, at last,

died in the midst of children,

weepy females, and medicos. (Six: IXXX)


In VN’s novel Lolita (1955) Dolores Haze (Lolita’s full name) marries Richard F. Schiller. At the end of Lolita Humbert Humbert (the narrator and main character) mentions Dick (Lolita's husband) and prophetic sonnets:


Thus, neither of us is alive when the reader opens this book. But while the blood still throbs through my writing hand, you are still as much part of blessed matter as I am, and I can still talk to you from here to Alaska. Be true to your Dick. Do not let other fellows touch you. Do not talk to strangers. I hope you will love your baby. I hope it will be a boy. That husband of yours, I hope, will always treat you well, because otherwise my specter shall come at him, like black smoke, like a demented giant, and pull him apart nerve by nerve. And do not pity C.Q. One had to choose between him and H.H., and one wanted H.H. to exist at least a couple of months longer, so as to have him make you live in the minds of later generations. I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art. And this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita. (2.36)


It seems that Humbert Humbert has in mind Shakespeare's Sonnet 14:


Not from the stars do I my judgement pluck,
And yet methinks I have astronomy,
But not to tell of good or evil luck,
Of plagues, of dearths, or seasons' quality;

Nor can I fortune to brief minutes tell,
Pointing to each his thunder, rain and wind,
Or say with princes if it shall go well
By oft predict that I in heaven find:

But from thine eyes my knowledge I derive,
And, constant stars, in them I read such art
As truth and beauty shall together thrive
If from thy self to store thou wouldst convert:

Or else of thee this I prognosticate,
Thy end is truth's and beauty's doom and date.


From John Ray's Foreword to Humbert Humbert's manuscript we learn that Lolita (whose eyes are grey) died in childbed, giving birth to a stillborn girl:


Mrs. "Richard F. Schiller" died in childbed, giving birth to a stillborn girl, on Christmas Day 1952, in Gray Star, a settlement in the remotest Northwest.


One of Lolita's chapters ends with a pseudo-Shakespearean quote:

Unless it can be proven to me as I am now, today, with my heart and my beard, and my putrefaction that in the infinite run it does not matter a jot that a North American girl-child named Dolores Haze had been deprived of her childhood by a maniac, unless this can be proven (and if it can, then life is a joke), I see nothing for the treatment of my misery but the melancholy and very local palliative of articulate art. To quote an old poet:


The moral sense in mortals is the duty

We have to pay on mortal sense of beauty. (2.31)


The moral sense in Humbert Humbert's pastiche brings to mind "a matter not of morality but of succession" (as Kinbote calls his marriage).


In Canto Three of his poem Shade mentions Hurricane Lolita:


It was a year of Tempests: Hurricane

Lolita swept from Florida to Main.

Mars glowed. Shahs married. Gloomy Russians spied.

Lang made your portrait. And one night I died. (ll. 679-682)


After translating Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Conmal “exchanged his frogged uniform for a scholar’s dressing gown and tackled The Tempest. A slow worker, he needed half a century to translate the works of him whom he called "dze Bart," in their entirety. After this, in 1930, he went on to Milton and other poets, steadily drilling through the ages, and had just completed Kipling's "The Rhyme of the Three Sealers" ("Now this is the Law of the Muscovite that he proves with shot and steel") when he fell ill and soon expired under his splendid painted bed ceil with its reproductions of Altamira animals, his last words in his last delirium being "Comment dit-on 'mourir' en anglais?" - a beautiful and touching end. (note to Line 962)


Shakespeare's Zemblan translator, Conmal (1855-1955) lived to the age of one hundred. In Shakespeare's Othello Othello, as he speaks to Desdemona, mentions a two-hundred-year-old sybil who gave his mother a magic handkerchief:


'Tis true. There’s magic in the web of it.

A sibyl, that had numbered in the world

The sun to course two hundred compasses,

In her prophetic fury sewed the work.

The worms were hallowed that did breed the silk,

And it was dyed in mummy which the skillful

Conserved of maidens' hearts. (Act III, scene 4)


Duchess of Payn, of Great Payn and Mone, Queen Disa seems to blend Leonardo's Mona Lisa with Shakespeare's Desdemona. Qeen Disa's and Sybil Shade's "real" name seems to be Sofia Botkin (born Lastochkin). Lastochki ("The Swallows," 1884) is a poem by Afanasiy Fet (who was married to Maria Botkin). It begins: Prirody prazdnyi soglyadatay... ("An idle spy on nature..."). Soglyadatay ("The Eye," 1930) is a short novel by VN. In a letter to his Tallinn friend Roman Bogdanovich (a character in "The Eye") mentions the illustrious Goethe:


"Я предполагаю, мой милый Федор Робертович, ненадолго вернуться к этому субъекту. Боюсь, что это будет скучно, но, как сказал Веймарский Лебедь, -- я имею в виду великого Гете (тут следовала немецкая фраза, написанная готическим шрифтом). Поэтому позвольте мне остановиться на господине Смурове и попотчевать Вас небольшим психологическим этюдом..."
... "Мне сдаётся, милейший друг, что я уже писал о том, что господин Смуров принадлежит к той любопытной касте людей, которую я как-то назвал "сексуальными левшами".


“I propose, my dear Fyodor Robertovich, to return briefly to that rascal. I fear it may bore you, but, in the words of the Swan of Weimar—I refer to the illustrious Goethe—(there followed a German phrase). Therefore allow me to dwell on Mr. Smurov again and treat you to a little psychological study… I have the impression, dear friend, that I have already written you of the fact that Smurov belongs to that curious class of people I once called ‘sexual lefties.” (Chapter 5)


Shade's commentator belongs to that curious class of people whom Roman Bogdanovich called "sexual lefties." According to Oswin Breswit (the former Zemblan consul whom Gradus visits in Paris), Charles the Beloved is left-handed:


"All right, I am ready. Give me the sign," he avidly said.

Gradus, deciding to risk it, glanced at the hand in Bretwit's lap: unperceived by its owner, it seemed to be prompting Gradus in a manual whisper. He tried to copy what it was doing its best to convey - mere rudiments of the required sign.

"No, no," said Bretwit with an indulgent smile for the awkward novice. "The other hand, my friend. His Majesty is left-handed, you know."

Gradus tried again - but, like an expelled puppet, the wild little prompter had disappeared. Sheepishly contemplating his five stubby strangers, Gradus went through the motions of an incompetent and half-paralyzed shadowgrapher and finally made an uncertain V-for-Victory sign. Bretwit's smile began to fade.

His smile gone, Bretwit (the name means Chess Intelligence) got up from his chair. In a larger room he would have paced up and down - not in this cluttered study. Gradus the Bungler buttoned all three buttons of his tight brown coat and shook his head several times. (note to Line 286)


Playing chess with Olga, Lenski in abstraction with a pawn takes his own rook:


Он иногда читает Оле
Нравоучительный роман,
В котором автор знает боле
Природу, чем Шатобриан,
А между тем две, три страницы
(Пустые бредни, небылицы,
Опасные для сердца дев)
Он пропускает, покраснев.
Уединясь от всех далёко,
Они над шахматной доской,
На стол облокотясь, порой
Сидят, задумавшись глубоко,
И Ленский пешкою ладью
Берёт в рассеянье свою.


Sometimes he reads to Olya

a moralistic novel —

in which the author

knows nature better than Chateaubriand —

and, meanwhile, two-three pages

(empty chimeras, fables,

for hearts of maidens dangerous)

he blushingly leaves out.

Retiring far from everybody,

over the chessboard they,

leaning their elbows on the table,

at times sit deep in thought,

and Lenski in abstraction takes

with a pawn his own rook. (Four: XXVI)


Expecting Gradus to make a sign, Bretwit "felt the magic wine rise to his head." In his note to Three: IV: 11-14 VN writes:


Bodenstedt's unbelievable German "translation" of EO has at this point:


"Lensky! Die Larina ist schlicht,

Aber recht hübsch für ihre Jahre;

Doch ihr Likör, wie schlechter Rum,

Steigt mir zu Kopfe, macht mich dumm."


A rare instance of a liqueur not only being imagined by the translator but affecting him in the same way as it does the imagined speaker. (EO Commentary, vol. II, p. 329)