big if, President McAber & total number of lines in Pale Fire

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Sat, 09/22/2018 - 11:51

In Canto Three of his poem John Shade (the poet in VN's novel Pale Fire, 1962) speaks of IPH (a lay Institute of Preparation for the Hereafter) and mentions "big if:"


L'if, lifeless tree! Your great Maybe, Rabelais:
The grand potato.
                  I.P.H., a lay
Institute (I) of Preparation (P)
For the Hereafter (H), or If, as we
Called it--big if!--engaged me for one term
To speak on death ("to lecture on the Worm,"
Wrote President McAber).
                         You and I,
And she, then a mere tot, moved from New Wye
To Yewshade, in another, higher state. (ll. 501-509)


In E. A. Poe's story A Predicament (1838) Psyche Zenobia (the narrator and main character) mentions If, a distressing monosyllable:


Leaning upon the arm of the gallant Pompey, and attended at a respectable distance by Diana, I proceeded down one of the populous and very pleasant streets of the now deserted Edina. On a sudden, there presented itself to view a church- a Gothic cathedral- vast, venerable, and with a tall steeple, which towered into the sky. What madness now possessed me? Why did I rush upon my fate? I was seized with an uncontrollable desire to ascend the giddy pinnacle, and then survey the immense extent of the city. The door of the cathedral stood invitingly open. My destiny prevailed. I entered the ominous archway. Where then was my guardian angel?- if indeed such angels there be. If! Distressing monosyllable! what world of mystery, and meaning, and doubt, and uncertainty is there involved in thy two letters! I entered the ominous archway! I entered; and, without injury to my orange-colored auriculas, I passed beneath the portal, and emerged within the vestibule. Thus it is said the immense river Alfred passed, unscathed, and unwetted, beneath the sea.


The immense river Alfred brings to mind Alph, the sacred river in Coleridge's poem Kubla Khan. Charles the Beloved (the last self-exiled king of Zembla) is the son of King Alfin. Alphina is the fourth and youngest daughter of Judge Goldsworth (Kinbote's landlord). According to Kinbote (Shade's mad commentator who imagines that he is Charles the Beloved), Mrs. Goldsworth's intellectual interests are fully developed, going as they did from Amber to Zen. (note to Lines 47-48) In the name Zenobia there is Zen.


The action in Poe's story (a parody of the Gothic sensation tale) takes place in Edina (Edinburgh). Edinburgh is the capital of Scotland. McAber is a Scottish name (that plays on "macabre"). It brings to mind "gnarled McFate" mentioned by Humbert Humbert (the narrator and main character in VN's novel Lolita, 1955) in a poem that he wrote in a madhouse:


Happy, happy is gnarled McFate
Touring the States with a child wife,
Plowing his Molly in every State
Among the protected wild life.


In E. A. Poe's story "The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether" (1845) the action takes place in a madhouse. It seems that Botkin (Shade's, Kinbote's and Gradus' "real" name) writes Pale Fire in a madhouse. In Lolita Humbert Humbert often mentions E. A. Poe (the author of Annabel Lee, 1849).


In A Predicament the heroine is drawn to a large Gothic cathedral. Chekhov’s story Tysyacha odna strast’, ili Strashnaya noch’ (“Thousand and One Passions, or The Terrible Night,” 1880) that, like Poe's story, parodies the Gothic sensation tale, is dedicated to Victor Hugo (the author of Notre Dame de Paris, 1831). The title of Chekhov’s parody blends Tysyacha i odna noch’ (the Arabian “Thousand and One Nights”) with Gogol’s story Strashnaya mest’ (“A Terrible Vengeance,” 1831). E. A. Poe is the author of The Thousand-and-Second Tale of Scheherazade (1845). In "A Terrible Vengeance" Gogol says that a rare bird will fly to the middle of the Dnepr. Rara avis (1886) is a story by Chekhov. At the beginning of his Commentary Kinbote says that his knowledge of garden Aves had been limited to those of northern Europe (note to Lines 1-4). The beginning of Canto Three (Line 500) is the middle of Shade's poem. At the beginning (and at the end) of his poem Shade compares himself to the shadow of the waxwing. Kinbote believes that, to be completed, Shade's poem needs but one Line (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: “By its own double in the windowpane.” In his fragment Rim (“Rome,” 1842) Gogol describes a carnival in Rome, mentions the Italian sonetto colla coda and in a footnote explains that in Italian poetry there is a kind of poem known as sonet s khvostom (sonnet with a tail, con la coda), when the idea cannot be expressed in fourteen lines and entails an appendix which is often longer than the sonnet itself:


В италиянской поэзии существует род стихотворенья, известного под именем сонета с хвостом (con la coda), когда мысль не вместилась и ведёт за собою прибавление, которое часто бывает длиннее самого сонета.


Not only Line 1001, but the entire Kinbote's Foreword, Commentary and Index can thus be regarded as the coda ("tail") of Shade's poem.


In E. A. Poe's story William Wilson (1839) the title character meets his double and namesake at a masquerade during the carnival in Rome:


It was at Rome, during the carnival of 18-- , that I attended a masquerade in the palazzo of the Neapolitan Duke Di Broglio. I had indulged more freely than usual in the excesses of the wine-table; and now the suffocating atmosphere of the crowded rooms irritated me beyond endurance. The difficulty, too, of forcing my way through the mazes of the company contributed not a little to the ruffling of my temper; for I was anxiously seeking, let me not say with what unworthy motive, the young, the gay, the beautiful wife of the aged and doting Di Broglio. With a too unscrupulous confidence she had previously communicated to me the secret of the costume in which she would be habited, and now, having caught a glimpse of her person, I was hurrying to make my way into her presence. At this moment I felt a light hand placed upon my shoulder, and that ever-remembered, low, damnable whisper within my ear.


William Wilson and his doppelgänger were born on the same date (January 19, Poe's own birthday). Shade's birthday, July 5, is also the birthday of Kinbote and Gradus (Shade's murderer). Shade was born in 1898, Kinbote and Gradus, in 1915.


At the end of Poe's story William Wilson kills his double:


Thus it appeared, I say, but was not. It was my antagonist -- it was Wilson, who then stood before me in the agonies of his dissolution. Not thread in all the raiment -- not a line in all the marked and singular lineaments of that face which was not, even identically, mine own! His mask and cloak lay where he had thrown them, upon the floor.
It was Wilson; but he spoke no longer in a whisper; and I could have fancied that I myself was speaking while he said --
"You have conquered, and I yield. Yet henceforward art thou also dead -- dead to the world and its hopes. In me didst thou exist -- and, in my death, see by this image, which is thine own, how utterly thou hast murdered thyself."


Describing his school years, William Wilson mentions peine forte et dure (a medieval form of torture that brings to mind Disa, Duchess of Payn, of Great Payn and Mone, the wife of Charles the Beloved):


The school-room was the largest in the house -- I could not help thinking in the world. It was very long, narrow, and dismally low, with pointed Gothic windows and a ceiling of oak. In a remote and terror-inspiring angle was a square enclosure of eight or ten feet, comprising the sanctum, "during hours," of our principal, the Reverend Dr. Bransby. It was a solid structure, with massy door, sooner than open which in the absence of the "Dominie," we would all have willingly perished by the peine forte et dure.


In Lolita Humbert Humbert recalls the random readings of his boyhood and mentions peine forte et dure:


Gentlemen of the jury! I cannot swear that certain motions pertaining to the business in hand - if I may coin an expression - had not drifted across my mind before. My mind had not retained them in any logical form or in any relation to definitely recollected occasions; but I cannot swear - let me repeat - that I had not toyed with them (to rig up yet another expression), in my dimness of thought, in my darkness of passion. There may have been timesthere must have been times, if I know my Humbert - when I had brought up for detached inspection the idea of marrying a mature widow (say, Charlotte Haze) with not one relative left in the wide gray world, merely in order to have my way with her child (Lo, Lola, Lolita). I am even prepared to tell my tormentors that perhaps once or twice I had cast an appraiser’s cold eye at Charlotte’s coral lips and bronze hair and dangerously low neckline, and had vaguely tried to fit her into a plausible daydream. This I confess under torture. Imaginary torture, perhaps, but all the more horrible. I wish I might digress and tell you more of the pavor nocturnus that would rack me at night hideously after a chance term had struck me in the random readings of my boyhood, such as peine forte et dure (what a Genius of Pain must have invented that!) or the dreadful, mysterious, insidious words “trauma,” “traumatic event,” and “transom.” But my tale is sufficiently incondite already.

After a while I destroyed the letter and went to my room, and ruminated, and rumpled my hair, and modeled my purple robe, and moaned through clenched teeth and suddenly - Suddenly, gentlemen of the jury, I felt a Dostoevskian grin dawning (through the very grimace that twisted my lips) like a distant and terrible sun. I imagined (under conditions of new and perfect visibility) all the casual caresses her mother’s husband would be able to lavish on his Lolita. I would hold her against me three times a day, every day. All my troubles would be expelled, I would be a healthy man. “To hold thee lightly on a gentle knee and print on thy soft cheek a parent’s kiss…” Well-read Humbert! (1.17)


Humbert Humbert quotes two lines from Canto III (CXVI: 5-6) of Byron's Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. Dolores Haze (Lolita's full name) is the daughter of Harold Haze. Poe acknowledged that the idea of a story about the irritation one feels by meeting someone with the same name, thereby ruining a feeling of uniqueness, was inspired by Washington Irwing's "An Unwritten Drama of Lord Byron" (1835). At the end of Irving's tale, the main character kills his double with his sword, only to see his own face behind the mask.


In his Foreword to Humbert Humbert's manuscript John Ray, Jr. compares the author's bizarre cognomen to a mask:


My task proved simpler than either of us had anticipated. Save for the correction of obvious solecisms and a careful suppression of a few tenacious details that despite “H.H.”‘s own efforts still subsisted in his text as signposts and tombstones (indicative of places or persons that taste would conceal and compassion spare), this remarkable memoir is presented intact. Its author’s bizarre cognomen is his own invention; and, of course, this mask - through which two hypnotic eyes seem to glow - had to remain unlifted in accordance with its wearer’s wish. While “Haze” only rhymes with the heroine’s real surname, her first name is too closely interwound with the inmost fiber of the book to allow one to alter it; nor (as the reader will perceive for himself) is there any practical necessity to do so. References to “H.H.”‘s crime may be looked up by the inquisitive in the daily papers for September-October 1952; its cause and purpose would have continued to come under my reading lamp.


Maska ("The Mask," 1886) is a story by Chekhov. In Poe's story the narrator's actual name is only similar to "William Wilson:"


Let me call myself, for the present, William Wilson. The fair page now lying before me need not be sullied with my real appellation. This has been already too much an object for the scorn, for the horror, for the detestation of my race. To the uttermost regions of the globe have not the indignant winds bruited its unparalleled infamy? Oh, outcast of all outcasts most abandoned! To the earth art thou not forever dead? to its honors, to its flowers, to its golden aspirations? and a cloud, dense, dismal, and limitless, does it not hang eternally between thy hopes and heaven?


According to Humbert Humbert, he wanted to call himself "Mesmer Mesmer" or "Lambert Lambert:"


This then is my story. I have reread it. It has bits of marrow sticking to it, and blood, and beautiful bright-green flies. At this or that twist of it I feel my slippery self eluding me, gliding into deeper and darker waters than I care to probe. I have camouflaged what I could so as not to hurt people. And I have toyed with many pseudonyms for myself before I hit on a particularly apt one. There are in my notes “Otto Otto” and “Mesmer Mesmer” and “Lambert Lambert,” but for some reason I think my choice expresses the nastiness best. (2.36)


Mesmeric Revelation (1844) is a story by E. A. Poe. Lambert is a character in Dostoevski's novel Podrostok ("The Adolescent," 1875). Its title brings to mind Ulichnyi podrostok ("The Street Adolescent," 1914), a sonnet with the coda by G. Ivanov (who mentions blednyi ogon', "pale fire," in his poem "Like Byron to Greece, o without regret..." 1927). According to G. Ivanov, to his question "does a sonnet need a coda" Alexander Blok replied that he did not know what a coda is. In VN's Russian translation (1967) of Lolita the name of Clare Quilty’s co-author, Vivian Darkbloom (anagram of Vladimir Nabokov), becomes Vivian Damor-Blok. In his poem O net, ne raskolduesh’ serdtsa ty… (“Oh no ! You cannot disenchant my heart...” 1912) Blok mentions his shade that will appear on the ninth and fortieth day after his death:


И тень моя пройдёт перед тобою

В девятый день, и в день сороковой -

Неузнанной, красивой, неживою.

Такой ведь ты искала? - Да, такой.


And suddenly you’ll see my shade appear

Before you on the ninth and fortieth day:

Unrecognized, handsome and drear,

The kind of shade you looked for, by the way!


According to John Ray, Jr., Mrs. Richard F. Schiller (Lolita's married name) died in childbed, giving birth to a stillborn girl, forty days after Humbert Humbert's death in prison. Dostoevski planned to write a novel entitled Sorokoviny ("The Forty-Day Memorial”). Dvoynik (“The Double”) is a novel (1846) by Dostoevski and a poem (1909) by Blok. In murdering Clare Quilty Humbert Humbert murders his own double. The name of the author of the Foreword to Humbert Humbert's manuscript, John Ray, Jr., brings to mind the long, life-giving ray of Pushkin mentioned by Fyodor in VN's novel Dar ("The Gift," 1937):


Мой отец мало интересовался стихами, делая исключение только для Пушкина: он знал его, как иные знают церковную службу, и, гуляя, любил декламировать. Мне иногда думается, что эхо "Пророка" ещё до сих пор дрожит в каком-нибудь гулко-переимчивом азиатском ущелье. Ещё он цитировал, помнится, несравненную "Бабочку" Фета и тютчевские "Тени сизые"; но то, что так нравилось нашей родне, жиденькая, удобозапоминаемая лирика конца прошлого века, жадно ждущая переложения на музыку, как избавления от бледной немочи слов, проходило совершенно мимо него. Поэзию же новейшую он считал вздором, -- и я при нем не очень распространялся о моих увлечениях в этой области. Когда он однажды перелистал, с готовой уже усмешкой, книжки поэтов, рассыпанные у меня на столе, и как раз попал на самое скверное у самого лучшего из них (там, где появляется невозможный, невыносимый "джентльмен" и рифмуется "ковер" и "сöр"), мне стало до того досадно, что я ему быстро подсунул "Громокипящий Кубок", чтобы уж лучше на нем он отвел душу. Вообще же мне казалось, что если бы он на время забыл то, что я, по глупости, называл "классицизмом", и без предубеждения вник бы в то, что я так любил, он понял бы новое очарование, появившееся в чертах русской поэзии, очарование, чуемое мной даже в самых нелепых ее проявлениях. Но когда я подсчитываю, что теперь для меня уцелело из этой новой поэзии, то вижу, что уцелело очень мало, а именно только то, что естественно продолжает Пушкина, между тем, как пёстрая шелуха, дрянная фальшь, маски бездарности и ходули таланта -- все то, что когда-то моя любовь прощала и освещала по-своему, а что отцу моему казалось истинным лицом новизны, -- "мордой модернизма", как он выражался, -- теперь так устарело, так забыто, как даже не забыты стихи Карамзина; и когда мне попадается на чужой полке иной сборник стихов, когда-то живший у меня как брат, то я чувствую в них лишь то, что тогда, вчуже, чувствовал мой отец. Его ошибка заключалась не в том, что он свально охаял всю "поэзию модерн", а в том, что он в ней не захотел высмотреть длинный животворный луч любимого своего поэта.


My father took little interest in poetry, making an exception only for Pushkin: he knew him as some people know the liturgy, and liked to declaim him while out walking. I sometimes think that an echo of Pushkin’s “The Prophet” still vibrates to this day in some resonantly receptive Asian gully. He also quoted, I remember, the incomparable “Butterfly” by Fet, and Tyutchev’s “Now the dim-blue shadows mingle”; but that which our kinsfolk liked, the watery, easily memorized poesy of the end of the last century, avidly waiting to be set to music as a cure for verbal anemia, he ignored utterly. As to avant-garde verse, he considered it rubbish—and in his presence I did not publicize my own enthusiasms in this sphere. Once when with a smile of irony already prepared he leafed through the books of poets scattered on my desk and as luck would have it happened on the worst item by the best of them (that famous poem by Blok where there appears an impossible, unbearable dzhentelmen representing Edgar Poe, and where kovyor, carpet, is made to rhyme with the English “Sir” transliterated as syor), I was so annoyed that I quickly pushed Severyanin’s The Thunder-Bubbling Cup into his hand so that he could better unburden his soul upon it. In general I considered that if he would forget for the nonce the kind of poetry I was silly enough to call “classicism” and tried without prejudice to grasp what it was I loved so much, he would have understood the new charm that had appeared in the features of Russian poetry, a charm that I sensed even in its most absurd manifestations. But when today I tote up what has remained to me of this new poetry I see that very little has survived, and what has is precisely a natural continuation of Pushkin, while the motley husk, the wretched sham, the masks of mediocrity and the stilts of talent—everything that my love once forgave or saw in a special light (and that seemed to my father to be the true face of innovation—“the mug of modernism” as he expressed it), is now so old-fashioned, so forgotten as even Karamzin’s verses are not forgotten; and when on someone else’s shelf I come across this or that collection of poems which had once lived with me as brother, I feel in them only what my father then felt without actually knowing them. His mistake was not that he ran down all “modern poetry” indiscriminately, but that he refused to detect in it the long, life-giving ray of his favorite poet. (Chapter Three)


In his poem Osenniy vecher byl. Pod zvuk dozhdya steklyannyi... (“It was an autumnal evening. To the glass sound of rain…” 1912), in which sör (“sir”) rhymes with kovyor (carpet) and vzor (glance), Blok mentions Linor bezumnogo Edgara (Lenore of the mad Edgar):


Ночь без той, зовут кого

Светлым именем: Ленора.

                               Эдгар По


Осенний вечер был. Под звук дождя стеклянный

Решал всё тот же я — мучительный вопрос,

Когда в мой кабинет, огромный и туманный,

Вошёл тот джентльмен. За ним — лохматый пёс.


На кресло у огня уселся гость устало,

И пёс у ног его разлегся на ковёр.

Гость вежливо сказал: «Ужель ещё вам мало?

Пред Гением Судьбы пора смириться, со:р».


«Но в старости — возврат и юности, и жара...» -

Так начал я... но он настойчиво прервал:

«Она — всё та ж: Линор безумного Эдгара.

Возврата нет. — Ещё? Теперь я всё сказал».


И странно: жизнь была — восторгом, бурей, адом,

А здесь — в вечерний час — с чужим наедине -

Под этим деловым, давно спокойным взглядом,

Представилась она гораздо проще мне...


Тот джентльмен ушёл. Но пёс со мной бессменно.

В час горький на меня уставит добрый взор,

И лапу жёсткую положит на колено,

Как будто говорит: Пора смириться, со:р.


Lenore (1773) is a ballad by G. A. Bürger. In Chapter Eight (IV: 3-5) of Eugene Onegin Pushkin identifies his Muse with Bürger’s Lenore:

Но я отстал от их союза
И вдаль бежал... Она за мной.
Как часто ласковая муза
Мне услаждала путь немой
Волшебством тайного рассказа!
Как часто по скалам Кавказа
Она Ленорой, при луне,
Со мной скакала на коне!
Как часто по брегам Тавриды
Она меня во мгле ночной
Водила слушать шум морской,
Немолчный шёпот Нереиды,
Глубокий, вечный хор валов,
Хвалебный гимн отцу миров.

But I dropped out of their alliance–
and fled afar…she followed me.
How often the caressive Muse
for me would sweeten the mute way
with the bewitchment of a secret tale!
How often on Caucasia’s crags,
Lenorelike, by the moon,
with me she’d gallop on a steed!
How often on the shores of Tauris
she in the murk of night
led me to listen the sound of the sea,
Nereid’s unceasing murmur,
the deep eternal chorus of the billows,
the praiseful hymn to the sire of the worlds.


According to Pushkin, his Muse went through several transformations before he takes her (in Eight: VI: 2) to a high-life rout. In Canto Four of his poem Shade calls his Muse "my versiple:"


And that odd muse of mine
My versipel, is with me everywhere,
In carrel and in car, and in my chair. (ll. 946-948)

VN’s neologism from versipellous (changeable; protean; having a form, nature or appearance that changes often), “versipel” seems to hint at Versilov, the father of Arkadiy Dolgoruki (the narrator and main character) in Dostoevski’s “Adolescent.” In his Commentary Kinbote quotes a tombal scripture (substituting Dementia for Death) Et in Arkadia ego:


Personally, I have not known any lunatics; but have heard of several amusing cases in New Wye ("Even in Arcady am I," says Dementia, chained to her gray column). (note to Line 629)


Lunatik (accented on the second syllable) is the title of G. Ivanov's memoir essay on Pyast (an authority on Poe and close friend of Blok). Shade's murderer, Jakob Gradus is also known as Jack Degree and de Grey. In a letter of Oct. 31, 1838, to his brother Dostoevski twice uses the word gradus (degree):


Философию не надо полагать простой математической задачей, где неизвестное - природа... Заметь, что поэт в порыве вдохновенья разгадывает бога, следовательно, исполняет назначенье философии. Следовательно, поэтический восторг есть восторг философии... Следовательно, философия есть та же поэзия, только высший градус её!..


Philosophy should not be regarded as a mere equation where nature is the unknown quantity… Remark that the poet, in the moment of inspiration, comprehends God, and consequently does the philosopher’s work. Consequently poetic inspiration is nothing less than philosophical inspiration. Consequently philosophy is nothing but poetry, a higher degree of poetry!..


Друг мой! Ты философствуешь как поэт. И как не ровно выдерживает душа градус вдохновенья, так не ровна, не верна и твоя философия. Чтоб больше знать, надо меньше чувствовать, и обратно, правило опрометчивое, бред сердца.


My friend, you philosophize like a poet. And just because the soul cannot be forever in a state of exaltation, your philosophy is not true and not just. To know more one must feel less, and vice versa. Your judgment is featherheaded – it is a delirium of the heart.


October 31, 1838, is Dostoevski’s seventeenth birthday. Kinbote and Gradus are seventeen years Shade's juniors.


In the cryptograph in Poe's story "The Gold-Bug" (1843) one of the words is "degree:"


"Looking now, narrowly, through the cipher for combinations of known characters, we find, not very far from the beginning, this arrangement,

         83(88, or egree,

which, plainly, is the conclusion of the word 'degree,' and gives us another letter, d, represented by !."


The unriddled cryptograph reads:


'A good glass in the bishop's hostel in the devil's seat twenty-one degrees and thirteen minutes northeast and by north main branch seventh limb east side shoot from the left eye of the death's-head a bee line from the tree through the shot fifty feet out.'