sublime relay race & baton of life in Pale Fire

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Thu, 01/31/2019 - 12:20

Describing Shade’s murder by Gradus, Kinbote (in VN’s novel Pale Fire, 1962, Shade’s mad commentator who imagines that he is Charles the Beloved, the last self-exiled king of Zembla) mentions the baton of life passed to him by Shade in a sublime relay race:


His first bullet ripped a sleeve button off my black blazer, another sang past my ear. It is evil piffle to assert that he aimed not at me (whom he had just seen in the library - let us be consistent, gentlemen, ours is a rational world after all), but at the gray-locked gentleman behind me. Oh, he was aiming at me all right but missing me every time, the incorrigible bungler, as I instinctively backed, bellowing and spreading my great strong arms (with my left hand still holding the poem, "still clutching the inviolable shade," to quote Matthew Arnold, 1822-1888), in an effort to halt the advancing madman and shield John, whom I feared he might, quite accidentally, hit, while he, my sweet, awkward old John, kept clawing at me and pulling me after him, back to the protection of his laurels, with the solemn fussiness of a poor lame boy trying to get his spastic brother out of the range of the stones hurled at them by schoolchildren, once a familiar sight in all countries. I felt - I still feel - John's hand fumbling at mine, seeking my fingertips, finding them, only to abandon them at once as if passing to me, in a sublime relay race, the baton of life. (note to Line 1000)


In her memoirs Vtoraya kniga (“The Second Book,” 1983) Nadezhda Mandelshtam (the poet’s widow) says that madness is infectious – one madman simply passes the baton to another. The subject matter of a mania is changeable, but a light of madness is kept intact and continues to burn:


После смерти Хлебникова в Москве появился предстатель, обвинявший Маяковского в сплошном плагиате у Хлебникова. Он ходил из дома в дом и бессвязно кричал о плагиате. Мандельштам пытался разубедить и остановить, но убедился, что ничего втолковать ему нельзя, и просто выставил его. И мы тогда поняли, что безумие заразительно — один безумец попросту передаёт эстафету другому. Содержание бреда изменчиво, но огонёк безумия сохранён и продолжает гореть.


According to Nadezhda Mandelshtam, she and her husband realized this after Khlebnikov’s death, when a person appeared in Moscow who accused Mayakovski (VN’s “late namesake”) of shameless plagiarism from Khlebnikov. A futurist poet, Velimir Khlebnikov is the author of Tam, gde zhili sviristeli (“Where the Waxwings Lived…” 1908), a poem in which besporyadok dikiy teney (a wild confusion of shadows) is mentioned:


В беспорядке диком теней,
Где, как морок старых дней,
Закружились, зазвенели
Стая лёгких времирей.


At the beginning (and, presumably, at the end) of his poem Shade compares himself to the shadow of the waxwing:


I was the shadow of the waxwing slain
By the false azure in the windowpane;
I was the smudge of ashen fluff--and I
Lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky. (ll. 1-4)


"Still clutching the inviolable shade" (a line in Matthew Arnold’s poem quoted by Kinbote) brings to mind not only Shade, but also Viola, Sebastian's twin sister in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. At the end of VN's novel The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941) the narrator (Sebastian's half-brother V.) says that, despite Sebastian's death, the hero remains:


The bald little prompter shuts his book, as the light fades gently. The end, the end. They all go back to their everyday life (and Clare goes back to her grave) - but the hero remains, for, try as I may, I cannot get out of my part: Sebastian's mask clings to my face, the likeness will not be washed off. I am Sebastian, or Sebastian is I, or perhaps we both are someone whom neither of us knows. (Chapter 20)


The three main characters in Pale Fire, Shade, Kinbote and Gradus can be someone whom neither of them knows. In fact, they 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 after the tragic death of his daughter Nadezhda (Hazel Shade of Kinbote's Commentary).


In his poem Tyomnykh uz zemnogo zatochen'ya... ("The dark bonds of earthly imprisonment..." 1910) Mandelshtam says that he is pursued by a double and mentions a mask that he tears off from his own face (cf. Sebastian’s mask that clings to his half-brother’s face in TRLSK):


Тёмных уз земного заточенья
Я ничем преодолеть не мог,
И тяжёлым панцирем презренья
Я окован с головы до ног.


Иногда со мной бывает нежен
И меня преследует двойник:
Как и я — он так же неизбежен
И ко мне внимательно приник.


И, глухую затаив развязку,
Сам себя я вызвал на турнир:
С самого себя срываю маску
И презрительный лелею мир.


Я своей печали недостоин,
И моя последняя мечта —
Роковой и краткий гул пробоин
Моего узорного щита.


According to Kinbote, Shade’s whole being constituted a mask:


Oh, there were many such incidents. In a skit performed by a group of drama students I was pictured as a pompous woman hater with a German accent, constantly quoting Housman and nibbling raw carrots; and a week before Shade's death, a certain ferocious lady at whose club I had refused to speak on the subject of "The Hally Vally" (as she put it, confusing Odin's Hall with the title of a Finnish epic), said to me in the middle of a grocery store, "You are a remarkably disagreeable person. I fail to see how John and Sybil can stand you," and, exasperated by my polite smile, she added: "What's more, you are insane." But let me not pursue the tabulation of nonsense. Whatever was thought, whatever was said, I had my full reward in John's friendship. This friendship was the more precious for its tenderness being intentionally concealed, especially when we were not alone, by that gruffness which stems from what can be termed the dignity of the heart. His whole being constituted a mask. John Shade's physical appearance was so little in keeping with the harmonies hiving in the man, that one felt inclined to dismiss it as a coarse disguise or passing fashion; for if the fashions of the Romantic Age subtilized a poet's manliness by baring his attractive neck, pruning his profile and reflecting a mountain lake in his oval gaze, present-day bards, owing perhaps to better opportunities of aging, look like gorillas or vultures. My sublime neighbor's face had something about it that might have appealed to the eye, had it been only leonine or only Iroquoian; but unfortunately, by combining the two it merely reminded one of a fleshy Hogarthian tippler of indeterminate sex. His misshapen body, that gray mop of abundant hair, the yellow nails of his pudgy fingers, the bags under his lusterless eyes, were only intelligible if regarded as the waste products eliminated from his intrinsic self by the same forces of perfection which purifed and chiseled his verse. He was his own cancellation. (Foreword)


Odin's Hall is, of course, Valhalla and a Finnish epic is Kalevala. In his poem Kogda na ploshchadyakh i v tishine keleynoy… (“When in the squares and in solitary silence we slowly go mad…” 1917) Mandelshtam (who spent several summers in Finland and at least in one of his poems mentions Kalevala) mentions Valgally beloe vino (Valhalla’s white wine). In his poem Telefon (“The Telephone,” 1918) Mandelshtam mentions dubovaya Valgalla (the oak Valhalla):


На этом диком страшном свете
Ты, друг полночных похорон,
В высоком строгом кабинете


Асфальта чёрные озёра
Изрыты яростью копыт,
И скоро будет солнце — скоро
Безумный петел прокричит.


А там дубовая Валгалла
И старый пиршественный сон:
Судьба велела, ночь решала,
Когда проснулся телефон.


Весь воздух выпили тяжёлые портьеры,
На театральной площади темно.
Звонок — и закружились сферы:
Самоубийство решено.


Куда бежать от жизни гулкой,
От этой каменной уйти?
Молчи, проклятая шкатулка!
На дне морском цветёт: прости!


И только голос, голос-птица
Летит на пиршественный сон.
Ты — избавленье и зарница
Самоубийства — телефон!


Kinbote believes that, to be completed, Shade’s almost finished poem needs but one line (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”).


The rub is that Nadezhda Mandelshtam’s “Second Book” appeared only in 1983 (twenty-one years after Pale Fire). But perhaps the chapter on Khlebnikov was published separately somewhere earlier? Maybe, in a collection of memoir essays Tarusskie stranitsy (“The Tarusa Pages,” 1961) to which Nadezhda Mandelshtam contributed her stuff  under the penname Yakovleva (cf. Jakob Gradus)? In any case, one cannot help feeling “the strong charm of a coincidence.”