Dementiy Labirintovich & balagur in Ada; Odon & million photographers in Pale Fire

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Wed, 02/06/2019 - 09:46

In VN’s novel Ada (1969) Andrey Vinelander (Ada’s husband) addresses his father-in-law (Demon Veen, son of Dedalus) “Dementiy Labirintovich” and calls him balagur (a wag):


'And then, one day, Demon warned me that he would not come any more if he heard again poor Andrey's poor joke (Nu i balagur-zhe vy, Dementiy Labirintovich) or what Dorothy, l'impayable ("priceless for impudence and absurdity") Dorothy, thought of my camping out in the mountains with only Mayo, a cowhand, to protect me from lions.' (3.8)


In a poem written in Sept., 1835, that consists of two Onegin stanzas Pushkin mentions a labyrinth:


В мои осенние досуги,

В те дни, как любо мне писать,

Вы мне советуете, други,

Рассказ забытый продолжать.

Вы говорите справедливо,

Что странно, даже неучтиво

Роман не конча перервать,

Отдав уже его в печать,

Что должно своего героя

Как бы то ни было женить,

По крайней мере уморить,

И лица прочие пристроя,

Отдав им дружеский поклон,

Из лабиринта вывесть вон.


Вы говорите: "Слава богу,

Покамест твой Онегин жив,

Роман не кончен - понемногу

Иди вперед; не будь ленив.

Со славы, вняв ее призванью,

Сбирай оброк хвалой и бранью -

Рисуй и франтов городских

И милых барышень своих,

Войну и бал, дворец и хату,

И келью. . . . и харем

И с нашей публики меж тем

Бери умеренную плату,

За книжку по пяти рублей -

Налог не тягостный, ей-ей."


During my days of autumn leisure -
those days when I so love to write -
you, friends, advise me to go on
with my forgotten tale.
You say - and you are right -
that it is odd, and even impolite,
to interrupt an uncompleted novel
and have it published as it is;
that one must marry off one's hero in any case,
or kill him off at least, and, after having
disposed of the remaining characters
and made to them a friendly bow,
expel them from a labyrinth.


You say: thank God,

while your Onegin is still alive,

the novel is not finished; forward go

little by little, don’t be lazy.

While heeding her appeal, from Fame

Collect a tax in praise and blame.

<Depict the dandies of the town,

your amiable misses,

warfare and ball, palace and hut,

cell…………… and harem, meantime>

take from our public

a reasonable payment –

five rubles for each published part;

really, ’tis not a heavy tax. (EO Commentary, vol. III, p. 377)


Pokamest tvoy Onegin zhiv (while your Onegin is still alive) brings to mind the zhiv – mertv (alive – dead) opposition in Ada:


'Marina,' murmured Demon at the close of the first course. 'Marina,' he repeated louder. 'Far from me' (a locution he favored) 'to criticize Dan's taste in white wines or the manners de vos domestiques. You know me, I'm above all that rot, I'm...' (gesture); 'but, my dear,' he continued, switching to Russian, 'the chelovek who brought me the pirozhki - the new man, the plumpish one with the eyes (s glazami) -'
'Everybody has eyes,' remarked Marina drily.
'Well, his look as if they were about to octopus the food he serves. But that's not the point. He pants, Marina! He suffers from some kind of odïshka (shortness of breath). He should see Dr Krolik. It's depressing. It's a rhythmic pumping pant. It made my soup ripple.'
'Look, Dad,' said Van, 'Dr Krolik can't do much, because, as you know quite well, he's dead, and Marina can't tell her servants not to breathe, because, as you also know, they're alive.'
'The Veen wit, the Veen wit,' murmured Demon.

‘Exactly,’ said Marina. ‘I simply refuse to do anything about it. Besides poor Jones is not at all asthmatic, but only nervously eager to please. He’s as healthy as a bull and has rowed me from Ardisville to Ladore and back, and enjoyed it, many times this summer. You are cruel, Demon. I can’t tell him "ne pïkhtite," as I can’t tell Kim, the kitchen boy, not to take photographs on the sly — he’s a regular snap-shooting fiend, that Kim, though otherwise an adorable, gentle, honest boy; nor can I tell my little French maid to stop getting invitations, as she somehow succeeds in doing, to the most exclusive bals masqués in Ladore.’ (1.38)


Marina’s French maid who gets invitations to the most exclusive bals masqués in Ladore is Blanche (who is associated with Cinderella). “That tattered chapbook” (Les Amours du Docteur Mertvago, a mystical romance by a pastor) mentioned by Ada belongs to Blanche (in whose hairdo Van saw a curved tortoiseshell comb):


A pointer of sunlight daubed with greener paint a long green box where croquet implements were kept; but the balls had been rolled down the hill by some rowdy children, the little Erminins, who were now Van's age and had grown very nice and quiet.
'As we all are at that age,' said Van and stooped to pick up a curved tortoiseshell comb - the kind that girls use to hold up their hair behind; he had seen one, exactly like that, quite recently, but when, in whose hairdo?
'One of the maids,' said Ada. 'That tattered chapbook must also belong to her, Les Amours du Docteur Mertvago, a mystical romance by a pastor.' (1.8)


Darkbloom ('Notes to Ada'): Les amours du Dr Mertvago: play on 'Zhivago' ('zhiv' means in Russian 'alive' and 'mertv' dead’).


On Demonia (aka Antiterra, Earth’s twin planet on which Ada is set) Pasternak’s novel Doctor Zhivago (1957) is also known as Mertvago Forever:


‘I want to see you again soon,’ said Van, biting his thumb, brooding, cursing the pause, yearning for the contents of the blue envelope. ‘You must come and stay with me at a flat I now have on Alex Avenue. I have furnished the guest room with bergères and torchères and rocking chairs; it looks like your mother’s boudoir.’

Lucette curtseyed with the wicks of her sad mouth, à l’Américaine.

‘Will you come for a few days? I promise to behave properly. All right?’

‘My notion of propriety may not be the same as yours. And what about Cordula de Prey? She won’t mind?’

‘The apartment is mine,’ said Van, ‘and besides, Cordula is now Mrs Ivan G. Tobak. They are making follies in Florence. Here’s her last postcard. Portrait of Vladimir Christian of Denmark, who, she claims, is the dead spit of her Ivan Giovanovich. Have a look.’

‘Who cares for Sustermans,’ observed Lucette, with something of her uterine sister’s knight move of specious response, or a Latin footballer’s rovesciata.

No, it’s an elm. Half a millennium ago.

‘His ancestor,’ Van pattered on, ‘was the famous or fameux Russian admiral who had an épée duel with Jean Nicot and after whom the Tobago Islands, or the Tobakoff Islands, are named, I forget which, it was so long ago, half a millennium.’

‘I mentioned her only because an old sweetheart is easily annoyed by the wrong conclusions she jumps at like a cat not quite making a fence and then running off without trying again, and stopping to look back.’

Who told you about that lewd cordelude — I mean, interlude?’

‘Your father, mon cher — we saw a lot of him in the West. Ada supposed, at first, that Tapper was an invented name — that you fought your duel with another person — but that was before anybody heard of the other person’s death in Kalugano. Demon said you should have simply cudgeled him.’

‘I could not,’ said Van, ‘the rat was rotting away in a hospital bed.’

‘I meant the real Tapper,’ cried Lucette (who was making a complete mess of her visit), ‘not my poor, betrayed, poisoned, innocent teacher of music, whom not even Ada, unless she fibs, could cure of his impotence.’

‘Driblets,’ said Van.

‘Not necessarily his,’ said Lucette. ‘His wife’s lover played the triple viol. Look, I’ll borrow a book’ (scanning on the nearest bookshelf The Gitanilla, Clichy Clichés, Mertvago Forever, The Ugly New Englander) ‘and curl up, komondi, in the next room for a few minutes, while you — Oh, I adore The Slat Sign.’ (2.5)


Mertvago Forever brings to mind nadolgo… navsegda (for long… for ever), a phrase used by Pushkin at the end of EO (Eight: XLVIII: 10):


Она ушла. Стоит Евгений,
Как будто громом поражен.
В какую бурю ощущений
Теперь он сердцем погружен!
Но шпор незапный звон раздался,
И муж Татьянин показался,
И здесь героя моего,
В минуту, злую для него,
Читатель, мы теперь оставим,
Надолго... навсегда. За ним
Довольно мы путём одним
Бродили по свету. Поздравим
Друг друга с берегом.
Давно б (не правда ли?) пора!


She has gone. Eugene stands

as if by thunder struck.

In what a tempest of sensations

his heart is now immersed!

But there resounds a sudden clink of spurs,

and there appears Tatiana's husband,

and here my hero,

at an unfortunate minute for him,

reader, we now shall leave

for long... forever.... After him

sufficiently along one path

we've roamed the world. Let us congratulate

each other on attaining land. Hurrah!

It long (is it not true?) was time.


The intonation in nadolgo… navsegda (for long… for ever) is similar to that in ty zasnyosh’ nadolgo, Motsart (you’ll fall asleep for long, Mozart), Salieri’s words at the end of Pushkin’s little tragedy Mozart and Salieri (1830):


Ты заснёшь
Надолго, Моцарт! Но ужель он прав,
И я не гений? Гений и злодейство
Две вещи несовместные. Неправда:
А Бонаротти? Или это сказка
Тупой, бессмысленной толпы — и не был
Убийцею создатель Ватикана?


Your sleep
Will be a long one, Mozart. But is he right,
And I’m no genius? Genius and villainy
Are two things incompatible. Not true:
What about Buonarotti? Or is that just
A fable of stupid, senseless crowd,
And the Vatican’s creator was no murderer? (scene II)


Describing Demon’s sword duel with Baron d’Onsky, Van mentions smart little Vatican, a Roman spa:


Upon being questioned in Demon’s dungeon, Marina, laughing trillingly, wove a picturesque tissue of lies; then broke down, and confessed. She swore that all was over; that the Baron, a physical wreck and a spiritual Samurai, had gone to Japan forever. From a more reliable source Demon learned that the Samurai’s real destination was smart little Vatican, a Roman spa, whence he was to return to Aardvark, Massa, in a week or so. (1.2)


The name of Demon’s adversary seems to hint at Onegin’s donskoy zherebets (Don stallion) in Chapter Two (V: 4) of Pushkin’s EO:


Сначала все к нему езжали;
Но так как с заднего крыльца
Обыкновенно подавали
Ему донского жеребца,
Лишь только вдоль большой дороги
Заслышит их домашни дроги, -
Поступком оскорбясь таким,
Все дружбу прекратили с ним.

Сосед наш неуч; сумасбродит;
Он фармазон; он пьёт одно
Стаканом красное вино;
Он дамам к ручке не подходит;
Все да да нет; не скажет да-с
Иль нет-с». Таков был общий глас.


At first they all would call on him,

but since to the back porch

habitually a Don stallion

for him was brought

as soon as one made out along the highway

the sound of their domestic runabouts —

outraged by such behavior,

they all ceased to be friends with him.

“Our neighbor is a boor; acts like a crackbrain;

he's a Freemason; he

drinks only red wine, by the tumbler;

he won't go up to kiss a lady's hand;

'tis all ‘yes,’ ‘no’ — he'll not say ‘yes, sir,’

 or ‘no, sir.’ ” This was the general voice.


On p’yot odno stakanom krasnoe vino (he drinks only red wine, by the tumbler) brings to mind the millions of two-legged creatures who for us are orudie odno (only tools) in the same Chapter Two: (XIV: 5-7) of EO:


Но дружбы нет и той меж нами.
Все предрассудки истребя,

Мы почитаем всех нулями,
А единицами – себя.

Мы все глядим в Наполеоны;
Двуногих тварей миллионы
Для нас орудие одно;

Нам чувство дико и смешно.
Сноснее многих был Евгений;
Хоть он людей, конечно, знал
И вообще их презирал, —
Но (правил нет без исключений)
Иных он очень отличал
И вчуже чувство уважал.


But in our midst there’s even no such friendship:

Having destroyed all the prejudices,

We deem all people naughts

And ourselves units.

We all expect to be Napoleons;

the millions of two-legged creatures

for us are only tools;

feeling to us is weird and ludicrous.

More tolerant than many was Eugene,

though he, of course, knew men

and on the whole despised them;

but no rules are without exceptions:

some people he distinguished greatly

and, though estranged from it, respected feeling.


Neut. of odin (one), odno = Odon = Nodo (Odon’s epileptic half-brother, a cardsharp and despicable traitor)


At the end of his Commentary 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 Odon (the world-famous Zemblan actor and patriot who helps the king to escape from Zembla) and a million photographers:


God will help me, I trust, to rid myself of any desire to follow the example of the other two characters in this work. I shall continue to exist. I may assume other disguises, other forms, but I shall try to exist. I may turn up yet, on another campus, as an old, happy, health heterosexual Russian, a writer in exile, sans fame, sans future, sans audience, sans anything but his art. I may join forces with Odon in a new motion picture: Escape from Zembla (ball in the palace, bomb in the palace square). I may pander to the simple tastes of theatrical critics and cook up a stage play, an old-fashioned melodrama with three principles: a lunatic who intends to kill an imaginary king, another lunatic who imagines himself to be that king, and a distinguished old poet who stumbles by chance into the line of fire, and perishes in the clash between the two figments. Oh, I may do many things! History permitting, I may sail back to my recovered kingdom, and with a great sob greet the gray coastline and the gleam of a roof in the rain. I may huddle and groan in a madhouse. But whatever happens, wherever the scene is laid, somebody, somewhere, will quietly set out – somebody has already set out, somebody still rather far away is buying a ticket, is boarding a bus, a ship, a plane, has landed, is walking toward a million photographers, and presently he will ring at my door – a bigger, more respectable, more competent Gradus. (note to Line 1000)


A million photographers bring to mind Kim Beauharnais, the kitchen boy at Ardis who takes photographs on the sly. His surname hints at Josephine Beauharnais (Napoleon’s first wife). During Van’s first tea party at Ardis Marina mentions Queen Josephine and Dostoevski:


They now had tea in a prettily furnished corner of the otherwise very austere central hall from which rose the grand staircase. They sat on chairs upholstered in silk around a pretty table. Ada’s black jacket and a pink-yellow-blue nosegay she had composed of anemones, celandines and columbines lay on a stool of oak. The dog got more bits of cake than it did ordinarily. Price, the mournful old footman who brought the cream for the strawberries, resembled Van’s teacher of history, ‘Jeejee’ Jones.

‘He resembles my teacher of history,’ said Van when the man had gone.

‘I used to love history,’ said Marina, ‘I loved to identify myself with famous women. There’s a ladybird on your plate, Ivan. Especially with famous beauties — Lincoln’s second wife or Queen Josephine.’

‘Yes, I’ve noticed — it’s beautifully done. We’ve got a similar set at home.’

‘Slivok (some cream)? I hope you speak Russian?’ Marina asked Van, as she poured him a cup of tea.

‘Neohotno no sovershenno svobodno (reluctantly but quite fluently),’ replied Van, slegka ulïbnuvshis’ (with a slight smile). ‘Yes, lots of cream and three lumps of sugar.’

‘Ada and I share your extravagant tastes. Dostoevski liked it with raspberry syrup.’

‘Pah,’ uttered Ada. (1.5)


Dostoevski is the author of Dvoynik (“The Double,” 1846). Kinbote believes that, to be completed, Shade’s almost finished poem needs but 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”).


Shade’s birthday, July 5, is also Kinbote’s and Gradus’ birthday (Shade, who was born in 1898, is seventeen years Kinbote’s and Gradus’ senior). In a letter to his brother written on his seventeenth birthday (Oct. 31, 1838) Dostoevski twice repeats the word gradus (degree). In the MS of Pushkin’s poem <Iz Pindemonti> (<From Pindemonte>, 1836) the date under the text is July 5. In his poem Pushkin mentions balagur (a joker):


Не дорого ценю я громкие права,
От коих не одна кружится голова.
Я не ропщу о том, что отказали боги
Мне в сладкой участи оспоривать налоги
Или мешать царям друг с другом воевать;
И мало горя мне, свободно ли печать
Морочит олухов, иль чуткая цензура
В журнальных замыслах стесняет балагура.
Все это, видите ль, слова, слова, слова*
Иные, лучшие, мне дороги права;
Иная, лучшая, потребна мне свобода:
Зависеть от царя, зависеть от народа —
Не все ли нам равно? Бог с ними. Никому
Отчета не давать, себе лишь самому
Служить и угождать; для власти, для ливреи
Не гнуть ни совести, ни помыслов, ни шеи;
По прихоти своей скитаться здесь и там,
Дивясь божественным природы красотам,
И пред созданьями искусств и вдохновенья
Трепеща радостно в восторгах умиленья.
Вот счастье! вот права...


I have but little use for those loud "rights" - the phrase
That seems to addle people's minds these days.
I do not fault the gods, nor to a soul begrudge it
That I'm denied the bliss of wrangling over a Budget,
Or keeping king from fighting king in martial glee;
Nor do I worry if the Press is free
To hoax the nitwits, or if censor-pokers
Spoil journalistic games for sundry jokers;
All this is merely "words, words, words" you see.
Quite other, better rights are dear to me;
To be dependent on king, or on a nation -
Is it not all the same? Good riddance! But to dance
To no one else's fiddle, foster and advance
one's private self alone; before gold braid and power
with neither conscience, thought, nor spine to cower;
to move now here, now there with fancy's whim for law,
at Nature's godlike works feel ecstasy and awe,
and start before the gifts of art and joyous adoration -
there's bliss for you! There are your rights…
(“translated” by W. Arndt)


Shade is murdered by Gradus on July 21, 1959. July 21 is Ada’s birthday. The three main characters in 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 after the tragic death of his daughter Nadezhda (Hazel Shade of Kinbote’s commentary). There is a hope 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. In Pushkin’s “Mozart and Salieri” Mozart uses the phrase nikto b (none would), Botkin in reverse.


A leitmotif in Shade’s poem are the opening lines of Goethe’s Erlkönig (1782): Wer reitet so spät durch Nacht und Wind? / Es ist der Vater mit seinem Kind (Who rides so late through night and wind? / It is the father with his child). Goethe is the author of Faust (1808-32). In his translation (1932) of Faust’s Zueignung (Dedication) into Russian VN mentions labirint zhiznennogo sna (the labyrinth of life’s dream):


Отрада в вас мне чудится былая,

а тень встаёт родная не одна,

встаёт любовь и дружба молодая,

как полузвук, преданье, старина,

и снова - боль, и жалуясь, блуждая

по лабиринту жизненного сна,

зову я милых, счастием жестоко

обмеренных, исчезнувших до срока.


You bring with you the sight of joyful days,
And many a loved shade rises to the eye:
And like some other half-forgotten phrase,
First Love returns, and Friendship too is nigh:
Pain is renewed, and sorrow: all the ways,
Life wanders in its labyrinthine flight,
Naming the good, those that Fate has robbed
Of lovely hours, those slipped from me and lost.


Ihr bringt mit euch die Bilder froher Tage,
Und manche liebe Schatten steigen auf;
Gleich einer alten halbverklungnen Sage
Kommt erste Lieb' und Freundschaft mit herauf;
Der Schmerz wird neu, es wiederholt die Klage
Des Lebens labyrinthisch irren Lauf,
Und nennt die Guten, die, um schöne Stunden
Vom Glück getäuscht, vor mir hinweggeschwunden.


Among the Russian translators of Goethe's Faust is Pasternak.