Sybil Shade, Queen Disa, Fleur de Fyler & Professor Pardon in Pale Fire

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Mon, 02/18/2019 - 06:19

In VN’s novel Pale Fire (1962) Kinbote (Shade’s mad commentator who imagines that he is Charles the Beloved, the last self-exiled king of Zembla) completes his work on Shade’s poem on October 19, 1959 (the anniversary of Pushkin’s Lyceum). In a letter of Oct. 9, 1888, to Mme Lintvaryov (the owner of a farm in Ukraine where Chekhov spent the summer) Chekhov (who just received the Pushkin Prize, 500 rubles) says that the prize award will be officially announced at the Academy on October 19:


Получил я известие, что Академия наук присудила мне Пушкинскую премию в 500 р. Это, должно быть, известно уже Вам из газетных телеграмм. Официально объявят об этом 19-го октября в публичном заседании Академии с подобающей случаю классической торжественностью. Это, должно быть, за то, что я раков ловил.

Премия, телеграммы, поздравления, приятели, актёры, актрисы, пьесы — всё это выбило меня из колеи. Прошлое туманится в голове, я ошалел; тина и чертовщина городской, литераторской суеты охватывают меня, как спрут-осьминог. Всё пропало! Прощай лето, прощайте раки, рыба, остроносые челноки, прощай моя лень, прощай голубенький костюмчик.

Прощай, покой, прости, мое довольство!
Всё, всё прости! Прости, мой ржущий конь,
И звук трубы, и грохот барабана,
И флейты свист, и царственное знамя,
Все почести, вся слава, всё величье
И бурные тревоги славных войн!

Простите вы, смертельные орудья,
Которых гул несется по земле,
Как грозный гром бессмертного Зевеса!


Если когда-нибудь страстная любовь выбивала Вас из прошлого и настоящего, то то же самое почти я чувствую теперь. Ах, нехорошо всё это, доктор, нехорошо! Уж коли стал стихи цитировать, то, стало быть, нехорошо!

Chekhov quotes Othello’s speech in Shakespeare’s Othello (3.3) in Veynberg’s translation:


Farewell the tranquil mind! farewell content!
Farewell the plumed troop, and the big wars,
That make ambition virtue! O, farewell!
Farewell the neighing steed, and the shrill trump,
The spirit-stirring drum, the ear-piercing fife,
The royal banner, and all quality,
Pride, pomp and circumstance of glorious war!
And, O you mortal engines, whose rude throats
The immortal Jove's dead clamours counterfeit,


In the next scene (3.4) of Shakespeare's tragedy Othello mentions a two-hundred-year-old Egyptian sibyl 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.


Kinbote calls Sybil Shade (the poet'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)


In Shakespeare’s history play Richard III Richmond says that true hope is swift and flies with swallow’s wings:


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

Kings it makes gods, and meaner creatures kings. (Act V, scene 2)


In a letter of June 11, 1831, to Vyazemski Pushkin asks Vyazemski if Sofia Karamzin reigns on the saddle and quotes King Richard's famous words at the end of Shakespeare’s play (5.4):


Что Софья Николаевна? царствует на седле? A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse!


A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse!” is the epigraph to Vyazemski's poem Progulka v stepi ("A Ride in the Steppe," 1831). Chekhov was awarded the Pushkin Prize for his story Step’ (“The Steppe,” 1888).


“Sofia Nikolaevna” was the daughter of Karamzin (the author of the twelve-volume “History of the Russian State”). Describing the days after Queen Blenda’s death, Kinbote mentions a volume of Historia Zemblica:


The forty days between Queen Blenda's death and his coronation was perhaps the most trying stretch of time in his life. He had had no love for his mother, and the hopeless and helpless remorse he now felt degenerated into a sickly physical fear of her phantom. The Countess, who seemed to be near him, to be rustling at his side, all the time, had him attend table-turning séances with an experienced American medium, séances at which the Queen's spirit, operating the same kind of planchette she had used in her lifetime to chat with Thormodus Torfaeus and A. R. Wallace, now briskly wrote in English: "Charles take take cherish love flower flower flower." An old psychiatrist so thoroughly bribed by the Countess as to look, even on the outside, like a putrid pear, assured him that his vices had subconsciously killed his mother and would continue "to kill her in him" if he did not renounce sodomy. A palace intrigue is a special spider that entangles you more nastily at every desperate jerk you try. Our Prince was young, inexperienced, and half-frenzied with insomnia. He hardly struggled at all. The Countess spent a fortune on buying his kamergrum (groom of the chamber), his bodyguard, and even the greater part of the Court Chamberlain. She took to sleeping in a small antechamber next to his bachelor bedroom, a splendid spacious circular apartment at the top of the high and massive South West Tower. This had been his father's retreat and was still connected by a jolly chute in the wall with a round swimming pool in the hall below, so that the young Prince could start the day as his father used to start it by slipping open a panel beside his army cot and rolling into the shaft whence he whizzed down straight into bright water. For other needs than sleep Charles Xavier had installed in the middle of the Persian rug-covered floor a so-called patifolia, that is, a huge, oval, luxuriously flounced, swansdown pillow the size of a triple bed. It was in this ample nest that Fleur now slept, curled up in its central hollow, under a coverlet of genuine giant panda fur that had just been rushed from Tibet by a group of Asiatic well-wishers on the occasion of his ascension to the throne. The antechamber, where the Countess was ensconced, had its own inner staircase and bathroom, but also communicated by means of a sliding door with the West Gallery. I do not know what advice or command her mother had given Fleur; but the little thing proved a poor seducer. She kept trying, as one quietly insane, to mend a broken viola d’amore or sat in dolorous attitudes comparing two ancient flutes, both sad-tuned and feeble. Meantime, in Turkish garb, he lolled in his father’s ample chair, his legs over its arms, flipping through a volume of Historia Zemblica, copying out passages and occasionally fishing out of the nether recesses of his seat a pair of old-fashioned motoring goggles, a black opal ring, a ball of silver chocolate wrapping, or the star of a foreign order. (note to Line 80)


Queen Disa’s favorite lady-in-waiting, Fleur de Fyler brings to mind Fleur-de-Lys, a character in V. Hugo’s novel Notre Dame de Paris (1831) whose name hints at fleur-de-lis (a stylized lily often used as a heraldic symbol). Chekhov’s story Tysyacha odna strast’, ili Strashnaya noch’ (“A Thousand and One Passions, or The Terrible Night,” 1880), a parody of Gothic story, is dedicated to Victor Hugo. On the other hand, the name Fleur de Fyler (“defiler of flowers”) seems to hint at flyor ot shlyapy (the gauze veil of her hat) in Chapter Six (XLI: 11) of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin and at female feet eulogized by Pushkin in Chapter One (XXXI: 1-4) of EO:


Когда ж и где, в какой пустыне,
Безумец, их забудешь ты?
Ах, ножки, ножки! где вы ныне?
Где мнёте вешние цветы?


So when and where, in what desert, will you
forget them, madman? Little feet,
ah, little feet! Where are you now?
Where do you trample vernant blooms?


In the first line of the next stanza (One: XXXII: 1) Pushkin mentions Diana’s bosom and Flora’s cheeks. According to Kinbote, the society sculptor and poet Arnor used Fleur de Fyler’s breasts and feet for his Lilith Calling Back Adam:


Our Prince was fond of Fleur as of a sister but with no soft shadow of incest or secondary homosexual complications. She had a small pale face with prominent cheekbones, luminous eyes, and curly dark hair. It was rumored that after going about with a porcelain cup and Cinderella's slipper for months, the society sculptor and poet Arnor had found in her what he sought and had used her breasts and feet for his Lilith Calling Back Adam; but I am certainly no expert in these tender matters. Otar, her lover, said that when you walked behind her, and she knew you were walking behind her, the swing and play of those slim haunches was something intensely artistic, something Arab girls were taught in special schools by special Parisian panders who were afterwards strangled. Her fragile ankles, he said, which she placed very close together in her dainty and wavy walk, were the "careful jewels" in Arnor's poem about a miragarl ("mirage girl"), for which "a dream king in the sandy wastes of time would give three hundred camels and three fountains. (note to Line 80)


Describing the conversation at the Faculty Club, Kinbote mentions Professor Pardon (American History):


Pictures of the King had not infrequently appeared in America during the first months of the Zemblan Revolution. Every now and then some busybody on the campus with a retentive memory, or one of the clubwomen who were always after Shade and his eccentric friend, used to ask me with the inane meaningfulness adopted in such cases if anybody had told me how much I resembled that unfortunate monarch. I would counter with something on the lines of "all Chinese look alike" and change the subject. One day, however, in the lounge of the Faculty Club where I lolled surrounded by a number of my colleagues, I had to put up with a particularly embarrassing onset. A visiting German lecturer from Oxford kept exclaiming, aloud and under his breath, that the resemblance was "absolutely unheard of," and when I negligently observed that all bearded Zemblans resembled one another - and that, in fact, the name Zembla is a corruption not of the Russian zemlya, but of Semblerland, a land of reflections, of "resemblers" - my tormentor said: "Ah, yes, but King Charles wore no beard, and yet it is his very face! I had [he added] the honor of being seated within a few yards of the royal box at a Sport Festival in Onhava which I visited with my wife, who is Swedish, in 1956. We have a photograph of him at home, and her sister knew very well the mother of one of his pages, an interesting woman. Don't you see [almost tugging at Shade's lapel] the astounding similarity of features - of the upper part of the face, and the eyes, yes, the eyes, and the nose bridge?"

"Nay, sir" [said Shade, refolding a leg and slightly rolling in his armchair as wont to do when about to deliver a pronouncement] "there is no resemblance at all. I have seen the King in newsreels, and there is no resemblance. Resemblances are the shadows of differences. Different people see different similarities and similar differences."
Good Netochka, who had been looking singularly uncomfortable during this exchange, remarked in his gentle voice how sad it was to think that such a "sympathetic ruler" had probably perished in prison.
A professor of physics now joined in. He was a so-called Pink, who believed in what so-called Pinks believe in (Progressive Education, the Integrity of anyone spying for Russia, Fall-outs occasioned solely by US-made bombs, the existence in the near past of a McCarthy Era, Soviet achievements including Dr. Zhivago, and so forth): "Your regrets are groundless" [said he]. "That sorry ruler is known to have escaped disguised as a nun; but whatever happens, or has happened to him, cannot interest the Zemblan people. History has denounced him, and that is his epitaph."
Shade: "True, sir. In due time history will have denounced everybody. The King may be dead, or he may be as much alive as you and Kinbote, but let us respect facts. I have it from him [pointing to me] that the widely circulated stuff about the nun is a vulgar pro-Extremist fabrication. The Extremists and their friends invented a lot of nonsense to conceal their discomfiture; but the truth is that the King walked out of the palace, and crossed the mountains, and left the country, not in the black garb of a pale spinster but dressed as an athlete in scarlet wool."
"Strange, strange," said the German visitor, who by some quirk of alderwood ancestry had been alone to catch the eerie note that had throbbed by and was gone.
Shade [smiling and massaging my knee]: "Kings do not die--they only disappear, eh, Charles?"
"Who said that?" asked sharply, as if coming out of a trance, the ignorant, and always suspicious, Head of the English Department.
"Take my own case," continued my dear friend ignoring Mr. H. "I have been said to resemble at least four people: Samuel Johnson; the lovingly reconstructed ancestor of man in the Exton Museum; and two local characters, one being the slapdash disheveled hag who ladles out the mash in the Levin Hall cafeteria."
"The third in the witch row," I precised quaintly, and everybody laughed.
"I would rather say," remarked Mr. Pardon--American History--"that she looks like Judge Goldsworth" ("One of us," interposed Shade inclining his head), "especially when he is real mad at the whole world after a good dinner."
"I heard," hastily began Netochka, "that the Goldsworths are having a wonderful time--"
"What a pity I cannot prove my point," muttered the tenacious German visitor. "If only there was a picture here. Couldn't there be somewhere--"
"Sure," said young Emerald and left his seat.
Professor Pardon now spoke to me: "I was under the impression that you were born in Russia, and that your name was a kind of anagram of Botkin or Botkine?"
Kinbote: "You are confusing me with some refugee from Nova Zembla [sarcastically stressing the "Nova"].
"Didn't you tell me, Charles, that kinbote means regicide in your language?" asked my dear Shade.
"Yes, a king's destroyer," I said (longing to explain that a king who sinks his identity in the mirror of exile is in a sense just that).
Shade [addressing the German visitor]: "Professor Kinbote is the author of a remarkable book on surnames. I believe [to me] there exists an English translation?"
"Oxford, 1956," I replied.
"You do know Russian, though?" said Pardon. "I think I heard you, the other day, talking to--what's his name--oh, my goodness" [laboriously composing his lips].
Shade: "Sir, we all find it difficult to attack that name" [laughing].
Professor Hurley: "Think of the French word for 'tire': punoo."
Shade: "Why, sir, I am afraid you have only punctured the difficulty" [laughing uproariously].
"Flatman," quipped I. "Yes," I went on, turning to Pardon, "I certainly do speak Russian. You see, it was the fashionable language par excellence, much more so than French, among the nobles of Zembla at least, and at its court. Today, of course, all this has changed. It is now the lower classes who are forcibly taught to speak Russian."
"Aren't we, too trying to teach Russian in our schools?" said Pink.
In the meantime, at the other end of the room, young Emerald had been communing with the bookshelves. At this point he returned with the the T-Z volume of an illustrated encyclopedia.
"Well," said he, "here he is, that king. But look, he is young and handsome" ("Oh, that won't do," wailed the German visitor.) "Young, handsome, and wearing a fancy uniform," continued Emerald. "Quite the fancy pansy, in fact."
"And you," I said quietly, "are a foul-minded pup in a cheap green jacket."
"But what have I said?" the young instructor inquired of the company, spreading out his palms like a disciple in Leonardo's Last Supper
"Now, now," said Shade. "I'm sure, Charles, are young friend never intended to insult your sovereign and namesake."
"He could not, even if he had wished," I observed placidly, turning it all into a joke.
Gerald Emerald extended his hand--which at the moment of writing still remains in that position. (note to Line 894)


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 says that the parasites on whom Pushkin was so hard 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. 


According to Kinbote, Sybil Shade called him “the monstrous parasite of a genius:”


John Shade's wife, née 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. (note to Line 247)


The “real” name of both Sybil Shade and Queen Disa seems to be Sofia Botkin (born Lastochkin). Lastochka (“The Swallow,” 1792-94) is a poem by Derzhavin 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?


In his essay Taynyi smysl tragedii “Otello” (“The Secret Meaning of the tragedy Othello,” 1919) Alexander Blok says that Desdemona is a harmony, Desdemona is a soul, and the soul can not but saves from chaos:


Дездемона - это гармония, Дездемона - это душа, а душа не может не спасть от хаоса.


Duchess of Payn, of Great Payn and Mone, Queen Disa seems to blend Leonardo’s Mona Lisa with Shakespeare’s Desdemona. The last day of Shade’s life “has passed in a sustained low hum of harmony:”


Gently the day has passed in a sustained

Low hum of harmony. The brain is drained

And a brown ament, and the noun I meant

To use but did not, dry on the cement.

Maybe my sensual love for the consonne

D'appui, Echo's fey child, is based upon

A feeling of fantastically planned,

Richly rhymed life. I feel I understand

Existence, or at least a minute part

Of my existence, only through my art,

In terms of combinational delight;

And if my private universe scans right,

So does the verse of galaxies divine

Which I suspect is an iambic line. (ll. 963-976)


In Pushkin’s little tragedy Mozart and Salieri (1830) Mozart twice mentions harmony:


М о ц а р т

За твоё

Здоровье, друг, за искренний союз,

Связующий Моцарта и Сальери,

Двух сыновей гармонии.




To your health,
My friend, and to the loyal bond

that binds together Mozart and Salieri,

two sons of harmony. (Scene II)



Когда бы все так чувствовали силу

Гармонии! но нет; тогда б не мог

И мир существовать; никто б не стал

Заботиться о нуждах низкой жизни;

Все предались бы вольному искусству.



If all could feel like you the power of harmony!
But no: the world could not go on then. None
Would bother with the needs of lowly life;
All would surrender to free art. (ibid.)


Nikto b (“none would,” the words used by Mozart) is Botkin (Shade’s, Kinbote’s and Gradus’ “real” name) in reverse. 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). Nadezhda means “hope.” There is a hope that, after Kinbote completes his work on Shade’s poem and commits suicide, Botkin, like Count Vorontsov (“half-milord, half-merchant, etc.”), will be full again. Does Kinbote stab himself, like Shakespeare’s Othello? Btw., in a classical Russian translation “My kingdom for a horse!” (King Richard’s words) is pol-tsarstva za konya (half of my kingdom for a horse).


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)


In a letter of May 21, 1830, to Pushkin Pletnyov mentions Mercutio and Benvolio (the unceremonious friends):


Хотелось бы мне, чтоб ты ввернул в трактат о Шекспире любимые мои две идеи: 1) Спрашивается, зачем перед публикой позволять действующим лицам говорить непристойности? Отвечается: эти лица и не подозревают о публике; они решительно одни, как любовник с любовницей, как муж с женой, как Меркутио с Бенволио (нецеремонные друзья). Пракситель, обделывая формы статуи, заботится об истине всех частей её (вот его коран!), а не о тех, кто будет прогуливаться мимо выставленной его статуи. 2) Для чего в одном произведении помещать прозу, полустихи (т. е. стихи без рифм) и настоящие стихи (по понятию простонародному)? Потому, что в трагедии есть лица, над которыми все мы смеялись бы, если бы кто вздумал подозревать, что они способны к поэтическому чувству; а из круга людей, достойных поэзии, иные бывают на степени поэзии драматической, иные же, а иногда и те же, на степени поэзии лирической: там дипломатическая музыка, а здесь военная.


In a letter of April 11, 1831, to Pletnyov (to whom EO is dedicated) Pushkin calls Pletnyov ten’ vozlyublennaya (the beloved shade) and mentions Derzhavin (who, as he descended to the grave, blessed young Pushkin; EO, Eight: II: 3-4) and Delvig (Pushkin’s best friend at the Lyceum who died at the beginning of 1831):


Воля твоя, ты несносен: ни строчки от тебя не дождёшься. Умер ты, что ли? Если тебя уже нет на свете, то, тень возлюбленная, кланяйся от меня Державину и обними моего Дельвига.


One of Chekhov’s humorous stories is entitled Deputat, ili povest' o tom, kak u Dezdemonova 25 rubley propalo (“The Deputy, or the Tale of How Desdemonov Lost 25 Rubles,” 1883).