In Canto Two of his poem John Shade (the poet in VN’s novel Pale Fire, 1962) calls the little scissors with which he pares his fingernails “a dazzling synthesis of sun and star:”
The little scissors I am holding are
A dazzling synthesis of sun and star.
I stand before the window and I pare
My fingernails and vaguely am aware
Of certain flinching likenesses: the thumb,
Our grocer's son; the index, lean and glum
College astronomer Starover Blue;
The middle fellow, a tall priest I knew;
The feminine fourth finger, an old flirt;
And little pinky clinging to her skirt.
And I make mouths as I snip off the thin
Strips of what Aunt Maud used to call "scarf-skin." (ll. 183-194)
In his poem K Rodzyanke (“To Rodzyanko,” 1825) Pushkin says that he disapproves of divorce (Rodzyanko’s mistress, Anna Kern, was married to general Kern) and, in the poem’s closing lines, mentions the sun of marriage that eclipses the shy star of love:
Но не согласен я с тобой,
Не одобряю я развода!
Во-первых, веры долг святой,
Закон и самая природа…
А во-вторых, замечу я,
Для умных жён необходимы:
При них домашние друзья
Иль чуть заметны, иль незримы.
Поверьте, милые мои,
Одно другому помогает,
И солнце брака затмевает
Звезду стыдливую любви.
Zvezda stydlivaya lyubvi (the shy star of love) is clearly Venus. In Chapter One (XXV) of Eugene Onegin Pushkin compares Onegin to giddy Venus and says that one can be an efficient man and mind the beauty of one's nails:
Быть можно дельным человеком
И думать о красе ногтей:
К чему бесплодно спорить с веком?
Обычай деспот меж людей.
Второй Чадаев, мой Евгений,
Боясь ревнивых осуждений,
В своей одежде был педант
И то, что мы назвали франт.
Он три часа по крайней мере
Пред зеркалами проводил
И из уборной выходил
Подобный ветреной Венере,
Когда, надев мужской наряд,
Богиня едет в маскарад.
One can be an efficient man —
and mind the beauty of one's nails:
why vainly argue with the age?
Custom is despot among men.
My Eugene, a second [Chadáev],
being afraid of jealous censures,
was in his dress a pedant
and what we've called a fop.
Three hours, at least,
he spent in front of glasses,
and from his dressing room came forth
akin to giddy Venus
when, having donned a masculine attire,
the goddess drives to a masqued ball.
In VN’s novel Ada (1969) Van, Ada and their half-sister Lucette are the children of Venus:
Knowing how fond his sisters were of Russian fare and Russian floor shows, Van took them Saturday night to ‘Ursus,’ the best Franco-Estotian restaurant in Manhattan Major. Both young ladies wore the very short and open evening gowns that Vass ‘miraged’ that season — in the phrase of that season: Ada, a gauzy black, Lucette, a lustrous cantharid green. Their mouths ‘echoed’ in tone (but not tint) each other’s lipstick; their eyes were made up in a ‘surprised bird-of-paradise’ style that was as fashionable in Los as in Lute. Mixed metaphors and double-talk became all three Veens, the children of Venus. (2.8)
Saturday is named after the Roman god and planet Saturn. “A dazzling synthesis of sun and star” seems to hint at Saturn (a planet that rose in the sky on July 5, 1959, the day Shade began Canto Two of his poem). In the fair copy of Four: XLIII: 1-4 of EO Pushkin mentions lysoe Saturna temya (the bald pate of Saturn):
В глуши что делать в это время
Гулять? — Но голы все места
Как лысое Сатурна темя
Иль крепостная нищета.
What do then in the backwoods at that time?
Promenade? But all places are bare
as the bald pate of Saturn
or serfdom's destitution.
As pointed out by VN in his EO Commentary (vol. II, p. 476), Pushkin’s draft is marked “Jan. 2, 1826.” In a MS note Pushkin says that he wrote Graf Nulin (“Count Null,” 1825), a narrative poem in which he parodied both history and Shakespeare’s Rape of Lucrece, on Dec. 13-14, 1825 (Dec. 14, 1825, is the day of the Decembrist rising). In Pushkin’s poem the Count mentions Mademoiselle Mars (a French actress, 1779-1847):
«А что театр?» — О! сиротеет,
C’est bien mauvais, ça fait pitié.
Тальма совсем оглох, слабеет,
И мамзель Марс — увы! стареет.
Зато Потье, le grand Potier!
Он славу прежнюю в народе
Доныне поддержал один.
«Какой писатель нынче в моде?»
— Всё d’Arlincourt и Ламартин. —
Kakoy pisatel’ nynche v mode? (“What writer is now in vogue?”), a question Natalia Pavlovna asks the Count, brings to mind Shade’s aunt Maud.
In Canto Three of his poem Shade calls 1958 “a year of Tempests” and mentions Mars:
It was a year of Tempests: Hurricane
Lolita swept from Florida to Maine.
Mars glowed. Shahs married. Gloomy Russians spied.
Lang made your portrait. And one night I died. (ll. 679-82)
In O marte (“On March”), a part of his humorous Filologicheskie zametki (“Philological Notes,” 1885), Chekhov points out that March is named after Mars (the Roman god of war) and mentions Sun, Saturn, Jupiter, Venus, the Pulkovo observatory and Dr Tarnovski (the celebrated syphilologist, 1839-1906):
Месяц март получил своё название от Марса, который, если верить учебнику Иловайского, был богом войны. Формулярный список этого душки-военного затерян, а посему о личности его почти ничего не известно. Судя по характеру его амурных предприятий и кредиту, которым пользовался он у Бахуса, следует думать, что он, занимая должность бога войны, был причислен к армейской пехоте и имел чин не ниже штабс-капитана. Визитная карточка его была, вероятно, такова: «Штабс-капитан Марс, бог войны». Стало быть, март есть месяц военных и всех тех, кои к военному ведомству прикосновенность имеют: интендантов, военных врачей, батальных художников, институток и проч. Числится в штате о рангах третьим месяцем в году и имеет с дозволения начальства 31 день. Римляне в этом месяце праздновали так называемые Гилярии — торжество в честь Никиты Гилярова-Платонова и богини Цибеллы. Цибеллой называлась богиня земли. Из её метрической выписки явствует, что она была дочкой Солнца, женою Сатурна, матерью Юпитера, — одним словом, особой астрономической, имеющей право на казенную квартиру в Пулковской обсерватории. Изобрела тамбур, тромбон, свирель и ветеринарное искусство. Была, стало быть, и музыкантшей и коновалом — комбинация, современным музыкантшам неизвестная. В этом же месяце римляне праздновали и именины Венеры, богини любви, брака (законного и незаконного), красоты, турнюров и ртутных мазей. Родилась эта Венера из пены морской таким же образом, как наши барышни родятся из кисеи. Была женою хромого Вулкана, чеканившего для богов фальшивую монету и делавшего тонкие сети для ловли храбрых любовников. Состояла на содержании у всех богов и бескорыстно любила одного только Марса. Когда ей надоедали боги, она сходила на землю и заводила здесь интрижки с чиновниками гражданского ведомства: Энеем, Адонисом и другими. Покровительствует дамским парикмахерам, учителям словесности и доктору Тарновскому. В мартовский праздник ей приносили в жертву котов и гимназистов, начинающих влюбляться обыкновенно с марта. У наших предков март назывался Березозолом. Карамзин думал, что наши предки жгли в марте березовый уголь, откуда, по его мнению, и произошло прозвище Березозол. Люди же, которых много секли, знают, что это слово происходит от слова «береза» и «зла», ибо никогда береза не работает так зло и энергично, как перед экзаменами. У нашего Нестора март был первым месяцем в году. У римлян тоже.
In a letter of Oct. 30, 1903, to his wife Chekhov (who lived alone in Yalta) says that paring his fingernails on the right hand is a torture:
Что за мучение обрезать ногти на правой руке. Без жены мне вообще плохо.
Describing his first tea party at Ardis, Van mentions Ada’s badly bitten fingernails and Tarn, otherwise the New Reservoir:
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.
Marina’s portrait, a rather good oil by Tresham, hanging above her on the wall, showed her wearing the picture hat she had used for the rehearsal of a Hunting Scene ten years ago, romantically brimmed, with a rainbow wing and a great drooping plume of black-banded silver; and Van, as he recalled the cage in the park and his mother somewhere in a cage of her own, experienced an odd sense of mystery as if the commentators of his destiny had gone into a huddle. Marina’s face was now made up to imitate her former looks, but fashions had changed, her cotton dress was a rustic print, her auburn locks were bleached and no longer tumbled down her temples, and nothing in her attire or adornments echoed the dash of her riding crop in the picture and the regular pattern of her brilliant plumage which Tresham had rendered with ornithological skill.
There was not much to remember about that first tea. He noticed Ada’s trick of hiding her fingernails by fisting her hand or stretching it with the palm turned upward when helping herself to a biscuit. She was bored and embarrassed by everything her
mother said and when the latter started to talk about the Tarn, otherwise the New Reservoir, he noted that Ada was no longer sitting next to him but standing a little way off with her back to the tea table at an open casement with the slim-waisted dog on a chair peering over splayed front paws out into the garden too, and she was asking it in a private whisper what it was it had sniffed.
‘You can see the Tarn from the library window,’ said Marina. ‘Presently Ada will show you all the rooms in the house. Ada?’ (She pronounced it the Russian way with two deep, dark ‘a’s, making it sound rather like ‘ardor.’)
‘You can catch a glint of it from here too,’ said Ada, turning her head and, pollice verso, introducing the view to Van who put his cup down, wiped his mouth with a tiny embroidered napkin, and stuffing it into his trouser pocket, went up to the dark-haired, pale-armed girl. As he bent toward her (he was three inches taller and the double of that when she married a Greek Catholic, and his shadow held the bridal crown over her from behind), she moved her head to make him move his to the required angle and her hair touched his neck. In his first dreams of her this re-enacted contact, so light, so brief, invariably proved to be beyond the dreamer’s endurance and like a lifted sword signaled fire and violent release. (1.5)
Tarn rhymes with “barn.” Describing the Night of the Burning Barn (when he and Ada make love for the first time), Van mentions the AB bank of Tarn:
That multiple departure really presented a marvelous sight against the pale star-dusted firmament of practically subtropical Ardis, tinted between the black trees with a distant flamingo flush at the spot where the Barn was Burning. To reach it one had to drive round a large reservoir which I could make out breaking into scaly light here and there every time some adventurous hostler or pantry boy crossed it on water skis or in a Rob Roy or by means of a raft — typical raft ripples like fire snakes in Japan; and one could now follow with an artist’s eye the motorcar’s lamps, fore and aft, progressing east along the AB bank of that rectangular lake, then turning sharply upon reaching its B corner, trailing away up the short side and creeping back west, in a dim and diminished aspect, to a middle point on the far margin where they swung north and disappeared. (1.19)
Rob Roy (1817) is a historical novel by Walter Scott. In Pushkin’s Graf Nulin the Count brings from Paris a new novel by Walter Scott:
Граф Нулин, из чужих краёв,
Где промотал он в вихре моды
Свои грядущие доходы.
Себя казать, как чудный зверь,
В Петрополь едет он теперь
С запасом фраков и жилетов,
Шляп, вееров, плащей, корсетов,
Булавок, запонок, лорнетов,
Цветных платков, чулков à jour,
С ужасной книжкою Гизота,
С тетрадью злых карикатур,
С романом новым Вальтер-Скотта,
С bon-mots парижского двора,
С последней песней Беранжера,
С мотивами Россини, Пера,
Et cetera, et cetera.
Describing the death of Percy de Prey (Ada’s lover who goes to the war and dies in the Crimea), Van uses the phrase et cetera:
Bill Fraser, the son of Judge Fraser, of Wellington, witnessed Lieutenant de Prey’s end from a blessed ditch overgrown with cornel and medlar, but, of course, could do nothing to help the leader of his platoon and this for a number of reasons which he conscientiously listed in his report but which it would be much too tedious and embarrassing to itemize here. Percy had been shot in the thigh during a skirmish with Khazar guerillas in a ravine near Chew-Foot-Calais, as the American troops pronounced ‘Chufutkale,’ the name of a fortified rock. He had, immediately assured himself, with the odd relief of the doomed, that he had got away with a flesh wound. Loss of blood caused him to faint, as we fainted, too, as soon as he started to crawl or rather squirm toward the shelter of the oak scrub and spiny bushes, where another casualty was resting comfortably. When a couple of minutes later, Percy — still Count Percy de Prey — regained consciousness he was no longer alone on his rough bed of gravel and grass. A smiling old Tartar, incongruously but somehow assuagingly wearing American blue-jeans with his beshmet, was squatting by his side. ‘Bednïy, bednïy’ (you poor, poor fellow), muttered the good soul, shaking his shaven head and clucking: ‘Bol’no (it hurts)?’ Percy answered in his equally primitive Russian that he did not feel too badly wounded: ‘Karasho, karasho ne bol’no (good, good),’ said the kindly old man and, picking up the automatic pistol which Percy had dropped, he examined it with naive pleasure and then shot him in the temple. (One wonders, one always wonders, what had been the executed individual’s brief, rapid series of impressions, as preserved somewhere, somehow, in some vast library of microfilmed last thoughts, between two moments: between, in the present case, our friend’s becoming aware of those nice, quasi-Red Indian little wrinkles beaming at him out of a serene sky not much different from Ladore’s, and then feeling the mouth of steel violently push through tender skin and exploding bone. One supposes it might have been a kind of suite for flute, a series of ‘movements’ such as, say: I’m alive — who’s that? — civilian — sympathy — thirsty — daughter with pitcher — that’s my damned gun — don’t... et cetera or rather no cetera... while Broken-Arm Bill prayed his Roman deity in a frenzy of fear for the Tartar to finish his job and go. But, of course, an invaluable detail in that strip of thought would have been — perhaps, next to the pitcher peri — a glint, a shadow, a stab of Ardis.) (1.42)
In Van's and Ada's petits vers Adèle rhymes with l’hirondelle:
Oh! qui me rendra, mon Adèle,
Et ma montagne et l’hirondelle? (1.22)
According to Kinbote (Shade’s mad commentator who imagines that he is Charles the Beloved, the last self-exiled king of Zembla), Sybil Shade's maiden name comes from hirondelle (French for “swallow”):
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). (note to Line 247)
In Cano One of his poem Shade mentions the Canadian maid and her niece Adèle who had seen the Pope:
A preterist: one who collects cold nests.
Here was my bedroom, now reserved for guests.
Here, tucked away by the Canadian maid,
I listened to the buzz downstairs and prayed
For everybody to be always well,
Uncles and aunts, the maid, her niece Adèle,
Who'd seen the Pope, people in books, and God. (79-85)
Pushkin rounds up his letter of Dec. 8, 1824, to Rodzyanko with a little poem in which he calls Rodzyanko moy Papa (“my Pope”):
Прости, украинский мудрец,
Наместник Феба и Приапа!
Твоя соломенная шляпа
Покойней, чем иной венец;
Твой Рим - деревня; ты мой Папа,
Благослови ж меня, певец!
Goodbye, the Ukrainian sage,
deputy of Phoebus and Priapus!
Your straw hat
is more comfortable than some crown;
Your Rome is the country; you are my Pope,
So bless me, the bard!
Adeli (“To Adèle,” 1822) is a poem by Pushkin:
Не знай печали;
И в шуме света
In 1822, when Pushkin met her in Kamenka (her father’s estate in the Province of Podolsk), Adèle Davydov (1810-82) was twelve. Ada is barely twelve when Van first meets her at Ardis in the summer 1884. Ada’s birthday, July 21, is the day of Shade’s death.
Jupiter and Adèle Davydov bring to mind Baron Klim Davidov (anagram of Vladimir Nabokov), Marina's former lover who gave her children a set of Flavita (Russian Scrabble):
The set our three children received in 1884 from an old friend of the family (as Marina's former lovers were known), Baron Klim Avidov, consisted of a large folding board of saffian and a boxful of weighty rectangles of ebony inlaid with platinum letters, only one of which was a Roman one, namely the letter J on the two joker blocks (as thrilling to get as a blank check signed by Jupiter or Jurojin). It was, incidentally, the same kindly but touchy Avidov (mentioned in many racy memoirs of the time) who once catapulted with an uppercut an unfortunate English tourist into the porter's lodge for his jokingly remarking how clever it was to drop the first letter of one's name in order to use it as a particule, at the Gritz, in Venezia Rossa. (1.36)
The best Franco-Estotian restaurant in Manhattan Major, ‘Ursus’ hints at a character (the traveling artist named Ursus) in Victor Hugo’s novel L’homme qui rit (“The Man who Laughs,” 1869). 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. The title of Chekhov’s story blends the Arabic Tysyacha i odna noch’ (“A Thousand and One Nights”) with Gogol’s Strashnaya mest’ (“A Terrible Vengeance,” 1831). In his story Gogol says that a rare bird can fly to the middle of the Dnepr. Rara avis (1886) is a story by Chekhov. At the beginning of his Commentary Kinbote mentions his poor knowledge of garden Aves:
My knowledge of garden Aves had been limited to those of northern Europe but a young New Wye gardener, in whom I was interested (see note to line 998), helped me to identify the profiles of quite a number of tropical-looking little strangers and their comical calls; and, naturally, every tree top plotted its dotted line towards the ornithological work on my desk to which I would gallop from the lawn in nomenclatorial agitation. How hard I found to fit the name "robin" to the suburban impostor, the gross fowl, with its untidy dull-red livery and the revolting gusto it showed when consuming long, sad, passive worms!
Incidentally, it is curious to note that a crested bird called in Zemblan sampel ("silktail"), closely resembling a waxwing in shape and shade, is the model of one of the three heraldic creatures (the other two being respectively a reindeer proper and a merman azure, crined or) in the armorial bearing of the Zemblan King, Charles the Beloved (born 1915), whose glorious misfortunes I discussed so often with my friend. (note to Lines 1-4)
According to Shade, his parents were ornithologists. 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, like some sonnets, Shade’s poem also needs a coda (Line 1001: “By its own double in the windowpane”). The last line of Shade’s poem is its dazzling synthesis.
In their old age (even on the last day of their long lives) Van and Ada translate Shade’s poem into Russian:
She insisted that if there were no future, then one had the right of making up a future, and in that case one’s very own future did exist, insofar as one existed oneself. Eighty years quickly passed — a matter of changing a slide in a magic lantern. They had spent most of the morning reworking their translation of a passage (lines 569-572) in John Shade’s famous poem:
...Sovetï mï dayom
Kak bït’ vdovtsu: on poteryal dvuh zhyon;
On ih vstrechaet — lyubyashchih, lyubimïh,
Revnuyushchih ego drug k druzhke...
(...We give advice
To widower. He has been married twice:
He meets his wives, both loved, both loving, both
Jealous of one another...)
Van pointed out that here was the rub — one is free to imagine any type of hereafter, of course: the generalized paradise promised by Oriental prophets and poets, or an individual combination; but the work of fancy is handicapped — to a quite hopeless extent — by a logical ban: you cannot bring your friends along — or your enemies for that matter — to the party. The transposition of all our remembered relationships into an Elysian life inevitably turns it into a second-rate continuation of our marvelous mortality. Only a Chinaman or a retarded child can imagine being met, in that Next-Installment World, to the accompaniment of all sorts of tail-wagging and groveling of welcome, by the mosquito executed eighty years ago upon one’s bare leg, which has been amputated since then and now, in the wake of the gesticulating mosquito, comes back, stomp, stomp, stomp, here I am, stick me on.
She did not laugh; she repeated to herself the verses that had given them such trouble. The Signy brain-shrinkers would gleefully claim that the reason the three ‘boths’ had been skipped in the Russian version was not at all, oh, not at all, because cramming three cumbersome amphibrachs into the pentameter would have necessitated adding at least one more verse for carrying the luggage.
‘Oh, Van, oh Van, we did not love her enough. That’s whom you should have married, the one sitting feet up, in ballerina black, on the stone balustrade, and then everything would have been all right — I would have stayed with you both in Ardis Hall, and instead of that happiness, handed out gratis, instead of all that we teased her to death!’ (5.6)
Van learns the name of Ada's fiancé from Lucette after the dinner in 'Ursus:'
‘My dear,’ said Van, ‘do help me. She told me about her Valentian estanciero but now the name escapes me and I hate bothering her.’
‘Only she never told you,’ said loyal Lucette, ‘so nothing could escape. Nope. I can’t do that to your sweetheart and mine, because we know you could hit that keyhole with a pistol.’
‘Please, little vixen! I’ll reward you with a very special kiss.’
‘Oh, Van,’ she said over a deep sigh. ‘You promise you won’t tell her I told you?’
‘I promise. No, no, no,’ he went on, assuming a Russian accent, as she, with the abandon of mindless love, was about to press her abdomen to his. ‘Nikak-s net: no lips, no philtrum, no nosetip, no swimming eye. Little vixen’s axilla, just that — unless’ — (drawing back in mock uncertainty) — ‘you shave there?’
‘I stink worse when I do,’ confided simple Lucette and obediently bared one shoulder.
‘Arm up! Point at Paradise! Terra! Venus!’ commanded Van, and for a few synchronized heartbeats, fitted his working mouth to the hot, humid, perilous hollow.
She sat down with a bump on a chair, pressing one hand to her brow.
‘Turn off the footlights,’ said Van. ‘I want the name of that fellow.’
‘Vinelander,’ she answered. (2.8)
I recommend you the updated version of my previous post, "falling, falling, falling in Pale Fire; to borrow and to borrow and to borrow in Lolita" (https://thenabokovian.org/node/35610)