bot, botelyi & Botkin in Pale Fire

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Thu, 02/28/2019 - 08:26

In Kinbote's Index to Shade's poem there is the following entry:


Botkin, V., American scholar of Russian descent, 894; king-bot, maggot of extinct fly that once bred in mammoths and is thought to have hastened their phylogenetic end, 247; bottekin-maker, 71; bot, plop, and botelïy, big-bellied (Russ.); botkin or bodkin, a Danish stiletto.


Bot and botelïy are rare words that VN must have found in the Dahl dictionary. In his Universitetskaya poema ("The University Poem," 1927) VN mentions the four-volume Dahl dictionary that he acquired in Cambridge:


Там мяса розовые глыбы;
сырая вонь блестящей рыбы;
ножи; кастрюли; пиджаки
из гардеробов безымянных;
отдельно, в положеньях странных
кривые книжные лотки
застыли, ждут, как будто спрятав
тьму алхимических трактатов;
однажды эту дребедень
перебирая,--  в зимний день,
когда, изгнанника печаля,
шёл снег, как в русском городке,--
нашёл я Пушкина и Даля
на заколдованном лотке.


There is meat in hunks all pink;
the shiny fishes’ uncooked stink;
and knives and pots; and also jackets
from wardrobes that shall remain nameless;
and, separate, in strange positions,
some crooked stands where they sold books
freeze motionless, as if concealing
some arcane alchemistic treatise;
one time I happened through this rubbish
to rummage, on a winter day,
when, adding to an exile’s sadness,
it snowed, as in a Russian town –
I found some works by Pushkin, and
some Dahl upon a magic counter. (5)


and lame Byron, a Cambridge student who swam across the Hellespont to lose some weight:


А жил я в комнате старинной,
но в тишине её пустынной
тенями мало дорожил.
Держа московского медведя,
боксёров жалуя и бредя
красой Италии, тут жил
студентом Байрон хромоногий.
Я вспоминал его тревоги,--
как Геллеспонт он переплыл,
чтоб похудеть. Но я остыл
к его твореньям... Да простится
неромантичности моей,--
мне розы мраморные Китса
всех бутафорских бурь милей.


I lived within an antique chamber,
but, inside its desert silence,
I hardly savoured the shades’ presence.
Clutching his bear from Muscovy,
esteemed the boxer’s fate,
of Italic beauty dreaming
lame Byron passed his student days.
I remembered his distress –
his swim across the Hellespont
to lose some weight.
But I have cooled toward his creations …
so do forgive my unromantic side –
to me the marble roses of Keats
have more charm than all those stagey storms. (10)


According to Kinbote (the author of a book on surnames), Botkin is one who makes bottekins (fancy footwear). When Byron was born, he suffered from lameness and a twisted foot. After May Gray (Byron's nurse) was fired, Byron was put in the care of a "trussmaker to the General hospital", a man named Lavender, in hopes that he could be cured; however, Lavender instead abused the boy and would occasionally use him as a servant. After Byron exposed Lavender as a fool, Gordon took her son to visit Doctor Matthew Baillie in London. They took up residence at Sloane Terrace during the summer of 1799, and there Byron started to receive treatment, such as specially designed boots.


In Switzerland Gradus visits Joe Lavender's villa Libitina where he meets Gordon Krummholz (Joe Lavender's nephew). Elvina Krummholz (Gordon's famous mother) brings to mind moy drug Elvina (dear Elvina) mentioned by Pushkin in Chapter One (XXXII: 9) of Eugene Onegin:


Дианы грудь, ланиты Флоры
Прелестны, милые друзья!
Однако ножка Терпсихоры
Прелестней чем-то для меня.
Она, пророчествуя взгляду
Неоцененную награду,
Влечёт условною красой
Желаний своевольный рой.
Люблю её, мой друг Эльвина,
Под длинной скатертью столов,
Весной на мураве лугов,
Зимой на чугуне камина,
На зеркальном паркете зал,
У моря на граните скал.


Diana's bosom, Flora's cheeks, are charming,

dear friends! Nevertheless, for me

something about it makes more charming

the small foot of Terpsichore.

By prophesying to the gaze

an unpriced recompense,

with token beauty it attracts the willful

swarm of desires.

I like it, dear Elvina,

beneath the long napery of tables,

in springtime on the turf of meads,

in winter on the hearth's cast iron,

on mirrory parquet of halls,

by the sea on granite of rocks.


VN's "University Poem" is written in the reversed ("mirrored") Eugene Onegin stanza. Note t'ma alkhimicheskikh traktatov (a multitude of alchemistic treatises) that some crooked stands where they sell books seem to conceal.


According to Kinbote, the ex-King of Zembla arrived in America descending by parachute. In "The University Poem" the author unexpectedly falls in Cambridge from Russian clouds:


И снова --  улочки кривые,
ворот громады вековые,--
а в самом сердце городка
цирюльня есть, где брился Ньютон,
и древней тайною окутан
трактирчик "Синего Быка".
А там, за речкой, за домами,
дёрн, утрамбованный веками,
темно-зелёные ковры
для человеческой игры,
и звук удара деревянный
в холодном воздухе. Таков
был мир, в который я нежданно
упал из русских облаков.


And, once again, the crooked alleys,
the gigantic age-old gates –
right in the centre of the town,
a barber shop where they shaved Newton,
in ancient mystery enveloped,
the tavern known as the Blue Bull.
There, beyond the stream, the houses,
the century-old turf tramped down
into a dark-green, even carpet
to suit the needs of human games,
the wood-like sound of soccer kicks
in the cold air. Such was the world
where I from Russian clouds was hurled. (7)


In Chapter Eight (XIII: 13-14) of EO Pushkin compares Onegin to Chatski, the main character in Griboedov’s play in verse Gore ot uma (“Woe from Wit,” 1824):


Им овладело беспокойство,
Охота к перемене мест
(Весьма мучительное свойство,
Немногих добровольный крест).
Оставил он свое селенье,
Лесов и нив уединенье,
Где окровавленная тень
Ему являлась каждый день,
И начал странствия без цели,
Доступный чувству одному;
И путешествия ему,
Как всё на свете, надоели;
Он возвратился и попал,
Как Чацкий, с корабля на бал.


A restlessness took hold of him,

the inclination to a change of places

(a most excruciating property,

a cross that few deliberately bear).

He left his countryseat,

the solitude of woods and fields,

where an ensanguined shade

daily appeared to him,

and started upon travels without aim,

accessible to one sensation;

and to him journeys,

like everything on earth,

grew boring. He returned and found himself,

like Chatski, come from boat to ball.


As he speaks to Chatski (who suddenly arrived in Moscow after a three-year absence), Famusov (Sofia's father) uses the phrases vykinul shtuku (played a trick) and gryanul vdrug kak s oblakov (suddenly arrived as if falling from the clouds):


Ну выкинул ты штуку!

Три года не писал двух слов!

И грянул вдруг как с облаков.


Oh what a trick you've played ! You see,

For three long years we haven't heard from you,

And now you're here, out of the blue. (Act Two, scene 9)


Shtuka (thing; trick, etc.) is an anagram of shutka (joke). Kinbote calls a packed parachute rejected by a suicide shootka (i. e. a joke):


The ideal drop is from an aircraft, your muscles relaxed, your pilot puzzled, your packed parachute shuffled off, cast off, shrugged off—farewell, shootka (little chute)! (note to Line 493)


The characters in Griboedov’s play include Colonel Skalozub who tells Mme Khlyostov that he was in His Highness’ Novozemlyansk (“Novo-Zemblan”) regiment of musketeers:


Хлёстова (сидя)
Вы прежде были здесь… в полку… в том… гренадёрском?
Скалозуб (басом)
В Его Высочества, хотите вы сказать,
Новоземлянском мушкетёрском.
Не мастерица я полки-та различать.
‎А форменные есть отлички:
В мундирах выпушки, погончики, петлички.

Mme K h l y o s t o v (sitting) You were here... in the regiment of . . . grenadiers?

S k a l o z u b (in a bass voice) You mean, His Highness’ Novozemlyansk regiment of musketeers?

Mme K h l y o s t o v I’m not skilled in distinguishing regiments.

S k a l o z u b There is a difference in uniforms,

The shoulder loops, the tabs and shirts. (Act Three, scene 12)


The name Skalozub hints at zuboskal (scoffer, mocker). In a conversation at the Faculty Club Professor Pardon (American History) asks Kinbote if his name is an anagram of Botkin or Botkine:


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." (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 mentions the parasites who 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 used to call him “the monstrous parasite of a genius:”


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)


In his Index (the entry Botkin, V.) Kinbote mentions “king-bot, maggot of extinct fly that once bred in mammoths and is thought to have hastened their phylogenetic end." In his Parizhskaya poema (“The Paris Poem,” 1943) VN mentions kosmatye mamonty (the shaggy mammoths) that are dying out and krasnoglazaya mysh’ (the red-eyed mouse) that is barely alive:


Вымирают косматые мамонты,

чуть жива красноглазая мышь.

Бродят отзвуки лиры безграмотной:

с кандачка переход на Буль-Миш.

С полурусского, полузабытого

переход на подобье арго.

Бродит боль позвонка перебитого

в чёрных дебрях Бульвар Араго.


Dying out are the shaggy mammoths,

barely alive is the red-eyed mouse.

Echoes of an illiterate lyre here wander,

from the slipshod to Boul’Mich you pass.

From a tongue half-Russian and half-forgotten

here you pass to a form of argot.

The pain of a severed vertebra wanders

in the black depths of Boulevard Arago.


S polurusskogo, poluzabytogo (from a tongue half-Russian and half-forgotten) brings to mind za polurusskogo soseda (with the half-Russian neighbor), as in Chapter Two (XII: 1-5) of EO Pushkin calls Lenski:


Богат, хорош собою, Ленской
Везде был принят как жених;
Таков обычай деревенской;
Все дочек прочили своих
За полурусского соседа


Wealthy, good-looking, Lenski

was as a suitor everywhere received:

such is the country custom;

all for their daughters planned a match

with the half-Russian neighbor.


Describing the reign of Charles the Beloved (the last king of Zembla), Kinbote mentions a contented Sosed:


That King's reign (1936-1958) will be remembered by at least a few discerning historians as a peaceful and elegant one. Owing to a fluid system of judicious alliances, Mars in his time never marred the record. Internally, until corruption, betrayal, and Extremism penetrated it, the People's Place (parliament) worked in perfect harmony with the Royal Council. Harmony, indeed, was the reign's password. The polite arts and pure sciences flourished. Technicology, applied physics, industrial chemistry and so forth were suffered to thrive. A small skyscraper of ultramarine glass was steadily rising in Onhava. The climate seemed to be improving. Taxation had become a thing of beauty. The poor were a little richer, and the rich a little poorer (in accordance what may be known some day as Kinbote's Law). Medical care was spreading to the confines of the state; less and less often, on his tour of the country, every autumn, when the rowans hung coral-heavy and the puddles tinkled with Muscovy glass, the friendly and eloquent monarch would be interrupted by a pertussal "backdraucht" in a crowd of schoolchildren. Parachuting had become a popular sport. Everybody, in a word, was content--even the political mischiefmakers who were contentedly making mischief paid by a contented Sosed (Zembla's gigantic neighbor). But let us not pursue this tiresome subject. (note to Line 12)


Zembla's gigantic neighbor is Russia. According to Kinbote, Charles the Beloved could boast of some Russian blood:


When I was a child, Russia enjoyed quite a vogue at the court of Zembla but that was a different Russia--a Russia that hated tyrants and Philistines, injustice and cruelty, the Russia of ladies and gentlemen and liberal aspirations. We may add that Charles the Beloved could boast of some Russian blood. In medieval times two of his ancestors had married Novgorod princesses. Queen Yaruga (reigned 1799-1800) his great-great-graddam, was half Russian; and most historians believe that Yaruga's only child Igor was not the son of Uran the Last (reigned 1798-1799) but the fruit of her amours with the Russian adventurer Hodinski, her goliart (court jester) and a poet of genius, said to have forged in his spare time a famous old Russian chanson de geste, generally attributed to an anonymous bard of the twelfth century. (note to Line 681)


"A famous old Russian chanson de geste" is Slovo o polku Igoreve ("The Song of Igor's Campaign," an epic of the 12th century translated into English by VN). In lines 617-678 the author of Slovo recalls the fate of Vseslav of Polotsk (a great-grandson of Vladimir I, the Prince of Kiev), a prince who was deemed a magician. According to Kinbote, the full name of Charles the Beloved is Charles Xavier Vseslav. The characters of Slovo include Igor’s brother Vsevolod. The "real" name of the three main characters in Pale Fire (the poet Shade, his commentator Kinbote’s and his murderer Gradus) seems to be Vsevolod Botkin. 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 Chapter Five (VII: 13-14) of EO Pushkin mentions nadezhda (hope) that lies with its childish lisp to old people who wish to know their future. In Chapter Six (XIII: 12) of EO Pushkin compares Olga Larin (Tatiana's younger sister) to vetrenaya nadezhda (giddy hope). Nadezhda was the name of Pushkin's mother. There is nadezhda (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.


The "real" name of both Sybil Shade (the poet's wife) and Queen Disa (the wife of Charles the Beloved) seems to be Sofia Botkin, born Lastochkin. In the last stanza of "The University Poem" VN mentions lastochka (a swallow):


И это всё. Довольно, звуки,
довольно, муза. До разлуки
прошу я только вот о чём:
летя, как ласточка, то ниже,
то в вышине, найди, найди же
простое слово в мире сём,
всегда понять тебя готовом;
и да не будет этим словом
ни моль бичуема, ни ржа;
мгновеньем всяким дорожа,
благослови его движенье,
ему застыть не повели;
почувствуй нежное вращенье
чуть накренившейся земли.


And that is all. Farewell, dear sounds,
farewell, fair muse.
Before our parting I ask only one thing:
as you fly, swallow-like, now lower,
now on high, find one plain word within this world,
always swift to understand you,
where moth and rust do not corrupt,
cherishing each instant,
blessing each motion,
do not allow it to freeze still,
perceive the delicate rotation
of the slightly tilted earth. (63)


The poem's last word is zemli (Gen. of zemlya, "earth"). In Goethe's Faust (1808-32) Faust (a legendary alchemist) dies the instant he says: Verweile doch, du bist so schön (“Stay a while, you are so beautiful”). The character of Euphorion (the son of Faust and Helen of Troy) is loosely based on Lord Byron.


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) are a leitmotif in Shade’s poem. In his Commentary Kinbote quotes Goethe’s poem in English and in Zemblan:


This line, and indeed the whole passage (lines 653-664), allude to the well-known poem by Goethe about the erlking, hoary enchanter of the elf-haunted alderwood, who falls in love with the delicate little boy of a belated traveler. One cannot sufficiently admire the ingenious way in which Shade manages to transfer something of the broken rhythm of the ballad (a trisyllabic meter at heart) into his iambic verse:

                                                /             /                   /            /
                        662     Who rides so late in the night and the wind
                        663     ..........................................................................
                                        /             /         /         /
                        664     ....It is the father with his child


Goethe's two lines opening the poem come out most exactly and beautifully, with the bonus of an unexpected rhyme (also in French: vent-enfant), in my own language:
                                             /                  /               /         /
                                    Ret woren ok spoz on natt ut vett?
                                      /            /                  /           /
                                    Eto est votchez ut mid ik dett.


Another fabulous ruler, the last king of Zembla, kept repeating these haunting lines to himself both in Zemblan and German, as a chance accompaniment of drumming fatigue and anxiety, while he climbed through the bracken belt of the dark mountains he had to traverse in his bid for freedom. (note to Line 662)


Natt ut vett brings to mind Dr Oscar Nattochdag, a Zemblan scholar at Wordsmith whose name means in Swedish "night and day." Kinbote calls Dr Nattochdag "Netochka." Netochka Nezvanov (1849) is an unfinished novel by Dostoevski, the author of Dvoynik ("The Double," 1846) and Brat'ya Karamazovy ("The Brothers Karamazov," 1880). 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”).


Dvoynik is a poem (1909) by Alexander Blok (whose grandfather, Professor Beketov, was a rector of the St. Petersburg University). In his diary (the entry of Aug. 30, 1918) Blok mentions dvoyniki (the dopplegangers) whom he conjured up in 1901 (when he courted Lyubov Mendeleev, his future wife), drugoe ya (alter ego) and Botkinskiy period (the Botkin period) of his life:


К ноябрю началось явное моё колдовство, ибо я вызвал двойников  ("Зарево белое...", "Ты - другая, немая...").

Любовь Дмитриевна ходила на уроки к М. М. Читау, я же ждал её выхода, следил за ней и иногда провожал её до Забалканского с Гагаринской - Литейной (конец ноября, начало декабря). Чаще, чем со мной, она встречалась с кем-то - кого не видела и о котором я знал.

Появился мороз, "мятель", "неотвязный" и царица, звенящая дверь, два старца, "отрава" (непосланных цветов), свершающий и пользующийся плодами свершений ("другое я"), кто-то "смеющийся и нежный". Так кончился 1901 год.

Тут - Боткинский период.


In his poem Ya – Gamlet. Kholodeet krov’… (“I’m Hamlet. Freezes blood…” 1914) Blok identifies himself with Hamlet and compares his wife to Ophelia. In his famous monologue in Shakespeare's play (3.1) Hamlet mentions "a bare bodkin." In his Index (the entry Botkin, V.) Kinbote mentions "botkin or bodkin, a Danish stiletto." In his essay on Griboedov (in "The Silhouettes of Russian Writers") the critic Yuli Ayhenvald compares Chatski to Hamlet and says that Griboedov has a stiletto, not style. In Canto One of his poem Shade mentions "stilettos of a frozen stillicide." Stiletto is an Italian word and brings to mind sonnetto colla coda (a tailed sonnet) mentioned by Gogol in his fragment Rim ("Rome," 1842).


In Blok's poem Vozmezdie ("Retribution," 1910-21) the hero's father was nicknamed Demon, because Dostoevski (who appears in Blok's poem as a character) remarked that he resembled Byron. In Canto Three of his poem Shade describes IPH (a lay Institute of Preparation for the Hereafter) and mentions Fra Karamazov mumbling his inept "all is allowed."