If, weeping-willow dog & moskovett in Pale Fire

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Sun, 03/24/2019 - 08:09

At the beginning of Canto Three of his poem John Shade (the poet in VN’s novel Pale Fire, 1962) mentions l’if, lifeless tree:


L'if, lifeless tree! Your great Maybe, Rabelais:

The grand potato.
                                     I.P.H., a lay
Institute (I) of Preparation (P)
For the Hereafter (H), or If, as we
Called it--big if!--engaged me for one term
To speak on death ("to lecture on the Worm,"
Wrote President McAber).
                                                     You and I,
And she, then a mere tot, moved from New Wye
To Yewshade, in another, higher state. (ll. 501-509)


In his Commentary Kinbote (who imagines that he is Charles the Beloved, the last self-exiled king of Zembla) writes:


Line 501: L'if


The yew in French. It is curious that the Zemblan word for the weeping willow is also "if" (the yew is tas).


Line 502: The grand potato


An execrable pun, deliberately placed in this epigraphic position to stress lack of respect for Death. I remember from my schoolroom days Rabelais' soi-disant "last words" among other bright bits in some French manual: Je m'en vais chercher le grand peut-être.


Kinbote writes his Commentary, Index and Foreword (in that order) to Shade's poem in Cedarn, Utana and commits suicide on October 19, 1959 (the anniversary of Pushkin’s Lyceum). Utana = Utah + Montana. Cedarn is an anagram of nacred, a word that rhymes with sacred. In his poem Kubla Khan (1797) S. T. Coleridge mentions Alph, the sacred river, and a cedarn cover:


In Xanadu did Kubla Khan

A stately pleasure-dome decree:

Where Alph, the sacred river, ran

Through caverns measureless to man

Down to a sunless sea.

So twice five miles of fertile ground

With walls and towers were girdled round:

And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,

Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;

And here were forests ancient as the hills,

Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.


But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted

Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!


The original title of VN’s novel Bend Sinister (1947) was A Person from Porlock (after a man who interrupted Coleridge in the process act of writing down his great visionary poem). In a draft Pushkin’s poem Anchar (“The Upas Tree,” 1828) subtitled Drevo yada (“A Tree of Poison”) has the epigraph from Coleridge:


It is a poison-tree, that pierced to the inmost

Weeps only tears of poison.


Kubla is an anagram of Kabul. Ford o' Kabul River is a poem by Kipling, the author of If and A Tree Song (that mentions, among other trees, the yew):


Yew that is old in churchyard-mould,
He breedeth a mighty bow.
Alder for shoes do wise men choose,

And beech for cups also.
But when ye have killed, and your bowl is spilled,
And your shoes are clean outworn,
Back ye must speed for all that ye need,
To Oak, and Ash, and Thorn!


According to Kinbote, his uncle Conmal (Shakespeare's Zemblan translator, 1855-1955) had just completed Kipling's "The Rhyme of the Three Sealers" when he fell ill and soon died:


English was not taught in Zembla before Mr. Campbell's time. Conmal mastered it all by himself (mainly by learning a lexicon by heart) as a young man, around 1880, when not the verbal inferno but a quiet military career seemed to open before him, and his first work (the translation of Shakespeare's Sonnets) was the outcome of a bet with a fellow officer. He exchanged his frogged uniform for a scholar's dressing gown and tackled The Tempest. A slow worker, he needed half a century to translate the works of him whom he called "dze Bart," in their entirety. After this, in 1930, he went on to Milton and other poets, steadily drilling through the ages, and had just completed Kipling's "The Rhyme of the Three Sealers" ("Now this is the Law of the Muscovite that he proved with shot and steel") when he fell ill and soon expired under his splendid painted bed ceil with its reproductions of Altamira animals, his last words in his last delirium being "Comment dit-on 'mourir' en anglais?"--a beautiful and touching end. (note to Line 962)


"The Law of the Muscovite" brings to mind moskovett, a cold wind that blows on Zemblan eastern shores throughout March:


It appears that in the beginning of 1950, long before the barn incident (see note to line 347), sixteen-year-old Hazel was involved in some appalling "psychokinetic" manifestations that lasted for nearly a month. Initially, one gathers, the poltergeist meant to impregnate the disturbance with the identity of Aunt Maud who had just died; the first object to perform was the basket in which she had once kept her half-paralyzed Skye terrier (the breed called in our country "weeping-willow dog"). Sybil had had the animal destroyed soon after its mistress's hospitalization, incurring the wrath of Hazel who was beside herself with distress. One morning this basket shot out of the "intact" sanctuary (see lines 90-98) and traveled along the corridor past the open door of the study, where Shade was at work; he saw it whizz by and spill its humble contents: a ragged coverlet, a rubber bone, and a partly discolored cushion. Next day the scene of action switched to the dining room where one of Aunt Maud's oils (Cypress and Bat) was found to be turned toward the wall. Other incidents followed, such as short flights accomplished by her scrapbook (see note to line 90) and, of course, all kinds of knockings, especially in the sanctuary, which would rouse Hazel from her, no doubt, peaceful sleep in the adjacent bedroom. But soon the poltergeist ran out of ideas in connection with Aunt Maud and became, as it were, more eclectic. All the banal motions that objects are limited to in such cases, were gone through in this one. Saucepans crashed in the kitchen; a snowball was found (perhaps, prematurely) in the icebox; once or twice Sybil saw a plate sail by like a discus and land safely on the sofa; lamps kept lighting up in various parts of the house; chairs waddled away to assemble in the impassable pantry; mysterious bits of string were found on the floor; invisible revelers staggered down the staircase in the middle of the night; and one winter morning Shade, upon rising and taking a look at the weather, saw that the little table from his study upon which he kept a Bible-like Webster open at M was standing in a state of shock outdoors, on the snow (subliminally this may have participated in the making of lines 5-12).

I imagine, that during that period the Shades, or at least John Shade, experienced a sensation of odd instability as if parts of the everyday, smoothly running world had got unscrewed, and you became aware that one of your tires was rolling beside you, or that your steering wheel had come off. My poor friend could not help recalling the dramatic fits of his early boyhood and wondering if this was not a new genetic variant of the same theme, preserved through procreation. Trying to hide from neighbors these horrible and humiliating phenomena was not the least of Shade's worries. He was terrified, and he was lacerated with pity. Although never able to corner her, that flabby, feeble, clumsy and solemn girl, who seemed more interested than frightened, he and Sybil never doubted that in some extraordinary way she was the agent of the disturbance which they saw as representing (I now quote Jane P.) "an outward extension or expulsion of insanity." They could not do much about it, partly because they disliked modern voodoo-psychiatry, but mainly because they were afraid of Hazel, and afraid to hurt her. They had however a secret interview with old-fashioned and learned Dr. Sutton, and this put them in better spirits. They were contemplating moving into another house or, more exactly, loudly saying to each other, so as to be overheard by anyone who might be listening, that they were contemplating moving, when all at once the fiend was gone, as happens with the moskovett, that bitter blast, that colossus of cold air that blows on our eastern shores throughout March, and then one morning you hear the birds, and the flags hang flaccid, and the outlines of the world are again in place. The phenomena ceased completely and were, if not forgotten, at least never referred to; but how curious it is that we do not perceive a mysterious sign of equation between the Hercules springing forth from a neurotic child's weak frame and the boisterous ghost of Aunt Maud; how curious that our rationality feels satisfied when we plump for the first explanation, though, actually, the scientific and the supernatural, the miracle of the muscle and the miracle of the mind, are both inexplicable as are all the ways of Our Lord. (note to Line 230)


Moskovett brings to mind Byron’s moskovskiy medved' (bear from Muscovy) and butaforskie buri (stagey storms) mentioned by VN in his Universitetskaya poema ("The University Poem," 1927):


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
 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)


Keats is the author of On First Looking into Chapman's Homer (1816), a sonnet. In Canto One of his poem Shade describes Aunt Maud's room and mentions Chapman's homer (a baseball term):


I was brought up by dear bizarre Aunt Maud,

A poet and a painter with a taste

For realistic objects interlaced

With grotesque growths and images of doom.

She lived to hear the next babe cry. Her room

We've kept intact. Its trivia create

A still life in her style: the paperweight

Of convex glass enclosing a lagoon,

The verse book open at the Index (Moon,

Moonrise, Moor, Moral), the forlorn guitar,

The human skull; and from the local Star

A curio: Red Sox Beat Yanks 5-4

On Chapman's Homer, thumbtacked to the door. (ll. 86-98)


Aunt Maud's verse book open at the Index (Moon, Moonrise, Moor, Moral) corresponds to Shade’s Bible-like Webster open at M on the little table that one winter morning the poet saw standing in a state of shock outdoors. Moon and Moonrise bring to mind Archibald Moon, in VN's novel Podvig ("Glory," 1932) Martin's professor of Russian at Cambridge. Archibald Moon’s book on Russia has for epigraph the first line of Keats’ Endymion (1818), “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:”


Профессором русской словесности и истории был в ту пору небезызвестный Арчибальд Мун. В России он прожил довольно долго, всюду побывал, всех знал, всё перевидел. Теперь, черноволосый, бледный, в пенсне на тонком носу, он бесшумно проезжал на велосипеде с высоким рулём, сидя совсем прямо, а за обедом, в знаменитой столовой с дубовыми столами и огромными цветными окнами, вертел головой, как птица, и быстро, быстро крошил длинными пальцами хлеб. Говорили, единственное, что он в мире любит, это - Россия. Многие не понимали, почему он там не остался. На вопросы такого рода Мун неизменно отвечал: "Справьтесь у Робертсона" (это был востоковед) "почему он не остался в Вавилоне". Возражали вполне резонно, что Вавилона уже нет. Мун кивал, тихо и хитро улыбаясь. Он усматривал в октябрьском перевороте некий отчетливый конец. Охотно допуская, что со временем образуется в Советском Союзе, пройдя через первобытные фазы, известная культура, он вместе с тем утверждал, что Россия завершена и неповторима, - что её можно взять, как прекрасную амфору, и поставить под стекло. Печной горшок, который там теперь обжигался, ничего общего с нею не имел. Гражданская война представлялась ему нелепой: одни бьются за призрак прошлого, другие за призрак будущего, - меж тем, как Россию потихоньку украл Арчибальд Мун и запер у себя в кабинете. Ему нравилась её завершённость. Она была расцвечена синевою вод и прозрачным пурпуром пушкинских стихов. Вот уже скоро два года, как он писал на английском языке её историю, надеялся всю её уложить в один толстенький том. Эпиграф из Китса ("Создание красоты - радость навеки"), тончайшая бумага, мягкий сафьяновый переплёт. Задача была трудная: найти гармонию между эрудицией и тесной живописной прозой, дать совершенный образ одного округлого тысячелетия.


At that time the chair of Russian literature and history was occupied by the distinguished scholar Archibald Moon. He had lived fairly long in Russia, and had been everywhere, met everyone, seen everything there. Now, pale and dark-haired, with a pince-nez on his thin nose, he could be observed riding by, sitting perfectly upright, on a bicycle with high handlebars; or, at dinner in the renowned hall with oaken tables and huge stained-glass windows, he would jerk his head from side to side like a bird, and crumble bread extremely fast between his long fingers. They said the only thing this Englishman loved in the world was Russia. Many people could not understand why he had not remained there. Moon’s reply to questions of that kind would invariably be: “Ask Robertson” (the orientalist) “why he did not stay in Babylon.” The perfectly reasonable objection would be raised that Babylon no longer existed. Moon would nod with a sly, silent smile. He saw in the Bolshevist insurrection a certain clear-cut finality. While he willingly allowed that, by-and-by, after the primitive phases, some civilization might develop in the “Soviet Union,” he nevertheless maintained that Russia was concluded and unrepeatable, that you could embrace it like a splendid amphora and put it behind glass. The clay kitchen pot now being baked there had nothing in common with it. The civil war seemed absurd to him: one side fighting for the ghost of the past, the other for the ghost of the future, and meanwhile Archibald Moon quietly had stolen Russia and locked it up in his study. He admired this finality. It was colored by the blue of waters and the transparent porphyry of Pushkin’s poetry. For nearly two years now he had been working on an English-language history of Russia, and he hoped to squeeze it all into one plump volume. An obvious motto (“A thing of beauty is a joy forever”), ultrathin paper, a soft Morocco binding. The task was a difficult one: to find a harmony between erudition and tight picturesque prose, to give a perfect image of one orbicular millennium. (chapter XVI)


Odno okrugloe tysyacheletie (one orbicular millennium) brings to mind Odon (a world-famous Zemblan actor who helps the king to escape from Zembla), his half-brother Nodo (a cardsharp and despicable traitor), Adam Krug (the main character in Bend Sinister) and the total number of lines in Shade's poem. 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”).


Russian for “joy,” radost’ brings to mind grados (Zemblan for “tree”):


Line 49: shagbark


A hickory. Our poet shared with the English masters the noble knack of transplanting trees into verse with their sap and shade. Many years ago Disa, our King's Queen, whose favorite trees were the jacaranda and the maidenhair, copied out in her album a quatrain from John Shade's collection of short poems Hebe's Cup, which I cannot refrain from quoting here (from a letter I received on April 6, 1959, from southern France):



The ginkgo leaf, in golden hue, when shed,

A muscat grape,

Is an old-fashioned butterfly, ill-spread,

In shape.


When the new Episcopal church in New Wye (see note to line 549) was built, the bulldozers spared an arc of those sacred trees planted by a landscaper of genius (Repburg) at the end of the so-called Shakespeare Avenue, on the campus. I do not know if it is relevant or not but there is a cat-and-mouse game in the second line, and "tree" in Zemblan is grados.


Goethe’s poem Ginkgo Biloba (from The West-Eastern Divan) ends in the lines:


Fühlst du nicht an meinen Liedern,
Daß ich eins und doppelt bin?


Don’t you feel in my songs
That I am One and Two?


Do not you feel in Shade’s poem and in Kinbote’s Commentary that they are Three (for Gradus is also a part of them) and One? Shade’s, Kinbote’s and Gradus’ “real” name is Botkin. 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). There is a hope (nadezhda) that, when Kinbote completes his work on Shade’s poem and commits suicide, Botkin, like Count Vorontsov (a target of Pushkin's epigrams, “half-milord, half-merchant, etc.”), will be full again.


Evelyn Hope is a poem by Robert Browning. In his poem De Gustibus Browning mentions the hazel coppice:


Your ghost will walk, you lover of trees,

(If our loves remain)

In an English lane,

By a cornfield-side a-flutter with poppies.

Hark, those two in the hazel coppice —

A boy and a girl, if the good fates please,

Making love, say —

The happier they!

Draw yourself up from the light of the moon,

And let them pass, as they will too soon,

With the bean-flowers’ boon,

And the blackbird’s tune,

And May, and June! (1)


At the end of his Commentary Kinbote mentions the treeman, the caveman, Browning and Keats:


"Well," I said, "has the muse been kind to you?"
"Very kind," he replied, slightly bowing his hand-propped head. "exceptionally kind and gentle. In fact, I have here [indicating a huge pregnant envelope near him on the oilcloth] practically the entire product. A few trifles to settle and [suddenly striking he table with his fist] I've swung it, by God."
The envelope, unfastened at one end, bulged with stacked cards.
"Where is the missus?" I asked (mouth dry).
"Help me, Charlie, to get out of here," he pleaded. "Foot gone to sleep. Sybil is at a dinner-meeting of her club."
"A suggestion," I said, quivering. "I have at my place half a gallon of Tokay. I'm ready to share my favorite wine with my favorite poet. We shall have for dinner a knackle of walnuts, a couple of large tomatoes, and a bunch of bananas. And if you agree to show me your 'finished product,' there will be another treat: I promise to divulge to you why I gave you, or rather who gave you, your theme."
"What theme?" said Shade absently, as he leaned on my arm and gradually recovered the use of his numb limb.
"Our blue inenubilable Zembla, and the red-capped Steinmann, and the motorboat in the sea cave, and -"
"Ah," said Shade, "I think I guessed your secret quite some time
ago. But all the same I shall sample your wine with pleasure. Okay, I can manage by myself now."

Well did I know he could never resist a golden drop of this or that, especially since he was severely rationed at home. With an inward leap of exultation I relieved him of the large envelope that hampered his movements as he descended the steps of the porch, sideways, like a hesitating infant. We crossed the lawn, we crossed the road. Clink-clank, came the horseshoe music from Mystery Lodge. In the large envelope I carried I could feel the hard-cornered, rubberbanded batches of index cards. We are absurdly accustomed to the miracle of a few written signs being able to contain immortal imagery, involutions of thought, new worlds with live people, speaking, weeping, laughing. We take it for granted so simply that in a sense, by the very act of brutish routine acceptance, we undo the work of the ages, the history of the gradual elaboration of poetical description and construction, from the treeman to Browning, from the caveman to Keats. What if we awake one day, all of us, and find ourselves utterly unable to read? I wish you to gasp not only at what you read but at the miracle of its being readable (so I used to tell my students). Although I am capable, through long dabbling in blue magic, of imitating any prose in the world (but singularly enough not verse - I am a miserable rhymester), I do not consider myself a true artist, save in one matter: I can do what only a true artist can do - pounce upon the forgotten butterfly of revelation, wean myself abruptly from the habit of things, see the web of the world, and the warp and the weft of that web. Solemnly I weighed in my hand what I was carrying under my left armpit, and for a moment, I found myself enriched with an indescribable amazement as if informed that fireflies were making decodable signals on behalf of stranded spirits, or that a bat was writing a legible tale of torture in the bruised and branded sky.
I was holding all Zembla pressed to my heart. (note to Line 991)


A distant northern land, Kinbote's Zembla has a lot in common with Martin's and Sonya's Zoorland in "Glory." The characters in "Glory" include the writer Bubnov who used to point out with satisfaction how many distinguished Russian literary names of the twentieth century began with the letter B:


Писатель Бубнов, - всегда с удовольствием отмечавший, сколь много выдающихся литературных имён двадцатого века начинается на букву "б", - был плотный, тридцатилетний, уже лысый мужчина с огромным лбом, глубокими глазницами и квадратным подбородком. Он курил трубку, - сильно вбирая щёки при каждой затяжке, - носил старый чёрный галстук бантиком и считал Мартына франтом и европейцем. Мартына же пленяла его напористая круглая речь и вполне заслуженная писательская слава. Начав писать уже заграницей, Бубнов за три года выпустил три прекрасных книги, писал четвёртую, героем её был Христофор Колумб - или, точнее, русский дьяк, чудесно попавший матросом на одну из Колумбовых каравелл, - а так как Бубнов не знал ни одного языка, кроме русского, то для собирания некоторых материалов, имевшихся в Государственной библиотеке, охотно брал с собою Мартына, когда тот бывал свободен. Немецким Мартын владел плоховато и потому радовался, если текст попадался французский, английский, или - ещё лучше - итальянский: этот язык он знал, правда, еще хуже немецкого, но небольшое своё знание особенно ценил, памятуя, как с меланхолическим Тэдди переводил Данте. У Бубнова бывали писатели, журналисты, прыщеватые молодые поэты, - все это были люди, по мнению Бубнова, среднего таланта, и он праведно царил среди них, выслушивал, прикрыв ладонью глаза, очередное стихотворение о тоске по родине или о Петербурге (с непременным присутствием Медного Всадника) и затем говорил, тиская бритый подбородок: "Да, хорошо"; и повторял, уставившись бледно-карими, немного собачьими, глазами в одну точку: "Хорошо", с менее убедительным оттенком; и, снова переменив направление взгляда, говорил: "Не плохо"; а затем: "Только, знаете, слишком у вас Петербург портативный"; и постепенно снижая суждение, доходил до того, что глухо, со вздохом, бормотал: "Всё это не то, всё это не нужно", и удручённо мотал головой, и вдруг, с блеском, с восторгом, разрешался стихом из Пушкина, - и, когда однажды молодой поэт, обидевшись, возразил: "То Пушкин, а это я", - Бубнов подумал и сказал: "А всё-таки у вас хуже". Случалось, впрочем, что чья-нибудь вещь была действительно хороша, и Бубнов, - особенно, если вещь была написана прозой, - делался необыкновенно мрачным и несколько дней пребывал не в духах. С Мартыном, который, кроме писем к матери, ничего не писал, (и был за это прозван одним острословом "наша мадам де Севинье"), Бубнов дружил искренно и безбоязненно, и раз даже, после третьей кружки пильзнера, весь налитой светлым пивом, весь тугой и прозрачный, мечтательно заговорил (и это напомнило Яйлу, костёр) о девушке, у которой поёт душа, поют глаза, и кожа бледна, как дорогой фарфор, - и затем свирепо глянул на Мартына и сказал: "Да, это пошло, сладко, отвратительно, фу... презирай меня, пускай я бездарь, но я её люблю. Её имя, как купол, как свист голубиных крыл, я вижу свет в её имени, особый свет, "кана-инум" старых хадирских мудрецов, - свет оттуда, с востока, - о, это большая тайна, страшная тайна"; и уже истошным шёпотом: "Женская прелесть страшна, - ты понимаешь меня, - страшна. И туфельки у неё стоптаны, стоптаны..."


The writer Bubnov (who used to point out with satisfaction how many distinguished Russian literary names of the twentieth century began with the letter B) was a bearish, balding man of thirty, with a huge forehead, deep-set eyes, and a square chin. He smoked a pipe, sucking in his cheeks deeply with every puff, wore an old black bow tie, and considered Martin a fop and a foreigner. As to Martin, he was much taken with Bubnov’s energetic, rotund delivery and with his quite justified fame. Bubnov, whose writing career had begun in exile, had already had three excellent novels brought out by a Russian émigré publisher in Berlin, and was now writing a fourth. Its hero was Christopher Columbus, or, to be more exact, a Muscovite scrivener who, after many escapades, had miraculously ended up as a sailor on one of Columbus’s caravels. Bubnov knew no language other than Russian, so that when he had to go to the State Library for his research and Martin happened to be free, he willingly took him along. Martin’s command of German being mediocre, he was glad when a text chanced to be in French, English, or, better still, Italian. True, he knew that language even less than German, but he particularly prized his scant knowledge, remembering how he used to read Dante with melancholy Teddy’s assistance. Bubnov’s flat was frequented by the émigré literary set—fictionists, journalists, pimply young poets; in Bubnov’s opinion these were all people of middling talent, and he reigned over them justly, hearing out, with his hand over his eyes, yet another poem about nostalgia for the homeland or recollections of St. Petersburg (with the Bronze Horseman inevitably present) and then saying, as he unscreened his beetling brows and kneaded his chin, “Yes, that’s good.” Then, focusing his pale-hazel eyes on some fixed point, he would repeat “Good” with a less convinced intonation; and, once again changing the direction of his gaze, he would say, “Not bad,” and then, “Only, you know, you make Petersburg a little too portable.” And thus, gradually lowering his evaluation, he would reach the point where he muttered in hollow tones, with a sigh, “That stuff is all wrong, all unnecessary,” and dejectedly shake his head; upon which, abruptly, with vivid enthusiasm he would thunder out a poem by Pushkin. Once, when a young poet took offense and objected, “That’s by Pushkin, and this is by me,” Bubnov thought for a moment and replied, “Still, yours is worse.” Then again, there would be occasions when some newcomer brought a really fine piece, whereupon Bubnov—especially if the piece were in prose—would grow strangely glum and remain out of sorts for several days. Bubnov’s friendship with Martin, who never wrote anything (except letters to his mother and for this was dubbed by a wit “our Madame de Sévigné”), remained sincere and free of misgivings. There was even a night when, relaxed and transparent after his third mug of Pilsener, Bubnov began talking dreamily (and this brought back a campfire in the Crimean mountains) about a girl whose soul was a song, whose dark eyes sang, whose skin was pale like precious porcelain. Then, with a fierce look, he added, “Yes, that’s trite, that’s nauseous, ugh! Despise me if you like, I may lack all talent, but I’m in love with her. Her name is like a church dome, like the swish of doves’ wings. I see radiant light in her name, that special light, the ‘kana-inum’ of the ancient Khadir sages. A light from there, from the East. Ah, that’s a great mystery, an awesome mystery——” Lowering his voice to a demented whisper, he added, “A woman’s charm is a terrible thing—you understand me, terrible. And her poor little slippers are worn down at the heel, yes, worn down——” (Chapter XXXIII)


“A church dome” and “the swish of doves’ wings” bring to mind Bunin’s poem Aya-Sofia (“Hagia Sophia,” 1903-06) in which kupol (the church dome) and golubi (the doves) are mentioned:


Светильники горели, непонятный
Звучал язык, - великий шейх читал
Святой Коран, - и купол необъятный
В угрюмом мраке пропадал.

Кривую саблю вскинув над толпою,
Шейх поднял лик, закрыл глаза - и страх
Царил в толпе, и мёртвою, слепою
Она лежала на коврах...

А утром храм был светел. Всё молчало
В смиренной и священной тишине,
И солнце ярко купол озаряло
В непостижимой вышине.

И голуби в нём, рея, ворковали,
И с вышины, из каждого окна,
Простор небес и воздух сладко звали
К тебе, Любовь, к тебе, Весна!


Martin Edelweiss, his friend Darwin and Bubnov are in love with Sonia Zilanov. Sonia is a diminutive of Sofia (the name of Martin's mother). The "real" name of Sybil Shade (the poet's wife) seems to be Sofia Botkin (born Lastochkin). Lastochki ("The Swallows," 1884) is a poem by Fet (who was married to Maria Botkin).


In his poem Dvenadtsat’ (“The Twelve,” 1918) Alexander Blok (another poet whose name begins with B) mentions veter (the wind) and bubnovyi tuz (a convict’s ace of diamonds) that would fit the backs of the twelve Red Army soldiers:


Гуляет ветер, порхает снег.
Идут двенадцать человек.

Винтовок чёрные ремни,
Кругом - огни, огни, огни...

В зубах - цыгарка, примят картуз,
На спину б надо бубновый туз!


The wind is a whirl, the snow is a dance.
In the night twelve men advance.

Black, narrow rifle-straps,
Cigarettes, tilted caps.

The ace of diamonds would fit their backs.
Fires mark their nightly tracks. (2)


During his stay in Switzerland Martin receives a letter from Darwin in Tenerife:


"Странная вещь, - сказал Дарвин, выходя как-то вместе с Мартыном из маленького кембриджского кинематографа, - странная вещь: ведь всё это плохо, и вульгарно, и не очень вероятно, - а всё-таки чем то волнуют эти ветреные виды, роковая дама на яхте, оборванный мужлан, глотающий слёзы..."
"Хорошо путешествовать, - проговорил Мартын. - Я хотел бы много путешествовать".
Этот обрывок разговора, случайно уцелевший от одного апрельского вечера, припомнился Мартыну, когда, в начале летних каникул, уже в Швейцарии, он получил письмо от Дарвина с Тенериффы. Тенериффа - Боже мой! - какое дивно зелёное слово! Дело было утром; сильно подурневшая и как-то распухшая Мария стояла в углу на коленях и выжимала половую тряпку в ведро; над горами, цепляясь за вершины, плыли большие белые облака, и порою несколько дымных волокон спускалось по дальнему скату, и там, на этих скатах, всё время менялся свет, - приливы и отливы солнца. Мартын вышел в сад, где дядя Генрих в чудовищной соломенной шляпе разговаривал с деревенским аббатом. Когда аббат, маленький человек в очках, которые он все поправлял большим и пятым пальцем левой руки, низко поклонился и, шурша черной рясой, прошел вдоль сияющей белой стены и сел в таратайку, запряженную толстой, розоватой лошадью, сплошь в мелкой горчице, Мартын сказал: "Тут прекрасно, я обожаю эти места, но почему бы мне - ну, хотя бы на месяц - не поехать куда-нибудь, - на Канарские острова, например?"


“Funny thing,” said Darwin one night, as he and Martin came out of a small Cambridge cinema, “it’s all unquestionably poor, vulgar, and rather implausible, and yet there is something exciting about all that flying foam, the femme fatale on the yacht, the ruined and ragged he-man swallowing his tears.”
“It’s nice to travel,” said Martin. “I’d like to travel a lot.”
This fragment of conversation, surviving by chance from one April night, came back to Martin when, at the beginning of summer vacation, already in Switzerland, he received a letter from Darwin in Tenerife. Tenerife—God, what a lovely, emerald word! It was morning. Marie, with disastrously deteriorated looks and an oddly bloated appearance, was kneeling in a corner, wringing out a floor rag into a pail. Large white clouds glided above the mountains, catching on the peaks, and from time to time some smoky filaments would descend the slopes, on which the light changed continuously with the ebb and flow of the sun. Martin went out into the garden, where Uncle Henry, wearing a monstrous straw hat, was talking with the village curé. When the curé, a small man with glasses, which he kept adjusting with the thumb and little finger of his left hand, made a low bow and, with a rustle of his black cassock, walked off by the shiny white wall and climbed into his cabriolet hitched to a fat, pinkish-white horse all speckled with mustard, Martin said, “It’s wonderful here, and I adore this region, but, perhaps, just for a few weeks, I would like to take a trip somewhere—the Canary Islands, for instance.” (chapter XX)


Tenerife is the largest and most populated island of the seven Canary Islands. Divno zelyonoe slovo (“a lovely, emerald word”) brings to mind Gerald Emerald and the epigraph (from Brehm’s "The Life of Animals") to Bunin’s poem Kanareyka (“Canary,” 1921): Na rodine ona zelyonaya (“In its native land the bird is green”). In his Avtobiografiya (“Autobiography,” 1915) Blok points out that many works of Brehm and Darwin were translated into Russian by his maternal grandmother, Elizaveta Beketov (the botanist’s wife):


Переводные стихи её печатались в "Современнике", под псевдонимом "Е. Б.", и в "Английских поэтах" Гербеля, без имени. Ею переведены многие сочинения Бокля, Брэма, Дарвина, Гексли, Мура (поэма "Лалла-Рук"), Бичер-Стоу, Гольдсмита, Стэнли, Теккерея, Диккенса, В. Скотта, Брэт Гарта, Жорж Занд, Бальзака, В. Гюго, Флобера, Мопассана, Руссо, Лесажа. Этот список авторов – далеко не полный. Оплата труда была всегда ничтожна. Теперь эти сотни тысяч томов разошлись в дешёвых изданиях, а знакомый с антикварными ценами знает, как дороги уже теперь хотя бы так называемые "144 тома" (изд. Г. Пантелеева), в которых помещены многие переводы Е. Г. Бекетовой и её дочерей. Характерная страница в истории русского просвещения.


Martin Edelweiss' botanical surname brings to mind Joe Lavender, Odon's friend whose villa Libitina Gradus visits in Switzerland:


From his Geneva hotel Gradus had tried to get Lavender on the telephone but was told he could not be reached before noon. By noon Gradus was already under way and telephoned again, this time from Montreux. Lavender had been given the message and would Mr. Degré drop in around tea time. He luncheoned in a lakeside cafe, went for a stroll, asked the price of a small crystal giraffe in a souvenir shop, bought a newspaper, read it on a bench, and presently drove on. In the vicinity of Lex he lost his way among steep tortuous lanes. Upon stopping above a vineyard, at the rough entrance of an unfinished house, he was shown by the three index fingers of three masons the red roof of Lavender's villa high up in the ascending greenery on the opposite side of the road. He decided to leave the car and climb the stone steps of what looked like an easy short cut. While he was trudging up the walled walk with his eye on the rabbit foot of a poplar which now hid the red roof at the top of the climb, now disclosed it, the sun found a weak spot among the rain clouds and next moment a ragged blue hole in them grew a radiant rim. He felt the burden and the odor of his new brown suit bought in a Copenhagen store and already wrinkled. Puffing, consulting his wrist watch, and fanning himself with his trilby, also new, he reached at last the transverse continuation of the looping road he had left below. He crossed it, walked through a wicket and up a curving gravel path, and found himself in front of Lavender's villa. Its name, Libitina, was displayed in cursive script above one of the barred north windows, with its letters made of black wire and the dot over each of the three i's cleverly mimicked by the tarred head of a chalk-coated nail driven into the white facade. This device, and the north-facing window grates, Gradus had observed in Swiss villas before, but immunity to classical allusion deprived him of the pleasure he might have derived from the tribute that Lavender's macabre joviality had paid the Roman goddess of corpses and tombs. Another matter engaged his attention: from a corner casement came the sounds of a piano, a tumult of vigorous music which for some odd reason, as he was to tell me later, suggested to him a possibility he had not considered and caused his hand to fly to his hip pocket as he prepared to meet not Lavender and not Odon but that gifted hymnist, Charles the Beloved. The music stopped as Gradus, confused by the whimsical shape of the house, hesitated before a glassed-in porch. An elderly footman in green appeared from a green side door and led him to another entrance. With a show of carelessness not improved by laborious repetition, Gradus asked him, first in mediocre French, then in worse English, and finally in fair German, if there were many guests staying in the house; but the man only smiled and bowed him into the music room. The musician had vanished. A harplike din still came from the grand piano upon which a pair of beach sandals stood as on the brink of a lily pond. From a window seat a gaunt jet-glittering lady stiffly arose and introduced herself as the governess of Mr. Lavender's nephew. Gradus mentioned his eagerness to see Lavender's sensational collection: this aptly defined its pictures of lovemaking in orchards, but the governess (whom the King had always called to her pleased face Mademoiselle Belle instead of Mademoiselle Baud) hastened to confess her total ignorance of her employer's hobbies and treasures and suggested the visitor's taking a look at the garden: "Gordon will show you his favorite flowers" she said, and called into the next room "Gordon!" Rather reluctantly there came out a slender but strong-looking lad of fourteen or fifteen dyed a nectarine hue by the sun. He had nothing on save a leopard-spotted loincloth. His closely cropped hair was a tint lighter than his skin: His lovely bestial face wore an expression both sullen and sly. Our preoccupied plotter did not register any of these details and merely experienced a general impression of indecency. "Gordon is a musical prodigy," said Miss Baud, and the boy winced. "Gordon, will you show the garden to this gentleman?" The boy acquiesced, adding he would take a dip if nobody minded. He put on his sandals and led the way out. Through light and shade walked the strange pair: the graceful boy wreathed about the loins with ivy and the seedy killer in his cheap brown suit with a folded newspaper sticking out of his left-hand coat pocket. (note to Line 408)


The name Gordon seems to hint at Byron. 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. Trussmaker makes orthopaedic boots. According to Kinbote (the author of a book on surnames), Botkin is one who makes bottekins (fancy footwear):


With commendable alacrity, Professor Hurley produced an Appreciation of John Shade's published works within a month after the poet's death. It came out in a skimpy literary review, whose name momentarily escapes me, and was shown to me in Chicago where I interrupted for a couple of days my
automobile journey from New Wye to Cedarn, in these grim autumnal mountains.

A Commentary where placid scholarship should reign is not the place for blasting the preposterous defects of that little obituary. I have only mentioned it because that is where I gleaned a few meager details concerning the poet's parents. His father, Samuel Shade, who died at fifty, in 1902, had studied medicine in his youth and was vice-president of a firm of surgical instruments in Exton. His chief passion, however, was what our eloquent necrologist calls "the study of the feathered tribe," adding that "a bird had been named for him: Bombycilla Shadei" (this should be "shadei," of course). The poet's mother, nee Caroline Lukin, assisted him in his work and drew the admirable figures of his Birds of Mexico, which I remember having seen in my friend's house. What the obituarist does not know is that Lukin comes from Luke, as also do Locock and Luxon and Lukashevich. It represents one of the many instances when the amorphous-looking but live and personal hereditary patronymic grows, sometimes in fantastic shapes, around the common pebble of a Christian name. The Lukins are an old Essex family. Other names derive from professions such as Rymer, Scrivener, Limner (one who illuminates parchments), Botkin (one who makes bottekins, fancy footwear) and thousands of others. My tutor, a Scotsman, used to call any old tumble-down buildings a "hurley-house." But enough of this. (note to Line 71)


In “Glory” Martin tells Sonia about Horace:


Но Соня, Соня... От ночных мыслей об экспедиции, от литературных бесед с Бубновым, от ежедневных трудов на теннисе, он снова и снова к ней возвращался, подносил для нее спичку к газовой плите, где сразу, с сильным пыхом, выпускал все когти голубой огонь. Говорить с ней о любви было бесполезно, но однажды, провожая ее домой из кафе, где они тянули сквозь соломинки шведский пунш под скрипичный вой румына, он почувствовал такую нежность от теплоты ночи, и от того, что в каждом подъезде стояла неподвижная чета, - так подействовали на него их смех и шепот, и внезапное молчание, - и сумрачное колыхание сирени в палисадниках, и диковинные тени, которыми свет фонаря оживлял леса обновлявшегося дома, - что внезапно он забыл обычную выдержку, обычную боязнь быть поднятым Соней на зубки, - и чудом заговорил - и о чем? - о Горации... Да, Гораций жил в Риме, а Рим походил на большую деревню, где, впрочем, немало было мраморных зданий, но тут же гнались за бешеной собакой, тут же хлюпала в грязи свинья с чёрными своими поросятами, - и всюду строили, стучали плотники, громыхая, проезжала телега с лигурийским мрамором или огромной сосной, - но к вечеру стук затихал, как затихал в сумерки Берлин, и напоследок гремели железные цепи запираемых на ночь лавок, совсем, как гремели, спускаясь, ставни лавок берлинских, и Гораций шел на Марсово поле, тщедушный, но с брюшком, лысый и ушастый, в неряшливой тоге, и слушал нежный шепот бесед под портиками, прелестный смех в тёмных углах.


But Sonia, ah, Sonia——From his nighttime thoughts about the glorious and dark expedition, from his literary chats with Bubnov, from his daily labors at the tennis club, he would return to her again and again and hold a match over the gas stove for her, whereupon, with a loud gush, the blue flame would extend all its claws. To talk to her of love was useless, but once, while walking her home from the café, where they had imbibed Swedish punch through straws to the wail of a Rumanian violin, he was overwhelmed with such soft passion, because of the warm night and because in every doorway there stood a motionless couple, so infectious was their gaiety and whispering, and sudden silences, and the crepuscular undulation of lilacs in villa gardens, and the fantastic shadows with which the light of a streetlamp animated the scaffolding of a house in the process of renovation, that he forgot his usual reserve, his usual fear that Sonia would make fun of him, and, by some miracle, began to speak—of what?—of Horace. Yes, Horace had lived in Rome, and Rome, despite a good number of marble edifices, looked like a sprawling village, and there you could see people chasing after a mad dog, and hogs splashing in the mud with their black piglets, and construction was going on all over the place: carpenters hammered away; a wagon carrying Ligurian marble or an enormous pine would clatter past. But toward evening the racket would cease, just as Berlin grew silent at twilight, after which came the rattle of iron chains from shops being shut for the night, quite like the rattling of the Berlin shops’ shutters at closing time, and Horace strolled off to the Field of Mars, debile but paunchy, with a bald head and big ears, clad in a sloppy toga, and listen to the tender whispers under the porticoes, to the enchanting laughter in dark nooks. (chapter 34)


In his ode Exegi monumentum (3.30) Horace mentions Libitina:


Non omnis moriar multaque pars mei
vitabit Libitinam; usque ego postera
crescam laude recens, dum Capitolium
scandet cum tacita virgine pontifex.


I shall not wholly die and a greater part of me
will evade Libitina; continually I,
newly arisen, may be strengthened with ensuing praise so long
as the high priest climbs the Capitoline with the silent maiden. (ll. 6-10)


Horace’s ode was imitated by Derzhavin. In his Eugene Onegin Commentary (vol. II, pp. 310-311) VN points out that in his great poem Ya pamyatnik sebe vozdvig… (“Exegi monumentum,” 1836) Pushkin line for line parodies Derzhavin’s Pamyatnik (1796). According to VN, the last line of Pushkin's poem, "and do not contradict a fool," although ostensibly referring to reviewers, slyly implies that only fools proclaim their immortality.


This is merely a short version of my updated (much too long) previous post, “hive of words in Bend Sinister; If & avenue of trees in Pale Fire” (https://thenabokovian.org/node/35639)