four sans & wonderful nonsense in Pale Fire

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Fri, 03/29/2019 - 11:25

At the end of his Commentary Kinbote (in VN’s novel Pale Fire, 1962, Shade’s mad commentator who imagines that he is Charles the Beloved, the last self-exiled king of Zembla) says that he may turn up yet, on another campus, as an old, happy, healthy heterosexual Russian, a writer in exile, sans fame, sans future, sans audience, sans anything but his art:


"And you, what will you be doing with yourself, poor King, poor Kinbote?" a gentle young voice may inquire.

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


At the end of his famous monologue in Shakespeare’s As You Like It (Act II, Scene 7) Jaques repeats the word “sans” four times:


All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players;

They have their exits and their entrances,

And one man in his time plays many parts,

His acts being seven ages. At first, the infant,

Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.

Then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel

And shining morning face, creeping like snail

Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,

Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad

Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,

Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,

Jealous in honor, sudden and quick in quarrel,

Seeking the bubble reputation

Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,

In fair round belly with good capon lined,

With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,

Full of wise saws and modern instances;

And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts

Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,

With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;

His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide

For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,

Turning again toward childish treble, pipes

And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,

That ends this strange eventful history,

Is second childishness and mere oblivion,

Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.


Non Sans Droict (‘Not without right’) is the motto that runs along the bottom of Shakespeare’s coat of arms. The grant document includes a rough drawing and the following technical description of the coat of arms:


'Gold, on a bend [diagonal bar] sable [black], a spear of the first [i.e. gold], steeled argent [with a silver tip]; and for his crest... a falcon his wings displayed argent [silver], standing on a wreath of his colours supporting a spear gold, steeled as aforesaid, [i.e. silver] set upon a helmet with mantles and tassles'.


In VN's novel Bend Sinister (1947) Shakespeare's head is compared to a hive of words:


But enough of this, let us hear Ember's rendering of some famous lines:


Ubit' il' ne ubit'? Vot est' oprosen.

Vto bude edler: v rasume tzerpieren

Ogneprashchi i strely zlovo roka –


(or as a Frenchman might have it:)


L’éorgerai-je ou non? Voici le vrai problème.

Est-il plus noble en soi de supporter quand même

Et les dards et le feu d'un accablant destin –


Yes, I am still jesting. We now come to the real thing.


Tam nad ruch'om rostiot naklonno iva,

V vode iavliaia list'ev sedinu;

Guirliandy fantasticheskie sviv

Iz etikh list'ev – s primes'u romashek,

Krapivy, lutikov –


(over yon brook there grows aslant a willow

Showing in the water the hoariness of its leaves;

Having tressed fantastic garlands

of these leaves, with a sprinkling of daisies,

Nettles, crowflowers – )


You see, I have to choose my commentators.

Or this difficult passage:


Ne dumaete-li Vy, sudar', shto vot eto (the song about the wounded deer), da les per'ev na shliape, da dve kamchatye rozy na proreznykh bashmakakh, mogli by, kol' fortuna zadala by mne turku, zasluzhit' mne uchast'e v teatralnoy arteli; a, sudar'?


Or the beginning of my favourite scene:

As he sits listening to Ember's translation, Krug cannot help marvelling at the strangeness of the day. He imagines himself at some point in the future recalling this particular moment. He, Krug, was sitting beside Ember's bed. Ember, with knees raised under the counterpane, was reading bits of blank verse from scraps of paper. Krug had recently lost his wife. A new political order had stunned the city. Two people he was fond of had been spirited away and perhaps executed. But the room was warm and quiet and Ember was deep in Hamlet. And Krug marvelled at the strangeness of the day. He listened to the rich-toned voice (Ember's father had been a Persian merchant) and tried to simplify the terms of his reaction. Nature had once produced an Englishman whose domed head had been a hive of words; a man who had only to breathe on any particle of his stupendous vocabulary to have that particle live and expand and throw out tremulous tentacles until it became a complex image with a pulsing brain and correlated limbs. Three centuries later, another man, in another country, was trying to render these rhythms and metaphors in a different tongue. This process entailed a prodigious amount of labour, for the necessity of which no real reason could be given. It was as if someone, having seen a certain oak tree (further called Individual T) growing in a certain land and casting its own unique shadow on the green and brown ground, had proceeded to erect in his garden a prodigiously intricate piece of machinery which in itself was as unlike that or any other tree as the translator's inspiration and language were unlike those of the original author, but which, by means of ingenious combination of parts, light effects, breeze-engendering engines, would, when completed, cast a shadow exactly similar to that of Individual T - the same outline, changing in the same manner, with the same double and single spots of sun rippling in the same position, at the same hour of the day. From a practical point of view, such a waste of time and material (those headaches, those midnight triumphs that turn out to be disasters in the sober light of morning!) was almost criminally absurd, since the greatest masterpiece of imitation presupposed a voluntary limitation of thought, in submission to another man's genius. Could this suicidal limitation and submission be compensated by the miracle of adaptive tactics, by the thousand devices of shadography, by the keen pleasure that the weaver of words and their witness experienced at every new wile in the warp, or was it, taken all in all, but an exaggerated and spiritualized replica of Paduk's writing machine? (chapter 7)


In Canto Two of his poem Shade mentions a hive in which he is locked up:


What moment in the gradual decay

Does resurrection choose? What year? What day?

Who has the stopwatch? Who rewinds the tape?

Are some less lucky, or do all escape?

A syllogism: other men die; but I

Am not another; therefore I'll not die.

Space is a swarming in the eyes; and time,

A singing in the ears. In this hive I'm

Locked up. Yet, if prior to life we had

Been able to imagine life, what mad,

Impossible, unutterably weird,

Wonderful nonsense it might have appeared! (ll. 209-220)


“Wonderful nonsense” brings to mind non sans droict, the motto in Shakespeare’s coat of arms.


At the end of his poem Slovo (“The Word,” 1920) Gumilyov says that, like bees in a deserted hive, the dead words smell bad:


В оный день, когда над миром новым
Бог склонял лицо своё, тогда
Солнце останавливали словом,
Словом разрушали города.

И орёл не взмахивал крылами,
Звёзды жались в ужасе к луне,
Если, точно розовое пламя,
Слово проплывало в вышине.

А для низкой жизни были числа,
Как домашний, подъяремный скот,
Потому что все оттенки смысла
Умное число передаёт.

Патриарх седой, себе под руку
Покоривший и добро и зло,
Не решаясь обратиться к звуку,
Тростью на песке чертил число.

Но забыли мы, что осиянно
Только слово средь земных тревог,
И в Евангелии от Иоанна
Сказано, что Слово это - Бог.

Мы ему поставили пределом
Скудные пределы естества.
И, как пчелы в улье опустелом,
Дурно пахнут мёртвые слова.


Then, when God bent His face
over the shining new world, then
they stopped the sun with a word,
a word burned cities to the ground.

When a word floated across the sky
like a rose-colored flame
eagles closed their wings, frightened
stars shrank against the moon.

And we creeping forms had numbers,
like tame, load-bearing oxen —
because a knowing number
says everything, says it all.

That grey-haired prophet, who bent
good and evil to his will,
was afraid to speak
and drew a number in the sand.

But we worry about other things, and forget
that only the word glows and shines,
and the Gospel of John
tells us this word is God.

We’ve surrounded it with a wall,
with the narrow borders of this world,
and like bees in a deserted hive
the dead words smell bad.

(tr. Burton Raffel)


The title of Gumilyov’s poem brings to mind vsyo eto, vidite l’, slova, slova, slova (all this is merely "words, words, words" you see), a line in Pushkin’s poem <Iz Pindemonti> (<From Pindemonte>, 1836):


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



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


As Pushkin points out in a footnote, “words, words, words” is a reference to Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In a draft Pushkin’s poem has the date under the text: July 5. According to Kinbote, Shade began Canto Two on July 5, 1959:


The poet began Canto Two (on his fourteenth card) on July 5, his sixtieth birthday (see note to line 181, "today"). My slip – change to sixty-first. (note to Line 167)


July 5 is not only Shade’s, but also Kinbote’s and Gradus’ birthday (while Shade was born in 1898, Kinbote and Gradus were born in 1915). In his Zapiski kavalerista (“Memoirs of a Cavalryman,” 1915-16) Gumilyov says that July 6, 1915 was the most significant day of his life:


Теперь я хочу рассказать о самом знаменательном дне моей жизни, о бое шестого июля 1915 г. Это случилось уже на другом, совсем новом для нас фронте. До того были у нас и перестрелки, и разъезды, но память о них тускнеет по сравнению с тем днём. (chapter 12)


In the preceding chapter Gumilyov describes his fever and mentions gradusnik (a thermometer):


С этой ночи начались мои злоключения. Мы наступали, выбивали немцев из деревень, ходили в разъезды, я тоже проделывал всё это, но как во сне, то дрожа в ознобе, то сгорая в жару. Наконец, после одной ночи, в течение которой я, не выходя из халупы, совершил по крайней мере двадцать обходов и пятнадцать побегов из плена, я решил смерить температуру. Градусник показал 38,7. (chapter 11)


Gumilyov was executed by the Bolsheviks in the last week of August 1921, some three weeks after Blok’s death. At the beginning of his memoir essay Gumilyov and Blok (1931) Hodasevich says that for him both of them, Blok and Gumilyov, died on August 3:


Блок умер 7-го, Гумилёв — 27-го августа 1921 года. Но для меня они оба умерли 3-го августа. Почему — я расскажу ниже.


Shade’s poem is almost finished when on July 21, 1959, the author is killed by Gradus. July 21, by the Julian calendar, corresponds to August 3, by the Gregorian one.


Kinbote believes that, to be completed, Shade’s 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”). According to G. Ivanov (the author of an offensive article on VN in the Paris émigré review “Numbers”), to his question “does a sonnet need a coda” Blok replied that he did not know what a coda is. In his Sonet (“The Sonnet,” 1830) Pushkin points out that tvorets Makbeta (the author of Macbeth) loved the sonnet’s play. Dvoynik (“The Double,” 1846) is a short novel by Dostoevski and a poem (1909) by Blok. 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.


Shade’s, Kinbote’s and Gradus’s “real” name seems to be 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). There is a hope that, when Kinbote completes his work on Shade’s poem and commits suicide (on Oct. 19, 1959, the anniversary of Pushkin’s Lyceum), Botkin, like Count Vorontsov (a target of Pushkin’s epigrams, “half-milord, half-merchant, etc.”) will be full again.


In his poem YaGamlet. Kholodeet krov’… (“I’m Hamlet. Freezes blood…” 1914) Blok identifies himself with Hamlet and compares his wife to Ophelia:


Я – Гамлет. Холодеет кровь,
Когда плетет коварство сети,
И в сердце – первая любовь
Жива – к единственной на свете.


Тебя, Офелию мою,
Увел далёко жизни холод,
И гибну, принц, в родном краю

Клинком отравленным заколот.


I’m Hamlet, and my blood grows cold
When meshing of deceit is weaving,
And in my heart is first love’s hold
Alive – to one alone it’s cleaving.


Ophelia, distant frigid hand
Of life at you is madly grabbing,
And I, the Prince, in native land
Succumb to poisoned épée’s stabbing

(tr. R. Moreton)


In his diary entry of Dec. 12, 1920, Blok lists all thirty-seven plays of Shakespeare.


In his Commentary Kinbote mentions Harfar Baron of Shalksbore, Queen Disa's cousin whose family name, "knave's farm," is the most probable derivation of "Shakespeare:"


She had recently lost both parents and had no real friend to turn to for explanation and advice when the inevitable rumors reached her; these she was too proud to discuss with her ladies in waiting but she read books, found out all about our manly Zemblan customs, and concealed her naïve distress under the great show of sarcastic sophistication. He congratulated her on her attitude, solemnly swearing that he had given up, or at least would give up, the practices of his youth; but everywhere along the road powerful temptations stood at attention. He succumbed to them from time to time, then every other day, then several times daily - especially during the robust regime of Harfar Baron of Shalksbore, a phenomenally endowed young brute (whose family name, "knave's farm," is the most probable derivation of "Shakespeare"). Curdy Buff - as Harfar was nicknamed by his admirers - had a huge escort of acrobats and bareback riders, and the whole affair rather got out of hand so that Disa, upon unexpectedly returning from a trip to Sweden, found the Palace transformed into a circus. He again promised, again fell, and despite the utmost discretion was again caught. At last she removed to the Riviera leaving him to amuse himself with a band of Eton-collared, sweet-voiced minions imported from England. (note to Line 433)


In the Foreword to his poem Vozmezdie ("Retribution," 1910-21) Blok says that in the winter of 1911 he saw wrestling matches in the St. Petersburg circuses:


Неразрывно со всем этим для меня связан расцвет французской борьбы в петербургских цирках; тысячная толпа проявляла исключительный интерес к ней; среди борцов были истинные художники; я никогда не забуду борьбы безобразного русского тяжеловеса с голландцем, мускульная система которого представляла из себя совершеннейший музыкальный инструмент редкой красоты.


According to Kinbote, he is a tricky wrestler:


Frankly I too never excelled in soccer and cricket; I am a passable horseman, a vigorous through unorthodox skier, a good skater, a tricky wrestler, and an enthusiastic rock-climber. (note to Line 130)


Duchess of Payn, of Great Payn and Mone, Queen Disa (the wife of Charles the Beloved) seems to blend Leonardo’s Mona Lisa with Desdemona (Othello’s wife in Shakespeare’s Othello). Desdemona (1913) is a sonnet by Gumilyov:


Когда вступила в спальню Дездемона,
Там было тихо, душно и темно,
Лишь месяц любопытный к ней в окно
Заглядывал с чужого небосклона.


И страшный мавр со взорами дракона,
Весь вечер пивший кипрское вино,
К ней подошёл, — он ждал её давно, —
Он не оценит девичьего стона.


Напрасно с безысходною тоской
Она ловила тонкою рукой
Его стальные руки — было поздно.


И, задыхаясь, думала она:
«О, верно, в день, когда шумит война,
Такой же он загадочный и грозный!»


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


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


Describing the reign of Charles the Beloved, Kinbote says that harmony was the reign's password:


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 getting a little richer, and the rich a little poorer (in accordance with 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 "back-draucht" 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)


The last day of Shade's life passed in a sustained low hum of harmony:


Gently the day has passed in a sustained

Low hum of harmony. The brain is drained

And a brown ament, and the noun I meant

To use but did not, dry on the cement.

Maybe my sensual love for the consonne

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

A feeling of fantastically planned,

Richly rhymed life. I feel I understand

Existence, or at least a minute part

Of my existence, only through my art,

In terms of combinational delight;

And if my private universe scans right,

So does the verse of galaxies divine

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