Vladimir Nabokov

Word-play in Pale Fire

By MARYROSS, 1 April, 2019

Here’s some word play I have noticed in Pale Fire:



Life Everlasting – based on a misprint! (poem 803)




“Life Everlasting” means “spirit” and is found in the word “misprint”. Misprints appear to be important clues in PF for connecting themes and plot solutions and “correlated pattern in the game”.


Kinbote comments on this line (Line 803:misprint) and relates it to a dual English/Russian word play:  “The artistic correlation between the crown-crow-cow series and the Russian korona-vorona-korova series is something that

would have, I am sure, enraptured my poet.” Nabokov places a “crow” in another bit of word-play:


The man in the old blazer, crumbing bread,

 The crowding gulls insufferably loud,

 And one dark pigeon waddling in the crowd. (poem, 440-442)


CROW = dark ‘pigeon’ in the word “CROWD”


            I associate this with the many allusions to alchemy in PF. The stage of dissolution in alchemy (nigredo) was called “the raven’s head” (caput corvi). One of the dark shadow Gradus’ aliases is “Ravenstone”.  It suggests to me Gradus as “crow”, Kinbote as “crown” and it would be really stupendous if Shade somehow suggested “cow”!


Actually, I take these lines to indicate the man in the blazer as a poet who is “feeding” clamoring critics, and the “one dark pigeon” is lone dissenter, Shade.


Question: Who is the man in the blazer? Is he the same as the Englishman feeding the cigales in Nice? (242)

Alexey Sklyarenko

5 years 3 months ago



Misprints play a significant part in Chekhov's story Dushechka ("The Darling," 1899). In a letter of Apr. 23, 1890, to his sister Chekhov (who was on his way to Sakhalin) calls the cows on the green banks of the Volga klassnye damy (“class ladies,” school chaperons, whose duty was to sit in the classroom while the girls were receiving instruction from a master):


На берегу бродят классные дамы и щиплют зелёную травку, слышится изредка пастушеский рожок.

The class ladies wander about on the banks, nipping at the green grass. The shepherd’s horn can be heard now and then.


At the end of his story Dama s sobachkoy (“The Lady with the Dog,” 1899) Chekhov uses the phrase daleko-daleko (far, far away):


Потом они долго советовались, говорили о том, как избавить себя от необходимости прятаться, обманывать, жить в разных городах, не видеться подолгу. Как освободиться от этих невыносимых пут?

- Как? Как? - спрашивал он, хватая себя за голову. - Как?

И казалось, что ещё немного - и решение будет найдено, и тогда начнётся новая, прекрасная жизнь; и обоим было ясно, что до конца ещё далеко-далеко и что самое сложное и трудное только ещё начинается.


Then they discussed their situation for a long time, trying to think how they could get rid of the necessity for hiding, deception, living in different towns, being so long without meeting. How were they to shake off these intolerable fetters?

“How? How?” he repeated, clutching his head. “How?”

And it seemed to them that they were within an inch of arriving at A decision, and that then a new, beautiful life would begin. And they both realized that the end was still far, far away, and that the hardest, the most complicated part was only just beginning. (chapter IV)


According to Kinbote, onhava-onhava means in Zemblan “far, far away:”


On the morning of July 16 (while Shade was working on the 698-746 section of his poem) dull Gradus, dreading another day of enforced inactivity in sardonically, sparkling, stimulatingly noisy Nice, decided that until hunger drove him out he would not budge from a leathern armchair in the simulacrum of a lobby among the brown smells of his dingy hotel. Unhurriedly he went through a heap of old magazines on a nearby table. There he sat, a little monument of taciturnity, sighing, puffing out his cheeks, licking his thumb before turning a page, gaping at the pictures, and moving his lips as he climbed down the columns of printed matter. Having replaced everything in a neat pile, he sank back in his chair closing and opening his gabled hands in various constructions of tedium - when a man who had occupied a seat next to him got up and walked into the outer glare leaving his paper behind. Gradus pulled it into his lap, spread it out - and froze over a strange piece of local news that caught his eye: burglars had broken into Villa Disa and ransacked a bureau, taking from a jewel box a number of valuable old medals.

Here was something to brood upon. Had this vaguely unpleasant incident some bearing on his quest? Should he do something about it? Cable headquarters? Hard to word succinctly a simple fact without having it look like a cryptogram. Airmail a clipping? He was in his room working on the newspaper with a safety razor blade when there was a bright rap-rap at the door. Gradus admitted an unexpected visitor - one of the greater Shadows, whom he had thought to be onhava-onhava ("far, far away"), in wild, misty, almost legendary Zembla! What stunning conjuring tricks our magical mechanical age plays with old mother space and old father time!

He was a merry, perhaps overmerry, fellow, in a green velvet jacket. Nobody liked him, but he certainly had a keen mind. His name, Izumrudov, sounded rather Russian but actually meant “of the Umruds,” an Eskimo tribe sometimes seen paddling their umyaks (hide-lined boats) on the emerald waters of our northern shores. Grinning, he said friend Gradus must get together his travel documents, including a health certificate, and take the earliest available jet to New York. Bowing, he congratulated him on having indicated with such phenomenal acumen the right place and the right way. Yes, after a thorough perlustration of the loot that Andron and Niagarushka had obtained from the Queen's rosewood writing desk (mostly bills, and treasured snapshots, and those silly medals) a letter from the King did turn up giving his address which was of all places -- Our man, who interrupted the herald of success to say he had never -- was bidden not to display so much modesty. A slip of paper was now produced on which Izumudrov, shaking with laughter (death is hilarious), wrote out for Gradus their client's alias, the name of the university where he taught, and that of the town where it was situated. No, the slip was not for keeps. He could keep it only while memorizing it. This brand of paper (used by macaroon makers) was not only digestible but delicious. The gay green vision withdrew - to resume his whoring no doubt. How one hates such men! (note to Line 741)


Kuprin’s story about a racehorse, Izumrud ("Emerald," 1907), is dedicated to the memory of Tolstoy’s Kholstomer (“Strider: the Story of a Horse”). Tolstoy is the author of the Afterword to Chekhov's “Darling.” In his review of Bely’s novel Peterburg (1914) Andrey Polyanin (the penname of Sofia Parnok) quotes Tolstoy’s words from his "Afterword" to Chekhov's story:


С благоговением вспоминается фраза Льва Толстого из чудесного его "Послесловия" к рассказу Чехова "Душечка:" "Любовь не менее свята, будет ли её предметом Кукин или Спиноза, Паскаль, Шиллер".

"Love is no less sacred whether its object is Kukin or Spinoza, Pascal, Schiller."


When Kukin dies, Olenka (the main character in "The Darling") receives the following telegram:


«Иван Петрович скончался сегодня скоропостижно сючала ждем распоряжений хохороны вторник».



At the end of the first poem in her collection Loza (“The Vine,” 1922), Tam rodina moya, gde voskhodil moy dukh... ("My native land is there, where my spirit rose..."), Sofia Parnok mentions Sugdeyskaya Sibilla (“the Sugdeyan Sybil;” Sugdeya is the Greek name of Sudak, a place in the Crimea):


Там родина моя, где восходил мой дух,
Как в том солончаке лоза; где откипела
Кровь трудная моя, и окрылился слух,
И немощи своей возрадовалось тело.

Там музыкой огня звучал мне треск цикад
И шорохи земли, надтреснутой от зноя,
Там поднесла ты мне прохладный виноград
К губам обугленным - причастие святое... 

И если то был сон, то, чтобы я
Сна незабвенного вовеки не забыла,
О, восприемница прекрасная моя,
Хотя во снах мне снись, Сугдейская Сибилла!


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). Russian for "swallow," lastochka also brings to mind Life Everlasting.


In the first stanza of his last poem, On This Day I Complete My Thirty-Sixth Year (1824), Byron says that he cannot be beloved:


'Tis time this heart should be unmoved,
Since others it has ceased to move:
Yet though I cannot be beloved,
Still let me love!


In his poem Kak v Gretsiyu Bayron - o, bez sozhalen'ya... ("Like Byron to Greece, o without regret..." 1927) G. Ivanov mentions blednyi ogon' (pale fire). Sofia Parnok’s review of G. Ivanov's collection Veresk (“Heather,” 1916) begins as follows:


Вода не подражает небу, отражая его в себе, она ничего не делает для того, чтобы отражать, — она только пуста и прозрачна.

Water does not imitate the sky, reflecting it in itself, it does not do anything in order to reflect – it is only empty and transparent.


At the beginning of his poem Shade mentions the reflected sky:


I was the shadow of the waxwing slain
By the false azure in the windowpane
I was the smudge of ashen fluff--and I
Lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky (ll. 1-4)


The surname Parnok brings to mind Arnor, the society sculptor and poet who used Fleur de Fyler's breasts and feet for his Lilith Calling Back Adam (note to Line 80).


The capital of Zembla, Onhava suggests “heaven.” In The Giaour (1813) Byron says:


Yes, Love indeed is light from heaven;
A spark of that immortal fire
With angels shared, by Alla given,
To lift from earth our low desire. (ll. 1132-1135)


Describing the King's escape from Zembla, Kinbote mentions the mainland of madness, Onhava and Yeslove:


The Bera Range, a two-hundred-mile-long chain of rugged mountains, not quite reaching the northern end of the Zemblan peninsula (cut off basally by an impassable canal from the mainland of madness), divides it into two parts, the flourishing eastern region of Onhava and other townships, such as Aros and Grindelwod, and the much narrower western strip with its quaint fishing hamlets and pleasant beach resorts. The two coasts are connected by two asphalted highways; the older one shirks difficulties by running first along the eastern slopes northward to Odevalla, Yeslove and Embla, and only then turning west at the northmost point of the peninsula; the newer one, an elaborate, twisting, marvelously graded road, traverses the range westward from just north of Onhava to Bregberg, and is termed in tourist booklets a "scenic drive." Several trails cross the mountains at various points and lead to passes none of which exceeds an altitude of five thousand feet; a few peaks rise some two thousand feet higher and retain their snow in midsummer; and from one of them, the highest and hardest, Mt. Glitterntin, one can distinguish on clear days, far out to the east, beyond the Gulf of Surprise, a dim iridescence which some say is Russia. (note to Line 149)


In his Commentary Kinbote mentions the Bishop of Yeslove who tried to persuade the King to take a wife:


John Shade and Sybil Swallow (see note to line 247) were married in 1919, exactly three decades before King Charles wed Disa, Duchess of Payn. Since the very beginning of his reign (1936-1958) representatives of the nation, salmon fishermen, non-union glaziers, military groups, worried relatives, and especially the Bishop of Yeslove, a sanguineous and saintly old man, had been doing their utmost to persuade him to give up his copious but sterile pleasures and take a wife. It was a matter not of morality but of succession. As in the case of some of his predecessors, rough alderkings who burned for boys, the clergy blandly ignored our young bachelor's pagan habits, but wanted him to do what an earlier and even more reluctant Charles had done: take a night off and lawfully engender an heir.

He saw nineteen-year-old Disa for the first time on the festive night of July the 5th, 1947, at a masked ball in his uncle's palace. She had come in male dress, as a Tirolese boy, a little knock-kneed but brave and lovely, and afterwards he drove her and her cousins (two guardsmen disguised as flowergirls) in his divine new convertible through the streets to see the tremendous birthday illumination, and the fackeltanz in the park, and the fireworks, and the pale upturned faces. He procrastinated for almost two years but was set upon by inhumanly eloquent advisors, and finally gave in. On the eve of his wedding he prayed most of the night locked up all alone in the cold vastness of the Onhava cathedral. Smug alderkings looked at him from the ruby-and-amethyst windows. Never had he so fervently asked God for guidance and strength (see further my note to lines 433-434).

After line 274 there is a false start in the draft:


I like my name: Shade, Ombre, almost "man"
In Spanish...


One regrets that the poet did not pursue this theme--and spare his reader the embarrassing intimacies that follow. (note to Line 275)


At the beginning of Canto Eleven of Don Juan Byron mentions Bishop Berkeley and says that he would shatter gladly all matters down to stone or lead, or adamant, to find the World a spirit:


When Bishop Berkeley said "there was no matter,"

       And proved it—'twas no matter what he said:

They say his system 'tis in vain to batter,

       Too subtle for the airiest human head;

And yet who can believe it! I would shatter

       Gladly all matters down to stone or lead,

Or adamant, to find the World a spirit,

And wear my head, denying that I wear it.


The stanza’s last line brings to mind the English title of VN’s novel Priglashenie na kazn’ (1935), Invitation to a Beheading. The epigraph to IB is from the invented French thinker Delalande:


Comme un fou se croit Dieu

nous nous croyons mortels.

Delalande. Discours sur les ombres


As a madman believes that he is God,

we believe that we are mortal.

Delalande. "Conversations of the Shades"


According to Shade, he likes his name: Shade, Ombre, almost "man" in Spanish...


Let me use this opportunity to draw your attention to the updated version of my previous post, "Ubit' il' ne ubit', good night for mothing, Ember & Krug in Bend Sinister; Mr Arshin in Ada" (https://thenabokovian.org/node/35646) 


5 years 3 months ago

Thanks, Alexey. I'm sorry I don't really follow your train of thought in relation to my post. 

Does ADAM/DAMA relate somehow to PF? It would work in BS with Adam Krug.  I'm not clear on how  Chekov's cows relate to PF or John Shade. Where you go from there I find difficult to follow - is this all connected?

Please "chekov up" my post of Feb. 20, "Mars, Gradus & visiting card in Pale Fire; Philip Rack, Captain Tapper & Arwin Birdfoot in Ada" (https://thenabokovian.org/node/35605). Btw., I forgot to say in it that, describing the reign of Charles the Beloved, Kinbote mentions Mars:


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)


Opasnyi sosed (“The Dangerous Neighbor,” 1811) is a narrative poem by Pushkin's uncle Vasiliy Lvovich. In Eugene Onegin (Five: XXVI: 9) Pushkin calls Buyanov (the main character in The Dangerous Neighbor), one of the guests at Tatiana’s name-day party, moy brat dvoyurodnyi (“my first cousin”). I suggest that Botkin (Shade’s, Kinbote’s and Gradus’ "real" name) is VN’s first cousin. 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 Six (XIII: 6-12) of EO Pushkin calls Tatiana and her sister Olga sosedki (fair neighbors) and compares Olga to vetrenaya nadezhda (giddy hope):


Решась кокетку ненавидеть,
Кипящий Ленский не хотел
Пред поединком Ольгу видеть,
На солнце, на часы смотрел,
Махнул рукою напоследок --
И очутился у соседок.
Он думал Олиньку смутить
Своим приездом поразить;
Не тут-то было: как и прежде,
На встречу бедного певца
Прыгнула Олинька с крыльца,
Подобно ветреной надежде,
Резва, беспечна, весела,
Ну точно так же, как была.


Having resolved to hate the flirt,

boiling Lenski did not wish

to see Olga before the duel.

The sun, his watch he kept consulting;

gave up at length –

and found himself at the fair neighbors’.

He thought he would embarrass Olinka,

confound her by his coming;’

but nothing of the sort: just as before

to meet the poor bard

Olinka skipped down from the porch,

akin to giddy hope,

spry, carefree, gay –

well, just the same as she had been.


In the preceding stanza (Six: XII: 3) of EO Pushkin calls Zaretski (Lenski’s second in his duel with Onegin) sosed velerechivyi (the grandiloquent neighbor). Duel' ("The Duel," 1891) and Sosedi ("The Neighbors," 1892) are the stories by Chekhov. Nadezhda is the name of the heroine in Chekhov's last story Nevesta ("The Betrothed," 1903). According to Kinbote, Shade listed Chekhov (whom Shestov called "a poet of hopelessness") among Russian humorists:


Speaking of the Head of the bloated Russian Department, Prof. Pnin, a regular martinet in regard to his underlings (happily, Prof. Botkin, who taught in another department, was not subordinated to that grotesque "perfectionist"): "How odd that Russian intellectuals should lack all sense of humor when they have such marvelous humorists as Gogol, Dostoevski, Chekhov, Zoshchenko, and those joint authors of genius Ilf and Petrov." (note to Line 172)


nevesta + Sakhalin + Adam/dama = Neva/vena/Vena + smekh + Stalin + ad/da + Aa

nevesta + odezhda = nevezhda + sto + eda

nevezhda + ad/da = nadezhda + Eve


vena - vein

Vena - Russian name of Vienna

smekh - laughter

ad - hell

da - yes

Aa - river in Kurland

odezhda - clothes

nevezhda - ignoramus

sto - 100

eda - food

nadezhda - hope


In his epigram on Count Vorontsov Pushkin calls Vorontsov polu-nevezhda (half-ignoramus) and says that there is a hope that he will be a full one. 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 Vorontsov, will be full again.


3 years 11 months ago

Aha! Now it makes sense:

I was revisiting this "MISPRINT = SPIRIT + MN" near anagram, and I at last saw what the problem was with the left-over "MN".


The text is:

"Life Everlasting – based on a misprint!" (poem 803)

I neglected to include the "a."

The anagram then is "a misprint" = SPIRIT MAN = "Life Everlasting"