Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0025216, Sun, 23 Mar 2014 14:44:33 -0300

Fairy Chess Variants in Pale Fire
"The reader will find in the present work scattered references to my
novels... The two-mover described in the last chapter has been republished in
Chess Problems by Lipton, Matthews & Rice (Faber, London 1963, p. 252). My
most amusing invention, however, is a "White-retracts-move" problem which I
dedicated to E. A. Znosko-Borovski, who published it, in the
nineteen-thirties (1934?), in the emigre daily Poslednie Novosti, Paris. *I
do not recall the position lucidly enough to notate it here, but perhaps
some lover of "fairy chess" (to which type of problem it belongs) will look
it up some day in one of those blessed libraries where old newspapers are
microfilmed, as all our memories should be."* [ ]
Vladimir Nabokov. Foreword to "Speak,Memory"

*Jansy Mello**:* I wish some of the Nabokovian chess experts would express
their ideas about the link between "Pale Fire" and "Fairy Chess." I'm
following Berndt-Peter Lange's hypothesis when he writes (quoting the
passage again): "Life is here seen in terms of a game of chess between
unknown players indulging in another one of its special forms, fairy chess,
whose rules allow imaginary pieces to make irregular moves: "... but there
they were, aloof and mute,/ Playing a game of worlds, promoting pawns/ To
ivory unicorns and ebon fauns..." (II. 818-829)"

It occurred to me that Charles Kinbote's variants (fairy chess is a
"variant" of chess,)* related to John Shade's verses might be explored as
being representative of a literary kind of "fairy move" ** in the context
and structure of JS-poem/CK-commentary.

One of these is particularly interesting:

*Line 316**:* The Toothwort White haunted our woods in May - "Frankly, I am
not certain what this means. My dictionary defines 'toothwort' as 'a kind
of cress' and the noun 'white' as "any pure white breed of farm animal or a
certain genus of lepidoptera." Little help is provided by the variant
written in the margin: "In woods Virginia Whites occurred in May"/ Folklore
characters, perhaps? Fairies? Or cabbage butterflies?

Or when CK offers indications about them, such as the "...Zemblan variants,
collected in 1798 by Hodinski, of the *Kongsskugg-sio* (*The Royal Mirror*),
an anonymous masterpiece of the twelfth century." His partial confession
about the role Shade's variants played in keeping alive his Zemblan dream,
indicates a few of them, "all in Canto One"... Which, among them, offers us
clues about PF's author(s); which are to be "discarded" when we follow this

" despite the control exercised upon my poet by a domestic censor and God
knows whom else, he has given the royal fugitive a refuge in the vaults of
the variants he has preserved; for in his draft as many as thirteen verses,
superb singing verses (given by me in note to lines 70, 79, and 130, all in
Canto One, which he obviously worked at with a greater degree of creative
freedom than he enjoyed afterwards) bear the specific imprint of my theme,
a minute but genuine star ghost of my discourse on Zembla and her
unfortunate king. [ ]What was that dim distant music, those vestiges of
color in the air? Here and there I discovered in it and especially,
especially in the invaluable variants, echoes and spangles of my mind, a
long ripplewake of my glory.[ ] I do not doubt that many of the statements
made in this work will be brushed aside by the guilty parties when it is
out. Mrs. Shade will not remember having been shown by her husband who
"showed her everything" one or two of the precious variants." [ ] "I... took
the manuscript out again, and for several days *wore* it, as it were,
having distributed the ninety-two index cards about my person, twenty in
the right-hand pocket of my coat, as many in the left-hand one, a batch of
forty against my right nipple and the twelve precious ones with variants in
my innermost left-breast pocket. I blessed my royal stars for having taught
myself wife work, for I now sewed up all four pockets. Thus with cautious
steps, among deceived enemies, I circulated, plated with poetry, armored
with rhymes, stout with another man's song, stiff with cardboard,
bullet-proof at long last."

Here are other excerpts related to this special entry in the INDEX:

*Variants:* the thieving sun and moon, *39-40;* planning the Primal Scene,
*57;* the Zemblan King's escape (*K*'s contribution, 8 lines), *70;* the
Edda (*K*'s contribution, 1 line), *79;* Luna's dead cocoon,
*90-93;*children finding a secret passage (
*K*'s contribution, 4 lines), *130;* poor old man Swift, poor -- (possible
allusion to *K*), *231;* Shade, *Ombre,* *275;* Virginia Whites, *316;* The
Head of Our Department, *377;* a nymphet, *413;* additional line from Pope
(possible allusion to *K*), *417;* Tanagra dust (a remarkable case of
foreknowledge), *596;* of this America, *609-614;* first two feet changed,
*629;* parody of Pope, *895-899;* a sorry age, and Social Novels, *922.*

Following their lead, I extracted specific lines from the indicated notes,
but will add them to the notes at the end of the posting. ***

By coincidence, or not, there are a few lines usually quoted in association
to "Pale Fire" that come from the chapter on "Exile" (?) in "Speak,
Memory," the same chapter in which he describes his putative "fairy
tactics" **** Perhaps the "ultrasophisticated" evaluation of fairy chess
and PF's variants is simply one such wild goose chase, deliberately
inserted in the novel for the enjoyment of a special group of readers
(unfortunately my ignorance of chess is an obstacle to fulfil my hunter's
instincts). I need Nabokovian help to enjoy this virtual (and misplaced)
novel variant reading of PF's story...


* - "In the context of chess
, *chess variants are called fantasy chess, heterodox chess or **fairy
chess* <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fairy_chess>. Some chess variants are
used only in problem composition and not in actual play.

** - In speaking about his love for composing "fairy chess" moves, which
he describes as a poethico-mathematical endeavor, Nabokov makes the
following description of this cerebral pastime: "Deceit, to the point of
diabolism, and originality, verging upon the grotesque, were my notions of
strategy; and although in matters of construction I tried to conform,
whenever possible, to classical rules, such as economy of force, unity,
weeding out of loose ends, I was always ready to sacrifice purity of form
to the exigencies of fantastic content, causing form to bulge and burst
like a sponge-bag containing a small furious devil." This seems to me as
good a description as any, not of his strategy in composing chess moves,
but of his strategy in composing novels. Review by *Juan* (March,2013)

*** - *Lines 39-40**:* Was close my eyes, etc. - These lines are
represented in the drafts by a variant reading:

"and home would haste my thieves,
the sun with stolen
the moon with leaves"
One cannot help recalling a passage in *Timon of Athens* (Act IV, Scene
3)...I am compelled for the purpose of quick citation to retranslate this
passage into English prose from a Zemblan poetical version of *Timon...*
"The sun is a
thief: she lures the sea
and robs it.
The moon is a thief:
he steals
his silvery light from the sun.
The sea is a
thief: it dissolves the moon."

*Line 57:* The phantom of my little daughter's swing - After this Shade
crossed out lightly the following lines in the draft: "The light is good;
the reading lamps, long-necked;/ All doors have keys. Your modern architect/
Is in collusion with psychanalysts:/When planning parents' bedrooms, he
insists/On lockless doors so that, when looking back,/The future patient of
the future quack/May find, all set for him, the Primal Scene."

*Line 70:* The new TV - After this, in the draft (dated July 3), come a
few unnumbered lines that may have been intended for some later parts of
the poem. They are not actually deleted but are accompanied by a question
mark in the margin and encircled with a wavy line encroaching upon some of
the letters:"There are events, strange happenings, that strike/ The mind as
emblematic. They are like/ Lost similes adrift without a string,/Attached
to nothing. Thus that northern king,/Whose desperate escape from
prison was/Brought
off successfully only because/Some forty of his followers that
him and aped his flight --"

*Line 79:* a preterist - Written against this in the margin of the draft
are two lines of which only the first can be deciphered. It reads: "The
evening is the time to praise the day"
I feel pretty sure that my friend was trying to incorporate here something
he and Mrs. Shade had heard me quote in my lighter-hearted moments, namely
a charming quatrain from our Zemblan counterpart of the Elder Edda, in an
anonymous English translation (Kirby's?): "The wise at nightfall praise the
The wife when she has passed
The ice when it is crossed,
the bride
When tumbled, and the horse
when tried."

*Lines 90-93**:* Her room, etc. - In the draft, instead of the final
text: ".....................her
room/We've kept intact. Her trivia for us/Retrace her style: the leaf
sarcophagus/(A Luna's dead and shriveled-up cocoon)" The reference is to
what my dictionary defines as "a large, tailed, pale green moth..."

*Line 130:* I never bounced a ball or swung a bat - Frankly I too never
excelled in soccer and cricket...Line 130 is followed in the draft by four
verses which Shade discarded in favor of the Fair Copy continuation (line
131 etc.). This false start goes: "As children playing in a castle find/ In
some old closet full of toys, behind/The animals and masks, a sliding
words heavily crossed out] a secret corridor --"
The comparison has remained suspended. Presumably our poet intended to
attach it to the account of his stumbling upon some mysterious truth in the
fainting fits of his boyhood. I cannot say how sorry I am that he rejected
these lines. I regret it not only because of their intrinsic beauty, which
is great, but also because the image they contain was suggested by
something Shade had from me. I have already alluded in the course of these
notes to the adventures of Charles Xavier, last King of Zembla, and to the
keen interest my friend took in the many stories I told him about that
king. The index card on which the variant has been preserved is dated July
4 and is a direct echo of our sunset rambles in the fragrant lanes of New
Wye and Dulwich

*Line 231**:* How ludicrous, etc. - A beautiful variant, with one curious
gap, branches off at this point in the draft (dated July 6):
"Strange Other World where all our still-born dwell,/And pets, revived, and
invalids, grown well,/And minds that died before arriving there:/Poor old
man Swift, poor --, poor Baudelaire"
What might that dash stand for? Unless Shade gave prosodic value to the mute
*e* in "Baudelaire,"...Among the names of celebrated poets, painters,
philosophers, etc., known to have become insane or to have sunk into senile
imbecility, we find many suitable ones. Was Shade confronted by too much
variety...Or was there something else -- some obscure intuition, some
prophetic scruple that prevented him from spelling out the name of an
eminent man who happened to be an intimate friend of his? ...Dark, disturbing

*Line 275*: After line 274 there is a false start in the draft: -
I like my name: Shade, *Ombre*, almost
In Spanish...
One regrets that the poet did not pursue this theme -- and spare his reader
the embarrassing intimacies that follow.

*Lines 376-377:* was said in English Litt to be - This is replaced in the
draft by the more significant -- and more tuneful -- variant: "the Head of
our Department deemed"

*Line 413**:* a nymph came pirouetting - In the draft there is the lighter
and more musical: "A nymphet pirouetted"

*Lines 417-421:* I went upstairs, etc. - The draft yields an interesting
"I fled upstairs at the first quawk of jazz/ And read a galley
proof: "Such verses as/ 'See the blind beggar dance, the cripple sing,/ The
sot a hero, lunatic a king'/ Smack of their heartless age." Then came your
This is, of course, from Pope's *Essay on Man*... In pondering the near past
I have never been able to ascertain retrospectively if he really had
"guessed my secret," as he once observed (see note to line 991).

*Line 596:* Points at the puddle in his basement room - We all know those
dreams in which something Stygian soaks through and Lethe leaks in the
dreary terms of defective plumbing. Following this line, there is a false
start preserved in the draft -- and I hope the reader will feel something of
the chill that ran down my long and supple spine when I discovered this
variant: "Should the dead murderer try to embrace/ His outraged victim whom
he now must face?/ Do objects have a soul? Or perish must /Alike great
temples and Tanagra dust?"
The last syllable of "Tanagra" and the first three letters of "dust" form
the name of the murderer whose *shargar* (puny ghost) the radiant spirit of
our poet was soon to face. "Simple chance!" the pedestrian reader may cry.
But let him try to see, as I have tried to see, how many such combinations
are possible and plausible. "Lenin*grad us*ed to be Petrograd?" "A pri*g
rad* (obs. past tense of read) *us*?" / This variant is so prodigious that
only scholarly discipline and a scrupulous regard for the truth prevented
me from inserting it here, and deleting four lines elsewhere (for example,
the weak lines 627-630) so as to preserve the length of the poem.

*Lines 609-614**:* Nor can one help, etc. - This passage is different in
the draft:
"Nor can one help the exile caught by death/ In a chance inn exposed
to the hot breath / Of this America, this humid night:/ Through slatted
blinds the stripes of colored light/ Grope for his bed -- magicians from
the past/ With philtered gems -- and life is ebbing fast."

*Line 629:* The fate of beasts - Above this the poet wrote and struck out:
"The madman's fate" //The ultimate destiny of madmen's souls has been
probed by many Zemblan theologians who generally hold the view that even
the most demented mind still contains within its diseased mass a sane basic
particle that survives death and suddenly expands...

*Lines 895-899:* The more I weigh... or this dewlap - Instead of these
facile and revolting lines, the draft gives: " I have a certain liking, I
admit,/ For Parody, that last resort of wit: 'In nature's strife when
fortitude prevails/ The victim falters and the victor fails.'/ Yes,
reader, Pope"

*Line 922:* held up by Our Cream - This is not quite exact. In the
advertisement to which it refers, the whiskers are held up by a bubbly
foam, not by a creamy substance.
After this line, instead of lines 923-930, we find the following,
lightly deleted, variant:
"All artists have been born in what they call
A sorry age; mine is the worst of all:
An age that thinks spacebombs and spaceships take
A genius with a foreign name to make,
When any jackass can rig up the stuff;
An age in which a pack of rogues can bluff
The selenographer; a comic age
That sees in Dr. Schweitzer a great sage."
Having struck this out, the poet tried another theme, but these
lines he also canceled: "England where poets flew the highest, now

Wants them to plod and Pegasus to plough;

Now the prosemongers of the Grubby Group,

The Message Man, the owlish Nincompoop

And all the Social Novels of our age

Leave but a pinch of coal dust on the page."

**** - " [I remember one particular problem I had been trying to compose
for months. There came a night when I managed at last to express that
particular theme. It was meant for the delectation of the very expert
solver. The unsophisticated might miss the point of the problem entirely,
and discover its fairly simple, "thetic" solution without having passed
through the pleasurable torments prepared for the sophisticated one. The
latter would start by falling for an illusory pattern of play based on a
fashionable avant-garde theme (exposing White's King to checks), which the
composer had taken the greatest pains to "plant" (with only one obscure
little move by an inconspicuous pawn to upset it). Having passed through
"antithetic" inferno the by now ultrasophisticated solver would reach the
simple key move (bishop to c2) as somebody on a wild goose chase might go
from Albany to New York by way of Vancouver, Eurasia and the Azores.] *The
pleasant experience of the roundabout route (strange landscapes, gongs,
tigers, exotic customs, the thrice-repeated circuit of a newly married
couple around the sacred fire of an earthen brazier) would amply reward him
for the misery of the deceit, and after that, his arrival at the simple key
move would provide him with a synthesis of poignant artistic delight*."

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