Vladimir Nabokov

Pale Fire and Fitzgerald allusion

By MARYROSS, 18 March, 2020

Here’s an interesting literary allusion I just accidentally discovered in Pale Fire.  I was reading F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Diamond Big as the Ritz,” a short story about a young man who is a guest at a preposterously fabulous remote diamond and gilt chateau. He awakes in the morning and after being undressed by a servant,


“…he felt the bed tip up slowly on its side – he began to roll, startled at first, in the direction of the wall, but when he reached the wall its drapery gave way, and sliding two yards farther down a fleecy incline he plumped gently into water the same temperature as his body.

            He looked about him. The runway or rollway on which he had arrived had folded gently back into place. He had been projected into another chamber and was sitting in a sunken bath with his head just above the level of the floor.”


Compare this to Prince Charles’ morning ablutions:


This had been his father's retreat and was still connected by a jolly chute in the wall with a round swimming pool in the hall below, so that the young Prince could start the day as his father used to start it by slipping open a panel beside his army cot and rolling into the shaft whence he whizzed down straight into bright water.


Alexey Sklyarenko

3 years 11 months ago

A similar bed is imagined by Salvator Waltz in VN's play Izobretenie Val'sa ("The Waltz Invention," 1938):


Гриб. Вам нужен дворец.

Вальс. Да, дворец. Отлично. Я люблю громадные, белые, солнечные здания. Вы для меня должны построить нечто сказочное, со сказочными удобствами. Колонны, фонтаны, окна в полнеба, хрустальные потолки... И вот еще, - давняя моя мечта... чтоб было такое приспособление, - не знаю, электрическое, что ли, - я в технике слаб, - словом, проснешься, нажмешь кнопку, и кровать тихо едет и везет тебя прямо к ванне... И еще я хочу, чтоб во всех стенах были краны с разными ледяными напитками... Все это я давно-давно заказал судьбе, - знаете, когда жил в душных, шумных, грязных углах... лучше не вспоминать. (Act Three)

Incidentally, at the end of VN's play Sobytie ("The Event," 1938) Troshcheykin mentions Pir vo vremya chumy ("Feast in the Times of Plague"). Which reminds me...


3 years 9 months ago

There is a similar set-up in the  Fellini film Giulietta degli Spiriti (1965) - used for marital romps.


C Kunin

Alexey Sklyarenko

3 years 9 months ago

In reply to by carolynkunin

In VN's play Izobretenie Val'sa ("The Waltz Invention," 1938) Salvator Waltz blows up the beautiful blue mountain that can be seen in the windows of the Minister of War in order to demonstrate the destructive power of a new machine called Telemort or Telethanasia:


Отдаленный взрыв страшной силы.
Полковник. Точно пороховой склад взорвался. Ай!
Министр. Что такой... Что такой...
Полковник. Гора! Взгляните на гору! Боже мой!
Министр. Ничего не вижу, какой-то туман, пыль...
Полковник. Нет, теперь видно. Отлетела верхушка!
Министр. Не может быть!
Вбегают Горб и Первый чиновник Герб.
Первый чиновник. Вы целы, ваше высокопревосходительство? Какой-то страшный взрыв! На улице паника. Ах, смотрите...
Министр. Вон! Убирайтесь вон! Не смейте смотреть в окно! Это военная тайна... Я... Мне... (Лишается чувств.)
Вбегают Второй чиновник и швейцар министерства с булавой.
Полковник. Министру дурно. Помогите его уложить удобнее! Принесите воды, мокрое полотенце...
Второй чиновник Бриг. Покушение! Министр ранен!
Полковник. Какое там ранен... Вы лучше взгляните на гору, на гору, на гору!
Вбегают трое людей.
Первый чиновник. Это не может быть, это обман зрения.
Безнадёжно звонит телефон.
Швейцар министерства Гриб. Горе, горе... Пришли времена бед великих и потрясений многих... Горе!
Первый чиновник. И как раз сегодня мои именины. 
Второй чиновник. Какая гора? Где гора? Полцарства за очки! (Act One)


In F. Scott Fitzgerald's story The Diamond as Big as the Ritz (1922) Kismine's father (the richest man in the world) chooses to blow up the mountain consisting of one solid diamond rather than leave it in the hands of others. Mr. Washington, his wife, his son and several faithful servants perish in the explosion. The story's main character is a teenager from the Mississippi town of Hades. It seems that the action in "The Waltz Invention" takes place in a dream that Lyubov, the wife of the portrait painter Troshcheykin in VN's play Sobytie ("The Event," 1938), dreams in the sleep of death after committing suicide on her dead son's fifth birthday (two days after her mother's fiftieth birthday).


At the end of F. Scott Fitzgerald's story Kismine compares the stars to diamonds:


After supper they folded up the table-cloth and spread their blankets for the night.

“What a dream it was,” Kismine sighed, gazing up at the stars. “How strange it seems to be here with one dress and a penniless fiance!

“Under the stars,” she repeated. “I never noticed the stars before. I always thought of them as great big diamonds that belonged to some one. Now they frighten me. They make me feel that it was all a dream, all my youth.”

“It was a dream,” said John quietly. “Everybody’s youth is a dream, a form of chemical madness.”

“How pleasant then to be insane!”

“So I’m told,” said John gloomily. “I don’t know any longer. At any rate, let us love for a while, for a year or so, you and me. That’s a form of divine drunkenness that we can all try. There are only diamonds in the whole world, diamonds and perhaps the shabby gift of disillusion. Well, I have that last and I will make the usual nothing of it.” He shivered. “Turn up your coat collar, little girl, the night’s full of chill and you’ll get pneumonia. His was a great sin who first invented consciousness. Let us lose it for a few hours.”

So wrapping himself in his blanket he fell off to sleep. (chapter XI)


At the end of Chekhov's play Dyadya Vanya ("Uncle Vanya," 1898) Sonya promises to her uncle that they will see the whole sky swarming with diamonds. The name and patronymic of Lyubov's mother, Antonina Pavlovna (a lady writer), clearly hint at Chekhov.


Save Me the Waltz (1932) is a novel by Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald, a semi-autobiographical account of her life and marriage to F. Scott Fitzgerald. The name Salvator means "savior."


3 years 9 months ago

The bed, the mountain, the explosion, the dream, the end of the dream, the savior:  All very similar motifs, it seems. I would add also the emptiness of the megalomania of wealth and power.

That's not the point. The point is "His was a great sin who first invented consciousness" (John T. Unger's words at the end of the Fitzgerald story).


In "The Event" Ryovshin (Lyubov's lover) mentions grekh (a sin) when Lyubov tells him that she never loved him:


Любовь. Мне всё совершенно, совершенно безразлично. Если бы вы все знали, до чего мне безразлично... А живёт он где, всё там же?

Рёвшин. Да, по-видимому. Ты меня сегодня не любишь.

Любовь. Милый мой, я тебя никогда не любила. Никогда. Понял?

Рёвшин. Любзик, не говори так. Грех! (Act One)


He (or she) who commits suicide is also a sinner. In VN's novel Pale Fire (1962) Kinbote (Shade’s mad commentator who imagines that he is Charles the Beloved, the last self-exiled king of Zembla) writes:


We who burrow in filth every day may be forgiven perhaps the one sin that ends all sins. (note to Line 493: She took her poor young life)


Shade = Hades (John T. Unger's home town)

Unger + hombre = hunger + Ombre


Hombre is Spanish for "man." According to Shade, he likes his name: Shade, Ombre, almost 'man' in Spanish. At the end of his Commentary Kinbote quotes a Zemblan saying:


Many years ago - how many I would not care to say - I remember my Zemblan nurse telling me, a little man of six in the throes of adult insomnia: "Minnamin, Gut mag alkan, Pern dirstan" (my darling, God makes hungry, the Devil thirsty). Well, folks, I guess many in this fine hall are as hungry and thirsty as me, and I'd better stop, folks, right here. (note to Line 1000)


Btw., Bessonnitsa rebyonka ("A Child's Insomnia," 1904) is a poem by Nik. T-o ("Mr. Nobody," I. Annenaki's penname).


The "real" name of Hazel Shade (the poet's daughter who took her poor young life) seems to be Nadezhda Botkin. In "The Event" Antonina Pavlovna tells Eleonora Shnap (Lyubov's midwife) that she has two daughters, Lyubov (Love) and Vera (Faith), but, alas, no Nadezhda (Hope):


Входит Элеонора Шнап: фиолетовое платье, пенсне.

Антонина Павловна. Как любезно, что вы зашли. Я, собственно, просила не разглашать, но, по-видимому, скрыть невозможно.

Элеонора Шнап. К сожаленью, об этом уже говорит вес, вес город.

Антонина Павловна. Именно, к сожалению! Очень хорошо. Я сама понимаю, что этим нечего гордиться: только ближе к могиле. Это моя дочь Вера. Любовь, вы, конечно, знаете, моего зятя тоже, а Надежды у меня нет.

Элеонора Шнап. Божмой! Неужели безнадежно?

Антонина Павловна. Да, ужасно безнадежная семья. (Смеётся.) А до чего мне хотелось иметь маленькую Надю с зелёными глазками. (Act Two)


Eleonora Shnap seems to be one of the three Fates (two other Fates in "The Event" are Mme Vagabundov, Troshcheykin's model, and Marfa, the old servant woman). In his Stikhi, sochinyonnye noch'yu vo vremya bessonnitsy ("Verses Composed at Night during the Insomnia," 1830) Pushkin mentions mrak i son dokuchnyi (darkness and bothersome sleep) and Parki bab'ye lepetanye (Fate's womanish babble):


Мне не спится, нет огня;
Всюду мрак и сон докучный.
Ход часов лишь однозвучный
Раздаётся близ меня,
Парки бабье лепетанье,
Спящей ночи трепетанье,
Жизни мышья беготня…
Что тревожишь ты меня?
Что ты значишь, скучный шёпот?
Укоризна, или ропот
Мной утраченного дня?
От меня чего ты хочешь?
Ты зовёшь или пророчишь?
Я понять тебя хочу,
Смысла я в тебе ищу…


The characters in "The Waltz Invention" include the reporter Son (Trance in the English version) who runs errands for Waltz and whom a woman can play. In Russian son means "sleep" and "dream."


3 years 9 months ago

Alexey, I think you are right about the main theme "His was a great sin who first invented consciousness" (for both "Diamond as Big as the Ritz" and "Walz Invention"). Pale Fire is basically about consciousness, too, but I think oriented more towards transcendence as the main theme. The trope of the "mechanical" vs. "conscious" is also in PF with the wind-up toy vs the living gardener.

In "The Waltz Invention" Waltz is upset by the toy automobile he sees on the table:


Вальс. ...можно спросить вас, Гриб, почему вы держите на столе этот игрушечный автомобиль? Странно...
Гриб. Я ничем не играю, вот могут подтвердить...
Вальс. Так вы его сейчас спрятали под стол. Я отлично его видел. Мне даже показалось, что это именно тот, красный, с обитым кузовком, который у меня был в детстве. Где он? Вы только что катали его по столу.
Гриб. Да нет, клянусь...
Голоса. Никакой игрушки нет... Гриб не врёт. Честное слово...
Вальс. Значит, мне почудилось. (Act Three)


3 years 9 months ago

Oh, that's right! Interesting...I don't have a copy of the play on hand, there are probably more similarities, I'd bet.  


Northrup Frye claimed that Western literature is based on the Biblical tradition: Death & Resurrection, Sin & Repentance, Paradise & Exile, etc. He traces these themes through degrees of displacement from Mythical towards realism and then to Ironic. The Ironic tends to return to the Mythical. Nabokov's work is clearly ironic and despite his disavowal of general ideas, etc. it seems to me all of his work has this ironic/mythic displacement. The trope of insanity vs enlightenment (i.e. losing ego to another level of consciousness) is prevalent in PF and the Waltz Invention (also The Defense, ITAB, Bend Sinister, etc.)

Diamond Big as the Ritz is clearly an "exile from Paradise" bitter awakening-to-consciousness theme, as is, I think (will have to re-read) Waltz InventionPale Fire goes further into the Jungian "Hero's Journey" towards the "Death and Resurrection" theme. 

As part of my independent thesis on Jungian influences in PF, I am currently writing a paper on the gardener, "BALTHASAR, Prince of Loam: Pale Fire's Dark Savior - Mechanical Toy or Mystical Man?"  The following is from a summary:


According to Jung, there are five main archetypes of the psyche: the ego, persona, shadow, anima, and self. Insane and solipsistic Kinbote is the Ego writ large. John Shade, who’s ‘being constituted a mask,’ is the persona, the idealized self-image—Kinbote, as insecure and inflated ego, wants to appropriate his glory. Bestial Gradus, as noted, is the shadow, the repressed unconscious, as are all the other Zemblan Shadows. The anima, the contra-sexual archetype, appears in various guises: Sybil as major antagonistic anima, Disa as neglected soul, Hazel as rejected self-image, and Fleur as alluring anima extraordinaire. Jung claimed that the persona was usually the first archetype to confront, then the shadow, but the anima was the main hindrance to realizing the self, the inner true identity. Balthasar, we have already identified as the self.

Kinbote, as ego, is the primary character of Pale Fire. According to Jung, it is the ego that must confront and assimilate the archetypes for individuation. This is why Kinbote has the “key”; as so often happens in myth and fairy tales, the hero discovers eventually that he has always had the key, or special talisman, with him. The key that opened the door to the subterranean tunnel in the Zemblan castle is the key that re-activates the threatening unconscious. Kinbote’s attention is brought to the key by a glinting ‘spark.’ This precipitates Kinbote’s ‘Hero’s Journey’ of individuation, allowing in the end for the saving grace of the munificent, higher self. That is why the Negro gardener Balthasar, as emblematic of the ontological self, overcomes the ‘mechanical’ shadow, Gradus. It is why Kinbote calls the gardener ‘our savior.’(C, 224)

One might wonder: Why would Kinbote’s key to the tunnel be the key to Shade’s toy? Kinbote, when he sees Shade’s momento mori, says, ‘…the rusty clockwork shall work again, for I have the key’ (C, 107). Allegorically, why would the key to Kinbote’s unconscious be the key to Shade’s transcendence (death)? We are about to answer the questions posed at the beginning of this paper: Because this only makes sense if they are actually the same person (as are all the character-archetypes) – Botkin.

Young John Shade (Botkin) witnesses his mechanical toy disappear under the bed. Presumably, the paradox of a mechanical boy vs. his own living being jolts him into an experience of cosmic consciousness. The ecstasy and allure of this inexpressible event were too much for the child, so he shamefully resigns it to his unconscious. On the antithetic allegoric level, Botkin, as a boy, evinces the high qualities of the psyche, including a preternatural mysticism. This is Jung’s archetype of the child, that is, of innocence before the ego or persona emerge. The innocence of the divine child is akin to the self. When young Botkin feels shame from his ecstatic experience, denies it, and opts for ‘normalcy’ and conformity, that is the emergence of the persona, Shade.  It is not until Botkin/Kinbote (ego) sees the memento mori in Shade’s basement (i.e. Shade’s unconscious), along with a handless clock (the unconscious is “timeless”) that Kinbote/Botkin realizes that he has the key to resurrect the transcendent experience of the divine self again. Though deeply buried, it has always been with him.

Kinbote’s first intimation of the presence of the self happens a little earlier, with the introduction of Balthasar into his life. The scene in Shade’s basement takes place ‘[o]ne evening in May or June’ (C, 106). Balthasar moves in with Kinbote just after Easter, the symbol of resurrection. Kinbote immediately feels relief from his angst; ‘I am happy to report that soon after Easter my fears disappeared never to return. Into Alphina’s or Betty’s room another lodger moved, Balthasar, Prince of Loam, as I dubbed him…’ (C, 76) The equivalency of the mechanical toy and the ontologic self does not become fully manifest until the day that Shade dies and Gradus is dealt a devastating blow. Archetypally, the idealized self-image (persona) is destroyed when faced with the rejected shadow, and the dark (Gradus) is overcome by the light (Balthasar). This is not yet the end of the journey for Botkin/Kinbote. In the Jungian paradigm, confronting the anima is the final feat for individuation. The surprising outcome of the confrontation with Sybil I treat in my paper, ‘Sybil: Black Widow Spider at the Center of PALE FIRE’s Web of Sense.’

Again, the self is not the ego-self, but a symbol-producing archetype of totality and wholeness within the mind. The goal of Jungian individuation is for the ego to become increasingly aware of aspects of the self. The self includes the conscious, unconscious and superconscious, and is ultimately transcendent to all. The self itself is unknowable in its totality, but can be apprehended through symbols of totality, such as the uroboros mandala, or a divine personage, such as Christ, or in the alembic as the ‘stone.’ Jung saw the self as equivalent to the end product of the alchemical process – the gold, the stone, the treasure, etc. This inner divinity was considered like a dark brother of Christ – earthy, but spiritual, like the redeemed Mercurius or the Moor. Another epithet of the inner being was the ‘divine spark.’ Although Botkin is the individual whose mind contains these particular character-archetypes, Botkin is not himself identical with Balthasar. Balthasar is a symbol produced within Botkin’s mind of his inner self-archetype. The ontologic self remains the unknowable, uncontainable, divine spark, the pale fire, as it were, of the blaze of transcendent divinity.