automaton, IPH & ICI in Pale Fire

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Fri, 03/20/2020 - 09:12

Describing two methods of composing, method A and method B, John Shade (the poet in VN’s novel Pale Fire, 1962) mentions the automaton:


In method B the hand supports the thought,

The abstract battle is concretely fought.

The pen stops in mid-air, then swoops to bar

A canceled sunset or restore a star,

And thus it physically guides the phrase

Toward faint daylight through the inky maze.


But method A is agony! The brain
Is soon enclosed in a steel cap of pain.
A muse in overalls directs the drill
Which grinds and which no effort of the will
Can interrupt, while the automaton
Is taking off what he has just put on
Or walking briskly to the corner store
To buy the paper he has read before. (ll. 847-860)


The automaton mentioned by Shade brings to mind Avtomaticheskie stikhi (“Automatic Verses,” 1938), a posthumous collection of poetry by Boris Poplavski (1903-35). In his autobiography Speak, Memory (1951) VN mentions Poplavski and quotes a line from his poem Morella I:


I met many other émigré Russian authors. I did not meet Poplavski who died young, a far violin among near balalaikas.


Go to sleep, O Morella, how awful are aquiline lives


His plangent tonalities I shall never forget, nor shall I ever forgive myself the ill-tempered review in which I attacked him for trivial faults in his unfledged verse. I met wise, prim, charming Aldanov; decrepit Kuprin, carefully carrying a bottle of vin ordinaire through rainy streets; Ayhenvald—a Russian version of Walter Pater—later killed by a trolleycar; Marina Tsvetaev, wife of a double agent, and poet of genius, who, in the late thirties, returned to Russia and perished there. But the author that interested me most was naturally Sirin. He belonged to my generation. Among the young writers produced in exile he was the loneliest and most arrogant one. Beginning with the appearance of his first novel in 1925 and throughout the next fifteen years, until he vanished as strangely as he had come, his work kept provoking an acute and rather morbid interest on the part of critics. Just as Marxist publicists of the eighties in old Russia would have denounced his lack of concern with the economic structure of society, so the mystagogues of émigré letters deplored his lack of religious insight and of moral preoccupation. Everything about him was bound to offend Russian conventions and especially that Russian sense of decorum which, for example, an American offends so dangerously today, when in the presence of Soviet military men of distinction he happens to lounge with both hands in his trouser pockets. Conversely, Sirin’s admirers made much, perhaps too much, of his unusual style, brilliant precision, functional imagery and that sort of thing. Russian readers who had been raised on the sturdy straightforwardness of Russian realism and had called the bluff of decadent cheats, were impressed by the mirrorlike angles of his clear but weirdly misleading sentences and by the fact that the real life of his books flowed in his figures of speech, which one critic has compared to “windows giving upon a contiguous world … a rolling corollary, the shadow of a train of thought.” Across the dark sky of exile, Sirin passed, to use a simile of a more conservative nature, like a meteor, and disappeared, leaving nothing much else behind him than a vague sense of uneasiness. (Chapter Fourteen, 2)


Morella (1835) is a short story in the Gothic horror genre by E. A. Poe. Here is its plot summary:


An unnamed narrator marries Morella, a woman with great scholarly knowledge who delves into studies of the German philosophers Fichte and Schelling, dealing with the question of identity. Morella spends her time in bed reading and teaching her husband. Realizing her physical deterioration, her husband, the narrator, becomes frightened and wishes for his wife's death and eternal peace. Eventually, Morella dies in childbirth proclaiming: "I am dying. But within me is a pledge of that affection... which thou didst feel for me, Morella. And when my spirit departs shall the child live."

As the daughter gets older the narrator notices she bears an uncanny resemblance to her mother, but he refuses to give the child a name. By her tenth birthday the resemblance to Morella is frightening. Her father decides to have her baptized to release any evil from her, but this event brings the mother's soul back into her daughter. At the ceremony, the priest asks the daughter's name, to which the narrator replies "Morella". Immediately, the daughter calls out, "I am here!" and dies. The narrator himself bears her body to the tomb and finds no trace of the first Morella where he lays the second.


In Chapter Three of his poem Shade describes IPH (a lay Institute of Preparation for the Hereafter) and mentions a widower who lost two wives:


Time means succession, and succession, change:

Hence timelessness is bound to disarrange

Schedules of sentiment. We give advice

To widower. He has been married twice:

He meets his wives; both loved, both loving, both

Jealous of one another. Time means growth.

And growth means nothing in Elysian life.

Fondling a changeless child, the flax-haired wife

Grieves on the brink of a remembered pond

Full of a dreamy sky. And, also blond,

But with a touch of tawny in the shade,

Feet up, knees clasped, on a stone balustrade

The other sits and raises a moist gaze

Toward the blue impenetrable haze. (ll. 567-580)


Lecturing at IPH, Shade "tore apart the fantasies of Poe." Shade’s IPH brings to mind If, a distressing monosyllable mentioned by Psyche Zenobia, the narrator and main character of E. A. Poe's story A Predicament (1838):


Leaning upon the arm of the gallant Pompey, and attended at a respectable distance by Diana, I proceeded down one of the populous and very pleasant streets of the now deserted Edina. On a sudden, there presented itself to view a church- a Gothic cathedral- vast, venerable, and with a tall steeple, which towered into the sky. What madness now possessed me? Why did I rush upon my fate? I was seized with an uncontrollable desire to ascend the giddy pinnacle, and then survey the immense extent of the city. The door of the cathedral stood invitingly open. My destiny prevailed. I entered the ominous archway. Where then was my guardian angel?- if indeed such angels there be. If! Distressing monosyllable! what world of mystery, and meaning, and doubt, and uncertainty is there involved in thy two letters! I entered the ominous archway! I entered; and, without injury to my orange-colored auriculas, I passed beneath the portal, and emerged within the vestibule. Thus it is said the immense river Alfred passed, unscathed, and unwetted, beneath the sea.


At the beginning of E. A. Poe's story How to Write a Blackwood Article (1838) Psyche Zenobia says that her name means in Greek "the soul" and sometimes "a butterfly:"


I presume everybody has heard of me. My name is the Signora Psyche Zenobia. This I know to be a fact. Nobody but my enemies ever calls me Suky Snobbs. I have been assured that Suky is but a vulgar corruption of Psyche, which is good Greek, and means "the soul" (that's me, I'm all soul) and sometimes "a butterfly," which latter meaning undoubtedly alludes to my appearance in my new crimson satin dress, with the sky-blue Arabian mantelet, and the trimmings of green agraffas, and the seven flounces of orange-colored auriculas.


At the end of his poem Shade mentions a Vanessa butterfly that wheels in the low sun and settles on the sand:


A dark Vanessa with a crimson band

Wheels in the low sun, settles on the sand

And shows its ink-blue wingtips flecked with white.

And through the flowing shade and ebbing light

A man, unheedful of the butterfly -

Some neighbor's gardener, I guess - goes by

Trundling an empty barrow up the lane. (ll. 993-999)


Shade’s poem is almost finished, when the author is killed by Gradus. The poet’s murderer whom Kinbote calls "a dummy pursuing another dummy," Jakob Gradus resembles an automaton. In his note to (the unwritten) Line 1000 Kinbote suggests that Gradus's permanent address should have been Institute for the Criminal Insane:


The gardener took the glass of water I had placed near a flowerpot beside the porch steps and shared it with the killer, and then accompanied him to the basement toilet, and presently the police and the ambulance arrived, and the gunman gave his name as Jack Grey, no fixed abode, except the Institute for the Criminal Insane, ici, good dog, which of course should have been his permanent address all along, and which the police thought he had just escaped from.


When capitalized, ici (French for "here, at this place") becomes the acronym of "the Institute for the Criminal Insane" and brings to mind Shade's IPH. In E. A. Poe's story The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether (1845) the action takes place in a Mason de Santé, or private Mad-House, in South France. It seems that Kinbote writes his Commentary in a lunatic asylum.


Kinbote’s black gardener (Balthazar, Prince of Loam) who goes by trundling an empty barrow up the lane brings to mind Shade’s clockwork toy (a tin wheelbarrow pushed by a tin boy) mentioned by Shade in Canto One of his poem:


                                       A thread of subtle pain,

Tugged at by playful death, released again,

But always present, ran through me. One day,

When I'd just turned eleven, as I lay

Prone on the floor and watched a clockwork toy -

A tin wheelbarrow pushed by a tin boy -

Bypass chair legs and stray beneath the bed,

There was a sudden sunburst in my head. (ll. 139-146)


According to Kinbote, Shade kept this clockwork toy as a kind of memento mori:


By a stroke of luck I have seen it! One evening in May or June I dropped in to remind my friend about a collection of pamphlets, by his grandfather, an eccentric clergyman, that he had once said was stored in the basement. I found him gloomily waiting for some people (members of his department, I believe, and their wives) who were coming for a formal dinner. He willingly took me down into the basement but after rummaging among piles of dusty books and magazines, said he would try to find them some other time. It was then that I saw it on a shelf, between a candlestick and a handless alarm clock. He, thinking I might think it had belonged to his dead daughter, hastily explained it was as old as he. The boy was a little Negro of painted tin with a keyhole in his side and no breadth to speak of, just consisting of two more or less fused profiles, and his wheelbarrow was now all bent and broken. He said, brushing the dust off his sleeves, that he kept it as a kind of memento mori--he had had a strange fainting fit one day in his childhood while playing with that toy. We were interrupted by Sybil's voice calling from above; but never mind, now the rusty clockwork shall work again, for I have the key. (note to Line 143)


Part Three of Lev Shestov's book Potestas Clavium (“Power of the Keys,” 1923) begins with an essay entitled Memento Mori. In the last stanza of his poem Neznakomka (“The Unknown Woman,” 1906) Alexander Blok says that a treasure lies in his soul and the key belongs to him alone:


В моей душе лежит сокровище,
И ключ поручен только мне!
Ты право, пьяное чудовище!
Я знаю: истина в вине.

A treasure lies in my soul,
and the key is entrusted to me alone!
You are correct, you drunken fiend!
I know: in wine is truth.


Shade’s mad commentator who imagines that he is Charles the Beloved, the last self-exiled king of Zembla, 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”). Dvoynik (“The Double”) is a short novel (1846) by Dostoevski and a poem (1909) by Blok. According to G. Ivanov, to his question “does a sonnet need a coda” Blok replied that he did not know what a coda is. At the end of his poem Nakipevshaya za gody… (“Accumulated over the years…” 1957) G. Ivanov (the author of an offensive article on Sirin in Numbers, a Paris émigré review) mentions rytsari prilich’ya (the knights of decorum), well-behaved A and B:


Накипевшая за годы
Злость, сводящая с ума,
Злость к поборникам свободы,
Злость к ревнителям ярма,
Злость к хамью и джентльменам -
Разномастным специменам
Той же "мудрости земной",
К миру и стране родной.

Злость? Вернее, безразличье
К жизни, к вечности, к судьбе.
Нечто кошкино иль птичье,
Отчего не по себе
Верным рыцарям приличья,
Благонравным А и Б,
Что уселись на трубе.


Accumulated over the years

Resentment driving one mad,

Resentment to the champions of freedom,

Resentment to the adherents of yoke,

Resentment to louts and to gentlemen –

Differently colored specimens

Of the same “mundane wisdom,”

To the world and to one’s native land.


Resentment? Rather, indifference

To life, to eternity, to fate.

Something feline or avian

That makes the faithful knights of decorum,

Well-behaved A and B

That sat in the tree

Not quite themselves.


The reference is to a well-known Russian riddle that goes in translation: “A and B sat in the tree. A had fallen, B was stolen. What's remaining in the tree?” The answer is “and.” Russian for “and,” i is Ivanov’s initial. When capitalized, i becomes the English first person pronoun. I is the first word of the first line of Shade’s poem (and of IPH).


In his poem Net, ne spryatat'sya mne ot velikoy mury... ("No, I can't hide myself from the great nonsense..." 1931) Mandelshtam mentions two streetcars, A and B (“We'll take streetcar A and streetcar B / You and I, to see who dies first”):


Нет, не спрятаться мне от великой муры
За извозчичью спину — Москву,
Я трамвайная вишенка страшной поры
И не знаю, зачем я живу.


Мы с тобою поедем на «А» и на «Б»
Посмотреть, кто скорее умрёт,
А она то сжимается, как воробей,
То растёт, как воздушный пирог.


И едва успевает грозить из угла —
Ты как хочешь, а я не рискну!
У кого под перчаткой не хватит тепла,
Чтоб объездить всю курву Москву.


In his poem Ot lyogkoy zhizni my soshli s uma... ("We went out of our minds with the easy life..." 1913) Mandelshtam predicts that the first to die will be the one with the anxious red mouth and the forelock covering his eyes (a recognizable portrait of G. Ivanov, 1894-1958):


Мы смерти ждём, как сказочного волка,
Но я боюсь, что раньше всех умрёт
Тот, у кого тревожно-красный рот
И на глаза спадающая чёлка.

We wait for death, like the fairytale wolf,
But I'm afraid that the first to die will be
The one with the anxious red mouth
And the forelock covering his eyes.


In their old age Van Veen and Ada Veen (the two main characters in VN’s novel Ada, 1969) wonder who of them dies first:


By the way, who dies first?
Ada. Van. Ada. Vaniada. Nobody. Each hoped to go first, so as to concede, by implication, a longer life to the other, and each wished to go last, in order to spare the other the anguish or worries, of widowhood. One solution would be for you to marry Violet.
‘Thank you. J’ai tâté de deux tribades dans ma vie, ça suffit. Dear Emile says "terme qu’on évite d’employer." How right he is!’ (5.6)


On the last day of their long lives Van and Ada translate Shade's poem into Russian:


She insisted that if there were no future, then one had the right of making up a future, and in that case one’s very own future did exist, insofar as one existed oneself. Eighty years quickly passed — a matter of changing a slide in a magic lantern. They had spent most of the morning reworking their translation of a passage (lines 569-572) in John Shade’s famous poem:


...Sovetï mï dayom

Kak bït’ vdovtsu: on poteryal dvuh zhyon;

On ih vstrechaet — lyubyashchih, lyubimïh,

Revnuyushchih ego drug k druzhke...


(...We give advice

To widower. He has been married twice:

He meets his wives, both loved, both loving, both

Jealous of one another...)


Van pointed out that here was the rub — one is free to imagine any type of hereafter, of course: the generalized paradise promised by Oriental prophets and poets, or an individual combination; but the work of fancy is handicapped — to a quite hopeless extent — by a logical ban: you cannot bring your friends along — or your enemies for that matter — to the party. The transposition of all our remembered relationships into an Elysian life inevitably turns it into a second-rate continuation of our marvelous mortality. Only a Chinaman or a retarded child can imagine being met, in that Next-Installment World, to the accompaniment of all sorts of tail-wagging and groveling of welcome, by the mosquito executed eighty years ago upon one’s bare leg, which has been amputated since then and now, in the wake of the gesticulating mosquito, comes back, stomp, stomp, stomp, here I am, stick me on.

She did not laugh; she repeated to herself the verses that had given them such trouble. The Signy brain-shrinkers would gleefully claim that the reason the three ‘boths’ had been skipped in the Russian version was not at all, oh, not at all, because cramming three cumbersome amphibrachs into the pentameter would have necessitated adding at least one more verse for carrying the luggage.

‘Oh, Van, oh Van, we did not love her enough. That’s whom you should have married, the one sitting feet up, in ballerina black, on the stone balustrade, and then everything would have been all right — I would have stayed with you both in Ardis Hall, and instead of that happiness, handed out gratis, instead of all that we teased her to death!’ (5.6)


The Signy brain-shrinkers and quel livre, mon Dieu, mon Dieu (Dr. Lagosse's words about Van's almost finished book) bring to mind Dr. Froid or Froit from Signy-Mondieu-Mondieu:


Being unwilling to suffer another relapse after this blessed state of perfect mental repose, but knowing it could not last, she did what another patient had done in distant France, at a much less radiant and easygoing ‘home.’ A Dr Froid, one of the administerial centaurs, who may have been an émigré brother with a passport-changed name of the Dr Froit of Signy-Mondieu-Mondieu in the Ardennes or, more likely, the same man, because they both came from Vienne, Isère, and were only sons (as her son was), evolved, or rather revived, the therapistic device, aimed at establishing a ‘group’ feeling, of having the finest patients help the staff if ‘thusly inclined.’ Aqua, in her turn, repeated exactly clever Eleonore Bonvard’s trick, namely, opting for the making of beds and the cleaning of glass shelves. The astorium in St Taurus, or whatever it was called (who cares — one forgets little things very fast, when afloat in infinite non-thingness) was, perhaps, more modem, with a more refined desertic view, than the Mondefroid bleakhouse horsepittle, but in both places a demented patient could outwit in one snap an imbecile pedant. (1.3)


Describing the torments of poor mad Aqua (Marina's twin sister), Van mentions the gradual, gradual shade (a phrase that seems to combine Shade and his murderer):


The purity of the running water’s enunciation grew in proportion to the nuisance it made of itself. It spoke soon after she had listened, or been exposed, to somebody talking — not necessarily to her — forcibly and expressively, a person with a rapid characteristic voice, and very individual or very foreign phrasal intonations, some compulsive narrator’s patter at a horrible party, or a liquid soliloquy in a tedious play, or Van’s lovely voice, or a bit of poetry heard at a lecture, my lad, my pretty, my love, take pity, but especially the more fluid and flou Italian verse, for instance that ditty recited between knee-knocking and palpebra-lifting, by a half-Russian, half-dotty old doctor, doc, toc, ditty, dotty, ballatetta, deboletta… tu, voce sbigottita… spigotty e diavoletta… de lo cor dolente… con ballatetta va… va… della strutta, destruttamente… mente… mente… stop that record, or the guide will go on demonstrating as he did this very morning in Florence a silly pillar commemorating, he said, the ‘elmo’ that broke into leaf when they carried stone-heavy-dead St Zeus by it through the gradual, gradual shade; or the Arlington harridan talking incessantly to her silent husband as the vineyards sped by, and even in the tunnel (they can’t do this to you, you tell them, Jack Black, you just tell them…). (1.3)


In his essay on Tolstoy in “The Silhouettes of Russian Writers” Ayhenvald compares Tolstoy’s humor to that of Zeus and says that nature itself would joke like that:


Строгий рабочий духа, он даже в минуты своего юмора - редкие, но ценные - не обменивается улыбкой со своими слушателями; даже и тогда остаётся он как-то одинок, и в самой шутке его есть глубина и сосредоточенность. Так шутила бы сама природа; это - юмор Зевса.


According to Kinbote, in a conversation with him Shade mentioned 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)


When he says (in Canto One of his poem) "other men die, but I am not another, therefore I'll not die," Shade turns inside out the syllogism that in Tolstoy's story Smert' Ivana Ilyicha ("The Death of Ivan Ilyich," 1886) Ivan Ilyich read in Kiesewetter's "Logic." In his essay "On Annenski" Hodasevich compares Innokentiy Annenski to Tolstoy's hero, quotes this syllogism and mentions Annenski's penname Nik. T-o ("Mr. Nobody"). In Pushkin's little tragedy "Mozart and Salieri" (1830) Salieri says that he cut music like a corpse, with algebra checked up harmony and Mozart uses the phrase nikto b (none would). Nikto b is Botkin (Shade's, Kinbote's and Gradus' "real" name) in reverse. In VN's story Usta k ustam ("Lips to Lips," 1931), a satire on the editors of Chisla ("Numbers"), Ilya Borisovich wants to sign his novel "I. Annenski" (a pseudonym chosen after the name of his late wife).


The essays in Annenski's Kniga otrazheniy ("The Book of Reflections," 1906) include Yumor Lermontova ("Lermontov's Humor"). In VN's novel Pnin (1957) Pnin mentions Lermontov and says that he cannot understand American humour even when he is happy:


'Lermontov,' said Pnin, lifting two fingers, 'has expressed everything about mermaids in only two poems. I cannot understand American humour even, when I am happy, and I must say--' He removed his glasses with trembling hands, elbowed the magazine aside, and, resting his head on his arm, broke into muffled sobs. (Chapter Two, 6)


In his novel VN mentions workmen who came and started to drill holes in the street:


With age, however, Pnin had become choosy. Pretty fixtures no longer sufficed. Waindell was a quiet townlet, and Waindellville, in a notch of the hills, was yet quieter; but nothing was quiet enough for Pnin. There had been, at the start of his life here, that studio in the thoughtfully furnished College Home for Single Instructors, a very nice place despite certain gregarious drawbacks ('Ping-pong, Pnin?' 'I don't any more play at games of infants'), until workmen came and started to drill holes in the street--Brainpan Street, Pningrad--and patch them up again, and this went on and on, in fits of shivering black zigzags and stunned pauses, for weeks, and it did not seem likely they would ever find again the precious tool they had entombed by mistake. (Chapter Three, 1)


According to Kinbote, his uncle Conmal (Zemblan translator of Shakespeare) was steadily drilling through the ages:


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 proves 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 957)


"Pningrad" brings to mind "Leningradus" (as Kinbote calls Shade's murderer):


All this is as it should be; the world needs Gradus. But Gradus should not kill kings. Vinogradus should never, never provoke God. Leningradus should not aim his peashooter at people even in dreams, because if he does, a pair of colossally thick, abnormally hairy arms will hug him from behind and squeeze, squeeze, squeeze. (note to Line 171)


In his Foreword Kinbote mentions two ping-pong tables that he installed in his basement:


I was not yet used to the rather fatiguing jesting and teasing that goes on among American intellectuals of the inbreeding academic type and so abstained from telling John Shade in front of all those grinning old males how much I admired his work lest a serious discussion of literature degenerate into mere facetiation. Instead I asked him about one of my newly acquired students who also attended his course, a moody, delicate, rather wonderful boy; but with a resolute shake of his hoary forelock the old poet answered that he had ceased long ago to memorize faces and names of students and that the only person in his poetry class whom he could visualize was an extramural lady on crutches. "Come, come," said Professor Hurley, "do you mean, John, you really don't have a mental or visceral picture of that stunning blonde in the black leotard who haunts Lit. 202?" Shade, all his wrinkles beaming, benignly tapped Hurley on the wrist to make him stop. Another tormentor inquired if it was true that I had installed two ping-pong tables in my basement. I asked, was it a crime? No, he said, but why two? "Is that a crime?" I countered, and they all laughed.