anonymous in Pale Fire

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Mon, 04/13/2020 - 18:55

In Canto Two of his poem John Shade (the poet in VN’s novel Pale Fire, 1962) speaks of his daughter and mentions Lafontaine:


Life is a message scribbled in the dark.


                           Espied on a pine's bark,

As we were walking home the day she died,

An empty emerald case, squat and frog-eyed,

Hugging the trunk; and its companion piece,

A gum-logged ant.

                                      That Englishman in Nice,

A proud and happy linguist: je nourris

Les pauvres cigales - meaning that he

Fed the poor sea gulls!

                                               Lafontaine was wrong:

Dead is the mandible, alive the song.

And so I pare my nails, and muse, and hear

Your steps upstairs, and all is right, my dear. (ll. 236-246)


“Life is a message scribbled in the dark. Anonymous” brings to mind Karamzin’s epigram on life (Dec. 31, 1797):


Что наша жизнь? Роман. — Кто автор? Аноним.
Читаем по складам, смеёмся, плачем... спим.


Life? A romance. By whom? Anonymous.

We spell it out; it makes us laugh and weep,

And then put us

To sleep.


In his Eugene Onegin Commentary (vol. II, p. 145) VN points out that in a bout-rimés exchange (using rhymes supplied by Dmitriev) Karamzin made the following New Year prophecy for 1799 (which was to be the year of Pushkin’s birth):


To sing all things, Pindar will be reborn.


In a footnote to her Russian translation of Pale Fire Vera Nabokov points out that Krylov translated Lafontaine’s fable La Cigale et la Fourmi as Strekoza i muravey (“The Dragonfly and the Ant”). Krylov's fable Mot i Lastochka ("The Spendthrift and the Swallow") brings to mind Sybil Swallow, as Kinbote (Shade’s mad commentator who imagines that he is Charles the Beloved, the last self-exiled king of Zembla) calls the poet's 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. (note to Line 275)


Duchess of Payn, of Great Payn and Mone, Queen Disa seems to blend Leonardo's Mona Lisa with Desdemona, Othello’s wife in Shakespeare's Othello. In The Modern Essay (included in “The Common Reader,” 1925) Virginia Woolf mentions Walter Pater’s essay "Notes on Leonardo da Vinci:"


There is no room for the impurities of literature in an essay. Somehow or other, by dint of labour or bounty of nature, or both combined, the essay must be pure--pure like water or pure like wine, but pure from dullness, deadness, and deposits of extraneous matter. Of all writers in the first volume, Walter Pater best achieves this arduous task, because before setting out to write his essay ("Notes on Leonardo da Vinci") he has somehow contrived to get his material fused. He is a learned man, but it is not knowledge of Leonardo that remains with us, but a vision, such as we get in a good novel where everything contributes to bring the writer's conception as a whole before us.


Sybil Shade and Queen Disa seem to be one and the same person whose "real" name is Sofia Botkin, born Lastochkin. Lastochki ("The Swallows," 1884) is a poem by Afanasiy Fet (who was married to Maria Botkin and who addressed several poems to Tolstoy's wife Sofia Andreevna). At the age of eighty-two Tolstoy fled from his home and died at a little way-side station in the house of the stationmaster. (After Shade's death on July 21, 1959, Botkin, as Kinbote, leaves home, writes his Commentary in a madhouse and, on Oct. 19, 1959, commits suicide.) In her essay A Room of One's Own (1929) Virginia Woolf mentions Tolstoy and compares a novel to the Cathedral of Saint Sofia at Constantinople:


Had Tolstoy lived at the Priory in seclusion with a married lady 'cut off from what is called the world,' however edifying the moral lesson, he could scarcely, I thought, have written War and Peace.

But one could perhaps go a little deeper in the question of novel-writing and the effect of sex on the novelist. If one shuts one’s eyes and thinks of the novel as a whole, it would seem to be a creation owing to a certain looking-glass likeness to life, though of course with simplifications and distortions innumerable. At any rate it is a structure leaving a shape on the mind’s eyes, built now in squares, now pagoda shaped, now throwing out wings and arcades, now solidly compact and domed like the Cathedral of Saint Sofia at Constantinople. This shape, I thought, thinking back over certain famous novels, starts in one the kind of emotion that is appropriate to it. But that emotion at once blends itself with others, for the “shape” is not made by the relation of stone to stone, but by the relation of human being to human being. Thus a novel starts in us all sorts forms antagonistic and opposed emotions. Life conflicts with something that is not life. (chapter IV)


The full name of Charles II (Charles the Beloved) is Charles Xavier Vseslav. In Slovo o Polku Igoreve ("The Song of Igor's Campaign") Vseslav of Polotsk (a prince who was deemed a magician and who could turn into a wolf) hears in Kiev the bells of St. Sophia at Polotsk:


The path of Great Hors,
as a wolf, prowling, he [Vseslav] crossed.
For him in Polotsk
they rang for matins early
at St. Sophia the bells;
but he heard the ringing in Kiev. (ll. 665-670)


An epic of the 12th century whose author is unknown, "The Song of Igor's Campaign" can be compared to Beowulf, an Old English epic poem set in Scandinavia. In A Room of One's Own Virginia Woolf says: "Indeed, I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman." In his Commentary Kinbote mentions a famous old Russian chanson de geste and its hypothetical author:


When I was a child, Russia enjoyed quite a vogue at the court of Zembla but that was a different Russia--a Russia that hated tyrants and Philistines, injustice and cruelty, the Russia of ladies and gentlemen and liberal aspirations. We may add that Charles the Beloved could boast of some Russian blood. In medieval times two of his ancestors had married Novgorod princesses. Queen Yaruga (reigned 1799-1800) his great-great-graddam, was half Russian; and most historians believe that Yaruga's only child Igor was not the son of Uran the Last (reigned 1798-1799) but the fruit of her amours with the Russian adventurer Hodinski, her goliart (court jester) and a poet of genius, said to have forged in his spare time a famous old Russian chanson de geste, generally attributed to an anonymous bard of the twelfth century. (note to Line 681)


In VN's short novel Soglyadatay ("The Eye," 1930) Roman Bogdanovich mentions Constantinople:


-- А я вот что хотел рассказать, -- грянул Роман Богданович. -- Вы упомянули о Константинополе, Марианна Николаевна. Был у меня там один хороший знакомый -- некий Кашмарин, впоследствии я с ним поссорился, он был страшно резок и вспыльчив, хотя отходчив и по-своему добр. Он, между прочим, одного француза избил до полусмерти -- из ревности. Ну вот, он мне рассказал следующую историю. Рисует нравы Турции. Представьте себе...

-- Неужели избил? -- прервал Смуров с улыбкой. -- Вот это здорово, люблю...

-- До полусмерти, -- сказал Роман Богданович и пустился в повествование.

Смуров, слушая, одобрительно кивал, и было видно, что такой человек, как он, несмотря на внешнюю скромность и тихость, таит в себе некий пыл и способен в минуту гнева сделать из человека шашлык, а в минуту страсти женщину умыкнуть под плащом, как сделал кто-то в рассказе Романа Богдановича. Ваня, если разбиралась в людях, должна была это заметить.


“What I wanted to say was this,” boomed Roman Bogdanovich: “You mentioned Constantinople, Marianna Nikolaevna. I had a close friend there among the émigré crowd, a certain Kashmarin, with whom I subsequently quarreled, an extremely rough and quicktempered fellow, even if he did cool off fast and was kind in his own way. Incidentally, he once thrashed a Frenchman nearly to death out of jealousy. Well, he told me the following story. Gives an idea of Turkish mores. Imagine——”
“Thrashed him?” Smurov broke in with a smile. “Oh, good. That’s what I like——”
“Nearly to death,” repeated Roman Bogdanovich, and launched into his narrative.

Smurov kept nodding approvingly as he listened. He was obviously a person who, behind his unpretentiousness and quietness, concealed a fiery spirit. He was doubtless capable, in a moment of wrath, of slashing a chap into bits, and, in a moment of passion, of carrying a frightened and perfumed girl beneath his cloak on a windy night to a waiting boat with muffled oarlocks, under a slice of honey-dew moon, as somebody did in Roman Bogdanovich’s story. If Vanya was any judge of character, she must have marked this. (chapter 2)


The name Kashmarin hints at koshmar (nightmare). Vanya Smurov is the main character in Kuzmin's homoerotic novel Kryl'ya ("The Wings," 1906). Roman is Russian for "novel, romance" (cf. "Chto nasha zhizn'? Roman" in Karamzin's epigram on life). In a letter to his Tallinn friend Roman Bogdanovich calls Smurov seksual'nyi levsha ("a sexual lefty"). According to Oswin Bretwit (the former Zemblan consul in Paris), his majesty Charles the Beloved (who loves little boys) is left-handed. In VN's novel Dar ("The Gift," 1937) Marianna Nikolaevna is the name and patronymic of Zina Mertz's mother. Oscar Mertz (Zina's late father) is a namesake of Dr Oscar Nattochdag, the head of Kinbote's department at Wordsmith University. Natt och dag means in Swedish "night and day." Night and Day (1919) is a novel by Virginia Woolf.


Roman Bogdanovich’s patronymic brings to mind Ippolit Bogdanovich (accented on the third syllable), the author of Dushen'ka (1773), a reworking of Lafontaine’s Les Amours de Psyché et de Cupidon. At the beginning of E. A. Poe's story How to Write a Blackwood Article (1838) Psyche Zenobia (the narrator and main character) 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.


In her essay The Russian Point of View (included in "The Common Reader") Virginia Woolf says: "Indeed, it is the soul that is the chief character in Russian fiction."


At the end of his almost finished poem Shade (who associates his wife with a Vanessa butterfly) mentions some neighbor's gardener who goes by trundling an empty barrow up the lane:


A dark Vanessa with 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)


In her essay “Rambling Round Evelyn” (1920) Virginia Woolf mentions the gardener who trundles his barrow past a butterfly sitting motionlessly on the dahlia:


No one can read the story of Evelyn's foreign travels without envying in the first place his simplicity of mind, in the second his activity. To take a simple example of the difference between us--that butterfly will sit motionless on the dahlia while the gardener trundles his barrow past it, but let him flick the wings with the shadow of a rake, and off it flies, up it goes, instantly on the alert. So, we may reflect, a butterfly sees but does not hear; and here no doubt we are much on a par with Evelyn. But as for going into the house to fetch a knife and with that knife dissecting a Red Admiral's head, as Evelyn would have done, no sane person in the twentieth century would entertain such a project for a second. Individually we may know as little as Evelyn, but collectively we know so much that there is little incentive to venture on private discoveries. We seek the encyclopædia, not the scissors; and know in two minutes not only more than was known to Evelyn in his lifetime, but that the mass of knowledge is so vast that it is scarcely worth while to possess a single crumb.


The maiden name of E. A. Poe’s wife was Virginia Clemm. Zenobia brings to mind Anthony Hope's novel The Prisoner of Zenda (1894) and "from Amber to Zen," a phrase used by Kinbote in his Commentary:


Judge Goldsworth had a wife, and four daughters. Family photographs met me in the hallway and pursued me from room to room, and although I am sure that Alphina (9), Betty (10), Candida (12), and Dee (14) will soon change from horribly cute little schoolgirls to smart young ladies and superior mothers, I must confess that their pert pictures irritated me to such an extent that finally I gathered them one by one and dumped them all in a closet under the gallows row of their cellophane-shrouded winter clothes. In the study I found a large picture of their parents, with sexes reversed, Mrs. G. resembling Malenkov, and Mr. G. a Medusa-locked hag, and this I replaced by the reproduction of a beloved early Picasso: earth boy leading raincloud horse. I did not bother, though, to do much about the family books which were also all over the house - four sets of different Children's Encyclopedias, and a stolid grown-up one that ascended all the way from shelf to shelf along a flight of stairs to burst an appendix in the attic. Judging by the novels in Mrs. Goldsworth's boudoir, her intellectual interests were fully developed, going as they did from Amber to Zen. (note to Lines 47-48)


Forever Amber (1944) is a historical romance novel by Kathleen Winsor; Zen is a Japanese school of Buddhism. In his note to Line 238 ("the empty emerald case") of Shade's poem Kinbote mentions amber:


This, I understand, is the semitransparent envelope left on a tree trunk by an adult cicada that has crawled up the trunk and emerged. Shade said that he had once questioned a class of three hundred students and only three knew what a cicada looked like. Ignorant settlers had dubbed it "locust," which is, of course, a grasshopper, and the same absurd mistake has been made by generations of translators of Lafontaine's La Cigale et la Fourmi (see lines 243-244). The cigale's companion piece, the ant, is about to be embalmed in amber.


In The Modern Essay Virginia Woolf mentions M. Grün whose book should have been embalmed for our perpetual delight in amber:


So great a feat is seldom accomplished, though the fault may well be as much on the reader's side as on the writer's. Habit and lethargy have dulled his palate. A novel has a story, a poem rhyme; but what art can the essayist use in these short lengths of prose to sting us wide awake and fix us in a trance which is not sleep but rather an intensification of life--a basking, with every faculty alert, in the sun of pleasure? He must know--that is the first essential--how to write. His learning may be as profound as Mark Pattison's, but in an essay it must be so fused by the magic of writing that not a fact juts out, not a dogma tears the surface of the texture. Macaulay in one way, Froude in another, did this superbly over and over again. They have blown more knowledge into us in the course of one essay than the innumerable chapters of a hundred text-books. But when Mark Pattison has to tell us, in the space of thirty-five little pages, about Montaigne, we feel that he had not previously assimilated M. Grün. M. Grün was a gentleman who once wrote a bad book. M. Grün and his book should have been embalmed for our perpetual delight in amber. But the process is fatiguing; it requires more time and perhaps more temper than Pattison had at his command. He served M. Grün up raw, and he remains a crude berry among the cooked meats, upon which our teeth must grate for ever. Something of the sort applies to Matthew Arnold and a certain translator of Spinoza. Literal truth-telling and finding fault with a culprit for his good are out of place in an essay, where everything should be for our good and rather for eternity than for the March number of the Fortnightly Review. But if the voice of the scold should never be heard in this narrow plot, there is another voice which is as a plague of locusts--the voice of a man stumbling drowsily among loose words, clutching aimlessly at vague ideas, the voice, for example, of Mr. Hutton in the following passage:


Add to this that his married life was very brief, only seven years and a half, being unexpectedly cut short, and that his passionate reverence for his wife's memory and genius--in his own words, "a religion"--was one which, as he must have been perfectly sensible, he could not make to appear otherwise than extravagant, not to say an hallucination, in the eyes of the rest of mankind, and yet that he was possessed by an irresistible yearning to attempt to embody it in all the tender and enthusiastic hyperbole of which it is so pathetic to find a man who gained his fame by his "dry-light" a master, and it is impossible not to feel that the human incidents in Mr. Mill's career are very sad.


See also the updated version of my recent post “gay green vision embalmed in amber.”