A, B, C, D... W, X, Y, Z in Pale Fire

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Wed, 06/10/2020 - 08:08

Describing his landlords house, Kinbote (in VN’s novel Pale Fire, 1962, Shade’s mad Commentator who imagines that he is Charles the Beloved, the last self-exiled king of Zembla) mentions Judge Goldsworth's four daughters: Alphina, Betty, Candida and Dee:


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. (note to Lines 47-48)


A, B, C and D are the first four letters of the English alphabet. The last four letters of the English alphabet are W, X, Y and Z. The letter X is absent from Kinbote’s Index:


Waxwings, birds of the genus Bombycilla, 1-4, 131, 1000; Bombycilla shadei, 71; interesting association belatedly realized.

Windows, Foreword; 47, 62, 181.

Word golf, S's predilection for it, 819; see Lass.

Yaruga, Queen, reigned 1799-1800, sister of Uran (q. v.); drowned in an ice-hole with her Russian lover during traditional New Year's festivities, 681.

Yeslove, a fine town, district and bishopric, north of Onhava, 149, 275.

Zembla, a distant northern land.


John Shade and Charles Kinbote live in New Wye. In his Foreword and Commentary to Shade's poem Kinbote mentions Exton, a town near New Wye whose name seems to hint at the name of the letter X in English. The name of the letter Y in English is “wye” and of the letter W “double-u.” The characters in Andrey Bely’s novel Peterburg (1913) include Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov and his antagonist, graf Dublve (Count Double-u). There are two double-ues in “waxwing,” a bird mentioned by Shade at the beginning (and, presumably, at the end) of his poem, and in “windowpane” (presumably, the last word of Shade’s poem). Shade’s poem is almost finished when the author is killed by Gradus. 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"). In his New Year epistle To E. K. Metner (1909) Andrey Bely mentions poslednie akkordy kody (the last chords of a coda):




Старинный друг, моя судьбина -

Сгореть на медленном огне...

На стогнах шумного Берлина

Ты вспомни, вспомни обо мне.

Любимый друг, прости молчанье -

Мне нечего писать; одно

В душе моей воспоминанье

(Волнует и пьянит оно) -

Тяжелое воспоминанье...

10 Не спрашивай меня... Молчанье!..

О, если б...

...Помню наши встречи

Я ясным, красным вечерком,

И нескончаемые речи

О несказанно дорогом.

Бывало, церковь золотится

В окне над старою Москвой,

И первая в окне ложится,

Кружась над мерзлой мостовой,

20 Снежинок кружевная стая...

Уединенный кабинет

И Гёте на стене портрет...

О, где ты, юность золотая?

Над цепью газовых огней

Пурга уныло песнь заводит...

К нам Алексей Сергеич входит

Лукаво глядя из пенснэ,

И улыбается закату...

Будя в душе напев родной,

30 Твой брат С-мольную сонату

Наигрывает за стеной...

Последние аккорды коды

Прольются, оборвутся вдруг...

О, если б нам в былые годы

Перенестись, старинный друг!

Еще немного - помелькает

Пред нами жизнь: и отлетит -

Не сокрушайся: воскресает

Всё то, что память сохранит.

40 Дорога от невзгод к невзгодам

Начертана судьбой самой...

Год минул девятьсот восьмой:

Ну, с девятьсот девятым годом.


While Bely’s collection Zoloto v lazuri (“Gold in the Azure,” 1903) reminds one of “the false azure” in the second line of Shade’s poem, the initials of Boris Bugaev’s penname (Andrey Bely) bring to mind two methods of composing, A and B, mentioned by Shade at the beginning of Canto Four of his poem:


I'm puzzled by the difference between
Two methods of composing: A, the kind
Which goes on solely in the poet's mind,
A testing of performing words, while he
Is soaping a third time one leg, and B,
The other kind, much more decorous, when

He's in his study writing with a pen. (ll. 840-46)


A name that hints at Count Witte (who is mentioned by VN in Speak, Memory), graf Dublve (Count Double-u) brings to mind Dublitski, a character in Sofia Behrs’s tale that she wrote before marrying Count Leo Tolstoy (who served as a model of Dublitski and who proposed to Sonya after reading her tale). 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 Lastochin. One of Tolstoy’s friends was Vasiliy Botkin, the author of Pis’ma ob Ispanii (“Letters about Spain,” 1857). In Gogol’s story Zapiski sumasshedshego (“The Notes of a Madman,” 1835) Poprishchin imagines that he is the King of Spain Ferdinand VIII. In his fragment Rim ("Rome," 1842) Gogol describes a carnival in Rome and mentions the great dead poet (il gran poeta morto) and his sonnet with a coda (sonetto colla coda):


Внимание толпы занял какой-то смельчак, шагавший на ходулях вравне с домами, рискуя всякую минуту быть сбитым с ног и грохнуться насмерть о мостовую. Но об этом, кажется, у него не было забот. Он тащил на плечах чучело великана, придерживая его одной рукою, неся в другой написанный на бумаге сонет с приделанным к нему бумажным хвостом, какой бывает у бумажного змея, и крича во весь голос: <Ecco il gran poeta morto. Ecco il suo sonetto colla coda!>


In a footnote Gogol says that in Italian poetry there is a kind of poem known as a sonnet with the tail (con la coda) and explains what a coda is:


В итальянской поэзии существует род стихотворенья, известного под именем сонета с хвостом (con la coda), - когда мысль не вместилась и ведёт за собою прибавление, которое часто бывает длиннее самого сонета.


Gogol points out that a coda can be longer than the sonnet itself. Not only (the unwritten) Line 1001 of Shade's poem, but Kinbote's entire Foreword, Commentary and Index can thus be regarded as a coda of Shade's poem.


According to Kinbote, in a conversation with him Shade listed Gogol and Dostoevski (the author of “The Double,” a short novel in the Gogol style) 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)


The “real” name of the three main characters in Pale Fire,  Shade, Kinbote and Gradus seems to be Botkin. An American scholar of Russian descent, Professor Vsevold Botkin went mad and became Shade, Kinbote and Gradus after the tragic death of his daughter Nadezhda (Hazel Shade of Kinbote’s Commentary). There is a hope (nadezhda) 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 Count Vorontsov (a target of Pushkin’s epigrams, “half-milord, half-merchant, etc."), will be full again.


An interesting association belatedly realized: in Bely's Peterburg the terrorists want Nikolay Apollonovich to throw a bomb and murder his father. As pointed out by Kinbote, waxwings are the birds of the genus Bombycilla.


The surname Dublitski differs only in the initial from Kublitski. F. F. Kublitski-Piottukh was Alexander Blok's stepfather. 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 a rude article on Sirin in the Russian émigré review Numbers) 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 (and of the penultimate) line of Shade’s poem: “I was the shadow of the waxwing slain.”


Jakob Gradus is a member of the Shadows (a regicidal organization). Ty - ten' teney ("You are the shadow of the shadows," 1922) is a poem by Andrey Bely:


Ты - тень теней...
Тебя не назову.
Твое лицо -
Холодное и злое...

Плыву туда - за дымку дней - зову,
За дымкой дней,- нет, не Тебя: былое,-
Которое я рву
(в который раз),
Которое,- в который
Раз восходит,-

Которое,- в который раз алмаз -
Алмаз звезды, звезды любви, низводит.

Так в листья лип,
Провиснувшие,- Свет
Дрожит, дробясь,
Как брызнувший стеклярус;

Так,- в звуколивные проливы лет
Бежит серебряным воспоминаньем: парус...

Так в молодой,
Весенний ветерок
Надуется белеющий

Так над водой пустилась в ветерок
Летенница растерянных букашек...

Душа, Ты - свет.
Другие - (нет и нет!) -
В стихиях лет:
Поминовенья света...

Другие - нет... Потерянный поэт,
Найди Ее, потерянную где-то.

За призраками лет -
Непризрачна межа;
На ней - душа,
Потерянная где-то...

Тебя, себя я обниму, дрожа,
В дрожаниях растерянного света.


The poem's second line, Tebya ne nazovu (I won't call your name), is an echo of Podruga vechnaya, tebya ne nazovu ya (Eternal Beloved, I won't call your name), the third line of Vladimir Solovyov's poem Tri svidaniya ("Three Meetings," 1897):


Заранее над смертью торжествуя
И цепь времен любовью одолев,
Подруга вечная, тебя не назову я,
Но ты почуешь трепетный напев…

Не веруя обманчивому миру,
Под грубою корою вещества
Я осязал нетленную порфиру
И узнавал сиянье Божества…

Не трижды ль ты далась живому взгляду —
Не мысленным движением, о нет! —
В предвестие, иль в помощь, иль в награду
На зов души твой образ был ответ.


Andrey Bely is the author of Pervoe svidanie ("The First Rendezvous," 1921), an autobiographic long poem (according to Hodasevich, "the best what Bely wrote in verse"). In Ilf and Petrov's novel Zolotoy telyonok ("The Golden Calf," 1931) one of the chapters is entitled Pervoe svidanie ("The First Rendezvous"). The title of another chapter, Telegramma ot brat'yev Karamazovykh ("The Telegram from Brothers Karamazov"), brings to mind Fra Karamazov mentioned by Shade in Canto Three of his poem:


Among our auditors were a young priest

And an old Communist. Iph could at least

Compete with churches and the party line.

In later years it started to decline:

Buddhism took root. A medium smuggled in

Pale jellies and a floating mandolin.

Fra Karamazov, mumbling his inept

All is allowed, into some classes crept;

And to fulfill the fish wish of the womb,

A school of Freudians headed for the tomb. (ll. 635-644)


A lay Institute of Preparation for the Hereafter (IPH) where Shade lectured on the Worm (a word that begins with W) is situated at Yewshade (a place name that begins with Y):


L'if, lifeless tree! Your great Maybe, Rabelais:
The grand potato.
                  I.P.H., a lay
Institute (I) of Preparation (P)
For the Hereafter (H), or If, as we
Called it--big if!--engaged me for one term
To speak on death ("to lecture on the Worm,"
Wrote President McAber).
                         You and I,
And she, then a mere tot, moved from New Wye
To Yewshade, in another, higher state. (ll. 501-509)


New Wye seems to be a cross between New York and New Moscow, as in his lecture on chess Ostap Bender (the main character "The Twelve Chairs," 1928, and "The Golden Calf") calls Vasyuki:


— Не беспокойтесь, — сказал Остап, — мой проект гарантирует вашему городу неслыханный расцвет производительных сил. Подумайте, что будет, когда турнир окончится и когда уедут все гости. Жители Москвы, стеснённые жилищным кризисом, бросятся в ваш великолепный город. Столица автоматически переходит в Васюки. Сюда переезжает правительство. Васюки переименовываются в Нью-Москву, а Москва — в Старые Васюки. Ленинградцы и харьковчане скрежещут зубами, но ничего не могут поделать. Нью-Москва становится элегантнейшим центром Европы, а скоро и всего мира.


"Don't worry," continued Ostap, "my scheme will guarantee the town an unprecedented boom in your production forces. Just think what will happen when the tournament is over and the visitors have left. The citizens of Moscow, crowded together on account of the housing shortage, will come flocking to your beautiful town. The capital will be automatically transferred to Vasyuki. The government will move here. Vasyuki will be renamed New Moscow, and Moscow will become Old Vasyuki. The people of Leningrad and Kharkov will gnash their teeth in fury but won't be able to do a thing about it. New Moscow will soon become the most elegant city in Europe and, soon afterwards, in the whole world." (“The Twelve Chairs,” Chapter 34 “The Interplanetary Chess Tournament”)


One of the Vasyuki chess enthusiasts is, like a Cyclops, one-eyed. In his essay Ob Annenskom (“On Annenski,” 1921) Hodasevich compares Annenski to Ivan Ilyich Golovin (the main character in Tolstoy's story "The Death of Ivan Ilyich," 1886) and points out that Annenski regarded his penname Nik. T-o (“Mr. Nobody”) as a translation of Greek Outis, the name under which Odysseus (the main character in Homer’s Odyssey) conceals his identity from the Cyclops Polyphemus:


Тот, чьё лицо он видел, подходя к зеркалу, был директор гимназии, смертный никто. Тот, чьё лицо отражалось в поэзии, был бессмертный некто. Ник. Т-о -- никто -- есть безличный действительный статский советник, которым, как видимой оболочкой, прикрыт невидимый некто. Этот свой псевдоним, под которым он печатал стихи, Анненский рассматривал как перевод греческого Outis, никто, -- того самого псевдонима, под которым Одиссей скрыл от циклопа Полифема своё истинное имя, свою подлинную личность, своего некто. Поэзия была для него заклятием страшного Полифема -- смерти. Но психологически это не только не мешало, а даже способствовало тому, чтобы его вдохновительницей, его Музой была смерть.


According to Hodasevich, Annenski's Muse was death itself. The person whose face Annenski saw in a mirror was smertnyi nikto (a mortal nobody) and the person whose face was reflected in Annenski’s poetry was bessmertnyi nekto (the immortal somebody). Nekto v serom (Someone in Gray) is a character in Leonid Andreyev’s play Zhizn’ cheloveka (“The Life of a Man,” 1907). Shade's murderer, Gradus is also known as de Grey.


In a letter of Feb. 11, 1903, to his wife, Olga Knipper (a leading actress of the Moscow Art Theater), Chekhov mentions Sofia Tolstoy’s letter to the editors of Novoe Vremya (Suvorin's newspaper) in which she criticizes Leonid Andreev's story V tumane (“In the Fog,” 1903):


Ты писала, что выслала мне статью Батюшкова; я не получил. А ты читала статью С. А. Толстой насчет Андреева? Я читал, и меня в жар бросало, до такой степени нелепость этой статьи резала мне глаза. Даже невероятно. Если бы ты написала что-нибудь подобное, то я бы посадил тебя на хлеб и на воду и колотил бы тебя целую неделю. Теперь кто нагло задерет морду и обнахальничает до крайности — это г. Буренин, которого она расхвалила.


According to Chekhov, if his wife had written something like that, he would feed her on bread and water and beat her a whole week. At the end of the letter Chekhov says that S. A. Tolstoy’s letter is perhaps not genuine, that somebody has forged her handwriting for fun:


Знаешь, мне кажется, что письмо С. А. Толстой не настоящее, а поддельное. Это кто-нибудь забавы ради подделал руку.


At the end of her letter to the editors Sofia Tolstoy mentions Dostoevski’s characters with their degradations, weaknesses and misfortunes:


«Жалкие новые писатели современной беллетристики, как Андреев, сумели только сосредоточить свое внимание на грязной точке человеческого падения и кликнули клич неразвитой полуинтеллигенческой читающей публике, приглашая ее рассматривать и вникать в разложившийся труп человеческого падения и закрывать глаза на весь просторный, прелестный божий мир, с красотой природы, с величием искусства, с высокими стремлениями человеческих душ, с религиозной и нравственной борьбой и великими идеалами добра. Скажем, даже с падениями, слабостями, несчастьями людей, как у Достоевского. Но при описании их всякий настоящий художник должен ярко светить человечеству не в сторону сочувствия грязи и порока, а в сторону борьбы против них и высоко поставленного идеала добра, правды и торжества над злом, слабостями и пороками людей. Хотелось бы громко, горячо закричать на весь мир этот призыв и помочь опомниться тем несчастным, у которых разные господа Андреевы сшибают крылья, данные всякому для высокого полета к пониманию духовного света, красоты, добра».


A word used by Sofia Tolstoy, padeniya (pl. of padenie, degradation) comes from padat’ (to fall). In his apology of suicide Kinbote repeats the word “falling” three times:


I am choosing these images rather casually. There are purists who maintain that a gentleman should use a brace of pistols, one for each temple, or a bare botkin (note the correct spelling), and that ladies should either swallow a lethal dose or drown with clumsy Ophelia. Humbler humans have preferred such sundry forms of suffocation, and minor poets have even tried such fancy releases as vein tapping in the quadruped tub of a drafty boardinghouse bathroom. All this is uncertain and messy. Of the not very many ways known of shedding one's body, falling, falling, falling is the supreme method, but you have to select your sill or ledge very carefully so as not to hurt yourself or others. Jumping from a high bridge is not recommended even if you cannot swim, for wind and water abound in weird contingencies, and tragedy ought not to culminate in a record dive or a policeman's promotion. If you rent a cell in the luminous waffle, room 1915 or 1959, in a tall business center hotel browing the star dust, and pull up the window, and gentle--not fall, not jump--but roll out as you should for air comfort, there is always the chance of knocking clean through into your own hell a pacific noctambulator walking his dog; in this respect a back room might be safer, especially if giving on the roof of an old tenacious normal house far below where a cat may be trusted to flash out of the way. Another popular take-off is a mountaintop with a sheer drop of say 500 meters but you must find it, because you will be surprised how easy it is to miscalculate your deflection offset, and have some hidden projection, some fool of a crag, rush forth to catch you, causing you to bounce off it into the brush, thwarted, mangled and unnecessarily alive. The ideal drop is from an aircraft, your muscles relaxed, your pilot puzzled, your packed parachute shuffled off, cast off, shrugged off--farewell, shootka (little chute)! Down you go, but all the while you feel suspended and buoyed as you somersault in slow motion like a somnolent tumbler pigeon, and sprawl supine on the eiderdown of the air, or lazily turn to embrace your pillow, enjoying every last instant of soft, deep, death-padded life, the voluptuous crucifixion, as you stretch yourself in the growing rush, in the nearing swish, and then your loved body's obliteration in the Lap of the Lord. If I were a poet I would certainly make an ode to the sweet urge to close one's eyes and surrender utterly unto the perfect safety of wooed death. Ecstatically one forefeels the vastness of the Divine Embrace enfolding one's liberated spirit, the warm bath of physical dissolution, the universal unknown engulfing the miniscule unknown that had been the only real part of one's temporary personality. (Note to Line 493)


Immediately after completing his work on Shade's poem Kinbote commits suicide (presumably, by taking poison).