In Canto One of his poem Shade (the poet in VN’s novel Pale Fire, 1962) mentions Sherlock Holmes:
And then the gradual and dual blue
As night unites the viewer and the view,
And in the morning, diamonds of frost
Express amazement: Whose spurred feet have crossed
From left to right the blank page of the road?
Reading from left to right in winter's code:
A dot, an arrow pointing back; repeat:
Dot, arrow pointing back... A pheasant's feet
Torquated beauty, sublimated grouse,
Finding your China right behind my house.
Was he in Sherlock Holmes, the fellow whose
Tracks pointed back when he reversed his shoes? (17-28)
In his note to Line 27 Kinbote (Shade’s mad commentator who imagines that he is Charles the Beloved, the last self-exiled king of Zembla) says: "A hawk-nosed, lanky, rather likable private detective, the main character in various stories by Conan Doyle. I have no means to ascertain at the present time which of these is referred to here but suspect that our poet simply made up this Case of the Reversed Footprints."
At the end of The Sign of the Four (1890), Conan Doyle’s second novel featuring Sherlock Holmes, Jonathan Small claims the Agra treasure brought nothing but bad luck to anyone who came in touch with it—the servant who was murdered; Sholto living with fear and guilt; and now he himself is trapped in slavery for life—half his life building a breakwater in the Andaman Islands and the rest of his life digging drains in Dartmoor Prison.
Shade's poem is divided into four cantos. The number 4 is considered an unlucky number in Chinese because it is nearly homophonous to the word "death." There is Agra in Tanagra (a town north of Athens where Greek terracota figurines were produced from the later fourth century BC) and kit (Russian for "whale") in Kitay (the Russian name of China). In her essay Rambling Round Evelyn (1920) Virginia Woolf mentions a whale that came up the Thames:
So Evelyn, Fellow of the Royal Society, a gentleman of the highest culture and intelligence, carefully noted all comets and portents, and thought it a sinister omen when a whale came up the Thames. In 1658, too, a whale had been seen. "That year died Cromwell." Nature, it seems, was determined to stimulate the devotion of her seventeenth-century admirers by displays of violence and eccentricity from which she now refrains. There were storms, floods, and droughts; the Thames frozen hard; comets flaring in the sky. If a cat so much as kittened in Evelyn's bed the kitten was inevitably gifted with eight legs, six ears, two bodies, and two tails.
The title of VW’s essay brings to mind Kinbote’s evening rambles with Shade. In the same paragraph of her essay VW mentions the gardener who trundles his barrow and a Red Admiral's head:
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.
At the end of his poem (a few moments before his death) Shade mentions a dark Vanessa and some neighbor's gardener who goes by trundling an empty barrow up the lane:
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)
kit + tayna + Agra = Kitay + Tanagra
Tanagra dust = Tanat + Gradus
According to Kinbote, in one of the discarded variants Shade mentioned the Tanagra dust:
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. "Leningrad used to be Petrograd?" "A prig 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.
Shade composed these lines on Tuesday, July 14th. What was Gradus doing that day? Nothing. Combinational fate rests on its laurels. We saw him last on the late afternoon of July 10th when he returned from Lex to his hotel in Geneva, and there we left him.
For the next four days Gradus remained fretting in Geneva. The amusing paradox with these men of action is that they constantly have to endure long stretches of otiosity that they are unable to fill with anything, lacking as they do the resources of an adventurous mind. As many people of little culture, Gradus was a voracious reader of newspapers, pamphlets, chance leaflets and the multilingual literature that comes with nose drops and digestive tablets; but this summed up his concessions to intellectual curiosity, and since his eyesight was not too good, and the consumability of local news not unlimited, he had to rely a great deal on the torpor of sidewalk cafes and on the makeshift of sleep.
How much happier the wide-awake indolents, the monarchs among men, the rich monstrous brains deriving intense enjoyment and rapturous pangs from the balustrade of a terrace at nightfall, from the lights and the lake below, from the distant mountain shapes melting into the dark apricot of the afterglow, from the black conifers outlined against the pale ink of the zenith, and from the garnet and green flounces of the water along the silent, sad, forbidden shoreline. Oh my sweet Boscobel! And the tender and terrible memories, and the shame, and the glory, and the maddening intimation, and the star that no party member can ever reach.
On Wednesday morning, still without news, Gradus telegraphed headquarters saying that he thought it unwise to wait any longer and that he would be staying at Hotel Lazuli, Nice. (note to Line 596)
Great temples in Shade's variant make one think of Taj Mahal, an ivory-white marble mausoleum in Agra.
Tayna is Russian for “secret, mystery.” Just before the poet’s death, Kinbote promises to Shade that he will tell him his secret and, in the next paragraph, mentions Mystery Lodge:
"Well," I said, "has the muse been kind to you?"
"Very kind," he replied, slightly bowing his hand-propped head. "exceptionally kind and gentle. In fact, I have here [indicating a huge pregnant envelope near him on the oilcloth] practically the entire product. A few trifles to settle and [suddenly striking he table with his fist] I've swung it, by God."
The envelope, unfastened at one end, bulged with stacked cards.
"Where is the missus?" I asked (mouth dry).
"Help me, Charlie, to get out of here," he pleaded. "Foot gone to sleep. Sybil is at a dinner-meeting of her club."
"A suggestion," I said, quivering. "I have at my place half a gallon of Tokay. I'm ready to share my favorite wine with my favorite poet. We shall have for dinner a knackle of walnuts, a couple of large tomatoes, and a bunch of bananas. And if you agree to show me your 'finished product,' there will be another treat: I promise to divulge to you why I gave you, or rather who gave you, your theme."
"What theme?" said Shade absently, as he leaned on my arm and gradually recovered the use of his numb limb.
"Our blue inenubilable Zembla, and the red-capped Steinmann, and the motorboat in the sea cave, and -"
"Ah," said Shade, "I think I guessed your secret quite some time ago. But all the same I shall sample your wine with pleasure. Okay, I can manage by myself now."
Well did I know he could never resist a golden drop of this or that, especially since he was severely rationed at home. With an inward leap of exultation I relieved him of the large envelope that hampered his movements as he descended the steps of the porch, sideways, like a hesitating infant. We crossed the lawn, we crossed the road. Clink-clank, came the horseshoe music from Mystery Lodge. In the large envelope I carried I could feel the hard-cornered, rubberbanded batches of index cards. We are absurdly accustomed to the miracle of a few written signs being able to contain immortal imagery, involutions of thought, new worlds with live people, speaking, weeping, laughing. We take it for granted so simply that in a sense, by the very act of brutish routine acceptance, we undo the work of the ages, the history of the gradual elaboration of poetical description and construction, from the treeman to Browning, from the caveman to Keats. What if we awake one day, all of us, and find ourselves utterly unable to read? I wish you to gasp not only at what you read but at the miracle of its being readable (so I used to tell my students). Although I am capable, through long dabbling in blue magic, of imitating any prose in the world (but singularly enough not verse - I am a miserable rhymester), I do not consider myself a true artist, save in one matter: I can do what only a true artist can do - pounce upon the forgotten butterfly of revelation, wean myself abruptly from the habit of things, see the web of the world, and the warp and the weft of that web. Solemnly I weighed in my hand what I was carrying under my left armpit, and for a moment, I found myself enriched with an indescribable amazement as if informed that fireflies were making decodable signals on behalf of stranded spirits, or that a bat was writing a legible tale of torture in the bruised and branded sky.
I was holding all Zembla pressed to my heart. (note to Line 991)
Tanat is the Russian name of Thanatos (the personification of death in Greek mythology). The twins (Marthe’s brothers) in VN’s novel Priglashebie na kazn’ (“Invitation to a Beheading,” 1935) seem to be the black-haired Thanatos and his blond twin brother Hypnos (the personification of sleep). As pointed out by G. Barabtarlo, a fragment from the opera that Cincinnatus’s dark-haired brother-in-law begins to sing, mali e trano t’amesti is an anagram of smert’ mila, eto tayna (death is sweet, this is a secret). In "The Sign of the Four" the Sholto brothers (one of them is killed by Tonga, a barefooted savage the Andaman Islands, with a poisoned dart shot from a blow-pipe) are almost identical twins. A pheasant's footprints mentioned by Shade bring to mind the footprints left by Tonga's bare feet on the spot of Bartholomew Sholto's murder. Jonathan Small is a wooden-legged man. In VN's novel Otchayanie ("Despair," 1934) Hermann mentions Conan Doyle and the one-legged bookkeeper:
Поговорим о преступлениях, об искусстве преступления, о карточных фокусах, я очень сейчас возбужден. Конан Дойль! Как чудесно ты мог завершить свое творение, когда надоели тебе герои твои! Какую возможность, какую тему ты профукал! Ведь ты мог написать еще один последний рассказ – заключение всей Шерлоковой эпопеи, эпизод, венчающий все предыдущие: убийцей в нем должен был бы оказаться не одноногий бухгалтер, не китаец Чинг и не женщина в красном, а сам Пимен всей криминальной летописи, сам доктор Ватсон, – чтобы Ватсон был бы, так сказать, виноват-сон… Безмерное удивление читателя! Да что Дойль, Достоевский, Леблан, Уоллес, что все великие романисты, писавшие о ловких преступниках, что все великие преступники, не читавшие ловких романистов! Все они невежды по сравнению со мной. Как бывает с гениальными изобретателями, мне, конечно, помог случай (встреча с Феликсом), но этот случай попал как раз в формочку, которую я для него уготовил, этот случай я заметил и использовал, чего другой на моем месте не сделал бы. Мое создание похоже на пасьянс, составленный наперед: я разложил открытые карты так, чтобы он выходил наверняка, собрал их в обратном порядке, дал приготовленную колоду другим, – пожалуйста, разложите, – ручаюсь, что выйдет! Ошибка моих бесчисленных предтечей состояла в том, что они рассматривали самый акт как главное и уделяли больше внимания тому, как потом замести следы, нежели тому, как наиболее естественно довести дело до этого самого акта, ибо он только одно звено, одна деталь, одна строка, он должен естественно вытекать из всего предыдущего, – таково свойство всех искусств. Если правильно задумано и выполнено дело, сила искусства такова, что, явись преступник на другой день с повинной, ему бы никто не поверил, – настолько вымысел искусства правдивее жизненной правды.
Let us discuss crime, crime as an art; and card tricks. I am greatly worked up just at present. Oh, Conan Doyle! How marvelously you could have crowned your creation when your two heroes began boring you! What an opportunity, what a subject you missed! For you could have written one last tale concluding the whole Sherlock Holmes epic; one last episode beautifully setting off the rest: the murderer in that tale should have turned out to be not the one-legged bookkeeper, not the Chinaman Ching and not the woman in crimson, but the very chronicler of the crime stories, Dr. Watson himself--Watson, who, so to speak, knew what was Whatson. A staggering surprise for the reader.
But what are they--Doyle, Dostoevsky, Leblanc, Wallace--what are all the great novelists who wrote of nimble criminals, what are all the great criminals who never read the nimble novelists--what are they in comparison with me? Blundering fools! As in the case of inventive geniuses, I was certainly helped by chance (my meeting Felix), but that piece of luck fitted exactly into the place I had made for it; I pounced upon it and used it, which another in my position would not have done.
My accomplishment resembles a game of patience, arranged beforehand; first I put down the open cards in such a manner as to make its success a dead certainty; then I gathered them up in the opposite order and gave the prepared pack to others with the perfect assurance it would come out.
The mistake of my innumerable forerunners consisted of their laying principal stress upon the act itself and in their attaching more importance to a subsequent removal of all traces, than to the most natural way of leading up to that same act which is really but a link in the chain, one detail, one line in the book, and must be logically derived from all previous matter; such being the nature of every art. If the deed is planned and performed correctly, then the force of creative art is such, that were the criminal to give himself up on the very next morning, none would believe him, the invention of art containing far more intrinsical truth than life's reality. (Chapter Seven)
While kitaets Ching (the Chinaman Ching) brings to mind China mentioned by Shade, zhenshchina v krasnom (the woman in crimson) recalls "the man in brown and the man in green," as Kinbote calls Gradus and Gerald Emerald (the young instructor at Wordsmith University who gives Gradus a lift to Kinbote's house):
Did they talk in the car, these two characters, the man in green and the man in brown? Who can say? They did not. After all, the drive took only a few minutes (it took me, at the wheel of my powerful Kramler, four and a half).
"I think I'll drop you here," said Mr. Emerald. "It's that house up there."
One finds it hard to decide what Gradus alias Grey wanted more at that minute: discharge his gun or rid himself of the inexhaustible lava in his bowels. As he began hurriedly fumbling at the car door, unfastidious Emerald leaned, close to him, across him almost merging with him, to help him open it--and then, slamming it shut again, whizzed on to some tryst in the valley. My reader will, I hope, appreciate all the minute particulars I have taken such trouble to present to him after a long talk I had with the killer; he will appreciate them even more if I tell him that, according to the legend spread later by the police, Jack Grey had been given a lift, all the way from Roanoke, or somewhere, by a lonesome trucker! One can only hope that an impartial search will turn up the trilby forgotten in the Library--or in Mr. Emerald's car. (note to Line 949)
In "Despair" Hermann kills Felix, a tramp whom Hermann believes to be his perfect double. 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”). Dvoynik ("The Double") is a short novel (1846) by Dostoevski and a poem (1909) by Alexander 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.
Tonga's blow-pipe in "The Sign of the Four" brings to mind Gradus's peashooter:
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 Herman Melville’s novel Moby Dick (1851) the narrator also repeats the word “squeeze" three times:
Squeeze! squeeze! squeeze! all the morning long; I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it; I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me; and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-laborers' hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules. Such an abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling did this avocation beget; that at last I was continually squeezing their hands, and looking up into their eyes sentimentally; as much as to say,--Oh! my dear fellow beings, why should we longer cherish any social acerbities, or know the slightest ill-humor or envy! Come; let us squeeze hands all round; nay, let us all squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness. (chapter 94: “A Squeeze of the Hand”)
Moby Dick is the name of a white sperm whale.
At the end of his life Conan Doyle became a spiritualist. At the beginning of his essay Chetvyortoe izmerenie ("The Fourth Dimension," 1929), whose title echoes "The Sign of the Four," G. Ivanov (who mentions blednyi ogon', "pale fire," in one of his poems) says that spiritualists are always a little funny and mentions the author of the "immortal" Sherlock Holmes who recently declared spiritualism a religion:
Над спиритами смеются - и действительно, спириты всегда смешноваты. Таинственное у них тесно перепутано с комическим. Чего стоит хотя бы король бульварных романистов, автор "бессмертного" Шерлока Холмса в роли из великого мастера, объявивший, кстати, недавно спиритизм на каком-то конгрессе - excusez du peu - религией.
In a letter of March 23, 1903, to Gilyarovski Chekhov says that Gilyarovski's feuilleton Lyudi chetvyortogo izmereniya ("People of the Fourth Dimension") is superb and that, reading it, he could not help laughing:
Милый дядя Гиляй, твои "Люди четвёртого измерения" великолепны, я читал и всё время смеялся. Молодец, дядя!
By "people of the fourth dimension" Gilyarovski means the symbolist poets (Balmont, Bryusov and their pupils):
Сцена наполнилась. Налево сели гг. К. Д. Бальмонт и В. Я. Брюсов - солидные, серьёзные. Напротив, в глубине, на семи стульях поместились семь "новых поэтов", семь "подбрюсков".
In his memoir essay "Bryusov" (1925) Hodasevich compares the relationships between Bryusov and Balmont to those between Salieri and Mozart in Pushkin's "Mozart and Salieri" (1830):
Его неоднократно подчёркнутая любовь к Бальмонту вряд ли может быть названа любовью. В лучшем случае это было удивление Сальери перед Моцартом.
In Pushkin's little tragedy Mozart uses the phrase nikto b (none would):
Когда бы все так чувствовали силу
Гармонии! Но нет: тогда б не мог
И мир существовать; никто б не стал
Заботиться о нуждах низкой жизни;
Все предались бы вольному искусству.
If all could feel like you the power of harmony!
But no: the world could not go on then. None
Would bother with the needs of lowly life;
All would surrender to free art. (Scene II)
Nikto b is Botkin (Shade's, Kinbote's and Gradus' "real" name) in reverse and brings to mind The Case of Reversed Footprints. According to Kinbote (the author of a remarkable book on surnames), Botkin is the one who makes bottekins (fancy footwear).