Boscobel & Flatman in Pale Fire; Cincinnatus's brothers-in-law in Invitation to a Beheading

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Mon, 07/27/2020 - 19:37

In his Commentary and Index to Shade’s poem 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 “the pine groves of Boscobel” and “my sweet Boscobel:”


Three hours later he trod level ground. Two old women working in an orchard unbent in slow motion and stared after him. He had passed the pine groves of Boscobel and was approaching the quay of Blawick, when a black police car turned out of a transverse road and pulled up next to him: "The joke has gone too far," said the driver. "One hundred clowns are packed in Onhava jail, and the ex-King should be among them. Our local prison is much too small for more kings. The next masquerader will be shot at sight. What's your real name, Charlie?" "I'm British. I'm a tourist," said the King. "Well, anyway, take off that red fufa. And the cap. Give them here." He tossed the things in the back of the car and drove off. (note to Line 149)


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)


Boscobel, site of the Royal Summerhouse, a beautiful, piny and duny spot in W. Zembla, soft hollows imbued with the writer's most amorous recollections, now (1959) a "nudist colony" - whatever that is, 149, 596. (Index)


Boscobel: or, the history of His Sacred Majesties most miraculous preservation after the Battle of Worcester, 3 Sept. 1651 is a book by Thomas Blount (an English antiquarian and lexicographer, 1618-79). It is an account of Charles II's preservation after Worcester, with the addition of the king's own account dictated to Pepys. A less fortunate monarch, Charles I (the father of Charles II) was beheaded in 1649. In VN’s novel Priglashenie na kazn’ (“Invitation to a Beheading,” 1935) Cincinnatus’s brother-in-law sings from an opera:


Примятые звуки постепенно начинали расправляться. Брат Марфиньки, брюнет, прочистил горло и пропел вполголоса: "Mali e trano t'amesti..." - осёкся и посмотрел на брата, который сделал страшные глаза. Адвокат, чему-то улыбаясь, опять принялся за платок. Марфинька на кушетке перешёптывалась со своим кавалером, который упрашивал её накинуть шаль, - тюремный воздух был сыроват. Они говорили на "вы", но с каким грузом нежности проплывало это "вы" на горизонте их едва уловимой беседы... Старичок, ужасно дрожа, встал со стула, передал портрет старушке и, заслоняя дрожавшее, как он сам, пламя, подошёл к своему зятю, а Цинциннатову тестю, и хотел ему --. Но пламя потухло, и тот сердито поморщился:

- Надоели, право, со своей дурацкой зажигалкой, - сказал он угрюмо, но уже без гнева, - и тогда воздух совсем оживился, и сразу заговорили все.

"Mali e trano t'amesti..." - полным голосом пропел Марфинькин брат.


The various trampled sounds began to straighten up. Marthe’s brother, the brunette, cleared his throat and softly began to sing Mali e trano t’amesti...’ He stopped short and looked at his brother, who made terrible eyes at him. The lawyer, smiling at something, again applied himself to his handkerchief. On the couch, Marthe was talking in a whisper with her escort, who was pleading with her to throw the shawl over herself— the prison air was a little damp. When they spoke they used the formal second person plural, but with what a cargo of tenderness this second person plural was laden as it sailed along the horizon of their barely audible conversation . . . The little old man, trembling awfully, got up from his chair, handed the portrait to his old woman and, shielding the flame that was trembling like himself, went up to Cincinnatus’s father-in-law, and was going to light his . . . But the flame went out, and the latter frowned angrily.

‘You have really become a nuisance with your stupid lighter, said he glumly, but already without wrath; then the  atmosphere really grew animated, and everybody began talking simultaneously.

'Mali e trano t’amesti...’ Marthe’s brother sang in full voice. (Chapter Nine)


As pointed out by G. Barabtarlo, mali e trano t’amesti is an anagram of smert’ mila, eto tayna (death is sweet, this is a secret). Cincinnatus’s brothers-in-law seem to be Thanatos (the personification of death in Greek mythology) and his blond twin brother Hypnos (the personification of sleep). In Tyutchev’s poem Bliznetsy (“Twins,” 1851) the two pairs of twins are Smert' i Son (Death and Sleep) and Samoubiystvo i Lyubov' (Suicide and Love). In his Foreword to Shade’s poem Kinbote mentions two charming identical twins (apparently, the Hurley boys):


I wanted to know if he did not mind being taken the longer way, with a stop at Community Center where I wanted to buy some chocolate-coated cookies and a little caviar. He said it was fine with him. From the inside of the supermarket, through a plate-glass window, I saw the old chap pop into a liquor store. When I returned with my purchases, he was back in the car, reading a tabloid newspaper which I had thought no poet would deign to touch. A comfortable burp told me he had a flask of brandy concealed about his warmly coated person. As we turned into the driveway of his house, we saw Sybil pulling up in front of it. I got out with courteous vivacity. She said: "Since my husband does not believe in introducing people, let us do it ourselves: You are Dr. Kinbote, aren't you? And I am Sybil Shade." Then she addressed her husband saying he might have waited in his office another minute: she had honked and called, and walked all the way up, et cetera. I turned to go, not wishing to listen to a marital scene, but she called me back: "Have a drink with us," she said, "or rather with me, because John is forbidden to touch alcohol." I explained I could not stay long as I was about to have a kind of little seminar at home followed by some table tennis, with two charming identical twins and another boy, another boy.


In his Foreword Kinbote says that he is a strict vegetarian:


A few days later, however, namely on Monday, February 16, I was introduced to the old poet at lunch time in the faculty club. "At last presented credentials," as noted, a little ironically, in my agenda. I was invited to join him and four or five other eminent professors at his usual table, under an enlarged photograph of Wordsmith College as it was, stunned and shabby, on a remarkably gloomy summer day in 1903. His laconic suggestion that I "try the pork" amused me. I am a strict vegetarian, and I like to cook my own meals. Consuming something that had been handled by a fellow creature was, I explained to the rubicund convives, as repulsive to me as eating any creature, and that would include - lowering my voice - the pulpous pony-tailed girl student who served us and licked her pencil. Moreover, I had already finished the fruit brought with me in my briefcase, so I would content myself, I said, with a bottle of good college ale. My free and simple demeanor set everybody at ease. The usual questions were fired at me about eggnogs and milkshakes being or not being acceptable to one of my persuasion. Shade said that with him it was the other way around: he must make a definite effort to partake of a vegetable. Beginning a salad, was to him like stepping into sea water on a chilly day, and he had always to brace himself in order to attack the fortress of an apple. 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.


According to Kinbote, he became a vegetarian after reading a story about an Italian despot:


Such things rankle - but what can Gradus do? The huddled fates engage in a great conspiracy against Gradus. One notes with pardonable glee that his likes are never granted the ultimate thrill of dispatching their victim themselves. Oh, surely, Gradus is active, capable, helpful, often indispensable. At the foot of the scaffold, on a raw and gray morning, it is Gradus who sweeps the night's powder snow off the narrow steps; but his long leathery face will not be the last one that the man who must mount those steps is to see in this world. It is Gradus who buys the cheap fiber valise that a luckier guy will plant, with a time bomb inside, under the bed of a former henchman. Nobody knows better than Gradus how to set a trap by means of a fake advertisement, but the rich old widow whom it hooks is courted and slain by another. When the fallen tyrant is tied, naked and howling, to a plank in the public square and killed piecemeal by the people who cut slices out, and eat them, and distribute his living body among themselves (as I read when young in a story about an Italian despot, which made of me a vegetarian for life), Gradus does not take part in the infernal sacrament: he points out the right instrument and directs the carving.

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 Nikolai Gogol (1944) VN compares old English 'translations' to the so-called Thousand Pieces Execution which was popular at one time in China:


I sometimes think that these old English 'translations' are remarkably similar to the so-called Thousand Pieces Execution which was popular at one time in China. The idea was to cut out from the patient's body one tiny square bit the size of a cough lozenge, say, every five minutes or so until bit by bit (all of them selected with discrimination so as to have the patient live to the nine hundred ninety ninth piece) his whole body was delicately removed. (2.1)


In Canto One of his poem Shade mentions a pheasant that found its China right behind his house:


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)


According to VN, as a schoolboy Gogol would walk with perverse perseverance on the wrong side of the street, would wear the right shoe on the left foot, etc. In Kitay (China in Russian) there is kit (whale). In Herman Melville’s novel Moby Dick (1851) the narrator exclaims “Squeeze! squeeze! squeeze!”:


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 a white sperm whale.


kit + tayna + Agra = Kitay + Tanagra

Tanagra dust = Tanat + Gradus

Boscobel + ombre + England = Boscombe + Blorenge + land


kit – whale

tayna – secret, mystery

Kitay – China

Tanat – Russian name of Thanatos

ombre – Fr., shade (according to Shade, he likes his name: Shade, ombre, almost 'man' in Spanish)

Blorenge – Professor Blorenge, a character in VN’s novel Pnin (1957)


The Boscombe Valley Mystery (1891) is a story by Conan Doyle. The Agra treasure is at the center of The Sign of the Four (1890), Conan Doyle’s second novel featuring Sherlock Holmes. 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." Pnin is a four-letter name that Professor Pardon finds difficult to pronounce:


"You do know Russian, though?" said Pardon. "I think I heard you, the other day, talking to - what's his name - oh, my goodness" [laboriously composing his lips].

Shade: "Sir, we all find it difficult to attack that name" [laughing].

Professor Hurley: "Think of the French word for 'tire': punoo."

Shade: "Why, Sir, I am afraid you have only punctured the difficulty" [laughing uproariously].

"Flatman," quipped I. "Yes," I went on, turning to Pardon, "I certainly do speak Russian. You see, it was the fashionable language par excellence, much more so than French, among the nobles of Zembla at least, and at its court. Today, of course, all this has changed. It is now the lower classes who are forcibly taught to speak Russian." (note to Line 894)


Thomas Flatman is the author of "On the death of our late sovereign lord King Charles II of blessed memory a pindarique ode" (1685).


According to Kinbote, Prof. Pnin is a regular martinet in regard to his underlings:


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: books and people)


"King Charles the Martyr" or "Charles, King and Martyr" is a title of Charles I. The title was used by high church Anglicans who regarded Charles's execution as a martyrdom. Kinbote calls Zemblan church very "high:"


I remember one little poem from Night Rote (meaning "the nocturnal sound of the sea") that happened to be my first contact with the American poet Shade. A young lecturer on American Literature, a brilliant and charming boy from Boston, showed me that slim and lovely volume in Onhava, in my student days. The following lines opening this poem, which is entitled "Art," pleased me by their catchy lilt and jarred upon the religious sentiments instilled in me by our very "high" Zemblan church.


From mammoth hunts and Odysseys

And Oriental charms

To the Italian goddesses

With Flemish babes in arms. (note to Line 957)


Flemish babes bring to mind Flemish hells mentioned by Shade in Canto Two of his poem:


So why join in the vulgar laughter? Why

Scorn a hereafter none can verify:

The Turk's delight, the future lyres, the talks

With Socrates and Proust in cypress walks,

The seraph with his six flamingo wings,

And Flemish hells with porcupines and things?

It isn't that we dream too wild a dream:

The trouble is we do not make it seem

Sufficiently unlikely; for the most

We can think up is a domestic ghost. (221-230)


"Flemish hells with porcupines and things" suggest the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, the artist whose name recalls Boscobel. According to Kinbote, Boscobel is now (1959) a "nudist colony."