Exton railway employee in Pale Fire

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Tue, 07/28/2020 - 12:31

According to 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), in a conversation with him and Shade Mrs. Hurley mentioned the old man at the Exton railway station who thought he was God and began redirecting the trains:


Above this the poet wrote and struck out:


The madman’s fate


The ultimate destiny of madmen's souls has been probed by many Zemblan theologians who generally hold the view that even the most demented mind still contains within its diseased mass a sane basic particle that survived death and suddenly expands, bursts out as it were, in peals of healthy and triumphant laughter when the world of timorous fools and trim blockheads has fallen away far behind. Personally, I have not known any lunatics; but have heard of several amusing cases in New Wye ("Even in Arcady am I," says Dementia, chained to her gray column). There was for instance a student who went berserk. There was an old tremendously trustworthy college porter who one day, in the Projection Room, showed a squeamish coed something of which she had no doubt seen better samples; but my favorite case is that of an Exton railway employee whose delusion was described to me by Mrs. H., of all people. There was a big Summer School party at the Hurleys', to which one of my second ping-pong table partners, a pal of the Hurley boys had taken me because I knew my poet was to recite there something and I was beside myself with apprehension believing it might be my Zembla (it proved to be an obscure poem by one of his obscure friends - my Shade was very kind to the unsuccessful). The reader will understand if I say that, at my altitude, I can never feel "lost" in a crowd, but it is also true that I did not know many people at the H.'s. As I circulated, with a smile on my face and a cocktail in my hand, through the crush, I espied at last the top of my poet's head and the bright brown chignon of Mrs. H. above the back of two adjacent chairs: At the moment I advanced behind them I heard him object to some remark she had just made:

"That is the wrong word," he said. "One should not apply it to a person who deliberately peels off a drab and unhappy past and replaces it with a brilliant invention. That's merely turning a new leaf with the left hand."

I patted my friend on the head and bowed slightly to Eberthella H. The poet looked at me with glazed eyes. She said: "You must help us, Mr. Kinbote: I maintain that what's his name, old - the old man, you know, at the Exton railway station, who thought he was God and began redirecting the trains, was technically a loony, but John calls him a fellow poet."

"We all are, in a sense, poets, Madam," I replied, and offered a lighted match to my friend who had his pipe in his teeth and was beating himself with both hands on various parts of his torso.

I am not sure this trivial variant has been worth commenting; indeed, the whole passage about the activities of the IPH would be quite Hudibrastic had its pedestrian verse been one foot shorter. (note to Line 629)


VN’s novel Priglashenie na kazn’ (“Invitation to a Beheading,” 1935) has an epigraph from the invented French thinker Delalande:


Comme un fou se croit Dieu

nous nous croyons mortels.

Delalande. Discours sur les ombres


Just as a madman believes he is God,

we believe we are mortal.

Delalande. A Discourse on Shades


In a discarded variant (quoted by Kinbote in his Commentary) Shade says: "I like my name: Shade, Ombre, almost "man" / in Spanish..."


Describing the death of Alexander Yakovlevich Chernyshevsky, Fyodor Godunov-Cherdyntsev (the narrator and main character in VN’s novel "The Gift," 1937) quotes Delalande:


Когда однажды французского мыслителя Delalande на чьих-то похоронах спросили, почему он не обнажает головы (ne se découvre pas), он отвечал: я жду, чтобы смерть начала первая (qu’elle se découvre la première). В этом есть метафизическая негалантность, но смерть большего не стоит. Боязнь рождает благоговение, благоговение ставит жертвенник, его дым восходит к небу, там принимает образ крыл, и склоненная боязнь к нему обращает молитву. Религия имеет такое же отношение к загробному состоянию человека, какое имеет математика к его состоянию земному: то и другое только условия игры. Вера в Бога и вера в цифру: местная истина, истина места. Я знаю, что смерть сама по себе никак не связана с внежизненной областью, ибо дверь есть лишь выход из дома, а не часть его окрестности, какой является дерево или холм. Выйти как-нибудь нужно, «но я отказываюсь видеть в двери больше, чем дыру, да то, что сделали столяр и плотник» (Delalande, Discours sur les ombres p. 45 et ante). Опять же: несчастная маршрутная мысль, с которой давно свыкся человеческий разум (жизнь в виде некоего пути) есть глупая иллюзия: мы никуда не идём, мы сидим дома. Загробное окружает нас всегда, а вовсе не лежит в конце какого-то путешествия. В земном доме вместо окна – зеркало; дверь до поры до времени затворена; но воздух входит сквозь щели. «Наиболее доступный для наших домоседных чувств образ будущего постижения окрестности долженствующей раскрыться нам по распаде тела, это – освобождение духа из глазниц плоти и превращение наше в одно свободное сплошное око, зараз видящее все стороны света, или, иначе говоря: сверхчувственное прозрение мира при нашем внутреннем участии» (там же, стр. 64). Но всё это только символы, символы, которые становятся обузой для мысли в то мгновение, как она приглядится к ним…


When the French thinker Delalande was asked at somebody’s funeral why he did not uncover himself (ne se découvre pas), he replied: “I am waiting for death to do it first” (qu’elle se découvre la première). There is a lack of metaphysical gallantry in this, but death deserves no more. Fear gives birth to sacred awe, sacred awe erects a sacrificial altar, its smoke ascends to the sky, there assumes the shape of wings, and bowing fear addresses a prayer to it. Religion has the same relation to man’s heavenly condition that mathematics has to his earthly one: both the one and the other are merely the rules of the game. Belief in God and belief in numbers: local truth and truth of location. I know that death in itself is in no way connected with the topography of the hereafter, for a door is merely the exit from the house and not a part of its surroundings, like a tree or a hill. One has to get out somehow, “but I refuse to see in a door more than a hole, and a carpenter’s job” (Delalande, Discours sur les ombres, p. 45). And then again: the unfortunate image of a “road” to which the human mind has become accustomed (life as a kind of journey) is a stupid illusion: we are not going anywhere, we are sitting at home. The other world surrounds us always and is not at all at the end of some pilgrimage. In our earthly house, windows are replaced by mirrors; the door, until a given time, is closed; but air comes in through the cracks. “For our stay-at-home senses the most accessible image of our future comprehension of those surroundings which are due to be revealed to us with the disintegration of the body is the liberation of the soul from the eye-sockets of the flesh and our transformation into one complete and free eye, which can simultaneously see in all directions, or to put it differently: a supersensory insight into the world accompanied by our inner participation.” (Ibid. p. 64). But all this is only symbols—symbols which become a burden to the mind as soon as it takes a close look at them…. (Chapter Five)


Poor Alexander Yakovlevich went mad after the suicide of his son Yasha. Similarly, Professor Vsevolod Botkin went mad and became Shade, Kinbote and Gradus (the poet’s murderer) after the tragic death of his daughter Nadezhda (Hazel Shade of Kinbote’s Commentary). In his diary (the entry of Aug. 30, 1918) Alexander Blok mentions his dvoyniki (dopplegangers), drugoe ya (alter ego) and Botkinskiy period (the Botkin period) of his life. Blok’s poem Okna vo dvor (“Windows Giving onto Courtyard,” 1906) begins: Odna mne ostalas’ nadezhda (“One hope is left to me”). One of Blok’s most famous poems is Na zheleznoy doroge (“On the Railway,” 1910). In his memoir essay “Gumilyov and Blok” (1931) Hodasevich says that he learnt of Blok’s fatal illness from the poet Nadezhda Pavlovich, his and Blok’s common friend who told Hodasevich that Blok went mad:


Я пошел к себе — и застал там поэтессу Надежду Павлович, общую нашу с Блоком приятельницу. Она только что прибежала от Блока красная от жары и запухшая от слез. Она сказала мне, что у Блока началась агония. Как водится, я стал утешать ее, обнадеживать. Тогда, в последнем отчаянии, она подбежала ко мне и, захлебываясь слезами, сказала:
— Ничего вы не знаете… никому не говорите… уже несколько дней… он сошел с ума!


Zinaida Hippius’s memoir essay on Alexander Blok is entitled Moy lunnyi drug ("My Lunar Friend," 1922). “Loony” (a word used by Eberthella H.) is a shortened form of “lunatic,” which originally referred mainly to epilepsy and madness, as diseases thought to be caused by the moon. Describing Aunt Maud’s room in Canto One of his poem, Shade mentions her verse book opened at the Index (Moon, Moonrise, Moor, Moral):


I was brought up by dear bizarre Aunt Maud,

A poet and a painter with a taste

For realistic objects interlaced

With grotesque growths and images of doom.

She lived to hear the next babe cry. Her room

We've kept intact. Its trivia create

A still life in her style: the paperweight

Of convex glass enclosing a lagoon,

The verse book open at the Index (Moon,

Moonrise, Moor, Moral), the forlorn guitar,

The human skull; and from the local Star

A curio: Red Sox Beat Yanks 5-4

On Chapman's Homer, thumbtacked to the door. (ll. 86-98)


The New York Yankees ("Yanks") are an American professional baseball team based in the New York City borough of the Bronx. New Wye (a small University town where Shade and Kinbote live) seems to be a cross between New York and New Moscow, as in his lecture on chess Ostap Bender (the main character in Ilf and Petrov’s "The Twelve Chairs," 1928, and "The Golden Calf," 1931) 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”)


The name of Blok's country place in the Province of Moscow, Shakhmatovo, comes from shakhmaty (chess). At the end of Blok’s poem Dvenadtsat’ (“The Twelve,” 1918) Jesus Christ goes ahead of the twelve Red Army soldiers in a white wreath of roses and carrying a blood-red flag.


The Chernyshevski couple in “The Gift,” Alexander Yakovlevich and Alexandra Yakovlevna have the same name and patronymic as goluboy vorishka (the bashful chiseller) and his wife in Ilf and Petrov’s “The Twelve Chairs:”


Завхоз 2-го дома Старсобеса был застенчивый ворюга. Всё существо его протестовало против краж, но не красть он не мог. Он крал, и ему было стыдно. Крал он постоянно, постоянно стыдился, и поэтому его хорошо бритые щёчки всегда горели румянцем смущения, стыдливости, застенчивости и конфуза. Завхоза звали Александром Яковлевичем, а жену его – Александрой Яковлевной. Он называл её Сашхен, она звала его Альхен. Свет не видывал ещё такого голубого воришки, как Александр Яковлевич.


The Assistant Warden of the Second Home of Stargorod Social Security Administration was a shy little thief. His whole being protested against stealing, yet it was impossible for him not to steal. He stole and was ashamed of himself. He stole constantly and was constantly ashamed of himself, which was why his smoothly shaven cheeks always burned with a blush of confusion, shame, bashfulness and embarrassment. The assistant warden's name was Alexander Yakovlevich, and his wife's name was Alexandra Yakovlevna. He used to call her Sashchen, and she used to call him Alchen. The world has never seen such a bashful chiseller as Alexander Yakovlevich. (chapter VIII “The Bashful Chiseller”)


Ilf and Petrov are the authors of “A Thousand and One Day, or the New Scheherazade” (1929). 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. In his poem Kol’tso sushchestvovan’ya tesno (“The ring of existence is tight,” 1909) Blok quotes the saying “all roads lead to Rome:”


Кольцо существованья тесно:
Как все пути приводят в Рим,
Так нам заранее известно,
Что всё мы рабски повторим.

И мне, как всем, всё тот же жребий
Мерещится в грядущей мгле:
Опять — любить Её на небе
И изменить ей на земле.


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 ведет 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 also Kinbote's entire Foreword, Commentary and Index can thus be regarded as a coda of Shade's poem.


Let me draw your attention to the updated version of my previous post “Boscobel & Flatman in Pale Fire; Cincinnatus's brothers-in-law in Invitation to a Beheading.”