odd dark word in Pale Fire

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Thu, 07/30/2020 - 10:42

Describing Shade’s murder by Gradus, 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) says that he cannot write out the odd dark word employed by his black gardener with respect to the killer:


He had worked for two years as a male nurse in a hospital for Negroes in Maryland. He was hard up. He wanted to study landscaping, botany and French ("to read in the original Baudelaire and Dumas"). I promised him some financial assistance. He started to work at my place the very next day. He was awfully nice and pathetic, and all that, but a little too talkative and completely impotent which I found discouraging. Otherwise he was a strong strapping fellow, and I hugely enjoyed the aesthetic pleasure of watching him buoyantly struggle with earth and turf or delicately manipulate bulbs, or lay out the flagged path which may or may not be a nice surprise for my landlord, when he safely returns from England (where I hope no bloodthirsty maniacs are stalking him!). How I longed to have him (my gardener, not my landlord) wear a great big turban, and shalwars, and an ankle bracelet. I would certainly have him attired according to the old romanticist notion of a Moorish prince, had I been a northern king – or rather had I still been a king (exile becomes a bad habit). You will chide me, my modest man, for writing so much about you in this note, but I feel I must pay you this tribute. After all, you saved my life. You and I were the last people who saw John Shade alive, and you admitted afterwards to a strange premonition which made you interrupt your work as you noticed us from the shrubbery walking toward the porch where stood – (Superstitiously I cannot write out the odd dark word you employed.) (note to Line 998)


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. Shade’s murderer, Gradus is Kinbote’s double. The odd dark word that Kinbote cannot write out must be “thou” (an archaic second person pronoun used in the phrase "thou shalt not kill").


According to Kinbote, his name means in Zemblan "regicide:"


Professor Pardon now spoke to me: "I was under the impression that you were born in Russia, and that your name was a kind of anagram of Botkin or Botkine?"

Kinbote: "You are confusing me with some refugee from Nova Zembla" [sarcastically stressing the "Nova'"].

"Didn't you tell me, Charles, that kinbote means regicide in your language?" asked my dear Shade.

"Yes, a king's destroyer," I said (longing to explain that a king who sinks his identity in the mirror of exile is in a sense just that).

Shade [addressing the German visitor]: "Professor Kinbote is the author of a remarkable book on surnames. I believe [to me] there exists an English translation?"

"Oxford, 1956," I replied. (note to Line 894)


The “real” name of Shade, Kinbote and Gradus is Botkin. An American scholar of Russian descent, Professor Vsevolod 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 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.


In his poem January 29th, 1837 (1837) Tyutchev calls d’Anthès (Pushkin’s murderer) tsareubiytsa (a regicide), summons mir (peace) onto the Poet’s shade and says that Russia’s heart, like first love, will never forget Pushkin:


Из чьей руки свинец смертельный
Поэту сердце растерзал?
Кто сей божественный фиал
Разрушил, как сосуд скудельный?

Будь прав или виновен он
Пред нашей правдою земною,
Навек он высшею рукою
В «цареубийцы» заклеймен.

Но ты, в безвременную тьму
Вдруг поглощенная со света,
Мир, мир тебе, о тень поэта,
Мир светлый праху твоему!..

Назло людскому суесловью
Велик и свят был жребий твой!..
Ты был богов орган живой,
Но с кровью в жилах... знойной кровью.

И сею кровью благородной
Ты жажду чести утолил –
И осененный опочил
Хоругвью горести народной.

Вражду твою пусть Тот рассудит,
Кто слышит пролитую кровь...
Тебя ж, как первую любовь,
России сердце не забудет!..

Who fired the shot?
Who stilled the life which quivered
in the poet’s heart?
In whose hands was the fragile phial shivered?

Innocent or deserving blame,
in the eyes of earthly justice
and branded forever by heaven,
Regicide will be his name.

Into a dark, timeless deep
you were suddenly swept from existence.
Peace to you, the poet’s shade!
I wish you bright peace in your sleep.

In spite of vain discourse,
your lot has been divine and great.
You were the god’s mouthpiece,
but you lived. In your veins, warm blood coursed!

This noble blood has silenced jeers
staining honour’s name.
Now in the sacred shade you rest,
beneath the banner of our people’s tears.

Let Him pass judgement!
He can hear the flow of blood spilled.
You will be first love in a youthful breast:
in Russia’s heart eternally dear!
(transl. F. Jude)


A kinbote is a bote or compensation given by a homicide to the kin of his victim. At the end of his poem Smert’ poeta (“Death of the Poet,” 1837) Lermontov says that the black blood of Pushkin’s enemies will not wash away the poet's sacred blood:


А вы, надменные потомки
Известной подлостью прославленных отцов,
Пятою рабскою поправшие обломки
Игрою счастия обиженных родов!
Вы, жадною толпой стоящие у трона,
Свободы, Гения и Славы палачи!
     Таитесь вы под сению закона,
     Пред вами суд и правда — всё молчи!..
Но есть и божий суд, наперсники разврата!
     Есть грозный суд: он ждет;
     Он не доступен звону злата,
И мысли и дела он знает наперед.
Тогда напрасно вы прибегнете к злословью:
     Оно вам не поможет вновь,
И вы не смоете всей вашей черной кровью
     Поэта праведную кровь!


And you, the offspring arrogant

Of fathers known for malice,

Crushing with slavish heels the ruins

Of clans aggrieved by fortune's game!

You, greedy hordes around the throne,

Killers of Freedom, Genius and Glory!

     You hide beneath the canopy of law

     Fall silent  -  truth and justice before you...

But justice also comes from God, corruption's friends!

     The judge most terrible awaits you:

     He's hardened to the clink of gold,

He knows your future thoughts and deeds.

Then will you turn in vain to lies:

     They will no longer help.

And your black blood won't wash away

     The poet's sacred blood!


Chyornaya krov’ (“The Black Blood,” 1909-14) is a cycle of verses by Alexander Blok.


Lermontov’s poem Net, ya ne Bayron, ya drugoy… (“No, I’m not Byron, I’m another…” 1832) ends in the line Ya ili Bog - ili nikto (Myself – or God – or none at all):


Нет, я не Байрон, я другой,
Ещё неведомый избранник,
Как он, гонимый миром странник,
Но только с русскою душой.
Я раньше начал, кончу ране,
Мой ум немного совершит;
В душе моей, как в океане,
Надежд разбитых груз лежит.
Кто может, океан угрюмый,
Твои изведать тайны? Кто
Толпе мои расскажет думы?
Я — или Бог — или никто!


No, I'm not Byron, I’m another
yet unknown chosen man,
like him, a persecuted wanderer,
but only with a Russian soul.
I started sooner, I will end sooner,
my mind won’t achieve much;
in my soul, as in the ocean,
lies a load of broken hopes.
Who can, gloomy ocean,
find out your secrets? Who
will tell to the crowd my thoughts?
Myself – or God – or none at all!


The first word of the poem’s last line is ya (I). In the poem’s first line Lermontov repeats the word ya twice. Hodasevich’s poem Pered zerkalom (“In Front of the Mirror,” 1924) begins with the line Ya, ya, ya – chto za dikoe slovo (“I, I, I – what a wild, elusive word”). The first word of Shade’s poem is “I.” The last word of Kinbote’s Commentary is Gradus:


"And you, what will you be doing with yourself, poor King, poor Kinbote?" a gentle young voice may inquire.

God will help me, I trust, to rid myself of any desire to follow the example of the other two characters in this work. I shall continue to exist. I may assume other disguises, other forms, but I shall try to exist. I may turn up yet, on another campus, as an old, happy, healthy heterosexual Russian, a writer in exile, sans fame, sans future, sans audience, sans anything but his art. I may join forces with Odon in a new motion picture: Escape from Zembla (ball in the palace, bomb in the palace square). I may pander to the simple tastes of theatrical critics and cook up a stage play, an old-fashioned melodrama with three principles: a lunatic who intends to kill an imaginary king, another lunatic who imagines himself to be that king, and a distinguished old poet who stumbles by chance into the line of fire, and perishes in the clash between the two figments. Oh, I may do many things! History permitting, I may sail back to my recovered kingdom, and with a great sob greet the gray coastline and the gleam of a roof in the rain. I may huddle and groan in a madhouse. But whatever happens, wherever the scene is laid, somebody, somewhere, will quietly set out--somebody has already set out, somebody still rather far away is buying a ticket, is boarding a bus, a ship, a plane, has landed, is walking toward a million photographers, and presently he will ring at my door--a bigger, more respectable, more competent Gradus. (note to Line 1000)


"A bigger, more respectable, more competent Gradus" brings to mind the real Inspector whose arrival is announced at the end of Gogol's play Revizor ("The Inspector," 1836):


Жандарм. Приехавший по именному повелению из Петербурга чиновник требует вас сей же час к себе. Он остановился в гостинице.
Произнесённые слова поражают как громом всех. Звук изумления единодушно взлетает из дамских уст; вся группа, вдруг переменивши положение, остаётся в окаменении.


GENDARME. The Inspector-General sent by Imperial command has arrived, and requests your attendance at once. He awaits you in the inn.
(They are thunderstruck at this announcement. The ladies utter simultaneous ejaculations of amazement; the whole group suddenly shift their positions and remain as if petrified.)


Gogol's play has for epigraph the saying Na zerkalo necha penyat', koli rozha kriva (Don't blame the mirror, if your face is faulty).


In my recent post “Sherlock Holmes & Tanagra dust in Pale Fire” I spoke of numerical symbolism (in connection with Conan Doyle’s “The Sign of the Four”) and forgot to mention 0000 (“the quadruple of zeroes”), the pseudonym with which young Gogol signed the fragment of a historical novel (that remained unfinished).