strange premonition & odd dark word in Pale Fire; Lucette's suicide in Ada

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Fri, 07/31/2020 - 10:02

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 murderer:


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)


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”). In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (5.3) Paris tells Romeo “Condemnèd villain, I do apprehend thee:”


Condemnèd villain, I do apprehend thee.
Obey and go with me, for thou must die.


The characters in Romeo and Juliet include Balthasar (Romeo’s manservant). Kinbote nicknamed his black gardener “Balthasar, Prince of Loam.”


Predchuvstvuyu Tebya (“I Apprehend You,” 1901) is a poem by Alexander Blok:


И тяжкий сон житейского сознанья
Ты отряхнёшь, тоскуя и любя.
Вл. Соловьёв


Предчувствую Тебя. Года проходят мимо —
Всё в облике одном предчувствую Тебя.


Весь горизонт в огне — и ясен нестерпимо,
И молча жду, — тоскуя и любя.


Весь горизонт в огне, и близко появленье,
Но страшно мне: изменишь облик Ты,


И дерзкое возбудишь подозренье,
Сменив в конце привычные черты.


О, как паду — и горестно, и низко,
Не одолев смертельные мечты!


Как ясен горизонт! И лучезарность близко.
Но страшно мне: изменишь облик Ты.


4 июня 1901. С. Шахматово


And with longing and love you will shake off
The heavy dream of everyday consciousness.

V. Solovyov


I apprehend You. The years pass by -
Yet in constant form, I apprehend You.


The whole horizon is aflame - impossibly sharp,
And mute, I wait, - with longing and with love.


The whole horizon is aflame, and your appearance near.
And yet I fear that You will change your form,


Give rise to impudent suspicion
By changing Your familiar contours in the end.


Oh, how I'll fall - so low and bitter,
Defeated by my fatal dreams!


How sharp is the horizon! Radiance is near.
And yet I fear that You will change your form.

(tr. A. Wachtel, I. Kutik and M. Denner)


The poem’s last line, “And yet I fear that You will change your form,” brings to mind “versipel,” as in Canto Four of his poem Shade calls his muse:


Dressing in all the rooms, I rhyme and roam

Throughout the house with, in my fist, a comb

Or a shoehorn, which turns into the spoon

I eat my egg with. In the afternoon

You drive me to the library. We dine

At half past six. And that odd muse of mine,

My versipel, is with me everywhere,

In carrel and in car, and in my chair. (ll. 941-948)


Shade’s versipel seems to hint at Versilov, a character in Dostoevski’s novel Podrostok (“The Adolescent,” 1875). In a letter of Oct. 31, 1838 (Dostoevski’s seventeenth birthday), to his brother Dostoevski twice repeats the word gradus (degree). Shade’s murderer, Gradus is Kinbote’s double. Dvoynik ("The Double") is a short novel by Dostoevski (1846) and a poem (1909) by Blok. In his diary (the entry of Aug. 30, 1918) Blok mentions dvoyniki (the dopplegangers) whom he conjured up in 1901 (when he courted Lyubov Mendeleev, his future wife), drugoe ya (alter ego) and Botkinskiy period (the Botkin period) of his life:


К ноябрю началось явное моё колдовство, ибо я вызвал двойников  ("Зарево белое...", "Ты - другая, немая...").

Любовь Дмитриевна ходила на уроки к М. М. Читау, я же ждал её выхода, следил за ней и иногда провожал её до Забалканского с Гагаринской - Литейной (конец ноября, начало декабря). Чаще, чем со мной, она встречалась с кем-то - кого не видела и о котором я знал.

Появился мороз, "мятель", "неотвязный" и царица, звенящая дверь, два старца, "отрава" (непосланных цветов), свершающий и пользующийся плодами свершений ("другое я"), кто-то "смеющийся и нежный". Так кончился 1901 год.

Тут - Боткинский период.


Shade’s birthday, July 5, is also Kinbote’s and Gradus’s birthday (while Shade was born in 1898, Kinbote and Gradus were born in 1915). Shade, Kinbote and Gradus seem to be one and the same person whose “real” name 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.


Blok’s poem “I Apprehend Thou” written in Shakhmatovo (Blok’s country seat in the Province of Moscow) is dated June 4, 1901. In VN’s novel Ada (1969) Lucette commits suicide (by jumping into the Atlantic from the Admiral Tobakoff) on June 4, 1901. Describing his meeting with Lucette in Paris (also known as Lute on Demonia, aka Antiterra, Earth’s twin planet on which Ada is set), Van compares his and Ada’s half-sister to Blok’s Neznakomka (Unknown Woman):


The concierge returned shaking his head. Out of the goodness of his heart Van gave him a Goal guinea and said he’d call again at one-thirty. He walked through the lobby (where the author of Agonic Lines and Mr Eliot, affalés, with a great amount of jacket over their shoulders, dans des fauteuils, were comparing cigars) and, leaving the hotel by a side exit, crossed the rue des Jeunes Martyres for a drink at Ovenman’s.

Upon entering, he stopped for a moment to surrender his coat; but he kept his black fedora and stick-slim umbrella as he had seen his father do in that sort of bawdy, albeit smart, place which decent women did not frequent — at least, unescorted. He headed for the bar, and as he was in the act of wiping the lenses of his black-framed spectacles, made out, through the optical mist (Space’s recent revenge!), the girl whose silhouette he recalled having seen now and then (much more distinctly!) ever since his pubescence, passing alone, drinking alone, always alone, like Blok’s Incognita. It was a queer feeling — as of something replayed by mistake, part of a sentence misplaced on the proof sheet, a scene run prematurely, a repeated blemish, a wrong turn of time. He hastened to reequip his ears with the thick black bows of his glasses and went up to her in silence. For a minute he stood behind her, sideways to remembrance and reader (as she, too, was in regard to us and the bar), the crook of his silk-swathed cane lifted in profile almost up to his mouth. There she was, against the aureate backcloth of a sakarama screen next to the bar, toward which she was sliding, still upright, about to be seated, having already placed one white-gloved hand on the counter. She wore a high-necked, long-sleeved romantic black dress with an ample skirt, fitted bodice and ruffy collar, from the black soft corolla of which her long neck gracefully rose. With a rake’s morose gaze we follow the pure proud line of that throat, of that tilted chin. The glossy red lips are parted, avid and fey, offering a side gleam of large upper teeth. We know, we love that high cheekbone (with an atom of powder puff sticking to the hot pink skin), and the forward upsweep of black lashes and the painted feline eye — all this in profile, we softly repeat. From under the wavy wide brim of her floppy hat of black faille, with a great black bow surmounting it, a spiral of intentionally disarranged, expertly curled bright copper descends her flaming cheek, and the light of the bar’s ‘gem bulbs’ plays on her bouffant front hair, which, as seen laterally, convexes from beneath the extravagant brim of the picture hat right down to her long thin eyebrow. Her Irish profile sweetened by a touch of Russian softness, which adds a look of mysterious expectancy and wistful surprise to her beauty, must be seen, I hope, by the friends and admirers of my memories, as a natural masterpiece incomparably finer and younger than the portrait of the similarily postured lousy jade with her Parisian gueule de guenon on the vile poster painted by that wreck of an artist for Ovenman.

‘Hullo there, Ed,’ said Van to the barman, and she turned at the sound of his dear rasping voice.

‘I didn’t expect you to wear glasses. You almost got le paquet, which I was preparing for the man supposedly "goggling" my hat. Darling Van! Dushka moy!’

‘Your hat,’ he said, ‘is positively lautrémontesque — I mean, lautrecaquesque — no, I can’t form the adjective.’

Ed Barton served Lucette what she called a Chambéryzette.

‘Gin and bitter for me.’

‘I’m so happy and sad,’ she murmured in Russian. ‘Moyo grustnoe schastie! How long will you be in old Lute?’

Van answered he was leaving next day for England, and then on June 3 (this was May 31) would be taking the Admiral Tobakoff back to the States. She would sail with him, she cried, it was a marvelous idea, she didn’t mind whither to drift, really, West, East, Toulouse, Los Teques. He pointed out that it was far too late to obtain a cabin (on that not very grand ship so much shorter than Queen Guinevere), and changed the subject. (3.3)


In his poem Pomnite den’ bezotradnyi i seryi… (“Do you remember a cheerless and grey day,” 1899) Blok mentions grustnoe schastie (the sad happiness):


Помните день безотрадный и серый,

Лист пожелтевший во мраке зачах...

Всё мне: Любовь и Надежда и Вера

     В Ваших очах!


Помните лунную ночь голубую,

Шли мы, и песня звучала впотьмах...

Я схоронил эту песню живую

     В Ваших очах!


Помните счастье: давно отлетело

Грустное счастье на быстрых крылах...

Только и жило оно и горело

     В Ваших очах!


In the second line of his poem Mne snilis’ vesyolye dumy… (“I’ve been dreaming of merry thoughts,” 1903) Blok says: Mne snilos’, chto ya ne odin (I’ve been dreaming that I was not alone):


Мне снились веселые думы,
Мне снилось, что я не один...
Под утро проснулся от шума
И треска несущихся льдин.

Я думал о сбывшемся чуде...
А там, наточив топоры,
Веселые красные люди,
Смеясь, разводили костры:

Смолили тяжелые челны...
Река, распевая, несла
И синие льдины, и волны,
И тонкий обломок весла...

Пьяна от веселого шума,
Душа небывалым полна..
Со мною - весенняя дума,
Я знаю, что Ты не одна...


The poem’s last line, Ya znayu, chto Ty ne odna (I know that You are not alone), brings to mind the last line of Blok’s Neznakomka, Ya znayu: istina v vine (I know: in wine is truth). When Lucette rings him up in his Tobakoff cabin, Van tells her: ya ne odin (I’m not alone):


He saw the situation dispassionately now and felt he was doing right by going to bed and switching off the ‘ectric’ light (a surrogate creeping back into international use). The blue ghost of the room gradually established itself as his eyes got used to the darkness. He prided himself on his willpower. He welcomed the dull pain in his drained root. He welcomed the thought which suddenly seemed so absolutely true, and new, and as lividly real as the slowly widening gap of the sitting room’s doorway, namely, that on the morrow (which was at least, and at best, seventy years away) he would explain to Lucette, as a philosopher and another girl’s brother, that he knew how agonizing and how absurd it was to put all one’s spiritual fortune on one physical fancy and that his plight closely resembled hers, but that he managed, after all, to live, to work, and not pine away because he refused to wreck her life with a brief affair and because Ada was still a child. At that point the surface of logic began to be affected by a ripple of sleep, but he sprang back into full consciousness at the sound of the telephone. The thing seemed to squat for each renewed burst of ringing and at first he decided to let it ring itself out. Then his nerves surrendered to the insisting signal, and he snatched up the receiver.
No doubt he was morally right in using the first pretext at hand to keep her away from his bed; but he also knew, as a gentleman and an artist, that the lump of words he brought up was trite and cruel, and it was only because she could not accept him as being either, that she believed him:
Mozhno pridti teper’ (can I come now)?’ asked Lucette.
Ya ne odin (I’m not alone),’ answered Van.
A small pause followed; then she hung up. (3.5)


In “Ardis the Second” Ada tells Van that ugly dark words scare Lucette:


‘I have to admit,’ said Ada to Van as they floated downstream in a red boat, toward a drape of willows on a Ladore islet, ‘I have to admit with shame and sorrow, Van, that the splendid plan is a foozle. I think the brat has a dirty mind. I think she is criminally in love with you. I think I shall tell her you are her uterine brother and that it is illegal and altogether abominable to flirt with uterine brothers. Ugly dark words scare her, I know; they scared me when I was four; but she is essentially a dumb child, and should be protected from nightmares and stallions. If she still does not desist, I can always complain to Marina, saying she disturbs us in our meditations and studies. But perhaps you don’t mind? Perhaps she excites you? Yes? She excites you, confess?’

‘This summer is so much sadder than the other,’ said Van softly. (1.34)