Sybil, Cynthia & Mary Valevsky in The Vane Sisters

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Sat, 08/01/2020 - 05:48

In VN's story The Vane Sisters (1951) the spirits of Oscar Wilde and Leo Tolstoy appear at a sèance arranged by Cynthia:


I am sorry to say that not content with these ingenious fancies Cynthia showed a ridiculous fondness for spiritualism. I refused to accompany her to sittings in which paid mediums took part: I knew too much about that from other sources. I did consent, however, to attend little farces rigged up by Cynthia and her two poker-faced gentlemen friends of the printing shop. They were podgy, polite, and rather eerie old fellows, but I satisfied myself that they possessed considerable wit and culture. We sat down at a light little table, and crackling tremors started almost as soon as we laid our fingertips upon it. I was treated to an assortment of ghosts that rapped out their reports most readily though refusing to elucidate anything that I did not quite catch. Oscar Wilde came in and in rapid garbled French, with the usual anglicisms, obscurely accused Cynthia's dead parents of what appeared in my jottings as "plagiatisme." A brisk spirit contributed the unsolicited information that he, John Moore, and his brother Bill had been coal miners in Colorado and had perished in an avalanche at "Crested Beauty" in January 1883. Frederic Myers, an old hand at the game, hammered out a piece of verse (oddly resembling Cynthia's own fugitive productions) which in part reads in my notes:


     What is this-- a conjuror's rabbit,

     Or a flawy but genuine gleam--

     Which can check the perilous habit

     And dispel the dolorous dream?


Finally, with a great crash and all kinds of shuddering and jiglike movements on the part of the table, Leo Tolstoy visited our little group and, when asked to identify himself by specific traits of terrene habitation, launched upon a complex description of what seemed to be some Russian type of architec­tural woodwork ("figures on boards -- man, horse, cock, man, horse, cock"), all of which was difficult to take down, hard to understand, and impossible to verify. (chapter 5)


Cynthia's hysterical young sister, Sybil Vane commits suicide by taking poison. In Oscar Wilde's novel The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) Sybil Vane is a young talented actress who takes poison. Dorian Gray falls in love with Sybil after seeing her in the role of Juliet in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. In Shakespeare’s play (Act III, scene 5) Romeo mentions the pale reflex of Cynthia's brow (Cynthia was one of the names for the Greek goddess of the moon):


Let me be ta'en, let me be put to death;

I am content, so thou wilt have it so.

I'll say yon grey is not the morning's eye,

'Tis but the pale reflex of Cynthia's brow;

Nor that is not the lark, whose notes do beat                 

The vaulty heaven so high above our heads.

I have more care to stay, than will to go.

Come, death, and welcome! Juliet wills it so.

How is't, my soul? Let's talk; it is not day.


According to VN, in The Vane Sisters “the narrator is supposed to be unaware that his last paragraph has been used acrostically by two dead girls to assert their mysterious participation in the story.” At the beginning of his autobiography Speak, Memory (1951) VN compares Freudian quest for sexual symbols to searching for Baconian acrostics in Shakespeare’s works:


The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. Although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule, views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is heading for (at some forty-five hundred heartbeats an hour). I know, however, of a young chronophobiac who experienced something like panic when looking for the first time at homemade movies that had been taken a few weeks before his birth. He saw a world that was practically unchanged—the same house, the same people—and then realized that he did not exist there at all and that nobody mourned his absence. He caught a glimpse of his mother waving from an upstairs window, and that unfamiliar gesture disturbed him, as if it were some mysterious farewell. But what particularly frightened him was the sight of a brand-new baby carriage standing there on the porch, with the smug, encroaching air of a coffin; even that was empty, as if, in the reverse course of events, his very bones had disintegrated.

Such fancies are not foreign to young lives. Or, to put it otherwise, first and last things often tend to have an adolescent note—unless, possibly, they are directed by some venerable and rigid religion. Nature expects a full-grown man to accept the two black voids, fore and aft, as stolidly as he accepts the extraordinary visions in between. Imagination, the supreme delight of the immortal and the immature, should be limited. In order to enjoy life, we should not enjoy it too much.

I rebel against this state of affairs. I feel the urge to take my rebellion outside and picket nature. Over and over again, my mind has made colossal efforts to distinguish the faintest of personal glimmers in the impersonal darkness on both sides of my life. That this darkness is caused merely by the walls of time separating me and my bruised fists from the free world of timelessness is a belief I gladly share with the most gaudily painted savage. I have journeyed back in thought—with thought hopelessly tapering off as I went—to remote regions where I groped for some secret outlet only to discover that the prison of time is spherical and without exits. I have journeyed back in thought—with thought hopelessly tapering off as I went—to remote regions where I groped for some secret outlet only to discover that the prison of time is spherical and without exits. Short of suicide, I have tried everything. I have doffed my identity in order to pass for a conventional spook and steal into realms that existed before I was conceived. I have mentally endured the degrading company of Victorian lady novelists and retired colonels who remembered having, in former lives, been slave messengers on a Roman road or sages under the willows of Lhasa. I have ransacked my oldest dreams for keys and clues—and let me say at once that I reject completely the vulgar, shabby, fundamentally medieval world of Freud, with its crankish quest for sexual symbols (something like searching for Baconian acrostics in Shakespeare’s works) and its bitter little embryos spying, from their natural nooks, upon the love life of their parents. (Chapter One, 1)


In his diary (the entry of Jan. 21, 1910) Leo Tolstoy says:


Мы говорим о жизни души после смерти. Но если душа будет жить после смерти, то она должна была жить и до жизни. Однобокая вечность есть бессмыслица.

We speak of the life of a soul after death. But if a soul lives after death, it should have lived before life. One-sided eternity (odnobokaya vechnost’) is nonsense.


At an examination in French literature Sybil Vane borrows Mary Valevsky's fountain pen to write a suicide note:


Then she had borrowed Mary Valevsky's fountain pen and added: "Cette examain est finie ainsi que ma vie. Adieu, jeunes filles! Please, Monsieur le Professeur, contact ma soeur and tell her that Death was not better than D minus, but definitely better than Life minus D." (chapter 2)


Marie Walewska was Napoleon’s mistress who bore him a son. Napoleon is a character in Tolstoy’s novel Voyna i mir (“War and Peace,” 1869).


In VN’s novel Pale Fire (1962) Kinbote (Shade’s mad commentator who imagines that he is Charles the Beloved, the last self-exiled king of Zembla) calls the poet’s wife “Sybil Swallow:”


John Shade and Sybil Swallow (see note to line 247) were married in 1919, exactly three decades before King Charles wed Disa, Duchess of Payn. Since the very beginning of his reign (1936-1958) representatives of the nation, salmon fishermen, non-union glaziers, military groups, worried relatives, and especially the Bishop of Yeslove, a sanguineous and saintly old man, had been doing their utmost to persuade him to give up his copious but sterile pleasures and take a wife. It was a matter not of morality but of succession. As in the case of some of his predecessors, rough alderkings who burned for boys, the clergy blandly ignored our young bachelor's pagan habits, but wanted him to do what an earlier and even more reluctant Charles had done: take a night off and lawfully engender an heir. (note to Line 275)


At the beginning (and at the end) of his poem K lastochke (“To a Swallow,” 1820) Griboedov mentions blednaya Tsintiya (pale Cynthia):


Что мне делать с тобой, докучная ласточка!
Каждым утром меня — едва зарумянится
Небо алой зарёй и бледная Цинтия
Там в туманы покатится, —
Каждым утром меня ты криком безумолкным
Будишь, будто назло!

...Я проснулся — вдали едва зарумянилось
Небо алой зарёй, и бледная Цинтия
Там в туманы скатилася.


The “real” name of both Sybil Shade (the poet’s wife) and Queen Disa (the wife of Charles the Beloved) seems to be Sofia Botkin, born Lastochkin. The characters in Griboedov’s play in verse Gore ot uma (“Woe from Wit,” 1824) include Sofia, Famusov’s daughter with whom Chatski is in love, and Colonel Skalozub whose name hints at zuboskal (scoffer). Sofia Andreevna was the name and patronymic of Tolstoy’s wife. In a letter of June 11, 1831, to Vyazemski Pushkin asks Vyazemski if Sofia Karamzin (the historian's daughter) reigns on the saddle and quotes King Richard's words (the epigraph to Vyazemski's poem "A Ride in the Steppe," 1831) in Shakespeare’s Richard III (Act V, scene 4):


Что Софья Николаевна? царствует на седле? A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse!


A character in Richard III, Richmond says (Act V, scene 2):


True hope is swift, and flies with swallow’s wings.

Kings it makes gods, and meaner creatures kings.


In the same entry of Jan. 21, 1910, of his diary Tolstoy says:


Нельзя говорить про Бога, что Он один или три (число), или про душу, что она будет, или "на том свете".

One should not say about God that He is one or three (number), or about a soul that it will be, or "in the next world."


The three main characters in PF, Shade, Kinbote and Gradus seem to represent three different aspects of Botkin's personality. 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 (nadezhda) 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 book Tayna tryokh: Egipet i Vavilon (“The Secret of Three: Egypt and Babylon,” 1925) Merezhkovski quotes the words of Goethe who says in his “Conversations with Eckermann” that three will never be one:


«Нет, никогда не будет три одно!» – смеётся, кощунствует Гёте (Разговоры с Эккерманом).


The opening lines of Goethe’s Erlkönig (1782), “Wer reitet so spät durch Nacht und Wind? / Es ist der Vater mit seinem Kind,” are a leitmotif in Shade’s poem. In Goethe’s Faust (1808) Mephistopheles calls the Witch who makes a potion for Faust treffliche Sibylle (“excellent Sibyl”):



Genug, genug, o treffliche Sibylle!
Gib deinen Trank herbei, und fülle
Die Schale rasch bis an den Rand hinan;
Denn meinem Freund wird dieser Trunk nicht schaden:
Er ist ein Mann von vielen Graden,
Der manchen guten Schluck getan. (Hexenküche)



O Sibyl excellent, enough of adjuration!
But hither bring us thy potation,
And quickly fill the beaker to the brim!
This drink will bring my friend no injuries:
He is a man of manifold degrees,
And many draughts are known to him. (VI, “Witches’ Kitchen”)


Ein Mann von vielen Graden (“a man of manifold degrees,” as Mephistopheles calls Faust) brings to mind Jakob Gradus (Shade’s murderer who is also known as Jack Degree).


In VN’s story Soglyadatay (“The Eye,” 1930) Roman Bogdanovich (the diarist) mentions "the Swan of Weimar:"


"Я предполагаю, мой милый Фёдор Робертович, ненадолго вернуться к этому субъекту. Боюсь, что это будет скучно, но, как сказал Веймарский Лебедь, - я имею в виду великого Гёте (тут следовала немецкая фраза, написанная готическим шрифтом). Поэтому позвольте мне остановиться на господине Смурове и попотчевать Вас небольшим психологическим этюдом... Мне сдаётся, милейший друг, что я уже писал о том, что господин Смуров принадлежит к той любопытной касте людей, которую я как-то назвал "сексуальными левшами". (chapter 5)


“I propose, my dear Fyodor Robertovich, to return briefly to that rascal. I fear it may bore you, but, in the words of the Swan of Weimar—I refer to the illustrious Goethe—(there followed a German phrase). Therefore allow me to dwell on Mr. Smurov again and treat you to a little psychological study… I have the impression, dear friend, that I have already written you of the fact that Smurov belongs to that curious class of people I once called ‘sexual lefties.” (Chapter 5)


A left-handed man, Kinbote is also a "sexual lefty." In “The Eye” Weinstock (the medium) calls the spirits of Lenin and Azef (a double agent and agent provocateur), and Abum (an impish ghost) impersonates Turgenev. Weinstock means in German “grapevine.” Kinbote mockingly calls Gradus “Vinogradus” and “Leningradus:” 


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)