Vladimir Nabokov

The Cicada Transition in Pale Fire

By Alain Champlain, 2 November, 2020

I wanted to point out a detail in this transition:

“Espied on a pine’s bark,
As we were walking home the day she died,
An empty emerald case, squat and frog-eyed,
Hugging the trunk; and its companion piece,
A gum-logged ant.
                         That Englishman in Nice,
A proud and happy linguist: je nourris
Les pauvres cigales—meaning that he
Fed the poor sea gulls!” (Lines 236-243)

The first scene takes place in "the beginning of 1950" the day Maud Shade dies.

The second scene is not so obvious on first read, but it's a reference to Hazel's conception in Nice in 1933. Shade gives us this information a little later in the poem when he repeats the image of the man feeding the gulls, this time connected with Hazel's birth:

“And then there was a kind of travelog:
A host narrator took us through the fog
Of a March night, where headlights from afar
Approached and grew like a dilating star,
To the green, indigo and tawny sea
Which we had visited in thirty-three,
Nine months before her birth. Now it was all
Pepper-and-salt, and hardly could recall
That first long ramble, the relentless light,
The flock of sails (one blue among the white
Clashed queerly with the sea, and two were red),
The man in the old blazer, crumbing bread,
The crowding gulls insufferably loud,
And one dark pigeon waddling in the crowd.” (Lines 429-442)

Once we've backpropagated this information, we can see that we've transitioned, in the middle of line 240, from Maud's death in 1950 to Hazel's conception in 1933 by way of a coincidence centred around cicadas: on both occasions, shade is reminded of La cigale et la fourmi by La Fontaine (spelled Lafontaine in PF), first with the chance pairing of a cicada's case and an embalmed ant; next, the mention of "pauvres cigales" reminds Shade of La Fontaine because the Englishman mistranslates sea gulls as cigales, which word really means cicadas, though translators of La Fontaine likewise mistranslate cigale as grasshopper in The Ant and the Grasshopper (see note to line 238).

I thought I should point out that 17 years have passed between Hazel's conception and Maud's death, between cicada and cicada, which brings to mind a 17-year periodical cicada. Whether that was intentional, I can't be sure (though I worry an entomologist might confirm that the exuviae of periodical cicadas are NOT emerald). In any case...



3 years 8 months ago

That's a great observation, Alain. The cicada is an excellent image for the 'eternal return' cycle (even if it's not the same individual). So, even if it has taken nearly 60 years for someone to catch that, it certainly seems like the sort of precision typical of Nabokov. He would surely have had the scientific acuity to know that, although the adult cicada is emerald, its exuviae is divinely designed to match tree bark. So, why 'emerald'? Poetic license, of course, but I like to think it confirms my contention in The Man in Green and The Man in Brown that it relates to the dual shadow/tricksters, Gerald Emerald and Gradus. 

Actually, it’s perfect that you discovered this now because they are emerging this year! A correlated pattern in the game!


3 years 8 months ago

"Today I'm sixty one. Waxwings/ Are berry-picking. A cicada sings."

You have put it very elegantly and starkly, Alain. In fact, a cicada has flown away leaving an "empty emerald case" (it seems accurate from the point of view of natural sciences) as you rightly mention. The transition you emphasize between Hazel's conception and Maud's death is actually confirmed by Brian Boyd and Vladimir Alexandrov as well.

Rather than development and maturity of the cicadas (the exuviae), the 17-year-period for me brings to mind the open breeding ground that the cicadas engage in which is so problematically stressed in case of Hazel Shade ("mating").

Hope you're compiling your "Annotations" which should absolutely be cross-referenced (or added to) with the one Matthew Roth has so wonderfully developed for the website.


Alexey Sklyarenko

3 years 8 months ago

In reply to by Shakeeb_Arzoo

At the end of his poem Solntse (“The Sun,” 1923) translated by DN as Provence VN mentions latinskiy lepet tsikad (cicadas trilling with a Latin lisp):


Как хорошо в звенящем мире этом

скользить плечом вдоль меловых оград,

быть русским заблудившимся поэтом

средь лепета латинского цикад!


What bliss it is, in this world full of song,

to brush against the chalk of walls, what bliss

to be a Russian poet lost among

cicadas trilling with a Latin lisp!


Nadezhda Botkin (Hazel Shade's "real" name) was born in 1934, seventeen years after the Russian Revolution. See also my post of Feb. 17, 2019, "cicada & Colonel Gusev in Pale Fire; magic carpet in Lolita."

At the end of his poem Tsikada ("Cicada") Vyacheslav Ivanov calls the cicada that flew into his room and, as he was writing down a poem, perched for a moment on his fingers izumrudnyi solovey (an emerald nightingale):


Гимн, слагавшийся в устах,

Я чертил; а гостья сада,

В мой приют впорхнув, — цикада —

Притаилась на перстах.


За стихи ль мои награда,

Муз любимица, цикада,

От богов ли твой привет?

Иль от той, которой нет

На земле, — и ей отрада,

Что поет ее поэт?


Ты безмолвствуешь в ответ,

Звонкогласная певунья,

Вдохновенная вещунья!

Только пальцы мне живей

Молоточками щекочешь...

Миг — и в зелени ветвей,

Изумрудный соловей,

На смоковнице стрекочешь.


In his diary (the entry of May 4, 1897) Chekhov says that in Melikhovo he was visited by Dasha Musin-Pushkin (whose husband, engineer Glebov, was killed during a hunt), aka Cicada, who sang a lot:


Приезжала Даша Мусина-Пушкина, вдова инженера Глебова, убитого на охоте, она же Цикада. Много пела».


In his story Dama s sobachkoy (“The Lady with the Dog,” 1899) Chekhov mentions cicadas:


В Ореанде сидели на скамье, недалеко от церкви, смотрели вниз на море и молчали. Ялта была едва видна сквозь утренний туман, на вершинах гор неподвижно стояли белые облака. Листва не шевелилась на деревьях, кричали цикады и однообразный, глухой шум моря, доносившийся снизу, говорил о покое, о вечном сне, какой ожидает нас. Так шумело внизу, когда еще тут не было ни Ялты, ни Ореанды, теперь шумит и будет шуметь так же равнодушно и глухо, когда нас не будет. И в этом постоянстве, в полном равнодушии к жизни и смерти каждого из нас кроется, быть может, залог нашего вечного спасения, непрерывного движения жизни на земле, непрерывного совершенства.


At Oreanda they sat on a seat not far from the church, looked down at the sea, and were silent. Yalta was hardly visible through the morning mist; white clouds stood motionless on the mountain-tops. The leaves did not stir on the trees, cicadas twanged, and the monotonous hollow sound of the sea rising up from below, spoke of the peace, of the eternal sleep awaiting us. So it must have sounded when there was no Yalta, no Oreanda here; so it sounds now, and it will sound as indifferently and monotonously when we are all no more. And in this constancy, in this complete indifference to the life and death of each of us, there lies hid, perhaps, a pledge of our eternal salvation, of the unceasing movement of life upon earth, of unceasing progress towards perfection. (chapter II)


Chekhov is the author of Chelovek v futlyare ("The Man in a Case," 1898) and Chayka ("The Sea Gull," 1896), a play. In his memoirs Mezhdu dvukh revolyutsiy (“Between the Two Revolutions,” 1934) Andrey Bely says that for him Chekhov was more a Symbolist than Maurice Maetterlinck and mentions Vyacheslav Ivanov’s verses about 333 embraces:


Не любил я привздохов таких, после них пуще прежнего изобличая политику группочки; гневы мои заострились напрасно на Г. И. Чулкове; в прямоте последнего не сомневался; кричал благим матом он; очень бесили "молчальники", тайно мечтавшие на чулковских плечах выплыть к славе, хотя бы под флагом мистического анархизма; открыто признать себя "мистико-анархистами" они не решались; по ним я и бил, обрушиваясь на Чулкова, дававшего повод к насмешкам по поводу лозунгов, которые компрометировали для меня символизм; примазь уличной мистики и дешевого келейного анархизма казались мне профанацией; каждый кадетский присяжный поверенный в эти месяцы, руки засунув в штаны, утверждал: "Я, ведь, собственно... гм... анархист!" Я писал: Чехов более для меня символист, чем Морис Метерлинк; а тут - нате: "неизречённость" вводилась в салон; а анархия становилась свержением штанов под девизами "нового" культа; этого Чулков не желал; но писал неумно; вот "плоды" - лесбианская повесть Зиновьевой-Аннибал и педерастические стихи Кузмина; они вместе с программной лирикой Вячеслава Иванова о "333" объятиях брались слишком просто в эротическом, плясовом, огарочном бреде; "оргиазм" В. Иванова на языке желтой прессы понимался упрощенно: "свальным грехом"; почтенный же оргиаст лишь хитренько помалкивал: "Понимайте, как знаете!"


333 × 3 = 999. In its unfinished form Shade’s poem has 999 lines.