Vladimir Nabokov

O's in Pale Fire's Names

By lawrebas, 29 November, 2020

I’m struck by how many Zemblans (and Zemblan places) contain clockfaced letter O’s in their names. Noes and reverse-noes abound.

There’s Aros, Boscobel, Grindelwod, Kronberg, Odevalla, Onhava, Rippleson Caves, Yeslove, Hodinski / Hodyna, King Igor II, the Shadows, Yonny, Conmal (Duke of Aros), Count and Countess Otar, Romulus Arnor, Kinbote, Harfar, Baron of Shalksbore, Odon / Odonello, Nodo / Nodon, Oleg (Duke of Rahl), Oswin Bretwit, Baron Oswin Affenpin, Baron Mirador Mandevil, Colonel Montacute, Rippleson, Izumrudov, Thormodus Torfaeus and Kinbote. (Disa appears to be an exception until we remember the O lurking in ‘Duchess of Payn and Mone’.) I’m sure there are others. I’m tempted to include Sudarg of Bokay / Yakob Gradus, Roman Tselovalnikov and Andronnikov but they’re not Zemblan. 

Things are different in New Wye: if we omit the three lakes that make a point of being zeros, few of its natives or places have nulls in their names. Certainly none of the main characters currently possess an O.

Most of the exceptions are foreigners, foreign-named locals or characters no longer residing in New Wye – eg Judge Goldsworth on sabbatical in England, Professor Vseslav Botkin, Dr Oscar Nattochdag, Sybil’s maiden name Irondelle (courtesy of her Canadian family, I believe), Starover Blue (named in memory of his Russian grandfather), Jane and Pete whom Kinbote ‘outs’ as Provost, now living in Chicago and Detroit, and the town of Exton on the south side of Omega lake – we’re left with two round-lettered Bobs (Kinbote’s ‘bad Bob’ and Mayor Bob Wells), three Colts (Old Doctor Colt, Mr and Mrs Dick Colt) and the librarian Milton Stone. I've undoubtedly missed some.  

Characters who appear to straddle both Zembla and New Wye – like Sylvia O’Donnell – tend to possess at least one O, as do characters who mirror each other (the faunlet Gordon and Assistant Professor Misha Gordon, although the latter is presumably a foreigner).


3 years 7 months ago

How strange that I blanked out 'John' when thinking about those O's -- I'm so used to calling the poet by his surname . . . 


3 years 7 months ago

I get where you're going with this: that the characters in Zembla are "oughts," that is, they don't really exist. That could include John Shade, since he is dead! I kind of doubt that Sylvia O'Donnell exists in New Wye. 

However, "O" is such a common letter, it seems a bit tenuous. Also, except for the Shades, Sylvia O'Donnell, and Botkin, none of the characters from New Wye are listed in the index. This would actually help your theory, if there were not all those other "O"s in New Wye.

Yes, I tend to agree. I don't yet have the energy to compare the number of O's and non-O's in both Zembla and New Wye. 

Your comment about Sylvia not existing in New Wye intrigues me . . . I'm interested to hear your thoughts.

And while on the subject of Sylvia, I've always wondered if K's descent by parachute (in C.691) before he meets her might be code for a suicide attempt? Earlier in C.493's riff on suicide, he describes his ideal drop as:

from an aircraft, your muscles relaxed, your pilot puzzled, your packed parachute shuffled off, cast off, shrugged off - farewell, shootka (little chute)! Down you go, but all the while you feel suspended and buoyed as you somersault in slow motion like a somnolent tumbler pigeon, and sprawl supine on the eiderdown of the air, or lazily turn to embrace your pillow, enjoying every last instant of soft, deep, death-padded life, with the earth's green seesaw now above, now below, and the voluptuous crucifixion, as you stretch yourself in the growing rush, in the nearing swish, and then your loved body's obliteration in the Lap of the Lord.


3 years 7 months ago

I'd also ask whether we find the character o in the Zemblan alphabet. I can't recall whether the characteristics of the Zemblan alphabet are made clear, in the text of Pale Fire, but the Russian tongue is written with the Cyrillic alphabet, not the Latin or Roman alphabet which we use for English.

In the Cyrillic alphabet used for Russian, we do find the character o, which has a use that is roughly analogous to the use of English's similar character.

Yet there are many distinct derivatives of the Russian Cyrillic alphabet, used for related Slavic languages such as Ukrainian, Belarusian, Serbian, and so forth. In some of these Cyrillic alphabets, there are omissions of letters and differences of usage that strike a disinterested student as being unexpected. It is entirely possible that Zemblan employs a version of the Cyrillic alphabet which does not include the character o or perhaps assigns it to represent a set of sounds that differ from those we'd tend to associate with the letter.

In the English text of Pale Fire we can safely assume that the Zemblan names are transliterations of the way they are written in their native Zemblan. When Kinbote writes the letter o in his transcription of a Zemblan name, we cannot identify with certainty the Zemblan character that originally represented that same sound. It would be doubly tenuous to take the Anglicized versions of these names and use them as a basis for conclusions regarding the particular Zemblan written characters originally used therefor.


3 years 7 months ago

It's unlikely that Zemblans use a Cyrillic alphabet to write Zemblan, I realize now.

Zemblan isn't even necessarily a Slavic tongue. (Although it is fictional, I'm sure that Zemblan has been thoroughly analyzed linguistically, so please pardon my ignorance of the literature. I am endeavoring to achieve currency.) The examples of Zemblan in the text of Pale Fire include words and phrases which are clearly derived from German and Russian, with a strong Nordic influence. The Slavic element, while unmistakably present, is not dominant.

It's worth thinking about, though.

I'm also not aware of any linguistic analysis.

Some Zemblan phrases do read like broken English: eg C.678's 'Id wodo bin, war id lev lan, / Indran iz lil ut roz nitran' for 'Had it lived long it would have been / Lilies without, roses within'.