Vladimir Nabokov

Hissing watch in PF, taken from Onegin variant

By Alain Champlain, 4 December, 2020

“What is the time, kot or? He pressed his repeater and, undismayed, it hissed and tinkled out ten twenty-one." (Note to Line 149)

The hissing repeater (watch) image is taken from Eugene Onegin, One: XVII, variant to lines 1-3 in the draft:

Onegin drinks, is noisy, but again
<under the finger hissing> his Bréguet
<informs him> that [a play] by Shahovskoy...

(Note: this Bréguet is a watch Nabokov describes as "an elegant repeater.")

Nabokov, in his commentary, adds: "The 'hissing' is a first-rate image, unfortunately deleted."

Alexey Sklyarenko

3 years 7 months ago

Pushkin gave up zashipev pod pal'tsem (under the finger hissing), because the only word that rhymes with pal'tsem (Instr. of palets, "finger") is skital'tsem (Instr. of skitalets, "wanderer"). Skital'tsy ("The Wanderers," 1923) is a tragedy in verse by VN. In Canto Two of his poem Shade describes paring his fingernails and compares his fingers to various people he knows. In Chapter One (XXV) of Eugene Onegin Pushkin famously says that one can be an efficient man and mind the beauty of one's nails.


Zemblan for "what is the time," kot or hints at kotoryi chas ("what is the time" in Russian), a question Hermann is asked in Pushkin’s story Pikovaya dama (“The Queen of Spades,” 1833):


Две неподвижные идеи не могут вместе существовать в нравственно природе, так же, как два тела не могут в физическом мире занимать одно и то же место. Тройка, семёрка, туз - скоро заслонили в воображении Германна образ мёртвой старухи. Тройка, семёрка, туз - не выходили из его головы и шевелились на его губах. Увидев молодую девушку, он говорил: "Как она стройна!.. Настоящая тройка червонная". У него спрашивали: "который час", он отвечал: "без пяти минут семёрка". Всякий пузатый мужчина напоминал ему туза. Тройка, семёрка, туз - преследовали его во сне, принимая все возможные виды: тройка цвела перед ним в образе пышного грандифлора, семёрка представлялась готическими воротами, туз огромным пауком. Все мысли его слились в одну, - воспользоваться тайной, которая дорого ему стоила. Он стал думать об отставке и о путешествии. Он хотел в открытых игрецких домах Парижа вынудить клад у очарованной фортуны. Случай избавил его от хлопот.


Two fixed ideas are not able to exist together in the spiritual world, just as two bodies in the physical world are not able to occupy the same space. The three, seven and ace soon obscured the image of the dead old woman in the imagination of Hermann. The three, seven and ace - they did not leave his head or move from his lips. On seeing a young woman, he would say: "How elegant she is!... Just like the three of hearts". If he was asked: "what is the time", he would reply: "five minutes to seven". Each fat bellied man reminded him of the ace. The three, seven and ace pursued him in his sleep, taking all possible forms. The three bloomed in front of him in the image of a magnificent grandiflora, the seven appeared as a Gothic archway, the ace as a huge spider. All his thoughts united on one thing, - to take advantage of the secret which had cost him so dearly. He started to think about retirement and travel. He wanted in the public gaming houses of Paris to extort his treasure from  enchanted fortune. Chance delivered him from his troubles. (Chapter 6)


The image of a magnificent grandiflora brings to mind Disa grandiflora (the old name of the orchids Disa uniflora), the bouquet of flowers-of-the-gods that the King brings Queen Disa:


Eventually he managed to inform her that he was confined to the palace. Valiant Disa hurriedly left the Riviera and made a romantic but fortunately ineffectual attempt to return to Zembla. Had she been permitted to land, she would have been forthwith incarcerated, which would have reacted on the King's flight, doubling the difficulties of escape. A message from the Karlists containing these simple considerations checked her progress in Stockholm, and she flew back to her perch in a mood of frustration and fury (mainly, I think, because the message had been conveyed to her by a cousin of hers, good old Curdy Buff, whom she loathed). Several weeks passed and she was soon in a state of even worse agitation owing to rumors that her husband might be condemned to death. She left Cap Turc again. She had traveled to Brussels and chartered a plane to fly north, when another message, this time from Odon, came, saying that the King and he were out of Zembla, and that she should quietly regain Villa Disa and await there further news. In the autumn of the same year she was informed by Lavender that a man representing her husband would be coining to discuss with her certain business matters concerning property she and her husband jointly owned abroad. She was in the act of writing on the terrace under the jacaranda a disconsolate letter to Lavender when the tall, sheared and bearded visitor with the bouquet of flowers-of-the-gods who had been watching her from afar advanced through the garlands of shade. She looked up – and of course no dark spectacles and no make-up could for a moment fool her. (note to Lines 433-434)

Alain Champlain

3 years 7 months ago

After posting, I found the "hissing repeater" image recycled again in Look at the Harlequins (Part Seven, Chapter 2):

“Or else I’d hear the pressed repeater hiss in a pocket of my brain and tell the time, the rime, the meter that who could dream I’d hear again?”

It almost blends in with the surrounding prose, but you might have noticed it can be broken up into the meter it refers to:

Or else I’d hear the pressed repeater
hiss in a pocket of my brain
and tell the time, the rime, the meter
that who could dream I’d hear again?

These four lines of iambic tetrameter, in abab (with feminine a and masculine b), are the first four lines of what Nabokov calls the "Eugene Onegin" stanza (in the section of the same name, in his Translator's Introduction).

For context, the above lines come at the very end of a long paragraph. Earlier in the paragraph:

“As to my world of sound, it remained solid fantasy. I heard strangers discuss in droning voices all the books I had written or thought I had written, for everything they mentioned, titles, the names of characters, every phrase they shouted was preposterously distorted by the delirium of demonic scholarship.”

This is followed shortly by a list of distorted works (note: stylistically, this list is an example of what Nabokov calls the "tabulation device," which he names as one of the constructional devices used throughout EO):

“In the year of grace 1798, Gavrila Petrovich Kamenev, a gifted young poet, was heard chuckling as he composed his Ossianic pastiche Slovo o polku Igoreve. Somewhere in Abyssinia drunken Rimbaud was reciting to a surprised Russian traveler the poem Le Tramway ivre (… En blouse rouge, à face en pis de vache, le bourreau me trancha la tête aussi…). Or else I’d hear the pressed repeater hiss in a pocket of my brain and tell the time, the rime, the meter that who could dream I’d hear again? ”

Many of the items are distorted in a fairly obvious way — wrong authors, altered titles — but the last item, as discussed, is far more subtle, requiring the reader to recognize EO's meter and know that the repeater doesn't hiss in the final text.



Great observation, Alain, but this is also the meter of Vadim's poem Vlyublyonnost' (Being in Love) that he composed for Iris Black (Vadim's first wife) on the night of July 20, 1922 (July 20 is VDN's birthday; VN's father was killed on March 28, 1922). In the poem's second stanza Vadim mentions eta shchel' i etot luch (that chink and that moonbeam). Vadim vyshel iz paralicha vdol' naklonnogo lucha ("Along a slanting ray, like this / I slipped out of paralysis").

Alain Champlain

3 years 7 months ago

True, thanks for pointing that out, I'm not familiar enough with LATH. But I imagine we're still in agreement that it's very much purposefully in reference to EO.

In fact, now that you bring up Vlyublyonnost', I notice another bit of Nabokov's own EO commentary can be applied to its first three lines:

My zabyváem chto vlyublyónnost’
Ne prósto povorót litsá,
A pod kupávami bezdónnost

The scud pattern (albeit with inverted masculine and feminine rhymes) is modelled after One, XXIII, lines 11-13, about which Nabokov says:

Cases of adjacent position of a second-foot scudder, or Slow line, and a first-and-third-foot scudder, or Fast Flow, occur not infrequently throughout EO; but the occurence of a Slow line between two Fast Flows is very rare. In fact, the present passage seems to be the only one in EO containing this magnificent modulation [...]


In Part Six of LATH Vadim mentions Pushkin's mentor Kaverin:


Ha! Weaving a little! Was that really I, Prince Vadim Blonsky, who in 1815 could have outdrunk Pushkin's mentor, Kaverin? In the golden light of a mere quart of the stuff all the trees in the hotel park looked like araucarias. I congratulated myself on the neatness of my stratagem though not quite knowing whether it concerned my third wife's recorded frolics or the disclosure of my infirmity through a bloke in a book. Little by little the soft spicy air did me good: my soles clung more firmly to gravel and sand, clay and stone. I became aware that I had gone out wearing morocco slippers and a torn, bleached denim trousers-and-top with, paradoxically, my passport in one nipple pocket and a wad of Swiss bank notes in the other. Local people in Gandino or Gandora, or whatever the town was called, knew the face of the author of Un regno sul mare or Ein Königreich an der See or Un Royaume au Bord de la Mer, so it would have been really fatuous on my part to prepare the cue and the cud for the reader in case a car was really to hit me. (6.3)


In Chapter One of EO Pushkin describes Onegin’s day in St. Petersburg and mentions Kaverin:


Уж тёмно: в санки он садится.
"Пади, пади!" - раздался крик;
Морозной пылью серебрится
Его бобровый воротник.
К Talon4 помчался: он уверен,
Что там уж ждёт его Каверин.
Вошёл: и пробка в потолок,
Вина кометы брызнул ток,
Пред ним roast-beef окровавленный,
И трюфли, роскошь юных лет,
Французской кухни лучший цвет,
И Стразбурга пирог нетленный
Меж сыром Лимбургским живым
И ананасом золотым.


It’s already dark. He gets into a sleigh.
The cry “Way, way!” resounds.
With frostdust silvers
his beaver collar.
To Talon's he has dashed off: he is certain
that there already waits for him [Kaverin];
has entered and the cork goes ceilingward,
the flow of comet wine has spurted,
a bloody roast beef is before him,
and truffles, luxury of youthful years,
the best flower of French cookery,
and a decayless Strasbourg pie
between a living Limburg cheese
and a golden ananas.


Pushkin’s note 4: Well-known restaurateur.


In his EO Commentary (note to One: XVI: 5-6) VN discusses the rhyme uveren (certain) / Kaverin and mentions the consonne d’appui (intrusive consonant):


As in French orthometry, the punctilious spangle of the consonne d’appui (reckoned tawdry in English) increases the acrobatic brilliance of the Russian rhyme.


In Canto Four of his poem John Shade (the poet in Pale Fire) mentions his sensual love for the consonne d’appui, Echo’s fey child:


Maybe my sensual love for the consonne
D'appui, Echo's fey child, is based upon
A feeling of fantastically planned,
Richly rhymed life. (ll. 967-970)


As to the "elegant repeater," in the next stanza of EO (One: XVII: 3) Pushkin mentions Onegin's Bréguet:


Ещё бокалов жажда просит
Залить горячий жир котлет;
Но звон брегета им доносит,
Что новый начался балет.
Театра злой законодатель,
Непостоянный обожатель
Очаровательных актрис,
Почетный гражданин кулис,
Онегин полетел к театру,
Где каждый, критикой дыша,
Готов охлопать Entrechat,
Обшикать Федру, Клеопатру,
Моину вызвать для того,
Чтоб только слышали его.


Thirst is still clamoring for beakers

to drown the hot fat of the cutlets;

but Bréguet's chime reports to them

that a new ballet has begun.

The theater's unkind

lawgiver; the inconstant

adorer of enchanting actresses;

an honorary citizen of the coulisses,

Onegin has flown to the theater,

where, breathing criticism,

ach is prepared to clap an entrechat,

hiss Phaedra, Cleopatra,

call out Moëna — for the purpose

merely of being heard.


In 1815 Kaverin outdrank Pushkin. In 1815, in the battle of Waterloo, the Duke of Wellington outdrank Napoleon. A character in Aldanov's novel on Byron, Mogila voina ("A Soldier's Grave," 1939), the Duke of Wellington has a repeater with an ingenious dial made by Bréguet:


Недавно Брегет изготовил, по особому его заказу, часы с замысло­ватым циферблатом, -- время можно было определять наощупь. "Пора, пора", -- сказал герцог и показал Брегетовские часы. "Последняя новинка, очень удобно: не надо выни­мать из кармана", -- пояснил он, вставая. (chapter VIII)


"It's the latest thing, very comfortable: you don't have to take it out of your pocket."


In Zametki perevodchika II ("A Translator's Notes, Part Two," 1957) VN speaks of Onegin's vigilant Bréguet and bolivar:


47. Недремлющий брегет.
Дюпон, выпустивший в 1847 г. довольно удачный по дикции, но совершенно изуродованный разными промахами прозаический французский перевод ЕО, делает забавную ошибку на своём же языке. Он пишет «son breguet» и при этом поясняет в примечании: «Из уважения к тексту сохраняем это иностранное выражение, которое у нас почитается безвкусным; в Париже говорят: мои часы…» Дюпон, конечно, не прав. И Скриб, и Дюма, и другие парижане употребляли «мой брегет» совершенно так же, как Пушкин. Но вот что мило: по-французски «брегет» не мужского рода — как думает Дюпон, — а женского: «ma breguet».
У того же элегантного Дюпона находим: «Ленский с душою прямо Гётевской»; но зачем смеяться над давно опочившим французским инженером путей сообщения, когда русский комментатор Бродский пишет (1950), что боливар либерала Онегина «указывает на определённые общественные настроения его владельца, сочувствующего борьбе за независимость маленького народа в Южной Америке». Это то же самое, как если бы мы стали утверждать, что американки носят головные платки («бабушки») из сочувствия Советскому Союзу.


According to Brodsky (a Soviet commentator of whom VN makes fun), the bolivar of the liberal Onegin "is evidence of a certain public mood of its owner who sympathizes with the struggle for independence of a small nation in South America." It is as if we would say that American women wear the babushkas out of sympathy with the Soviet Union.

That is a great find, Alain (about EO hiding in the prose of PF, and then again hiding PF in LATH). If you have been following my most recent posts, I have been re-reading LATH, so it is a real find for that novel as well. I suspect there may be more allusions to EO in LATH, then. I believe that the "distorted" novels in LATH, however, are not, as you say, "wrong authors." It seems the altered titles are each a conflation of several works. So this EO find would be a conflation of Pale Fire and EO. Pale Fire is not conflated with other works in Esmeralda and her Pandarus and See under 'Real' (and perhaps others).


Or else I’d hear the pressed repeater hiss in a pocket of my brain and tell the time, the rime, the meter that who could dream I’d hear again? (LATH, Part Seven, 2)


The last two words of VN's pastiche, "hear again," were also taken from Chapter One (XIX: 5) of Eugene Onegin:


Мои богини! что вы? где вы?
Внемлите мой печальный глас:
Всё те же ль вы? другие ль девы,
Сменив, не заменили вас?
Услышу ль вновь я ваши хоры?
Узрю ли русской Терпсихоры
Душой исполненный полёт?
Иль взор унылый не найдёт
Знакомых лиц на сцене скучной,
И, устремив на чуждый свет
Разочарованный лорнет,
Веселья зритель равнодушный,
Безмолвно буду я зевать
И о былом воспоминать?


My goddesses! What has become of you?

 Where are you? Hearken to my woeful voice:

Are all of you the same? Have other maidens

taken your place without replacing you?

Am I to hear again your choruses?

Am I to see Russian Terpsichore's

soulful volation?

Or will the mournful gaze not find

familiar faces on the dreary stage,

and at an alien world having directed

a disenchanted lorgnette,

shall I, indifferent spectator

of merriment, yawn wordlessly

and bygones recollect?


Incidentally, the intonation in Vadim's couplet


Tak, vdol' naklonnogo lucha 

Ya vyshel iz paralicha


Along a slanting ray, like this,

I slipped out of paralysis


mimics a closing couplet of the EO stanza.


In "The Fragments of Onegin's Journey" ([XIV]: 9-10) Onegin regrets that he is not lying paralysed, like a councilman from Tula:


Питая горьки размышленья,
Среди печальной их семьи,
Онегин взором сожаленья
Глядит на дымные струи
И мыслит, грустью отуманен:
Зачем я пулей в грудь не ранен?
Зачем не хилый я старик,
Как этот бедный откупщик?
Зачем, как тульский заседатель,
Я не лежу в параличе?
Зачем не чувствую в плече
Хоть ревматизма? — ах, создатель!
Я молод, жизнь во мне крепка;
Чего мне ждать? тоска, тоска!..


Onegin, nursing bitter meditations,

among their sorry tribe,

with a gaze of regret

looks at the smoking streams and muses,

bedimmed with rue: Why in the breast

am I not wounded by a bullet?

Why am I not a feeble oldster

like that poor farmer-general?

Why like a councilman from Tula

am I not lying paralyzed?

Why in the shoulder do I not

at least feel rheumatism? Ah, Lord,

I'm young, life is robust in me,

what have I to expect? Ennui, ennui!...

On the other hand, "who could dream I’d hear again" in VN's pastiche brings to mind Kto b mog podumat' ("Who would have thought"), a phrase used by Princess Alina in Chapter Seven (XLI: 2) of Eugene Onegin


— Княжна, mon аngе! — «Раchеttе!» — Алина! —
«Кто б мог подумать? Как давно!
Надолго ль? Милая! Кузина!
Садись — как это мудрено!
Ей-богу, сцена из романа...»
— А это дочь моя, Татьяна. —
«Ах, Таня! подойди ко мне —
Как будто брежу я во сне...
Кузина, помнишь Грандисона?»
— Как, Грандисон?.. а, Грандисон!
Да, помню, помню. Где же он? —
«В Москве, живет у Симеона;
Меня в сочельник навестил;
Недавно сына он женил.


“Princess, mon ange!” “Pachette!” “Aline!”

“Who would have thought?” “How long it's been!”

“For how much time?” “Dear! Cousin!”

“Sit down — how queer it is!

I'd swear the scene is from a novel!”

“And this is my daughter Tatiana.”

“Ah, Tanya! Come up here to me —

I seem to be delirious in my sleep.

Coz, you remember Grandison?”

“What, Grandison? Oh, Grandison!

Why, yes, I do, I do. Well, where is he?”

“In Moscow — dwelling by St. Simeon's;

on Christmas Eve he called on me:

got a son married recently.


In the next stanza Princess Alina complains that in the old age life is horrid:


А тот... но после всё расскажем,
Не правда ль? Всей её родне
Мы Таню завтра же покажем.
Жаль, разъезжать нет мочи мне;
Едва, едва таскаю ноги.
Но вы замучены с дороги;
Пойдёмте вместе отдохнуть...
Ох, силы нет... устала грудь...
Мне тяжела теперь и радость,
Не только грусть... душа моя,
Уж никуда не годна я...
Под старость жизнь такая гадость...»
И тут, совсем утомлена,
В слезах раскашлялась она.


“As to the other... But we'll tell it all

later, won't we? To all her kin

straightway tomorrow we'll show Tanya.

Pity that paying visits is for me

too much — can hardly drag my feet.

But you are worn out from the journey;

let's go and have a rest together...

Oh, I've no strength... my chest is tired...

now even joy, not only woe,

oppressive is to me. My dear,

I am already good for nothing...

When one starts getting old, life is so horrid.”

And here, exhausted utterly,

in tears, she broke into a coughing fit.


In his review in the Northern Bee (Mar. 22, 1830) of Chapter Seven of Pushkin's EO Bulgarin calls this chapter chute complète (a complete comedown):


Ни одной мысли в этой водянистой VII главе, ни одного чувствования, ни одной картины, достойной воззрения! Совершенное падение, chute complète…

Not one idea in this watery Chapter Seven, not one sentiment, not one picture worthy of contemplation! A complete comedown, chute complete


In a conversation with Vadim Gerry Adamson (Louise’s husband) mentions a critic who called Vadim’s novel Dr. Olga Repnin (1946) chute complète:


Her husband sat in a deep armchair, reading a London weekly bought at the Shopping Center. He had not bothered to take off his horrible black raincoat--a voluminous robe of oilskin that conjured up the image of a stagecoach driver in a lashing storm. He now removed however his formidable spectacles. He cleared his throat with a characteristic rumble. His purple jowls wobbled as he tackled the ordeal of rational speech:

GERRY Do you ever see this paper, Vadim (accenting "Vadim" incorrectly on the first syllable)? Mister (naming a particularly lively criticule) has demolished your Olga (my novel about the professorsha; it had come out only now in the British edition).

VADIM May I give you a drink? We'll toast him and roast him.

GERRY Yet he's right, you know. It is your worst book. Chute complète, says the man. Knows French, too.

LOUISE No drinks. We've got to rush home. Now heave out of that chair. Try again. Take your glasses and paper. There. Au revoir, Vadim. I'll bring you those pills tomorrow morning after I drive him to school. (4.1)


In his poem Pervoe svidanie ("The First Rendezvous," 1921) Andrey Bely famously rhymes professorsha with antrasha (entrechat). In Chapter One (XVII: 10-11) of EO Pushkin rhymes entrechat with dysha (breathing):


Ещё бокалов жажда просит
Залить горячий жир котлет;
Но звон брегета им доносит,
Что новый начался балет.
Театра злой законодатель,
Непостоянный обожатель
Очаровательных актрис,
Почетный гражданин кулис,
Онегин полетел к театру,
Где каждый, критикой дыша,
Готов охлопать Entrechat,
Обшикать Федру, Клеопатру,
Моину вызвать для того,
Чтоб только слышали его.


Thirst is still clamoring for beakers

to drown the hot fat of the cutlets;

but Bréguet's chime reports to them

that a new ballet has begun.

The theater's unkind

lawgiver; the inconstant

adorer of enchanting actresses;

an honorary citizen of the coulisses,

Onegin has flown to the theater,

where, breathing criticism,

ach is prepared to clap an entrechat,

hiss Phaedra, Cleopatra,

call out Moëna — for the purpose

merely of being heard.