sampel in Pale Fire

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Thu, 05/06/2021 - 09:35

At the beginning of his poem John Shade (the poet in VN’s novel Pale Fire, 1962) compares himself to the shadow of the waxwing:

 

I was the shadow of the waxwing slain

By the false azure in the windowpane;

I was the smudge of ashen fluff - and I

Lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky. (ll. 1-4)

 

According to Kinbote (Shade’s mad commentator who imagines that he is Charles the Beloved, the last self-exiled king of Zembla), a crested bird called in Zemblan sampel ("silktail") closely resembles a waxwing in shape and shade:

 

The image in these opening lines evidently refers to a bird knocking itself out, in full flight, against the outer surface of a glass pane in which a mirrored sky, with its slightly darker tint and slightly slower cloud, presents the illusion of continued space. We can visualize John Shade in his early boyhood, a physically unattractive but otherwise beautifully developed lad, experiencing his first eschatological shock, as with incredulous fingers he picks up from the turf that compact ovoid body and gazes at the wax-red streaks ornamenting those gray-brown wings and at the graceful tail feathers tipped with yellow as bright as fresh paint. When in the last year of Shade's life I had the fortune of being his neighbor in the idyllic hills of New Wye (see Foreword), I often saw those particular birds most convivially feeding on the chalk-blue berries of junipers growing at the corner of his house. (See also lines 181-182.)

My knowledge of garden Aves had been limited to those of northern Europe but a young New Wye gardener, in whom I was interested (see note to line 998), helped me to identify the profiles of quite a number of tropical-looking little strangers and their comical calls; and, naturally, every tree top plotted its dotted line toward the ornithological work on my desk to which I would gallop from the lawn in nomenclatorial agitation. How hard I found to fit the name "robin" to the suburban impostor, the gross fowl, with its untidy dull-red livery and the revolting gusto it showed when consuming long, sad, passive worms!

Incidentally, it is curious to note that a crested bird called in Zemblan sampel ("silktail"), closely resembling a waxwing in shape and shade, is the model of one of the three heraldic creatures (the other two being respectively a reindeer proper and a merman azure, crined or) in the armorial bearings of the Zemblan King, Charles the Beloved (born 1915), whose glorious misfortunes I discussed so often with my friend.

The poem was begun at the dead center of the year, a few minutes after midnight July 1, while I played chess with a young Iranian enrolled in our summer school; and I do not doubt that our poet would have understood his annotator's temptation to synchronize a certain fateful fact, the departure from Zembla of the would-be regicide Gradus, with that date. Actually, Gradus left Onhava on the Copenhagen plane on July 5. (note to Lines 1-4)

 

Kinbote's sampel ("silktail") combines Samt (Germ., velvet) with Ampel (Germ., traffic lights) and dupel' (Russ., great snipe), a bird well-known to hunters. Dupel' comes from Doppelschnepfe (the bird's German name). Shade's murderer, Gradus is Kinbote's Doppelgänger. Goethe's poem Gingo biloba ends in the lines:

 

Fühlst du nicht an meinen Liedern,
Daß ich Eins und doppelt bin?

 

Don't you feel in my songs,
That I'm one and double?

 

Shade's poem The Sacred Tree ends in the words "in shape:"

 

The ginkgo leaf, in golden hue, when shed,

A muscat grape,

Is an old-fashioned butterfly, ill-spread,

In shape.

 

July 5 (the day on which Gradus left Onhava on the Copenhagen plane) is Shade’s, Kinbote’s and Gradus’ birthday (while Shade was born in 1898, Kinbote and Gradus were born in 1915). Shade, Kinbote and Gradus seem to represent three different aspects of 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). In a letter of June 2 (14), 1855, to Sergey Aksakov (a passionate hunter) Ivan Turgenev (the author of "The Notes of a Hunter," 1851) says that he was away hunting vesennikh dupeley (vernal great snipes) and mentions Grigorovich, Botkin and Druzhinin (who were Turgenev's guests at Spasskoe, the writer's estate in the Province of Oryol):

 

Раз десять собирался я к Вам писать, любезный и почтенный Сергей Тимофеевич, но у меня полон был дом гостями, которые разъехались только вчера, прожив три недели - и я не имел минуты свободного времени. Ваше письмо, полученное мною на днях, заставило меня покраснеть - мне стало стыдно своей лени, и я поспешил взяться за перо. - Гостили у меня Григорович, Боткин и Дружинин; мы проводили время очень весело - разыграли на доморощенном театре доморощенный же фарс и т. д. и т. д. Теперь опять в доме всё пусто - и я не прочь отдохнуть. Я должен, однако, Вам отдать отчет в своих охотничьих похождениях. Я приехал сюда 12-го апреля - и, к изумлению, не застал уже ни одного вальдшнепа - они уже протекли - в нынешнем году всё делается двумя неделями раньше обыкновенного - и реки прошли в половине марта, наделав много разорения и убытков. 18-го апреля я отправился на весенних дупелей и бекасов на берега Десны, в 200-х верстах отсюда. Дупелей и бекасов мы уже застали на яйцах, однако еще были точки - и охота вышла недурная. В 5 полей мы на 4 ружья убили 220 штук. На мою долю пришлось 52. Я стрелял довольно плохо, зато собака моя меня порадовала. Время стояло превосходное - и я вполне насладился весною. В одном из моих полей - я убил странную птицу: помесь курочки и коростеля. Рост ее и весь склад был коростелиный - перья на спине, как у него; перья на груди, животе и боках - как у курочки, нос весь красный и длиннее и острей, чем у коростеля. К сожалению, чучелы я не мог сохранить. - Я до сих пор вовсе не знал, как кошка ловит рыбу - и даже всегда удивлялся, отчего она так до нее жадна - теперь это мне понятно. Век живи - век учись. Мне очень приятно, что гр. Соллогуб доставил Вам наконец "Постоялый двор" - и еще приятнее, что это заставило Вас вспомнить обо мне и написать ко мне; считаю излишним говорить Вам, как Ваше одобрение и память Ваша обо мне - мне дороги.

Я пока ничего не делаю, но собираюсь приняться снова за свой роман [Rudin] и переделать его с основанья. - Здоровье мое порядочно...

 

Domoroshchennyi fars (the home-made farce) mentioned by Turgenev in his letter to Aksakov is Shkola gostepriimstva ("The School of Hospitality"),  Grigorovich's play mentioned by Fyodor in Chapter Four ("The Life of Chernyshevski") of VN's novel Dar ("The Gift," 1937):

 

Такие средства познания, как диалектический материализм, необыкновенно напоминают недобросовестные рекламы патентованных снадобий, врачующих сразу все болезни. Случается все же, что такое средство помогает при насморке. Есть, есть классовый душок в отношении к Чернышевскому русских писателей, современных ему. Тургенев, Григорович, Толстой называли его "клоповоняющим господином", всячески между собой над ним измываясь. Как то в Спасском первые двое, вместе с Боткиным и Дружининым, сочинили и разыграли домашний фарс. В сцене, где горит постель, врывался Тургенев с криком... общими дружескими усилиями его уговорили произнести приписываемые ему слова, которыми в молодости он однажды будто бы обмолвился во время пожара на корабле: "Спасите, спасите, я единственный сын у матери". Из этого фарса вполне бездарный Григорович впоследствии сделал свою (вполне плоскую) "Школу гостеприимства", наделив одно из лиц, желчного литератора Чернушина, чертами Николая Гавриловича: кротовые глаза, смотревшие как то вбок, узкие губы, приплюснутое, скомканное лицо, рыжеватые волосы, взбитые на левом виске и эвфемический запас пережженного рома. Любопытно, что пресловутый взвизг ("Спасите" и т. д.) дан как раз Чернушину, чем поощряется мысль Страннолюбского о какой то мистической связи между Чернышевским и Тургеневым. "Я прочел его отвратительную книгу (диссертацию), -- пишет последний в письме к товарищам по насмешке. -- Рака! Рака! Рака! Вы знаете, что ужаснее этого еврейского проклятия нет ничего на свете". "Из этого "рака", суеверно замечает биограф, получился семь лет спустя Ракеев (жандармский полковник, арестовавший проклятого), а самое письмо было Тургеневым написано как раз 12-го июля в день рождения Чернышевского"... (нам кажется, что Страннолюбский перебарщивает).

В тот же год появился "Рудин", но напал на него Чернышевский (за карикатурное изображение Бакунина) только в 60 году, когда Тургенев уже был ненужен "Современнику", который он покинул из-за добролюбовского змеиного шипка на "Накануне". Толстой не выносил нашего героя: "Его так и слышишь, -- писал он о нем, -- тоненький неприятный голосок, говорящий тупые неприятности... и возмущается в своем уголке, покуда никто не сказал цыц и не посмотрел в глаза". "Аристократы становились грубыми хамами, -- замечает по этому поводу Стеклов, -- когда заговаривали с нисшими или о нисших по общественному положению". "Нисший", впрочем, не оставался в долгу и, зная, как Тургеневу дорого всякое словечко против Толстого, щедро говорил о "пошлости и хвастовстве" последнего, "хвастовстве бестолкового павлина своим хвостом, не прикрывающим его пошлой задницы" и т. д. "Вы не какой-нибудь Островский или Толстой, -- добавлял Николай Гаврилович, -- вы наша честь" (а "Рудин" уже вышел, -- два года как вышел).

 

Such methods of knowledge as dialectical materialism curiously resemble the unscrupulous advertisements for patent medicines, which cure all illnesses at once. Still, such an expedient can occasionally help with a cold. There was quite definitively a smack of class arrogance about the attitudes of contemporary wellborn writers toward plebeian Chernyshevski. Turgenev, Grigorovich and Tolstoy called him “the bedbugstinking gentleman” and among themselves jeered at him in all kinds of ways. Once at Turgenev’s country place, the first two, together with Botkin and Druzhinin, composed and acted a domestic farce. In a scene where a couch was supposed to catch fire, Turgenev had to come out running with the cry… here the common efforts of his friends had persuaded him to utter the unfortunate words which in his youth he had allegedly addressed to a sailor during a fire on board ship: “Save me, save me, I am my mother’s only son.” Out of this farce the utterly talentless Grigorovich subsequently concocted his completely mediocre School of Hospitality, where he endowed one of the characters, the splenetic writer Chernushin, with the features of Nikolay Gavrilovich: mole’s eyes looking oddly askance, thin lips, a flattened, crumpled face, gingery hair fluffed up on the left temple and a euphemistic stench of burnt rum. It is curious that the notorious wail (“Save me,” etc.) is attributed here to Chernushin, which gives color to Strannolyubski’s idea that there was a kind of mystic link between Turgenev and Chernyshevski. “I have read his disgusting book [the dissertation]” writes the former in a letter to his fellow mockers. “Raca! Raca! Raca! You know that there is nothing in the world more terrible than this Jewish curse.”

“This ‘raca’ or ‘raka,’ ” remarks the biographer superstitiously, “resulted seven years later in Rakeev (the police colonel who arrested the anathematized man), and the letter itself had been written by Turgenev on precisely the 12th of July, Chernyshevski’s birthday …” (it seems to us that Strannolyubski is stretching it a bit).

That same year Turgenev’s Rudin appeared, but Chernyshevski attacked it (for its caricature of Bakunin) only in 1860, when Turgenev was no longer necessary to The Contemporary, which he had left as a result of Dobrolyubov’s directing a snake hiss at his “On the Eve.” Tolstoy could not tolerate our hero: “One keeps hearing him,” he wrote, “hearing that thin, nasty little voice of his saying obtuse, nasty things… as he keeps waxing indignant in his corner until someone says ‘shut up’ and looks him in the eye.” “The aristocrats turned into coarse ruffians,” remarks Steklov in this connection, “when they talked with inferiors or about people who were inferior to them socially.” “The inferior,” however, did not remain in debt; knowing how much Turgenev prized every word spoken against Tolstoy, Chernyshevski, in the fifties, freely enlarged upon Tolstoy’s poshlost (vulgarity) and hvastovstvo (bragging)—“the bragging of a thickheaded peacock about a tail which doesn’t even cover his vulgar bottom,” etc. “You are not some Ostrovski or some Tolstoy,” added Nikolay Gavrilovich, “you are an honor to us” (and Rudin was already out—had been out for two years).

 

Chapter Four of the "The Gift" begins and ends with a sonnet. Kinbote believes that, to be completed, Shade’s poem needs but one line (Line 1000, identical to Line 1: “I was the shadow of the waxwing slain”). But it seems that, like some sonnets, Shade’s poem also needs a coda (Line 1001: “By its own double in the windowpane”). In his fragment Rim ("Rome," 1842) Gogol describes a carnival in Rome and mentions the Italian sonetto colla coda (sonnet with a tail). Dvoynik ("The Double," 1846) is a short novel by Dostoevski.

 

At the end of Chapter One of "The Gift" Fyodor, in a dialogue he imagines, tells Koncheyev (the rival poet) that his father criticized Turgenev's and Tolstoy's hunting scenes and descriptions of nature and mentions the wretched Aksakov:

 

"Погодите, вернемся к дедам. Гоголь? Я думаю, что мы весь состав его пропустим. Тургенев? Достоевский?"

"Обратное превращение Бедлама в Вифлеем, -- вот вам Достоевский. "Оговорюсь", как выражается Мортус. В Карамазовых есть круглый след от мокрой рюмки на садовом столе, это сохранить стоит, -- если принять ваш подход".

"Так неужели-ж у Тургенева всё благополучно? Вспомните эти дурацкие тэтатэты в акатниках? Рычание и трепет Базарова? Его совершенно неубедительная возня с лягушками? И вообще -- не знаю, переносите ли вы особую интонацию тургеневского многоточия и жеманное окончание глав? Или всё простим ему за серый отлив черных шелков, за русачью полежку иной его фразы?"

"Мой отец находил вопиющие ошибки в его и толстовских описаниях природы, и уж про Аксакова нечего говорить, добавлял он, -- это стыд и срам".

 

“Wait, let’s go back to the forebears. Gogol? I think we can accept his ‘entire organism.’ Turgenev? Dostoevski?”

“Bedlam turned back into Bethlehem—that’s Dostoevski for you. ‘With one reservation,’ as our friend Mortus says. In the ‘Karamazovs’ there is somewhere a circular mark left by a wet wine glass on an outdoor table. That’s worth saving if one uses your approach.”

“But don’t tell me all is well with Turgenev? Remember those inept tête-à-têtes in acacia arbors? The growling and quivering of Bazarov? His highly unconvincing fussing with those frogs? And in general, I don’t know if you can stand the particular intonation of the Turgenevian row of dots at the close of a ‘fading phrase’ and the maudlin endings of his chapters. Or should we forgive all his sins because of the gray sheen of Mme. Odintsev’s black silks and the outstretched hind legs of some of his graceful sentences, those rabbitlike postures assumed by his resting hounds?”

“My father used to find all kinds of howlers in Turgenev’s and Tolstoy’s hunting scenes and descriptions of nature, and as for the wretched Aksakov, let’s not even discuss his disgraceful blunders in that field.”

 

In Chapter Two of "The Gift" Fyodor speaks of his father and mentions the heraldry of nature and the cabbalism of Latin names:

 

Как бы то ни было, но я убежден ныне, что тогда наша жизнь была действительно проникнута каким-то волшебством, неизвестным в других семьях. От бесед с отцом, от мечтаний в его отсутствие, от соседства тысячи книг, полных рисунков животных, от драгоценных отливов коллекций, от карт, от всей этой геральдики природы и каббалистики латинских имен, жизнь приобретала такую колдовскую легкость, что казалось -- вот сейчас тронусь в путь. Оттуда я и теперь занимаю крылья. В кабинете отца между старыми, смирными семейными фотографиями в бархатных рамках, висела копия с картины: Марко Поло покидает Венецию. Она была румяна, эта Венеция, а вода ее лагун -- лазорева, с лебедями вдвое крупнее лодок, в одну из коих спускались по доске маленькие фиолетовые люди, чтобы сесть на корабль, ждущий поодаль со свернутыми парусами, -- и я не могу отделаться от этой таинственной красоты, от этих древних красок, плывущих перед глазами как бы в поисках новых очертаний, когда теперь воображаю снаряжение отцовского каравана в Пржевальске, куда обычно сам он прибывал из Ташкента на почтовых, вперед отправив на протяжных груз запасов на три года. Его казаки по соседним аулам закупали лошадей, ишаков, верблюдов; готовились вьючные ящики и сумы (чего только не было в этих веками испытанных сартских ягтанах и кожаных мешках, от коньяка до дробленого гороха, от серебра в слитках до гвоздей для подков); и после панихиды на берегу озера у могильной скалы Пржевальского, увенчанной бронзовым орлом -- вокруг которого безбоязненно располагались местные фазаны -- караван трогался в путь.

 

However that may have been, I am convinced now that our life then really was imbued with a magic unknown in other families. From conversations with my father, from daydreams in his absence, from the neighborhood of thousands of books full of drawings of animals, from the precious shimmer of the collections, from the maps, from all the heraldry of nature and the cabbalism of Latin names, life took on a kind of bewitching lightness that made me feel as if my own travels were about to begin. Thence, I borrow my wings today. Among the old, tranquil, velvet-framed family photographs in my father’s study there hung a copy of the picture: Marco Polo leaving Venice. She was rosy, this Venice, and the water of her lagoon was azure, with swans twice the size of the boats, into one of which tiny violet men were descending by way of a plank, in order to board a ship which was waiting a little way off with sails furled—and I cannot tear myself away from this mysterious beauty, these ancient colors which swim before the eyes as if seeking new shapes, when I now imagine the outfitting of my father’s caravan in Przhevalsk, where he used to go with post-horses from Tashkent, having dispatched in advance by slow convoy a store of supplies for three years. His Cossacks went round the neighboring villages buying horses, mules and camels; they prepared the pack boxes and pouches (what was there not in these Sartish yagtans and leather bags tried by centuries, from cognac to pulverized peas, from ingots of silver to nails for horseshoes); and after a requiem on the shore of the lake by the burial rock of the explorer Przhevalski, crowned with a bronze eagle—around which the intrepid local pheasants were wont to roost—the caravan took the road.

 

In Canto One of his poem Shade mentions a pheasant's feet:

 

And then the gradual and dual blue

As night unites the viewer and the view,

And in the morning, diamonds of frost

Express amazement: Whose spurred feet have crossed

From left to right the blank page of the road?

Reading from left to right in winter's code:

A dot, an arrow pointing back; repeat:

Dot, arrow pointing back... A pheasant's feet

Torquated beauty, sublimated grouse,

Finding your China right behind my house.

Was he in Sherlock Holmes, the fellow whose

Tracks pointed back when he reversed his shoes? (ll. 17-28)

 

Thurgus the Third, surnamed the Turgid (the grandfather of Charles the Beloved) clearly hints at Turgenev. In dupel' (great snipe) there is du (German for "thou"). It seems that the odd dark word (that Kinbote cannot write out) employed by Kinbote's black gardener (Balthasar, Prince of Loam) with regard to Gradus is thou:

 

Line 998: Some neighbor's gardener

 

Some neighbor's! The poet had seen my gardener many times, and this vagueness I can only assign to his desire (noticeable elsewhere in his handling of names, etc.) to give a certain poetical patina, the bloom of remoteness, to familiar figures and things - although it is just possible he might have mistaken him in the broken light for a stranger working for a stranger. This gifted gardener I discovered by chance one idle spring day. when I was slowly wending my way home after a maddening and embarrassing experience at the college indoor swimming pool. He stood at the top of a green ladder attending to the sick branch of a grateful tree in one of the most famous avenues in Appalachia. His red flannel shirt lay on the grass. We conversed, a little shyly, he above, I below. I was pleasantly surprised at his being able to refer all his patients to their proper habitats. It was spring, and we were alone in that admirable colonnade of trees which visitors from England have photographed from end to end. I can enumerate here only a few kinds of those trees: Jove's stout oak and two others: the thunder-cloven from Britain, the knotty-entrailed from a Mediterranean island; a weatherfending line (now lime), a phoenix (now date palm), a pine and a cedar (Cedrus), all insular; a Venetian sycamore tree (Acer); two willows, the green, likewise from Venice, the hoar-leaved from Denmark; a midsummer elm, its barky fingers enringed with ivy; a midsummer mulberry, its shade inviting to tarry; and a clown's sad cypress from Illyria.

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.)

 

In the preceding lines (993-995) of his poem Shade mentions a dark Vanessa with a crimson band. According to Kinbote, Zemblans call this butterfly harvalda (the heraldic one) possibly because a recognizable figure of it is borne in the escutcheon of the Dukes of Payn. (note to Line 270). Sybil Shade (the poet's wife whom Shade calls "my dark Vanessa") and Queen Disa (Duchess of Payn, of Great Payn and Mone, the wife of Charles the Beloved) seem to be one and the same person whose "real" name is Sofia Botkin, born Lastochkin. Lastochki ("The Swallows," 1884) is a poem by Afanasiy Fet, a poet who married Maria Botkin in 1857 (when Turgenev asked Fet "why did you marry Maria Petrovna, Afanasiy Afanasievich," Fet left the room without saying a word).

 

Shade borrows the title of his poem from Shakespeare's Timon of AthensIn Moi vospominaniya (“My Reminiscences,” 1890) Fet speaks of the three Tolstoy brothers and mentions Timon of Athens:

 

...я убеждён, что основной тип всех трёх братьев Толстых тождествен, как тождествен тип кленовых листьев, невзирая на всё разнообразие их очертаний. И если бы я задался развить эту мысль, то показал бы, в какой степени у всех трёх братьев присуще то страстное увлечение, без которого в одном из них не мог бы проявиться поэт Л. Толстой. Разница их отношений к жизни состоит в том, с чем каждый из них уходил от неудавшейся мечты. Николай охлаждал свои порывы скептической насмешкой, Лев отходил от несбывшейся мечты с безмолвным укором, а Сергей - с болезненной мизантропией. Чем больше у подобных характеров первоначальной любви, тем сильнее хотя на время сходство с Тимоном Афинским.

 

According to Fet, the basic type of all three brothers Tolstoy is identical, just as the type of maple leaves, despite all variety of their outlines, is identical. On the National Flag (and the coat of arms) of Canada there is a stylized red maple leaf. It seems that Kinbote writes his Commentary, Index and Foreword (in that order) to Shade's poem not in "Cedarn, Utana," but in a madhouse in Quebec (a city in Canada).