L'EX-ROI DE ZEMBLA in Pale Fire

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Fri, 05/14/2021 - 02:46

Describing an extraordinary session of the Extremist government, Kinbote (in VN’s novel Pale Fire, 1962, Shade’s mad commentator who imagines that he is Charles the Beloved, the last self-exiled king of Zembla) mentions a copy of a French newspaper with the headline: L'EX-ROI DE ZEMBLA EST-IL À PARIS?:

 

For almost a whole year after the King's escape the Extremists remained convinced that he and Odon had not left Zembla. The mistake can be only ascribed to the streak of stupidity that fatally runs through the most competent tyranny. Airborne machines and everything connected with them cast a veritable spell over the minds of our new rulers whom kind history had suddenly given a boxful of these zipping and zooming gadgets to play with. That an important fugitive would not perform by air the act of fleeing seemed to them inconceivable. Within minutes after the King and the actor had clattered down the backstairs of the Royal Theater, every wing in the sky and on the ground had been accounted for - such was the efficiency of the government. During the next weeks not one private or commercial plane was allowed to take off, and the inspection of transients became so rigorous and lengthy that international lines decided to cancel stopovers at Onhava. There were some casualties. A crimson balloon was enthusiastically shot down and the aeronaut (a well-known meteorologist) drowned in the Gulf of Surprise. A pilot from a Lapland base flying on a mission of mercy got lost in the fog and was so badly harassed by Zemblan fighters that he settled atop a mountain peak. Some excuse for all this could be found. The illusion of the King's presence in the wilds of Zembla was kept up by royalist plotters who decoyed entire regiments into searching the mountains and woods of our rugged peninsula. The government spent a ludicrous amount of energy on solemnly screening the hundreds of impostors packed in the country's jails. Most of them clowned their way back to freedom; a few, alas, fell. Then, in the spring of the following year, a stunning piece of news came from abroad. The Zemblan actor Odon was directing the making of a cinema picture in Paris!

It was now correctly conjectured that if Odon had fled, the King had fled too: At an extraordinary session of the Extremist government there was passed from hand to hand, in grim silence, a copy of a French newspaper with the headline: L'EX-ROI DE ZEMBLA EST-IL À PARIS? Vindictive exasperation rather than state strategy moved the secret organization of which Gradus was an obscure member to plot the destruction of the royal fugitive. Spiteful thugs! They may be compared to hoodlums who itch to torture the invulnerable gentleman whose testimony clapped them in prison for life. Such convicts have been known to go berserk at the thought that their elusive victim whose very testicles they crave to twist and tear with their talons, is sitting at a pergola feast on a sunny island or fondling some pretty young creature between his knees in serene security - and laughing at them! One supposes that no hell can be worse than the helpless rage they experience as the awareness of that implacable sweet mirth reaches them and suffuses them, slowly destroying their brutish brains. A group of especially devout Extremists calling themselves the Shadows had got together and swore to hunt down the King and kill him wherever he might be. They were, in a sense, the shadow twins of the Karlists and indeed several had cousins or even brothers among the followers of the King. No doubt, the origin of either group could be traced to various reckless rituals in student fraternities and military clubs, and their development examined in terms of fads and anti-fads; but, whereas an objective historian associates a romantic and noble glamor with Karlism, its shadow group must strike one as something definitely Gothic and nasty. The grotesque figure of Gradus, a cross between bat and crab, was not much odder than many other Shadows, such as, for example, Nodo, Odon's epileptic half-brother who cheated at cards, or a mad Mandevil who had lost a leg in trying to make anti-matter. Gradus had long been a member of all sorts of jejune leftist organizations. He had never killed, though coming rather close to it several times in his gray life. He insisted later that when he found himself designated to track down and murder the King, the choice was decided by a show of cards - but let us not forget that it was Nodo who shuffled and dealt them out. Perhaps our man's foreign origin secretly prompted a nomination that would not cause any son of Zembla to incur the dishonor of actual regicide. We can well imagine the scene: the ghastly neon lights of the laboratory, in an annex of the Glass Works, where the Shadows happened to hold their meeting that night; the ace of spades lying on the tiled floor, the vodka gulped down out of test tubes; the many hands clapping Gradus on his round back, and the dark exultation of the man as he received those rather treacherous congratulations. We place this fatidic moment at 0:05, July 2, 1959 - which happens to be also the date upon which an innocent poet penned the first lines of his last poem. (note to Line 171)

 

L’ex-roi de Zembla (the former King of Zembla) seems to combine Korol’ na ploshchadi (“The King on the Square,” 1906), the title of a play by Alexander Blok, with kakoy-to eks-ministr (some ex-minister) mentioned by Blok in Chapter One of his poem Vozmezdie (“Retribution,” 1910-21):

 

На вечерах у Анны Вревской
Был общества отборный цвет.
Больной и грустный Достоевский
Ходил сюда на склоне лет
Суровой жизни скрасить бремя,
Набраться сведений и сил
Для «Дневника». (Он в это время
С Победоносцевым дружил).
С простёртой дланью вдохновенно
Полонский здесь читал стихи.
Какой-то экс-министр смиренно
Здесь исповедывал грехи.

 

In the above lines Blok mentions sick and sad Dostoevski (the writer who uses the word gradus, “degree,” twice in a letter of Oct. 31, 1838, to his brother) and Polonski (the poet who in exaltation recited his verses at the soirées of Anna Vrevski). In Blok's poem stikhi (verses recited by Polonski) rhymes with grekhi (the sins confessed by the ex-minister). In a theological conversation Shade and Kinbote discuss the notion of “sin:”

 

We happened to start speaking of the general present-day nebulation of the notion of "sin," of its confusion with the much more carnally colored ideal of "crime," and I alluded briefly to my childhood contacts with certain rituals of our church. Confession with us is auricular and is conducted in a richly ornamented recess, the confessionist holding a lighted taper and standing with it beside the priest's high-backed seat which is shaped almost exactly as the coronation chair of a Scottish king. Little polite boy that I was, I always feared to stain his purple-black sleeve with the scalding tears of wax that kept dripping onto my knuckles, forming there tight little crusts, and I was fascinated by the illumed concavity of his ear resembling a seashell or a glossy orchid, a convoluted receptacle that seemed much too large for the disposal of my peccadilloes.

SHADE: All the seven deadly sins are peccadilloes but without three of them, Pride, Lust and Sloth, poetry might never have been born.

KINBOTE: Is it fair to base objections upon obsolete terminology?

SHADE: All religions are based upon obsolete terminology.

KINBOTE: What we term Original Sin can never grow obsolete.

SHADE: I know nothing about that. In fact when I was small I thought it meant Cain killing Abel. Personally, I am with the old snuff-takers: L'homme est né bon.

KINBOTE: Yet disobeying the Divine Will is a fundamental definition of Sin.

SHADE: I cannot disobey something which I do not know and the reality of which I have the right to deny.

KINBOTE: Tut-tut. Do you also deny that there are sins?

SHADE: I can name only two: murder, and the deliberate infliction of pain.

KINBOTE: Then a man spending his life in absolute solitude could not be a sinner?

SHADE: He could torture animals. He could poison the springs on his island. He could denounce an innocent man in a posthumous manifesto.

KINBOTE: And so the password is – ?

SHADE: Pity.

KINBOTE: But who instilled it in us, John? Who is the Judge of life, and the Designer of death?

SHADE: Life is a great surprise. I do not see why death should not be an even greater one.

KINBOTE: Now I have caught you, John: once we deny a Higher Intelligence that plans and administrates our individual hereafters we are bound to accept the unspeakably dreadful notion of Chance reaching into eternity. Consider the situation, Throughout eternity our poor ghosts are exposed to nameless vicissitudes. There is no appeal, no advice, no support, no protection, nothing. Poor Kinbote's ghost, poor Shade's shade, may have blundered, may have taken the wrong turn somewhere - oh, from sheer absent-mindedness, or simply through ignorance of a trivial rule in the preposterous game of nature - if there be any rules.

SHADE: There are rules in chess problems: interdiction of dual solutions, for instance.

KINBOTE: I had in mind diabolical rules likely to be broken by the other party as soon as we come to understand them. That is why goetic magic does not always work. The demons in their prismatic malice betray the agreement between us and them, and we are again in the chaos of chance. Even if we temper Chance with Necessity and allow godless determinism, the mechanism of cause and effect, to provide our souls after death with the dubious solace of metastatistics, we still have to reckon with the individual mishap, the thousand and second highway accident of those scheduled for independence Day in Hades. No-no, if we want to be serious about the hereafter let us not begin by degrading it to the level of a science-fiction yarn or a spiritualistic case history. The ideal of one's soul plunging into limitless and chaotic afterlife with no Providence to direct her –

SHADE: There is always a psychopompos around the corner, isn't there?

KINBOTE: Not around that corner, John. With no Providence the soul must rely on the dust of its husk, on the experience gathered in the course of corporeal confinement, and cling childishly to small-town principles, local by-laws and a personality consisting mainly of the shadows of its own prison bars. Such an idea is not to be entertained one instant by the religious mind. How much more intelligent it is - even from a proud infidel's point of view! - to accept God's Presence - a faint phosphorescence at first, a pale light in the dimness of bodily life, and a dazzling radiance after it? I too, I too, my dear John, have been assailed in my time by religious doubts. The church helped me to fight them off. It also helped me not to ask too much, not to demand too clear an image of what is unimaginable. St. Augustine said –

SHADE: Why must one always quote St. Augustine to me?

KINBOTE: As St. Augustine said, "One can know what God is not; one cannot know what He is." I think I know what He is not: He is not despair, He is not terror, He is not the earth in one's rattling throat, not the black hum in one's ears fading to nothing in nothing. I know also that the world could not have occurred fortuitously and that somehow Mind is involved as a main factor in the making of the universe. In trying to find the right name for that Universal Mind, or First Cause, or the Absolute, or Nature, I submit that the Name of God has priority. (note to Line 549)

 

The epigraph to Blok’s “Retribution”, Yunost’ – eto vozmezdie (Youth is retribution), is from Ibsen’s play Bygmester Solness (“The Master Builder,” 1892). According to Kinbote, the maternal grandfather of the leader of the Shadows (whose terrible name cannot be mentioned, even in the Index to the obscure work of a scholar) was a well-known and very courageous master builder:

 

Shadows, the, a regicidal organization which commissioned Gradus (q. v.) to assassinate the self-banished king; its leader's terrible name cannot be mentioned, even in the Index to the obscure work of a scholar; his maternal grandfather, a well-known and very courageous master builder, was hired by Thurgus the Turgid, around 1885, to make certain repairs in his quarters, and soon after that perished, poisoned in the royal kitchens, under mysterious circumstances, together with his three young apprentices whose first names Yan, Yonny, and Angeling, are preserved in a ballad still to be heard in some of our wilder valleys. (Index)

 

Polonski’s poem Prishli i stali teni nochi (“The shadows of the night came and mounted guard at my door,” 1842) brings to mind the Shadows and Stalin (the terrible Soviet dictator).

 

The King Thurgus the Third, surnamed the Turgid (the grandfather of Charles the Beloved), seems to hint at Turgenev. In his memoir essay Literaturnyi vecher u P. A. Pletnyova ("A Literary Evening at P. A. Pletnyov's," 1868) Turgenev describes his first (and second to last) encounter with Pushkin in January, 1837:

 

Войдя в переднюю квартиры Петра Александровича, я столкнулся с человеком среднего роста, который, уже надев шинель и шляпу и прощаясь с хозяином, звучным голосом воскликнул: "Да! да! хороши наши министры! нечего сказать!" - засмеялся и вышел. Я успел только разглядеть его белые зубы и живые, быстрые глаза. Каково же было мое горе, когда я узнал потом, что этот человек был Пушкин, с которым мне до тех пор не удавалось встретиться; и как я досадовал на свою мешкотность!

 

Turgenev overheard Pushkin say: "Yes! yes! Our ministers are great rascals!" In Chapter Four ("The Life of Chernyshevski") of VN's novel Dar ("The Gift," 1937) Fyodor quotes the words of Count Uvarov, Minister of Education, on the occasion of Pushkin's death: “to write jingles does not mean yet to achieve a great career:”

 

Говоря, что Пушкин был «только слабым подражателем Байрона», Чернышевский чудовищно точно воспроизводил фразу графа Воронцова: «Слабый подражатель лорда Байрона». Излюбленная мысль Добролюбова, что «у Пушкина недостаток прочного, глубокого образования» – дружеское аукание с замечанием того же Воронцова: «Нельзя быть истинным поэтом, не работая постоянно для расширения своих познаний, а их у него недостаточно». «Для гения недостаточно смастерить Евгения Онегина», – писал Надеждин, сравнивая Пушкина с портным, изобретателем жилетных узоров, и заключая умственный союз с Уваровым, министром народного просвещения, сказавшим по случаю смерти Пушкина: «Писать стишки не значит ещё проходить великое поприще».

 

When Chernyshevski said that Pushkin was “only a poor imitator of Byron,” he reproduced with monstrous accuracy the definition given by Count Vorontsov (Pushkin’s boss in Odessa): “A poor imitator of Lord Byron.” Dobrolyubov’s favorite idea that “Pushkin lacked a solid, deep education” is in friendly chime with Vorontsov’s remark: “One cannot be a genuine poet without constantly working to broaden one’s knowledge, and his is insufficient.” “To be a genius it is not enough to have manufactured Eugene Onegin,” wrote the progressive Nadezhdin, comparing Pushkin to a tailor, an inventor of waistcoat patterns, and thus concluding an intellectual pact with the reactionary Count Uvarov, Minister of Education, who remarked on the occasion of Pushkin’s death: “To write jingles does not mean yet to achieve a great career.”

 

In his autobiography Speak, Memory (1951) VN tells about his grandfather Dmitry Nabokov, State Minister of Justice in 1878-1885:

 

Dmitri Nabokov (the ending in ff was an old Continental fad), State Minister of Justice from 1878 to 1885, did what he could to protect, if not to strengthen, the liberal reforms of the sixties (trial by jury, for instance) against ferocious reactionary attacks. “He acted,” says a biographer (Brockhaus’ Encyclopedia, second Russian edition), “much like the captain of a ship in a storm who would throw overboard part of the cargo in order to save the rest.” The epitaphical simile unwittingly echoes, I note, an epigraphical theme—my grandfather’s earlier attempt to throw the law out of the window.
At his retirement, Alexander the Third offered him to choose between the title of count and a sum of money, presumably large—I do not know what exactly an earldom was worth in Russia, but contrary to the thrifty Tsar’s hopes my grandfather (as also his uncle Ivan, who had been offered a similar choice by Nicholas the First) plumped for the more solid reward. (“Encore un comte raté,” dryly comments Sergey Sergeevich.) After that he lived mostly abroad. In the first years of this century his mind became clouded but he clung to the belief that as long as he remained in the Mediterranean region everything would be all right. Doctors took the opposite view and thought he might live longer in the climate of some mountain resort or in Northern Russia. There is an extraordinary story, which I have not been able to piece together adequately, of his escaping from his attendants somewhere in Italy. There he wandered about, denouncing, with King Lear-like vehemence, his children to grinning strangers, until he was captured in a wild rocky place by some matter-of-fact carabinieri. During the winter of 1903, my mother, the only person whose presence, in his moments of madness, the old man could bear, was constantly at his side in Nice. My brother and I, aged three and four respectively, were also there with our English governess; I remember the windowpanes rattling in the bright breeze and the amazing pain caused by a drop of hot sealing wax on my finger. Using a candle flame (diluted to a deceptive pallor by the sunshine that invaded the stone slabs on which I was kneeling), I had been engaged in transforming dripping sticks of the stuff into gluey, marvelously smelling, scarlet and blue and bronze-colored blobs. The next moment I was bellowing on the floor, and my mother had hurried to the rescue, and somewhere nearby my grandfather in a wheelchair was thumping the resounding flags with his cane. She had a hard time with him. He used improper language. He kept mistaking the attendant who rolled him along the Promenade des Anglais for Count Loris-Melikov, a (long-deceased) colleague of his in the ministerial cabinet of the eighties. “Qui est cette femme—chassez-la!” he would cry to my mother as he pointed a shaky finger at the Queen of Belgium or Holland who had stopped to inquire about his health. Dimly I recall running up to his chair to show him a pretty pebble, which he slowly examined and then slowly put into his mouth. I wish I had had more curiosity when, in later years, my mother used to recollect those times. (Chapter Three, 1)

 

While Yan and Yonny* suggest yunost’ (youth, young age), Angeling (the name of the third apprentice of a well-known and very courageous master builder) brings to mind Angelina Blok (1892-1918), the poet’s half-sister to whose memory Blok dedicated his cycle Yamby (“The Iambs,” 1907-14). The epigraph to “The Iambs” is from Juvenal’s Satires (I, 79): Fecit indignatio versum (Indignation gives inspiration to verse). At the end of his Prologue to “Retribution” Blok mentions his gnevnyi yamb (indignant iamb):

 

Так бей, не знай отдохновенья,
Пусть жила жизни глубока:
Алмаз горит издалека —
Дроби, мой гневный ямб, каменья!

 

At the end of Canto Four of his poem Shade says that he suspects that the verse of galaxies divine is an iambic line:

 

Maybe my sensual love for the consonne

D'appui, Echo's fey child, is based upon

A feeling of fantastically planned,

Richly rhymed life. I feel I understand

Existence, or at least a minute part

Of my existence, only through my art,

In terms of combinational delight;

And if my private universe scans right,

So does the verse of galaxies divine

Which I suspect is an iambic line.

I'm reasonably sure that we survive

And that my darling somewhere is alive,

As I am reasonably sure that I

Shall wake at six tomorrow, on July

The twenty-second, nineteen fifty-nine,

And that the day will probably be fine;

So this alarm clock let me set myself,

Yawn, and put back Shade's "Poems" on their shelf.

 

But it's not bedtime yet. The sun attains

Old Dr. Sutton's last two windowpanes.

The man must be - what? Eighty? Eighty-two?

Was twice my age the year I married you.

Where are you? In the garden. I can see

Part of your shadow near the shagbark tree.

Somewhere horseshoes are being tossed. Click, Clunk.

(Leaning against its lamppost like a drunk.)

A dark Vanessa with crimson band

Wheels in the low sun, settles on the sand

And shows its ink-blue wingtips flecked with white.

And through the flowing shade and ebbing light

A man, unheedful of the butterfly -

Some neighbor's gardener, I guess - goes by

Trundling an empty barrow up the lane. (ll. 967-999)

 

Shade’s poem is almost finished when the author is killed by Gradus. 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”). Dvoynik (“The Double”) is a short novel (1846) by Dostoevski, a poem (1862) by Polonski and a poem (1909) by Blok.

 

*In his memoir essay on Blok, G. Ivanov (whose offensive article on Sirin appeared in the Paris émigré review “Numbers,” 1930, #1) mentions a certain Ionov, a Bolshevik who in August, 1921, visited dying Blok. According to G. Ivanov, to his question “does a sonnet need a coda” Blok replied that he did not know what a coda is.

 

On the other hand, the headline L'EX-ROI DE ZEMBLA EST-IL À PARIS? seems to combine Le roi s'amuse (1832), a play by Victor Hugo, with Hugo's novel Notre Dame de Paris (1831). In a letter of April 21-22, 1877, to Strakhov Leo Tolstoy quotes V. Hugo’s poem L’Abîme (“The Abyss”) in which Man (L’Homme) tells Earth (La Terre): “I am your king” and Earth (in Russian, Zemlya) replies: “you are my worm.”

 

А всё ругают V. Hugo. А он там говорит в разговоре земли с человеком.

Человек: Je suis ton roi.

Земля: Tu n’es que ma vermine. Ну-ка, отчего они не сказали так?

 

In his poem Shade (whose daughter drowned in Lake Omega) mentions not only Zembla, but also Terra the Fair, an orbicle of jasp. Hugo’s eldest daughter drowned in the Seine and another daughter went mad. 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’s "real" name). Like a worm, Botkin was cut into three parts by God’s spade, as it were. In his poem Smotryu v okno – i prezirayu… (I look out from a window and despise…” 1921) included in Tyazhyolaya Lira (“Heavy Lyre”) Hodasevich compares himself to a worm cut with a heavy spade:

 

Смотрю в окно - и презираю.

Смотрю в себя - презрен я сам.

На землю громы призываю,

Не доверяя небесам.

 

Дневным сиянием объятый,

Один беззвёздный вижу мрак...

Так вьётся на гряде червяк,

Рассечен тяжкою лопатой.

 

I look out from a window and despise,

I look into myself with contempt.

Not trusting the skies,

I call thunder on earth.

 

I see only starless dark

In a broad daylight - thus

Cut with a heavy spade,

A worm would whirl on a garden bed.

 

Balthasar, Prince of Loam (Kinbote's black gardener) saves Kinbote’s life by dealing Gradus a tremendous blow with his spade:

 

One of the bullet that spared me struck him in the side and went through his heart. His presence behind me abruptly failing me caused me to lose my balance, and, simultaneously, to complete the farce of fate, my gardener's spade dealt gunman Jack from behind the hedge a tremendous blow to the pate, felling him and sending his weapon flying from his grasp. Our savior retrieved it and helped me to my feet. My coccyx and right wrist hurt badly but the poem was safe. John, though, lay prone on the ground, with a red spot on his white shirt. I still hoped he had not been killed. The madman sat on the porch step, dazedly nursing with bloody hands a bleeding head. Leaving the gardener to watch over him I hurried into the house and concealed the invaluable envelope under a heap of girls' galoshes, furred snowboots and white wellingtons heaped at the bottom of a closet, from which I exited as if it had been the end of the secret passage that had taken me all the way out of my enchanted castle and right from Zembla to this Arcady. I then dialed 11111 and returned with a glass of water to the scene of the carnage. The poor poet had now been turned over and lay with open dead eyes directed up at the sunny evening azure. The armed gardener and the battered killer were smoking side by side on the steps. The latter, either because he was in pain, or because he had decided to play a new role, ignored me as completely as if I were a stone king on a stone charger in the Tessera Square of Onhava; but the poem was safe. (note to Line 1000)

 

In the Aeneid (Book VII) Virgil mentions tessera (a square tablet; a ticket inscribed with the watchword; the watchword or password):

 

classica iamque sonant, it bello tessera signum;

hic galeam tectis trepidus rapit, ille trementisad

iuga cogit equos, clipeumque auroque trilicem

loricam induitur fidoque accingitur ense. (ll. 637-640)

 

And now the clarion sounds; the password goes forth, the sign for war.

One in wild haste snatches a helmet from his home;

another harnesses his quivering steeds to the yoke,

dons his shield and coat of mail, triple-linked with gold, and girds on his trusty sword.

 

According to Kinbote, after line 274 of Shade’s poem there is a false start in the draft:

 

I like my name: Shade, Ombre, almost "man"
In Spanish...

 

Hugo’s L’Abîme ends as follows:

 

L’INFINI: L’être multiple vit dans mon unité sombre.
DIEU: Je n’aurais qu’à souffler, et tout serait de l’ombre.