Queen of England & her right glove in Pale Fire

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Sun, 10/24/2021 - 19:18

In a Monday issue of The New York Times Gradus (Shade’s murderer in VN’s novel Pale Fire, 1962) reads (as imagined by Kinbote, Shade’s mad commentator who imagines that he is Charles the Beloved, the last self-exiled king of Zembla) about the Queen of England who, during a visit to a museum in Whitehorse, walked to a corner of the White Animals Room, removed her right glove and, with her back turned to several evidently observant people, rubbed her forehead and one of her eyes:


He began with the day's copy of The New York Times. His lips moving like wrestling worms, he read about all kinds of things. Hrushchov (whom they spelled "Khrushchev") had abruptly put off a visit to Scandinavia and was to visit Zembla instead (here I tune in: "Vi nazïvaete sebya zemblerami, you call yourselves Zemblans, a ya vas nazïvayu zemlyakami, and I call you fellow countrymen!" Laughter and applause.) The United States was about to launch its first atom-driven merchant ship (just to annoy the Ruskers, of course. J. G.). Last night in Newark, an apartment house at 555 South Street was hit by a thunderbolt that smashed a TV set and injured two people watching an actress lost in a violent studio storm (those tormented spirits are terrible! C. X. K. teste J. S.). The Rachel Jewelry Company in Brooklyn advertised in agate type for a jewelry polisher who "must have experience on costume jewelry (oh, Degré had!). The Helman brothers said they had assisted in the negotiations for the placement of a sizable note: "$11, 000, 000, Decker Glass Manufacturing Company, Inc., note due July 1, 1979," and Gradus, grown young again, reread this twice, with the background gray thought, perhaps, that he would be sixty-four four days after that (no comment). On another bench he found a Monday issue of the same newspaper. During a visit to a museum in Whitehorse (Gradus kicked at a pigeon that came too near), the Queen of England walked to a corner of the White Animals Room, removed her right glove and, with her back turned to several evidently observant people, rubbed her forehead and one of her eyes. A pro-Red revolt had erupted in Iraq. Asked about the Soviet exhibition at the New York Coliseum, Carl Sandburg, a poet, replied, and I quote: "They make their appeal on the highest of intellectual levels." A hack reviewer of new books for tourists, reviewing his own tour through Norway, said that the fjords were too famous to need (his) description, and that all Scandinavians loved flowers. And at a picnic for international children a Zemblan moppet cried to her Japanese friend: Ufgut, ufgut, velkum ut Semblerland! (Adieu, adieu, till we meet in Zembla!) I confess it has been a wonderful game – this looking up in the WUL of various ephemerides over the shadow of a padded shoulder. (note to Line 949)


The Queen and her right glove suggest Anna Akhmatov’s poems Seroglazyi korol’ (“The Gray-Eyed King,” 1910) and Pesnya posledney vstrechi (“The Song of the Last Meeting,” 1911) in which she says: Ya nadela na pravuyu ruku perchatku s levoy ruki (“I pulled onto my right hand the glove that belonged to the left). According to Oswin Bretwit (the former Zemblan consul whom Gradus visits in Paris), his majesty Charles the Beloved is left-handed. Oswin Bretwit brings to mind Oswin (died Aug. 20, 651), a king of Deira in northern England, son of Osric. The characters in Shakespeare's Hamlet include Osric, a courtier whom Horatio calls "this lapwing." In her poem Londontsam (“To the Londoners,” 1940) Anna Akhmatov says that Time is writing the twenty-fourth play of Shakespeare:


И сделалась война на небе.


Двадцать четвертую драму Шекспира
Пишет время бесстрастной рукой.
Сами участники чумного пира,
Лучше мы Гамлета, Цезаря, Лира
Будем читать над свинцовой рекой;
Лучше сегодня голубку Джульетту
С пеньем и факелом в гроб провожать,
Лучше заглядывать в окна к Макбету,
Вместе с наемным убийцей дрожать, —
Только не эту, не эту, не эту,
Эту уже мы не в силах читать!


Shakespeare’s play, his twenty-fourth —
Time is writing it impassively.
By the leaden river what can we,
Who know what such feasts are,
Do, except read Hamlet, Caesar, Lear?
Or escort Juliet to her bed, and christen
Her death, poor dove, with torches and singing;
Or peep through the window at Macbeth,
Trembling with the one who kills from greed —
Only not this one, not this one, not this one,
This one we do not have the strength to read.

(Tr. D. M. Thomas)


In Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet Mercutio mentions Benvolio’s hazel eyes:


Thou wilt quarrel with a man for cracking nuts, having no other reason but because thou hast hazel eyes. (Act III, scene 1)


Benvolio’s hazel eyes bring to mind Hazel Shade (the poet’s dead daughter who resembled Kinbote in certain respect). According to Kinbote, the name Zembla is a corruption not of the Russian zemlya, but of Semblerland, a land of reflections, of "resemblers:"


Pictures of the King had not infrequently appeared in America during the first months of the Zemblan Revolution. Every now and then some busybody on the campus with a retentive memory, or one of the clubwomen who were always after Shade and his eccentric friend, used to ask me with the inane meaningfulness adopted in such cases if anybody had told me how much I resembled that unfortunate monarch. I would counter with something on the lines of "all Chinese look alike" and change the subject. One day, however, in the lounge of the Faculty Club where I lolled surrounded by a number of my colleagues, I had to put up with a particularly embarrassing onset. A visiting German lecturer from Oxford kept exclaiming, aloud and under his breath, that the resemblance was "absolutely unheard of," and when I negligently observed that all bearded Zemblans resembled one another - and that, in fact, the name Zembla is a corruption not of the Russian zemlya, but of Semblerland, a land of reflections, of "resemblers" - my tormentor said: "Ah, yes, but King Charles wore no beard, and yet it is his very face! I had [he added] the honor of being seated within a few yards of the royal box at a Sport Festival in Onhava which I visited with my wife, who is Swedish, in 1956. We have a photograph of him at home, and her sister knew very well the mother of one of his pages, an interesting woman. Don't you see [almost tugging at Shade's lapel] the astounding similarity of features - of the upper part of the face, and the eyes, yes, the eyes, and the nose bridge?"

"Nay, sir" [said Shade, refolding a leg and slightly rolling in his armchair as wont to do when about to deliver a pronouncement] "there is no resemblance at all. I have seen the King in newsreels, and there is no resemblance. Resemblances are the shadows of differences. Different people see different similarities and similar differences."

Good Netochka, who had been looking singularly uncomfortable during this exchange, remarked in his gentle voice how sad it was to think that such a "sympathetic ruler" had probably perished in prison.

A professor of physics now joined in. He was a so-called Pink, who believed in what so-called Pinks believe in (Progressive Education, the Integrity of anyone spying for Russia, Fall-outs occasioned solely by US-made bombs, the existence in the near past of a McCarthy Era, Soviet achievements including Dr. Zhivago, and so forth): "Your regrets are groundless" [said he]. "That sorry ruler is known to have escaped disguised as a nun; but whatever happens, or has happened to him, cannot interest the Zemblan people. History has denounced him, and that is his epitaph."

Shade: "True, sir. In due time history will have denounced everybody. The King may be dead, or he may be as much alive as you and Kinbote, but let us respect facts. I have it from him [pointing to me] that the widely circulated stuff about the nun is a vulgar pro-Extremist fabrication. The Extremists and their friends invented a lot of nonsense to conceal their discomfiture; but the truth is that the King walked out of the palace, and crossed the mountains, and left the country, not in the black garb of a pale spinster but dressed as an athlete in scarlet wool."

"Strange, strange," said the German visitor, who by some quirk of alderwood ancestry had been alone to catch the eerie note that had throbbed by and was gone.

Shade [smiling and massaging my knee]: "Kings do not die - they only disappear, eh, Charles?"

"Who said that?" asked sharply, as if coming out of a trance, the ignorant, and always suspicious, Head of the English Department.

"Take my own case," continued my dear friend ignoring Mr. H. "I have been said to resemble at least four people: Samuel Johnson; the lovingly reconstructed ancestor of man in the Exton Museum; and two local characters, one being the slapdash disheveled hag who ladles out the mash in the Levin Hall cafeteria."

"The third in the witch row," I precised quaintly, and everybody laughed.

"I would rather say," remarked Mr. Pardon - American History - "that she looks like Judge Goldsworth" ("One of us," interposed Shade inclining his head), "especially when he is real mad at the whole world after a good dinner."

"I hear," hastily began Netochka, "that the Goldsworths are having a wonderful time -"

"What a pity I cannot prove my point," muttered the tenacious German visitor. "If only there was a picture here. Couldn't there be somewhere -"

"Sure," said young Emerald and left his seat.

Professor Pardon now spoke to me: "I was under the impression that you were born in Russia, and that your name was a kind of anagram of Botkin or Botkine?"

Kinbote: "You are confusing me with some refugee from Nova Zembla" [sarcastically stressing the "Nova'"].

"Didn't you tell me, Charles, that kinbote means regicide in your language?" asked my dear Shade.

"Yes, a king's destroyer," I said (longing to explain that a king who sinks his identity in the mirror of exile is in a sense just that).

Shade [addressing the German visitor]: "Professor Kinbote is the author of a remarkable book on surnames. I believe [to me] there exists an English translation?"

"Oxford, 1956," I replied.

"You do know Russian, though?" said Pardon. "I think I heard you, the other day, talking to - what's his name - oh, my goodness" [laboriously composing his lips].

Shade: "Sir, we all find it difficult to attack that name" [laughing].

Professor Hurley: "Think of the French word for 'tire': punoo."

Shade: "Why, Sir, I am afraid you have only punctured the difficulty" [laughing uproariously].

"Flatman," quipped I. "Yes," I went on, turning to Pardon, "I certainly do speak Russian. You see, it was the fashionable language par excellence, much more so than French, among the nobles of Zembla at least, and at its court. Today, of course, all this has changed. It is now the lower classes who are forcibly taught to speak Russian."

"Aren't we, too, trying to teach Russian in our schools?" said Pink.

In the meantime, at the other end of the room, young Emerald had been communing with the bookshelves. At this point he returned with the T-Z volume of an illustrated encyclopedia.

"Well, said he, "here he is, that king. But look, he is young and handsome" ("Oh, that won't do," wailed the German visitor). "Young, handsome, and wearing a fancy uniform," continued Emerald. "Quite the fancy pansy, in fact."

"And you," I said quietly, "are a foul-minded pup in a cheap green jacket."

"But what have I said?" the young instructor inquired of the company, spreading out his palms like a disciple in Leonardo's Last Supper.

"Now, now," said Shade. "I'm sure, Charles, our young friend never intended to insult your sovereign and namesake."

"He could not, even if he had wished," I observed placidly, turning it all into a joke.

Gerald Emerald extended his hand - which at the moment of writing still remains in that position. (note to Line 894)


In her poem Seroglazyi korol’ Anna Akhmatov mentions bezyskhodnaya bol’ (inescapable pain). Duchess of Payn, of Great Payn and Mone, Queen Disa (the wife of Charles the Beloved) seems to be a cross between Leonardo’s Mona Lisa and Desdemona, Othello’s wife in Shakespeare’s Othello. A banished Queen, Queen Disa lives at her villa in Nice. In his autobiography Speak, Memory (1951) VN mentions his languid and melancholy English governess, Miss Norcott, who lost a white kid glove at Nice or Beaulieu:


There was lovely, black-haired, aquamarine-eyed Miss Norcott, who lost a white kid glove at Nice or Beaulieu, where I vainly looked for it on the shingly beach among the colored pebbles and the glaucous lumps of sea-changed bottle glass. Lovely Miss Norcott was asked to leave at once, one night at Abbazia. She embraced me in the morning twilight of the nursery, pale-mackintoshed and weeping like a Babylonian willow, and that day I remained inconsolable, despite the hot chocolate that the Petersons’ old Nanny had made especially for me and the special bread and butter, on the smooth surface of which my aunt Nata, adroitly capturing my attention, drew a daisy, then a cat, and then the little mermaid whom I had just been reading about with Miss Norcott and crying over, too, so I started to cry again. (Chapter Four, 4)


The main character of Chekhov’s story Doch’ Al’biona (“A Daughter of Albion,” 1883) is the English governess of a Russian landowner’s children, Wilka Charlesovna Fyce. In a letter of March 28, 1898, from Nice to his sister Chekhov says that today he saw the English Queen:


Сегодня я видел английскую королеву.


March 28 is the day of VN’s grandfather’s and father’s death:


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.

He would lapse for ever-increasing periods into an unconscious state; during one such lapse he was transferred to his pied-à-terre on the Palace Quay in St. Petersburg. As he gradually regained consciousness, my mother camouflaged his bedroom into the one he had had in Nice. Some similar pieces of furniture were found and a number of articles rushed from Nice by a special messenger, and all the flowers his hazy senses had been accustomed to were obtained, in their proper variety and profusion, and a bit of house wall that could be just glimpsed from the window was painted a brilliant white, so every time he reverted to a state of comparative lucidity he found himself safe on the illusory Riviera artistically staged by my mother; and there, on March 28, 1904, exactly eighteen years, day for day, before my father, he peacefully died. (Speak, Memory, Chapter Three, 1)


On the day of his father’s assassination (March 28, 1922) VN was reading to his mother Blok’s poem about Florence, when the telephone rang and he learnt of the tragedy in a Berlin lecture hall. Whitehorse (the city in NW Canada in which the Queen of England visited a museum) brings to mind belyi kon’ (the white horse) mentioned by Alexander Blok in his poem Ya vyshel v noch’ (“I came out into the night,” 1902):


Я вышел в ночь - узнать, понять
Далёкий шорох, близкий ропот,
Несуществующих принять,
Поверить в мнимый конский топот.

Дорога, под луной бела,
Казалось, полнилась шагами.
Там только чья-то тень брела
И опустилась за холмами.

И слушал я - и услыхал:
Среди дрожащих лунных пятен
Далёко, звонко конь скакал,
И легкий посвист был понятен.

Но здесь, и дальше - ровный звук,
И сердце медленно боролось,
О, как понять, откуда стук,
Откуда будет слышен голос?

И вот, слышнее звон копыт,
И белый конь ко мне несётся...
И стало ясно, кто молчит
И на пустом седле смеётся.

Я вышел в ночь - узнать, понять
Далёкий шорох, близкий ропот,
Несуществующих принять,
Поверить в мнимый конский топот.


On Demonia (aka Antiterra, Earth’s twin planet on which VN’s novel Ada, 1969, is set) Whitehorse is known as Belokonsk. The Queen’s visit to a museum in Whitehorse brings to mind VN’s story Poseshchenie muzeya (“The Visit to a Museum,” 1938). VN's story begins as follows:


Несколько лет тому назад один мой парижский приятель, человек со странностями, чтобы не сказать более, узнав, что я собираюсь провести два-три дня вблизи Монтизера, попросил меня зайти в тамошний музей, где, по его сведениям, должен был находиться портрет его деда кисти Леруа. Улыбаясь и разводя руками, он мне поведал довольно дымчатую историю, которую я, признаться, выслушал без внимания, отчасти из-за того, что не люблю чужих навязчивых дел, но главное потому, что всегда сомневался в способности моего друга оставаться по ею сторону фантазии. Выходило приблизительно так, что после смерти деда, скончавшегося в свое время в петербургском доме во время японской войны, обстановка его парижской квартиры была продана с торгов, причем после неясных странствий портрет был приобретен музеем города, где художник Леруа родился. Моему приятелю хотелось узнать, там ли действительно портрет, и, если там, можно ли его выкупить, и, если можно, то за какую цену. На мой вопрос, почему же ему с музеем не списаться, он отвечал, что писал туда несколько раз, но не добился ответа.


Several years ago a friend of mine in Paris—a person with oddities, to put it mildly—learning that I was going to spend two or three days at Montisert, asked me to drop in at the local museum where there hung, he was told, a portrait of his grandfather by Leroy. Smiling and spreading out his hands, he related a rather vague story to which I confess I paid little attention, partly because I do not like other people's obtrusive affairs, but chiefly because I had always had doubts about my friend's capacity to remain this side of fantasy. It went more or less as follows: after the grandfather died in their St. Petersburg house back at the time of the Russo-Japanese War, the contents of his apartment in Paris were sold at auction. The portrait, after some obscure peregrinations, was acquired by the museum of Leroy's native town. My friend wished to know if the portrait was really there; if there, if it could be ransomed; and if it could, for what price. When I asked why he did not get in touch with the museum, he replied that he had written several times, but had never received an answer.


The Russo-Japanese War brings to mind a Zemblan moppet and her Japanese friend mentioned by Kinbote. A Russian Nobleman in Leroy's painting bears a likeness to Offenbach (the author of "Orpheus in the Underworld," 1858). Kinbote's Zembla (Semberland) is a land of "resemblers." Montisert in "The Visit to a Museum" seems to hint at Monte-Carlo. At the end of his poem Monte Carlo (1929) Mayakovski (VN's "late namesake") calls the inhabitants of Monte Carlo poganen'kie montekarliki (vile dwarfish Monte Carlians). Karlik is Russian for "dwarf." According to Kinbote, his uncle Conmal (Shakespeare's Zemblan translator) called him Karlik:


At forty, not long before the collapse of his throne, he had attained such a degree of scholarship that he dared accede to his venerable uncle's raucous dying request: 'Teach, Karlik!' (Note to Line 12)


Conmal is "the venerable Duke:"


English being Conmal's prerogative, his Shakspere remained invulnerable throughout the greater part of his long life. The venerable Duke was famed for the nobility of his work; few dared question its fidelity. Personally, I had never the heart to check it. One callous Academician who did, lost his seat in result and was severely reprimanded by Conmal in an extraordinary sonnet composed directly in colorful, if not quite correct, English, beginning:


I am not slave! Let be my critic slave.
I cannot be. And Shakespeare would not want thus.
Let drawing students copy the acanthus,
I work with Master on the architrave! (note to Line 962)


In “A Visit to the Museum” the narrator mentions zasluzhennye mineraly (venerable minerals) and a pair of owls, Eagle Owl and Long-eared, with their French names reading "Grand Duke" and "Middle Duke" if translated:


Всё было как полагается: серый цвет, сон вещества, обеспредметившаяся предметность; шкап со стертыми монетами, лежащими на бархатных скатиках, а наверху шкапа -- две совы,-- одну звали в буквальном переводе "Великий князь", другую "Князь средний"; покоились заслуженные минералы в открытых гробах из пыльного картона; фотография удивленного господина с эспаньолкой высилась над собранием странных черных шариков различной величины, занимавших почетное место под наклонной витриной: они чрезвычайно напоминали подмороженный навоз, и я над ними невольно задумался, ибо никак не мог разгадать их природу, состав и назначение.


Everything was as it should be: gray tints, the sleep of substance, matter dematerialized. There was the usual case of old, worn coins resting in the inclined velvet of their compartments. There was, on top of the case, a pair of owls, Eagle Owl and Long-eared, with their French names reading "Grand Duke" and "Middle Duke" if translated. Venerable minerals lay in their open graves of dusty papier mache; a photograph of an astonished gentleman with a pointed beard dominated an assortment of strange black lumps of various sizes. They bore a great resemblance to frozen frass, and I paused involuntarily over them, for I was quite at a loss to guess their nature, composition, and function.


Describing Gradus, Kinbote mentions the mineral blue of his jaw:


Gradus is now much nearer to us in space and time than he was in the preceding cantos. He has short upright black hair. We can fill in the bleak oblong of his face with most of its elements such as thick eyebrows and a wart on the chin. He has a ruddy but unhealthy complexion. We see, fairly in focus, the structure of his somewhat mesmeric organs of vision. We see his melancholy nose with its crooked ridge and grooved tip. We see the mineral blue of his jaw and the gravelly pointille of his suppressed mustache. (note to Line 949)