pinned knight in Pale Fire

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Tue, 10/26/2021 - 06:52

In Canto Three of his poem John Shade (the poet in VN's novel Pale Fire, 1962) mentions a game of chess with his wife Sybil who says that her knight is pinned (or is it the poet whose knight is pinned?):


"What is that funny creaking--do you hear?"
"It is the shutter on the stairs, my dear."

"If you're not sleeping, let's turn on the light.
I hate that wind! Let's play some chess." "All right."

"I'm sure it's not the shutter. There--again."
"It is a tendril fingering the pane."

"What glided down the roof and made that thud?"
"It is old winter tumbling in the mud."

"And now what shall I do? My knight is pinned."

Who rides so late in the night and the wind?
It is the writer's grief. It is the wild
March wind. It is the father with his child. (ll. 653-665)


Describing Gradus’ day in New York, Kinbote (Shade’s mad commentator who imagines that he is Charles the Beloved, the last self-exiled king of Zembla) mentions a chess knight (that skip-space piece), standing on a marginal file:


Jacques d'Argus looked for a twentieth time at his watch. He strolled like a pigeon with his hands behind him. He had his mahogany shoes shined – and appreciated the way the dirty but pretty boy clacked taut his rag. In a restaurant on Broadway he consumed a large portion of pinkish pork with sauerkraut, a double helping of elastic French fries, and the half of an overripe melon. From my rented cloudlet I contemplate him with quiet surprise: here he is, this creature ready to commit a monstrous act – and coarsely enjoying a coarse meal! We must assume, I think, that the forward projection of what imagination he had, stopped at the act, on the brink of all its possible consequences; ghost consequences, comparable to the ghost toes of an amputee or to the fanning out of additional squares which a chess knight (that skip-space piece), standing on a marginal file, "feels" in phantom extensions beyond the board, but which have no effect whatever on his real moves, on the real play. (note to Line 949)


In VN's novel The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941) Sebastian Knight (who signed his poems with a little black chess-knight drawn in ink) dies in a sanatorium in St Damier. As V. (the narrator in TRLSK, Sebastian's half-brother) points out, damier is French for "chess board:"


Would I never get to Sebastian? Who were those idle idiots who wrote on the wall 'Death to the Jews' or 'Vive le front populaire', or left obscene drawings? Some anonymous artist had begun blacking squares – a chess board, ein Schachbrett, un damier. There was a flash in my brain and the word settled on my tongue: St Damier! (chapter 20)


In Dr Starov's telegram Sebastian's name is spelled Sevastian:


'Sevastian's state hopeless come immediately Starov.' It was worded in French; the 'v' in Sebastian's name was a transcription of its Russian spelling; for some reason unknown, I went to the bathroom and stood there for a moment in front of the looking-glass. Then I snatched my hat and ran downstairs. The time was a quarter to twelve when I reached the station, and there was a train at 0.02, arriving at Paris about half past two p.m. on the following day. (chapter 19)


In Luchami strel Erot menya pronzil ("Eros has pierced me with the rays of his arrows"), the first sonnet in the cycle Zolotye zavesy ("Golden Veils," 1907), Vyacheslav Ivanov compares himself to svyazen' Sevastian (bound Sebastian):


Лучами стрел Эрот меня пронзил,
Влача на казнь, как связня Севастьяна;
И, расточа горючий сноп колчана,
С другим снопом примчаться угрозил.

Так вещий сон мой жребий отразил
В зеркальности нелживого обмана...
И стал я весь - одна живая рана;
И каждый луч мне в сердце водрузил

Росток огня и корнем врос тягучим;
И я расцвёл - золотоцвет мечей -
Одним из солнц, и багрецом текучим
К ногам стекла волна моих ключей...

Ты погребла в пурпурном море тело,
И роза дня в струистой урне тлела.


Eros has pierced me with the rays of his arrows,
Dragging me to execution, like bound Sebastian.
And, having squandered the burning shaft of his quiver,
He has threatened to rush back with another shaft…


In V. Ivanov's sonnet svyazen' Sevastian is Saint Sebastian (died c. 288 AD), an early Christian saint and martyr. An obsolete word meaning "prisoner," svyazen' comes from svyazyvat' (to tie, bind). In chess vocabulary svyazyvat' means "to pin." In a game of chess that Shade plays with his wife his (or her) kon’ (knight) is svyazan (pinned). Shade’s murderer, Gradus commits suicide in prison:


Nevertheless, I have had my little revenge: public misapprehension indirectly helped me to obtain the right of publishing Pale Fire. My good gardener, when enthusiastically relating to everybody what he had seen, certainly erred in several respects - not so much perhaps in his exaggerated account of my "heroism" as in the assumption that Shade had been deliberately aimed at by the so-called Jack Grey; but Shade's widow found herself so deeply affected by the idea of my having "thrown myself" between the gunman and his target that during a scene I shall never forget, she cried out, stroking my hands: "There are things for which no recompense in this world or another is great enough." That "other world" comes in handy when misfortune befalls the infidel but I let it pass of course, and, indeed, resolved not to refute anything, saying instead: "Oh, but there is a recompense, my dear Sybil. It may seem to you a very modest request but - give me the permission, Sybil, to edit and publish John's last poem." The permission was given at once, with new cries and new hugs, and already next day her signature was under the agreement I had a quick little lawyer draw up. That moment of grateful grief you soon forgot, dear girl. But I assure you that I do not mean any harm, and that John Shade perhaps, will not be too much annoyed by my notes, despite the intrigues and the dirt.

Because of these machinations I was confronted with nightmare problems in my endeavors to make people calmly see - without having them immediately scream and hustle me - the truth of the tragedy - a tragedy in which I had been not a "chance witness" but the protagonist, and the main, if only potential, victim. The hullabaloo ended by affecting the course of my new life, and necessitated my removal to this modest mountain cabin; but I did manage to obtain, soon after his detention, an interview, perhaps even two interviews, with the prisoner. He was now much, more lucid than when he cowered bleeding on my porch step, and he told me all I wanted to know. By making him believe I could help him at his trial I forced him to confess his heinous crime - his deceiving the police and the nation by posing as Jack Grey, escapee from an asylum, who mistook Shade for the man who sent him there. A few days later, alas, he thwarted justice by slitting his throat with a safety razor blade salvaged from an unwatched garbage container. He died, not so much because having played his part in the story he saw no point in existing any longer, but because he could not live down this last crowning botch - killing the wrong person when the right one stood before him. In other words, his life ended not in a feeble splutter of the clockwork but in a gesture of humanoid despair. Enough of this. Exit Jack Grey. (note to Line 1000)


In Circe, Episode 15 of Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), Stephen Dedalus says “Exit Judas. Et laqueo se suspendit” (Judas leaves. And he hanged himself with a noose):



(With ferocious articulation.) I'll do him in, so help me fucking Christ! I'll wring the bastard fucker's bleeding blasted fucking windpipe!


(Thrusts a dagger towards Stephen's hand.) Remove him, acushla. At 8.35 a.m. you will be in heaven and Ireland will be free. (She prays.) O good God, take him!


(Runs to Lynch.) Can't you get him away?


He likes dialectic, the universal language. Kitty! (To Bloom.) Get him away, you. He won't listen to me.

(He drags Kitty away.)


(Points.) Exit Judas. Et laqueo se suspendit.


(Runs to Stephen.) Come along with me now before worse happens. Here's your stick.


Stick, no. Reason. This feast of pure reason.


John Shade is an authority on Pope. In Imitations of Horace (1734), bk. 2, Satire I, ll. 126-130, Alexander Pope says:


There, my retreat the best companions grace,
Chiefs out of war, and Statesmen out of place.

There St. John mingles with my friendly bowl,
The Feast of Reason and the Flow of soul.


In a letter of Oct. 31, 1838 (Dostoevski’s seventeenth birthday), to his brother Dostoevski mentions dusha (the soul) and gradus vdokhnoveniya (the degree of inspiration):


Друг мой! Ты философствуешь как поэт. И как не ровно выдерживает душа градус вдохновенья, так не ровна, не верна и твоя философия. Чтоб больше знать, надо меньше чувствовать, и обратно, правило опрометчивое, бред сердца.


My friend, you philosophize like a poet. And just because the soul cannot be forever in a state of exaltation, your philosophy is not true and not just. To know more one must feel less, and vice versa. Your judgment is featherheaded – it is a delirium of the heart.


"Dostoevski and the Novel-Tragedy" (1911) is an essay by V. Ivanov. In the sixth sonnet of the cycle “Golden Veils” V. Ivanov mentions mertsanie Sivillinoy svechi (the glimmer of Sibyl's candle) and dush spleten'ya i raskoly (the interlacing and splits of souls):


Чью розу гнут всех горних бурь Эолы,
Чью лилию пронзают все мечи, -
В мерцании Сивиллиной свечи
Душ лицезрит сплетенья и расколы.


Mertsanie Sivillinoy svechi brings to mind Zina Mertz and polu-mertsan’ye (half-shimmer) in her surname mentioned by Fyodor Godunov-Cherdyntsev, the narrator and main character in VN’s novel Dar (“The Gift,” 1937), in one of his poems addressed to Zina:


Как звать тебя? Ты полу-Мнемозина, полу-мерцанье в имени твоём, – и странно мне по сумраку Берлина с полувиденьем странствовать вдвоём. Но вот скамья под липой освещенной… Ты оживаешь в судорогах слез: я вижу взор сей жизнью изумленный и бледное сияние волос. Есть у меня сравненье на примете, для губ твоих, когда целуешь ты: нагорный снег, мерцающий в Тибете, горячий ключ и в инее цветы. Ночные наши, бедные владения, – забор, фонарь, асфальтовую гладь – поставим на туза воображения, чтоб целый мир у ночи отыграть! Не облака – а горные отроги; костёр в лесу, – не лампа у окна… О поклянись, что до конца дороги ты будешь только вымыслу верна…


What shall I call you? Half-Mnemosyne? There’s a half-shimmer in your surname too. In dark Berlin, it is so strange to me to roam, oh, my half-fantasy, with you. A bench stands under the translucent tree. Shivers and sobs reanimate you there, and all life’s wonder in your gaze I see, and see the pale fair radiance of your hair. In honor of your lips when they kiss mine I might devise a metaphor some time: Tibetan mountain-snows, their glancing shine, and a hot spring near flowers touched with rime. Our poor nocturnal property—that wet asphaltic gloss, that fence and that street light—upon the ace of fancy let us set to win a world of beauty from the night. Those are not clouds—but star-high mountain spurs; not lamplit blinds—but camplight on a tent! O swear to me that while the heartblood stirs, you will be true to what we shall invent. (Chapter Three)


According to Kinbote, Gradus is a half-man who is also half mad:


I have considered in my earlier note (I now see it is the note to line 171) the particular dislikes, and hence the motives, of our "automatic man," as I phrased it at a time when he did not have as much body, did not offend the senses as violently as now; was, in a word, further removed from our sunny, green, grass-fragrant Arcady. But Our Lord has fashioned man so marvelously that no amount of motive hunting and rational inquiry can ever really explain how and why anybody is capable of destroying a fellow creature (this argument necessitates, I know, a temporary granting to Gradus of the status of man), unless he is defending the life of his son, or his own, or the achievement of a lifetime; so that in final judgment of the Gradus versus the Crown case I would submit that if his human incompleteness be deemed insufficient to explain his idiotic journey across the Atlantic just to empty the magazine of his gun; we may concede, doctor, that our half-man was also half mad. (note to Line 949)


“Doctor” clearly indicates that Kinbote writes his Commentary not “Cedarn, Utana,” but in a mad house in Quebec (in his Foreword Kinbote says that, after her husband’s death, Sybil Shade left New Wye and is dwelling with her relatives in Quebec). In fact, the poet Shade, his commentator Kinbote and his murderer 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). There is nadezhda (a hope) that, when Kinbote completes his work on Shade’s poem and commits suicide (on Oct. 19, 1959, the anniversary of Pushkin’s Lyceum), Botkin, like Count Vorontsov (a target of Pushkin’s epigrams, “half-milord, half-merchant, etc.”), will be full again.


My previous post, “Queen of England & her right glove in Pale Fire,” was full of strange gaps and all sort of mistakes. Now they have been corrected.


Let me also draw your attention to a Monday issue (July 20, 1959) of The New York Times that Gradus reads in Central Park: (some headlines in it will be familiar to you).