Paberg (Mt. Peacock) in Pale Fire

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Fri, 06/24/2022 - 08:16

Describing the King’s escape from Zembla, 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 the green, gray, bluish mountains – Falkberg with its hood of snow, Mutraberg with the fan of its avalanche, Paberg (Mt. Peacock), and others:


Great fallen crags diversified the wayside. The nippern (domed hills or "reeks") to the south were broken by a rock and grass slope into light and shadow. Northward melted the green, gray, bluish mountains – Falkberg with its hood of snow, Mutraberg with the fan of its avalanche, Paberg (Mt. Peacock), and others – separated by narrow dim valleys with intercalated cotton-wool bits of cloud that seemed placed between the receding sets of ridges to prevent their flanks from scraping against one another. Beyond them, in the final blue, loomed Mt. Glitterntin, a serrated edge of bright foil; and southward, a tender haze enveloped more distant ridges which led to one another in an endless array, through every grade of soft evanescence. (note to Line 149)


Paberg seems to blend påfågel (Swedish for “peacock;” the Swedish word fågel corresponds to German Vogel and means “bird”) with Vilhelm Moberg (1898-1973), a Swedish author whose play Domaren (“The Judge,” 1957) was made into a film by Alf Sjöberg. “The Judge” entered the 1961 Cannes Film Festival (where VN might see it). In his autobiography Zhili-byli (“There Once Were,” 1961) Viktor Shklovsky (who saw “The Judge” at the 1961 Moscow Film Festival) describes the film’s plot:


Сейчас вспомнил ленту Московского фестиваля 1961 года. Лента шведская, называется она «Судья», режиссер ее Альф Шёберг и сценаристы Вильгельм Моберг и Альф Шёберг.

Это талантливое произведение рассказывает об отсутствии правосудия в буржуазном обществе. Молодого поэта его опекун, судья, сперва лишает наследства, потом сажает в сумасшедший дом.

Дело кончается условно благополучно. Комическая старуха, преподавательница музыки, при помощи магнитофона записала саморазоблачающий разговор судьи, и в результате поэт получает обратно свою невесту, вероятно, и свое состояние.

Это сделано условно и пародийно.

Самое талантливое место в ленте – это изображение сумасшедшего дома. В легком тумане стоят зимние деревья с обрубленными сучьями, туман, снег, тишина.

Поэт, загнанный в сумасшедший дом, сидит и пишет стихи. Здесь он получил «жизненный опыт» и защиту от жизни – двери сумасшедшего дома. Доктор-тюремщик теперь почти любит сломанного человека и восхищается его стихами.

Юноша пишет стихи о ласточке, которая на белой стене неба начертила какие-то простые слова.

Это сердце ленты, здесь нет иронии, здесь есть вдохновение.

Левое искусство прошлого у нас и левое искусство Запада так освобождалось от «судьи», получая иллюзорную свободу в больнице.

Но из больницы надо уходить, а уходить можно только в борьбу.

Хлебников после Октябрьской революции писал такие стихи, как «Ночь перед Советами». (“The Futurists,” 3)


A young poet is at first disinherited and then locked up in a madhouse by his guardian, the judge. According to Shklovsky, the most talented part of the film is the depiction of the madhouse. In a light haze the winter trees stand with limbs cut off, the fog, the snow, the silence. The poet who was hunted down to a madhouse sits and writes verses about a swallow that drew some simple words on the white wall of the sky. Kinbote calls Sybil Shade (the poet’s wife, née Irondell) “Sybil Swallow:”


John Shade and Sybil Swallow (see note to line 247) were married in 1919, exactly three decades before King Charles wed Disa, Duchess of Payn. Since the very beginning of his reign (1936-1958) representatives of the nation, salmon fishermen, non-union glaziers, military groups, worried relatives, and especially the Bishop of Yeslove, a sanguineous and saintly old man, had been doing their utmost to persuade him to give up his copious but sterile pleasures and take a wife. It was a matter not of morality but of succession. As in the case of some of his predecessors, rough alderkings who burned for boys, the clergy blandly ignored our young bachelor's pagan habits, but wanted him to do what an earlier and even more reluctant Charles had done: take a night off and lawfully engender an heir. (note to Line 275)


Describing the last moments of Shade’s life, Kinbote mentions a bat writing a legible tale of torture in the bruised and branded sky:


Well did I know he could never resist a golden drop of this or that, especially since he was severely rationed at home. With an inward leap of exultation I relieved him of the large envelope that hampered his movements as he descended the steps of the porch, sideways, like a hesitating infant. We crossed the lawn, we crossed the road. Clink-clank, came the horseshoe music from Mystery Lodge. In the large envelope I carried I could feel the hard-cornered, rubberbanded batches of index cards. We are absurdly accustomed to the miracle of a few written signs being able to contain immortal imagery, involutions of thought, new worlds with live people, speaking, weeping, laughing. We take it for granted so simply that in a sense, by the very act of brutish routine acceptance, we undo the work of the ages, the history of the gradual elaboration of poetical description and construction, from the treeman to Browning, from the caveman to Keats. What if we awake one day, all of us, and find ourselves utterly unable to read? I wish you to gasp not only at what you read but at the miracle of its being readable (so I used to tell my students). Although I am capable, through long dabbling in blue magic, of imitating any prose in the world (but singularly enough not verse - I am a miserable rhymester), I do not consider myself a true artist, save in one matter: I can do what only a true artist can do - pounce upon the forgotten butterfly of revelation, wean myself abruptly from the habit of things, see the web of the world, and the warp and the weft of that web. Solemnly I weighed in my hand what I was carrying under my left armpit, and for a moment, I found myself enriched with an indescribable amazement as if informed that fireflies were making decodable signals on behalf of stranded spirits, or that a bat was writing a legible tale of torture in the bruised and branded sky.

I was holding all Zembla pressed to my heart. (note to Line 991)


According to Kinbote, Gradus (Shade’s murderer) is a cross between bat and crab:


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. (note to Line 171)


Odon (pseudonym of Donald O’Donnell) is a world famous Zemblan actor and patriot who helps the king to escape from Zembla:


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!

t 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)


At the end of his Commentary Kinbote says that he may join forces with Odon in a new motion picture:


"And you, what will you be doing with yourself, poor King, poor Kinbote?" a gentle young voice may inquire.

God will help me, I trust, to rid myself of any desire to follow the example of two other characters in this work. I shall continue to exist. I may assume other disguises, other forms, but I shall try to exist. I may turn up yet, on another campus, as an old, happy, healthy, heterosexual Russian, a writer in exile, sans fame, sans future, sans audience, sans anything but his art. I may join forces with Odon in a new motion picture: Escape from Zembla (ball in the palace, bomb in the palace square). I may pander to the simple tastes of theatrical critics and cook up a stage play, an old-fashioned Melodrama with three principals: a lunatic who intends to kill an imaginary king, another lunatic who imagines himself to be that king, and a distinguished old poet who stumbles by chance into the line of fire, and perishes in the clash between the two figments. Oh, I may do many things! History permitting, I may sail back to my recovered kingdom, and with a great sob greet the gray coastline and the gleam of a roof in the rain. I may huddle and groan in a madhouse. But whatever happens, wherever the scene is laid, somebody, somewhere, will quietly set out - somebody has already set out, somebody still rather far away is buying a ticket, is boarding a bus, a ship, a plane, has landed, is walking toward a million photographers, and presently he will ring at my door - a bigger, more respectable, more competent Gradus. (note to Line 1000)


Immediately after completing his work on Shade’s poem, on Oct. 19, 1959 (the anniversary of Pushkin’s Lyceum), Kinbote commits suicide (presumably, stabs himself, like Shakespeare’s Othello). Poor Kinbote (or, rather, poor Botkin) writes his Commentary, Index and Foreword (in that order) to Shade’s poem not in “Cedarn, Utana,” but in a madhouse in Quebec (in the same sanatorium where Humbert Humbert, the narrator and main character of VN’s novel Lolita, 1955, writes his poem “Wanted”).


In his Zverinets ("Zoo," 1911) Khlebnikov (the poet mentioned by Shklovsky in the above quoted fragment of his autobiography) calls pavlin (the peacock) siniy krasiveyshina ("the blue beautifowl"):


Где синий красивейшина роняет долу хвост, подобный видимой с Павдинского камня Сибири, когда по золоту пала и зелени леса брошена синяя сеть от облаков, и все это разнообразно оттенено от неровностей почвы.