Mutraberg & kot or in Pale Fire

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Sat, 06/25/2022 - 08:15

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)


A word borrowed from German Mutter ("mother; nut"), mutra is Polish for “nut” (a small piece of metal with a hole through which you put a bolt). In his poem Normalizovannaya gayka (“A Normalized Nut,” 1920) Mayakovski (VN’s “late namesake”) mentions gulyaki prazdnye (idle loafers):


И пошли пешком,
как гуляки праздные.
Оттого, что гайки разные. (7)


In Pushkin’s little tragedy Mozart and Salieri (1830) Salieri calls Mozart gulyaka prazdnyi (an idle loafer):


Кто скажет, чтоб Сальери гордый был
Когда-нибудь завистником презренным,
Змеей, людьми растоптанною, вживе
Песок и пыль грызущею бессильно?
Никто!.. А ныне — сам скажу — я ныне
Завистник. Я завидую; глубоко,
Мучительно завидую. — О небо!
Где ж правота, когда священный дар,
Когда бессмертный гений — не в награду
Любви горящей, самоотверженья,
Трудов, усердия, молений послан —
А озаряет голову безумца,
Гуляки праздного?.. О Моцарт, Моцарт!


Who'd say that proud Salieri would in life
Be a repellent envier, a serpent
Trampled by people, gnawing sand and dust
In impotence? No one! And now -- I'll say it --
I am an envier. I envy; sorely,
Profoundly now I envy. -- Pray, o Heaven!
Where, where is rightness? when the sacred gift,
Immortal genius, comes not in reward
For fervent love, for total self-rejection,
For work and for exertion and for prayers,
But casts its light upon a madman's head,
An idle loafer's brow... O Mozart, Mozart! (Scene I)


In Pushkin’s little tragedy Mozart uses the phrase nikto b (none would):


Когда бы все так чувствовали силу
Гармонии! Но нет: тогда б не мог
И мир существовать; никто б не стал
Заботиться о нуждах низкой жизни;
Все предались бы вольному искусству.


If all could feel like you the power

of harmony! But no: the world

could not go on then. None would

bother about the needs of lowly life;

All would surrender to free art. (Scene II)


Nikto b is Botkin (Shade’s, Kinbote’s and Gradus’ “real” name) in reverse. An American scholar of Russian descent, Professor Vsevolod Botkin went mad and became the poet Shade, his commentator Kinbote and his murderer Gradus after the tragic death of his daughter Nadezhda (Hazel Shade’s “real” name). The name of Shade’s daughter brings to mind Dvoynoy oreshek pod edinoy skorlupoy (The kernel of a double nut embedded in a single shell), the closing lines of Pushkin’s homoerotic poem Podrazhanie arabskomu (“Imitation of the Arabic,” 1835):


Отрок милый, отрок нежный,
Не стыдись, навек ты мой;
Тот же в нас огонь мятежный,
Жизнью мы живём одной.

Не боюся я насмешек:
Мы сдвоились меж собой,
Мы точь в точь двойной орешек
Под единой скорлупой.


Sweet lad, tender lad,
Have no shame, you’re mine for good;
We share a sole insurgent fire,
We live in boundless brotherhood.

I do not fear the gibes of men;
One being split in two we dwell,
The kernel of a double nut
Embedded in a single shell.
(transl. Michael Green)


The first and third word in Pushkin’s poem, otrok (lad) is an anagram of kot or (Zemblan for “what is the time”):


A handshake, a flash of lightning. As the King waded into the damp, dark bracken, its odor, its lacy resilience, and the mixture of soft growth and steep ground reminded him of the times he had picnicked hereabouts - in another part of the forest but on the same mountainside, and higher up, as a boy, on the boulderfield where Mr. Campbell had once twisted an ankle and had to be carried down, smoking his pipe, by two husky attendants. Rather full memories, on the whole. Wasn't there a hunting box nearby - just beyond Silfhar Falls? Good capercaillie and woodcock shooting - a sport much enjoyed by his late mother, Queen Blenda, a tweedy and horsy queen. Now as then, the rain seethed in the black trees, and if you paused you heard your heart thumping, and the distant roar of the torrent. What is the time, kot or? He pressed his repeater and, undismayed, it hissed and tinkled out ten twenty-one. (note to Line 149)


Kot or hints at kotoryi chas (“what is the time” in Russian), a question Hermann is asked in Pushkin’s story Pikovaya dama (“The Queen of Spades,” 1833):


Две неподвижные идеи не могут вместе существовать в нравственно природе, так же, как два тела не могут в физическом мире занимать одно и то же место. Тройка, семёрка, туз - скоро заслонили в воображении Германна образ мёртвой старухи. Тройка, семёрка, туз - не выходили из его головы и шевелились на его губах. Увидев молодую девушку, он говорил: "Как она стройна!.. Настоящая тройка червонная". У него спрашивали: "который час", он отвечал: "без пяти минут семёрка". Всякий пузатый мужчина напоминал ему туза. Тройка, семёрка, туз - преследовали его во сне, принимая все возможные виды: тройка цвела перед ним в образе пышного грандифлора, семёрка представлялась готическими воротами, туз огромным пауком. Все мысли его слились в одну, - воспользоваться тайной, которая дорого ему стоила. Он стал думать об отставке и о путешествии. Он хотел в открытых игрецких домах Парижа вынудить клад у очарованной фортуны. Случай избавил его от хлопот.


Two fixed ideas are not able to exist together in the spiritual world, just as two bodies in the physical world are not able to occupy the same space. The three, seven and ace soon obscured the image of the dead old woman in the imagination of Hermann. The three, seven and ace - they did not leave his head or move from his lips. On seeing a young woman, he would say: "How elegant she is!... Just like the three of hearts". If he was asked: "what is the time", he would reply: "five minutes to seven". Each fat bellied man reminded him of the ace. The three, seven and ace pursued him in his sleep, taking all possible forms. The three bloomed in front of him in the image of a magnificent grandiflora, the seven appeared as a Gothic archway, the ace as a huge spider. All his thoughts united on one thing, - to take advantage of the secret which had cost him so dearly. He started to think about retirement and travel. He wanted in the public gaming houses of Paris to extort his treasure from  enchanted fortune. Chance delivered him from his troubles. (Chapter 6)


Bez pyati minut semyorka (five minutes to seven), Hermann’s reply to the question “what is the time,” reminds one of Semyorka (Seven), a character in Anya v strane chudes (1923), VN's Russian version of Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865):


- Будь осторожнее, Пятёрка! Ты меня всего обрызгиваешь краской.
- Я нечаянно, - ответил Пятёрка кислым голосом. - Меня под локоть толкнул Семёрка.
Семёрка поднял голову и пробормотал:
- Так, так, Пятёрка! Всегда сваливай вину на другого.
- Ты уж лучше молчи, - сказал Пятёрка. - Я ещё вчера слышал, как Королева говорила, что недурно было бы тебя обезглавить. (Глава 8. Королева играет в крокет)


'Look out now, Five! Don't go splashing paint over me like that!'
'I couldn't help it,' said Five, in a sulky tone; 'Seven jogged my elbow.'
On which Seven looked up and said, 'That's right, Five! Always lay the blame on others!'
'You'd better not talk!' said Five. 'I heard the Queen say only yesterday you deserved to be beheaded!' (Chapter VIII. The Queen's Croquet-Ground)


The characters in Anya v strane chudes include Maslenichnyi Kot (the Cheshire Cat), a play on the saying ne vsyo kotu maslenitsa (every day isn't Sunday). Describing his rented house, Kinbote mentions Judge Goldsworth's black cat:


Lines 47-48: the frame house between Goldsworth and Wordsmith


The first name refers to the house in Dulwich Road that I rented from Hugh Warren Goldsworth, authority on Roman Law and distinguished judge. I never had the pleasure of meeting my landlord but I came to know his handwriting almost as well as I do Shade's. The second name denotes, of course, Wordsmith University. In seeming to suggest a midway situation between the two places, our poet is less concerned with spatial exactitude than with a witty exchange of syllables invoking the two masters of the heroic couplet, between whom he embowers his own muse. Actually, the "frame house on its square of green" was five miles west of the Wordsmith campus but only fifty yards or so distant from my east windows.

In the Foreword to this work I have had occasion to say something about the amenities of my habitation. The charming, charmingly vague lady (see note to line 691), who secured it for me, sight unseen, meant well, no doubt, especially since it was widely admired in the neighborhood for its "old-world spaciousness and graciousness." Actually, it was an old, dismal, white-and-black, half-timbered house, of the type termed wodnaggen in my country, with carved gables, drafty bow windows and a so-called "semi-noble" porch, surmounted by a hideous veranda. Judge Goldsworth had a wife, and four daughters. Family photographs met me in the hallway and pursued me from room to room, and although I am sure that Alphina (9), Betty (10), Candida (12), and Dee (14) will soon change from horribly cute little schoolgirls to smart young ladies and superior mothers, I must confess that their pert pictures irritated me to such an extent that finally I gathered them one by one and dumped them all in a closet under the gallows row of their cellophane-shrouded winter clothes. In the study I found a large picture of their parents, with sexes reversed, Mrs. G. resembling Malenkov, and Mr. G. a Medusa-locked hag, and this I replaced by the reproduction of a beloved early Picasso: earth boy leading raincloud horse. I did not bother, though, to do much about the family books which were also all over the house - four sets of different Children's Encyclopedias, and a stolid grown-up one that ascended all the way from shelf to shelf along a flight of stairs to burst an appendix in the attic. Judging by the novels in Mrs. Goldsworth's boudoir, her intellectual interests were fully developed, going as they did from Amber to Zen. The head of this alphabetic family had a library too, but this consisted mainly of legal works and a lot of conspicuously lettered ledgers. All the layman could glean for instruction and entertainment was a morocco-bound album in which the judge had lovingly pasted the life histories and pictures of people he had sent to prison or condemned to death: unforgettable faces of imbecile hoodlums, last smokes and last grins, a strangler's quite ordinary-looking hands, a self-made widow, the close-set merciless eyes of a homicidal maniac (somewhat resembling, I admit, the late Jacques d'Argus), a bright little parricide aged seven ("Now, sonny, we want you to tell us -"), and a sad pudgy old pederast who had blown up his blackmailer. What rather surprised me was that he, my learned landlord, and not his "missus," directed the household. Not only had he left me a detailed inventory of all such articles as cluster around a new tenant like a mob of menacing natives, but he had taken stupendous pains to write out on slips of paper recommendations, explanations, injunctions and supplementary lists. Whatever I touched on the first day of my stay yielded a specimen of Goldsworthiana. I unlocked the medicine chest in the second bathroom, and out fluttered a message advising me that the slit for discarded safety blades was too full to use. I opened the icebox, and it warned me with a bark that "no national specialties with odors hard to get rid of" should be placed therein. I pulled out the middle drawer of the desk in the study - and discovered a catalogue raisonné of its meager contents which included an assortment of ashtrays, a damask paperknife (described as "one ancient dagger brought by Mrs. Goldsworth's father from the Orient"), and an old but unused pocket diary optimistically maturing there until its calendric correspondencies came around again. Among various detailed notices affixed to a special board in the pantry, such as plumbing instructions, dissertations on electricity, discourses on cactuses and so forth, I found the diet of the black cat that came with the house:


Mon, Wed, Fri: Liver

Tue, Thu, Sat: Fish

Sun: Ground meat


(All it got from me was milk and sardines; it was a likable little creature but after a while its movements began to grate on my nerves and I farmed it out to Mrs. Finley, the cleaning woman.) But perhaps the funniest note concerned the manipulations of the window curtains which had to be drawn in different ways at different hours to prevent the sun from getting at the upholstery. A description of the position of the sun, daily and seasonal, was given for the several windows, and if I had heeded all this I would have been kept as busy as a participant in a regatta. A footnote, however, generously suggested that instead of manning the curtains, I might prefer to shift and reshift out of sun range the more precious pieces of furniture (two embroidered armchairs and a heavy "royal console") but should do it carefully lest I scratch the wall moldings. I cannot, alas, reproduce the meticulous schedule of these transposals but seem to recall that I was supposed to castle the long way before going to bed and the short way first thing in the morning. My dear Shade roared with laughter when I led him on a tour of inspection and had him find some of those bunny eggs for himself. Thank God, his robust hilarity dissipated the atmosphere of damnum infectum in which I was supposed to dwell. On his part, he regaled me with a number of anecdotes concerning the judge's dry wit and courtroom mannerisms; most of these anecdotes were doubtless folklore exaggerations, a few were evident inventions, and all were harmless. He did not bring up, my sweet old friend never did, ridiculous stories about the terrifying shadows that Judge Goldsworth's gown threw across the underworld, or about this or that beast lying in prison and positively dying of raghdirst (thirst for revenge) - crass banalities circulated by the scurrilous and the heartless - by all those for whom romance, remoteness, sealskin-lined scarlet skies, the darkening dunes of a fabulous kingdom, simply do not exist. But enough of this. Let us turn to our poet's windows. I have no desire to twist and batter an unambiguous apparatus criticus into the monstrous semblance of a novel.