weeping-willow dog in Pale Fire

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Wed, 06/29/2022 - 15:24

According to 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), in his country the Skye terrier is called "weeping-willow dog:”


It appears that in the beginning of 1950, long before the barn incident (see note to line 347), sixteen-year-old Hazel was involved in some appalling "psychokinetic" manifestations that lasted for nearly a month. Initially, one gathers, the poltergeist meant to impregnate the disturbance with the identity of Aunt Maud who had just died; the first object to perform was the basket in which she had once kept her half-paralyzed Skye terrier (the breed called in our country "weeping-willow dog"). Sybil had had the animal destroyed soon after its mistress's hospitalization, incurring the wrath of Hazel who was beside herself with distress. One morning this basket shot out of the "intact" sanctuary (see lines 90-98) and traveled along the corridor past the open door of the study, where Shade was at work; he saw it whizz by and spill its humble contents: a ragged coverlet, a rubber bone, and a partly discolored cushion. Next day the scene of action switched to the dining room where one of Aunt Maud's oils (Cypress and Bat) was found to be turned toward the wall. Other incidents followed, such as short flights accomplished by her scrapbook (see note to line 90) and, of course, all kinds of knockings, especially in the sanctuary, which would rouse Hazel from her, no doubt, peaceful sleep in the adjacent bedroom. But soon the poltergeist ran out of ideas in connection with Aunt Maud and became, as it were, more eclectic. All the banal motions that objects are limited to in such cases, were gone through in this one. Saucepans crashed in the kitchen; a snowball was found (perhaps, prematurely) in the icebox; once or twice Sybil saw a plate sail by like a discus and land safely on the sofa; lamps kept lighting up in various parts of the house; chairs waddled away to assemble in the impassable pantry; mysterious bits of string were found on the floor; invisible revelers staggered down the staircase in the middle of the night; and one winter morning Shade, upon rising and taking a look at the weather, saw that the little table from his study upon which he kept a Bible-like Webster open at M was standing in a state of shock outdoors, on the snow (subliminally this may have participated in the making of lines 5-12).

I imagine, that during that period the Shades, or at least John Shade, experienced a sensation of odd instability as if parts of the everyday, smoothly running world had got unscrewed, and you became aware that one of your tires was rolling beside you, or that your steering wheel had come off. My poor friend could not help recalling the dramatic fits of his early boyhood and wondering if this was not a new genetic variant of the same theme, preserved through procreation. Trying to hide from neighbors these horrible and humiliating phenomena was not the least of Shade's worries. He was terrified, and he was lacerated with pity. Although never able to corner her, that flabby, feeble, clumsy and solemn girl, who seemed more interested than frightened, he and Sybil never doubted that in some extraordinary way she was the agent of the disturbance which they saw as representing (I now quote Jane P.) "an outward extension or expulsion of insanity." They could not do much about it, partly because they disliked modern voodoo-psychiatry, but mainly because they were afraid of Hazel, and afraid to hurt her. They had however a secret interview with old-fashioned and learned Dr. Sutton, and this put them in better spirits. They were contemplating moving into another house or, more exactly, loudly saying to each other, so as to be overheard by anyone who might be listening, that they were contemplating moving, when all at once the fiend was gone, as happens with the moskovett, that bitter blast, that colossus of cold air that blows on our eastern shores throughout March, and then one morning you hear the birds, and the flags hang flaccid, and the outlines of the world are again in place. The phenomena ceased completely and were, if not forgotten, at least never referred to; but how curious it is that we do not perceive a mysterious sign of equation between the Hercules springing forth from a neurotic child's weak frame and the boisterous ghost of Aunt Maud; how curious that our rationality feels satisfied when we plump for the first explanation, though, actually, the scientific and the supernatural, the miracle of the muscle and the miracle of the mind, are both inexplicable as are all the ways of Our Lord. (note to Line 230)


Zemblan for “weeping willow is if:”


L'if, lifeless tree! Your great Maybe, Rabelais:

The grand potato.
                                     I.P.H., a lay
Institute (I) of Preparation (P)
For the Hereafter (H), or If, as we
Called it--big if!--engaged me for one term
To speak on death ("to lecture on the Worm,"
Wrote President McAber).
                                                     You and I,
And she, then a mere tot, moved from New Wye
To Yewshade, in another, higher state. (ll. 501-509)


In his Commentary Kinbote writes:


Line 501: L'if


The yew in French. It is curious that the Zemblan word for the weeping willow is also "if" (the yew is tas).


Shade’s bible-like Webster was open at M, when the poet saw the little table on which he kept it was standing outdoors. M + if = mif (Russian for “myth”). In Ilf and Petrov’s novel Zolotoy telyonok (“The Golden Calf,” 1931) Ostap Bender tells Shura Balaganov that zagranitsa (foreign countries) are the afterlife myth – whoever gets there never comes back:


— А как Рио-де-Жанейро? — возбужденно спросил Балаганов. — Поедем?

— Ну его к черту! — с неожиданной злостью сказал Остап. — Все это выдумка. Нет никакого Рио-де-Жанейро, и Америки нет, и Европы нет, ничего нет. И вообще последний город — это Шепетовка, о которую разбиваются волны Атлантического океана.

— Ну и дела! — вздохнул Балаганов.

— Мне один доктор все объяснил, — продолжал Остап.— Заграница — это миф о загробной жизни, кто туда попадает, тот не возвращается.


“So what about Rio de Janeiro?” asked Balaganov excitedly. “Are we going?”

“To hell with it!” said Ostap, suddenly angry. “It’s all a fantasy: there is no Rio de Janeiro, no America, no Europe, nothing. Actually, there isn’t anything past Shepetovka, where the waves of the Atlantic break against the shore.”

“No kidding!” sighed Balaganov.

“A doctor I met explained everything to me,” continued Ostap, “other countries—that’s just a myth of the afterlife. (Chapter 32: “The Gates of Great Opportunities”).


The second chapter of Ilf and Petrov’s novel is entitled Tridtsat’ synovey leytenanta Shmidta (“The Thirty Sons of Lieutenant Schmidt”). In Canto Three of his poem Shade describes his heart attack (during which he saw a tall white fountain) and mentions Captain Schmidt and Captain Smith:


If on some nameless island Captain Schmidt

Sees a new animal and captures it,

And if, a little later, Captain Smith

Brings back a skin, that island is no myth. (ll. 759-762)


In Ilf and Petrov’s novel Dvenadtsat’ stuliev (“The Twelve Chairs,” 1928) Bender tells Vorobyaninov that he played Hamlet:


Стул, исчезнувший в товарном дворе Октябрьского вокзала, по-прежнему оставался темным пятном на сверкающем плане концессионных работ. Четыре стула в театре Колумба представляли верную добычу. Но театр уезжал в поездку по Волге с тиражным пароходом "Скрябин" и сегодня показывал премьеру "Женитьбы" последним спектаклем сезона. Нужно было решить -- оставаться ли в Москве для розысков пропавшего в просторах Каланчевской площади стула, или выехать вместе с труппой в гастрольное турне. Остап склонялся к последнему.
-- А то, может быть, разделимся? -- спросил Остап. -- Я поеду с театром, а вы оставайтесь и проследите за стулом в товарном дворе.
Но Киса так трусливо моргал седыми ресницами, что Остап не стал продолжать.
-- Из двух зайцев, -- сказал он, -- выбирают того, который пожирнее. Поедем вместе. Но расходы будут велики. Нужны будут деньги. У меня осталось шестьдесят рублей У вас сколько? Ах, я и забыл! В ваши годы девичья любовь так дорого стоит! Постановляю: сегодня мы идем в театр на премьеру "Женитьбы". Не забудьте надеть фрак. Если стулья еще на месте и их не продали за долги соцстраху, завтра же мы выезжаем. Помните,
Воробьянинов, наступает последний акт комедии "Сокровище моей тещи". Приближается финита-ля-комедия, Воробьянинов! Не дышите, мой старый друг! Равнение на рампу! О, моя молодость! О, запах кулис! Сколько воспоминаний! Сколько интриг! Сколько таланту я показал в свое время в роли Гамлета! Одним словом, заседание продолжается!


The chair which had vanished into the goods yard of October Station was still a blot on the glossy schedule of the concession. The four chairs in the Columbus Theatre were a sure bet, but the theatre was about to make a trip down the Volga aboard the lottery ship, S.S. Scriabin, and was presenting the premiere of The Marriage that day as the last  production of the  season. The partners had to decide whether to stay in  Moscow and  look for the chair lost in the wilds of Kalanchev Square, or  go on tour with the troupe. Ostap was in favour of the latter.

"Or perhaps we should split up?" he suggested. "I'll go  off with the theatre and you stay and find out about the chair in the goods yard."

Pussy's grey eyelashes flickered so fearfully, however, that Ostap did not bother to continue.

"Of the two birds," said Ostap, "the meatier should be chosen. Let's go together. But the expenses will be considerable. We shall need money. I have sixty roubles left. How much have you? Oh, I forgot. At your age a maiden's love is so expensive! I decree  that we go  together to the premiere of The Marriage. Don't forget  to  wear tails. If the chairs are still there and haven't been sold  to  pay  social-security  debts,  we  can leave tomorrow. Remember,  Vorobyaninov,  we've now reached the  final act of the comedy My Mother-in-Low's  Treasure. The Finita la Comedia is fast approaching, Vorobyaninov. Don't gasp, my old friend. The call of the footlights! Oh, my younger  days! Oh, the smell of the wings! So many memories! So many intrigues and affairs! How talented I was in my time in the role of Hamlet! In short, the hearing is continued." (Chapter 30 “In the Columbus Theater”)


In VN's novel Bend Sinister (1947) Ember reads to Krug his translations from Hamlet:


But enough of this, let us hear Ember's rendering of some famous lines:


Ubit' il' ne ubit'? Vot est' oprosen.

Vto bude edler: v rasume tzerpieren

Ogneprashchi i strely zlovo roka –


(or as a Frenchman might have it:)


L’éorgerai-je ou non? Voici le vrai problème.

Est-il plus noble en soi de supporter quand même

Et les dards et le feu d'un accablant destin –


Yes, I am still jesting. We now come to the real thing.


Tam nad ruch'om rostiot naklonno iva,

V vode iavliaia list'ev sedinu;

Guirliandy fantasticheskie sviv

Iz etikh list'ev – s primes'u romashek,

Krapivy, lutikov –


(over yon brook there grows aslant a willow

Showing in the water the hoariness of its leaves;

Having tressed fantastic garlands

of these leaves, with a sprinkling of daisies,

Nettles, crowflowers – )


You see, I have to choose my commentators.

Or this difficult passage:


Ne dumaete-li Vy, sudar', shto vot eto (the song about the wounded deer), da les per'ev na shliape, da dve kamchatye rozy na proreznykh bashmakakh, mogli by, kol' fortuna zadala by mne turku, zasluzhit' mne uchast'e v teatralnoy arteli; a, sudar'?


Or the beginning of my favourite scene:

As he sits listening to Ember's translation, Krug cannot help marvelling at the strangeness of the day. He imagines himself at some point in the future recalling this particular moment. He, Krug, was sitting beside Ember's bed. Ember, with knees raised under the counterpane, was reading bits of blank verse from scraps of paper. Krug had recently lost his wife. A new political order had stunned the city. Two people he was fond of had been spirited away and perhaps executed. But the room was warm and quiet and Ember was deep in Hamlet. And Krug marvelled at the strangeness of the day. He listened to the rich-toned voice (Ember's father had been a Persian merchant) and tried to simplify the terms of his reaction. Nature had once produced an Englishman whose domed head had been a hive of words; a man who had only to breathe on any particle of his stupendous vocabulary to have that particle live and expand and throw out tremulous tentacles until it became a complex image with a pulsing brain and correlated limbs. Three centuries later, another man, in another country, was trying to render these rhythms and metaphors in a different tongue. This process entailed a prodigious amount of labour, for the necessity of which no real reason could be given. It was as if someone, having seen a certain oak tree (further called Individual T) growing in a certain land and casting its own unique shadow on the green and brown ground, had proceeded to erect in his garden a prodigiously intricate piece of machinery which in itself was as unlike that or any other tree as the translator's inspiration and language were unlike those of the original author, but which, by means of ingenious combination of parts, light effects, breeze-engendering engines, would, when completed, cast a shadow exactly similar to that of Individual T - the same outline, changing in the same manner, with the same double and single spots of sun rippling in the same position, at the same hour of the day. From a practical point of view, such a waste of time and material (those headaches, those midnight triumphs that turn out to be disasters in the sober light of morning!) was almost criminally absurd, since the greatest masterpiece of imitation presupposed a voluntary limitation of thought, in submission to another man's genius. Could this suicidal limitation and submission be compensated by the miracle of adaptive tactics, by the thousand devices of shadography, by the keen pleasure that the weaver of words and their witness experienced at every new wile in the warp, or was it, taken all in all, but an exaggerated and spiritualized replica of Paduk's writing machine? (chapter 7)


M + Ember = member. In Pushkin’s little tragedy Mozart and Salieri (1830) Salieri mentions a suffering member that the healing knife had chopped off and Mozart uses the phrase nikto b (none would).



(бросает салфетку на стол)

Довольно, сыт я.

(Идет к фортепиано.)

                                Слушай же, Сальери,
Мой Requiem.



                        Ты плачешь?


                                                Эти слезы
Впервые лью: и больно и приятно,
Как будто тяжкий совершил я долг,
Как будто нож целебный мне отсек
Страдавший член! Друг Моцарт, эти слезы...
Не замечай их. Продолжай, спеши
Еще наполнить звуками мне душу...



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.
Нас мало избранных, счастливцев праздных,
Пренебрегающих презренной пользой,
Единого прекрасного жрецов.
Не правда ль? Но я нынче нездоров,
Мне что-то тяжело; пойду засну.
Прощай же!



                        До свиданья.


                                                Ты заснешь
Надолго, Моцарт! Но ужель он прав,
И я не гений? Гений и злодейство
Две вещи несовместные. Неправда:
А Бонаротти? Или это сказка
Тупой, бессмысленной толпы — и не был
Убийцею создатель Ватикана?


     (throws his napkin on the table)
That's it, I'm full.
     (He goes to the piano.)
                And now, Salieri, listen:
My Requiem.
     (He plays.)
               You weep?

                         Such tears as these
I shed for the first time. It hurts, yet soothes,
As if I had fulfilled a heavy duty,
As if at last the healing knife had chopped
A suffering member off. These tears, o Mozart!..
Pay no respect to them; continue, hurry
To fill my soul with those celestial sounds...

If only all so quickly felt the power
Of harmony! But no, in that event
The world could not exist; all would abandon
The basic needs of ordinary life
And give themselves to unencumbered art.
We're few, the fortune's chosen, happy idlers,
Despising the repellent cares of use,
True votaries of one and only beauty.
Is that not right? But now I'm feeling sick
And kind of heavy. I should go and sleep.
Farewell then!

           See you later.
                    You will sleep
For long, Mozart! But what if he is right?
I am no genius? "Genius and evildoing
Are incompatibles." That is not true:
And Buonarotti?.. Or is it a legend
Of the dull-witted, senseless crowd -- while really
The Vatican's creator was no murderer? (Scene II, tr. G. Gurarie)  


M is Mozart’s and Michelangelo’s initial. Nikto b is Botkin (Shade’s, Kinbote’s and Gradus’s “real” name). In a conversation with Kinbote Shade mentioned those joint authors of genius Ilf and Petrov:


Speaking of the Head of the bloated Russian Department, Prof. Pnin, a regular martinet in regard to his underlings (happily, Prof. Botkin, who taught in another department, was not subordinated to that grotesque "perfectionist"): "How odd that Russian intellectuals should lack all sense of humor when they have such marvelous humorists as Gogol, Dostoevski, Chekhov, Zoshchenko, and those joint authors of genius Ilf and Petrov." (note to Line 172)


The Nabokovs’ dachshund Box II who followed his masters into exile was a grandson of Chekhov’s Quina and Brom. Khina Markovna (as Chekhov in jest called Quina; Brom was Brom Isaich) brings to mind Khina Chlek, in “The Twelve Chairs” the mistress of the poet Lyapis-Trubetskoy (“Lapsus”).


Chlek + nikto = chlen + Kotik


chlen – member

Kotik – in Chekhov’s story Ionych (1898) Ekaterina Ivanovna Turkin’s nickname


Kotik (Pussy) and Kisa (Vorobyaninov’s nickname in “The Twelve Chairs”) are the diminutives of kot (cat). In the epigraph to Pale Fire Samuel Johnson’s cat Hodge is mentioned:


This reminds me of the ludicrous account he

gave Mr. Langston, of the despicable state of a

young gentleman of good family. 'Sir, when I

heard of him last, he was running about town

shooting cats.' And then in a sort of kindly

reverie, he bethought himself of his own

favorite cat, and said, 'But Hodge shan't be

shot: no, no, Hodge shall not be shot.'


- James Boswell, the Life of Samuel Johnson


Incidentally, in his letters Chekhov (the author of Kashtanka, 1887) affectionately called his wife Olga Knipper sobaka moya (my dog). The name Kashtanka comes from kashtan (chestnut, chestnut-tree).