Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0027122, Fri, 22 Jul 2016 19:04:51 +0300

man in green & man in brown in Pale Fire
Moaning and shifting from one foot to the other, Gradus started leafing through the college directory but when he found the address, he was faced with the problem of getting there.

"Dulwich Road," he cried to the girl. "Near? Far? Very far, probably?"

"Are you by any chance Professor Pnin's new assistant?" asked Emerald.

"No," said the girl. "This man is looking for Dr. Kinbote, I think. You are looking for Dr. Kinbote, aren't you?"

"Yes, and I can't any more," said Gradus.

"I thought so," said the girl. "Doesn't he live somewhere near Mr. Shade, Gerry?"

"Oh, definitely," said Gerry, and turned to the killer: "I can drive you there if you like. It is on my way."

Did they talk in the car, these two characters, the man in green and the man in brown? Who can say? They did not. After all, the drive took only a few minutes (it took me, at the wheel of my powerful Kramler, four and a half).

"I think I'll drop you here," said Mr. Emerald. "It's that house up there." (note to Line 949)

In his poem V tot vecher ne gudel strel’chatyi les organa… (“The organ’s gothic forest kept quiet that night…” 1917) Mandelshtam mentions starinnoy pesni mir – korichnevyi, zelyonyi (the old song’s brown and green world):

Du, Doppelgänger, du, bleicher Geselle!..

В тот вечер не гудел стрельчатый лес органа.
Нам пели Шуберта — родная колыбель!
Шумела мельница, и в песнях урагана
Смеялся музыки голубоглазый хмель!

Старинной песни мир — коричневый, зелёный,
Но только вечно-молодой,
Где соловьиных лип рокочущие кроны
С безумной яростью качает царь лесной.

И сила страшная ночного возвращенья —
Та песня дикая, как чёрное вино:
Это двойник — пустое привиденье —
Бессмысленно глядит в холодное окно!

The organ’s gothic arches kept quiet that night.
They sang to us from Schubert—dear cozy cradle!
The mill rasped, the hurricane sang
with boozy blue-eyed laughter.

The world of ancient song: green and brown
but only ever-young,
where with insane fury the forest-king
rocks the rumbling tops of nightingale-filled lindens.

And the terrible power of nighttime return,
that wild song, like black wine:
That's the double—empty apparition—
who looks, senseless, into my cold window.

(transl. Piper Wheeler)

Mandelshtam's poem has the epigraph from Heine’s poem “Still ist die Nacht, es ruhen die Gassen..." ("The night is quiet, the streets are calm...") set to music by Schubert. On the other hand, tsar’ lesnoy (the forest king) who with insane fury rocks the rumbling tops of nightingale-filled lindens suggests that starinnaya pesnya (the old song) in Mandelshtam’s poem is Der Erlkönig, another song of Schubert based on Goethe’s famous ballad (alluded to both by Shade in his Poem and by Kinbote in his Commentary). According to Kinbote, “tree” in Zemblan is grados:

A hickory. Our poet shared with the English masters the noble knack of transplanting trees into verse with their sap and shade. Many years ago Disa, our King's Queen, whose favorite trees were the jacaranda and the maidenhair, copied out in her album a quatrain from John Shade's collection of short poems Hebe's Cup, which I cannot refrain from quoting here (from a letter I received on April 6, 1959, from southern France):


The gingko leaf, in golden hue, when shed,

A muscat grape,

Is an old-fashioned butterfly, ill-spread

In shape.

When the new Episcopal church in New Wye (see note to line 549) was built, the bulldozers spared an arc of those sacred trees planted by a landscaper of genius (Repburg) at the end of the so-called Shakespeare Avenue, on the campus. I do not know if it is relevant or not but there is a cat-and-mouse game in the second line, and "tree" in Zemblan is grados. (note to Line 49)

Ginkgo Biloba is a poem by Goethe. As to a cat-and-mouse game in the second line of Shade’s poem, it brings to mind the lines in Pushkin’s Graf Nulin (“Count Null,” 1825) in which the Count is compared to a tomcat and Natalia Pavlovna (“a Russian Lucrece who boxes the ears of a transient Tarquin, while quietly cuckolding her husband, a landed gentleman, with his twenty-three-year-old neighbor”), to a mouse:

Так иногда лукавый кот,
Жеманный баловень служанки,
За мышью крадется с лежанки:
Украдкой, медленно идёт,
Полузажмурясь подступает,
Свернётся в ком, хвостом играет,
Разинет когти хитрых лап
И вдруг бедняжку цап-царап.

According to Pushkin, in Graf Nulin he parodied history and The Rape of Lucrece, "a rather weak poem of Shakespeare:"

В конце 1825 года находился я в деревне. Перечитывая «Лукрецию», довольно слабую поэму Шекспира, я подумал: что если б Лукреции пришла в голову мысль дать пощёчину Тарквинию? быть может, это охладило б его предприимчивость и он со стыдом принуждён был отступить? Лукреция б не зарезалась. Публикола не взбесился бы, Брут не изгнал бы царей, и мир и история мира были бы не те.

Итак, республикою, консулами, диктаторами, Катонами, Кесарем мы обязаны соблазнительному происшествию, подобному тому, которое случилось недавно в моём соседстве, в Новоржевском уезде.

Мысль пародировать историю и Шекспира мне представилась. Я не мог воспротивиться двойному искушению и в два утра написал эту повесть.

Я имею привычку на моих бумагах выставлять год и число. «Граф Нулин» писан 13 и 14 декабря. Бывают странные сближения.

"I am accustomed to date my papers. Count Nulin was written on 13 and 14 December. There are strange coincidences."

Pushkin (who wrote Count Nulin in Mikhaylovskoe, his country seat in the Province of Pskov) alludes to the disastrous Decembrist rising in St. Petersburg on December 14, 1825.

In his epitaph of the king of Zembla Pink (as Kinbote calls a professor of physics at Wordsmith) mentions history:

"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." (note to Line 894)

The rumors had it that after the October coup of 1917 Kerenski (the head of the Provisional Government) escaped from the Winter Palace disguised as a woman. In his poem Kogda oktyabr’skiy nam gotovil vremenshchik… (“When the October favorite was preparing for us…” 1917) Mandel’shtam mentions Kerenski (“Kerenski should be crucified,” a soldier demanded…). Mandelstam’s poem Dekabrist (“The Decembrist,” 1917) ends in the line: Rossiya, Leta, Loreleya (Russia, Lethe, Lorelei). Lorelei is a famous poem by Heine. In “The Decembrist” Mandelshtam mentions germanskie duby (the German oaks):

Шумели в первый раз германские дубы,

Европа плакала в тенётах,

Квадриги чёрные вставали на дыбы

На триумфальных поворотах.

The German oaks rustled for the first time,

while Europe wept in snares,

the black quadrigae reared up

on crossroads of triumph.

At the beginning of his introductory poem to Ruslan and Lyudmila Pushkin mentions dub zelyonyi (a green oak), zlataya tsep’ (a golden chain) on that oak and kot uchyonyi (a learned cat) that walks upon the chain around the tree. According to Kinbote, in Zemblan kot or (while in Russian kot means “cat,” or is French for “gold”) means “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 143)

On the other hand, kot or seems to hint at the phrase kotoryi chas? (Russ., what is the time). In Mandelshtam’s poem Net, ne luna, a svetlyi tsiferblat… (No, not the moon, but a bright dial…” 1912) mad Batyushkov to the question kotoryi chas replies to the curious: vechnost’ (eternity):

Нет, не луна, а светлый циферблат
Сияет мне, — и чем я виноват,
Что слабых звёзд я осязаю млечность?

И Батюшкова мне противна спесь:
Который час, его спросили здесь,
А он ответил любопытным: вечность!

Lyubopytnym (Dat. pl. of lyubopytnyi, “curious”) in the poem’s last line bring to mind Krylov’s fable Lyubopytnyi and its punch line: Slona-to ya i ne primetil (the elephant I didn’t notice). According to Kinbote, Sybil Shade used to call him “an elephantine tick:”

From the very first I tried to behave with the utmost courtesy toward my friend's wife, and from the very first she disliked and distrusted me. I was to learn later that when alluding to me in public she used to call me "an elephantine tick; a king-sized botfly; a macaco worm; the monstrous parasite of a genius." I pardon her--her and everybody. (note to Line 247)

In his poem On Translating "Eugene Onegin" (1955) VN mentions the parasites on whom Pushkin was so hard and who are pardoned, if he (VN) has Pushkin’s pardon:

The parasites you were so hard on

Are pardoned if I have your pardon,

O, Pushkin, for my stratagem…

One of Shade’s and Kinbote’s interlocutors in the lounge of the Faculty Club is Professor Pardon (American history). In this conversation Shade remarks that “kings do not die, they only disappear.” In his EO Commentary (vol. III, p. 14) VN offers his translation of Batyushkov’s last poem (“a little masterpiece”) composed during a lucid interval:

Do you recall the cry

Of gray Melchizedek when he prepared to die?

Man, he exclaimed, is born a slave; a slave

He must descend into the grave,

And Death will hardly tell him why

He haunts the magic vale of tears,

Suffers and weeps, endures and disappears.

In the original Batyushkov’s poem begins: Ty znaesh’, chto skazal… (“Do you know what said…”). Shade’s remark causes Professor Hurley’s question:

"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." (note to Line 894)

In the epigraph to PF Samuel Johnson’s cat Hodge is mentioned:

This reminds me of the ludicrous account which he gave Mr. Langton, 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 favourite cat, and said, "But Hodge shan't be shot; no, no, Hodge shall not be shot.”

James Boswell, the Life of Samuel Johnson.

In 1822 Batyushkov attempted to take his own life. Poor mad Botkin (Shade’s, Kinbote’s and Gradus’ “real” name) probably writes Pale Fire during a lucid interval and, after completing his work, commits suicide. The date under Kinbote’s Foreword, Oct. 19, 1959 (the Lyceum anniversary), is, most likely, purely symbolic.

In my previous post there is a bad misprint: “the Queen [in Pushkin’s “Fairy Tale about the Golden Cockerel”] disappears as if she never existed at all.

Alexey Sklyarenko

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