In Canto Four of his poem Shade speaks of two methods of composing, A and B:


I'm puzzled by the difference between
Two methods of composing: A, the kind
Which goes on solely in the poet's mind,
A testing of performing words, while he
Is soaping a third time one leg, and B,
The other kind, much more decorous, when
He's in his study writing with a pen. (ll. 840-46)


At the end of his poem Nakipevshaya za gody… (“Accumulated over the years…” 1957) G. Ivanov (the author of an abusive review of Sirin’s novels and stories, in the early 1930s one of the editors of the Numbers magazine) mentions rytsari prilich’ya (the knights of decorum), well-behaved A and B:


Накипевшая за годы
Злость, сводящая с ума,
Злость к поборникам свободы,
Злость к ревнителям ярма,
Злость к хамью и джентльменам -
Разномастным специменам
Той же "мудрости земной",
К миру и стране родной.

Злость? Вернее, безразличье
К жизни, к вечности, к судьбе.
Нечто кошкино иль птичье,
Отчего не по себе
Верным рыцарям приличья,
Благонравным А и Б,
Что уселись на трубе.


Accumulated over the years

Resentment driving one mad,

Resentment to the champions of freedom,

Resentment to the adherents of yoke,

Resentment to louts and to gentlemen –

Differently colored specimens

Of the same “mundane wisdom,”

To the world and to one’s native land.


Resentment? Rather, indifference

To life, to eternity, to fate.

Something feline or avian

That makes the faithful knights of decorum,

Well-behaved A and B

That sat in the tree

Not quite themselves.


The reference is to a well-known Russian riddle that goes in translation: “A and B sat in the tree. A had fallen, B was stolen. What's remaining in the tree?” The answer is “and.” Russian for “and,” i is Ivanov’s initial. When capitalized, i becomes the English first person pronoun. I is the first word of the first line (which, as Kinbote believes, is also the last one) of Shade’s poem: “I was the shadow of the waxwing slain.” 


The phrase in quotes in line 7 of Ivanov’s poem, “mudrosti zemnoy” (“of mundane wisdom”), seems to allude to Faust’s words in his last monologue at the end of Goethe’s tragedy in Kholodkovski’s translation:


                                         Жизни годы
Прошли не даром, ясен предо мной
Конечный вывод мудрости земной:
Лишь тот достоин жизни и свободы,
Кто каждый день за них идёт на бой!


                                            Life’s years

Have passed not in vain, to me is clear

The final conclusion of mundane wisdom:

Only he deserves life and freedom

Who everyday goes to fight for them!*


In Kholodkovski’s version zemnoy (earthly; mundane) rhymes with boy (fight; battle), the word that occurs in Pushkin’s Poltava (1829):


I gryanul boy, Poltavskiy boy!

(And the battle began, the battle of Poltava!)


and in the famous line in the first poem of Blok’s cycle Na pole Kulikovom (“In the Field of Kukiovo,” 1908):


I vechnyi boy! Pokoy nam tol’ko snitsya

(And the eternal fight! We only dream of repose).


Note that both Pushkin’s and Blok’s lines begin with i (and). Just as i has different meanings in Russian and in English, boy does not mean the same in Russian and in English. The English word “boy” must have a special appeal to homosexual Kinbote who often uses it and who repeats twice the phrase “another boy:”


She said: "Since my husband does not believe in introducing people, let us do it ourselves: You are Dr. Kinbote, aren't you? And I am Sybil Shade." Then she addressed her husband saying he might have waited in his office another minute: she had honked and called, and walked all the way up, et cetera. I turned to go, not wishing to listen to a marital scene, but she called me back: "Have a drink with us," she said, "or rather with me, because John is forbidden to touch alcohol." I explained I could not stay long because I was about to have a kind of little seminar at home followed by some table tennis, with two charming identical twins and another boy, another boy. (Foreword)


One of Kinbote’s colleagues wonders why he installed two ping-pong tables in his basement:


Another tormentor inquired if it was true that I had installed two ping-pong tables in my basement. I asked, was it a crime? No, he said, but why two? "Is that a crime?" I countered, and they all laughed. (ibid.)


Crime and Punishment (1867) is a novel by Dostoevski, the author of Dvoinik (“The Double,” 1848) and Podrostok (“The Adolescent,” 1875). The latter novel brings to mind Ulichnyi podrostok (“The Street Adolescent,” 1912), the sonnet with a coda by G. Ivanov (in his highly unreliable memoirs Ivanov affirms that Blok did not know what a coda was). It seems that to be completed Shade’s unfinished poem needs not only Line 1000 (identical with Line 1 and Line 131), but also a coda (Line 1001): “By its own double in the windowpane.”


While A and B are the first two letters of the alphabet, я (ya, Russian for “I”) is azbuka’s (the Russian ABC’s) last letter. In her essay Poety s istoriey i poety bez istorii (“Poets with History and Poets without History,” 1932-34) Marina Tsvetaev speaks of a poet’s ya (I):


Я поэта есть я сновидца плюс я творца слова. Поэтическое я — это я мечтателя, пробуждённое вдохновенной речью и в этой речи явленное.

A poet’s “I” is the dreamer’s “I” plus “I” of the wordsmith. The poetic “I” is a daydreamer’s “I” roused by an inspired speech in which it appears.

In her essay Marina Tsvetaev speaks of (among other poets) Goethe, Pushkin and Blok and mentions the last page of the Second Part of Goethe’s Faust:

“Я” нельзя назвать гением. Гением может быть “я”, облечённое в имя такого-то смертного, взявшее на потребу времени земные приметы. Вспомним, что гений у древних означал высшее и доброе существо, божество, стоящее над (человеком), а не самого человека. Гёте был гений потому, что над ним парил гений. Этот гений вёл его и поддерживал до конца восемьдесят третьего года — до последней страницы Второго Фауста. Этот же гений и запечатлелся на его бессмертном лике. (I)


According to Marina Tsvetaev, Blok wanted to escape from of one of his selves to some other self. From the one that tormented him to another that tormented him even more. In this way Blok hoped to flee from himself. Thus a mortally wounded person flees in panic from his wound, thus a sick man rushes about from country to country, then from room to room and, finally, tosses in bed from one side to another:


О Блоке можно сказать, что он от одного себя пытался уйти к какому-то другому себе. От одного, который его мучил, к другому, который мучил его ещё больше. Что характерно, Блок тем самым надеялся уйти от самого себя. Так смертельно раненный человек в страхе бежит от раны, так больной мечется из страны в страну, потом из комнаты в комнату и, наконец, с одного бока на другой. (II)


VN’s name is in part anagrammatized in the phrase s odnogo boka na drugoy (from one side to another) used by Marina Tsvetaev (the poet of genius who returned to Russia and in August, 1941, committed suicide in Elabuga). In PF Professor Vsevolod Botkin (the American scholar of Russian descent whose daughter Nadezhda committed suicide) tries to escape from one of his selves (Shade) that torments him to another self (Kinbote) that torments him even more until he finally meets Gradus (his third self that kills him):


God will help me, I trust, to rid myself of any desire to follow the example of the other two 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, health 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 principles: 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. (Kinbote’s note to Line 1000)


Marina Tsvetaev is the author of Povest’ o Sonechke (“The Tale about Sonya,” 1937). Sonechka’s surname is Golidey (Holiday in Russian spelling). In VN’s novel Podvig (“Glory,” 1932) Archibald Moon (at Cambridge, Martin’s Professor of Russian who is addicted to urningism) mentions Goloday, an island in St. Petersburg, and explains that its name comes not from golod (hunger), but from Holiday (an Englishman who built a factory there). Sonechka is a diminutive of Sofia (in Podvig, the name of Martin’s mother is Sofia Dmitrievna; Martin is hopelessly in love with Sonya Zilanov). Sybil Shade’s “real” name seems to be Sofia Botkin (born Sofia Lastochkin). In Timon of Athens, Shakespeare’s play from which Shade borrows the title of his poem, the moon snatches her pale fire from the sun. In the second epigraph to “Poets with History and Poets without History” solntse (the sun) is mentioned:


Восходит солнце, и заходит солнце,
и спешит к месту своему, где оно восходит.
Идёт ветер к югу, и переходит к северу,
и кружится, кружится на ходу своём,
и возвращается ветер на круги свои.


The sun rises and the sun goes down,

and hurries to the place where it rises.

The wind blows to the south, and goes around to the north;

round and round goes the wind,

and on its circuits the wind returns.


*Here is the German original:


Ja! diesem Sinne bin ich ganz ergeben,
Das ist der Weisheit letzter Schluß:
Nur der verdient sich Freiheit wie das Leben,
Der täglich sie erobern muß.


Alexey Sklyarenko

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