At the beginning of his poem Pale Fire John Shade (one of the three main characters in VN’s novel Pale Fire, 1962) says that he likes to duplicate himself in the dark window:


I was the shadow of the waxwing slain
By the false azure in the windowpane
I was the smudge of ashen fluff--and I
Lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky.
And from the inside, too, I'd duplicate
Myself, my lamp, an apple on a plate…
Uncurtaining the night, I'd let dark glass
Hang all the furniture above the grass,
And how delightful when a fall of snow
Covered my glimpse of lawn and reached up so
As to make chair and bed exactly stand
Upon that snow, out in that crystal land! (ll. 1-12)


In his Commentary Kinbote (Shade’s neighbor) speaks of windows and mentions the omnipresent hero of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (“In Search of Lost Time”):


Windows, as well known, have been the solace of first-person literature throughout the ages. But this observer never could emulate in sheer luck the eavesdropping Hero of Our Time or the omnipresent one of Time Lost. Yet I was granted now and then scraps of happy hunting. When my casement window ceased to function because of an elm's gross growth, I found, at the end of the veranda, an ivied corner from which I could view rather amply the front of the poet's house. If I wanted to see its south side I could go down to the back of my garage and look from behind a tulip tree across the curving downhill road at several precious bright windows, for he never pulled down the shades (she did). (note to Lines 47-48)


On Shade’s last birthday Kinbote was not invited to the birthday party and on the next day asks Sybil Shade (the poet’s wife) to pass to her husband the third and last volume of Proust's novel that he brought with him:


"Speaking of novels," I said, "you remember we decided once you, your husband and I, that Proust's rough masterpiece was a huge ghoulish fairy tale, an asparagus dream, totally unconnected with any possible people in any historical France, a sexual transvestissement and a colossal farce, the vocabulary of genius and its poetry, but no more, impossibly rude hostesses, please let me speak, and even ruder guests, mechanical Dostoevskian rows and Tolstoian nuances of snobbishness repeated and expanded to an unsufferable length, adorable seascapes, melting avenues, no, do not interrupt me, light and shade effects rivaling those of the greatest English poets, a flora of metaphors, described--by Cocteau, I think--as 'a mirage of suspended gardens,' and, I have not yet finished, an absurd, rubber-and-wire romance between a blond young blackguard (the fictitious Marcel), and an improbable jeune fille who has a pasted-on bosom, Vronski's (and Lyovin's) thick neck, and a cupid's buttocks for cheeks; but--and now let me finish sweetly--we were wrong, Sybil, we were wrong in denying our little beau tenebreux the capacity of evoking 'human interest': it is there, it is there--maybe a rather eighteenth-centuryish, or even seventeenth-centuryish, brand, but it is there. Please, dip, or redip, spider, into this book [offering it], you will find a pretty marker in it, bought in France, I want John to keep it. Au revoir, Sybil, I must go now. I think my telephone is ringing."

I am a very sly Zemblan. Just in case, I had brought with me in my pocket the third and last volume of the Bibliotheque de la Pleiade edition, Paris, 1954, of Proust's work, wherein I had marked certain passages on pages 269-271. Mme. de Mortemart, having decided that Mme. de Valcourt would not be among the "elected" at her soiree, intended to send her a note on the next day saying "Death Edith, I miss you, last night I did not expect you too much (Edith would wonder: how could she at all, since she did not invite me?) because I know you are not overfond of this sort of parties which, if anything, bore you."

So much for John Shade's last birthday. (note 181)


In Le temps retrouvé (“Time Retrieved”), the seventh and last volume of Proust’s novel, Dr Cottard tells the narrator that he has witnessed actual duplications of personality:


Et la suggestive dissertation passa, sur un signe gracieux de la maîtresse de maison, de la salle à manger au fumoir vénitien dans lequel Cottard me dit avoir assisté à de véritables dédoublements de la personnalité, nous citant le cas d’un de ses malades, qu’il s’offre aimablement à m’amener chez moi et à qui il suffisait qu’il touchât les tempes pour l’éveiller à une seconde vie, vie pendant laquelle il ne se rappelait rien de la première, si bien que, très honnête homme dans celle-là, il y aurait été plusieurs fois arrêté pour des vols commis dans l’autre où il serait tout simplement un abominable gredin. Sur quoi Mme Verdurin remarque finement que la médecine pourrait fournir des sujets plus vrais à un théâtre où la cocasserie de l’imbroglio reposerait sur des méprises pathologiques, ce qui, de fil en aiguille, amène Mme Cottard à narrer qu’une donnée toute semblable a été mise en œuvre par un amateur qui est le favori des soirées de ses enfants, l’Écossais Stevenson, un nom qui met dans la bouche de Swann cette affirmation péremptoire : « Mais c’est tout à fait un grand écrivain, Stevenson, je vous assure, M. de Goncourt, un très grand, l’égal des plus grands. »


This suggestive dissertation continued, on a gracious sign from the mistress of the house, from the dining-room into the Venetian smoking-room where Cottard told me he had witnessed actual duplications of personality, giving as example the case of one of his patients whom he amiably offers to bring to see me, in whose case Cottard has merely to touch his temples to usher him into a second life, a life in which he remembers nothing of the other, so much so that, a very honest man in this one, he had actually been arrested several times for thefts committed in the other during which he had been nothing less than a disgraceful scamp. Upon which Mme Verdurin acutely remarks that medicine could furnish subjects truer than a theatre where the humour of an imbroglio is founded upon pathological mistakes, which from thread to needle brought Mme Cottard to relate that a similar notion had been made use of by an amateur who is the prime favourite at her children’s evening parties, the Scotchman Stevenson, a name which forced from Swann the peremptory affirmation: ‘But Stevenson is a great writer, I can assure you, M. de Goncourt, a very great one, equal to the greatest.’


Dédoublement (“duplication” in French) has “double” in it. Dvoynik (“The Double,” 1846) is a short novel by Dostoevski, the writer whom Shade cites among Russian humorists:


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)


In a letter of October 31 (Dostoevski’s birthday, November 11 by NS), 1838, to his brother Mikhail Dostoevski says that philosophy is not a mathematical problem where the unknown is nature; it is poetry, only the highest gradus (degree) of poetry:


Философию не надо полагать простой математической задачей, где неизвестное - природа... Заметь, что поэт в порыве вдохновенья разгадывает бога, следовательно, исполняет назначенье философии. Следовательно, поэтический восторг есть восторг философии... Следовательно, философия есть та же поэзия, только высший градус её!..


In his Cornell lecture on Proust VN says that in his youth Proust studied the philosophy of Henri Bergson (1859-1941) and calls Proust’s works “an illustrated edition of Bergson’s teaching.” In the same paragraph VN quotes Cocteau (“'a mirage of suspended gardens,” etc.).


Shade’s poem is almost finished when he is assassinated by Gradus (a member of the Shadows, the Zemblan regicidal organization). Kinbote’s double, Gradus kills Shade by mistake. It seems that, to be completed, Shade’s unfinished poem needs not one, but two lines:


I was the shadow of the waxwing slain

By its own double in the windowpane. (ll. 1000-1001)


Shade’s, Kinbote’s and Gradus’ “real” name seems to be Botkin. An American scholar of Russian descent, Professor Vsevolod Botkin went mad and became Shade, Kinbote and Gradus after the suicide of his daughter Nadezhda (Hazel Shade of her father’s poem). In the same letter of Oct. 31, 1838, Dostoevski tells his brother that it is sad to live without nadezhda (hope):


Брат, грустно жить без надежды... Смотрю вперёд, и будущее меня ужасает...

“I look ahead and the future frightens me.”


Ten and a half years later Dostoevski was arrested as a member of a group of progressive-minded intellectuals and imprisoned in the St. Petersburg Peter-and-Paul Fortress whose commander was General Ivan Nabokov (an elder brother of VN’s great-grandfather). In Speak, Memory VN points out that his grandfather participated in an expedition to map Nova Zembla (Novaya Zemlya) and mentions “the writer Dostoevski, author of The Double, etc.:”


The youngest of his sons, my great-grandfather Nikolay Aleksandrovich Nabokov, was a young naval officer in 1817, when he participated, with the future admirals Baron von Wrangel and Count Litke, under the leadership of Captain (later Vice-Admiral) Vasiliy Mihaylovich Golovnin, in an expedition to map Nova Zembla (of all places) where “Nabokov’s River” is named after my ancestor. The memory of the leader of the expedition is preserved in quite a number of place names, one of them being Golovnin’s Lagoon, Seward Peninsula, W. Alaska, from where a butterfly, Parnassius phoebus golovinus (rating a big sic), has been described by Dr. Holland; but my great-grandfather has nothing to show except that very blue, almost indigo blue, even indignantly blue, little river winding between wet rocks; for he soon left the navy, n’ayant pas le pied marin (as says my cousin Sergey Sergeevich who informed me about him), and switched to the Moscow Guards. He married Anna Aleksandrovna Nazimov (sister of the Decembrist). I know nothing about his military career; whatever it was, he could not have competed with his brother, Ivan Aleksandrovich Nabokov (1787–1852), one of the heroes of the anti-Napoleon wars and, in his old age, commander of the Peter-and-Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg where (in 1849) one of his prisoners was the writer Dostoevski, author of The Double, etc., to whom the kind general lent books. Considerably more interesting, however, is the fact that he was married to Ekaterina Pushchin, sister of Ivan Pushchin, Pushkin’s schoolmate and close friend. Careful, printers: two “chin” ’s and one “kin.” (Chapter Three, 1)


Kinbote (whose name begins with “kin”) imagines that he is Charles the Beloved, the last self-exiled king of Zembla. In a conversation at the Faculty Club Kinbote mentions Nova Zembla:


Professor Pardon now spoke to me: "I was under the impression that you were born in Russia, and that your name was a kind of anagram of Botkin or Botkine?"

Kinbote: "You are confusing me with some refugee from Nova Zembla [sarcastically stressing the "Nova"].

"Didn't you tell me, Charles, that kinbote means regicide in your language?" asked my dear Shade.

"Yes, a king's destroyer," I said (longing to explain that a king who sinks his identity in the mirror of exile is in a sense just that).

Shade [addressing the German visitor]: "Professor Kinbote is the author of a remarkable book on surnames. I believe [to me] there exists an English translation?"

"Oxford, 1956," I replied. (note to Line 894)


Kinbote means “a wergeld or man-boot paid by a homicide to the kin of the person slain.” In The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Stevenson’s novella alluded to by Mme Cottard in Proust’s novel) Hyde has to pay to the parents of the boy whom he offended.


Among the people who participate in the conversation at the Faculty Club is Netochka (Dr Oscar Nattochdag, head of the department in which Prof. Botkin teaches). In Swedish natt och dag means “night and day.” Dostoevski is the author of Belye nochi (“The White Nights,” 1848) and Netochka Nezvanov (1849), a novel that remained unfinished because the writer was arrested.


Alexey Sklyarenko

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