In Canto Three of his poem John Shade (one of the three main characters in VN’s novel Pale Fire, 1962) mentions a game of chess with his wife Sybil who says that her knight is pinned:


"What is that funny creaking--do you hear?"
"It is the shutter on the stairs, my dear."


"If you're not sleeping, let's turn on the light.
I hate that wind! Let's play some chess." "All right."


"I'm sure it's not the shutter. There--again."
"It is a tendril fingering the pane."


"What glided down the roof and made that thud?"
"It is old winter tumbling in the mud."


"And now what shall I do? My knight is pinned."


Who rides so late in the night and the wind?
It is the writer's grief. It is the wild
March wind. It is the father with his child. (ll. 653-665)


In VN’s novel The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941) Sebastian Knight (who signed his poems with a little black chess-knight drawn in ink) dies in a sanatorium in St Damier. As V. (the narrator in TRLSK, Sebastian’s half-brother) points out, damier is French for “chess board:”


Would I never get to Sebastian? Who were those idle idiots who wrote on the wall 'Death to the Jews' or 'Vive le front populaire', or left obscene drawings? Some anonymous artist had begun blacking squares – a chess board, ein Schachbrett, un damier…. There was a flash in my brain and the word settled on my tongue: St Damier! (chapter 20)


In Dr Starov’s telegram Sebastian’s name is spelled Sevastian:


'Sevastian's state hopeless come immediately Starov.' It was worded in French; the 'v' in Sebastian's name was a transcription of its Russian spelling; for some reason unknown, I went to the bathroom and stood there for a moment in front of the looking-glass. Then I snatched my hat and ran downstairs. The time was a quarter to twelve when I reached the station, and there was a train at 0.02, arriving at Paris about half past two p.m. on the following day. (chapter 19)


In Luchami strel Erot menya pronzil… (“Eros has pierced me with the rays of his arrows…”), the first sonnet in the cycle Zolotye zavesy (“Golden Veils,” 1907), Vyacheslav Ivanov compares himself to svyazen’ Sevastian (bound Sebastian):


Лучами стрел Эрот меня пронзил,

Влача на казнь, как связня Севастьяна;

И, расточа горючий сноп колчана,

С другим снопом примчаться угрозил.


Так вещий сон мой жребий отразил

В зеркальности нелживого обмана...

И стал я весь - одна живая рана;

И каждый луч мне в сердце водрузил


Росток огня и корнем врос тягучим;

И я расцвёл - золотоцвет мечей -

Одним из солнц, и багрецом текучим


К ногам стекла волна моих ключей...

Ты погребла в пурпурном море тело,

И роза дня в струистой урне тлела.


Eros has pierced me with the rays of his arrows,

Dragging me to execution, like bound Sebastian.

And, having squandered the burning shaft of his quiver,

He has threatened to rush back with another shaft…


In V. Ivanov’s sonnet svyazen’ Sevastian is Saint Sebastian (died c. 288 AD), an early Christian saint and martyr. An obsolete word meaning “prisoner,” svyazen’ comes from svyazyvat’ (to tie, bind). In chess vocabulary svyazyvat’ means “to pin.” In a game of chess that Sybil plays with her husband her knight is svyazan (pinned).


In the cycle’s sixth sonnet V. Ivanov mentions mertsanie Sivillinoy svechi (the glimmer of Sibyl’s candle) and dush spleten’ya i raskoly (the interlacing and splits of souls):


Чью розу гнут всех горних бурь Эолы,

Чью лилию пронзают все мечи, -

В мерцании Сивиллиной свечи

Душ лицезрит сплетенья и расколы.


Old Dr Starov (a character in TRLSK) has the same name-and-patronymic as Alexander Alexandrovich Blok (1880-1921):


Doctor Starov. Alexander Alexandrovich Starov. The train clattered over the points, repeating those x's. (chapter 20)


The name of Blok’s family estate in the Province of Moscow, Shakhmatovo, comes from shakhmaty (chess). In his epistle Vyacheslavu Ivanovu (“To Vyacheslav Ivanov,” 1912) Blok calls V. Ivanov tsar’ samoderzhavnyi (an autocratic king):


Как в годы юности, не знаю
Бездонных чар твоей души…
Порой, как прежде, различаю
Песнь соловья в твоей глуши…


И много чар, и много песен,
И древних ликов красоты…
Твой мир, поистине, чудесен!
Да, царь самодержавный — ты.

А я, печальный, нищий, жёсткий,
В час утра встретивший зарю,
Теперь на пыльном перекрёстке
На царский поезд твой смотрю.


In Pale Fire Kinbote (Shade’s mad commentator) imagines that he is Charles the Beloved, the last self-exiled king of Zembla (a distant northern land).


In the second edition (1952) of his memoirs Peterburgskie zimy (“The St. Petersburg Winters”) Georgiy Ivanov (no relation of Vyacheslav) says that when he asked Blok if a sonnet needs a coda, Blok replied that he did not know what a coda is. In his fragment Rim (“Rome,” 1842) Gogol describes a carnival in Rome and mentions the Italian sonnetto colla coda (sonnet with a coda). Vyacheslav Ivanov is the author of Rimskie sonety (“The Roman Sonnets,” 1925), a cycle of nine sonnets.


Kinbote believes that, to be completed, Shade’s poem needs but one line (Line 1000, identical to Line 1: “I was the shadow of the waxwing slain”). But it seems that, like some sonnets, Shade’s poem also needs a coda (Line 1001: “By its own double in the windowpane”).


Shade, Kinbote and Gradus (Shade’s murderer) seem to represent three different aspects of Botkin’s personality. TRLSK ends as follows:


So I did not see Sebastian after all, or at least I did not see him alive. But those few minutes I spent listening to what I thought was his breathing changed my life as completely as it would have been changed, had Sebastian spoken to me before dying. Whatever his secret was, I have learnt one secret too, and namely: that the soul is but a manner of being – not a constant state – that any soul may be yours, if you find and follow its undulations. The hereafter may be the full ability of consciously living in any chosen soul, in any number of souls, all of them unconscious of their interchangeable burden. Thus – I am Sebastian Knight. I feel as if I were impersonating him on a lighted stage, with the people he knew coming and going – the dim figures of the few friends he had, the scholar, and the poet, and the painter – smoothly and noiselessly paying their graceful tribute; and here is Goodman, the flat-footed buffoon, with his dicky hanging out of his waistcoat; and there – the pale radiance of Clare's inclined head, as she is led away weeping by a friendly maiden. They moved round Sebastian – round me who am acting Sebastian – and the old conjuror waits in the wings with his hidden rabbit: and Nina sits on a table in the brightest corner of the stage, with a wineglass of fuchsined water, under a painted palm. And then the masquerade draws to a close. The bald little prompter shuts his book, as the light fades gently. The end, the end. They all go back to their everyday life (and Clare goes back to her grave) – but the hero remains, for, try as I may, I cannot get out of my part: Sebastian's mask clings to my face, the likeness will not be washed off. I am Sebastian, or Sebastian is I, or perhaps we both are someone whom neither of us knows. (chapter 20)


The surname of Sebastian’s girlfriend and true love, Clare Bishop, hints at another chess piece. There is slon (Russian for “elephant” and “bishop” as a chessman) in Slonim, the maiden name of VN’s wife.


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 Kinbote’s Commentary). Nadezhda means in Russian hope. In his telegram to V. Dr Starov says that Sebastian’s state is hopeless. In his essay on Chekhov, Tvorchestvo iz nichego (“Creation from the Void,” 1905), Lev Shestov (the philosopher whose pseudonym comes from shest’, “six,” and who died in November of 1938, a few weeks before VN began writing TRLSK) calls Chekhov pevets beznadyozhnosti (the poet of hopelessness). Dr Starov brings to mind Dr Startsev, the main character in Chekhov’s story Ionych (1898). The characters of Chekhov’s story include Kitten, a girl with whom Dr Startsev falls in love (and who makes an appointment at eleven o’clock in the cemetery). Her nickname Kotik (Kitten) is a diminutive of kot (cat).


On the other hand, Dr Starov brings to mind the great Starover Blue, a character in Pale Fire who, like Shade, lectured at IPH (a lay Institute of Preparation for the Hereafter):


The great Starover Blue reviewed the role
Planets had played as landfalls of the soul. (ll. 627-628)


The planets of Solar System include Pluto (at least, in 1962 Pluto was still considered a planet, the ninth in order from the sun). Pluto is the cat’s name in E. A. Poe’s story The Black Cat (1845*). The Russian word for “cat,” kot brings to mind kot or (“what is the time” in Zemblan):


What is the time, kot or? He pressed his repeater and, undismayed, it hissed and tinkled out ten twenty-one. (note to Line 149)


Vyacheslav Ivanov’s cycle of sonnets Zolotye zavesy (“Golden Veils”) for the first time appeared in 1907 in the almanac Tsvetnik Or (“The Flowerbed of Horae”). In classical mythology the Horae (in Russian, Ory) are goddesses of the seasons, of cyclical death and rebirth. The Horae are related to hora (the Latin word for “hour”).


Kot or hints at kotoryi chas (“what is the time” in Russian). Chas is Russian for “hour.” In the second stanza of his poem Brozhu li ya vdol’ ulits shumnykh… (“Whether I roam along the noisy streets… 1829) Pushkin mentions vechny svody (the eternal vaults) and says that chey-nibud’ uzh blizok chas (someone’s hour is already near):


Я говорю: промчатся годы,
И сколько здесь ни видно нас,
Мы все сойдём под вечны своды —
И чей-нибудь уж близок час.


I say, Swiftly go the years by:
However great our number now,
Must all descend the eternal vaults, --
Already struck has some one's hour.


In his poem Prozerpina (“Proserpine,” 1824) Pushkin mentions svody Tartara (the vaults of Tartarus) and koni blednogo Plutona (pale Pluto’s horses):


Плещут волны Флегетона,
Своды Тартара дрожат,
Кони бледного Плутона
Быстро к нимфам Пелиона
Из аида бога мчат…


The waves of the Phlegethon splash,
The vaults of Tartarus tremble,
Pale Pluto’s horses
Quickly to the nymphs of Pelion
Rush the god from Hades…


Koni is plural of kon’, which means in Russian “horse” and “knight” (chessman). Flegeton (the Phlegethon) is a river of fire in the underworld. In his poem Pamyati kota Murra (“In Memory of the Tomcat Murr,” 1934) Khodasevich praises sady za ognennoy rekoy (the gardens beyond the river of fire) where the beloved shades of poets and animals enjoy the deserved rest of eternity:


В забавах был так мудр и в мудрости забавен –
Друг утешительный и вдохновитель мой!
Теперь он в тех садах, за огненной рекой,
Где с воробьём Катулл и с ласточкой Державин.

О, хороши сады за огненной рекой,
Где черни подлой нет, где в благодатной лени
Вкушают вечности заслуженный покой
Поэтов и зверей возлюбленные тени!

Когда ж и я туда? Ускорить не хочу
Мой срок, положенный земному лихолетью,
Но к тем, кто выловлен таинственною сетью,
Всё чаще я мечтой приверженной лечу.


In the poem’s first stanza Khodasevich mentions Catullus with the sparrow and Derzhavin with the swallow (s lastochkoy Derzhavin). Sybil Shade’s “real” name seems to be Sofia Botkin, born Lastochkin. Sybil’s knight is now unpinned. In the gardens beyond the river of fire Botkin is with the waxwing (and VN is with the butterfly).


*in my previous post (“black cat & music in Pale Fire”) “1945” is a bad misprint


Alexey Sklyarenko

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