The characters in VN’s novel Pale Fire (1962) include Sybil Shade (the poet’s wife) and Jakob Gradus (the poet’s murderer). In Goethe’s Faust (1808) Mephistopheles calls the Witch who makes a potion for Faust and says magic words treffliche Sibylle (“excellent Sibyl”) and refers to Faust as ein Mann von vielen Graden (“a man of manifold degrees”):
Genug, genug, o treffliche Sibylle!
Gib deinen Trank herbei, und fülle
Die Schale rasch bis an den Rand hinan;
Denn meinem Freund wird dieser Trunk nicht schaden:
Er ist ein Mann von vielen Graden,
Der manchen guten Schluck getan. (Hexenküche)
O Sibyl excellent, enough of adjuration!
But hither bring us thy potation,
And quickly fill the beaker to the brim!
This drink will bring my friend no injuries:
He is a man of manifold degrees,
And many draughts are known to him. (VI, “Witches’ Kitchen”)
In a conversation at the Faculty Club Kinbote (Shade’s mad commentator who imagines that he is Charles the Beloved, the last self-exiled king of Zembla) calls the slapdash disheveled hag whom Shade is said to resemble “the third in the witch row:”
A professor of physics now joined in. He was a so-called Pink, who believed in what so-called Pinks believe in (Progressive Education, the Integrity of anyone spying for Russia, Fall-outs occasioned solely by US-made bombs, the existence in the near past of a McCarthy Era, Soviet achievements including Dr. Zhivago, and so forth): "Your regrets are groundless" [said he]. "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."
"Strange, strange," said the German visitor, who by some quirk of alderwood ancestry had been alone to catch the eerie note that had throbbed by and was gone.
Shade [smiling and massaging my knee]: "Kings do not die--they only disappear, eh, Charles?"
"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."
"The third in the witch row," I precised quaintly, and everybody laughed. (note to Line 894)
The author of Doctor Zhivago (1957), Pasternak translated Goethe’s Faust into Russian. A couple of years earlier Faust’s Zueignung (Dedication) was translated into Russian VN. In his translation (1932) VN renders Gestalten (Forms), the last word in the first line of Goethe’s Dedication, as teni (the shadows):
Ihr naht euch wieder, schwankende Gestalten,
Die früh sich einst dem trüben Blick gezeigt.
Versuch' ich wohl euch dießmal fest zu halten?
Fühl' ich mein Herz noch jenem Wahn geneigt?
Ihr drängt euch zu! nun gut, so mögt ihr walten,
Wie ihr aus Dunst und Nebel um mich steigt;
Mein Busen fühlt sich jugendlich erschüttert
Vom Zauberhauch, der euren Zug umwittert.
Вы снова близко, реющие тени
Мой смутный взор уже вас видел раз.
Хочу ль теперь безумия видений?
Запечатлеть попробую ли вас?
Теснитесь вы! Средь дымных испарений
да будет так! - вы явитесь сейчас;
по-юному мне сердце потрясает
туман чудес, что вас сопровождает.
Again you show yourselves, you wavering Forms,
Revealed, as you once were, to clouded vision.
Shall I attempt to hold you fast once more?
Heart’s willing still to suffer that illusion?
You crowd so near! Well then, you shall endure,
And rouse me, from your mist and cloud’s confusion:
My spirit feels so young again: it’s shaken
By magic breezes that your breathings waken.
Gradus is a member of the Shadows, a regicidal organization which commissioned him to assassinate the self-banished king.
In the second stanza of his Dedication Goethe mentions manche liebe Schatten (many a loved shade):
Ihr bringt mit euch die Bilder froher Tage,
Und manche liebe Schatten steigen auf;
Gleich einer alten halbverklungnen Sage
Kommt erste Lieb' und Freundschaft mit herauf;
Der Schmerz wird neu, es wiederholt die Klage
Des Lebens labyrinthisch irren Lauf,
Und nennt die Guten, die, um schöne Stunden
Vom Glück getäuscht, vor mir hinweggeschwunden.
Отрада в вас мне чудится былая,
а тень встаёт родная не одна,
встаёт любовь и дружба молодая,
как полузвук, преданье, старина,
и снова - боль, и жалуясь, блуждая
по лабиринту жизненного сна,
зову я милых, счастием жестоко
обмеренных, исчезнувших до срока.
You bring with you the sight of joyful days,
And many a loved shade rises to the eye:
And like some other half-forgotten phrase,
First Love returns, and Friendship too is nigh:
Pain is renewed, and sorrow: all the ways,
Life wanders in its labyrinthine flight,
Naming the good, those that Fate has robbed
Of lovely hours, those slipped from me and lost.
The three main characters in Pale Fire, Shade, Kinbote and Gradus seem to represent three different aspects of Botkin’s personality. An American scholar of Russian descent, Professor Vsevolod Botkin went mad and became Shade, Kinbote and Gradus after the tragic death of his daughter Nadezhda (Hazel Shade of Kinbote’s commentary). Nadezhda (“Hope,” 1894) is a poem by Merezhkovski. In his book Tayna tryokh: Egipet i Vavilon (“The Secret of Three: Egypt and Babylon,” 1925) Merezhkovski mentions the old witch who makes a potion for Faust and quotes the words of Mephistopheles (attributing them to the Witch):
«Трижды светящим Светом, das dreimal glühende Licht», – заклинает беса Фауст. И старая ведьма, готовя для него эликсир юности, бормочет что-то об Одном, Двух и Трёх:
Mein Freund, die Kunst ist alt und neu.
Es war die Art zu allen Zeiten,
Durch Drei und Eins, und Eins und Drei
Irrtum statt Warheit zu verbreiten.
Увы, мой друг, старо и ново,
Веками лжи освещено
Всех одурачившее слово:
Одно есть Три, и Три – Одно. (“The Divine Trefoil,” VI)
[The art is old and new, for verily
All ages have been taught the matter —
By Three and One, and One and Three,
Error instead of Truth to scatter.]
Odno est’ Tri, i Tri - Odno (“One is Three, and Three is One”), Kholodkovski’s rendering of Goethe’s line Durch Drei und Eins, und Eins und Drei quoted by Merezhkovski, brings to mind Odon (a character in Pale Fire, world-famous actor and Zemblan patriot) and his half-brother Nodo (a cardsharp and despicable traitor). Odon = Nodo = odno (neut. of odin, “one).
The characters in VN’s novel Ada (1969) include Dick C., a cardsharp with whom Van plays poker at Chose (Van’s and Dick’s English University). Describing a game of poker at Chose, Van mentions Dick’s silly lens:
Van, who up to then had had no trouble whatever in concealing his delicate maneuvers from Dick’s silly lens, now had the pleasure of seeing him glimpse the second joker palmed in his, Van’s, hand as he swept up and clasped to his bosom the ‘rainbow ivory’ — Plunkett was full of poetry. (1.28)
In the same paragraph of “The Secret of Three” Merezhkovski says that even Goethe’s eye, the “sunniest eye” of our days, grew dim, like a tin button, before the Secret of Three:
Уж если глаз Гёте, самый «солнечный глаз» наших дней, потускнел, как оловянная пуговица, перед Тайною Трёх, то чего ждать от других? (“The Divine Trefoil,” VI)
A reformed card-sharper who had done some sleuthing for the police, Mr. Plunkett has a gray face:
The outrageous ravages of time and some surgical tampering with his rugged features had made his gray face not more attractive but at least unrecognizable to all but a few old cronies, who now shunned his chilling company, anyway. (1.28)
In the police records Gradus is also known as Jack Degree and de Grey (Index to Pale Fire).
According to Van, “he was an apprentice who learned fast, and kept his labeled phials in a cool place” (1.28). Goethe is the author of Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (“Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship, 1796).
The name of one of Van’s Professors at Chose, Paar of Chose, suggests “pair of shoes.” According to Kinbote (the author of a book on surnames), Botkin is the one who makes bottekins (fancy footwear).