In VN’s novel Pale Fire (1962) John Shade wrote his poem in July of 1959. According to Kinbote (Shade’s commentator who imagines that he is Charles the Beloved, the last self-exiled king of Zembla), the poem was begun at the dead center of the year:
The poem was begun at the dead center of the year, a few minutes after midnight July 1, while I played chess with a young Iranian enrolled in our summer school; and I do not doubt that our poet would have understood his annotator's temptations to synchronize a certain fateful fact, the departure from Zembla of the would-be regicide Gradus, with that date. Actually, Gradus left Onhava on the Copenhagen plane on July 5. (note to Lines 1-4)
In the poem’s first line Shade compares himself to the shadow of the waxwing (a bird of the genus Bombycilla). In his story Strashnaya mest’ (“A Terrible Vengeance,” 1832) Gogol says that a rare bird can fly to the middle of the Dnepr. Vladimir I (958-1015), a Grand Prince of Kiev who converted to Christianity in 988, caused the effigy of Perun (the Slavic god of thunder) to be drowned in the Dnepr. Perun brings to mind Pern, “the Devil” in Zemblan:
Many years ago--how many I would not care to say--I remember my Zemblan nurse telling me, a little man of six in the throes of adult insomnia: "Minnamin, Gut mag alkan, Pern dirstan" (my darling, God makes hungry, the Devil thirsty). Well, folks, I guess many in this fine hall are as hungry and thirsty as me, and I'd better stop, folks, right here.
Yes, better stop. My notes and self are petering out. Gentlemen, I have suffered very much, and more than any of you can imagine. I pray for the Lord's benediction to rest on my wretched countrymen. My work is finished. My poet is dead. (note to Line 1000)
Minnamin and Kinbote’s sufferings bring to mind Mignon’s song in Goethe’s novel Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (“Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship,” 1796):
Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt
Weiß, was ich leide!
Allein und abgetrennt
Von aller Freude,
Seh ich ans Firmament
Nach jener Seite.
Ach! der mich liebt und kennt,
Ist in der Weite.
Es schwindelt mir, es brennt
Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt
Weiß, was ich leide!
Only those who know longing
Know how I suffer!
Alone and separated
From all joy,
I behold the firmament
From yonder side.
Ah! the one who loves and knows me
Is in the vast unknown.
It dizzies me, it burns
Only those who know longing
Know how I suffer!
In his Russian version of Mignon’s song, Net, tol’ko tot, kto znal (“No, only he who knew…” 1858), Lev Mei changed the girl’s sex:
Нет, только тот, кто знал
Поймёт, как я страдал
И как я стражду.
Гляжу я вдаль... нет сил,
Ах, кто меня любил
И знал - далёко!
Вся грудь горит... Кто знал
Поймёт, как я страдал
И как я стражду.
In Mei’s poem strazhdu (“I suffer”) rhymes with zhazhdu (Acc. of zhazhda, “thirst”). Mei’s poem was set to music by Tchaikovsky, the composer who died of cholera after drinking a glass of unboiled water. In a letter of Nov. 18, 1831, to Yazykov Pushkin quotes the epistle that Khvostov wrote to him:
Хвостов написал мне послание, где он помолодел и тряхнул стариной. Он говорит:
Приближася похода к знаку,
Я стал союзник Зодиаку;
Холеры не любя пилюль,
Я пел при старости июль
Drawing near the sign of campaign,
I became an ally of the Zodiac;
Not loving the pills of cholera,
In my old age I sang of July, etc.
и проч. в том же виде. Собираюсь достойно отвечать союзнику Водолея, Рака и Козерога. В прочем всё у нас благополучно.
In his Ode to His Excellency Count Dm. Iv. Khvostov (1825) Pushkin compares Khvostov to Byron (the poet who died in 1824 and whose “famous shade” is mentioned by Pushkin):
Вам с Бейроном шипела злоба,
Гремела и правдива лесть.
Он лорд — граф ты! Поэты оба!
Се, мнится, явно сходство есть.
Spite hissed to you and Byron,
Truthful flattery also thundered.
He is a Lord, you are a Count! Both are poets!
Thus, an obvious resemblance seems to be.
The name Khvostov comes from khvost (tail). Oda (“ode” in Russian) rhymes with coda (Italian for “tail”). It seems that, to be completed, Shade’s poem needs not only Line 1000 (identical to Line 1: “I was the shadow of the waxwing slain”), but, like some sonnets, also a coda (Line 1001: “By its own double in the windowpane”). The total number of lines in the finished version of Shade’s poem bring to mind One Thousand and One Nights, also known as The Arabian Nights. In a letter of Dec. 1, 1826, to Alekseev Pushkin calls his Kishinev friend otshel’nik Bessarabskiy (“the Bessarabian hermit”) and asks Alekseev to gladden him not with an Arabian fairy tale, but with Alekseev’s Russian truth. In a letter of Apr. 30, 1823, to Alexander Turgenev Vyazemski calls Pushkin bes arabskiy (the Arabian devil), a pun on Bessarabskiy (the Bessarabian).
In a letter of Nov. 25, 1892, to Suvorin Chekhov (the author of Rara Avis, 1886) says that Byron was as smart as a hundred devils:
Ну-с, теперь об уме. Григорович думает, что ум может пересилить талант. Байрон был умён, как сто чертей, однако же талант его уцелел. Если мне скажут, что Икс понёс чепуху оттого, что ум у него пересилил талант, или наоборот, то я скажу: это значит, что у Икса не было ни ума, ни таланта.
And now as to intellect, Sir Grigorovich thinks that intellect can overwhelm talent. Byron was as smart as a hundred devils; nevertheless, his talent has survived intact. If we say that X talked nonsense because his intellect overwhelmed his talent or vice versa, then I say X had neither brains nor talent.
Grigorovich is the author of Guttapercevyi mal’chik (“The Gutta-Percha Boy,” 1883), a novella alluded to by Chekhov in the same letter of Nov. 25, 1892, to Suvorin:
Вас нетрудно понять, и Вы напрасно браните себя за то, что неясно выражаетесь. Вы горький пьяница, а я угостил Вас сладким лимонадом, и Вы, отдавая должное лимонаду, справедливо замечаете, что в нём нет спирта. В наших произведениях нет именно алкоголя, который бы пьянил и порабощал, и это Вы хорошо даете понять. Отчего нет? Оставляя в стороне "Палату № 6" и меня самого, будем говорить вообще, ибо это интересней. Будем говорить об общих причинах, коли Вам не скучно, и давайте захватим целую эпоху. Скажите по совести, кто из моих сверстников, т. е. людей в возрасте 30 — 45 лет дал миру хотя одну каплю алкоголя? Разве Короленко, Надсон и все нынешние драматурги не лимонад? Разве картины Репина или Шишкина кружили Вам голову? Мило, талантливо, Вы восхищаетесь и в то же время никак не можете забыть, что Вам хочется курить. Наука и техника переживают теперь великое время, для нашего же брата это время рыхлое, кислое, скучное, сами мы кислы и скучны, умеем рождать только гуттаперчевых мальчиков, и не видит этого только Стасов, которому природа дала редкую способность пьянеть даже от помоев. Причины тут не в глупости нашей, не в бездарности и не в наглости, как думает Буренин, а в болезни, которая для художника хуже сифилиса и полового истощения. У нас нет "чего-то", это справедливо, и это значит, что поднимите подол нашей музе, и Вы увидите там плоское место. Вспомните, что писатели, которых мы называем вечными или просто хорошими и которые пьянят нас, имеют один общий и весьма важный признак: они куда-то идут и Вас зовут туда же, и Вы чувствуете не умом, а всем своим существом, что у них есть какая-то цель, как у тени отца Гамлета, которая недаром приходила и тревожила воображение. У одних, смотря по калибру, цели ближайшие - крепостное право, освобождение родины, политика, красота или просто водка, как у Дениса Давыдова, у других цели отдаленные - бог, загробная жизнь, счастье человечества и т. п. Лучшие из них реальны и пишут жизнь такою, какая она есть, но оттого, что каждая строчка пропитана, как соком, сознанием цели, Вы, кроме жизни, какая есть, чувствуете еще ту жизнь, какая должна быть, и это пленяет Вас.
It is easy to understand you, and there is no need for you to abuse yourself for obscurity of expression. You are a hard drinker, and I have regaled you with sweet lemonade, and you, after giving the lemonade its due, justly observe that there is no spirit in it. That is just what is lacking in our productions — the alcohol which could intoxicate and subjugate, and you state that very well. Why not? Putting aside “Ward No. 6” and myself, let us discuss the matter in general, for that is more interesting. Let ms discuss the general causes, if that won’t bore you, and let us include the whole age. Tell me honestly, who of my contemporaries — that is, men between thirty and forty-five — have given the world one single drop of alcohol? Are not Korolenko, Nadson, and all the playwrights of to-day, lemonade? Have Repin’s or Shishkin’s pictures turned your head? Charming, talented, you are enthusiastic; but at the same time you can’t forget that you want to smoke. Science and technical knowledge are passing through a great period now, but for our sort it is a flabby, stale, and dull time. We are stale and dull ourselves, we can only beget gutta-percha boys, and the only person who does not see that is Stasov, to whom nature has given a rare faculty for getting drunk on slops. The causes of this are not to be found in our stupidity, our lack of talent, or our insolence, as Burenin imagines, but in a disease which for the artist is worse than syphilis or sexual exhaustion. We lack “something,” that is true, and that means that, lift the robe of our muse, and you will find within an empty void. Let me remind you that the writers, who we say are for all time or are simply good, and who intoxicate us, have one common and very important characteristic; they are going towards something and are summoning you towards it, too, and you feel not with your mind, but with your whole being, that they have some object, just like the ghost of Hamlet’s father, who did not come and disturb the imagination for nothing. Some have more immediate objects — the abolition of serfdom, the liberation of their country, politics, beauty, or simply vodka, like Denis Davydov; others have remote objects — God, life beyond the grave, the happiness of humanity, and so on. The best of them are realists and paint life as it is, but, through every line’s being soaked in the consciousness of an object, you feel, besides life as it is, the life which ought to be, and that captivates you.
Zemblan for “God,” Gut seems to hint not only at Gott (“God” in German), but also at the gutta-percha boys mentioned by Chekhov. A young acrobat, the gutta-percha boy in Grigorovich’s story brings to mind the circus artists mentioned by Kinbote in his Commentary:
She [Queen Disa] had recently lost both parents and had no real friend to turn to for explanation and advice when the inevitable rumors reached her; these she was too proud to discuss with her ladies in waiting but she read books, found out all about our manly Zemblan customs, and concealed her naive distress under a great show of sarcastic sophistication. He congratulated her on her attitude, solemnly swearing that he had given up, or at least would give up, the practice of his youth; but everywhere along the road powerful temptations stood at attention. He succumbed to them from time to time, then every other day, then several times daily--especially during the robust regime of Harfar Baron of Shalksbore, a phenomenally endowed young brute (whose family name, "knave's farm," is the most probably derivation of "Shakespeare"). Curdy Buff--as Harfar was nicknamed by his admirers--had a huge escort of acrobats and bareback riders, and the whole affair rather got out of hand so that Disa, upon unexpectedly returning from a trip to Sweden, found the Palace transformed into a circus. He again promised, again fell, and despite the utmost discretion was again caught. At last she removed to the Riviera leaving him to amuse himself with a band of Eton-collared, sweet-voices minions imported from England. (note to Line 433)
In a letter of Apr. 26, 1835, to Dmitriev Pushkin calls Count Uvarov, the minister of education, fokusnik (a conjurer) and Dondukov-Korsakov, whose homosexual relationship with Uvarov Pushkin ridicules in his epigram V akademii nauk… (“In the Academy of sciences…” 1835), ego payas (his clown):
На академии наши нашёл чёрный год: едва в Российской почил Соколов, как в академии наук явился вице-президентом Дондуков-Корсаков. Уваров фокусник, а Дондуков-Корсаков его паяс. Кто-то сказал, что куда один, туда и другой: один кувыркается на канате, а другой под ним на полу.
In his Foreword to Shade’s poem Kinbote describes his favorite photograph of Shade and compares Shade to a conjurer:
I have one favorite photograph of him. In this color snapshot taken by a onetime friend of mine, on a brilliant spring day, Shade is seen leaning on a sturdy cane that had belonged to his aunt Maud (see line 86). I am wearing a white windbreaker acquired in a local sports shop and a pair of lilac slacks hailing from Cannes. My left hand is half raised--not to pat Shade on the shoulder as seems to be the intention, but to remove my sunglasses which, however, it never reached in that life, the life of the picture; and the library book under my right arm is a treatise on certain Zemblan calisthenics in which I proposed to interest that young roomer of mine who snapped the picture. A week later he was to betray my trust by taking sordid advantage of my absence on a trip to Washington whence I returned to find that he had been entertaining a fiery-haired whore from Exton who had left her combings and reek in all three bathrooms. Naturally, we separated at once, and through a chink in the window curtains I saw bad Bob standing rather pathetically, with his crewcut, and shabby valise, and the skis I had given him, all forlorn on the roadside, waiting for a fellow student to drive him away forever. I can forgive everything save treason.
We never discussed, John Shade and I, any of my personal misfortunes. Our close friendship was on that higher, exclusively intellectual level where one can rest from emotional troubles, not share them. My admiration for him was for me a sort of alpine cure. I experienced a grand sense of wonder whenever I looked at him, especially in the presence of other people, inferior people. This wonder was enhanced by my awareness of their not feeling what I felt, of their not seeing what I saw, of their taking Shade for granted, instead of drenching every nerve, so to speak, in the romance of his presence. Here he is, I would say to myself, that is his head, containing a brain of a different brand than that of the synthetic jellies preserved in the skulls around him. He is looking from the terrace (of Prof. C.'s house on that March evening) at the distant lake. I am looking at him. I am witnessing a unique physiological phenomenon: John Shade perceiving and transforming the world, taking it in and taking it apart, re-combining its elements in the very process of storing them up so as to produce at some unspecified date an organic miracle, a fusion of image and music, a line of verse. And I experienced the same thrill as when in my early boyhood I once watched across the tea table in my uncle's castle a conjurer who had just given a fantastic performance and was now quietly consuming a vanilla ice. I stared at his powdered cheeks, at the magical flower in his buttonhole where it had passed through a succession of different colors and had now become fixed as a white carnation, and especially at his marvelous fluid-looking fingers which could if he chose make his plate into a dove by tossing up in the air.
At the end of his Commentary Kinbote (whom one is tempted to compare to Shade’s clown) mentions a million of photographers:
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. (note to Line 1000)
In Chapter Two (XIV) of Eugene Onegin Pushkin mentions dvunogikh tvarey milliony (the millions of two-legged creatures) who are for us orudie odno (only tools). There is dno (“bottom”) in odno (neut. of odin, “one”). Odno = Odon (world-famous actor and Zemblan patriot) = Nodo (Odon’s half-brother, a cardsharp and despicable traitor). In his essay Pouchkine ou le vrai et le vraisemblable (1937) VN points out that, had Pushkin lived a couple of years longer, we would have had his photograph. Kinbote completes his work on Shade’s poem and commits suicide on Oct. 19, 1959, the anniversary of Pushkin’s Lyceum. 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 tragic death of his daughter Nadezhda (Hazel Shade of Kinbote’s Commentary). There is nadezhda (a hope) that, after Kinbote’s suicide, Botkin, like Count Vorontsov (another target of Pushkin’s epigrams, “half-milord, half-merchant, etc.”), will be full again.
Here is an improved version of the anagram in my previous post (“London, Lute, kvaka sesva, Avenue Guillaume Pitt & Chose University in Ada”):
Sekvana + Moskva + revolt = kvaka sesva + Lermontov
Sekvana – Sequana (the Latin name of the Seine, a river that flows throw Paris) in Russian spelling; in his epistle to Vasiliy Pushkin (a minor poet, uncle of Alexander Pushkin) Count Khvostov pairs Sekvana with the Thames and, in one of the next lines, mentions the Volga; “the Volga region and similar watersheds” are mentioned by Van Veen in the chapter dedicated to his novel Letters from Terra (2.2)
Moskva – Moscow; the Moskva river that flows through Moscow
revolt – in “History of Pugachov” (1834) Pushkin says: 'God save us from seeing a Russian revolt, senseless and merciless.
kvaka sesva – quoi que ce soit (whatever it might be) in Marina’s mispronunciation
In “The Demon” (1840) Lermontov compares Mount Kazbek to gran’ almaza (a diamond’s facet). As a child, Van “puzzled out the exaggerated but, on the whole, complimentary allusions to his father’s volitations and loves in another life in Lermontov’s diamond-faceted tetrameters” (1.28). The lines in “The Demon” are paraphrased by Van in the chapter in which speaks of his father’s death:
He greeted the dawn of a placid and prosperous century (more than half of which Ada and I have now seen) with the beginning of his second philosophic fable, a ‘denunciation of space’ (never to be completed, but forming in rear vision, a preface to his Texture of Time). Part of that treatise, a rather mannered affair, but nasty and sound, appeared in the first issue (January, 1904) of a now famous American monthly, The Artisan, and a comment on the excerpt is preserved in one of the tragically formal letters (all destroyed save this one) that his sister sent him by public post now and then. Somehow, after the interchange occasioned by Lucette’s death such nonclandestine correspondence had been established with the tacit sanction of Demon:
And o’er the summits of the Tacit
He, banned from Paradise, flew on:
Beneath him, like a brilliant’s facet,
Mount Peck with snows eternal shone. (3.7)
On Ada’s sixteenth birthday Demon wants to give her une rivière de diamants. Marina objects to Demon giving kvaka sesva to his daughter.
Lermontov’s poem Borodino (1837) begins as follows:
“Скажи-ка, дядя, ведь не даром
Москва, спалённая пожаром,
Ведь были ж схватки боевые,
Да, говорят, ещё какие!
Недаром помнит вся Россия
Про день Бородина!"
"Tell me now, uncle, not in vain,
after all, was flame bound Moscow
Given over to the French.
For there were surges of battle,
They say, and were there ever!
Not in vain does all Russia remember
The day at Borodino!"
Describing the Night of the Burning Barn (when he and Ada make love for the first time), Van mentions Mlle Stopchin (a representative of Mme de Ségur, née Rostopchine, author of Les Malheurs de Sophie) and Mlle Larivière (Lucette’s governess):
A sort of hoary riddle (Les Sophismes de Sophie by Mlle Stopchin in the Bibliothèque Vieux Rose series): did the Burning Barn come before the Cockloft or the Cockloft come first. Oh, first! We had long been kissing cousins when the fire started. In fact, I was getting some Château Baignet cold cream from Ladore for my poor chapped lips. And we both were roused in our separate rooms by her crying au feu! July 28? August 4?
Who cried? Stopchin cried? Larivière cried? Larivière? Answer! Crying that the barn flambait? (1.19)
The Great Moscow Fire of 1812 started thanks to Rostopchin’s orders (the governor of Moscow, Count Rostopchin was the father of Mme de Ségur). The Baronial Barn near Ardis Hall was set on fire by Kim Beauharnais (the kitchen boy and photographer at Ardis who was bribed by Ada). Josephine Beauharnais (known on Antiterra as Queen Josephine, 1.5) was Napoleon’s first wife.