shaving, Gerald Emerald, Nodo, mad Mandevil & Aunt Maud in Pale Fire

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Tue, 09/25/2018 - 17:37

In Canto Four of his poem Shade (the poet in VN’s novel Pale Fire, 1962) describes shaving:


Since my biographer may be too staid

Or know too little to affirm that Shade

Shaved in his bath, here goes: "He'd fixed a sort

Of hinge-and-screw affair, a steel support

Running across the tub to hold in place

The shaving mirror right before his face

And with his toe renewing tap-warmth, he'd

Sit like a king there, and like Marat bleed."


The more I weigh, the less secure my skin;

In places it's ridiculously thin;

Thus near the mouth: the space between its wick

And my grimace, invites the wicked nick.

Or this dewlap: some day I must set free

The Newport Frill inveterate in me.

My Adam's apple is a prickly pear:

Now I shall speak of evil and despair

As none has spoken. Five, six, seven, eight,

Nine strokes are not enough. Ten. I palpate

Through strawberry-and-cream the gory mess

And find unchanged that patch of prickliness.


I have my doubts about the one-armed bloke

Who in commercials with one gliding stroke

Clears a smooth path of flesh from ear to chin,

Then wipes his face and fondly tries his skin.

I'm in the class of fussy bimanists.

As a discreet ephebe in tights assists

A female in an acrobatic dance,

My left hand helps, and holds, and shifts its stance.

Now I shall speak... Better than any soap

Is the sensation for which poets hope

When inspiration and its icy blaze,

The sudden image, the immediate phrase

Over the skin a triple ripple send

Making the little hairs all stand on end

As in the enlarged animated scheme

Of whiskers mowed when held up by Our Cream.  (ll. 887-922)


Unlike Shade, Kinbote (Shade’s mad commentator who imagines that he is Charles the Beloved, the last self-exiled king of Zembla) is bearded:


One day I happened to enter the English Literature office in quest of a magazine with the picture of the Royal Palace in Onhava, which I wanted my friend to see, when I overheard a young instructor in a green velvet jacket, whom I shall mercifully call Gerald Emerald, carelessly saying in answer to something the secretary had asked: "I guess My Shade has already left with the great beaver." Of course, I am quite tall, and my brown beard is of a rather rich tint and texture; the silly cognomen evidently applied to me, but was not worth noticing, and after calmly taking the magazine from a pamphlet-cluttered table, I contented myself on my way out with pulling Gerald Emerald's bow-tie loose with a deft jerk of my fingers as I passed by him. (Foreword)


The name “Gerald Emerald” brings to mind Esmeralda, a gypsy girl in Victor Hugo’s novel Notre-Dame de Paris (1831). In a discarded stanza of his mock epic in octaves Domik v Kolomne (“A Small House in Kolomna,” 1830) Pushkin mentions Hugo s tovarishchi (Hugo with his friends):


Он вынянчен был мамкою не дурой:

За ним смотрел степенный Буало,

Шагал он чинно, стянут был цезурой;

Но, пудреной пиитике назло,

Растрёпан он свободною цензурой.

Учение не в прок ему пошло:

Hugo с товарищи, друзья натуры,

Его гулять пустили без цезуры. (<VII>)


In Pushkin’s poem Parasha’s mother unexpectedly returns home from a church and faints when she sees Mavra, a new female maid-servant, before Parasha’s mirror shaving his beard:


Пред зеркальцем Параши, чинно сидя,
Кухарка брилась. Что с моей вдовой?
«Ах, ах!» — и шлёпнулась. Её увидя,
Та, второпях, с намыленной щекой
Через старуху (вдовью честь обидя),
Прыгнула в сени, прямо на крыльцо,
Да ну бежать, закрыв себе лицо. (XXXVI)


In the poem’s last stanza Pushkin uses a phrase brit’ borodu sebe (to shave one’s beard):


Вот вам мораль: по мненью моему,
Кухарку даром нанимать опасно;
Кто ж родился мужчиною, тому
Рядиться в юбку странно и напрасно:
Когда-нибудь придётся же ему
Брить бороду себе, что несогласно
С природой дамской... Больше ничего
Не выжмешь из рассказа моего». (XL)


In the draft Pushkin’s poem has the epigraph from Ovid’s Metamorphoses (IV, 279-80): Modo vir, modo femina (now a man, now a woman). There is modo in Quasimodo, the hunchback in “Notre-Dame de Paris.” Modo differs from Nodo, Odon’s epileptic half-brother (a cardsharp and despicable traitor), only in the initial. Describing the Shadows (a regicidal group), Kinbote pairs Nodo with a mad Mandevil who had lost a leg in trying to make anti-matter:


The grotesque figure of Gradus, a cross between bat and crab, was not much odder than many other Shadows, such as, for example, Nodo, Odon's epileptic half-brother who cheated at cards, or a mad Mandevil who had lost a leg in trying to make anti-matter. (note to Line 171)


“A cross between bat and crab” brings to mind Cypress and Bat (one of Aunt Maud’s oils):


It appears that in the beginning of 1950, long before the barn incident (see note to line 347), sixteen-year-old Hazel was involved in some appalling "psychokinetic" manifestations that lasted for nearly a month. Initially, one gathers, the poltergeist meant to impregnate the disturbance with the identity of Aunt Maud who had just died; the first object to perform was the basket in which she had once kept her half-paralyzed Skye terrier (the breed called in our country "weeping-willow dog"). Sybil had had the animal destroyed soon after its mistress's hospitalization, incurring the wrath of Hazel who was beside herself with distress. One morning this basket shot out of the "intact" sanctuary (see lines 90-98) and traveled along the corridor past the open door of the study, where Shade was at work; he saw it whizz by and spill its humble contents: a ragged coverlet, a rubber bone, and a partly discolored cushion. Next day the scene of action switched to the dining room where one of Aunt Maud's oils (Cypress and Bat) was found to be turned toward the wall. Other incidents followed, such as short flights accomplished by her scrapbook (see note to line 90) and, of course, all kinds of knockings, especially in the sanctuary, which would rouse Hazel from her, no doubt, peaceful sleep in the adjacent bedroom. But soon the poltergeist ran out of ideas in connection with Aunt Maud and became, as it were, more eclectic. All the banal motions that objects are limited to in such cases, were gone through in this one. Saucepans crashed in the kitchen; a snowball was found (perhaps, prematurely) in the icebox; once or twice Sybil saw a plate sail by like a discus and land safely on the sofa; lamps kept lighting up in various parts of the house; chairs waddled away to assemble in the impassable pantry; mysterious bits of string were found on the floor; invisible revelers staggered down the staircase in the middle of the night; and one winter morning Shade, upon rising and taking a look at the weather, saw that the little table from his study upon which he kept a Bible-like Webster open at M was standing in a state of shock outdoors, on the snow (subliminally this may have participated in the making of lines 5-12). (note to Line 230)


Maud (1855) is a narrative long poem by Tennyson. In his Commentary Kinbote says that Tennyson and Housman used an Ordinary Razor:

Alfred Housman (1859-1939), whose collection The Shropshire Lad vies with the In Memoriam of Alfred Tennyson (1809-1892) in representing, perhaps (no, delete this craven "perhaps"), the highest achievement of English poetry in a hundred years, says somewhere (in a foreword?) exactly the opposite: The bristling of thrilled little hairs obstructed his barbering; but since both Alfreds certainly used an Ordinary Razor, and John Shade an ancient Gillette, the discrepancy may have been due to the use of different instruments. (note to Line 920)


In E. A. Poe's story A Predicament (1838) Signora Psyche Zenobia (the narrator and main character) mentions If, a distressing monosyllable, and the immense river Alfred that flows beneath the sea:


Leaning upon the arm of the gallant Pompey, and attended at a respectable distance by Diana, I proceeded down one of the populous and very pleasant streets of the now deserted Edina. On a sudden, there presented itself to view a church- a Gothic cathedral- vast, venerable, and with a tall steeple, which towered into the sky. What madness now possessed me? Why did I rush upon my fate? I was seized with an uncontrollable desire to ascend the giddy pinnacle, and then survey the immense extent of the city. The door of the cathedral stood invitingly open. My destiny prevailed. I entered the ominous archway. Where then was my guardian angel?- if indeed such angels there be. If! Distressing monosyllable! what world of mystery, and meaning, and doubt, and uncertainty is there involved in thy two letters! I entered the ominous archway! I entered; and, without injury to my orange-colored auriculas, I passed beneath the portal, and emerged within the vestibule. Thus it is said the immense river Alfred passed, unscathed, and unwetted, beneath the sea.

At the beginning of Canto Three of his poem Shade speaks of IPH (a lay Institute of Preparation for the Hereafter) and mentions "big if:"


L'if, lifeless tree! Your great Maybe, Rabelais:
The grand potato.
                                    I.P.H., a lay
Institute (I) of Preparation (P)
For the Hereafter (H), or If, as we
Called it--big if!--engaged me for one term
To speak on death ("to lecture on the Worm,"
Wrote President McAber).
                                         You and I,
And she, then a mere tot, moved from New Wye
To Yewshade, in another, higher state. (ll. 501-509)


Odon = Nodo = odno (neut. of odin, “one”). In Eugene Onegin (Two: XIV: 5-7) Pushkin says that we all expect to be Napoleons and mentions dvunogikh tvarey milliony (the millions of two-legged creatures) who are for us orudie odno (only tools):


Но дружбы нет и той меж нами.
Все предрассудки истребя,

Мы почитаем всех нулями,
А единицами – себя.

Мы все глядим в Наполеоны;
Двуногих тварей миллионы
Для нас орудие одно;

Нам чувство дико и смешно.
Сноснее многих был Евгений;
Хоть он людей, конечно, знал
И вообще их презирал, —
Но (правил нет без исключений)
Иных он очень отличал
И вчуже чувство уважал.


But in our midst there’s even no such friendship:

Having destroyed all the prejudices,

We deem all people naughts

And ourselves units.

We all expect to be Napoleons;

the millions of two-legged creatures

for us are only tools;

feeling to us is weird and ludicrous.

More tolerant than many was Eugene,

though he, of course, knew men

and on the whole despised them;

some people he distinguished greatly

and, though estranged from it, respected feeling.


In “A Small House in Kolomna” Pushkin compares the poet to Tamerlane or even to Napoleon himself:


Как весело стихи свои вести
Под цифрами, в порядке, строй за строем,
Не позволять им в сторону брести,
Как войску, в пух рассыпанному боем!
Тут каждый слог замечен и в чести,
Тут каждый стих глядит себе героем,
А стихотворец... с кем же равен он?
Он Тамерлан иль сам Наполеон.


According to Pushkin, it is a thrill to lead one’s verses under numbers. In his poem “The Nature of Electricity” (quoted in full by Kinbote in his Commentary) Shade says that streetlamps are numbered and mentions the torments of a Tamerlane:


The light never came back but it gleams again in a short poem "The Nature of Electricity", which John Shade had sent to the New York magazine The Beau and the Butterfly, some time in 1958, but which appeared only after his death:

The dead, the gentle dead - who knows?
In tungsten filaments abide,
And on my bedside table flows
Another man's departed bride.

And maybe Shakespeare floods a whole
Town with innumerable lights,
And Shelley's incandescent soul
Lures the pale moths of starless nights.

Streetlamps are numbered; and maybe
Number nine-hundred-ninety-nine
(So brightly beaming through a tree
So green) is an old friend of mine.

And when above the livid plain
Forked lightning plays, therein may dwell
The torments of a Tamerlane,
The roar of tyrants torn in hell.

Science tells us, by the way, that the Earth would not merely fall apart, but vanish like a ghost, if Electricity were suddenly removed from the world. (note to Line 347)


Tamerlane (1827) is a poem by E. A. Poe, the author of The Thousand-and-Second Tale of Scheherazade (1845). Shade’s poem is almost finished when the author is killed by Gradus. In its unfinished form Shade’s poem has 999 lines. Kinbote believes that, to be completed, Shade’s poem needs only Line 1000 (identical to Line 1: “I was the shadow of the waxwing slain”). But it seems that Shade’s poem also needs a coda (Line 1001: “By its own double in the windowpane”). Chekhov’s story Tysyacha odna strast’, ili Strashnaya noch’ (“A Thousand and One Passions, or The Terrible Night,” 1880) that, like Poe's Predicament, parodies the Gothic sensation tale, is dedicated to Victor Hugo. The title of Chekhov’s parody blends Tysyacha i odna noch’ (the Arabian collection “A Thousand and One Nights”) with Gogol’s Strashnaya mest’ (“A Terrible Vengeance,” 1831). In his fragment Rim (“Rome,” 1842) Gogol describes a carnival in Rome, mentions the Italian sonetto colla coda and in a footnote explains that in Italian poetry there is a kind of poem known as sonet s khvostom (sonnet with a tail, con la coda), when the idea cannot be expressed in fourteen lines and entails an appendix which is often longer than the sonnet itself:


В италиянской поэзии существует род стихотворенья, известного под именем сонета с хвостом (con la coda), когда мысль не вместилась и ведёт за собою прибавление, которое часто бывает длиннее самого сонета.


Not only Line 1001, but the entire Kinbote's Foreword, Commentary and Index can thus be regarded as the coda ("tail") of Shade's poem.