stilettos & stillicide in Pale Fire

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Thu, 11/08/2018 - 08:03

Ernest Metzger entitled his elegant little article “Vladimir Nabokov Commits Stillicide.” Actually, it is Kinbote (Shade’s mad commentator who imagines that he is Charles the Beloved, the last self-exiled king of Zembla) who “commits stillicide” in Pale Fire. “Stilettos of a frozen stillicide” in Canto One of Shade’s poem bring to mind “a Danish stiletto” mentioned by Kinbote in his Index:


Botkin, V., American scholar of Russian descent, 894; kingbot, maggot of extinct fly that once bred in mammoths and is thought to have hastened their phylogenetic end, 247; bottekin-maker, 71; bot, plop, and boteliy, big-bellied (Russ.); botkin or bodkin, a Danish stiletto.


In his famous monologue in Shakespeare’s Hamlet (3.1) Hamlet (Prince of Denmark) mentions a bare bodkin:


To be, or not to be: that is the question:

Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,

And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;

No more; and by a sleep to say we end

The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks

That flesh is heir to, ‘tis a consummation

Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;

To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;

For in that sleep of death what dreams may come

When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,

Must give us pause: there’s the respect

That makes calamity of so long life;

For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,

The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,

The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,

The insolence of office and the spurns

That patient merit of the unworthy takes,

When he himself might his quietus make

With a bare bodkin?


stiletto + son/nos = Stil/list/slit + sonetto = tis + leto/telo + ston


son – sleep; dream

nos –  nose; Nos ("Nose," 1835) is a story by Gogol

Stil – Germ., style; in his essay on Griboedov (in “The Silhouettes of Russian Writers”) Ayhenvald compares Chatski (the main character in “Woe from Wit,” 1824) to Hamlet and says: U Griboedova ne stil', a stilet (Griboedov has a stiletto, not style)

list – leaf

sonetto – It., sonnet

tis – yew; at the beginning of Canto Three of his poem Shade mentions l’if (yew in French), lifeless tree

leto – summer; Shade writes his last poem in July 1959

telo – body

ston – moan; Duchess of Payn, of Great Payn and Moan (Queen Disa, the wife of Charles the Beloved) seems to blend Leonardo’s Mona Lisa with Desdemona (Othello’s wife in Shakespeare’s Othello)


In his fragment Rim (“Rome,” 1842) Gogol mentions sonetto colla coda and in a footnote explains that in Italian poetry there is a kind of poem known as “a sonnet with the tail” (con la coda), when the idea cannot not 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.


Shade’s poem is almost finished when he is killed by Gradus (a member of the Shadows, a regicidal organization) on July 21, 1959. 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 Shade’s poem also needs a coda (Line 1001: “By its own double in the windowpane”). Moreover, not only the last line of Shade’s poem, but the entire apparatus criticus (Kinbote’s Foreword, Commentary and Index) can be regarded as a coda of Pale Fire.


Kinbote completes his work on Shade's poem and “commits stillicide” on Oct. 19, 1959 (the anniversary of Pushkin’s Lyceum). There is a hope that, after Kinbote's death, Professor Vsevolod Botkin (an American scholar of Russian descent who went mad and became Shade, Kinbote and Gradus after the tragic death of his daughter Nadezhda), like Count Vorontsov (a target of Pushkin's epigrams, “half-milord, half-merchant, etc.”), will be full again.


Dvoynik (“The Double”) is a short novel (1846) by Dostoevski and a poem (1909) by Alexander Blok. Dostoevski is the author of Netochka Nezvanov (1849), a novel that remained unfinished. In his Commentary Kinbote describes a conversation at the Faculty Club in which Netochka (Professor Nattochdag’s nickname) participates and Professor Pardon mentions Judge Goldsworth and asks Kinbote if his name is an anagram of Botkin or Botkine:


Pictures of the King had not infrequently appeared in America during the first months of the Zemblan Revolution. Every now and then some busybody on the campus with a retentive memory, or one of the clubwomen who were always after Shade and his eccentric friend, used to ask me with the inane meaningfulness adopted in such cases if anybody had told me how much I resembled that unfortunate monarch. I would counter with something on the lines of "all Chinese look alike" and change the subject. One day, however, in the lounge of the Faculty Club where I lolled surrounded by a number of my colleagues, I had to put up with a particularly embarrassing onset. A visiting German lecturer from Oxford kept exclaiming, aloud and under his breath, that the resemblance was "absolutely unheard of," and when I negligently observed that all bearded Zemblans resembled one another - and that, in fact, the name Zembla is a corruption not of the Russian zemlya, but of Semblerland, a land of reflections, of "resemblers" - my tormentor said: "Ah, yes, but King Charles wore no beard, and yet it is his very face! I had [he added] the honor of being seated within a few yards of the royal box at a Sport Festival in Onhava which I visited with my wife, who is Swedish, in 1956. We have a photograph of him at home, and her sister knew very well the mother of one of his pages, an interesting woman. Don't you see [almost tugging at Shade's lapel] the astounding similarity of features - of the upper part of the face, and the eyes, yes, the eyes, and the nose bridge?"

"Nay, sir" [said Shade, refolding a leg and slightly rolling in his armchair as wont to do when about to deliver a pronouncement] "there is no resemblance at all. I have seen the King in newsreels, and there is no resemblance. Resemblances are the shadows of differences. Different people see different similarities and similar differences."

Good Netochka, who had been looking singularly uncomfortable during this exchange, remarked in his gentle voice how sad it was to think that such a "sympathetic ruler" had probably perished in prison.

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.

"I would rather say," remarked Mr. Pardon - American History - "that she looks like Judge Goldsworth" ("One of us," interposed Shade inclining his head), "especially when he is real mad at the whole world after a good dinner."

"I hear," hastily began Netochka, "that the Goldsworths are having a wonderful time -"

"What a pity I cannot prove my point," muttered the tenacious German visitor. "If only there was a picture here. Couldn't there be somewhere -"

"Sure," said young Emerald and left his seat.

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.

"You do know Russian, though?" said Pardon. "I think I heard you, the other day, talking to - what's his name - oh, my goodness" [laboriously composing his lips].

Shade: "Sir, we all find it difficult to attack that name" [laughing].

Professor Hurley: "Think of the French word for 'tire': punoo."

Shade: "Why, Sir, I am afraid you have only punctured the difficulty" [laughing uproariously].

"Flatman," quipped I. "Yes," I went on, turning to Pardon, "I certainly do speak Russian. You see, it was the fashionable language par excellence, much more so than French, among the nobles of Zembla at least, and at its court. Today, of course, all this has changed. It is now the lower classes who are forcibly taught to speak Russian."

"Aren't we, too, trying to teach Russian in our schools?" said Pink.

In the meantime, at the other end of the room, young Emerald had been communing with the bookshelves. At this point he returned with the T-Z volume of an illustrated encyclopedia.

"Well, said he, "here he is, that king. But look, he is young and handsome" ("Oh, that won't do," wailed the German visitor). "Young, handsome, and wearing a fancy uniform," continued Emerald. "Quite the fancy pansy, in fact."

"And you," I said quietly, "are a foul-minded pup in a cheap green jacket."

"But what have I said?" the young instructor inquired of the company, spreading out his palms like a disciple in Leonardo's Last Supper.

"Now, now," said Shade. "I'm sure, Charles, our young friend never intended to insult your sovereign and namesake."

"He could not, even if he had wished," I observed placidly, turning it all into a joke.

Gerald Emerald extended his hand - which at the moment of writing still remains in that position. (note to Line 894)


Izumrud being Russian for “emerald,” Gerald Emerald brings to mind Izumrudov (one of the greater Shadows who visits Gradus in Nice and tells him the King’s address). In Dostoevski’s novel Idiot (“The Idiot,” 1869) Keller mentions izumrudy (emeralds). In Kuprin’s story Izumrud (1907) Izumrud is a racehorse. In VN’s novel Ada (1969) Lucette (Van's and Ada's half-sister) mentions a steeplechase picture ‘Pale Fire with Tom Cox Up.’


In his poem Kol’tso sushchestvovan’ya tesno (“The ring of existence is tight…” 1909) Alexander Blok quotes the saying “all roads lead to Rome:”


Кольцо существованья тесно:

Как все пути приводят в Рим,

Так нам заранее известно,

Что всё мы рабски повторим.


И мне, как всем, всё тот же жребий

Мерещится в грядущей мгле:

Опять — любить Её на небе

И изменить ей на земле.


Tretiy Rim ("The Third Rome," 1929) is an unfinished novel by G. Ivanov, the author of an offending article on Sirin (VN’s Russian nom de plume) in the Paris émigré review Chisla (“Numbers,” 1930, No. 1). In his (extremely unreliable) memoirs Peterburgskie zimy ("The St. Petersburg Winters") G. Ivanov describes his first meeting with Blok in the fall of 1909 and says that to his question “does a sonnet need a coda” Blok replied that he did not know what a coda is:


-- Александр Александрович, нужна ли кода к сонету? -- спросил я как-то. К моему изумлению, Блок, знаменитый "мэтр", вообще не знал, что такое кода...


In Vivian Calmbrood’s poem “The Night Journey” (1931) Chenstone (a fictitious poet to whom Pushkin ascribed his little tragedy “The Covetous Knight,” 1830) mentions a certain Johnson whom they had beaten with a candlestick for a marked article and his neighbor, the young Wordsworth:


Вообразите гладь речную,
берёзы, вересковый склон.

Там жил я, драму небольшую
писал из рыцарских времён;
ходил я в сюртучке потёртом,
с соседом, молодым Вордсвортом,
удил форелей иногда
(его стихам вредит вода,
но человек он милый), -- словом,
я счастлив был -- и признаюсь,
что в Лондон с манускриптом новым
без всякой радости тащусь.


According to Chenstone, in the country he used to fish trout with Wordsworth, a nice person for whose poetry water is harmful, though (like Southey and Coleridge, Wordsworth was a Lake Poet). Vivian Calmbrood is an imperfect anagram of Vladimir Nabokov. In Pushkin’s little tragedy Mozart and Salieri (1830) Mozart uses a phrase nikto b (none would):


Когда бы все так чувствовали силу
Гармонии! Но нет: тогда б не мог
И мир существовать; никто б не стал
Заботиться о нуждах низкой жизни;
Все предались бы вольному искусству.


If all could feel like you the power of harmony!
But no: the world could not go on then. None
Would bother with the needs of lowly life;
All would surrender to the free art.

(scene II, transl. A. Shaw)


Nikto b is Botkin (Shade’s, Kinbote’s and Gradus’ “real” name) in reverse.


According to Shade, his "frame house on its square of green" is situated “between Goldsworth and Wordsmith:”


                   Maybe some quirk in space
Has caused a fold or furrow to displace
The fragile vista, the frame house between
Goldsworth and Wordsmith on its square of green. (Lines 45-48)


In his Commentary Kinbote writes:


The first name refers to the house in Dulwich Road that I rented from Hugh Warren Goldsworth, authority on Roman Law and distinguished judge. I never had the pleasure of meeting my landlord but I came to know his handwriting almost as well as I do Shade's. The second name denotes, of course, Wordsmith University. In seeming to suggest a midway situation between the two places, our poet is less concerned with spatial exactitude than with a witty exchange of syllables invoking the two masters of the heroic couplet, between whom he embowers his own muse. Actually, the "frame house on its square of green" was five miles west of the Wordsmith campus but only fifty yards or so distant from my east windows. (Note to Lines 47-48)


“The two masters of the heroic couplet” mentioned by Kinbote are Oliver Goldsmith (1728-1774), an Irish poet, playwright, essayist and novelist, and William Wordsworth (1770-1850), an English poet. Pushkin’s Sonet (“A Sonnet,” 1830) has an epigraph from Wordsworth and mentions, among other famous sonneteers, “the author of Macbeth:”


Scorn not the sonnet, critic. Wordsworth


Суровый Дант не презирал сонета;
В нём жар любви Петрарка изливал;
Игру его любил творец Макбета;
Им скорбну мысль Камоэнс облекал.


И в наши дни пленяет он поэта:
Вордсворт его орудием избрал,
Когда вдали от суетного света
Природы он рисует идеал.


Под сенью гор Тавриды отдаленной
Певец Литвы в размер его стесненный
Свои мечты мгновенно заключал.


У нас ещё его не знали девы,
Как для него уж Дельвиг забывал
Гекзаметра священные напевы.


Stern Dante did not despise the sonnet;
Into it Petrarch poured out the ardor of love;
Its play the creator of Macbeth loved;
With it Camoes clothed his sorrowful thought.

Even in our days it captivates the poet:
Wordsworth chose it as an instrument,
When far from the vain world
He depicts nature's ideal.

Under the shadow of the mountains of distant Tavrida
The singer of Lithuania in its constrained measure
His dreams he in an instant enclosed.

Here the maidens did not yet know it,
When for it even Delvig forgot
The sacred melodies of the hexameter.
(tr. K. H. Ober & W. U. Ober)


Scorn not the coda, reader!