laughter in Tyrants Destroyed; St Damier in TRLSK; Bretwit in Pale Fire

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Sun, 12/30/2018 - 11:11

According to the narrator of VN’s story Istreblenie tiranov (“Tyrants Destroyed,” 1936), laughter saved him:

 

Смех, собственно, и спас меня. Пройдя все ступени ненависти и отчаяния, я достиг той высоты, откуда видно как на ладони смешное. Расхохотавшись, я исцелился, как тот анекдотический мужчина, у которого "лопнул в горле нарыв при виде уморительных трюков пуделя". Перечитывая свои записи, я вижу, что, стараясь изобразить его страшным, я лишь сделал его смешным,-- и казнил его именно этим-- старым испытанным способом. Как ни скромен я сам в оценке своего сумбурного произведения, что-то, однако, мне говорит, что написано оно пером недюжинным. Далёкий от литературных затей, но зато полный слов, которые годами выковывались в моей яростной тишине, я взял искренностью и насыщенностью чувств там, где другой взял бы мастерством да вымыслом. Это есть заклятье, заговор, так что отныне заговорить рабство может каждый. Верю в чудо. Верю в то, что каким-то образом, мне неизвестным, эти записи дойдут до людей, не сегодня и не завтра, но в некое отдалённое время, когда у мира будет денёк досуга, чтоб заняться раскопками,-- накануне новых неприятностей, не менее забавных, чем нынешние. И вот, как знать... допускаю мысль, что мой случайный труд окажется бессмертным и будет сопутствовать векам,-- то гонимый, то восхваляемый, часто опасный и всегда полезный. Я же, "тень без костей", буду рад, если плод моих забытых бессонниц послужит на долгие времена неким тайным средством против будущих тиранов, тигроидов, полоумных мучителей человека.

 

Laughter, actually, saved me. Having experienced all the degrees of hatred and despair, I achieved those heights from which one obtains a bird’s-eye view of the ludicrous. A roar of hearty mirth cured me, as it did, in a children’s storybook, the gentleman “in whose throat an abscess burst at the sight of a poodle’s hilarious tricks.” Rereading my chronicle, I see that, in my efforts to make him terrifying, I have only made him ridiculous, thereby destroying him — an old, proven method. Modest as I am in evaluating my muddled composition, something nevertheless tells me that it is not the work of an ordinary pen. Far from having literary aspirations, and yet full of words formed over the years in my enraged silence, I have made my point with sincerity and fullness of feeling where another would have made it with artistry and inventiveness. This is an incantation, an exorcism, so that henceforth any man can exorcise bondage. I believe in miracles. I believe that in some way, unknown to me, this chronicle will reach other men, neither tomorrow nor the next day, but at a distant time when the world has a day or so of leisure for archeological diggings, on the eve of new annoyances, no less amusing than the present ones. And, who knows — I may be right not to rule out the thought that my chance labor may prove immortal, and may accompany the ages, now persecuted, now exalted, often dangerous, and always useful. While I, a “boneless shadow,” un fantôme sans os, will be content if the fruit of my forgotten insomnious nights serves for a long time as a kind of secret remedy against future tyrants, tigroid monsters, half-witted torturers of man. (chapter 17)

 

Zaklyatie (an incantation) mentioned by the narrator of VN’s story brings to mind Khlebnikov’s poem Zaklyatie smekhom (“Incantation by Laughter,” 1908) and Blok’s cycle Zaklyatie ognyom i mrakom (“Incantation by Fire and Darkness,” 1907) in which tayna smekha (a secret of laughter) is mentioned. According to G. Ivanov, to his question “does a sonnet need a coda” Blok replied that he did not know what a coda is. It seems that, like some sonnets, Shade’s poem in VN’s novel Pale Fire (1962) needs a coda (Line 1001: “By its own shadow in the windowpane”).

 

The phrase fantôme sans os (rendered as ten’ bez kostey, “boneless shadow,” by the narrator of VN’s story ) occurs in a sonnet by Ronsard that VN translated into Russian in 1922:

 

Quand vous serez bien vieille, au soir à la chandelle,
Assise auprès du feu, dévidant et filant,
Direz chantant mes vers, en vous émerveillant :
«Ronsard me célébrait du temps que j’étais belle.»

Lors vous n’aurez servante oyant telle nouvelle,
Déjà sous le labeur à demi sommeillant,
Qui au bruit de Ronsard ne s’aille réveillant,
Bénissant votre nom de louange immortelle.

Je serai sous la terre, et fantôme sans os
Par les ombres myrteux je prendrai mon repos;
Vous serez au foyer une vieille accroupie,

Regrettant mon amour et votre fier dédain.
Vivez
, si men croyez, nattendez à demain:
Cueilllez dès aujourdhui les roses de la vie.

 

Когда на склоне лет и в час вечерний, чарам
стихов моих дивясь и грезя у огня,
вы скажете, лицо над пряжею склоня:
весна моя была прославлена Ронсаром, --

при имени моём, служанка в доме старом,
уже дремотою работу заменя, --
очнётся, услыхав, что знали вы меня,
вы, -- озарённая моим бессмертным даром.

Я буду под землёй, и, призрак без костей,
покой я обрету средь миртовых теней.
Вы будете, в тиши, склонённая, седая,

жалеть мою любовь и гордый холод свой.
Не ждите -- от миртовых дней, цените день живой,
спешите розы взять у жизненного мая.

 

VN is the author of Tri shakhmatnykh soneta (“Three Chess Sonnets,” 1924) and Shakhmatnyi kon’ (“The Chess Knight,” 1927), a poem about an old chess maestro who went mad and began to jump, like a white chess knight. In VN’s novel The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941) Sebastian used to draw a black chess knight to sign his stories. The characters of VN’s novel include Alexis Pan, a futurist poet with whom Sebastian traveled to the East in the summer of 1917. Velimir Khlebnikov (1885-1922) was a futurist poet.

 

In VN’s novel Sebastian Knight dies in a sanatorium in St Damier (near Paris). 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)

 

Schachbrett brings to mind Oswin Bretwit, Zemblan former consul in Paris whose name means, according to Kinbote, “Chess Intelligence:”

 

"All right, I am ready. Give me the sign," he avidly said.

Gradus, deciding to risk it, glanced at the hand in Bretwit's lap: unperceived by its owner, it seemed to be prompting Gradus in a manual whisper. He tried to copy what it was doing its best to convey - mere rudiments of the required sign.

"No, no," said Bretwit with an indulgent smile for the awkward novice. "The other hand, my friend. His Majesty is left-handed, you know."

Gradus tried again - but, like an expelled puppet, the wild little prompter had disappeared. Sheepishly contemplating his five stubby strangers, Gradus went through the motions of an incompetent and half-paralyzed shadowgrapher and finally made an uncertain V-for-Victory sign. Bretwit's smile began to fade.

His smile gone, Bretwit (the name means Chess Intelligence) got up from his chair. In a larger room he would have paced up and down - not in this cluttered study. Gradus the Bungler buttoned all three buttons of his tight brown coat and shook his head several times.

"I think," he said crossly, "one must be fair. If I bring you these valuable papers, you must in return arrange an interview, or at least give me his address."

"I know who you are," cried Bretwit pointing. "You're a reporter! You are from the cheap Danish paper sticking out of your pocket" (Gradus mechanically fumbled at it and frowned). "I had hoped they had given up pestering me! The vulgar nuisance of it! Nothing is sacred to you, neither cancer, nor exile, nor the pride of a king" (alas, this is true not only of Gradus - he has colleagues in Arcady too).

Gradus sat staring at his new shoes - mahogany red with sieve-pitted caps. An ambulance screamed its impatient way through dark streets three stories below. Bretwit vented his irritation on the ancestral letters lying on the table. He snatched up the neat pile with its detached wrapping and flung it all in the wastepaper basket. The string dropped outside, at the feet of Gradus who picked it up and added it to the scripta.

"Please, go," said poor Bretwit. "I have a pain in my groin that is driving me mad. I have not slept for three nights. You journalists are an obstinate bunch but I am obstinate too. You will never learn from me anything about my king. Good-bye."

He waited on the landing for his visitor's steps to go down and reach the front door. It was opened and closed, and presently the automatic light on the stairs went out with the sound of a kick. (note to Line 286)

 

At the end of his third Chess Sonnet VN says that he composed a sonnet on the chessboard:

 

Я не писал законного сонета,

хоть в тополях не спали соловьи,-

но, трогая то пешки, то ладьи,

придумывал задачу до рассвета.

 

И заключил в узор её ответа

всю нашу ночь, все возгласы твои,

и тень ветвей, и яркие струи

текучих звёзд, и мастерство поэта.

 

Я думаю, испанец мой, и гном,

и Филидор - в порядке кружевном

скупых фигур, играющих согласно,-

 

увидят всё, - что льётся лунный свет,

что я люблю восторженно и ясно,

что на доске составил я сонет.

 

"Tigroid monsters" at the end of "Tyrants Destroyed" bring to mind sharadoidy (charade-like puzzles) and arifmoidy (arithmetic riddles) in Ilf and Petrov's novel Zolotoy telyonok ("The Golden Calf," 1931):

 

В области ребусов, шарад, шарадоидов, логогрифов и загадочных картинок пошли новые веяния. Работа по старинке вышла из моды. Секретари газетных и журнальных отделов «В часы досуга» или «Шевели мозговой извилиной» не брали товара без идеологии. И пока великая страна шумела, пока строились тракторные заводы и создавались грандиозные зерновые фабрики, старик Синицкий, ребусник по профессии, сидел в своей комнате и, устремив остекленевшие глаза в потолок, сочинял шараду на модное слово «индустриализация».

У Синицкого была наружность гнома. Таких обычно изображают маляры на вывесках зонтичных магазинов. Вывесочные гномы стоят в красных колпаках и дружелюбно подмигивают прохожим, как бы приглашая их поскорее купить шелковый зонтик или трость с серебряным набалдашником в виде собачьей головы. Длинная желтоватая борода Синицкого опускалась прямо под стол, в корзину для бумаг.

 

Fresh winds are blowing in the field of riddles, charade-like puzzles, logogriphs, and other brainteasers. The old ways are out. The newspaper and magazine sections like At Your Leisure or Use Your Brain flatly refuse to accept non-ideological material. And while the great country was moving and shaking, building assembly lines for tractors and creating giant state farms, old man Sinitsky, a puzzle-maker by trade, sat in his room, his glazed eyes on the ceiling, and worked on a riddle based on the fashionable word industrialisation.

Sinitsky looked like a garden gnome. Such gnomes often appeared on the signs of umbrella stores. They wear pointy red hats and wink amicably at the passers-by, as if inviting them to hurry up and buy a silk parasol or a walking stick with a silver dog-head knob. Sinitsky's long yellowish beard descended below the desk right into the waste basket. (chapter 9)

 

The old puzzle-maker Sinitsky resembles gnom (a garden gnome). In VN's "Three Chess Sonnets" one of the chess players is a gnome.

 

The name Sinitsky comes from sinitsa (titmouse). According to Shade, his parents were ornithologists:

 

I was an infant when my parents died.
They both were ornithologists. I've tried
So often to evoke them that today
I have a thousand parents. Sadly they
Dissolve in their own virtues and recede,
But certain words, chance words I hear or read,
Such as "bad heart" always to him refer,
And "cancer of the pancreas" to her.

A preterist: one who collects cold nests.
Here was my bedroom, now reserved for guests. (ll. 71-80)

 

In his Commentary Kinbote writes:

 

A Commentary where placid scholarship should reign is not the place for blasting the preposterous defects of that little obituary. I have only mentioned it because that is where I gleaned a few meager details concerning the poet's parents. His father, Samuel Shade, who died at fifty, in 1902, had studied medicine in his youth and was vice-president of a firm of surgical instruments in Exton. His chief passion, however, was what our eloquent necrologist calls "the study of the feathered tribe," adding that "a bird had been named for him: Bombycilla Shadei" (this should be "shadei," of course). The poet's mother, nee Caroline Lukin, assisted him in his work and drew the admirable figures of his Birds of Mexico, which I remember having seen in my friend's house. What the obituarist does not know is that Lukin comes from Luke, as also do Locock and Luxon and Lukashevich. It represents one of the many instances when the amorphous-looking but live and personal hereditary patronymic grows, sometimes in fantastic shapes, around the common pebble of a Christian name. The Lukins are an old Essex family. Other names derive from professions such as Rymer, Scrivener, Limner (one who illuminates parchments), Botkin (one who makes bottekins, fancy footwear) and thousands of others. My tutor, a Scotsman, used to call any old tumble-down buildings a "hurley-house." But enough of this. (Kinbote's note to Line 71)

 

According to Shade, Professor Kinbote is the author of a remarkable book on surnames (note to Line 894). The author of Ob'yasnenie assiriyskikh imyon ("The Interpretation of Assyrian Names," 1868), Platon Lukashevich was Gogol's schoolmate in Nezhin. In his fragment Rim ("Rome," 1842) Gogol (whose name means "golden-eye,” Clangula bucephala) mentions sonetto colla coda and in a footnote explains that in Italian poetry there is a kind of poem known as “sonnet with the tail” (con la coda), when the idea cannot not be expressed in fourteen lines and entails an appendix that can be 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 (the unwritten) Line 1001 of Shade's poem, but Kinbote's entire Foreword, Commentary and Index can be regarded as a coda to Shade's poem.

 

In VN's novel Zashchita Luzhina ("The Luzhin Defense," 1930) the famous psychiatrist (Luzhin's doctor) has a black Assyrian beard:

 

А на следующий день он долго беседовал со знаменитым психиатром, в санатории которого лежал Лужин. У психиатра была чёрная ассирийская борода и влажные, нежные глаза, которые чудесно переливались, пока он слушал собеседника. Он сказал, что Лужин не эпилептик и не страдает прогрессивным параличом, что его состояние есть последствие длительного напряжения и что, как только с Лужиным можно будет столковаться, придется ему внушить, что слепая страсть к шахматам для него гибельна, и что на долгое время ему нужно от своей профессии отказаться и вести совершенно нормальный образ жизни. "Ну, а жениться такому человеку можно?" "Что же,- если он не импотент...- нежно улыбнулся профессор.- Да и в супружестве есть для него плюс. Нашему пациенту нужен уход, внимание, развлечения. Это временное помутнение сознания, которое теперь постепенно проходит. Насколько можно судить,- наступает полное прояснение".

 

And the following day he had a long conversation with the famous psychiatrist in whose sanatorium Luzhin was staying. The psychiatrist had a black Assyrian beard and moist, tender eyes that shimmered marvelously as he listened to his interlocutor. He said that Luzhin was not an epileptic and was not suffering from progressive paralysis, that his condition was the consequence of prolonged strain, and that as soon as it was possible to have a sensible conversation with Luzhin, one would have to impress upon him that a blind passion for chess was fatal for him and that for a long time he would have to renounce his profession and lead an absolutely normal mode of life. “And can such a man marry?” “Why not—if he’s not impotent.” The professor smiled tenderly. “Moreover, there’s an advantage for him in being married. Our patient needs care, attention and diversion. This is a temporary clouding of the senses, which is now gradually passing. As far as we can judge, a complete recovery is under way.” (chapter 10)

 

As always, let me draw your attention to the updated version of my previous post, "parachute, Izumrudov, Andronnikov & Niagarin in Pale Fire ."