Lang & Gordon in Pale Fire; bayronka in Ada

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Fri, 04/05/2019 - 10:12

In Canto Three of his poem John Shade (the poet in VN’s novel Pale Fire, 1962) mentions Hurricane Lolita and his wife’s portrait by Lang:


It was a year of Tempests: Hurricane
Lolita swept from Florida to Maine.
Mars glowed. Shahs married. Gloomy Russians spied.
Lang made your portrait. And one night I died.
(ll. 679-682)


In his Commentary Kinbote (who imagines that he is Charles the Beloved, the last self-exiled king of Zembla) wonders if Shade has in mind a photographic portrait:


Line 682: Lang


A modern Fra Pandolf no doubt. I do not remember seeing any such painting around the house. Or did Shade have in mind a photographic portrait? There was one such portrait on the piano, and another in Shade's study. How much fairer it would have been to Shade's and his friend's reader if the lady had deigned answer some of my urgent queries.


In Robert Browning’s poem My Last Duchess the Duchess’ portrait was painted by Fra Pandolf. In VN’s novel Ada (1969) Lucette (Van’s and Ada’s half-sister) mentions Herb’s diary published by his last duchess:


She returned after a brief swim to the sun terrace where Van lay and said:

‘You can’t imagine’ — (‘I can imagine anything,’ he insisted) — ‘you can imagine, okay, what oceans of lotions and streams of creams I am compelled to use — in the privacy of my balconies or in desolate sea caves — before I can exhibit myself to the elements. I always teeter on the tender border between sunburn and suntan — or between lobster and Obst as writes Herb, my beloved painter — I’m reading his diary published by his last duchess, it’s in three mixed languages and lovely, I’ll lend it to you. You see, darling, I’d consider myself a pied cheat if the small parts I conceal in public were not of the same color as those on show.’

‘You looked to me kind of sandy allover when you were inspected in 1892,’ said Van.

‘I’m a brand-new girl now,’ she whispered. ‘A happy new girl. Alone with you on an abandoned ship, with ten days at least till my next flow. I sent you a silly note to Kingston, just in case you didn’t turn up.’ (3.5)


Describing Kim Beauharnais’s album, Van Veen (the narrator and main character in Ada) mentions a picture of Aqua’s and Marina’s brother at twelve or fourteen clad in a bayronka (open shirt):


A formal photograph, on a separate page: Adochka, pretty and impure in her flimsy, and Vanichka in gray-flannel suit, with slant-striped school tie, facing the kimera (chimera, camera) side by side, at attention, he with the shadow of a forced grin, she, expressionless. Both recalled the time (between the first tiny cross and a whole graveyard of kisses) and the occasion: it was ordered by Marina, who had it framed and set up in her bedroom next to a picture of her brother at twelve or fourteen clad in a bayronka (open shirt) and cupping a guinea pig in his gowpen (hollowed hands); the three looked like siblings, with the dead boy providing a vivisectional alibi. (2.7)


Bayronka comes from Bayron (Byron in Russian spelling). In Canto the Tenth (XVII) of Don Juan Byron mentions the phrase “Auld Lang Syne!” (long, long ago):


And when I use the phrase of "Auld Lang Syne!"
'Tis not address'd to you -- the more's the pity
For me, for I would rather take my wine
With you, than aught (save Scott) in your proud city.
But somehow, -- it may seem a schoolboy's whine,
And yet I seek not to be grand nor witty,
But I am half a Scot by birth, and bred
A whole one, and my heart flies to my head, --


In Chapter One (LVI) of Eugene Onegin Pushkin says that, unlike Bayron, gordosti poet (Byron, the poet of pride), he has not scrawled his portrait:


Цветы, любовь, деревня, праздность,
Поля! я предан вам душой.
Всегда я рад заметить разность
Между Онегиным и мной,
Чтобы насмешливый читатель
Или какой-нибудь издатель
Замысловатой клеветы,
Сличая здесь мои черты,
Не повторял потом безбожно,
Что намарал я свой портрет,
Как Байрон, гордости поэт,
Как будто нам уж невозможно
Писать поэмы о другом,
Как только о себе самом.


Flowers, love, the country, idleness,

ye fields! my soul is vowed to you.

I'm always glad to mark the difference

between Onegin and myself,

lest a sarcastic reader

or else some publisher

of complicated calumny,

collating here my traits,

repeat thereafter shamelessly

that I have scrawled my portrait

like Byron, the poet of pride

— as if we were no longer able

to write long poems

on any other subject than ourselves!


VN is always glad to mark the difference between Humbert Humbert (the main character in his novel Lolita, 1955) and himself.


In his EO Commentary (note to One: LVI: 2) VN writes: “ye fields! (Polya!) Champs, employed in a pseudo-Latin sense (countryside, champaign, campagne), a painfull Gallic cliché.” Describing the discovery of a secret passage, Kinbote mentions his tutors, Monsieur Beauchamp and Mr. Campbell (a Scotsman):


As soon as Monsieur Beauchamp had sat down for a game of chess at the bedside of Mr. Campbell and had offered his raised fists to choose from, the young Prince took Oleg to the magical closet. The wary, silent, green-carpeted steps of an escalier dérobé led to a stone-paved underground passage. Strictly speaking it was "underground" only in brief spells when, after burrowing under the southwest vestibule next to the lumber room, it went under a series of terraces, under the avenue of birches in the royal park, and then under the three transverse streets, Academy Boulevard, Coriolanus Lane and Timon Alley, that still separated it from its final destination. Otherwise, in its angular and cryptic course it adapted itself to the various structures which it followed, here availing itself of a bulwark to fit in its side like a pencil in the pencil hold of a pocket diary, there running through the cellars of a great mansion too rich in dark passageways to notice the stealthy intrusion. Possibly, in the intervening years, certain arcane connections had been established between the abandoned passage and the outer world by the random repercussions of work in surrounding layers of masonry or by the blind pokings of time itself; for here and there magic apertures and penetrations, so narrow and deep as to drive one insane, could be deduced from a pool of sweet, foul ditch water, bespeaking a moat, or from a dusky odor of earth and turf, marking the proximity of a glacis slope overhead; and at one point, where the passage crept through the basement of a huge ducal villa, with hothouses famous for their collections of desert flora, a light spread of sand momentarily changed the sound of one's tread. Oleg walked in front: his shapely buttocks encased in tight indigo cotton moved alertly, and his own erect radiance, rather than his flambeau, seemed to illume with leaps of light the low ceiling and crowding wails. Behind him the young Prince's electric torch played on the ground and gave a coating of flour to the back of Oleg's bare thighs. The air was musty and cold. On and on went the fantastic burrow. It developed a slight ascending grade. The pedometer had tocked off 1,888 yards, when at last they reached the end. The magic key of the lumber room closet slipped with gratifying ease into the keyhole of a green door confronting them, and would have accomplished the act promised by its smooth entrance, had not a burst of strange sounds coming from behind the door caused our explorers to pause. Two terrible voices, a man's and a woman's, now rising to a passionate pitch, now sinking to raucous undertones, were exchanging insults in Gutnish as spoken by the fisherfolk of Western Zembla. An abominable threat made the woman shriek out in fright. Sudden silence ensued, presently broken by the man's murmuring some brief phrase of casual approval ("Perfect, my dear," or "Couldn't be better") that was more eerie than anything that had come before. (note to Line 130)


Like Gordon Krummholz (Joe Lavender’s nephew whose name seems to hint at Byron), Ivan Durmanov (Aqua’s and Marina’s brother who died young and famous) was a musical prodigy. In his Index Kinbote calls Gordon “an amusing pet.” Pet is Ada’s and Van’s name of Lucette:


What we have now is not so much a Casanovanic situation (that double-wencher had a definitely monochromatic pencil — in keeping with the memoirs of his dingy era) as a much earlier canvas, of the Venetian (sensu largo) school, reproduced (in ‘Forbidden Masterpieces’) expertly enough to stand the scrutiny of a bordel’s vue d’oiseau.

Thus seen from above, as if reflected in the ciel mirror that Eric had naively thought up in his Cyprian dreams (actually all is shadowy up there, for the blinds are still drawn, shutting out the gray morning), we have the large island of the bed illumined from our left (Lucette’s right) by a lamp burning with a murmuring incandescence on the west-side bedtable. The top sheet and quilt are tumbled at the footboardless south of the island where the newly landed eye starts on its northern trip, up the younger Miss Veen’s pried-open legs. A dewdrop on russet moss eventually finds a stylistic response in the aquamarine tear on her flaming cheekbone. Another trip from the port to the interior reveals the central girl’s long white left thigh; we visit souvenir stalls: Ada’s red-lacquered talons, which lead a man’s reasonably recalcitrant, pardonably yielding wrist out of the dim east to the bright russet west, and the sparkle of her diamond necklace, which, for the nonce, is not much more valuable than the aquamarines on the other (west) side of Novelty Novel lane. The scarred male nude on the island’s east coast is half-shaded, and, on the whole, less interesting, though considerably more aroused than is good for him or a certain type of tourist. The recently repapered wall immediately west of the now louder-murmuring (et pour cause) dorocene lamp is ornamented in the central girl’s honor with Peruvian’ honeysuckle’ being visited (not only for its nectar, I’m afraid, but for the animalcules stuck in it) by marvelous Loddigesia Hummingbirds, while the bedtable on that side bears a lowly box of matches, a karavanchik of cigarettes, a Monaco ashtray, a copy of Voltemand’s poor thriller, and a Lurid Oncidium Orchid in an amethystine vaselet. The companion piece on Van’s side supports a similar superstrong but unlit lamp, a dorophone, a box of Wipex, a reading loupe, the returned Ardis album, and a separatum ‘Soft music as cause of brain tumors,’ by Dr Anbury (young Rattner’s waggish pen-name). Sounds have colors, colors have smells. The fire of Lucette’s amber runs through the night of Ada’s odor and ardor, and stops at the threshold of Van’s lavender goat. Ten eager, evil, loving, long fingers belonging to two different young demons caress their helpless bed pet. Ada’s loose black hair accidentally tickles the local curio she holds in her left fist, magnanimously demonstrating her acquisition. Unsigned and unframed. (2.8)


In the Tobakoff cinema hall Van and Lucette watch Don Juan's Last Fling, a film in which Ada played the gitanilla. On Demonia (aka Antiterra, Earth's twin planet on which Ada is set) VN's Lolita is known as The Gitanilla, a novel by the Spanish writer Osberg (1.13 et passim).


Describing Lucette's suicide, Van quotes Herb's diary:


Six, seven — no, more than that, about ten steps up. Dix marches. Legs and arms. Dimanche. Déjeuner sur l’herbe. Tout le monde pue. Ma belle-mère avale son râtelier. Sa petite chienne, after too much exercise, gulps twice and quietly vomits, a pink pudding onto the picnic nappe. Après quoi she waddles off. These steps are something. (3.5)


Darkbloom ('Notes to Ada'): Dimanche etc.: Sunday. Lunch on the grass. Everybody stinks. My mother-in-law swallows her dentures. Her little bitch, etc. After which, etc. (see p.375, a painter’s diary Lucette has been reading).


Lucette drowns herself in the Atlantic. In his poem Net, ya ne Bayron, ya drugoy… (“No, I’m not Byron, I’m another…” 1832) Lermontov says that in his soul, as in the ocean, nadezhd razbitykh gruz (a load of broken hopes) lies:


Нет, я не Байрон, я другой,
Ещё неведомый избранник,
Как он, гонимый миром странник,
Но только с русскою душой.
Я раньше начал, кончу ране,
Мой ум немного совершит;
В душе моей, как в океане,
Надежд разбитых груз лежит.
Кто может, океан угрюмый,
Твои изведать тайны? Кто
Толпе мои расскажет думы?
Я — или Бог — или никто!


No, I'm not Byron, I’m another
yet unknown chosen man,
like him, a persecuted wanderer,
but only with a Russian soul.
I started sooner, I will end sooner,
my mind won’t achieve much;
in my soul, as in the ocean,
lies a load of broken hopes.
Gloomy ocean, who can
find out your secrets? Who
will tell to the crowd my thoughts?
Myself – or God – or none at all!


The "real" name of Hazel Shade (the poet's daughter who drowned in Lake Omega) seems to be Nadezhda 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. There is a hope that, when Kinbote completes his work on Shade’s poem and commits suicide (on Oct. 19, 1959, the anniversary of Pushkin’s Lyceum), Botkin, like Count Vorontsov (a target of Pushkin’s epigrams, “half-milord, half-merchant, etc.”) will be full again.