trilby in Pale Fire

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Sat, 07/03/2021 - 08:58

Describing Gradus’ trip from Wordsmith Library to Judge Goldsworth’s house in New Wye, Kinbote (in VN’s novel Pale Fire, 1962, Shade's mad commentator who imagines that he is Charles the Beloved, the last self-exiled king of Zembla) mentions the trilby that he hopes was forgotten by Gradus in Gerald Emerald’s car:


Gradus returned to the Main Desk.

"Too bad," said the girl, "I just saw him leave."

"Bozhe moy, Bozhe moy," muttered Gradus, who sometimes at moments of stress used Russian ejaculations.

"You'll find him in the directory," she said pushing it towards him, and dismissing the sick man's existence to attend to the wants of Mr. Gerald Emerald who was taking out a fat bestseller in a cellophane jacket.

Moaning and shifting from one foot to the other, Gradus started leafing through the college directory but when he found the address, he was faced with the problem of getting there.

"Dulwich Road," he cried to the girl. "Near? Far? Very far, probably?"

"Are you by any chance Professor Pnin's new assistant?" asked Emerald.

"No," said the girl. "This man is looking for Dr. Kinbote, I think. You are looking for Dr. Kinbote, aren't you?"

"Yes, and I can't any more," said Gradus.

"I thought so," said the girl. "Doesn't he live somewhere near Mr. Shade, Gerry?"

"Oh, definitely," said Gerry, and turned to the killer: "I can drive you there if you like. It is on my way."

Did they talk in the car, these two characters, the man in green and the man in brown? Who can say? They did not. After all, the drive took only a few minutes (it took me, at the wheel of my powerful Kramler, four and a half).

"I think I'll drop you here," said Mr. Emerald. "It's that house up there."

One finds it hard to decide what Gradus alias Grey wanted more at that minute: discharge his gun or rid himself of the inexhaustible lava in his bowels. As he began hurriedly fumbling at the car door, unfastidious Emerald leaned, close to him, across him, almost merging with him, to help him open it - and then, slamming it shut again, whizzed on to some tryst in the valley. My reader will, I hope, appreciate all the minute particulars I have taken such trouble to present to him after a long talk I had with the killer; he will appreciate them even more if I tell him that, according to the legend spread later by the police, Jack Grey had been given a lift, all the way from Roanoke, or somewhere, by a lonesome trucker! One can only hope that an impartial search will turn up the trilby forgotten in the Library - or in Mr. Emerald's car. (note to Line 949)


Trilby (1894) is a novel by the author and Punch cartoonist George du Maurier (1834-96), father of the actor Gerald du Maurier (1873-1934). His granddaughter, Daphne du Maurier (1907-89), is the author of The Birds (1952), a horror story that was the inspiration for Alfred Hitchcock’s film The Birds (1963). In Canto One of his poem Shade says that 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. (ll. 71-78)


In his Commentary Kinbote writes:


With commendable alacrity, Professor Hurley produced an Appreciation of John Shade's published works within a month after the poet's death. It came out in a skimpy literary review, whose name momentarily escapes me, and was shown to me in Chicago where I interrupted for a couple of days my automobile journey from New Wye to Cedarn, in these grim autumnal mountains.

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, née 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, Linner (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 building "a hurley-house." But enough of this. (note to Line 71)


St. Luke the Painter is a sonnet by Dante Gabriel Rossetti included in his sonnet sequence The House of Life:


Give honor unto Luke Evangelist;

For he it was (the aged legends say)

Who first taught Art to fold her hands and pray.

Scarcely at once she dared to rend the mist

Of devious symbols: but soon having wist

How sky-breadth and field-silence and this day

Are symbols also in some deeper way,

She looked through these to God and was God's priest.


And if, past noon, her toil began to irk,

And she sought talismans, and turned in vain

To soulless self-reflections of man's skill,

Yet now, in this the twilight, she might still

Kneel in the latter grass to pray again,

Ere the night cometh and she may not work.


Shade’s dear bizarre Aunt Maud (a poet and a painter with a taste for realistic objects interlaced with grotesque growths and images of doom) brings to mind Rossetti’s drawing “Tennyson Reading Maud.” In Rossetti’s house in London there was a parade of exotic birds and animals. For many years, Rossetti worked on English translations of Italian poetry including Dante Alighieri’s La Vita Nuova (published as The Early Italian Poets in 1861). In the first line of his Sonet (“A Sonnet,” 1830) Pushkin mentions stern Dante:


Scorn not the sonnet, critic.



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.


Scorn not the sonnet, critic.



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. Ober)


At the beginning of his letter of August 17, 1825, to Zhukovski Pushkin quotes Jesus Christ’s last words (Luke 23:46), “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit:”


Отче, в руце твои предаю дух мой. Мне право совестно, что жилы мои так всех вас беспокоят — операция аневризма ничего не значит, и, ей-богу, первый псковской коновал с ними бы мог управиться. Во Псков поеду не прежде как в глубокую осень, оттуда буду тебе писать, светлая душа. — На днях виделся я у Пещурова с каким-то доктором-аматёром: он пуще успокоил меня — только здесь мне кюхельбекерно; согласен, что жизнь моя сбивалась иногда на эпиграмму, но вообще она была элегией в роде Коншина. Кстати об элегиях, трагедия моя идёт, и думаю к зиме её кончить; вследствие чего, читаю только Карамзина да летописи. Что за чудо эти 2 последние тома Карамзина! какая жизнь! c’est palpitant comme la gazette d’hier, писал я Раевскому. Одна просьба, моя прелесть: нельзя ли мне доставить или жизнь Железного колпака, или житие какого-нибудь юродивого. Я напрасно искал Василия Блаженного в Четьих Минеях — а мне бы очень нужно.

Обнимаю тебя от души. Вижу по газетам, что Перовский у вас. Счастливец! он видел и Рим и Везувий.


At the end of his letter Pushkin (who lived in exile in Mikhaylovskoe, the estate of the poet's mother in the province of Pskov) mentions with envy Perovski who just returned from Italy and saw Rome and Mount Vesuvius.


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 describes a carnival in Rome, 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.


Shade’s poem is almost finished when the author is killed by Gradus. 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, like some sonnets, Shade's poem also needs a coda (Line 1001: “By its own double in the windowpane”). In fact, not only Line 1001 of Shade's poem, but Kinbote's entire Foreword, Commentary and Index can be regarded as a coda to Shade's poem. Scorn not the coda, reader.


It seems that Kinbote writes his Commentary, Index and Foreword (in that order) to Shade’s poem in a madhouse. 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)


In Gogol's story Zapiski sumasshedshego ("The Notes of a Madman," 1835) Poprishchin imagines that he is Ferdinand VIII, the king of Spain. Pis'ma ob Ispanii ("The Letters about Spain," 1857) is a book by Vasiliy Botkin. The "real" name of Shade, Kinbote and Gradus 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 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.