Muse, Odon & million photographers in Pale Fire

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Wed, 08/25/2021 - 20:01

A few moments before Shade (the poet in VN’s novel Pale Fire, 1962) is killed by Gradus, Kinbote (Shade’s mad commentator who imagines that he is Charles the Beloved, the last self-exiled king of Zembla) asks him, if the muse has been kind to him:


"Well," I said, "has the muse been kind to you?"
"Very kind," he replied, slightly bowing his hand-propped head: "Exceptionally kind and gentle. In fact, I have here [indicating a huge pregnant envelope near him on the oilcloth] practically the entire product. A few trifles to settle and [suddenly striking the table with his fist] I've swung it, by God."
The envelope, unfastened at one end, bulged with stacked cards.
"Where is the missus?" I asked (mouth dry).
"Help me, Charlie, to get out of here," he pleaded. "Foot gone to sleep. Sybil is at a dinner meeting of her club."
"A suggestion," I said, quivering. "I have at my place half a gallon of Tokay. I'm ready to share my favorite wine with my favorite poet. We shall have for dinner a knackle of walnuts, a couple of large tomatoes, and a bunch of bananas. And if you agree to show me your 'finished product,' there will be another treat: I promise to divulge to you why I gave you, or rather who gave you, your theme."
"What theme?" said Shade absently, as he leaned on my arm and gradually recovered the use of his numb limb.
"Our blue inenubilable Zembla, and the red-caped Steinmann, and the motorboat in the sea cave, and--"
"Ah," said Shade, "I think I guessed your secret quite some time ago. But all the same I shall sample your wine with pleasure. Okay, I can manage by myself now." (note to Line 991)


In his poem Lyublyu ya vas, bogini pen’ya (“I love you, the goddesses of singing,” 1842) Baratynski says that the sweet thrill of inspiration is a forerunner of life’s woes and that the love of Muses and the enmity of Fortune are odno (one):


Люблю я вас, богини пенья!
Но ваш чарующий наход,
Сей сладкий трепет вдохновенья, —
Предтечей жизненных невзгод.

Любовь Камен с враждой Фортуны —
Одно. Молчу. Боюся я,
Чтоб персты, падшие на струны,
Не пробудили вновь перуны,
В которых спит судьба моя.

И отрываюсь, полный муки,
От музы ласковой ко мне,
И говорю: до завтра, звуки,
Пусть день угаснет в тишине.


I love you, goddesses of singing

But your invasion, so fine,
That tremor of the spirit thrilling,
Is a herald of the future pines.

The Muses' love and Fortune's striking
Are one. I'm silent. I'm afraid:
My fingers, casting on the light strings,
Might here awake these storms and lightnings
In which my sleeping fate was laid.

And, with strong torments ever wound,
I leave the Muse, who favours me,
And say: 'Till tomorrow, sounds,
Let the day expire quietly.'


Sey sladkiy trepet vdokhnoven'ya (this sweet thrill of inspiration) brings to mind gradus vdokhnoven'ya (the degree of inspiration), a phrase used by Dostoevski in a letter of Oct. 31, 1838 (Dostoevski's seventeenth birthday), to his brother:


Друг мой! Ты философствуешь как поэт. И как не ровно выдерживает душа градус вдохновенья, так не ровна, не верна и твоя философия. Чтоб больше знать, надо меньше чувствовать, и обратно, правило опрометчивое, бред сердца.


My friend, you philosophize like a poet. And just because the soul cannot be forever in a state of exaltation [gradus vdokhnoven'ya], your philosophy is not true and not just. To know more one must feel less, and vice versa. Your judgment is featherheaded – it is a delirium of the heart.


Odno = Odon = Nodo (Odon is the pseudonym of Donald O’Donnell, a world-famous actor and Zemblan patriot who helps the king to escape from Zembla; Nodo is Odon’s epileptic half-brother, a cardsharp and despicable traitor). At the end of his Commentary Kinbote says that he may join forces with Odon in a new motion picture: Escape from Zembla:


"And you, what will you be doing with yourself, poor King, poor Kinbote?" a gentle young voice may inquire.

God will help me, I trust, to rid myself of any desire to follow the example of two other characters in this work. I shall continue to exist. I may assume other disguises, other forms, but I shall try to exist. I may turn up yet, on another campus, as an old, happy, healthy, heterosexual Russian, a writer in exile, sans fame, sans future, sans audience, sans anything but his art. I may join forces with Odon in a new motion picture: Escape from Zembla (ball in the palace, bomb in the palace square). I may pander to the simple tastes of theatrical critics and cook up a stage play, an old-fashioned Melodrama with three principals: a lunatic who intends to kill an imaginary king, another lunatic who imagines himself to be that king, and a distinguished old poet who stumbles by chance into the line of fire, and perishes in the clash between the two figments. Oh, I may do many things! History permitting, I may sail back to my recovered kingdom, and with a great sob greet the gray coastline and the gleam of a roof in the rain. I may huddle and groan in a madhouse. But whatever happens, wherever the scene is laid, somebody, somewhere, will quietly set out - somebody has already set out, somebody still rather far away is buying a ticket, is boarding a bus, a ship, a plane, has landed, is walking toward a million photographers, and presently he will ring at my door - a bigger, more respectable, more competent Gradus. (note to Line 1000)


A million photographers brings to mind dvunogikh tvarey milliony (the millions of two-legged creatures) mentioned by Pushkin in Canto Two (XIV: 6-7) of Eugene Onegin:


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;

but no rules are without exceptions:

some people he distinguished greatly

and, though estranged from it, respected feeling.


According to Pushkin, the millions of two-legged creatures for us are orudie odno (only tools). In his essay on Pushkin, Pouchkine ou le vrai et le vraisemblable (1937), VN points out that, had Pushkin lived a couple of years longer, we would have had his photograph. Baratynski (who died in 1844, in Naples) outlived Pushkin only by seven years.


Odon and Nodo are the sons of Leopold O'Donnell. Leopold Bloom is the main character of Joyce's Ulysses (1922). On the other hand, in his EO Commentary (vol. II, p. 482) VN mentions a certain Andrey Leopoldov, Moscow University student who gave the spurious title The Fourteenth of December to the MS copies of censored lines of Pushkin's elegy André Chénier (1825).


Nodo is a despicable traitor. Pushkin's poem Imitation of the Italian (1836), a rendering in the Alexandrines of a sonnet about Judas (Sopra Giuda) by the Italian poet Francesco Gianni (1760-1822), begins with the line Kak s dreva sorvalsya predatel' uchenik: ("When the traitor disciple fell from the tree"):


Как с древа сорвался предатель ученик,
Диявол прилетел, к лицу его приник,
Дхнул жизнь в него, взвился с своей добычей смрадной
И бросил труп живой в гортань геенны гладной...
Там бесы, радуясь и плеща, на рога
Прияли с хохотом всемирного врага
И шумно понесли к проклятому владыке,
И сатана, привстав, с веселием на лике
Лобзанием своим насквозь прожег уста,
В предательскую ночь лобзавшие Христа.


According to Kinbote, in Zemblan 'tree' is grados:


Line 49: shagbark


A hickory. Our poet shared with the English masters the noble knack of transplanting trees into verse with their sap and shade. Many years ago Disa, our King's Queen, whose favorite trees were the jacaranda and the maidenhair, copied out in her album a quatrain from John Shade's collection of short poems Hebe's Cup, which I cannot refrain from quoting here (from a letter I received on April 6, 1959, from southern France):



The ginkgo leaf, in golden hue, when shed,

A muscat grape,

Is an old-fashioned butterfly, ill-spread,

In shape.


When the new Episcopal church in New Wye (see note to line 549) was built, the bulldozers spared an arc of those sacred trees planted by a landscaper of genius (Repburg) at the end of the so-called Shakespeare Avenue, on the campus. I do not know if it is relevant or not but there is a cat-and-mouse game in the second line, and "tree" in Zemblan is grados.


Goethe’s poem Ginkgo Biloba (from The West-Eastern Divan) ends in the lines:


Fühlst du nicht an meinen Liedern,
Daß ich eins und doppelt bin?  


Don’t you feel in my songs
That I am One and Two?


Baratynski is the author of Na smert' Gyote ("On the Death of Goethe," 1832) and Na posev lesa ("On the Plantation of a Forest," 1842). The opening lines of Goethe's Erlkönig (1782), Wer reitet so spät durch Nacht und Wind? / Es ist der Vater mit seinem Kind, are a leitmotif in Shade's poem. In his novel Peterburg (1913) Andrey Bely quotes Goethe’s Erlkönig in the original and in Zhukovski’s Russian translation (Lesnoy tsar', 1818):


У старушки, у Ноккерт – у гувернантки – на дрожащих коленях, он видит, покоится его голова; старушка читает под лампой:

     Wer reitet so spät durch Nacht und Wind?
     Es ist der Vater mit seinem Kind…

Вдруг, – за окнами кинулись буревые порывы; и бунтует там мгла, и бунтует там шум: совершается там, наверно, за младенцем погоня: на стене подрагивает гувернанткина тень.
И опять… - Аполлон Аполлонович – маленький, седенький, старенький – Коленьку обучает французскому контредансу; выступает он плавно и, отсчитывая шажки, выбивает ладонями такт: прогуливается – направо, налево; прогуливается – и вперед и назад; вместо музыки он отрезывает – скороговоркою, громко:

     Кто скачет, кто мчится под хладною мглой:
     Ездок запоздалый, с ним сын молодой…

И потом поднимает на Коленьку безволосые брови:
– «Какова же, гм-гм, мой голубчик, первая фигура кадрили?»
Все остальное было хладною мглой, потому что погоня настигла: сына вырвали у отца:

     В руках его мертвый младенец лежал…

Вся протекшая жизнь оказалась игрою тумана после этого мига. Кусок детства закрылся. (Chapter Seven)


Gradus is a member of the Shadows (a regicidal organization). Andrey Bely is the author of Odna iz obiteley tsarstva teney (“In the Kingdom of Shadows,” 1925), a book about Bely’s life in Germany in 1921-23. In Bely’s Peterburg Shishnarfne tells Dudkin (the terrorist) that biologiya teney (the biology of shadows) is not yet studied; that’s why one cannot come to an agreement with a shadow, one never knows what it wants:


Александр Иванович подумал, что поведение посетителя не должное вовсе, потому что звук голоса посетителя неприличнейшим образом отделился от посетителя; да и сам посетитель, неподвижно застывший на подоконнике – или глаза изменяли? – явно стал слоем копоти на луной освещенном стекле, между тем как голос его, становясь все звончее и принимая оттенок граммофонного выкрика, раздавался прямо над ухом.
– «Тень – даже не папуас; биология теней еще не изучена; потому-то вот – никогда не столковаться с тенью: ее требований не поймешь; в Петербурге она входит в вас бациллами всевозможных болезней, проглатываемых с самою водопроводной водой…» (Chapter Six)


Mad Dudkin’s fancy transforms Shishnarfne (a Persian whose visit is imagined by Dudkin) into Enfranshish (Shishnarfne in reverse and a play on shish, ‘nothing’). In Canto Two of his poem Shade speaks of his daughter and says that she twisted words:


She had strange fears, strange fantasies, strange force
Of character - as when she spent three nights
Investigating certain sounds and lights
In an old barn. She twisted words: pot, top,
Spider, redips. And "powder" was "red wop."
She called you a didactic katydid.
She hardly ever smiled, and when she did,
It was a sign of pain. She'd criticize
Ferociously our projects, and with eyes
Expressionless sit on her tumbled bed
Spreading her swollen feet, scratching her head
With psoriatic fingernails, and moan,
Murmuring dreadful words in monotone. (ll. 347-356)


According to Kinbote, it was he who observed one day that “spider” in reverse is “redips” and “T.S. Eliot,” “toilest:”


One of the examples her father gives is odd. I am quite sure it was I who one day, when we were discussing "mirror words," observed (and I recall the poet's expression of stupefaction) that "spider" in reverse is "redips," and "T.S. Eliot," "toilest." But then it is also true that Hazel Shade resembled me in certain respects. (note to Lines 347-348)


Mirror words and the Shadows bring to mind Zerkalo teney (“The Mirror of Shadows,” 1912), a collection of poetry by Valeriy Bryusov. In his biographical essay on Baratynski (1911) Bryusov points out that critics accused Baratynski of envy and suggested that Baratynski was a model of Salieri in Pushkin's little tragedy "Mozart and Salieri" (1830):


Позднейшая критика прямо обвиняла Баратынского в зависти к Пушкину и высказывала предположение, что Сальери Пушкина списан с Баратынского.


In Pushkin's little tragedy Mozart uses the 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 about the needs of lowly life;

All would surrender to free art. (Scene II)


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