Odon & Sylvia O'Donnell in Pale Fire

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Sat, 09/11/2021 - 08:20

The characters in VN’s novel Pale Fire (1962) include Odon (a world-famous actor and Zemblan patriot who helps the king to escape from Zembla) and his mother Sylvia O’Donnell (a wealthy socialite with several ex-husbands who helps the king immigrate to America and gets him a job at Wordsmith University):


John Shade's heart attack (Oct .17, 1958) practically coincided with the disguised king's arrival in America where he descended by parachute from a chartered plane piloted by Colonel Montacute, in a field of hay-feverish, rank-flowering weeds, near Baltimore whose oriole is not an oriole. It had all been perfectly timed, and he was still wrestling with the unfamiliar French contraption when the Rolls-Royce from Sylvia O'Donnell's manor turned toward his green silks from a road and approached along the mowntrop, its fat wheels bouncing disapprovingly and its black shining body slowly gliding along. Fain would I elucidate this business of parachuting but (it being a matter of mere sentimental tradition rather than a useful manner of transportation) this is not strictly necessary in these notes to Pale Fire. While Kingsley, the British chauffeur, an old and absolutely faithful retainer, was doing his best to cram the bulky and ill-folded parachute into the boot, I relaxed on a shooting stick he had supplied me with, sipping a delightful Scotch and water from the car bar and glancing (amid an ovation of crickets and that vortex of yellow and maroon butterflies that so pleased Chateaubriand on his arrival in America) at an article in The New York Times in which Sylvia had vigorously and messily marked out in red pencil a communication from New Wye which told of the poet's hospitalization. I had been looking forward to meeting my favorite American poet who, as I felt sure at the moment, would die long before the Spring Term, but the disappointment was little more than a mental shrug of accepted regret, and discarding the newspaper, I looked around me with enchantment and physical wellbeing despite the congestion in my nose. Beyond the field the great green steps of turf ascended to the multicolored coppices; one could see above them the white brow of the manor; clouds melted into the blue. Suddenly I sneezed, and sneezed again. Kingsley offered me another drink but I declined it, and democratically joined him in the front seat. My hostess was in bed, suffering from the aftereffects of a special injection that she had been given in anticipation of a journey to a special place in Africa. In answer to my "Well, how are you?" she murmured that the Andes had been simply marvelous, and then in a slightly less indolent tone of voice inquired about a notorious actress with whom her son was said to be living in sin. Odon, I said, had promised me he would not marry her. She inquired if I had had a good hop and dingled a bronze bell. Good old Sylvia! She had in common with Fleur de Fyler a vagueness of manner, a languor of demeanor which was partly natural and partly cultivated as a convenient alibi for when she was drunk, and in some wonderful way she managed to combine that indolence with volubility reminding one of a slow-speaking ventriloquist who is interrupted by his garrulous doll. Changeless Sylvia! During three decades I had seen from time to time, from palace to palace, that same flat nut-colored bobbed hair, those childish pale-blue eyes, the vacant smile, the stylish long legs, the willowy hesitating movements. (note to Line 691)


In his Index Kinbote (Shade’s mad commentator who imagines that he is Charles the Beloved, the last self-exiled king of Zembla) writes:


Odon, pseudonym of Donald O'Donnell, b .1915, world-famous actor and Zemblan patriot; learns from K. about secret passage but has to leave for theater, 130; drives K. from theater to foot of Mt. Mandevil, 149; meets K. near sea cave and escapes with him in motorboat, ibid.; directs cinema picture in Paris, 171; stays with Lavender in Lex, 408; ought not to marry that blubber-lipped cinemactress, with untidy hair, 691; see also O'Donnell, Sylvia.

O'Donnell, Sylvia, nee O'Connell, born 1895? 1890?, the much-traveled, much-married mother of Odon (q. v.), 149, 691; after marrying and divorcing college president Leopold O'Donnell in 1915, father of Odon, she married Peter Gusev, first Duke of Rahl, and graced Zembla till about 1925 when she married an Oriental prince met in Chamonix; after a number of other more or less glamorous marriages, she was in the act of divorcing Lionel Lavender, cousin of Joseph, when last seen in this Index.


Odon = Nodo (Odon’s half-brother, a cardsharp and despicable traitor) = odno (neut. of odin, Russ., “one”). Lyublyu odno (“I love one thing,” 1900) is a poem by Bryusov:


Люблю одно: бродить без цели
По шумным улицам, один;
Люблю часы святых безделий,
Часы раздумий и картин.

Я с изумленьем, вечно новым,
Весной встречаю синеву,
И в вечер пьян огнем багровым,
И ночью сумраком живу.

Смотрю в лицо идущих мимо,
В их тайны властно увлечен,
То полон грустью нелюдимой,
То богомолен, то влюблен.

Под вольный грохот экипажей
Мечтать и думать я привык,
В теснине стен я весь на страже:
Да уловлю господень лик!


The one thing that Bryusov loves is roaming aimlessly along noisy streets alone. The last two words of Bryusov's poem, gospoden' lik (God's face), remind one of Lik (1938), a story by VN. Bryusov’s poem Na plyazhe (“On the Beach,” 1910) brings to mind Sylvia Beach (1887-1962), a bookseller and publisher who was born in Baltimore and who published Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) in Paris. After his escape from Zembla Odon lives in Paris:


For almost a whole year after the King's escape the Extremists remained convinced that he and Odon had not left Zembla. The mistake can be only ascribed to the streak of stupidity that fatally runs through the most competent tyranny. Airborne machines and everything connected with them cast a veritable spell over the minds of our new rulers whom kind history had suddenly given a boxful of these zipping and zooming gadgets to play with. That an important fugitive would not perform by air the act of fleeing seemed to them inconceivable. Within minutes after the King and the actor had clattered down the backstairs of the Royal Theater, every wing in the sky and on the ground had been accounted for - such was the efficiency of the government. During the next weeks not one private or commercial plane was allowed to take off, and the inspection of transients became so rigorous and lengthy that international lines decided to cancel stopovers at Onhava. There were some casualties. A crimson balloon was enthusiastically shot down and the aeronaut (a well-known meteorologist) drowned in the Gulf of Surprise. A pilot from a Lapland base flying on a mission of mercy got lost in the fog and was so badly harassed by Zemblan fighters that he settled atop a mountain peak. Some excuse for all this could be found. The illusion of the King's presence in the wilds of Zembla was kept up by royalist plotters who decoyed entire regiments into searching the mountains and woods of our rugged peninsula. The government spent a ludicrous amount of energy on solemnly screening the hundreds of impostors packed in the country's jails. Most of them clowned their way back to freedom; a few, alas, fell. Then, in the spring of the following year, a stunning piece of news came from abroad. The Zemblan actor Odon was directing the making of a cinema picture in Paris!

It was now correctly conjectured that if Odon had fled, the King had fled too: At an extraordinary session of the Extremist government there was passed from hand to hand, in grim silence, a copy of a French newspaper with the headline: L'EN-ROI DE ZEMBLA EST-IL À PARIS? Vindictive exasperation rather than state strategy moved the secret organization of which Gradus was an obscure member to plot the destruction of the royal fugitive. Spiteful thugs! They may be compared to hoodlums who itch to torture the invulnerable gentleman whose testimony clapped them in prison for life. Such convicts have been known to go berserk at the thought that their elusive victim whose very testicles they crave to twist and tear with their talons, is sitting at a pergola feast on a sunny island or fondling some pretty young creature between his knees in serene security - and laughing at them! One supposes that no hell can be worse than the helpless rage they experience as the awareness of that implacable sweet mirth reaches them and suffuses them, slowly destroying their brutish brains. A group of especially devout Extremists calling themselves the Shadows had got together and swore to hunt down the King and kill him wherever he might be. They were, in a sense, the shadow twins of the Karlists and indeed several had cousins or even brothers among the followers of the King. No doubt, the origin of either group could be traced to various reckless rituals in student fraternities and military clubs, and their development examined in terms of fads and anti-fads; but, whereas an objective historian associates a romantic and noble glamor with Karlism, its shadow group must strike one as something definitely Gothic and nasty. The grotesque figure of Gradus, a cross between bat and crab, was not much odder than many other Shadows, such as, for example, Nodo, Odon's epileptic half-brother who cheated at cards, or a mad Mandevil who had lost a leg in trying to make anti-matter. Gradus had long been a member of all sorts of jejune leftist organizations. He had never killed, though coming rather close to it several times in his gray life. He insisted later that when he found himself designated to track down and murder the King, the choice was decided by a show of cards - but let us not forget that it was Nodo who shuffled and dealt them out. Perhaps our man's foreign origin secretly prompted a nomination that would not cause any son of Zembla to incur the dishonor of actual regicide. We can well imagine the scene: the ghastly neon lights of the laboratory, in an annex of the Glass Works, where the Shadows happened to hold their meeting that night; the ace of spades lying on the tiled floor, the vodka gulped down out of test tubes; the many hands clapping Gradus on his round back, and the dark exultation of the man as he received those rather treacherous congratulations. We place this fatidic moment at 0:05, July 2, 1959 - which happens to be also the date upon which an innocent poet penned the first lines of his last poem. (note to Line 171)


According to Kinbote, his name means in Zemblan “a king’s destroyer:”


"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. (note to Line 894)


Bryusov is the author of Kinzhal (“The Dagger,” 1903), a quasi-rebellious poem. A regicidal organization, the Shadows bring to mind Bryusov’s collection Zerkalo teney (“The Mirror of Shadows,” 1912). Describing the days after Queen Blenda’s death, Kinbote mentions Sudarg of Bokay (Jakob Gradus in reverse), a mirror maker of genius:


The forty days between Queen Blenda's death and his coronation was perhaps the most trying stretch of time in his life. He had had no love for his mother, and the hopeless and helpless remorse he now felt degenerated into a sickly physical fear of her phantom. The Countess, who seemed to be near him, to be rustling at his side, all the time, had him attend table-turning seances with an experienced American medium, seances at which the Queen's spirit, operating the same kind of planchette she had used in her lifetime to chat with Thormodus Torfaeus and A. R. Wallace, now briskly wrote in English: "Charles take take cherish love flower flower flower." An old psychiatrist so thoroughly bribed by the Countess as to look, even on the outside, like a putrid pear, assured him that his vices had subconsciously killed his mother and would continue "to kill her in him" if he did not renounce sodomy. A palace intrigue is a special spider that entangles you more nastily at every desperate jerk you try. Our Prince was young, inexperienced, and half-frenzied with insomnia. He hardly struggled at all. The Countess spent a fortune on buying his kamergrum (groom of the chamber), his bodyguard, and even the greater part of the Court Chamberlain. She took to sleeping in a small antechamber next to his bachelor bedroom, a splendid spacious circular apartment at the top of the high and massive South West Tower. This had been his father's retreat and was still connected by a jolly chute in the wall with a round swimming pool in the hall below, so that the young Prince could start the day as his father used to start it by slipping open a panel beside his army cot and rolling into the shaft whence he whizzed down straight into bright water. For other needs than sleep Charles Xavier had installed in the middle of the Persian rug-covered floor a so-called patifolia, that is, a huge, oval, luxuriously flounced, swansdown pillow the size of a triple bed. It was in this ample nest that Fleur now slept, curled up in its central hollow, under a coverlet of genuine giant panda fur that had just been rushed from Tibet by a group of Asiatic well-wishers on the occasion of his ascension to the throne. The antechamber, where the Countess was ensconced, had its own inner staircase and bathroom, but also communicated by means of a sliding door with the West Gallery. I do not know what advice or command her mother had given Fleur; but the little thing proved a poor seducer. She kept trying, as one quietly insane, to mend a broken viola d'amore or sat in dolorous attitudes comparing two ancient flutes, both sad-tuned and feeble. Meantime, in Turkish garb, he lolled in his father's ample chair, his legs over its arm, flipping through a volume of Historia Zemblica, copying out passages and occasionally fishing out of the nether recesses of his seat a pair of old-fashioned motoring goggles, a black opal ring, a ball of silver chocolate wrapping, or the star of a foreign order.

It was warm in the evening sun. She wore on the second day of their ridiculous cohabitation nothing except a kind of buttonless and sleeveless pajama top. The sight of her four bare limbs and three mousepits (Zemblan anatomy) irritated him, and while pacing about and pondering his coronation speech, he would toss towards her, without looking, her shorts or a terrycloth robe. Sometimes, upon returning to the comfortable old chair he would find her in it contemplating sorrowfully the picture of a bogtur (ancient warrior) in the history book. He would sweep her out of his chair, his eyes still on his writing pad, and stretching herself she would move over to the window seat and its dusty sunbeam; but after a while she tried to cuddle up to him, and he had to push away her burrowing dark curly head with one hand while writing with the other or detach one by one her little pink claws from his sleeve or sash.

Her presence at night did not kill insomnia, but at least kept at bay the strong ghost of Queen Blenda. Between exhaustion and drowsiness, he trifled with paltry fancies, such as getting up and pouring out a little cold water from a decanter onto Fleur's naked shoulder so as to extinguish upon it the weak gleam of a moonbeam. Stentoriously the Countess snored in her lair. And beyond the vestibule of his vigil (here he began falling asleep), in the dark cold gallery, lying all over the painted marble and piled three or four deep against the locked door, some dozing, some whimpering, were his new boy pages, a whole mountain of gift boys from Troth, and Tuscany, and Albanoland.

He awoke to find her standing with a comb in her hand before his - or rather, his grandfather's - cheval glass, a triptych of bottomless light, a really fantastic mirror, signed with a diamond by its maker, Sudarg of Bokay. She turned about before it: a secret device of reflection gathered an infinite number of nudes in its depths, garlands of girls in graceful and sorrowful groups, diminishing in the limpid distance, or breaking into individual nymphs, some of whom, she murmured, must resemble her ancestors when they were young – little peasant garlien combing their hair in shallow water as far as the eye could reach, and then the wistful mermaid from an old tale, and then nothing.

On the third night a great stomping and ringing of arms came from the inner stairs, and there burst in the Prime Councilor, three Representatives of the People, and the chief of a new bodyguard. Amusingly, it was the Representatives of the People whom the idea of having for queen the granddaughter of a fiddler infuriated the most. That was the end of Charles Xavier's chaste romance with Fleur, who was pretty yet not repellent (as some cats are less repugnant than others to the good-natured dog told to endure the bitter effluvium of an alien genus). With their white suitcases and obsolete musical instruments the two ladies wandered back to the annex of the Palace. There followed a sweet twang of relief - and then the door of the anteroom slid open with a merry crash and the whole heap of putti tumbled in. (note to Line 80)


Fleur de Fyler reminds one of traurnyi flyor (funerary veil) mentioned by Bryusov in his poem U groba dnya (“At the Coffin of the Day,” 1907):


День обессилел, и запад багряный
Гордо смежил огневые глаза.
Белы, как дым из кадильниц, туманы.
Строги, как свод храмовой, небеса.

Звезды мерцают, и кротки и пышны,
Как пред иконами венчики свеч.
Ветер прерывистый, ветер чуть слышный
Горестно шепчет прощальную речь.

Скорбные тени, окутаны черным,
Вышли, влекут свой задумчивый хор,
Головы клонят в молчаньи покорном,
Стелят над травами траурный флёр.

С тенями вместе склоняюсь у гроба
Шумно прошедшего яркого дня.
Смолкните в сердце, восторги и злоба!
Тайна и мир, осените меня!


In his Epistle to Bryusov (1912) Alexander Blok mentions pole traurnogo zerkala (the surface of a funerary mirror):


(При получении "Зеркала теней")

И вновь, и вновь твой дух таинственный
В глухой ночи́, в ночи пустой
Велит к твоей мечте единственной
Прильнуть и пить напиток твой.

Вновь причастись души неистовой,
И яд, и боль, и сладость пей,
И тихо книгу перелистывай,
Впиваясь в зеркало теней…

Пусть, несказа́нной мукой мучая,
Здесь бьётся страсть, змеится грусть,
Восторженная буря случая
Сулит конец, убийство — пусть!

Что жизнь пытала, жгла, коверкала,
Здесь стало лёгкою мечтой,
И поле траурного зеркала
Прозрачной стынет красотой…

А красотой без слов повелено:
«Гори, гори. Живи, живи.
Пускай крыло души прострелено —
Кровь обагрит алтарь любви».


The poem's last words, altar' lyubvi (the altar of love), bring to mind Bryusov's novel Altar' pobedy ("The Altar of Victory," 1912). The action in it takes place in Rome in the fourth century. In Bryusov’s story Rhea Silvia: a Tale from the Life of the Sixth Century (1914) Maria (the daughter of a copyist of manuscripts) imagines that she is the new Rhea Silvia (mother of the twins Romulus and Remus) and that her lover, a goth, is Mars (the ancient Roman god of war). Addressing Teodat, Maria calls him Mars Gradivus ("Mars the Strider"):


Мария выслушала речь Теодата с недоверием и неудовольствием. Подумав, она сказала:

- Зачем ты меня обманываешь? Зачем ты хочешь принять облик гота? Разве я не вижу нимба вокруг твоей головы? Марс Градив, для других ты - бог, для меня - мой возлюбленный. Не насмехайся над своей бедной невестой, Реей Сильвией! (Chapter Four)


According to Kinbote, during the reign of Charles the Beloved Mars never marred the record:


That King's reign (1936-1958) will be remembered by at least a few discerning historians as a peaceful and elegant one. Owing to a fluid system of judicious alliances, Mars in his time never marred the record. Internally, until corruption, betrayal, and Extremism penetrated it, the People's Place (parliament) worked in perfect harmony with the Royal Council. Harmony, indeed, was the reign's password. The polite arts and pure sciences flourished. Technicology, applied physics, industrial chemistry and so forth were suffered to thrive. A small skyscraper of ultramarine glass was steadily rising in Onhava. The climate seemed to be improving. Taxation had become a thing of beauty. The poor were getting a little richer, and the rich a little poorer (in accordance with what may be known some day as Kinbote's Law). Medical care was spreading to the confines of the state: less and less often, on his tour of the country, every autumn, when the rowans hung coral-heavy, and the puddles tinkled with Muscovy glass, the friendly and eloquent monarch would be interrupted by a pertussal "backdraucht" in a crowd of schoolchildren. Parachuting had become a popular sport. Everybody, in a word, was content - even the political mischiefmakers who were contentedly making mischief paid by a contented Sosed (Zembla's gigantic neighbor). But let us not pursue this tiresome subject. (note to Line 12)


Describing his heart attack in Canto Three of his poem, Shade mentions Mars (the planet):


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. 679-82)


Hazel Shade (the poet's daughter) died in March, 1957. In O marte (“On March”), the first part of his humorous Filologicheskie zametki (“Philological Notes,” 1885), Chekhov points out that March was named after Mars (the Roman god of war) and mentions Mars’ visiting card:


Месяц март получил своё название от Марса, который, если верить учебнику Иловайского, был богом войны. Формулярный список этого душки-военного затерян, а посему о личности его почти ничего не известно. Судя по характеру его амурных предприятий и кредиту, которым пользовался он у Бахуса, следует думать, что он, занимая должность бога войны, был причислен к армейской пехоте и имел чин не ниже штабс-капитана. Визитная карточка его была, вероятно, такова: «Штабс-капитан Марс, бог войны».


According to Chekhov, Mars’ visiting card looked probably like this: “Staff captain Mars, god of war.” Gradus (Shade’s murderer) calls the inscription in a privy in the garden of Joe Lavender’s Villa Libitina “a fine visiting card:”


Although the house possessed at least half-a-dozen water closets, Mr. Lavender, in fond memory of his grandfather's Delaware farm, had installed a rustic privy under the tallest poplar of his splendid garden, and for chosen guests, whose sense of humor could stand it, he would unhook from the comfortable neighborhood of the billiard room fireplace a heart-shaped, prettily embroidered bolster to take with them to the throne.

The door was open and across its inner side a boy's hand had scrawled in charcoal: The King was here.

"That's a fine visiting card," remarked Gradus with a forced laugh. "By the way, where is he now, that king?"

"Who knows," said the boy striking his flanks clothed in white tennis shorts, "that was last year. I guess he was heading for the Côte d'Azur, but I am not sure."

Dear Gordon lied, which was nice of him. He knew perfectly well that his big friend was no longer in Europe; but dear Gordon should not have brought up the Riviera matter which happened to be true and the mention of which caused Gradus, who knew that Queen Disa had a palazzo there, to mentally slap his brow. (note to Line 408)


Hazel Shade drowned in Lake Omega. In a poem addressed to Bryusov Sergey Solovyov says that, in the book of Russian verse, Pushkin is alpha and Bryusov omega:


Прах, вспоенный влагой снега,

Режет гения соха. 

Звука Пушкинского нега!

Пушкин – альфа, ты – омега

В книге русского стиха.


On December 7, 1913, Bryusov's mistress Nadezhda Lvov (a young poet) committed suicide (shot herself dead). Hazel Shade's "real" name seems to be Nadezhda Botkin. After her tragic death her father, Professor Vsevolod Botkin (an American scholar of Russian descent), went mad and became the poet Shade, his commentator Kinbote and his murderer Gradus. Nadezhda means “hope.” There is a hope that, when Kinbote completes his work on Shade’s poem and commits suicide (on October 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.


Bryusov's poem Kon' bled ("Pale Horse," 1903) brings to mind Blednyi ogon', the Russian title of Pale Fire.