Hurricane Lolita in Pale Fire

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Tue, 09/14/2021 - 13:19

In Canto Three of his poem John Shade (the poet in VN’s novel Pale Fire, 1962) mentions Hurricane Lolita that swept from Florida to Maine:


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)


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


Major hurricanes are given feminine names in America. The feminine gender is suggested not so much by the sex of furies and harridans as by a general professional application. Thus any machine is a she to its fond user, and any fire (even a "pale" one!) is she to the fireman, as water is she to the passionate plumber. Why our poet chose to give his 1958 hurricane a little-used Spanish name (sometimes given to parrots) instead of Linda or Lois, is not clear. (note to Line 680)


Lois is a girl's name of Greek origin meaning "most desirable." Lois is actually a New Testament name: she was converted by Paul and was the grandmother of Timothy, who became one of Paul's disciples. Timofey Pavlovich Pnin is the title character of VN’s novel Pnin (1957). At Wordsmith University (where Shade and Kinbote teach) Professor Pnin is the head of the bloated Russian Department:


Speaking of the Head of the bloated Russian Department, Prof. Pnin, a regular martinet in regard to his underlings (happily, Prof. Botkin, who taught in another department, was not subordinated to that grotesque "perfectionist"): "How odd that Russian intellectuals should lack all sense of humor when they have such marvelous humorists as Gogol, Dostoevski, Chekhov, Zoshchenko, and those joint authors of genius Ilf and Petrov." (note to Line 172)


Professor Pnin pays no attention to Gradus (Shade's murderer) when the latter visits the library of Wordsmith University:


Our pursuer made for the nearest stairs - and soon found himself among the bewitched hush of Rare Books. The room was beautiful and had no doors; in fact, some moments passed before he could discover the draped entrance he himself had just used. The awful perplexities of his quest blending with the renewal of impossible pangs in his belly, he dashed back - ran three steps down and nine steps up, and burst into a circular room where a bald-headed suntanned professor in a Hawaiian shirt sat at a round table reading with an ironic expression on his face a Russian book. He paid no attention to Gradus who traversed the room, stepped over a fat little white dog without awakening it, clattered down a helical staircase and found himself in Vault P. Here, a well-lit, pipe-lined, white-washed passage led hint to the sudden paradise of a water closet for plumbers or lost scholars where, cursing, he hurriedly transferred his automatic from its precarious dangle-pouch to his coat and relieved himself of another portion of the liquid hell inside him. He started to climb up again, and noticed in the temple light of the stacks an employee, a slim Hindu boy, with a call card in his hand. I had never spoken to that lad but had felt more than once his blue-brown gaze upon me, and no doubt my academic pseudonym was familiar to him but some sensitive cell in him, some chord of intuition, reacted to the harshness of the killer's interrogation and, as if protecting me from a cloudy danger, he smiled and said: "I do not know him, sir." (note to Line 949)


In VN’s novel Lolita (1955) Linda Hall is Lolita’s schoolmate (the tennis champion whom Humbert suspects to be a nymphet) at Beardsley College:


Her girlfriends, whom I looked forward to meet, proved on the whole disappointing. There was Opal Something, and Linda Hall, and Avis Chapman, and Eva Rosen, and Mona Dahl (save one, all these names are approximations, of course). Opal was a bashful, formless, bespectacled, bepimpled creature who doted on Dolly who bullied her. With Linda Hall the school tennis champion, Dolly played singles at least twice a week: I suspect Linda was a true nymphet, but for some unknown reason she did not come - was perhaps not allowed to come - to our house; so I recall her only as a flash of natural sunshine on an indoor court. Of the rest, none had any claims to nymphetry except Eva Rosen. Avis was a plump lateral child with hairy legs, while Mona, though handsome in a coarse sensual way and only a year older than my aging mistress, had obviously long ceased to be a nymphet, if she ever had been one. Eva Rosen, a displaced little person from France, was on the other hand a good example of a not strikingly beautiful child revealing to the perspicacious amateur some of the basic elements of nymphet charm, such as a perfect pubescent figure and lingering eyes and high cheekbones. Her glossy copper hair had Lolita’s silkiness, and the features of her delicate milky-white face with pink lips and silverfish eyelashes were less foxy than those of her likes - the great clan of intra-racial redheads; nor did she sport their green uniform but wore, as I remember her, a lot of black or cherry dark - a very smart black pullover, for instance, and high-heeled black shoes, and garnet-red fingernail polish. I spoke French to her (much to Lo’s disgust). The child’s tonalities were still admirably pure, but for school words and play words she resorted to current American and then a slight Brooklyn accent would crop up in her speech, which was amusing in a little Parisian who went to a select New England school with phoney British aspirations. Unfortunately, despite “that French kid’s uncle” being “a millionaire,” Lo dropped Eva for some reason before I had had time to enjoy in my modest way her fragrant presence in the Humbert open house. The reader knows what importance I attached to having a bevy of page girls, consolation prize nymphets, around my Lolita. For a while, I endeavored to interest my senses in Mona Dahl who was a good deal around, especially during the spring term when Lo and she got so enthusiastic about dramatics. I have often wondered what secrets outrageously treacherous Dolores Haze had imparted to Mona while blurting out to me by urgent and well-paid request various really incredible details concerning an affair that Mona had had with a marine at the seaside. It was characteristic of Lo that she chose for her closest chum that elegant, cold, lascivious, experienced young female whom I once heard (misheard, Lo swore) cheerfully say in the hallway to Lo - who had remarked that her (Lo’s) sweater was of virgin wool: “The only thing about you that is, kiddo…” She had a curiously husky voice, artificially waved dull dark hair, earrings, amber-brown prominent eyes and luscious lips. Lo said teachers had remonstrated with her on her loading herself with so much costume jewelry. Her hands trembled. She was burdened with a 150 I. Q. And I also knew she had a tremendous chocolate-brown mole on he womanish back which I inspected the night Lo and she had worn low-cut pastel-colored, vaporous dresses for a dance at the Butler Academy.

I am anticipating a little, but I cannot help running my memory all over the keyboard of that school year. In the meeting my attempts to find out what kind of boys Lo knew, Miss Dahl was elegantly evasive. Lo who had gone to play tennis at Linda’s country club had telephoned she might be a full half hour late, and so, would I entertain Mona who was coming to practice with her a scene from The Taming of the Shrew.  Using all the modulations, all the allure of manner and voice she was capable of and staring at me with perhaps - could I be mistaken? - a faint gleam of crystalline irony, beautiful Mona replied: “Well, sir, the fact is Dolly is not much concerned with mere boys. Fact is, we are rivals. She and I have a crush on the Reverend Rigger.” (This was a joke - I have already mentioned that gloomy giant of a man, with the jaw of a horse: he was to bore me to near murder with his impressions of Switzerland at a tea party for parents that I am unable to place correctly in terms of time.)

How had the ball been? Oh, it had been a riot. A what? A panic. Terrific, in a word. Had Lo danced a lot? Oh, not a frightful lot, just as much as she could stand. What did she, languorous Mona, think of Lo? Sir? Did she think Lo was doing well at school? Gosh, she certainly was quite a kid. But her general behavior was? Oh, she was a swell kid. But still? “Oh, she’s a doll,” concluded Mona, and sighed abruptly, and picked up a book that happened to lie at hand, and with a change of expression, falsely furrowing her brow, inquired: “Do tell me about Ball Zack, sir. Is he really that good?” She moved up so close to my chair that I made out through lotions and creams her uninteresting skin scent. A sudden odd thought stabbed me: was my Lo playing the pimp? If so, she had found the wrong substitute. Avoiding Mona’’ cool gaze, I talked literature for a minute. Then Dolly arrived - and slit her pale eyes at us. I left the two friends to their own devices. One of the latticed squares in a small cobwebby casement window at the turn of the staircase was glazed with ruby, and that raw wound among the unstained rectangles and its asymmetrical position - a night’s move from the top - always strangely disturbed me. (2.9)


In the Russian Lolita (1967) to Humbert’s question “How had the ball been?” Mona Dahl replies: “Akh, buystvenno!”:


"А как прошел бал?" "Ах, буйственно!" "Виноват?" "Не бал, а восторг. Словом, потрясающий бал". "Долли много танцевала?" "0, не так уже страшно много - ей скоро надоело.” "А что думает Мона (томная Мона) о самой Долли?" "В каком отношении, сэр?" "Считает ли она, что Долли преуспевает в школе?" "Что ж, девчонка она - ух, какая!" "А как насчет общего поведения?" "Девчонка, как следует". "Да, но все-таки...?" "Прелесть девчонка!" - и сделав это заключение, Мона отрывисто вздохнула, взяла со столика случайно подвернувшуюся книгу и, совершенно изменив выражение лица, притворно нахмурив брови, осведомилась: "Расскажите мне про Бальзака, сэр. Правда ли, что он так замечателен?" Она придвинулась так близко к моему креслу, что я учуял сквозь косметическую муть духов и кремов взрослый, неинтересный запах ее собственной кожи. Неожиданно, странная мысль поразила меня: а что если моя Лолитка занялась сводничеством? Коли так, она выбрала неудачную кандидатку себе в заместительницы. Избегая хладнокровный взгляд Моны, я с минуту поговорил о французской литературе. Наконец явилась Долли - и посмотрела на нас, прищурив дымчатые глаза. Я предоставил подружек самим себе. На повороте лестницы было створчатое, никогда не отворяемое, паутиной заросшее оконце, в переплете которого один квадратик был из рубинового стекла, и эта кровоточащая рана среди других бесцветных клеток, а также ее несимметричное расположение (ход коня, бе восемь - це шесть) всегда меня глухо тревожили.


In Baratynski’s poem Osen’ (“Autumn,” 1836-37) one of the stanzas begins with the line Vot buystvenno nesyotsya uragan (Here a hurricane sweeps uproariously):


Вот буйственно несётся ураган,
И лес подъемлет говор шумный,
И пенится, и ходит океан,
И в берег бьет волной безумной;
Так иногда толпы ленивый ум
Из усыпления выводит
Глас, пошлый глас, вещатель общих дум,
И звучный отзыв в ней находит,
Но не найдёт отзыва тот глагол,
Что страстное земное перешёл. (14)


Baratynski compares the hurricane to poshlyi glas, veshchatel’ obshchikh dum (a vulgar voice, broadcaster of common thoughts) that brings out of sleep the lazy intellect of the crowd. In his essay “E. A. Baratynski” (1911) Bryusov says that Baratynski, when he spoke in Autumn of “an uproariously sweeping hurricane" that finds response in all nature, probably had in mind Pushkin:


Очень любопытны, между прочим, замечания Б. о различных произведениях Пушкина, к которому он, когда писал с полной откровенностью, далеко не всегда относился справедливо. Б., конечно, сознавал величие Пушкина, в письме к нему лично льстиво предлагал ему "возвести русскую поэзию на ту степень между поэзиями всех народов, на которую Петр Великий возвел Россию между державами", но никогда не упускал случая отметить то, что почитал у Пушкина слабым и несовершенным (см., например, отзывы Б. о "Евгении Онегине" и пушкинских сказках в письмах к Киреевскому). Позднейшая критика прямо обвиняла Б. в зависти к Пушкину и высказывала предположение, что Сальери Пушкина списан с Б. Есть основание думать, что в стихотворении "Осень" Б. имел в виду Пушкина, когда говорил о "буйственно несущемся урагане", которому все в природе откликается, сравнивая с ним "глас, пошлый глас, вещатель общих дум", и в противоположность этому "вещателю общих дум" указывал, что "не найдет отзыва тот глагол, что страстное земное перешел". Известие о смерти Пушкина застало Б. в Москве именно в те дни, когда он работал над "Осенью". Б. бросил стихотворение, и оно осталось недовершенным.


In Pushkin's little tragedy Pir vo vremya chumy ("A Feast in Time of Plague," 1830) Walsingham, in his hymn in honor of Plague, mentions Araviyskiy uragan (the Arabian hurricane):


Есть упоение в бою,
И бездны мрачной на краю,
И в разъяренном океане,
Средь грозных волн и бурной тьмы,
И в аравийском урагане,
И в дуновении Чумы.


There is a rapture in the battle,
And on the edge of a dark abyss ,
And in the furious ocean,
Amid terrible waves and stormy darkness,
And in the Arabian hurricane,
And in the breath of Plague.


I uragan ikh (And their hurricane) are the last words in Pushkin’s poem Byla pora: nash prazdnik molodoy (“There was a time: our young celebration,” 1836) written for the twenty-fifth (Pushkin’s last) Lyceum anniversary:


И нет его — и Русь оставил он,
Взнесенну им над миром изумленным,
И на скале изгнанником забвенным,

Всему чужой, угас Наполеон.
И новый царь, суровый и могучий,
На рубеже Европы бодро стал,
[И над землей] сошлися новы тучи,
И ураган их


Kinbote completes his work on Shade’s poem and commits suicide on Oct. 19, 1959 (the anniversary of Pushkin’s Lyceum). There is a hope that, after Kinbote’s death, Botkin (Shade’s, Kinbote’s and Gradus’ “real” name), like Count Vorontsov (a target of Pushkin’s epigrams, “half-milord, half-merchant, etc.”), will be full again. 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).


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) himself. Addressing Teodat, Maria calls him Mars Gradiv (Mars Gradivus, "Mars the Strider," minus the Latin suffix):


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, Gradus contended that the real origin of his name should be sought in the Russian word for grape, vinograd, to which a Latin suffix had adhered, making it Vinogradus (note to Line 17). Vinograd (“The Grapes,” 1824) is a poem by Pushkin:


Не стану я жалеть о розах,
Увядших с легкою весной;
Мне мил и виноград на лозах,
В кистях созревший под горой,

Краса моей долины злачной,
Отрада осени златой,
Продолговатый и прозрачный,
Как персты девы молодой.


I shall not miss the roses, fading
As soon as spring's fleet days are done;
I like the grapes whose clusters ripen
Upon the hillside in the sun —

The glory of my fertile valley,
They hang, each lustrous as a pearl,
Gold autumn's joy: oblong, transparent,
Like the slim fingers of a girl.

(tr. B. Deutsch)


Rozy (roses) mentioned by Pushkin in the poem's first line bring to mind Eva Rosen (Lolita's schoolmate at Beardsley Colledge). She is a namesake of VN's girlfriend Eva Lubrzhinski.