New Wye in Pale Fire

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Sat, 10/16/2021 - 09:37

In VN’s novel Pale Fire (1962) the poet Shade and his commentator Kinbote (who imagines that he is Charles the Beloved, the last self-exiled king of Zembla) live in New Wye (a small University town). “Wye” is the English name of the letter Y. New Wye seems to be a cross between New York and New Moscow, as in his lecture on chess Ostap Bender (the main character in Ilf and Petrov’s novels "The Twelve Chairs" and "The Golden Calf") calls Vasyuki (a fictitious Volgan town):


— Не беспокойтесь, — сказал Остап, — мой проект гарантирует вашему городу неслыханный расцвет производительных сил. Подумайте, что будет, когда турнир окончится и когда уедут все гости. Жители Москвы, стеснённые жилищным кризисом, бросятся в ваш великолепный город. Столица автоматически переходит в Васюки. Сюда переезжает правительство. Васюки переименовываются в Нью-Москву, а Москва — в Старые Васюки. Ленинградцы и харьковчане скрежещут зубами, но ничего не могут поделать. Нью-Москва становится элегантнейшим центром Европы, а скоро и всего мира.


"Don't worry," continued Ostap, "my scheme will guarantee the town an unprecedented boom in your production forces. Just think what will happen when the tournament is over and the visitors have left. The citizens of Moscow, crowded together on account of the housing shortage, will come flocking to your beautiful town. The capital will be automatically transferred to Vasyuki. The government will move here. Vasyuki will be renamed New Moscow, and Moscow will become Old Vasyuki. The people of Leningrad and Kharkov will gnash their teeth in fury but won't be able to do a thing about it. New Moscow will soon become the most elegant city in Europe and, soon afterwards, in the whole world." (“The Twelve Chairs,” Chapter 34 “The Interplanetary Chess Tournament”)


On the other hand, New Wye brings to mind graf Dubl’ve (Count Double-u), a character in Andrey Bely’s novel Peterburg (“Petersburg,” 1913). Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov’s antagonist, Count Double-u hints at Count Witte (a Russian statesman, 1849-1915). Ostap Bender and Count Witte make one think of Oswin Bretwit, the former Zemblan consul whom Gradus (Shade’s murderer) visits in Paris:


The activities of Gradus in Paris had been rather neatly planned by the Shadows. They were perfectly right in assuming that not only Odon but our former consul in Paris, the late Oswin Bretwit, would know where to find the King. They decided to have Gradus try Bretwit first. That gentleman had a flat in Meudon where he dwelt alone, seldom going anywhere except the National Library (where he read theosophic works and solved chess problems in old newspapers), and did not receive visitors. The Shadows’ neat plan sprung from a piece of luck. Suspecting that Gradus lacked the mental equipment and mimic gifts necessary for the impersonation of an enthusiastic Royalist, they suggested he had better pose as a completely apolitical commissioner, a neutral little man interested only in getting a good price for various papers that private parties had asked him to take out of Zembla and deliver to their rightful owners. Chance, in one of its anti-Karlist moods, helped. One of the lesser Shadows whom we shall call Baron A. had a father-in-law called Baron B., a harmless old codger long retired from the civil service and quite incapable of understanding certain Renaissance aspects of the new regime. He had been, or thought he had been (retrospective distance magnifies things), a close friend of the late Minister of Foreign Affairs, Oswin Bretwit’s father, and therefore was looking forward to the day when he would be able to transmit to “young” Oswin (who, he understood, was not exactly persona grata with the new regime) a bundle of precious family papers that the dusty baron had come across by chance in the files of a governmental office. All at once he was informed that now the day had come: the documents would be immediately forwarded to Paris. He was also allowed to prefix a brief note to them which read:


Here are some precious papers belonging to your family. I cannot do better than place them in the hands of the son of the great man who was my fellow student in Heidelberg and my teacher in the diplomatic service. Verba volant, scripta manent. (note to Line 286)


According to Kinbote, the name Bretwit means Chess Intelligence:


His smile gone, Bretwit (the name means Chess Intelligence) got up from his chair. In a larger room he would have paced up and down - not in this cluttered study. Gradus the Bungler buttoned all three buttons of his tight brown coat and shook his head several times.

"I think," he said crossly, "one must be fair. If I bring you these valuable papers, you must in return arrange an interview, or at least give me his address."

"I know who you are," cried Bretwit pointing. "You're a reporter! You are from the cheap Danish paper sticking out of your pocket" (Gradus mechanically fumbled at it and frowned). "I had hoped they had given up pestering me! The vulgar nuisance of it! Nothing is sacred to you, neither cancer, nor exile, nor the pride of a king" (alas, this is true not only of Gradus - he has colleagues in Arcady too).

Gradus sat staring at his new shoes - mahogany red with sieve-pitted caps. An ambulance screamed its impatient way through dark streets three stories below. Bretwit vented his irritation on the ancestral letters lying on the table. He snatched up the neat pile with its detached wrapping and flung it all in the wastepaper basket. The string dropped outside, at the feet of Gradus who picked it up and added it to the scripta.

"Please, go," said poor Bretwit. "I have a pain in my groin that is driving me mad. I have not slept for three nights. You journalists are an obstinate bunch but I am obstinate too. You will never learn from me anything about my kind. Good-bye."

He waited on the landing for his visitor's steps to go down and reach the front door. It was opened and closed, and presently the automatic light on the stairs went out with the sound of a kick. (ibid.)


The disguised king arrives in America descending by parachute:


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. (note to Line 691)


In Dvenadtsat’ stuliev (“The Twelve Chairs,” 1928) Lasker arrives in Vasyuki (as imagined by the Vasyuki chess enthusiasts) descending by parachute:


Вдруг на горизонте была усмотрена чёрная точка. Она быстро приближалась и росла, превратившись в большой изумрудный парашют. Как большая редька, висел на парашютном кольце человек с чемоданчиком.

– Это он! – закричал одноглазый. – Ура! Ура! Ура! Я узнаю великого философа-шахматиста, доктора Ласкера. Только он один во всем мире носит такие зелёные носочки.


Suddenly a black dot was noticed on the horizon. It approached rapidly, growing larger and  larger until  it finally turned into a large emerald parachute. A man with an attache case was hanging from the harness, like a huge radish.

"Here he is!" shouted one-eye. "Hooray,  hooray, I recognize  the great philosopher and chess player Dr. Lasker. He is the only person in the world who wears those green socks." (Chapter 34 “The Interplanetary Chess Tournament”)


The title of Ilf and Petrov’s novel brings to mind Alexander Blok’s poem Dvenadtsat’ (“The Twelve,” 1918). The name of Blok’s family estate Shakhmatovo, in the Province of Moscow, comes from shakhmaty (chess).


See also the updated full version of my previous post, "sure, sure in Pale Fire & in Speak, Memory."