your loved body & shootka in Pale Fire

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Fri, 10/22/2021 - 15:45

In his apology of suicide 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 “your loved body's obliteration in the Lap of the Lord:”


Of the not very many ways known of shedding one's body, falling, falling, falling is the supreme method, but you have to select your sill or ledge very carefully so as not to hurt yourself or others. Jumping from a high bridge is not recommended even if you cannot swim, for wind and water abound in weird contingencies, and tragedy ought not to culminate in a record dive or a policeman's promotion. If you rent a cell in the luminous waffle, room 1915 or 1959, in a tall business center hotel browing the star dust, and pull up the window, and gentle--not fall, not jump--but roll out as you should for air comfort, there is always the chance of knocking clean through into your own hell a pacific noctambulator walking his dog; in this respect a back room might be safer, especially if giving on the roof of an old tenacious normal house far below where a cat may be trusted to flash out of the way. Another popular take-off is a mountaintop with a sheer drop of say 500 meters but you must find it, because you will be surprised how easy it is to miscalculate your deflection offset, and have some hidden projection, some fool of a crag, rush forth to catch you, causing you to bounce off it into the brush, thwarted, mangled and unnecessarily alive. The ideal drop is from an aircraft, your muscles relaxed, your pilot puzzled, your packed parachute shuffled off, cast off, shrugged off--farewell, shootka (little chute)! Down you go, but all the while you feel suspended and buoyed as you somersault in slow motion like a somnolent tumbler pigeon, and sprawl supine on the eiderdown of the air, or lazily turn to embrace your pillow, enjoying every last instant of soft, deep, death-padded life, the voluptuous crucifixion, as you stretch yourself in the growing rush, in the nearing swish, and then your loved body's obliteration in the Lap of the Lord. If I were a poet I would certainly make an ode to the sweet urge to close one's eyes and surrender utterly unto the perfect safety of wooed death. Ecstatically one forefeels the vastness of the Divine Embrace enfolding one's liberated spirit, the warm bath of physical dissolution, the universal unknown engulfing the miniscule unknown that had been the only real part of one's temporary personality. (note to Line 493)


“Your loved body” brings to mind das liebe Ich (the beloved Ego) mentioned by Alexander Turgenev in a letter of July 15, 1831, to Pushkin:


В письме к Чадаеву о его рукописи много справедливого. Поставь на место католицизма -- христианство, и всё будет на месте; но в том-то и ошибка его и предтечей его: Мейстера, Бональда, Ламене, Свечиной. -- На словах и в записочках я часто бесил сию превосходно мыслящую четверку тем же замечанием; но они не сдаются ни на рассуждения, ни на историю, в коей видят только Рим и церковь, а не мир и религию. Чадаев попал на ту же мысль, или лучше увлечен ими на ту же дорогу, хотя он -- выслушивает и другую сторону: т. е. читает и протестантов; но находит в них или подтверждение своему взгляду на историю, или слабые доказательства, кои спешит обессилить, или устраняется от состязания, когда доводы противников слишком сильны. -- Это кабинетное занятие было бы спасительно и для его ментально-физического здоровья, о котором пишу к Жуковскому,-- но болезнь, т. е. хандра его, имеет корень в его характере и в неудовлетворенном самолюбии, которое, впрочем, всем сердцем извиняю и постигаю. Мало-помалу я хочу напомнить ему, что учение христово объемлет всего человека и бесконечно, если, возводя мысль к небу, не делает нас и здесь добрыми земляками и не позволяет нам уживаться с людьми в английском Московском клобе; деликатно хочу напомнить ему, что можно и должно менее обращать на себя и на das liebe Ich внимания, менее ухаживать за собою, а более за другими, не повязывать пять галстуков в утро, менее даже и холить свои ногти и зубы и свой желудок; а избыток отдавать тем, кои и от крупиц падающих сыты и здоровы. Тогда и холеры и геморроя менее будем бояться: до нас ли? сказал один мудрец в 30 лет, за жизнь коего в Царе-граде, во время греческого восстания, страшился брат в Петербурге. Тогда и жизнь и смерть -- и болезнь -- и всё получит смысл; но не это письмо: À l'impossible nul n'est tenu.   Ex-garçon des cultes


According to Turgenev, Chadaev should pay less attention to his loved body (including his nails and teeth). In Chapter One (XXV: 5) of Eugene Onegin Pushkin calls Onegin vtoroy Chadaev (the second Chadaev):


Быть можно дельным человеком
И думать о красе ногтей:
К чему бесплодно спорить с веком?
Обычай деспот меж людей.
Второй Чадаев, мой Евгений,
Боясь ревнивых осуждений,
В своей одежде был педант
И то, что мы назвали франт.
Он три часа по крайней мере
Пред зеркалами проводил
И из уборной выходил
Подобный ветреной Венере,
Когда, надев мужской наряд,
Богиня едет в маскарад.


One can be an efficient man —

and mind the beauty of one's nails:

why vainly argue with the age?

Custom is despot among men.

My Eugene, a second [Chadáev],

being afraid of jealous censures,

was in his dress a pedant

and what we've called a fop.

Three hours, at least,

he spent in front of glasses,

and from his dressing room came forth

akin to giddy Venus

when, having donned a masculine attire,

the goddess drives to a masqued ball.


According to Kinbote, the king first met Disa at a masked ball in his uncle’s palace:


John Shade and Sybil Swallow (see note to line 247) were married in 1919, exactly three decades before King Charles wed Disa, Duchess of Payn. Since the very beginning of his reign (1936-1958) representatives of the nation, salmon fishermen, non-union glaziers, military groups; worried relatives, and especially the Bishop of Yeslove, a sanguineous and saintly old man, had been doing their utmost to persuade him to give up his copious but sterile pleasures and take a wife. It was a matter not of morality but of succession. As in the case of some of his predecessors, rough alderkings who burned for boys, the clergy blandly ignored our young bachelor's pagan habits, but wanted him to do what an earlier and even more reluctant Charles had done: take a night off and lawfully engender an heir.

He saw nineteen-year-old Disa for the first time on the festive night of July the 5th, 1947, at a masked ball in his uncle's palace. She had come in male dress, as a Tirolese boy, a little knock-kneed but brave and lovely, and afterwards he drove her and her cousins (two guardsmen disguised as flower-girls) in his divine new convertible through the streets to see the tremendous birthday illumination, and the fackeltanz in the park, and the fireworks, and the pale upturned faces. He procrastinated for almost two years but was set upon by inhumanly eloquent advisers, and finally gave in. On the eve of his wedding he prayed most of the night locked up all alone in the cold vastness of the Onhava cathedral. Smug alderkings looked at him from the ruby-and-amethyst windows. Never had he so fervently asked God for guidance and strength (see further my note to lines 433-434).

After line 274 there is a false start in the draft:

I like my name: Shade, Ombre, almost "man"

In Spanish...

One regrets that the poet did not pursue this theme - and spare his reader the embarrassing intimacies that follow. (note to Line 275: We have been married forty years)


According to Kinbote (the author of a book on surnames), the maiden name of Sybil Shade (the poet’s wife) comes from hirondelle (French for "swallow"):


John Shade's wife, nee Irondell (which comes not from a little valley yielding iron ore but from the French for "swallow"). She was a few months his senior. I understand she came of Canadian stock, as did Shade's maternal grandmother (a first cousin of Sybil's grandfather, if I am not greatly mistaken).

From the very first I tried to behave with the utmost courtesy toward my friend's wife, and from the very first she disliked and distrusted me. I was to learn later that when alluding to me in public she used to call me "an elephantine tick; a king-sized botfly; a macaco worm; the monstrous parasite of a genius." I pardon her – her and everybody. (note to Line 247)


In the first of the two stanzas of his poem On Translating "Eugene Onegin" (1955) written after the meter and rhyme scheme of the EO stanza VN mentions the parasites who are pardoned, if he (VN) has Pushkin’s pardon:


What is translation? On a platter
A poets pale and glaring head,
A parrot's screech, a monkey's chatter,
And profanation of the dead.
The parasites you were so hard on
Are pardoned if I have your pardon,
O, Pushkin, for my stratagem:
I traveled down your secret stem,
And reached the root, and fed upon it;
Then, in a language newly learned,
I grew another stalk and turned
Your stanza patterned on a sonnet,
Into my honest roadside prose--
All thorn, but cousin to your rose.


A play on shutka (joke), Kinbote’s shootka (little chute) brings to mind Kogda ne v shutku zanemog (when he was taken gravely ill), the second line of EO’s first stanza:


«Мой дядя самых честных правил,
Когда не в шутку занемог,
Он уважать себя заставил
И лучше выдумать не мог.
Его пример другим наука;
Но, боже мой, какая скука
С больным сидеть и день и ночь,
Не отходя ни шагу прочь!
Какое низкое коварство
Полуживого забавлять,
Ему подушки поправлять,
Печально подносить лекарство,
Вздыхать и думать про себя:
Когда же черт возьмет тебя!»


"My uncle has most honest principles:

when he was taken gravely ill,

he forced one to respect him

and nothing better could invent.

To others his example is a lesson;

but, good God, what a bore to sit

by a sick person day and night, not stirring

a step away!

What base perfidiousness

to entertain one half-alive,

adjust for him his pillows,

sadly serve him his medicine,

sigh — and think inwardly

when will the devil take you?”


The stanza’s line 6, No, bozhe moy, kakaya skuka (But, good God, what a bore [to sit]) brings to mind the Russian ejaculation used by Gradus in the library of Wordsmith University:


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)


Shade’s murderer, Gradus is a half-man who is half mad:


I have considered in my earlier note (I now see it is the note to line 171) the particular dislikes, and hence the motives, of our "automatic man," as I phrased it at a time when he did not have as much body, did not offend the senses as violently as now; was, in a word, further removed from our sunny, green, grass-fragrant Arcady. But Our Lord has fashioned man so marvelously that no amount of motive hunting and rational inquiry can ever really explain how and why anybody is capable of destroying a fellow creature (this argument necessitates, I know, a temporary granting to Gradus of the status of man), unless he is defending the life of his son, or his own, or the achievement of a lifetime; so that in final judgment of the Gradus versus the Crown case I would submit that if his human incompleteness be deemed insufficient to explain his idiotic journey across the Atlantic just to empty the magazine of his gun; we may concede, doctor, that our half-man was also half mad. (ibid.)


"Half-man half mad" brings to mind "a collection of half droll, half sad chapters," as in the Prefatory Piece to Eugene Onegin Pushkin calls his novel in verse:


Не мысля гордый свет забавить,
Вниманье дружбы возлюбя,
Хотел бы я тебе представить
Залог достойнее тебя,
Достойнее души прекрасной,
Святой исполненной мечты,
Поэзии живой и ясной,
Высоких дум и простоты;
Но так и быть — рукой пристрастной
Прими собранье пёстрых глав,
Полусмешных, полупечальных,
Простонародных, идеальных,
Небрежный плод моих забав,
Бессониц, лёгких вдохновений,
Незрелых и увядших лет,
Ума холодных наблюдений
И сердца горестных замет.


Not thinking to amuse the haughty world,

having grown fond of friendship's heed,

I wish I could present you with a gage

that would be worthier of you —

be worthier of a fine soul

full of a holy dream,

of live and limpid poetry,

of high thoughts and simplicity.

But so be it. With partial hand

take this collection of pied chapters:

half droll, half sad,

plain-folk, ideal,

the careless fruit of my amusements,

insomnias, light inspirations,

unripe and withered years,

the intellect's cold observations,

and the heart's sorrowful remarks.


Pushkin’s EO is dedicated to Pletnyov (Pushkin’s friend and publisher to whom the Prefatory Piece is addressed). In a letter of April 11, 1831, to Pletnyov Pushkin calls Pletnyov ten’ vozlyublennaya (the beloved shade) and asks Pletnyov (who did not respond to Pushkin’s letters for a long time), if he is already dead, to bow to Derzhavin and to embrace Delvig (who died at the beginning of 1831):


Воля твоя, ты несносен: ни строчки от тебя не дождёшься. Умер ты, что ли? Если тебя уже нет на свете, то, тень возлюбленная, кланяйся от меня Державину и обними моего Дельвига.


On the other hand, Das liebe Ich: Grundriss einer neuen Diätetik der Seele (“The Beloved Ego: Foundations of the New Study of the Psyche,” 1921) is a work by the Austrian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Stekel (Sigmund Freud’s pupil). Paraphilia (a term coined by Stekel to replace "perversion") brings to mind Kinbote's parachute. In Canto Three of his poem Shade describes IPH (a lay Institute of the Preparation for the Hereafter) and mentions a school of Freudians that headed for the tomb:


Among our auditors were a young priest

And an old Communist. Iph could at least

Compete with churches and the party line.

In later years it started to decline:

Buddhism took root. A medium smuggled in

Pale jellies and a floating mandolin.

Fra Karamazov, mumbling his inept

All is allowed, into some classes crept;

And to fulfill the fish wish of the womb,

A school of Freudians headed for the tomb. (ll. 635-644)


In Canto Four of his poem Shade pairs Freud with Marx:


Now I shall speak of evil as none has

Spoken before. I loathe such things as jazz;

The white-hosed moron torturing a black

Bull, rayed with red; abstractist bric-a-brac;

Primitivist folk-masks; progressive schools;

Music in supermarkets; swimming pools;

Brutes, bores, class-conscious Philistines, Freud, Marx,

Fake thinkers, puffed-up poets, frauds and sharks. (ll. 923-930)


Like other Soviet leaders, Nikita Khrushchov was a Marxist. Describing Gradus’ day in New York, Kinbote mentions Khrushchov's visit to Zembla:


He began with the day's copy of The New York Times. His lips moving like wrestling worms, he read about all kinds of things. Hrushchov (whom they spelled "Khrushchev") had abruptly put off a visit to Scandinavia and was to visit Zembla instead (here I tune in: "Vi nazïvaete sebya zemblerami, you call yourselves Zemblans, a ya vas nazïvayu zemlyakami, and I call you fellow countrymen!" Laughter and applause.) The United States was about to launch its first atom-driven merchant ship (just to annoy the Ruskers, of course. J. G.). Last night in Newark, an apartment house at 555 South Street was hit by a thunderbolt that smmashed a TV set and injured two people watching an actress lost in a violent studio storm (those tormented spirits are terrible! C. X. K. teste J. S.). The Rachel Jewelry Company in Brooklyn advertised in agate type for a jewelry polisher who "must have experience on costume jewelry (oh, Degré had!). The Helman brothers said they had assisted in the negotiations for the placement of a sizable note: "$11, 000, 000, Decker Glass Manufacturing Company, Inc., note due July 1, 1979," and Gradus, grown young again, reread this twice, with the background gray thought, perhaps, that he would be sixty-four four days after that (no comment). On another bench he found a Monday issue of the same newspaper. During a visit to a museum in Whitehorse (Gradus kicked at a pigeon that came too near), the Queen of England walked to a corner of the White Animals Room, removed her right glove and, with her back turned to several evidently observant people, rubbed her forehead and one of her eyes. A pro-Red revolt had erupted in Iraq. Asked about the Soviet exhibition at the New York Coliseum, Carl Sandburg, a poet, replied, and I quote: "They make their appeal on the highest of intellectual levels." A hack reviewer of new books for tourists, reviewing his own tour through Norway, said that the fjords were too famous to need (his) description, and that all Scandinavians loved flowers. And at a picnic for international children a Zemblan moppet cried to her Japanese friend: Ufgut, ufgut, velkum ut Semblerland! (Adieu, adieu, till we meet in Zembla!) I confess it has been a wonderful game - this looking up in the WUL of various ephemerides over the shadow of a padded shoulder. (note to Line 949)


In his letter to Pushkin Alexander Turgenev uses the word zemlyak (fellow countryman) in the sense zemlyanin (earthling). According to Turgenev, the teaching of Jesus embraces the whole man and is infinite, if, raising the thought to heaven, it does not make us even here dobrymi zemlyakami (good earthlings).


Zemblan for "adieu," ufgut seems to hint at auf gut Glück, German for "at random." Btw., ufgut brings to mind vasisdas (a small spy-window or transom with a mobile screen or grate), a corruption of was ist das ("what's that" in German), mentioned by Pushkin in Chapter One (XXXV: 14) of EO:


Что ж мой Онегин? Полусонный
В постелю с бала едет он:
А Петербург неугомонный
Уж барабаном пробужден.
Встает купец, идет разносчик,
На биржу тянется извозчик,
С кувшином охтенка спешит,
Под ней снег утренний хрустит.
Проснулся утра шум приятный.
Открыты ставни; трубный дым
Столбом восходит голубым,
И хлебник, немец аккуратный,
В бумажном колпаке, не раз
Уж отворял свой васисдас.


And my Onegin? Half asleep,

he drives from ball to bed,

while indefatigable Petersburg

is roused already by the drum.

The merchant's up, the hawker's out,

the cabby to the hack stand drags,

the Okhta girl hastes with her jug,

the morning snow creaks under her.

Morn's pleasant hubbub has awoken,

unclosed are shutters, chimney smoke

ascends in a blue column, and the baker,

a punctual German in a cotton cap,

has more than once already

opened his vasisdas.