Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0027392, Wed, 24 May 2017 17:23:14 +0300

Pnin, preterist & vegetarianism in Pale Fire
In his Commentary Kinbote quotes Shade's words and mentions Prof. Pnin, the
Head of the bloated Russian Department at Wordsmith University:

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)

Pnin is the title character of a novel (1957) by VN. The historical I. P.
Pnin (1773-1805), a poet and president of The Free Society of Lovers of
Literature, Sciences and Arts, was a son of Prince Repnin (1734-1801). Among
ptentsy gnezda Petrova (the fledglings of Peter's nest) whom Pushkin
mentions in Canto Three of Poltava (1828) is Repnin (the ancestor of Pnin's

И он промчался пред полками,
Могущ и радостен, как бой.
Он поле пожирал очами.
За ним вослед неслись толпой
Сии птенцы гнезда Петрова -
В пременах жребия земного,
В трудах державства и войны
Его товарищи, сыны:

И Шереметев благородный,
И Брюс, и Боур, и Репнин,
И, счастья баловень безродный,
Полудержавный властелин.

He tore ahead of all the ranks,

Enraptured, mighty as the battle.

His eyes devoured the martial field.

The fledglings of Peter's nest

Surged after him, a loyal throng-

Through all the shifts of worldly fate,

In trials of policy and war,

These men, these comrades, were like sons:

The noble Sheremetev,

And Bryus, and Bour, and Repnin,

And, fortune's humble favorite,

The mighty half-sovereign.

(trans. Ivan Eubanks)

In Canto One of his poem Shade speaks of his dead parents and mentions a
preterist (one who collects cold nests*):

I was an infant when my parents died.
They both were ornithologists. I've tried
So often to evoke them that today
I have a thousand parents. Sadly they
Dissolve in their own virtues and recede,
But certain words, chance words I hear or read,
Such as "bad heart" always to him refer,
And "cancer of the pancreas" to her.

A preterist: one who collects cold nests.

Here was my bedroom, now reserved for guests. (ll. 71-80)

The epigraph to Poltava is from Byron's Mazeppa (1819):

The power and glory of the war,

Faithless as their vain votaries, men,

Had passed to the triumphant Czar.


In his Ode to Count Khvostov (1825) Pushkin compares Khvostov (a poetaster
whose name comes from khvost, "tail") to Byron and mentions Byron's
znamenitaya ten' (famous shade):

Певец бессмертный и маститый,
Тебя Эллада днесь зовёт
На место тени знаменитой,
Пред коей Цербер днесь ревёт.

Just as there is Pnin in Repnin, there is oda (ode) in coda. In his fragment
Rim ("Rome," 1842) Gogol mentions sonetto colla coda and in a footnote
explains that in Italian poetry there is a kind of poem known as sonet s
khvostom (sonnet with a tail, con la coda), when the idea cannot be
expressed in fourteen lines and entails an appendix which is often longer
than the sonnet itself:

В италиянской поэзии существует род стихотворенья, известного под именем
сонета с хвостом (con la coda), когда мысль не вместилась и ведёт за собою
прибавление, которое часто бывает длиннее самого сонета.

Shade's poem is almost finished when he is killed by Gradus. It seems that,
to be completed, Shade's poem needs not only Line 1000 (identical to Line 1:
"I was the shadow of the waxwing slain"), but also a coda (Line 1001: "By
its own double in the windowpane"). In fact, not only Line 1001, but the
entire Kinbote's Foreword, Commentary and Index can be regarded as the coda
("tail") of Shade's poem.

Byron is the main character in Aldanov's novel Mogila voina ("A Soldier's
Grave," 1939). Lermontov's poem Net, ya ne Bayron, ya drugoy: ("No, I'm not
Byron, I'm another..." 1832) ends in the line: Ya - ili Bog - ili nikto
(myself, or God, or nobody).

Nabokov + Bog + nikto + ladon' = bok + Botkin + Aldanov + ogon' = Blok +
botinok + noga + ad/da + nov'/von'

Bog - God

nikto - nobody

ladon' - palm (of hand)

bok - side; flank

Botkin - Vsevolod Botkin (Shade's, Kinbote's and Gradus' "real" name)

Aldanov - Mark Aldanov (penname of M. A. Landau, 1886-1957)

ogon' - fire

Blok - Alexander Blok, a poet (1880-1921)

noga - foot; leg

ad - hell

da - yes

nov' - virgin soil

von' - stink, stench

In his poem Kak v Gretsiyu Bayron, o, bez sozhalen'ya: ("Like Byron to
Greece, oh, without regret:" 1927) G. Ivanov mentions blednyi ogon' (a pale
fire). According to G. Ivanov (an extremely unreliable memoirist), as a boy
of fifteen he asked Alexander Blok if a sonnet needs a coda and, to his
surprise, Blok (already a celebrated poet) replied that he did not know what
a coda is. There is Blok in yabloko (apple). At the beginning of his poem
Shade mentions an apple on a plate:

I was the shadow of the waxwing slain
By the false azure in the windowpane
I was the smudge of ashen fluff--and I
Lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky,
And from the inside, too, I'd duplicate
Myself, my lamp, an apple on a plate (ll. 1-6)

At a meal at the campus Shade says that "he had always to brace himself in
order to attack the fortress of an apple:"

I am a strict vegetarian, and I like to cook my own meals. Consuming
something that had been handled by a fellow creature was, I explained to the
rubicund convives, as repulsive to me as eating any creature, and that would
include--lowering my voice--the pulpous pony-tailed girl student who served
us and licked her pencil. Moreover, I had already finished the fruit brought
with me in my briefcase, so I would content myself, I said, with a bottle of
good college ale. My free and simple demeanor set everybody at ease. The
usual questions were fired at me about eggnogs and milkshakes being or not
being acceptable to one of my persuasion. Shade said that with him it was
the other way around: he must make a definite effort to partake of a
vegetable. Beginning a salad, was to him like stepping into sea water on a
chilly day, and he had always to brace himself in order to attack the
fortress of an apple. (Foreword)

According to Kinbote, he became a vegetarian after reading a story about an
Italian despot:

When the fallen tyrant is tied, naked and howling, to a plank in the public
square and killed piecemeal by the people who cut slices out, and eat them,
and distribute his living body among themselves (as I read when young in a
story about an Italian despot, which made of me a vegetarian for life),
Gradus does not take part in the infernal sacrament: he points out the right
instrument and directs the carving. (note to Line 171)

*actually, preterists (from the Latin praeter, a prefix denoting that
something is "past" or "beyond") are the adherents of preterism, a Christian
eschatological view that interprets some (Partial Preterism) or all (Full
Preterism) prophesies of the Bible as events which have already happened

Alexey Sklyarenko

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