Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0027393, Fri, 26 May 2017 00:42:03 +0300

despot & grand potato in Pale Fire; Krug & Ember in Bend Sinister
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)

In VN’s story Krug (“The Circle,” 1936) Tanya mentions Revolutionary
verses about “the despot who feasts in his rich palace hall:”

Беседа не ладилась; Таня, что-то спутав, ув
еряла, что он её когда-то учил революционн
ым стихам о том, как деспот пирует, а грозн
ые буквы давно на стене уж чертит рука рок
овая. "Другими словами, первая стенгазета
",-- сказал Кутасов, любивший острить. Ещё в
ыяснилось, что танин брат живёт в Берлине,
и Елизавета Павловна принялась рассказыв
ать о нём... Вдруг Иннокентий почувствова
л: ничто-ничто не пропадает, в памяти нако
пляются сокровища, растут скрытые склады
в темноте, в пыли,-- и вот кто-то проезжий в
друг требует у библиотекаря книгу, не выд
ававшуюся двадцать лет.

The Leshino topic was falling apart; Tanya, getting it all wrong, insisted
that he used to teach her the pre-Revolution songs of radical students, such
as the one about “the despot who feasts in his rich palace hall while
destiny’s hand has already begun to trace the dread words on the wall.”
“In other words, our first stengazeta” (Soviet wall gazette), remarked
Kutaysov, a great wit. Tanya’s brother was mentioned: he lived in Berlin,
and the Countess started to talk about him. Suddenly Innokentiy grasped a
wonderful fact: nothing is lost, nothing whatever; memory accumulates
treasures, stored-up secrets grow in darkness and dust, and one day a
transient visitor at a lending library wants a book that has not once been
asked for in twenty-two years.

The story’s main character, Innokentiy, is a namesake of Innokentiy
Annenski (1855-1909), the poet who wrote under the pseudonym Nik. T-o. Nikto
(nobody) is the last word in Lermontov’s poem Net, ya ne Bayron, ya
drugoy… ("Nay, I'm not Byron, I'm another..." 1832). The essays in
Annenski’s Vtoraya kniga otrazheniy (“The Second Book of Reflections,”
1909) include Yumor Lermontova (“Lermontov’s Humor”). In his note to Line
172 Kinbote quotes Shade’s words about Russian intellectuals and humorists:

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.”

Ostap Bender (the main character in Ilf and Petrov’s novels “The Twelve
Chairs” and “The Golden Calf”) has the same first name as Taras Bulba’s
elder son in Gogol’s story Taras Bulba (1835). In Ukrainian, bulba means
“potato.” At the beginning of Canto Three of his poem Shade mentions “the
grand potato:”

L'if, lifeless tree! Your great Maybe, Rabelais:
The grand potato. (ll. 501-502)

In his Commentary Kinbote writes:

An execrable pun, deliberately placed in this epigraphic position to stress
lack of respect for Death. I remember from my schoolroom days Rabelais’
soi-disant "last words" among other bright bits in some French manual: Je
m’en vais chercher le grand peut-être. (note to Line 502)

In a letter of October 17, 1908, to Ekaterina Mukhin, Annenski says that the
people who ceased to believe in God but continue to fear the devil have
created this otzyvayushchiysya kalamburom (smacking of a pun) terror before
the smell of sulfuric pitch, Le grand Peut-Etre:

Люди, переставшие верить в бога, но продол
жающие трепетать чёрта... Это они создали
на языке тысячелетней иронии этот отзыва
ющийся каламбуром ужас перед запахом сер
ной смолы - Le grand Peut-Etre. Для меня peut-etre - не т
олько бог, но это всё, хотя это и не ответ,
и не успокоение…

According to Annenski, for him peut-être is not just God, it is everything
(although it is neither answer, nor quieting).

On the other hand, the surname Bender brings to mind VN’s novel Bend
Sinister (1947). Its characters include the philosopher Adam Krug and his
friend Ember (a translator of Shakespeare).

Adam Krug + Ember = krug ada + member

krug ada \xa8C Russ., circle of hell

There are nine circles in Dante’s Inferno. In its unfinished form Shade’s
poem has 999 lines.

In Pushkin’s Mozart and Salieri (1830) Salieri (who slipped poison into
Mozart’s glass) listens to Mozart's Requiem and mentions a suffering member
that the healing knife had chopped off:

Эти слёзы
Впервые лью: и больно и приятно,
Как будто тяжкий совершил я долг,
Как будто нож целебный мне отсек
Страдавший член!

Such tears as these
I shed for the first time. It hurts, yet soothes,
As if I had fulfilled a heavy duty,
As if at last the healing knife had chopped
A suffering member off. (scene II, transl. A. Shaw)

In Pushkin’s little tragedy Mozart uses the phrase nikto b (none would):

Когда бы все так чувствовали силу
Гармонии! Но нет: тогда б не мог
И мир существовать; никто б не стал
Заботиться о нуждах низкой жизни;
Все предались бы вольному искусству.

If all could feel like you the power of harmony!
But no: the world could not go on then. None
Would bother with the needs of lowly life;
All would surrender to the free art. (ibid.)

Nikto b is Botkin backwards. Shade’s, Kinbote’s and Gradus’ “real” name
seems to be Botkin. An American scholar of Russian descent, Professor
Vsevolod Botkin went mad and became Shade, Kinbote and Gradus after the
suicide of his daughter Nadezhda (Hazel Shade of Kinbote’s Commentary).
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 (the governor of New Russia, a target of
Pushkin’s epigrams), will be “full” again.

Btw., Lermontov’s poem Nadezhda (“Hope,” 1831) begins: Est’ ptichka raya
u menya… (I have a bird of paradise…)

Alexey Sklyarenko

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