Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0027434, Mon, 17 Jul 2017 16:05:27 +0300

verbal inferno, Villa Paradiso, Conmal, Fleur de Fyler,
Dim Gulf & moondrop title in Pale Fire
In VN’s novel Pale Fire (1962) Kinbote (Shade’s mad commentator) speaks of
his uncle Conmal (Zemblan translator of Shakespeare) and mentions “the
verbal inferno:”

English was not taught in Zembla before Mr. Campbell's time. Conmal mastered
it all by himself (mainly by learning a lexicon by heart) as a young man,
around 1880, when not the verbal inferno but a quiet military career seemed
to open before him, and his first work (the translation of Shakespeare's
Sonnets) was the outcome of a bet with a fellow officer. (note to Line 962)

Inferno is the first part of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Pushkin’s Sonet (“The
Sonnet,” 1830) begins: Surovyi Dant ne preziral soneta… (Severe Dante
didn’t scorn the sonnet). In line 3 of “The Sonnet” Pushkin says that
tvorets Makbeta (the author of Macbeth) loved the sonnet’s play. The third
(and last) part of the Divine Comedy, Paradiso, brings to mind Villa
Paradiso mentioned by Kinbote in his Commentary:

In 1933, Prince Charles was eighteen and Disa, Duchess of Payn, five. The
allusion is to Nice (see also line 240) where the Shades spent the first
part of that year; but here again, as in regard to so many fascinating
facets of my friend’s past life, I am not in the possession of particulars
(who is to blame, dear S.S.?) and not in the position to say whether or not,
in the course of possible excursions along the coast, they ever reached Cap
Turc and glimpsed from an oleander-lined lane, usually open to tourists, the
Italianate villa built by Queen Disa’s grandfather in 1908, and called then
Villa Paradiso, or in Zemblan Villa Paradisa, later to forego the first half
of its name in honor of his favorite granddaughter. There she spent the
first fifteen summers of her life; thither did she return in 1953, “for
reasons of health” (as impressed on the nation) but really, a banished
queen; and there she still dwells. (note to lines 493-434)

In 1933 Hitler came to power in Germany (where VN lived at the time). 1953
is the year of Stalin’s death. Conmal outlived Stalin by two years and died
in 1955 (the year of Lolita’s publication), having reached the age of one
hundred. Con being French for “cunt” and mal meaning “evil,” the name of
Kinbote’s uncle seems to hint at Malebolge (evil pouches) described by
Dante in Canto XVIII of Inferno:

Luogo è in inferno detto Malebolge,
tutto di pietra di color ferrigno,
come la cerchia che dintorno il volge.

THERE is a place in Hell called Malebolge,
Wholly of stone and of an iron colour,
As is the circle that around it turns.

Dante’s guide in the Inferno is Virgil. Kinbote shares unconventional
sexual tastes of the author of The Aeneid. Malebolge in Dante’s poem bring
to mind Malvolio, the antagonist in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, or What
You Will. The heroine and protagonist of Shakespeare’s comedy is Viola
(Sebastian’s twin sister). When he visits his wife at her Villa Disa,
Kinbote asks Fleur de Fyler (Queen Disa’s former lady in waiting) if she
still plays the viola:

One of her former ladies in waiting, the languid and elegant Fleur de Fyler
(now fortyish and faded), still wearing pearls in her raven hair and the
traditional white mantilla, brought certain documents from Disa's boudoir.
Upon hearing the King's mellow voice behind the laurels, Fleur recognized it
before she could be misled by his excellent disguise. Two footmen, handsome
young strangers of a marked Latin type, appeared with the tea and caught
Fleur in mid-curtsey. A sudden breeze groped among the glycines. Defiler of
flowers. He asked Fleur as she turned to go with the Disa orchids if she
still played the viola. She shook her head several times not wishing to
speak without addressing him and not daring to do so while the servants
might be within earshot. (note to lines 493-434)

In Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens (Act IV, Scene 3) Timon calls gold
“bright defiler of Hymen’s purest bed.” On the other hand, the name Fleur
de Fyler hints at Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal (“Flowers of Evil,” 1857).
In a discarded variant (quoted by Kinbote in his Commentary) Shade mentions
poor Baudelaire:

A beautiful variant, with one curious gap, branches off at this point in the
draft (dated July 6):

Strange Other World where all our still-born dwell,
And pets, revived, and invalids, grown well,
And minds that died before arriving there:
Poor old man Swift, poor ―, poor Baudelaire

What might that dash stand for? Unless Shade gave prosodic value to the mute
e in “Baudelaire,” which I am quite certain he would never have done in
English verse (cp. “Rabelais,” line 501), the name required here must scan
as a trochee. Among the names of celebrated poets, painters, philosophers,
etc., known to have become insane or to have sunk into senile imbecility, we
find many suitable ones. Was Shade confronted by too much variety with
nothing to help logic choose and so left a blank, relying upon the
mysterious organic force that rescues poets to fill it in at its own
convenience? Or was there something else―some obscure intuition, some
prophetic scruple that prevented him from spelling out the name of an
eminent man who happened to be an intimate friend of his? Was he perhaps
playing safe because a reader in his household might have objected to that
particular name being mentioned? And if it comes to that, why mention it at
all in this tragical context? Dark, disturbing thoughts. (note to line 231)

Kinbote is afraid that the dash stands for his name. Actually, it stands for
Botkin (Shade’s, Kinbote’s and Gradus’ “real” name). 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). Nadezhda means “hope.” 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 will be
“full” again.

Btw., in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet Mercutio accuses Benvolio and
mentions his hazel eyes:

Thou wilt quarrel with a man for cracking nuts, having no other reason but
because thou hast hazel eyes. (3.1)

In VN’s Lolita Dolores Haze (Lolita’s full name) has grey eyes. In Canto
One of his poem Shade says that, when he was a child, all colors made him
happy, even gray, and mentions his eyes:

All colors made me happy: even gray.
My eyes were such that literally they
Took photographs. Whenever I'd permit,
Or, with a silent shiver, order it,
Whatever in my field of vision dwelt--
An indoor scene, hickory leaves, the svelte
Stilettos of a frozen stillicide--
Was printed on my eyelids' nether side
Where it would tarry for an hour or two,
And while this lasted all I had to do
Was close my eyes to reproduce the leaves,
Or indoor scene, or trophies of the eaves. (ll. 29-40)

In Lolita and, particularly, in Transparent Things (1972) there are many
allusions to Romeo and Juliet. In Canto Four of Pale Fire Shade calls his
poem “transparent thingum:”

Dim Gulf was my first book (free verse); Night Rote
Came next; then Hebe's Cup, my final float
in that damp carnival, for now I term
Everything "Poems," and no longer squirm.
(But this transparent thingum does require
Some moondrop title. Help me, Will! Pale Fire.) (ll. 957-952)

In his poem To One in Paradise (1843) E. A. Poe (the writer whose works were
translated into French by Baudelaire) mentions “dim gulf:”

Ah, dream too bright to last!

Ah, starry Hope! that didst arise

But to be overcast!

A voice from out the Future cries,

“On! on!”―but o’er the Past

(Dim gulf!) my spirit hovering lies

Mute, motionless, aghast!

“Some moondrop title” brings to mind “the mystic moon” and the phrase
“drop by drop” used by E. A. Poe at the beginning of his poem The Sleeper

At midnight, in the month of June,

I stand beneath the mystic moon.

An opiate vapor, dewy, dim,

Exhales from out her golden rim,

And softly dripping, drop by drop,

Upon the quiet mountain top,

Steals drowsily and musically

Into the universal valley.

In the next lines of his poem Shade mentions his “private universe:”

I feel I understand
Existence, or at least a minute part
Of my existence, only through my art,
In terms of combinatorial delight;
And if my private universe scans right,
So does the verse of galaxies divine
Which I suspect is an iambic line. (ll. 970-976)

The poems of E. A. Poe were translated into Russian by Konstantin Balmont.
In his essay Balmont-lirik (“Balmont the Lyric Poet”) included in “The
Book of Reflections” (1906) I. Annenski (the poet and critic who wrote
under the penname Nik. T-o, “Mr. Nobody”) compares poetry to podvig
(heroic deed, noble feat), ogon’ (fire) and altar’ (altar):

На словах поэзия будет для нас, пожалуй, и
служение, и подвиг, и огонь, и алтарь, и как
ая там ещё не потревожена эмблема, а на де
ле мы все ещё ценим в ней сладкий лимонад,
не лишенный, впрочем, и полезности,

которая даже строгим и огорченным русски
м читателем очень ценится. (II)

Podvig, altar’ and ogon’ are mentioned by Pushkin in his sonnet Poetu
(“To a Poet,” 1830):

Поэт! не дорожи любовию народной.
Восторженных похвал пройдёт минутный шу
Услышишь суд глупца и смех толпы холодно
Но ты останься твёрд, спокоен и угрюм.

Ты царь: живи один. Дорогою свободной
Иди, куда влечёт тебя свободный ум,
Усовершенствуя плоды любимых дум,
Не требуя наград за подвиг благородный.

Они в самом тебе. Ты сам свой высший суд;
Всех строже оценить умеешь ты свой труд.
Ты им доволен ли, взыскательный художник?

Доволен? Так пускай толпа его бранит
И плюет на алтарь, где твой огонь горит,
И в детской резвости колеблет твой тренож

Poet! Set not too much store by the people's love.
The noise of accolades will not for long be heard,
You'll face the idiot's court, you'll hear the cold crowd laugh,
Yet you must remain firm, sullen, and unperturbed.

You're a king: live alone. Follow freely the roads
Along which your free mind impels your seeking feet,
Perfect the precious fruits of your beloved thoughts,
Demanding no rewards for that most noble feat.

They lie within you. You are your own supreme court,
The sternest judge of all of the worth of your work.
Exacting artist, satisfied with your output?

You are? Then scorn the crowd that sullies your good name,
And spits upon the altar wherein burns your fire,
And shakes in childish impishness your tripod.
(transl. Ph. Nikolayev)

In Pale Fire Kinbote imagines that he is Charles the Beloved, the last
self-exiled king of Zembla.

Alexey Sklyarenko

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