Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0027436, Tue, 18 Jul 2017 15:47:20 +0300

transparent thingum, bad Bob,
Night Rote & Hebe's Cup in Pale Fire; Sindbad,
Scheher & Bob Bean in Ada
In Canto Four of Pale Fire John Shade (one of the three main characters in VN’s novel Pale Fire, 1962) calls his poem “transparent thingum” and asks Shakespeare to help him find a title for it:

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)

At the beginning of his story The Literary Life of Thingum Bob, Esq. (1850) E. A. Poe mentions Shakespeare:

I am now growing in years, and – since I understand that Shakespeare and Mr. Emmons are deceased – it is not impossible that I may even die.

Thingum’s surname brings to mind “bad Bob,” as Kinbote (Shade’s mad commentator) calls his former roomer:

I have one favorite photograph of him. In this color snapshot taken by a onetime friend of mine, on a brilliant spring day, Shade is seen leaning on a sturdy cane that had belonged to his aunt Maud ( <http://www.shannonrchamberlain.com/palefirepoem.html#line86> see line 86). I am wearing a white windbreaker acquired in a local sports shop and a pair of lilac slacks hailing from Cannes. My left hand is half raised--not to pat Shade on the shoulder as seems to be the intention, but to remove my sunglasses which, however, it never reached in that life, the life of the picture; and the library book under my right arm is a treatise on certain Zemblan calisthenics in which I proposed to interest that young roomer of mine who snapped the picture. A week later he was to betray my trust by taking sordid advantage of my absence on a trip to Washington whence I returned to find that he had been entertaining a fiery-haired whore from Exton who had left her combings and reek in all three bathrooms. Naturally, we separated at once, and through a chink in the window curtains I saw bad Bob standing rather pathetically, with his crewcut, and shabby valise, and the skis I had given him, all forlorn on the roadside, waiting for a fellow student to drive him away forever. I can forgive everything save treason. (Foreword)

In his Sonnet – Silence (1840) E. A. Poe mentions shade:

There are some qualities – some incorporate things,
That have a double life, which thus is made
A type of that twin entity which springs
From matter and light, evinced in solid and shade.
There is a two-fold Silence – sea and shore –
Body and soul. One dwells in lonely places,
Newly with grass o'ergrown; some solemn graces,
Some human memories and tearful lore,
Render him terrorless: his name's "No More."
He is the corporate Silence: dread him not!
No power hath he of evil in himself;
But should some urgent fate (untimely lot!)
Bring thee to meet his shadow (nameless elf,
That haunteth the lone regions where hath trod
No foot of man,) commend thyself to God!

“Rote” being the sound of waves breaking on the shore, Night Rote (Shade’s second book) seems to hint at “sea and shore” mentioned by E. A. Poe in his sonnet. Poe’s Silence brings to mind Tyutchev’s Silentium! (1830). In the last stanza of his poem Vesennyaya groza (“The Spring Thunderstorm,” 1828) Tyutchev mentions frivolous Hebe spilling on Earth (na zemlyu) her thunder-boiling cup:

Ты скажешь: ветреная Геба,
Кормя Зевесова орла,
Громокипящий кубок с неба,
Смеясь, на землю пролила.

You'd say: the frivolous Hebe,
feeding Zeus' eagle,
has spilled on Earth, laughing,
the thunder-boiling cup.

Kinbote believes that, to be completed, Shade’s almost finished poem needs only Line 1000 (identical to Line 1: “I was the shadow of the waxwing slain”). But it seems that, like some sonnets, Shade’s poem also needs a coda (Line 1001: “By its own double in the windowpane”). In its finished form Shade’s poem has thus as many lines as there are stories in One Thousand and One Nights. E. A. Poe is the author of The Thousand-and-Second Tale of Scheherazade (1845), with an old saying for epigraph: “truth is stranger than fiction.” The tale depicts the eighth and final voyage of Sinbad the Sailor, along with the various mysteries Sinbad and his crew encounter; the anomalies are then described as footnotes to the story. While the King is uncertain — except in the case of the elephants carrying the world on the back of the turtle — that these mysteries are real, they are actual modern events that occurred in various places during, or before, Poe's lifetime. The story ends with the king in such disgust at the outlandish tales Scheherazade has just woven, that he has her executed the next day. Indeed, sometimes it is better to keep silent!

At the end of his Commentary Kinbote says that he may join forces with Odon (world-famous actor and Zemblan patriot) in a new motion picture:

God will help me, I trust, to rid myself of any desire to follow the example of the other two characters in this work. I shall continue to exist. I may assume other disguises, other forms, but I shall try to exist. I may turn up yet, on another campus, as an old, happy, healthy, heterosexual Russian, a writer in exile, sans fame, sans future, sans audience, sans anything but his art. I may join forces with Odon in a new motion picture: Escape from Zembla (ball in the palace, bomb in the palace square). (note to Line 1000)

In the epilogue of VN’s novel Ada (1969) Van Veen mentions the Film Festival in Sindbad:

How horribly and gratuitously it might hurt her, he foreglimpsed one day in 1926 or ‘27 when he caught the look of proud despair she cast on nothing in particular before walking away to the car that was to take her on a trip in which, at the last moment, he had declined to join her. He had declined — and had simulated the grimace and the limp of podagra — because he had just realized, what she, too, had realized — that the beautiful native girl smoking on the back porch would offer her mangoes to Master as soon as Master’s housekeeper had left for the Film Festival in Sindbad. The chauffeur had already opened the car door, when, with a great bellow, Van overtook Ada and they rode off together, tearful, voluble, joking about his foolishness. (5.3)

Describing his and Ada’s visits to their little Caliph Island, Van makes a pun on Scheherazade:

One day he brought his shaving kit along and helped her to get rid of all three patches of body hair:

‘Now I’m Scheher,’ he said, ‘and you are his Ada, and that’s your green prayer carpet. (1.35)

Scherer (sic) is German for “barber.” According to Thingum Bob, Esq., his father was a merchant-barber:

My father, Thomas Bob, Esq., stood for many years at the summit of his profession, which was that of a merchant-barber, in the city of Smug.

Describing poor mad Aqua’s torments, Van mentions Bob Bean, the hospital barber:

Then the anguish increased to unendurable massivity and nightmare dimensions, making her scream and vomit. She wanted (and was allowed, bless the hospital barber, Bob Bean) to have her dark curls shaved to an aquamarine prickle, because they grew into her porous skull and curled inside. Jigsaw pieces of sky or wall came apart, no matter how delicately put together, but a careless jolt or a nurse’s elbow can disturb so easily those lightweight fragments which became incomprehensible blancs of anonymous objects, or the blank backs of ‘Scrabble’ counters, which she could not turn over sunny side up, because her hands had been tied by a male nurse with Demon’s black eyes. But presently panic and pain, like a pair of children in a boisterous game, emitted one last shriek of laughter and ran away to manipulate each other behind a bush as in Count Tolstoy’s Anna Karenin, a novel, and again, for a while, a little while, all was quiet in the house, and their mother had the same first name as hers had. (1.3)

In Tolstoy’s Voyna i mir (“War and Peace,” 1869) the action begins in July 1805 in St. Petersburg, at a soirée given by Anna Pavlovna Scherer. The characters of Tolstoy’s novel include Napoleon. In Eugene Onegin (Two: XIV: 6-7) Pushkin says that we all expect to be Napoleons:

Но дружбы нет и той меж нами.
Все предрассудки истребя,

Мы почитаем всех нулями,
А единицами – себя.

Мы все глядим в Наполеоны;
Двуногих тварей миллионы
Для нас орудие одно;

Нам чувство дико и смешно.
Сноснее многих был Евгений;
Хоть он людей, конечно, знал
И вообще их презирал, —
Но (правил нет без исключений)
Иных он очень отличал
И вчуже чувство уважал.

But in our midst there’s even no such friendship:

Having destroyed all the prejudices,

We deem all people naughts

And ourselves units.

We all expect to be Napoleons;

the millions of two-legged creatures

for us are only tools;

feeling to us is weird and ludicrous.

More tolerant than many was Eugene,

though he, of course, knew men

and on the whole despised them;

but no rules are without exceptions:

some people he distinguished greatly

and, though estranged from it, respected feeling.

According to Pushkin, the millions of two-legged creatures for us are orudie odno (only tools). Neutral of odin (one), odno = Odon = Nodo (Odon’s epileptic half-brother, a cardsharp and despicable traitor). In the last sentence of his Commentary Kinbote mentions a million of photographers:

But whatever happens, wherever the scene is laid, somebody, somewhere, will quietly set out--somebody has already set out, somebody still rather far away is buying a ticket, is boarding a bus, a ship, a plane, has landed, is walking toward a million photographers, and presently he will ring at my door--a bigger, more respectable, more competent Gradus. (note to Line 1000)

Scherer is a German name (mispronounced by Van as Scheher). In his Memoiren Heinrich Heine (the author of a poem about the Doppelgänger) says that some of his French friends called him, mispronouncing his name, Mr. Un rien (“Mr. Nothing”) and mentions Napoleon (who mispronounced Cherubini’s name):

Hier in Frankreich ist mir gleich nach meiner Ankunft in Paris mein Deutscher Name "Heinrich" in "Henry" übersetzt worden, und ich musste mich darin schicken und auch endlich hierzulande selbst so zu nennen, da das Wort Heinrich dem französischen Ohr nicht zusagte und überhaupt die Franzosen sich alle Dinge in der Welt recht bequem machen. Auch den Namen "Henri Heine" haben sie nie recht aussprechen können, und bei den meisten heiβe ich Mr. Enri Enn; von vielen wird dieses in Enrienne zusammengezogen, und einige nannten mich Mr. Un rien.

…Es hat aber, wie gesagt, etwas Mißliches, wenn man unsern Namen schlecht ausspricht. Es gibt Menschen, die in solchen Fällen eine große Empfindlichkeit an den Tagen legen. Ich machte mir mal den Spaß, den alten Cherubini zu befragen, ob es wahr sei, daß der Kaiser Napoleon seinen Namen immer wie Scherubini und nicht wie Kerubini ausgesprochen, obgleich der Kaiser des Italienischen genugsam kundig war, um zu wissen, wo das italienische ch wie ein que oder k ausgesprochen wird. Bei dieser Anfrage expektorierte sich der alte Maestro mit höchst komischer Wut.

Ich habe dergleichen nie empfunden. (chapter 6)

In the Foreword to his Geständnisse (“Confessions,” 1854) Heine complains about the pirate editions of his works and says that he could sing a song about his dishonest compatriots with the refrain Aber in Deutschland tausend und drei! (“But in Germany one thousand and three!”):

Sollte ich, in der ethnographischen Weise des Leporello, eine illustrierte Liste von den respektiven Spitzbuben anfertigen, die mir die Tasche geleert, so würden freilich alle zivilisierten Länder darin zahlreich genug repräsentiert werden, aber die Palme bliebe doch dem Vaterlande, welches das Unglaublichste geleistet, und ich könnte davon ein Lied singen mit dem Refrain:

Aber in Deutschland tausend und drei!

Playing Flavita (Russian Scrabble) with Van and Ada, Lucette (Van’s and Ada’s half-sister) complains that she can do rien (nothing) with her idiotic Buchstaben (letters):

‘Je ne peux rien faire,’ wailed Lucette, ‘mais rien — with my idiotic Buchstaben, REMNILK, LINKREM...’

‘Look,’ whispered Van, ‘c’est tout simple, shift those two syllables and you get a fortress in ancient Muscovy.’

‘Oh, no,’ said Ada, wagging her finger at the height of her temple in a way she had. ‘Oh, no. That pretty word does not exist in Russian. A Frenchman invented it. There is no second syllable.’

‘Ruth for a little child?’ interposed Van.

‘Ruthless!’ cried Ada.

‘Well,’ said Van, ‘you can always make a little cream, KREM or KREME — or even better — there’s KREMLI, which means Yukon prisons. Go through her ORHIDEYA.’

‘Through her silly orchid,’ said Lucette. (1.36)

Lucette’s “idiotic Buchstaben” bring to mind Dostoevski’s novel Idiot (1869). Dostoevski is the author of Dvoynik (“The Double,” 1846) and Netochka Nezvanov (1849), a novel that remained unfinished because the author was arrested and imprisoned in the Peter-and-Paul Fortress (whose commander was General Ivan Nabokov, brother of VN’s great-grandfather) in St. Petersburg. In his Foreword to Shade’s poem Kinbote mentions his “good Netochka” (Dr. Oscar Nattochdag):

There was also the morning when Dr. Nattochdag, head of the department to which I was attached, begged me in a formal voice to be seated, then closed the door, and having regained, with a downcast frown, his swivel chair, urged me "to be more careful." In what sense, careful? A boy had complained to his adviser. Complained of what, good Lord? That I had criticized a literature course he attended ("a ridiculous survey of ridiculous works, conducted by a ridiculous mediocrity"). Laughing in sheer relief, I embraced my good Netochka, telling him I would never be naughty again. I take this opportunity to salute him. He always behaved with such exquisite courtesy toward me that I sometimes wondered if he did not suspect what Shade suspected, and what only three people (two trustees and the president of the college) definitely knew.

In a letter written on his seventeenth birthday (October 30, 1838) to his brother Dostoevski twice uses the word gradus (degree). The last word in Kinbote’s Commentary, Gradus is one of the three main characters in Pale Fire. According to Kinbote, he and Gradus were born on the same day: July 5, 1915. Shade’s birthday is also July 5, but he was born in 1898 and is thus seventeen years K.’s and G.’s senior.

In the same letter to his brother Mikhail Dostoevski says that he failed his algebra examination. In Pushkin’s little tragedy Mozart and Salieri (1830) Salieri compares music to a corpse and says that he measured harmony by algebra:

Звуки умертвив,
Музыку я разъял, как труп. Поверил
Я алгеброй гармонию.

Having stifled sounds,
I cut up music like a corpse. I measured
Harmony by algebra. (scene I)

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 only all so quickly felt the power
Of harmony! But no, in that event
The world could not exist; none would care
about the needs of ordinary life;
All would give themselves to unencumbered art. (scene II)

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). 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.

Alexey Sklyarenko

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