Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0027443, Mon, 31 Jul 2017 16:26:59 +0300

Dim Gulf, Hebe's Cup, transparent thingum,
black cat & Leningradus in Pale Fire; Ustin in Speak, Memory
In Canto Four of Pale Fire John Shade (whose first book of verse was entitled Dim Gulf) 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 compares the Past to a 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!

E. A. Poe is the author of The Literary Life of Thingum Bob, Esq. (1850). In his memoir story Lunatik (“Somnambulist,” 1932) G. Ivanov describes his visit in October of 1918 to the poet Vladimir Pyast (Poe’s ardent admirer). As he spoke to his visitor, Pyast compared his immortal soul to a thin transparent wall (that would protect Poe from the knives of assassins):

— О,— вдруг сказал Пяст, поднимая торжественно руку, и голос его зазвенел.— Если у меня действительно есть бессмертная душа, если я не только мясо и кости — значит, я был и тогда, когда его убивали. И — в этом нет ничего невозможного, да, да, ничего невозможного — я, моя субстанция, моя душа—могла бы оказаться между ним и ножами убийц. В виде стенки, такой тонкой эфирной стенки, прозрачной, непроницаемой, о, абсолютно непроницаемой и ледяной... Да... И нож ударился бы о неё и сломался. Вы допускаете, что это могло случиться? Даже с чисто научной точки зрения могло. А если могло, то почему не случилось, как могло не случиться! Нож сломался бы, те в страхе убежали... А он уехал бы в Филадельфию и там отдохнул. Он так хотел отдохнуть!

According to Ivanov, Pyast’s only friend was Alexander Blok:

Ещё одна черта, такая же противоречивая, как всё в Пясте: у него не было друзей, за одним-единственным исключением. Исключением этим был... Блок.

In his memoir essay on Blok (included in the second edition of “The St. Petersburg Winters,” 1952) G. Ivanov says that when he once asked Blok if a sonnet needs a coda, Blok replied that he did not know what a coda is:

Зачем Блок писал длинные письма или вёл долгие разговоры со мной, желторотым подростком, с вечными вопросами о технике поэзии на языке? Время от времени какой-нибудь такой вопрос с моего языка срывался.

— Александр Александрович, нужна ли кода к сонету? — спросил я как-то. К моему изумлению, Блок, знаменитый «мэтр», вообще не знал, что такое кода…

It seems that, to be completed, Shade’s almost finished 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 the first quatrain of his Sonnet – Silence (1840) E. A. Poe mentions a double life and 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.

In Mandelshtam’s poem My napryazhyonnogo molchan’ya ne vynosim… (“We cannot bear strained silence…” 1913) koshmarnyi chelovek (a man out of a nightmare) who is reading Ulalume is Pyast. The poems in Mandelshtam’s collection Kamen’ (“Stone,” 1915) include Silentium. Silentium! (1830) is a famous poem by Tyutchev. In the last stanza of his poem Vesennyaya groza (“The Spring Thunderstorm,” 1828) Tyutchev mentions frivolous Hebe spilling on Earth 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.

Shade’s third book, Hebe's Cup is his final float in “that damp carnival.” In E. A. Poe’s story The Cask of Amontillado (1846) the action takes place in Italy during a carnival. In his fragment Rim (“Rome,” 1842) Gogol describes a carnival in Rome and mentions the Italian sonnetto colla coda (sonnet with a coda). One of Mandelshtam’s poems in Kamen’ begins as follows: Pogovorim o Rime – divnyi grad! (“Let’s talk of Rome – a marvelous city!”). Grad (obs. of gorod, “city”) brings to mind Gradus, Shade’s murderer. Accoding to Kinbote, Gradus’ whole clan was in the liquor business:

Having a morbid affection for the ruddy Russia of the Soviet era, he contended that the real origin of his name should be sought in the Russian word for grape, vinograd, to which a Latin suffix had adhered, making in Vinogradus. His father, Martin Gradus, had been a Protestant minister in Riga, but except for him and a maternal uncle (Roman Tselovalnikov, police officer and part-time member of the Social-Revolutionary party), the whole clan seems to have been in the liquor business. (note to Line 17)

In Blok’s poem Neznakomka (“Incognita,” 1906) the drunks with the eyes of rabbits cry out: “In vino veritas!” In Lunatik Pyast quotes Poe’s words “what disease is like Alcohol:”

— Как раз сегодня—шестого октября. Он ехал в Филадельфию, у него были деньги—в первый раз в жизни у него были деньги, он хотел отдохнуть, он мог отдохнуть. И вот—стакан виски, только один стакан. Какая болезнь может сравниться с тобой, алкоголь! Это он, это Эдгар сказал. Ему было только тридцать семь лет, он так хотел начать новую жизнь. Новая жизнь! Он и начал новую жизнь! Он и начал новую жизнь—его убили. Вы думаете, это они?

These words occur in Poe’s story The Black Cat (1845):

But my disease grew upon me -- for what disease is like Alcohol! -- and at length even Pluto, who was now becoming old, and consequently somewhat peevish -- even Pluto began to experience the effects of my ill temper.

In his Commentary Kinbote several times mentions the black cat that came with his landlord’s house:

Among various detailed notices affixed to a special board in the pantry, such as plumbing instructions, disserations on electricity, discourses on cactuses and so forth, I found the diet of the black cat that came with the house:

Mon, Wed, Fri: Liver
Tue, Thu, Sat: Fish
Sun: Ground meat

(All it got from me was milk and sardines; it was a likable little creature but after a while its movements began to grate on my nerves and I farmed it out to Mrs. Finley, the cleaning woman.) (note to Lines 47-48)

The Goldsworth château had many outside doors, and no matter how thoroughly I inspected them and the window shutters downstairs at bedtime, I never failed to discover next morning something unlocked, unlatched, a little loose, a little ajar, something sly and suspicious-looking. One night the black cat, which a few minutes before I had seen rippling down into the basement where I had arranged toilet facilities for it in an attractive setting, suddenly reappeared on the threshold of the music room, in the middle of my insomnia and a Wagner record, arching its back and sporting a neck bow of white silk which it could certainly never have put on all by itself. I telephoned 11111 and a few minutes later was discussing possible culprits with a policeman who relished greatly my cherry cordial, but whoever had broken in had left no trace. (note to Line 62)

The black cat sporting a neck bow of white silk is, of course, a different animal. In Poe’s story the second cat has, unlike Pluto, a white spot on its breast:

It was a black cat -- a very large one -- fully as large as Pluto, and closely resembling him in every respect but one. Pluto had not a white hair upon any portion of his body; but this cat had a large, although indefinite splotch of white, covering nearly the whole region of the breast.

Upon my touching him, he immediately arose, purred loudly, rubbed against my hand, and appeared delighted with my notice. This, then, was the very creature of which I was in search. I at once offered to purchase it of the landlord; but this person made no claim to it -- knew nothing of it -- had never seen it before.

Next time Kinbote telephones 11111 after Shade’s assassination:

One of the bullet that spared me struck him in the side and went through his heart. His presence behind me abruptly failing me caused me to lose my balance, and, simultaneously, to complete the farce of fate, my gardener's spade dealt gunman Jack from behind the hedge a tremendous blow to the pate, felling him and sending his weapon flying from his grasp. Our savior retrieved it and helped me to my feet. My coccyx and right wrist hurt badly but the poem was safe. John, though, lay prone on the ground, with a red spot on his white shirt. I still hoped he had not been killed. The madman sat on the porch step, dazedly nursing with bloody hands a bleeding head. Leaving the gardener to watch over him I hurried into the house and concealed the invaluable envelope under a heap of girls' galoshes, furred snowboots and white wellingtons heaped at the bottom of a closet, from which I exited as if it had been the end of the secret passage that had taken me all the way out of my enchanted castle and right from Zembla to this Arcady. I then dialed 11111 and returned with a glass of water to the scene of the carnage. The poor poet had now been turned over and lay with open dead eyes directed up at the sunny evening azure. The armed gardener and the battered killer were smoking side by side on the steps. The latter, either because he was in pain, or because he had decided to play a new role, ignored me as completely as if I were a stone king a stone charger in the Tessera Square of Onhava; but the poem was safe. (note to Line 1000)

According to Kinbote, he is not going to commit suicide:

God will help me, I trust, to rid myself of any desire to follow the example of the other two characters in this work. (ibid.)

At the beginning of Lunatik G. Ivanov mentions the rumors circulating in emigration about Pyast’s suicide in the backwoods of Russia:

Месяца два тому назад в газетах промелькнуло: «В московских литературных кругах распространился слух о самоубийстве в провинции поэта Пяста».

Pyast (who, according to G. Ivanov, had no telephone at home) was a specialist in Spanish literature:

«Всемирной литературе», только что основанной, срочно требовались какие-то справки по испанской литературе, которые Пяст—по Испании специалист — обещал прислать и вовремя не прислал. Вот меня и попросили зайти к Пясту—почта в те времена была медлительная и ненадежная, а телефона у Пяста не было.

In Gogol’s story Zapiski sumasshedshego (“A Madman’s Notes,” 1835) Poprishchin imagines that he is Ferdinand VIII, the king of Spain. Shade’s mad commentator, Kinbote imagines that he is Charles the Beloved, the last self-exiled king of Zembla.

In his memoir essay on Blok G. Ivanov says that he still remembers Blok’s telephone number:

Каждый раз Блок наливает вино в новый стакан. Сперва тщательно вытирает его полотенцем, потом смотрит на свет — нет ли пылинки. Блок, самый серафический, самый «неземной» из поэтов — аккуратен и методичен до странности. Например, если Блок заперся в кабинете, все в доме ходят на цыпочках, трубка с телефона (помню до сих пор номер блоковского телефона — 612-00!..) снята — всё это совсем не значит, что он пишет стихи или статью.

In his autobiography Speak, Memory (1954) VN mentions his old telephone numbers:

Nor had I any trouble with our wonderful, eminently bribable Ustin, who took the calls on our ground-floor telephone, the number of which was 24–43, dvadtsat’ chetïre sorok tri; he briskly replied I had a sore throat. I wonder, by the way, what would happen if I put in a long-distance call from my desk right now? No answer? No such number? No such country? Or the voice of Ustin saying “moyo pochtenietse!” (the ingratiating diminutive of “my respects”)? There exist, after all, well-publicized Slavs and Kurds who are well over one hundred and fifty. My father’s telephone in his study (584–51) was not listed, and my form master in his attempts to learn the truth about my failing health never got anywhere, though sometimes I missed three days in a row. (Chapter Twelve, 2)

According to VN, it was the doorman Ustin who showed to the Bolsheviks the hiding place (cf. the mystery of Zemblan crown jewels in PF) in the room where he was born:

As early as 1906, for instance, the police, suspecting my father of conducting clandestine meetings at Vyra, had engaged the services of Ustin who thereupon begged my father, under some pretext that I cannot recall, but with the deep purpose of spying on whatever went on, to take him to the country that summer as an extra footman (he had been pantry boy in the Rukavishnikov household); and it was he, omnipresent Ustin, who in the winter of 1917–18 heroically led representatives of the victorious Soviets up to my father’s study on the second floor, and from there, through a music room and my mother’s boudoir, to the southeast corner room where I was born, and to the niche in the wall, to the tiaras of colored fire, which formed an adequate recompense for the Swallowtail he had once caught for me. (Chapter Nine, 4)

In his poem Leningrad (1930) Mandelshtam (who, like VN, finished the Tenishev school) says that St. Petersburg still has his telephone numbers:

Петербург! я ещё не хочу умирать!

У тебя телефонов моих номера.

Petersburg! I don’t want to die yet!

You still have my telephone numbers.

In his Commentary Kinbote mockingly calls Gradus “Vinogradus” and “Leningradus:”

All this is as it should be; the world needs Gradus. But Gradus should not kill things. Vinogradus should never, never provoke God. Leningradus should not aim his peashooter at people even in dreams, because if he does, a pair of colossally thick, abnormally hairy arms will hug him from behind and squeeze, squeeze, squeeze. (note to Line 171)

In VN’s novel Transparent Things (1972) Hugh Person strangles his wife in his sleep. In his poem The Sleeper (1845) E. A. Poe mentions the mystic moon and uses the phrase “drop by drop:”

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.

Shade’s last poem (transparent thingum) needs “some moondrop title.” According to VN, the Russian title of Transparent Things should be Skvoznyak iz proshlogo (“A Draught from the Past”). In his poem Nerodivshemusya chitatelyu (“To an Unborn Reader,” 1930) VN describes his photograph and in the last stanza mentions skvoznyak iz proshlogo:

Я здесь с тобой. Укрыться ты не волен.

К тебе на грудь я прянул через мрак.

Вот холодок ты чувствуешь: сквозняк

из прошлого... Прощай же. Я доволен.

In the last sentence of his Commentary Kinbote mentions a million of photographers:

History permitting, I may sail back to my recovered kingdom, and with a great sob greet the gray coastline and the gleam of a roof in the rain. I may huddle and groan in a madhouse. 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)

Shade’s, Kinbote’s and Gradus’ “real” name seems to be Botkin. Among the people who were executed with the family of the last Russian tsar was Dr Botkin. In his poem Emalevyi krestik v petlitse… (“An enamel cross in the buttonhole…” 1949) G. Ivanov describes an old postcard depicting Nicholas II, his wife and children. Another famous poem by G. Ivanov begins: Lunatik v pustotu glyadit… (“A sleep-walker looks in the void…” 1949).

According to G. Ivanov, it was Gumilyov who used to call Pyast etot lunatik (“this somnambulist”):

Гумилёв, Пяста очень недолюбливавший, презрительно величал его: «Этот лунатик». Если отбросить насмешку, которой Пяст, по-моему, не заслуживал, определение очень меткое.

In August of 1921 (less than three weeks after Blok’s death) Gumilyov was executed by the Bolsheviks. VN’s poem Rasstrel (“The Execution,” 1927) ends as follows:

Но, сердце, как бы ты хотело,
чтоб это вправду было так:
Россия, звёзды, ночь расстрела
и весь в черёмухе овраг!

But how you would have wished, my heart,

that thus it all had really been:

Russia, the stars, the night of execution

and full of racemosas the ravine!

V ovrage (“In the Ravine,” 1899) is a story by Chekhov. In Kinbote’s Commentary Shade lists Chekhov among Russian 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." (note to Line 172)

The word lunatik comes from luna (the moon). One of Zoshchenko’s stories is entitled S luny svalilsya (“Born Yesterday,” 1932). Literally, the title of Zoshchenko’s story means “I fell from the moon.” In Poe’s story The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall (1835) the main character claims that he is just back from the moon (where he had spent five years).

Leningrad + Ustin + arm/ram = Lenin + Martin Gradus = Leningradus + mir/Rim/Imr + tan/ant

step/pest + rot/Ort + tan/ant = Protestant

Leningrad – St. Petersburg’s name in 1924-91

mir – world; peace

Rim – Rome; in G. Ivanov’s unfinished novel Tretiy Rim (“The Third Rome,” 1929) the action takes place in Petrograd (St. Petersburg’s name in 1914-24)

Imr – the main character in Gumilyov’s tragedy Otravlennaya tunika (“The Poisoned Tunic,” 1918), an Arab poet; the action in “The Poisoned Tunic” takes place at the beginning of the 6th century in Constantinople (“the Second Rome”)

rot – Russ., mouth; Germ., red

Ort – Ger., place

Alexey Sklyarenko

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