Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0027549, Tue, 10 Oct 2017 16:39:48 +0300

Sudarg of Bokay, ballerina black,
Queen Disa & Sybil Shade in Pale Fire
One of the three main characters in VN’s novel Pale Fire (1962) is Jakob Gradus, Shade’s murderer who was in the glass business. In a letter of March 24, 1891, to his brother Ivan (who was teaching in a school attached to a glass factory) Chekhov praises the Venetian glass:

Если когда-нибудь тебе случится побывать в Венеции, то это будет лучшим в твоей жизни. Поглядел бы ты здесь стеклянное производство! Твои бутылки в сравнении со здешними такое безобразие, что даже думать тошно.

If you ever happen to come to Venice it will be the best thing in your life. You ought to see the glass here! Your bottles are so hideous compared with the things here, that it makes one sick to think of them.

In a letter to his sister written on the next day (March 25, 1891) Chekhov again praises the Venetian glass and mirrors:

Какое здесь стекло, какие зеркала! Зачем я не миллионер?

What glass there is here! what mirrors! Why am I not a millionaire!

In his Commentary and Index Kinbote (Shade’s mad commentator who imagines that he is Charles the Beloved, the last self-exiled king of Zembla) mentions Sudarg of Bokay (Jakob Gradus in reverse), a mirror maker of genius:

He [Charles Xavier Vseslav] awoke to find her [Fleur de Fyler] standing with a comb in her hand before his—or, rather, his grandfather’s—cheval glass, a triptych of bottomless light, a really fantastic mirror, signed with a diamond by its maker, Sudarg of Bokay. She turned about before it: a secret device of reflection gathered an infinite number of nudes in its depths, garlands of girls in graceful and sorrowful groups, diminishing in the limpid distance, or breaking into individual nymphs, some of whom, she murmured, must resemble her ancestors when they were young—little peasant garlien combing their hair in shallow water as far as the eye could reach, and then the wistful mermaid from an old tale, and then nothing. (note to Line 80)

Sudarg of Bokay, a mirror maker of genius, the patron saint of Bokay in the mountains of Zembla, <http://www.shannonrchamberlain.com/commentary.html#comline80> 80; life span not known. (Index)

Sudarg brings to mind gosudar’ (sovereign) and sudoroga (cramp, convulsion, spasm). Gosudar’ is the Russian title of Machiavelli’s Il Principe (“The Prince,” 1532).

In a letter of January 14, 1891, to his sister Chekhov calls Sudogda (a town in the Province of Vladimir where Chekhov’s brother Ivan worked in a school attached to a glass factory) Sudoroga (“Crampton”):

Я утомлён, как балерина после пяти действий и восьми картин. Обеды, письма, на которые лень отвечать, разговоры и всякая чепуха. Сейчас надо ехать обедать на Васильевский остров, а мне скучно, и надо работать. Поживу ещё три дня, посмотрю, если балет будет продолжаться, то уеду домой или к Ивану в Судорогу.

Chekhov says that he is exhausted like a ballerina after five acts and eight scenes and adds that, if the ballet goes on, he will leave St. Petersburg and go either home or to Ivan’s place in Sudoroga. Chekhov is the author of Zhena (“The Wife,” 1891), a short story. In Canto Three of his poem Shade describes IPH (a lay Institute of Preparation For the Hereafter) and mentions a widower who lost two wives and who meets them again after his death:

We give advice
To widower. He has been married twice:
He meets his wives; both loved, both loving, both
Jealous of one another. Time means growth,
And growth means nothing in Elysian life.
Fondling a changeless child, the flax-haired wife
Grieves on the brink of a remembered pond
Full of a dreamy sky. And, also blond,
But with a touch of tawny in the shade,
Feet up, knees clasped, on a stone balustrade
The other sits and raises a moist gaze
Toward the blue impenetrable haze.
How to begin? Which first to kiss? What toy
To give the babe? Does that small solemn boy
Know of the head-on crash which on a wild
March night killed both the mother and the child?

And she, the second love, with instep bare
In ballerina black, why does she wear
The earrings from the other's jewels case?
And why does she avert her fierce young face? (ll. 569-588)

In their old age Van and Ada, the main characters in VN’s novel Ada (1969), translate Shade’s poem into Russian:

She insisted that if there were no future, then one had the right of making up a future, and in that case one’s very own future did exist, insofar as one existed oneself. Eighty years quickly passed — a matter of changing a slide in a magic lantern. They had spent most of the morning reworking their translation of a passage (lines 569-572) in John Shade’s famous poem:

...Sovetï mï dayom

Kak bït’ vdovtsu: on poteryal dvuh zhyon;

On ih vstrechaet — lyubyashchih, lyubimïh,

Revnuyushchih ego drug k druzhke...

(...We give advice

To widower. He has been married twice:

He meets his wives, both loved, both loving, both

Jealous of one another...)

Van pointed out that here was the rub — one is free to imagine any type of hereafter, of course: the generalized paradise promised by Oriental prophets and poets, or an individual combination; but the work of fancy is handicapped — to a quite hopeless extent — by a logical ban: you cannot bring your friends along — or your enemies for that matter — to the party. The transposition of all our remembered relationships into an Elysian life inevitably turns it into a second-rate continuation of our marvelous mortality. Only a Chinaman or a retarded child can imagine being met, in that Next-Installment World, to the accompaniment of all sorts of tail-wagging and groveling of welcome, by the mosquito executed eighty years ago upon one’s bare leg, which has been amputated since then and now, in the wake of the gesticulating mosquito, comes back, stomp, stomp, stomp, here I am, stick me on.

‘Oh, Van, oh Van, we did not love her enough. That’s whom you should have married, the one sitting feet up, in ballerina black, on the stone balustrade, and then everything would have been all right — I would have stayed with you both in Ardis Hall, and instead of that happiness, handed out gratis, instead of all that we teased her to death!’ (5.6)

“The one sitting feet up, in ballerina black, on the stone balustrade” is Van’s and Ada’s half-sister Lucette who drowned herself in the Atlantic (3.5). Shade’s daughter Hazel drowned herself in Lake Omega. A leitmotif in Shade’s poem are the opening lines of Goethe’s Erlkönig (1782):

Wer reitet so spät durch Nacht und Wind?
Es ist der Vater mit seinem Kind.

Who rides, so late, through night and wind?
It is the father with his child.

In his essay “Pushkin” (1906) Merezhkovski quotes Pushkin’s words about Goethe’s Faust:

Вот как русский поэт понимает значение «Фауста»: «„Фауст“ стоит совсем особо. Это последнее слово немецкой литературы, это особый мир, как „Божественная Комедия“; это — в изящной форме альфа и омега человеческой мысли со времён христианства».

According to Pushkin, Goethe’s Faust is “alpha and omega of human thought since the times of Christianity.”

The characters in Merezhkovski’s novel Voskresshie bogi. Leodardo da Vinchi (“Resurrected Gods. Leonardo da Vinci,” 1900) include Niccolo Machiavelli (the author of “The Prince”). In his poem Dvoynaya bezdna (“The Double Abyss,” 1901), whose title was borrowed from Tyutchev’s poem Lebed’ (“The Swan,” 1839), Merezhkovski says that life and death are the two abysses reflected in each other as in a mirror:

И смерть и жизнь - родные бездны;

Они подобны и равны,

Друг другу чужды и любезны,

Одна в другой отражены.

Одна другую углубляет,

Как зеркало, а человек

Их съединяет, разделяет

Своею волею навек.

In the same letter of March 24, 1891, to his brother Chekhov mentions Merezhkovski whom he met in Venice:

Мережковский, которого я встретил здесь, с ума сошёл от восторга. Русскому человеку, бедному и приниженному, здесь в мире красоты, богатства и свободы не трудно сойти с ума. Хочется здесь навеки остаться, а когда стоишь в церкви и слушаешь орган, то хочется принять католичество.

Merezhkovsky, whom I have met here, is off his head with ecstasy. For us poor and oppressed Russians it is easy to go off our minds here in a world of beauty, wealth, and freedom. One longs to remain here forever, and when one stands in the churches and listens to the organ one longs to become a Catholic.

Chekhov twice uses the phrase soyti s uma (to go mad). An American scholar of Russian descent, Professor Vsevolod Botkin went mad and became Shade, Kinbote (a Roman Catholic) and Gradus after the tragic death of his daughter Nadezhda (“Hazel Shade” of Kinbote’s commentary). Nadezhda means in Russian hope. In his essay on Chekhov, Tvorchestvo iz nichego (“Creation from the Void,” 1905), the philosopher Lev Shestov calls Chekhov pevets beznadezhnosti (a poet of hopelessness).

In the same letter of March 24, 1891, to his brother Chekhov mentions the house where Desdemona lived:

Я теперь в Венеции, куда приехал третьего дня из Вены. Одно могу сказать: замечательнее Венеции я в своей жизни городов не видел. Это сплошное очарование, блеск, радость жизни. Вместо улиц и переулков каналы, вместо извозчиков гондолы, архитектура изумительная, и нет того местечка, которое не возбуждало бы исторического или художественного интереса. Плывёшь в гондоле и видишь дворцы дожей, дом, где жила Дездемона, дома знаменитых художников, храмы... А в храмах скульптура и живопись, какие нам и во сне не снились. Одним словом, очарование.

I am now in Venice. I arrived here two days ago from Vienna. One thing I can say: I have never in my life seen a town more marvellous than Venice. It is perfectly enchanting, brilliance, joy of life. Instead of streets and roads there are canals; instead of cabs, gondolas. The architecture is amazing, and there is not a single spot that does not excite some historical or artistic interest. You float in a gondola and see the palace of the Doges, the house where Desdemona lived, homes of various painters, churches. And in the churches there are sculptures and paintings such as we have never dreamed of. In a word, it is enchantment.

In a letter of March 25, 1891, to his sister Chekhov also mentions the little house where Desdemona lived:

Например, домик, где жила Дездемона, производит впечатление, от которого трудно отделаться.

For instance, the little house where Desdemona lived makes an impression that is difficult to shake off.

Duchess of Payn, of Great Payn and Moan, Queen Disa (the wife of Charles the Beloved) seems to blend Leonardo’s Mona Lisa with Desdemona (Othello’s wife in Shakespeare’s Othello). Sybil Shade (Shade’s wife) and Queen Disa seem to be one and the same person whose “real” name is Sofia Botkin (born Lastochkin). Lastochki (“The Swallows,” 1895) is a poem by Merezhkovski. In his essay “Pushkin” Merezhkovski mentions neyasnyi shyopot Sibilly (Sybil’s unclear whisper) which can be heard in Baratynski’s verse and which Leo Tolstoy has turned into a thunderous war cry:

Наконец, сомнения в благах западной культуры - неясный шёпот Сибиллы у Баратынского - Лев Толстой превратил в громовый воинственный клич; любовь к природе Лермонтова, его песни о безучастной красоте моря и неба - "в четыре упряжки", в полевую работу; христианство Достоевского и Гоголя, далекое от действительной жизни, священный огонь, пожиравший их сердца - в страшный циклопический молот, направленный против главных устоев современного общества. Но всего замечательнее, что это русское возвращение к природе - русский бунт против культуры - первый выразил Пушкин, величайший гений культуры среди наших писателей:

Когда б оставили меня
На воле, как бы резво я
Пустился в тёмный лес!
Я пел бы в пламенном бреду,
Я забывался бы в чаду
Нестройных, чудных грез.

И силен, волен был бы я,
Как вихорь, роющий поля,
Ломающий леса.

И я б заслушивался волн,
И я глядел бы, счастья полн,
В пустые небеса.

Merezhkovski quotes Pushkin’s poem Ne day mne Bog soyti s uma (“The Lord forbid my going mad…” 1833) that ends in the lines:

Да вот беда: сойди с ума,
И страшен будешь как чума,
Как раз тебя запрут,
Посадят на цепь дурака
И сквозь решётку как зверка
Дразнить тебя придут.

А ночью слышать буду я
Не голос яркий соловья,
Не шум глухой дубров —
А крик товарищей моих,
Да брань смотрителей ночных,
Да визг, да звон оков.

The epithet “bright” in the phrase golos yarkiy solovya (a nightingale’s bright voice) signals Pushkin’s awareness of Batyushkov’s madness. To the question kotoryi chas (“what is the time”) mad Batyushkov replied: vechnost’ (“eternity”). Kot or (“what is the time” in Zemblan) seems to signal Botkin’s awareness of his madness. Moreover, it indicates that Botkin writes Pale Fire in a madhouse.

In his poem Byla pora: nash prazdnik molodoy… (“There was a time: our young feast…” 1836) that he read at the celebration of his last Lyceum anniversary (October 19, 1836) Pushkin mentions nadezhda and says that a quarter of century has passed since the day when the Lyceum was founded:

Была пора: наш праздник молодой
Сиял, шумел и розами венчался,
И с песнями бокалов звон мешался,
И тесною сидели мы толпой.

Тогда, душой беспечные невежды,
Мы жили все и легче и смелей,
Мы пили все за здравие надежды
И юности и всех её затей.

…Всему пора: уж двадцать пятый раз
Мы празднуем лицея день заветный.
Прошли года чредою незаметной,
И как они переменили нас!
Недаром — нет! — промчалась четверть века!
Не сетуйте: таков судьбы закон;
Вращается весь мир вкруг человека, —
Ужель один недвижим будет он?

At the beginning of his essay O Chekhove (“On Chekhov,” 1929) Hodasevich says that twenty-five years have passed since the day of Chekhov’s death:

Итак, со дня смерти Чехова прошло двадцать пять лет.

Эта годовщина застаёт меня в такие дни, когда мысль (да признаться - и сердце) заняты другим именем, совсем другим творческим и человеческим образом.

Чехов - и Державин! Кажется, труднее даже нарочно выискать двух русских писателей, двух людей, столь несхожих, столь чуждых друг другу, как эти два.

То, что один - поэт, а другой - прозаик, совсем не главное между ними различие, не самое разительное. Все другие гораздо разительнее.

Один - здоровый, кряжистый, долговечный. Другой - слабый, подслеповатый, вечно кашляющий, рано умерший.

Зато в творчестве мускулистого Державина всё - парение, порывание, взлёт:

Необычайным я пареньем
От тленна мира отделюсь,
С душой бессмертною и пеньем,
Как лебедь, в воздух поднимусь.

Хворый Чехов не любит "необычайного"; он весь обычаен, он совсем не хочет парить, а, напротив, любовно и прочно привязан к земле, ко всему простейшему, самому будничному; и в бессмертие души он, по-видимому, не верит. Чеховская чайка не стремится ввысь, как державинский лебедь; она стелется над водой и льнёт к берегу.

Hodasevich contrasts Chekhov (the writer and doctor who did not believe in the immortality of soul) with Derzhavin and Chekhov’s seagull with Derzhavin’s swan. In Canto Two of his poem Shade speaks of his daughter and mentions the dingy cygnet:

Alas, the dingy cygnet never turned
Into a wood duck. (ll. 318-319)

“The Wild Duck” (1884) is a play by Ibsen. In a letter of March 31, 1902, to Olga Knipper (a leading actress of the Moscow Art Theater) Chekhov asks his wife if Stanislavski’s stage version of “The Wild Duck” was a flop:

«Дикая утка» осрамилась?

In the same letter to his wife Chekhov mentions the unexpected success of Gorki’s play Na dne (“At the Bottom,” 1902):

Пьеса Горького имела успех? Молодцы!!

In his autobiography Speak, Memory (1951) VN describes his years at Cambridge and pairs Ibsen with Gorki and Gorki’s translator:

Today he is not unknown among his peers, which is, I admit readily, a pretty meaningless phrase, but then, I am doing my best to obscure his identity; let me refer to him by the name of ‘Nesbit’ as I dubbed him (or affirm now having dubbed him), not only because of his alleged resemblance to early portraits of Maxim Gorki, a regional mediocrity of that era, one of whose stories (“My Fellow Traveler” – another apt note) had been translated by a certain R. Nesbit Bain, but also because ‘Nesbit’ has the advantage of entering into a voluptuous palindromic association with ‘Ibsen,’ a name I shall have to evoke presently. (Chapter Thirteen, 3)

In Pale Fire VN is doing his best to obscure Botkin’s identity. The name Botkin has the advantage of entering into a voluptuous palindromic association with nikto (nobody), the last word in Lermontov’s poem Net, ya ne Bayron, ya drugoy… (“No, I’m not Byron, I’m another…” 1832). In his essay “Pushkin” Merezhkovski points out that Pushkin is closer to Goethe, than to Byron, and also uses the word nikto:

С этой точки зрения становится вполне ясной ошибка тех, которые ставят Пушкина в связь не с Гёте, а с Байроном. Правда, Байрон увеличил силы Пушкина, но не иначе как побеждённый враг увеличивает силы победителя. Пушкин поглотил Евфориона, преодолел его крайности, его разлад, претворил его в своем сердце, и устремился дальше, выше — в те ясные сферы всеобъемлющей гармонии, куда звал Гёте и куда за Гёте никто не имел силы пойти, кроме Пушкина.

According to Merezhkovski, Pushkin followed Goethe to those clear spheres of all-embracing harmony where Goethe had called and where nobody, except Pushkin, was strong enough to go.

Kinbote completes his work on Shade’s poem and commits suicide on October 19, 1959 (the Lyceum anniversary). There is a hope that after Kinbote’s death Botkin, like Count Vorontsov (a target of Pushkin’s epigrams, “half-milord, half-merchant, etc.”), will be full again.

Alexey Sklyarenko

Search archive with Google:

Contact the Editors: mailto:nabokv-l@utk.edu,dana.dragunoiu@gmail.com,shvabrin@humnet.ucla.edu
Zembla: http://www.libraries.psu.edu/nabokov/zembla.htm
Nabokv-L policies: http://web.utk.edu/~sblackwe/EDNote.htm
Nabokov Online Journal:" http://www.nabokovonline.com
AdaOnline: "http://www.ada.auckland.ac.nz/
The Nabokov Society of Japan's Annotations to Ada: http://vnjapan.org/main/ada/index.html
The VN Bibliography Blog: http://vnbiblio.com/
Search the archive with L-Soft: https://listserv.ucsb.edu/lsv-cgi-bin/wa?A0=NABOKV-L

Manage subscription options :http://listserv.ucsb.edu/lsv-cgi-bin/wa?SUBED1=NABOKV-L