NABOKV-L post 0026518, Fri, 9 Oct 2015 20:56:44 -0700

underworldly names: Shade, Sybil and Hazel
Jansy Mello: Shade/Hades is an anagram, but was it intended by VN, in
the sense that the name Shade would’ve been chosen because of this
wordplay instead of its other shades of darkness?

Dear Jansy,

I neglected to respond to your query as to VN's intentions regarding
the name Shade as an anagram of Hades. I believe it to have been
intentional for several reasons. Shade's dual nature is spelled out
plainly when he himself (that is to say VN as Shade) refers to his
totem (I forget the word he used) as the versipel, or werewolf. The
other reason is that the names of his wife and daughter also point to
the underworld. Can this be unintended? I found this very interesting
description of the hazel in Frazer's The Golden Bough :

People have fancied that if they cut a branch of hazel on Midsummer
Eve it would serve them as a divining rod to discover treasure and
water [hidden underground]. They say that if you would procure the
mystic wand you must go to the hazel by night on Midsummer Eve,
walking backwards .... Having got it you must baptize it in the name
of one of the Three Holy Kings according to the purpose for which you
intend to use it: if the rod is to discover gold, you name it Caspar;
if it is to reveal silver, you call it Balthasar; and if it is to
point out hidden springs of water, you dub it Melchior [my italics].

Actually these (at least the walking backwards and the Three Kings)
are most likely coincidences; I am not aware of any evidence that VN
read The Golden Bough. Of course, there may be slavic equivalents that
VN would have known (Pnin knew his slavic folklore). As to the
despised by VN T. S. Eliot - I believe that he was very much aware of
Frazer. Midsummer's Eve (known as St. John's Eve in Europe and Ivan
Kupala in Russia - June 23rd New Style) reference - that's harder to
pooh-pooh. I can't find it in the archives, but I thought someone had
shown that this day is important in Pale Fire. Note also that "many
rites of this holiday are connected with water, fertility and
autopurification. The girls, for example, would float their flower
garlands on the water of rivers and tell their fortunes from their
movement [from the Wikipedia]." There are references to this in both
Pnin and Pale Fire I believe. In any event, Hazel does ask her mother
for the meaning of chtonic (a word which she finds along with grimpen,
a word that may have been coined by Conan Doyle, in The Waste Land
which she apparently is reading for a class).

Jansy Mello: This time and again I was reminded of T.S.Eliot’s
epigraph to “The Wasteland”, from the Satyricon (Petronius), where one
Sybil is mentioned (but I don’t imagine VN was thinking about that
ever-shriveling prophet).

As to the Sibyl (note different spelling) she of Delphi was portrayed
by Michelangelo as a handsome and relatively young woman. The Cumaen
Sibyl (the aged one) was Roman, thus a later copy of the original
Greek. Michelangelo put both Sibyls (actually there are a total of
five) in the Sistine Chapel:

Note that far from appearing shriveled, the Cumaean Sibyl, though
clearly ancient, is endowed by the artist with rather beefy arms!
however, Jansy is correct; the Cumaean Sibyl shrank to the point where
she could be contained in a jar, to which idea Eliot refers.

Wikipedia: Pausanias [in his Description of Greece, 2nd century AD]
claimed that the [Delphic] Sibyl was "born between man and goddess,
daughter of sea monsters and an immortal nymph". Others said she was
the sister or daughter of Apollo. ... After her death, it was said
that she became a wandering voice that still brought to the ears of
men tidings of the future wrapped in dark riddles.

The habit of the Sibyl to deliver her messages in "dark riddles"
definitely reminds one of Pale Fire. Was Nabokov thinking of the
Delphic oracle when he named Mrs Shade Sybil? I have no idea, but
certainly he would have been aware of the origins of the name. Arguing
against all of this is the fact that of all the characters in Pale
Fire one of the least mysterious and otherworldly is Sybil Shade.


P.S. In a footnote in The Golden Bough (ibid., p. 69) I found that "a
remarkable property of the hazel is that it is never struck by
lightning." Lightning does play a role in Pale Fire, and while Mary
McCarthy called her miraculous early review of the novel "A Bolt from
the Blue" - the only storm she mentions is an artificial snowstorm in
a paperweight. Does anyone have a theory as to why she used this
expression for her title?
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