NABOKV-L post 0026598, Thu, 5 Nov 2015 14:38:28 +0300

40 Arabian thieves & Hrushchov in Pale Fire; Tsar Nikita & his 40
daughters in Pushkin's poem
From Kinbote’s note to Lines 433-434:

"What are your plans?" she [Queen Disa] inquired. "Why can't you stay here
as long as you want? Please do. I'll be going to Rome soon, you'll have the
whole house to yourself. Imagine, you can bed here as many as forty guests,
forty Arabian thieves." (Influence of the huge terra cotta vases in the

The allusion is to Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, a story included in many
versions of the One Thousand and One Nights. (It seems that Shade’s
unfinished poem needs two lines to be completed and in its full form should
consist of 1001 lines.)

Pushkin’s letter of Dec. 1, 1826, to Alekseev (the poet’s Kishinev pal)
ends with the following little poem:

Прощай, отшельник бессарабский,
Лукавый друг души моей ―
Порадуй же меня не сказочкой арабской,
Но русской правдою твоей.

Farewell, the Bessarabian recluse,

arch friend of my soul;

do gladden me not with an Arabian fairy tale,

but with your Russian truth.

In his letter Pushkin says that there are not many chances that he and
Alekseev will meet in Moscow:

Был я в Москве и думал: авось, бог милости
в, увижу где-нибудь чинно сидящего моего ч
ёрного друга или в креслах театральных, и
ли в ресторации за бутылкой. Нет ― так и уе
хал во Псков ― так и теперь опять еду в бел
окаменную. Надежды нет иль очень мало.

Nadezhdy net il’ ochen’ malo (“there’s no, or very little, hope”) is a
self-reference to a line in Tsar Nikita and his Forty Daughters (1822), a
frivolous fairy tale in verse written when Pushkin lived in Kishinev:

nichego il’ ochen’ malo

[the Princesses lacked] nothing or very little.

At the beginning of his poem Pushkin mentions tsar Nikita’s thriving zemlya

Царь Никита жил когда-то

Праздно, весело, богато,

Не творил добра, ни зла,

И земля его цвела.

Tsar Nikita once reigned widely,
Richly, merrily, and idly,
Did no good or evil thing:
So his land was flourishing.

(W. Arnd’s modified translation)

The tsar’s name brings to mind Nikita Khrushchyov, in 1958-64 the Soviet
leader whom Kinbote mentions in his note to Line 949:

He [Gradus] began with the day's copy of The New York Times. His lips moving
like wrestling worms, he read about all kinds of things. Hrushchov (whom
they spelled "Khrushchev") had abruptly put off a visit to Scandinavia and
was to visit Zembla instead (here I tune in: Vy nazyvaete sebya zemblerami,
you call yourselves Zemblans, a ya vas nazyvayu zemlyakami, and I call you
fellow countrymen!" Laughter and applause.)

Kinbote (who imagines that he is Charles the Beloved, the last self-exiled
king of Zembla) is homosexual. In the last line of his “Epistle to Vigel”
(1823) beginning Proklyatyi gorod Kishinyov… (“The accursed city of
Kishinev…”) Pushkin asks Vigel (the homosexual author of nasty but clever
Zapiski, “Memoirs”) to spare his zad (arse). In his poem Pushkin mentions
vezhlivyi grekh (“the polite sin,” i. e. sodomy) and says that he does not
dare to compare Kishinev to Sodom, “the Paris of Old Testament.” According
to Kinbote, the actor Odon (with whom the king had left Zembla) hoped to
make a movie in Paris or Rome based on a Zemblan legend:

They were alone again. Disa quickly found the papers he needed. Having
finished with that, they talked for a while about nice trivial things, such
as the motion picture, based on a Zemblan legend, that Odon hoped to make in
Paris or Rome. How would he represent, they wondered, the narstran, a
hellish hall where the souls of murderers were tortured under a constant
drizzle of drake venom coming down from the foggy vault? (note to Lines

Odon = Nodo (Odon’s half-brother) = odno (neut. of odin, “one”). Shade,
Kinbote and Gradus seem to represent three different aspects of V. Botkin,
the American scholar of Russian descent who went mad after his daughter
Nadezhda (Hazel of Shade’s poem) had committed suicide. In his famous
epigram on Count Vorontsov (the governor general of New Russia, Pushkin’s
and Vigel’s chief in Odessa) Pushkin says that there is nadezhda (a hope)
that one day Vorontsov (half-merchant, half-scoundrel, etc.) will be full at
last. Similarly, there is a hope that after Kinbote completes his work on
Shade’s poem (on Oct. 19, 1959, the anniversary of Pushkin’s Lyceum) and
commits suicide Botkin will be “full” again. V. Botkin’s first name seems
to be Vsevolod. The members of the Green Lamp (an association of rakes and
frondeurs in St. Petersburg to which young Pushkin belonged) met at the
house of Nikita Vsevolodovich Vsevolozhski (1799-1862). In 1820 Pushkin (a
desperate gambler) lost to Vsevolozhski a manuscript of his poems prepared
for publication. Queen Disa (the wife of Charles the Beloved) brings to mind
Pushkin’s story “The Queen of Spades” (1833).

On April 30, 1823, a few days before Pushkin had begun Eugene Onegin in
Bessarabia, Vyazemski in Moscow wrote to Aleksandr Turgenev in Petersburg:
"I have recently had a letter from Pushkin, the Arabian devil [bes
Arabskiy]" \xa8C a pun on bessarabskiy, "the Bessarabian." The epithet should
have been, of course, arapskiy, from arap ("Blackamoor," an allusion to
Pushkin's Ethiopian blood), and not arabskiy, from arab ("Arab").*

“Bes arabskiy” brings to mind Besy (“The Demons,” 1830), a poem by
Pushkin and a novel (“The Possessed,” 1872) by Dostoevski. The main
character of “The Possessed” is Nikolay Vsevolodovich Stavrogin. The name
of Stavrogin’s mother, Varvara, brings to mind Vanya’s real name in VN’s
story Soglyadatay (“The Eye,” 1930). Varvara’s odd masculine diminutive
and Smurov (the main character and narrator of The Eye who is in love with
Vanya) hint at Vanya Smurov, the hero of Kuzmin’s story Kryl’ya (“The
Wings,” 1907). Mikhail Kuzmin was a frankly gay author. One of Kuzmin’s
lovers, Vsevolod Knyazev, committed suicide. The characters of The Eye
include Khrushchov (the husband of Vanya’s elder sister) and Weinstock (the
owner of a bookstore and spiritualist who receives messages from Mohammed,
Pushkin and Lenin). Weinstock and Lenin bring to mind Vinogradus and
Leningradus (as Kinbote mockingly calls the killer Gradus).

Incidentally, the name of Shade’s wife, Sybil, is a near anagram of Iblis
(in Islam, the jinn who refused to bow for Adam), aka Shaytan (the Devil).
Pushkin (bes Arabskiy) is the author of Podrazhaniya Koranu (“Imitations of
the Koran,” 1824) and of the homoerotic Podrazhanie arabskomu (“Imitation
of the Arabic,” 1835):

Отрок милый, отрок нежный,
Не стыдись, навек ты мой;
Тот же в нас огонь мятежный,
Жизнью мы живем одной.

Не боюся я насмешек:
Мы сдвоились меж собой,
Мы точь в точь двойной орешек
Под единой скорлупой.

Sweet lad, tender lad,

Have no shame, you're mine for good;

We share a sole insurgent fire,

We live in boundless brotherhood.

I do not fear the gibes of men;

One being split in two we dwell,

The kernel of a double nut

Embedded in a single shell.

(transl. by M. Green?)

In the last weeks of his life Pushkin, to divert his mind from dark
thoughts, tried to learn the Arabic. In the margins of the draft of
Pushkin’s letter to Baron Heeckeren (d’Anthès’ adoptive father, an
inveterate pederast) there are characters of the Arabic alphabet.

*VN’s EO Commentary (vol. II, p. 38)

Alexey Sklyarenko

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