Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0027591, Tue, 7 Nov 2017 12:45:09 +0300

royal experiment in The Gift & in Pale Fire
After Shade’s murder Gradus and Balthasar, Prince of Loam (Kinbote’s black gardener), are smoking side by side on the porch steps:

One of the bullets 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 1111 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)

Shade, Kinbote and Gradus seem to represent three different aspects of Botkin’s personality. An American scholar of Russian descent, Professor Vsevolod Botkin went mad and became Shade, Kinbote and Gradus after the tragic death of his daughter Nadezhda (Hazel Shade of Kinbote’s Commentary). Presumably, Botkin began to invent and elaborate Zembla when he saw a cigarette card from the series National Costumes trampled in the mud. Among the things that by means of a momentary alchemic distillation—the “royal experiment”—are turned into something valuable and eternal, Fyodor Konstantinovich Godunov-Cherdyntsev, the narrator and main character in VN’s novel Dar (“The Gift,” 1937), mentions the cigarette card from the series National Costumes:

Вот бы и преподавал то таинственнейшее и изысканнейшее, что он, один из десяти тысяч, ста тысяч, быть может даже миллиона людей, мог преподавать: например – многопланность мышления: смотришь на человека и видишь его так хрустально ясно, словно сам только что выдул его, а вместе с тем нисколько ясности не мешая, замечаешь побочную мелочь -- как похожа тень телефонной трубки на огромного, слегка подмятого муравья и (всё это одновременно) загибается третья мысль -- воспоминание о каком-нибудь солнечном вечере на русском полустанке, т. е. о чём-то не имеющем никакого разумного отношения к разговору, который ведёшь, обегая снаружи каждое свое слово, а снутри -- каждое слово собеседника. Или: пронзительную жалость – к жестянке на пустыре, к затоптанной в грязь папиросной картинке из серии «национальные костюмы», к случайному бедному слову, которое повторяет добрый, слабый, любящий человек, получивший зря нагоняй, – ко всему сору жизни, который путем мгновенной алхимической перегонки, королевского опыта, становится чем-то драгоценным и вечным. Или ещё: постоянное чувство, что наши здешние дни только карманные деньги, гроши, звякающие в темноте, а что где-то есть капитал, с коего надо уметь при жизни получать проценты в виде снов, слёз счастья, далёких гор.

What he should be really teaching was that mysterious and refined thing which he alone—out of ten thousand, a hundred thousand, perhaps even a million men—knew how to teach: for example—multilevel thinking: you look at a person and you see him as clearly as if he were fashioned of glass and you were the glass blower, while at the same time without in the least impinging upon that clarity you notice some trifle on the side—such as the similarity of the telephone receiver’s shadow to a huge, slightly crushed ant, and (all this simultaneously) the convergence is joined by a third thought—the memory of a sunny evening at a Russian small railway station; i.e., images having no rational connection with the conversation you are carrying on while your mind runs around the outside of your own words and along the inside of those of your interlocutor. Or: a piercing pity—for the tin box in a waste patch, for the cigarette card from the series National Costumes trampled in the mud, for the poor, stray word repeated by the kindhearted, weak, loving creature who has just been scolded for nothing—for all the trash of life which by means of a momentary alchemic distillation—the “royal experiment”—is turned into something valuable and eternal. Or else: the constant feeling that our days here are only pocket money, farthings clinking in the dark, and that somewhere is stocked the real wealth, from which life should know how to get dividends in the shape of dreams, tears of happiness, distant mountains. (Chapter Three)

The first part of Fyodor’s surname hints at the tsar Boris Godunov. Boris Godunov (1825) is a tragedy by Pushkin. The characters of Pushkin’s poem Poltava (1829) include Charles XII, the king of Sweden. The commentator of Shade’s poem, Kinbote imagines that he is Charles the Beloved, the last self-exiled king of Zembla (a distant northern land).

One of Fyodor’s (and Koncheyev’s) favorite writers is Chekhov. In his Cornell lecture on Chekhov VN quotes Korolenko, the writer whose surname comes from korol’ (“king”):

'Do you know how I write my short stories?' [Chekhov] said to Korolenko, the radical journalist and short story writer, when the latter had just made his acquaintance. 'Here's how!' 'He glanced at his table,' Korolenko tells us, 'took up the first object that met his eye--it happened to be an ash tray--placed it before me and said: "If you want it you'll have a story to-morrow. It will be called 'The Ash Tray.' And it seemed to Korolenko then and there that a magical transformation of that ash tray was taking place: 'Certain indefinite situations, adventures which had not yet found concrete form, were already beginning to crystallize about the ash tray.'

In Canto Four of his poem Shade asks “Will” (Shakespeare) to help him find the title:

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. 957-962)

Chekhov’s letter of November 24, 1887, to his brother Alexander (whom Chekhov addresses “dearest Gusev”), in which the writer describes the unexpected success of his play “Ivanov,” is signed Schiller Shekspirovich Goethe. In his Commentary Kinbote mentions Colonel Peter Gusev, king Alfin’s “aerial adjutant,” and his son Oleg (Charles Xavier Vseslav’s playmate and first lover). The opening lines of Goethe’s Erlkönig are a leitmotif in Pale Fire. In his famous monologue in Shakespeare’s play Hamlet mentions a bare bodkin. In the entry on Botkin, V. Kinbote mentions “botkin or bodkin, a Danish stiletto” (Index to Pale Fire). In Goethe’s Faust Mephistopheles helps Faust to regain his youth. Kinbote and Gradus are seventeen years younger than Shade (who shares with them his birthday). In a letter to his brother written on his seventeenth birthday Dostoevski twice uses the word gradus (degree). According to Kinbote, in a conversation with him Shade listed Dostoevski and Chekhov among Russian humorists (note to Line 172).

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”). Dvoynik (“The Double”) is a short novel (1846) by Dostoevski and a poem (1909) by Alexander Blok. In his memoirs “The St. Petersburg Winters” G. Ivanov says that, when he asked Blok “does a sonnet need a coda,” the poet replied that he did not know what a coda is. At the beginning of one of his poems G. Ivanov mentions prichyoska i kostyum (hairdo and costume):

Меняется причёска и костюм,

Но остается тем же наше тело,

Надежды, страсти, беспокойный ум,

Чья б воля изменить их ни хотела.

Слепой Гомер и нынешний поэт,

Безвестный, обездоленный изгнаньем,

Хранят один — неугасимый! — свет,

Владеют тем же драгоценным знаньем.

И черни, требующей новизны,

Он говорит: «Нет новизны. Есть мера,

А вы мне отвратительно-смешны,

Как варвар, критикующий Гомера».

Hairdos and costumes change,

but our body remains the same,

and so do our hopes, passions, restless mind,

whosever will would have liked to change them.

Blind Homer and a modern poet,

obscure, deprived of his fortune by exile,

keep one – inextinguishable! – light,

possess the same precious knowledge.

And to the mob that demands novelty

he tells: “There is no novelty, there is a measure,

and you are abjectly funny to me,

like a Barbarian who criticizes Homer.”

In Canto One of his poem Shade speaks of his Aunt Maud and mentions Chapman’s Homer:

I was brought up by dear bizarre Aunt Maud,
A poet and a painter with a taste
For realistic objects interlaced
With grotesque growths and images of doom.
She lived to hear the next babe cry. Her room
We've kept intact. Its trivia create
A still life in her style: the paperweight
Of convex glass enclosing a lagoon,
The verse open at the Index (Moon,
Moonrise, Moor, Moral), the forlorn guitar
The human skull; and from the local Star
A curio: Red Sox Beat Yanks 5-4
On Chapman's Homer, thumbtacked to the door. (ll. 86-98)

On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer (1816) is a sonnet by Keats. In VN’s novel Look at the Harlequins! (1974) the émigré poet Basilevski (a recognizable portrait of G. Ivanov) attempts to translate Keats into Russian:

Although his English was inadequate for the interpretation of, say, Keats (whom he defined as "a pre-Wildean aesthete in the beginning of the Industrial Era") Basilevski was fond of attempting just that. In discussing recently the "not altogether displeasing preciosity" of my own stuff, he had imprudently quoted a popular line from Keats, rendering it as:

Vsegda nas raduet krasivaya veshchitsa

which in retranslation gives:

“A pretty bauble always gladdens us." (2.1)

The first line of Keats’ Endymion (1818), “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever,” is the epigraph to Archibald Moon’s book on Russia in VN’s novel Podvig (“Glory,” 1932):

Гражданская война представлялась ему нелепой: одни бьются за призрак прошлого, другие за призрак будущего, - меж тем, как Россию потихоньку украл Арчибальд Мун и запер у себя в кабинете. Ему нравилась её завершенность. Она была расцвечена синевою вод и прозрачным пурпуром пушкинских стихов. Вот уже скоро два года, как он писал на английском языке её историю, надеялся всю её уложить в один толстенький том. Эпиграф из Китса ("Создание красоты - радость навеки"), тончайшая бумага, мягкий сафьяновый переплёт. Задача была трудная: найти гармонию между эрудицией и тесной живописной прозой, дать совершенный образ одного округлого тысячелетия. (chapter XVI)

In the second quatrain of his sonnet Poetu (“To a Poet,” 1830) Pushkin tells to a poet: “you are the king, live alone” and mentions podvig blagorodnyi (a noble feat):

Ты царь: живи один. Дорогою свободной
Иди, куда влечёт тебя свободный ум,
Усовершенствуя плоды любимых дум,
Не требуя наград за подвиг благородный.

Volya (which means in Russian “will” and “freedom”) mentioned by G. Ivanov in his poem “Hairdos and costumes change…” brings to mind “The World as Will and Representation” (1819), the main work of Arthur Schopenhauer. Fet’s poem Izmuchen zhizn’yu, kovarstvom nadezhdy… (“By life tormented, and by cunning hope…” 1864) has the epigraph from Schopenhauer’s book:

Die Gleichmässigkeit des Laufes der Zeit in allen Kopfen beweist mehr, als irgend etwas, dass wir Alle in denselben Traum versenkt sind, ja dass es Ein Wesen ist, welches ihn träumt.

That regularity of the passage of time in all our heads indicates, more than anything else, that we are all sunk in the same dream, and that it is a single Being that is dreaming it.

Afanasiy Fet was married to Maria Botkin. She has the same first name as Maria Prophetissa, an early alchemist whose hermetic axiom is a major axiom of alchemy: "One becomes two, two becomes three and out of the third comes one as the fourth" (for this information I am indebted to Mary Ross who also says that “alchemists were considered magi, magicians”). Balthasar was one of the three Magi who visited the infant Jesus after he was born. The Gift of the Magi (1905) is a story by O’Henry. O’Henry is the author of The Prisoner of Zembla (1912), “a rather silly lampoon of medievalism” unearthed by A. Dolinin (The Nabokovian No. 56). Its title brings to mind The Prisoner of Zenda (1884) by Antony Hope. According to Shade, his daughter “always nursed a small mad hope.” Hazel Shade’s “real” name seems to be Nadezhda Botkin. Nadezhda is Russian for “hope.”

In his memoirs Fet compares Leo Tolstoy’s brother Sergey (whom Fet resembled in certain respects) to Timon of Athens. According to Kinbote, Zembla is a corruption of Semberland (the land of ‘resemblers’). Shade borrowed the title of his poem from Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens.

In my recent post “Joe Lavender, Villa Libitina & Hebe's Cup in Pale Fire; Sokolovski & Audace in LATH” I forgot to mention that Tyutchev translated into Russian a fragment from Zedlitz’s poem “Byron” (1827).

Alexey Sklyarenko

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