Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0027121, Thu, 21 Jul 2016 21:34:01 +0300

Pink, epitaph, Fleur de Fyler & red-capped Steinmann in Pale Fire
A professor of physics now joined in. He was a so-called Pink, who believed in what so-called Pinks believe in (Progressive Education, the Integrity of anyone spying for Russia, Fall-outs occasioned solely by US-made bombs, the existence in the near past of a McCarthy Era, Soviet achievements including Dr. Zhivago, and so forth): "Your regrets are groundless" [said he]. "That sorry ruler is known to have escaped disguised as a nun; but whatever happens, or has happened to him, cannot interest the Zemblan people. History has denounced him, and that is his epitaph."

Shade: "True, sir. In due time history will have denounced everybody. The King may be dead, or he may be as much alive as you and Kinbote, but let us respect facts. I have it from him [pointing to me] that the widely circulated stuff about the nun is a vulgar pro-Extremist fabrication. The Extremists and their friends invented a lot of nonsense to conceal their discomfiture; but the truth is that the King walked out of the palace, and crossed the mountains, and left the country, not in the black garb of a pale spinster but dressed as an athlete in scarlet wool." (note to Line 894)

Describing Notbek’s illustrations in The Nevski Almanac, VN in his EO Commentary mentions the transient amazon who stops to read the epitaph on Lenski’s grave:

The funniest picture, however, is the one with which Notbek illustrates Six: XLI (referring to the transient amazon who stops to read the epitaph on Lenski’s grave). It depicts an enormous female calmly sitting on a horse as on a bench, with both her legs dangling down one flank of her slender microcephalous white steed, near a formidable marble mausoleum. The whole series of six illustrations reminds one of the artwork produced by inmates of lunatic asylums (vol. II, pp. 178-179)

Here is the stanza (Six: XLI) in question:

Под ним (как начинает капать
Весенний дождь на злак полей)
Пастух, плетя свой пестрый лапоть,
Поет про волжских рыбарей;
И горожанка молодая,
В деревне лето провождая,
Когда стремглав верхом она
Несётся по полям одна,
Коня пред ним остановляет,
Ремянный повод натянув,
И, флёр от шляпы отвернув,
Глазами беглыми читает
Простую надпись — и слеза
Туманит нежные глаза.

Beneath it (as begins to drip

spring rain upon the herb of fields)

the herdsman, plaiting his pied shoe of bast,

sings of the Volga fishermen;

and the young townswoman

spending the summer in the country,

when she on horseback headlong

ranges, alone, over the fields,

before it halts her steed,

tightening the leathern rein

and, turning up the gauze veil of her hat,

with skimming eyes reads

the simple scripture—and a tear

dims her soft eyes.

According to VN, “this young townswoman, the herdsman, and the women reapers are very pleasant stylizations. The herdsman will still be plaiting his shoe in Seven, and the young Amazon will, in a sense, become the Muse of Eight” (EO Commentary, vol. III, p. 62). Flyor ot shlyapy (the gauze veil of her hat) in Line 11 brings to mind Fleur de Fyler, the younger daughter of Countess de Fyler (Queen Blenda’s favorite lady-in-waiting) who attempts to seduce young Charles Xavier (the heir to Zemblan throne):

I do not know what advice or command her mother had given Fleur; but the little thing proved a poor seducer. She kept trying, as one quietly insane, to mend a broken viola d’amore or sat in dolorous attitudes comparing two ancient flutes, both sad-tuned and feeble. Meantime, in Turkish garb, he lolled in his father’s ample chair, his legs over its arms, flipping through a volume of Historia Zemblica, copying out passages and occasionally fishing out of the nether recesses of his seat a pair of old-fashioned motoring goggles, a black opal ring, a ball of silver chocolate wrapping, or the star of a foreign order. (note to Line 80)

When the self-exiled King visits his wife, Queen Disa, he asks Fleur (the Queen’s lady-in-waiting) if she still plays viola:

Upon hearing the King's mellow voice behind the laurels, Fleur recognized it before she could be misled by his excellent disguise. Two footmen, handsome young strangers of a marked Latin type, appeared with the tea and caught Fleur in mid-curtsey. A sudden breeze groped among the glycines. Defiler of flowers. He asked Fleur as she turned to go with the Disa orchids if she still played the viola. She shook her head several times not wishing to speak without addressing him and not daring to do so while the servants might be within earshot. (note to Lines 433-434)

While Disa, Duchess of Payn, of Great Payn and Mone, seems to blend Shakespeare’s Desdemona with Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, the viola mentioned by Kinbote hints at Viola, the main character of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. In Shakespeare’s play Viola adopts the disguise of a eunuch in order to serve the Duke. The name of Viola’s twin brother, Sebastian, brings to mind the title character of VN’s novel The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941). VN’s novel begins as follows:

Sebastian Knight was born on the thirty-first of December, 1899, in the former capital of my country.

It seems that, like Pushkin’s Onegin, VN’s Sebastian and VN himself, Botkin (Shade’s, Kinbote’s and Gradus’ “real” name) was born in St. Petersburg, “upon the Neva’s banks.” Note that in the Index entry on Botkin, V. Kinbote mentions “botkin or bodkin, a Danish stiletto” (an allusion to Shakespeare’s Hamlet).

One of Sebastian Knight’s best stories is The Funny Mountain:

Also some of my father's favourite quips seem to have broken into fantastic flower in such typical Knight stories as Albinos in Black or The Funny Mountain, his best one perhaps, that beautifully queer tale which always makes me think of a child laughing in its sleep. (Chapter 1)

According to Kinbote, the King left Zembla dressed as an athlete in scarlet wool. In the mountains that the King had to cross in order to reach the shore he saw a red-capped steinmann (stone man):

At a high point upon an adjacent ridge a steinmann (a heap of stones erected as a memento of an assent) had donned a cap of red wool in his honor. He trudged on. But his heart was a conical ache poking him from below in the throat, and after a while he stopped again to take stock of conditions and decide whether to scramble up the steep debris slope in front of him or to strike off to the right along a strip of grass, gay with gentians, that went winding between lichened rocks. He elected the second route and in due course reached the pass. (note to Line 149)

Pushkin is the author of Kamennyi gost’ (“The Stone Guest,” 1830). In the last (XLVI) stanza of Canto Six of EO Pushkin asks young inspiration let not his soul okamenet’ (be turned to stone) in the World’s deadening intoxication:

Дай оглянусь. Простите ж, сени,
Где дни мои текли в глуши,
Исполнены страстей и лени
И снов задумчивой души.
А ты, младое вдохновенье,
Волнуй мое воображенье,
Дремоту сердца оживляй,
В мой угол чаще прилетай,
Не дай остыть душе поэта,
Ожесточиться, очерстветь
И наконец окаменеть
В мертвящем упоенье света,
В сем омуте, где с вами я
Купаюсь, милые друзья! <http://www.as-pushkin.ru/index.php?cnt=8&sub=9&page=3> 40

Let me glance back. Farewell now, coverts

where in the backwoods flowed my days,

fulfilled with passions and indolence

and the dreams of a pensive soul.

And you, young inspiration,

excite my fancy,

the slumber of the heart enliven,

into my nook more often fly,

let not a poet’s soul grow cold,

callous, crust-dry,

and finally he turned to stone

in the World’s deadening intoxication

in that slough where with you

I bathe, dear friends!40

While Pink (as Kinbote calls a professor of physics at Wordsmith) brings to mind the pink wafer that dries on Tatiana’s fevered tongue while she lingers to seal her letter to Onegin, a steinmann’s red cap seems to hint at Pushkin’s poem “To V. S. Filimonov at Receiving his Poem The Dunce’s Cap” (see my posts of July 10 and July 20, 2016).

According to Shade, “Kings do not die--they only disappear” (note to Line 894). At the end of Pushkin’s Skazka o zolotom petushke (“The Fairy Tale about the Golden Cockerel,” 1834) tsar Dadon (the King whom the cockerel pecked in the top of his head) dies and the Queen disappears as she never existed at all:

Вот — въезжает в город он...
Вдруг раздался лёгкой звон,
И в глазах у всей столицы
Петушок спорхнул со спицы,
К колеснице полетел
И царю на темя сел,
Встрепенулся, клюнул в темя
И взвился... и в то же время
С колесницы пал Дадон —
Охнул раз, — и умер он.
А царица вдруг пропала,
Будто вовсе не бывало.
Сказка ложь, да в ней намёк!
Добрым молодцам урок.

In VN’s novel Pnin (1957), in which Senator McCarthy is also mentioned, the narrator must admit that Jack Cockerell impersonates Pnin to perfection. (Chapter Seven, 6). According to Kinbote, he never would have reached the western coast had not a fad spread among his secret supporters, romantic, heroic daredevils, of impersonating the fleeing king:

After this, in the draft (dated July 3), come a few unnumbered lines that may have been intended for some later parts of the poem. They are not actually deleted but are accompanied by a question mark in the margin and encircled with a wavy line encroaching upon some of the letters:

There are events, strange happenings, that strike
The mind as emblematic. They are like
Lost similes adrift without a string,
Attached to nothing. Thus that northern king,
Whose desperate escape from prison was
Brought off successfully only because
Some forty of his followers that night
Impersonated him and aped his flight—

He never would have reached the western coast had not a fad spread among his secret supporters, romantic, heroic daredevils, of impersonating the fleeing king. They rigged themselves out to look like him in red sweaters and red caps, and popped up here and there, completely bewildering the revolutionary police. Some of the pranksters were much younger than the King, but this did not matter since his pictures in the huts of the mountain folks and in the myopic shops of hamlets, where you could buy worms, ginger bread, and zhiletka blades, had not aged since his coronation. A charming cartoon touch was added on the famous occasion when from the terrace of the Kronblik Hotel, whose chairlift takes tourists to the Kron glacier, one merry mime was seen floating up, like a red moth, with a hapless, and capless, policeman riding two seats behind him in dream-slow pursuit. It gives one pleasure to add that before reaching the staging point, the false king managed to escape by climbing down one of the pylons that supported the traction cable (see also <http://www.shannonrchamberlain.com/commentary.html#comline149> notes to lines 149 and <http://www.shannonrchamberlain.com/commentary.html#comline171> 171). (note to Line 70)

Note a red moth and a capless policeman. As we know from VN’s other writings, some butterflies are wonderful mimics.

A steinmann who had donned a cap of red wool in honor of the King brings to mind the tennis ace Julius Steinmann:

The Zemblan Revolution provided Gradus with satisfactions but also produced frustrations. One highly irritating episode seems retrospectively most significant as belonging to an order of things that Gradus should have learned to expect but never did. An especially brilliant impersonator of the King, the tennis ace Julius Steinmann (son of the well-known philanthropist), had eluded for several months the police who had been driven to the limits of exasperation by his mimicking to perfection the voice of Charles the Beloved in a series of underground radio speeches deriding the government. When finally captured he was tried by a special commission, of which Gradus was a member, and condemned to death. The firing squad bungled their job, and a little later the gallant young man was found recuperating from his wounds at a provincial hospital. When Gradus learned of this, he flew into one of his rare rages--not because the fact presupposed royalist machinations, but because the clean, honest, orderly course of death had been interfered with in an unclean, dishonest, disorderly manner. Without consulting anybody he rushed to the hospital, stormed in, located Julius in a crowded ward and managed to fire twice, both times missing, before the gun was wrested from him by a heft male nurse. He rushed back to headquarters and returned with a dozen soldiers but his patient had disappeared. (note to Line 171)

Tennis (1913) is a poem by Mandelshtam from the collection Kamen’ (“Stone,” 1915).

Julius Steinmann is the son of the well-known philanthropist. Der Philantrop (“The Philanthropist,” 1853) is a poem by Heinrich Heine. Mandelshtam’s poem V tot vecher ne gudel strel’chatyi les organa… (“That evening the organ’s lancet forest didn’t buzz…” 1917) has the epigraph from Heine: Du, Doppelgänger! du, bleicher Geselle!.. (“you, my double, you, my pale confrere!”) and ends in the lines:

Это двойник — пустое привиденье —
Бессмысленно глядит в холодное окно!

This is the double – a mere ghost –

Senselessly looks into the cold window.

Describing the King’s flight, Kinbote mentions his red-sweatered, red-capped doubleganger:

He was still chuckling over the wench's discomfiture when he came to the tremendous stones amassed around a small lake which he had reached once or twice from the rocky Kronberg side many years ago. Now he glimpsed through the aperture of a natural vault, a masterpiece of erosion. The vault was low and he bent his head to step down toward the water. In its limpid tintarron he saw his scarlet reflection but, oddly enough, owing to what seemed to be at first blush an optical illusion, this reflection was not at his feet but much further; moreover, it was accompanied by the ripple-warped reflection of a ledge that jutted high above his present position. And finally, the strain on the magic of the image caused it to snap as his red-sweatered, red-capped doubleganger turned and vanished, whereas he, the observer, remained immobile. He now advanced to the very lip of the water and was met there by a genuine reflection, much larger and clearer than the one that had deceived him. (note to Line 149)

It seems that to be completed Shade’s almost finished poem needs two Lines (1000-1001):

I was the shadow of the waxwing slain

By its own double in the windowpane.

Thanks to Abdella Bouazza, I can add here (“better late than never”) the translation of the lines from Parizhskaya poema (“The Paris Poem,” 1943) quoted by me in my previous post (“versipel, carrel & car in Pale Fire”):

Wondrous at night is gaunt Paris.

Hark! Under the vaults of black arcade,

where the walls are rocklike, the urinals

gurgle behind their shields.

There is Fate and an alpine something

in that desolate splash. Any moment now

between even and odd, between me and non-me

the keeper of records will choke and drown.

Also, here is my reply to Bob Fagen of a couple of days ago that for some reason was not posted:

Lake Omega in PF was interpreted as Cornell’s Lake Cayuga before (see Fet’s note in The Nabokovian), that’s why I have not mentioned it. Incidentally, to a Russian ear the lake’s Indian name suggests kayuk, which means “caique” (a long, narrow rowboat used on the Bosporus) but also (in the phrases kayuk prishyol, tut emu i kayuk) “it’s the end, that’s the end of him, he’s done for.”

Alexey Sklyarenko

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