Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0027126, Tue, 26 Jul 2016 14:56:15 +0300

heart attack, fountain, misprint & crown jewels in Pale Fire
According to Shade, during the heart attack that he suffered when he gave
his speech “Why Poetry Is Meaningful to Us” he saw a tall white fountain:

And dreadfully distinct
Against the dark, a tall white fountain played. (ll. 706-707)

In the same Canto Three of his poem Shade mentions a Mrs. Z. who also saw a
fountain during a heart attack:

But at the end she mentioned a remote
Landscape, a hazy orchard--and I quote:
"Beyond that orchard through a kind of smoke
I glimpsed a tall white fountain--and awoke." (ll. 755-758)

A hazy orchard mentioned by Shade brings to mind Chekhov’s last play,
Vishnyovyi sad (“The Cherry Orchard,” 1904). “Fountain” in Jim Coates’
article about Mrs. Z.’s heart attack (quoted by Shade) turns out to be a
misprint of “mountain:”

I also called on Coates.
He was afraid he had mislaid her notes.
He took his article from a steel file:
"It's accurate. I have not changed her style.
There's one misprint--not that it matters much:
Mountain, not fountain. The majestic touch.”

Life Everlasting--based on a misprint! (ll. 797-803)

In VN’s novel The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941) The Funny Mountain
is one of Sebastian’s best stories:

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)

In VN’s novel Sebastian Knight dies of heart failure in a hospital near
Paris. The narrator (Sebastian’s half-brother V. who is unaware that his
brother died last night) spends the night near the bed of another patient,
Mr. Kegan. The name of Sebastian’s mistress, Nina Rechnoy, brings to mind
Nina Zarecnhaya, Trigorin’s mistress in Chekhov’s play Chayka (“The
Seagull,” 1896). The name Trigorin comes from tri gory (three mountains).

At the end of the 1890s Chekhov lived in Nice. In Canto Two of his poem
Shade mentions Nice and sea gulls:

Espied on a pine's bark
As we were walking home the day she died,
An empty emerald case, squat and frog-eyed,
Hugging the trunk; and its companion piece,
A gum-logged ant. That Englishman in Nice
A proud and happy linguist: je nourris
Les pauvres cigales--meaning that he
Fed the poor sea gulls!
Lafontaine was wrong;
Dead is the mandible, alive the song. (ll. 236-244)

“An empty emerald case” mentioned by Shade brings to mind Gerald Emerald,
a young instructor at the campus, “the man in green” who gives Gradus
(“the man in brown”) a lift to Judge Goldsworth’s house. As Vera Nabokov
points out in a footnote to her translation of PF, in his Russian version of
Lafontaine’s La Cigale et la Fourmi (the fable mentioned by Kinbote in his
Commentary) Krylov translated cigale (cicada; grasshopper) as strekoza
(dragon-fly). Strekoza was the name of a magazine in which young Chekhov
published his humorous short stories. In French la fontaine means “spring;
fountain.” In Chekhov’s play Dyadya Vanya (“Uncle Vanya,” 1897) Astrov
tells Telegin: zatkni fontan (“shut up,” an allusion to Prutkov’s
well-known aphorism).

“Life Everlasting--based on a misprint” in Shade’s poem brings to mind
two funny misprints in the telegram that in Chekhov’s story Dushechka
(“The Darling,” 1898) the heroine receives after the death of her first

Оленька и раньше получала телеграммы от м
ужа, но теперь почему-то так и обомлела. Др
ожащими руками она распечатала телеграмм
у и прочла следующее:

"Иван Петрович скончался сегодня скоропо
стижно сючала ждем распоряжений хохороны

Так и было напечатано в телеграмме "хохор
оны" и какое-то ещё непонятное слово "сюча
ла"; подпись была режиссёра опереточной т

Olenka had received telegrams from her husband before, but this time for
some reason she felt numb with terror. With shaking hands she opened the
telegram and read as follows:


That was how it was written in the telegram -- "fufuneral," and the utterly
incomprehensible word "immate." It was signed by the stage manager of the
operatic company.

In his article on Chekhov (1929) written for the twenty-fifth anniversary of
Chekhov’s death Khodasevich (the author of a book on Derzhavin) contrasts
Chekhov with Derzhavin and mentions Chekhov’s modesty. Thus, when Tolstoy
praised one of Chekhov’s stories, Chekhov was embarrassed, could not say a
word and finally remarked that there were misprints in it:

Чехов до той же крайности скромен: Толсто
й со слезами на глазах расхваливает его р
ассказ; Чехов краснеет, молчит, протирает
пенсне и, наконец, говорит: "Там - опечатки

In his poem Pamyatnik (“The Monument,” 1895) Derzhavin proclaims his
immortality. As VN points out in his EO Commentary, Pushkin’s poem Exegi
monumentum (1836) is a parody of Derzhavin’s Pamyatnik. In the last line of
his poem On translating "Eugene Onegin" (1955) VN modestly calls his
translation of Pushkin’s novel in verse and the two-volume commentary
“dove-droppings on the poet’s monument:”

Reflected words can only shiver

Like elongated lights that twist

In the black mirror of a river

Between the city and the mist.

Elusive Pushkin! Persevering,

I still pick up your damsel’s earring,

Still travel with your sullen rake.

I find another man's mistake,

I analyze alliterations

That grace your feasts and haunt the great

Fourth stanza of your Canto Eight.

This is my task -- a poet's patience

And scholiastic passion blent:

Dove-droppings on your monument.

At the end of TRLSK the narrator says: “I am Sebastian, or Sebastian is I,
or perhaps we both are someone whom neither of us knows.” Shade and Kinbote
(the commentator of Shade’s poem who imagines that he is Charles the
Beloved, the last self-exiled king of Zembla) seem to represent two
different aspects of Botkin’s personality. An American scholar of Russian
descent, Professor Vsevolod Botkin went mad and became Shade, Kinbote and
Gradus (Shade’s murderer, Botkin’s third self who kills Kinbote after he
completes his work on Shade’s poem) after the suicide of his daughter
Nadezhda. Nadezhda is the name of the heroine of Chekhov’s last story
Nevesta (“The Bride,” 1903). Nadezhda is Russian for “hope.” When he
came back from his trip to Mrs. Z., Shade mentions “faint hope:”

Stormcoated, I strode in: Sybil, it is
My firm conviction--"Darling, shut the door.
Had a nice trip?" Splendid--but what is more
I have returned convinced that I can grope
My way to some--to some--"Yes, dear?" Faint hope. (ll. 830-834)

Sybil Shade’s real name seems to be Sofia Botkin (née Lastochkin). At the
end of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” Sonya (Sofia Andreevna, Uncle Vanya’s
niece) tells to Uncle Vanya: my uvidim vsyo nebo v almazakh (“we shall see
the sky swarming with diamonds”). Almazy (the diamonds) that Sonya promises
to Uncle Vanya bring to mind Zemblan crown jewels. In his Commentary Kinbote
speaks of the impossibility to transform at one stroke "mountain" into
"fountain" in other languages and mentions

a series of misprints in a Russian text that finds a parallel in a similar
series in English. The words in these series include Russian korona and
English crown:

Translators of Shade's poem are bound to have trouble with the
transformation, at one stroke, of "mountain" into "fountain:" it cannot be
rendered in French or German, or Russian, or Zemblan; so the translator will
have to put it into one of those footnotes that are the rogue's galleries of
words. However! There exists to my knowledge one absolutely extraordinary,
unbelievably elegant case, where not only two, but three words are involved.
The story itself is trivial enough (and probably apocryphal). A newspaper
account of a Russian tsar's coronation had, instead of korona (crown), the
misprint vorona (crow), and when next day this apologetically "corrected,"
it got misprinted a second time as korova (cow). The artistic correlation
between the crown-crow-cow series and the Russian korona-vorona-korova
series is something that would have, I am sure, enraptured my poet. I have
seen nothing like it on lexical playfields and the odds against the double
coincidence defy computation. (note to Line 803)

The acronym Mrs. Z. hints at Zembla (“a distant northern land,” the last
entry in Kinbote’s Index to PF). According to Kinbote, the crown jewels are
concealed in a quite unexpected corner of Zembla:

However, not all Russians are gloomy, and the two young experts from Moscow
whom our new government engaged to locate the Zemblan crown jewels turned
out to be positively rollicking. The Extremists were right in believing that
Baron Bland, the Keeper of the Treasure, had succeeded in hiding those
jewels before he jumped or fell from the North Tower; but they did not know
he had had a helper and were wrong in thinking the jewels must be looked for
in the palace which the gentle white-haired Bland had never left except to
die. I may add, with pardonable satisfaction, that they were, and still are,
cached in a totally different--and quite unexpected--corner of Zembla. (note
to Line 681)

Chekhov is the author of V rodnom uglu (“At Home,” 1897). Uglu is Prep.
sing. of ugol (angle; corner), rodnoy means “native.” In his Commentary
Kinbote mentions Shade’s heart attack and Rodnaya Zembla:

Often, almost nightly, throughout the spring of 1959, I had feared for my
life. Solitude is the playfield of Satan. I cannot describe the depths of my
loneliness and distress. There was naturally my famous neighbor just across
the lane, and at one time I took in a dissipated young roomer (who generally
came home after midnight). Yet I wish to stress that cold hard core of
loneliness which is not good for a displaced soul. Everybody knows how given
to regicide Zemblans are: two Queens, three Kings, and fourteen Pretenders
died violent deaths, strangled, stabbed, poisoned, and drowned, in the
course of only one century (1700-1800). The Goldsworth castle became
particularly solitary after that turning point at dusk which resembles so
much the nightfall of the mind. Stealthy rustles, the footsteps of
yesteryear leaves, an idle breeze, a dog touring the garbage
cans--everything sounded to me like a bloodthirsty prowler. I kept moving
from window to window, my silk nightcap drenched with sweat, my bared breast
a thawing pond, and sometimes, armed with the judge's shotgun, I dared beard
the terrors of the terrace. I suppose it was then, on those masquerading
spring nights with the sounds of new life in the trees cruelly mimicking the
cracklings of old death in my brain, I suppose it was then, on those
dreadful nights, that I got used to consulting the windows of my neighbor's
house in the hope for a gleam of comfort
<http://www.shannonrchamberlain.com/commentary.html#comlines4748> (see notes
to lines 47-48). What would I not have given for the poet's suffering
another heart attack (
<http://www.shannonrchamberlain.com/palefirepoem.html#line691> see line 691
and <http://www.shannonrchamberlain.com/commentary.html#comline691> note)
leading to my being called over to their house, all windows ablaze, in the
middle of the night, in a great warm burst of sympathy, coffee, telephone
calls, Zemblan herbal recipes (they work wonders!), and a resurrected Shade
weeping in my arms ("There, there, John"). But on those March nights their
house was as black as a coffin. And when physical exhaustion and the
sepulchral cold drove me at last upstairs into my solitary double bed, I
would lie awake and breathless--as if only now living consciously through
those perilous nights in my country, where at any moment, a company of
jittery revolutionists might enter and hustle me off to a moonlit wall. The
sound of a rapid car or a groaning truck would come as a strange mixture of
friendly life's relief and death's fearful shadow: would that shadow pull up
at my door? Were those phantom thugs coming for me? Would they shoot me at
once--or would they smuggle the chloroformed scholar back to Zembla, Rodnaya
Zembla, to face there a dazzling decanter and a row of judges exulting in
their inquisitorial chairs? (note to Line 62)

Btw., in a letter of Oct. 7, 1899, to Olga Knipper Chekhov mentions his play
“Uncle Vanya” and says that he is sending to Knipper (the leading actress
of the Moscow Art Theater whom Chekhov married in 1901) a box for keeping
gold and diamond things:

Милая, знаменитая, необыкновенная актрис
а, посылаю Вам шкатулку для хранения золо
тых и бриллиантовых вещей. Берите!

В Вашем последнем письме Вы сетуете, что я
ничего не пишу, между тем я посылаю Вам пи
сьма очень часто, правда, не каждый день, н
о чаще, чем получаю от Вас.

Это письмо передаст Вам д-р П. И. Куркин, ав
тор картограммы, которая будет участвова
ть в ?Дяде Ване?. Он гостил у нас и, буде пож
елаете, расскажет Вам про наш новый дом и
про нашу старую жизнь.

In a letter of Sept. 21, 1899, to Chekhov Knipper mentions the fact that she
played Arkadina in Chekhov’s “Seagull” and Viola (Sebastian’s twin
sister) in Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night:”

В первое воскресенье идёт ?Чайка? \xa8C с како
й радостью я буду играть эту подлую актри
су! Утром хотят ставить ?12-ую ночь?, но я ре
шительно отказалась. Играть днём Виолу, в
которой раз 8 я переодеваюсь с головокруж
ительной быстротой (совсем Фреголи) и от к
оторой я устаю, \xa8C а вечером Аркадину! Это п
рямо жестоко даже говорить об этом. Так чт
о утром пойдёт, верно, ?Антигона?.

The name of Arkadina’s brother, Sorin, brings to mind Sirin (the bird of
Russian fairy tales and VN’s Russian nom de plume).

Zemblan crown jewels are finally found!

Alexey Sklyarenko

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