NABOKV-L post 0021071, Thu, 16 Dec 2010 23:43:35 -0200

[NABOKOV-L] Die Lorelei and Kinbote's wistful mermaid

In Pale Fire, in his note to line 80, Kinbote describes Sudarg's mirror "a secret device of reflection gathered an infinite number of nudes in its depths, garlands of girls in graceful and sorrowful groups, diminishing in the limpid distance, or breaking into individual nymphs...- little peasant garlien combing their hair in shallow water as far as the eye could reach, and then the wistful mermaid from an old tale, and then nothing." The girls combing their hair and the mermaid from an old tale have always brought to my mind a favourite German song, called "Die Lorelei," a poem written by Heinrich Heine and set to music in 1837 by Silcher.

It was a matter of course, for me, that Nabokovians would be familiar with this "legend"** and even be reminded of it while reading Kinbote's note. I realized quite recently that this poem and its lore is practically unknown in America, although Kinbote was sure to know it as well as he could recite the lines from John Shade's reference to Goethe's "Erlkönig."

Brian Boyd mentions Goethe, but not Heine, in the Index of "The Magic of Artistic Discovery."
Dieter Zimmer translats "tale" as "Sage," which leads me to conclude that a "fairy-tale" ("Märchen"), as we find in Heine's poem, hasn't occurred to him either.
I may be alone in my association relating Kinbote's nymphs combing their hair and a siren's song in an old tale, to the confession of a haunting recollection [ "I do not know what haunts me, / What saddened my mind all day; / An age-old tale confounds me, / A spell I cannot allay."] which, itself, reinstalls a water-nymph's alluring chants*

* a translation from wikisources:
Heinrich Heine

I know not if there is a reason
Why I am so sad at heart.
A legend of bygone ages
Haunts me and will not depart.

The air is cool under nightfall.
The calm Rhine courses its way.
The peak of the mountain is sparkling
With evening's final ray.

The fairest of maidens is sitting
Unwittingly wondrous up there,
Her golden jewels are shining,
She's combing her golden hair.

The comb she holds is golden,
She sings a song as well
Whose melody binds an enthralling
And overpowering spell.

In his little boat, the boatman
Is seized with a savage woe,
He'd rather look up at the mountain
Than down at the rocks below.

I think that the waves will devour
The boatman and boat as one;
And this by her song's sheer power
Fair Lorelei has done.

** -more information, mingled from wiki and other sources: "The name 'Loreley'comes from the old German words "lureln" (Rhine dialect for "murmuring") and the Celtic term "ley" (rock). The translation of the name would therefore be: "murmur rock" or "murmuring rock"...The rock and the echo it creates have inspired various tales. An old explanation told of the rock as the home of dwarves. In 1801 German author Clemens Brentano wrote the poem Zu Bacharach am Rheine (part of his novel Godwi oder Das steinerne Bild der Mutter) which first created the story of an enchanting female connected to the rock. In the poem, the beautiful Lore Lay is falsely accused of maliciously bewitching men and driving them to ruin; later pardoned and on the way to a nunnery she passes and climbs the Lorelei rock, watching out for the lover who abandoned her, and falls to her death; the rock still retained an echo of her name afterwards. Brentano's poem was followed by many other authors.. Most famous is the poem Die Lore-Ley by Heinrich Heine, which tells of the titular female as a kind of siren luring shipmen to distraction with her singing, who then crash on the rocks in the riverbed...German poet of Jewish origin, whose lyrics have inspired such composers as Mendelssohn, Schubert, and Schumann,... Heinrich Heine lived at a time of major social and political changes: the French Revolution (1789-99) and the Napoleonic wars... Heine died in Paris, where he had lived from 1831 as one of the central figures of the literary scene.

Nabokov used "Lore" in the more familiar meaning of story, legend...I wonder if he knew the etymology connecting "lore" to "murmuring".
In "Lolita" there's a treacherous nurse named Mary Lore and her "father, lonely Joseph Lore... dreaming of Oloron, Lagore, Rolas" There's also a girl, Ann Lore, HH meets while tracking down Trapp: "At the very first motel office I visited, Ponderosa Lodge, his entry, among a dozen obviously human ones, read: Dr. Gratiano Forbeson, Mirandola, NY. Its Italian Comedy connotations could not fail to strike me, of course." (note the modulations that started with the name "Dolores" and return, albeit faintly, to indicate the Italian Comedy's Mirandola and a whiff of what we'll later find in Ada's "Ladore" and the flavita Nabokov/Baron, who presents himself as 'Jupiter Olorinus' ie, the divinity who metamorphoses into a swan.

Search archive with Google:

Contact the Editors:,
Visit Zembla:
View Nabokv-L policies:
Visit "Nabokov Online Journal:"

Manage subscription options: