According to Shade, his muse is with him everywhere, in carrel and in car, and in his chair:


And that odd muse of mine
My versipel, is with me everywhere,
In carrel and in car, and in my chair. (ll. 946-948)


In Canto Eight (IV: 3-5) of Eugene Onegin Pushkin speaks of his caressive (as VN translates the epithet laskovaya, “affectionate, tender”) Muse and compares her to the heroine of Bürger’s ballad Lenore (1773):


Но я отстал от их союза

И вдаль бежал... Она за мной.

Как часто ласковая муза

Мне услаждала путь немой

Волшебством тайного рассказа!

Как часто по скалам Кавказа

Она Ленорой, при луне,

Со мной скакала на коне!

Как часто по брегам Тавриды

Она меня во мгле ночной

Водила слушать шум морской,

Немолчный шёпот Нереиды,

Глубокий, вечный хор валов,

Хвалебный гимн отцу миров.


But I dropped out of their alliance–
and fled afar…she followed me.
How often the caressive Muse
for me would sweeten the mute way
with the bewitchment of a secret tale!
How often on Caucasia’s crags,
Lenorelike, by the moon,
with me she’d gallop on a steed!
How often on the shores of Tauris
she in the murk of night
led me to listen the sound of the sea,
Nereid’s unceasing murmur,
the deep eternal chorus of the billows,
the praiseful hymn to the sire of the worlds.


In the second (and last) stanza of his poem On translating "Eugene Onegin" (1955) VN mentions alliterations that grace Pushkin’s feasts and haunt the great fourth stanza of Canto Eight of EO:


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.


The last line of VN’s poem (modeled on the EO stanza) seems to contain an allusion to Pushkin’s poem Exegi monumentum (1836). In its last quatrain (“the artist’s own grave voice repudiating the mimicked boast”) Pushkin addresses his Muse:


Веленью божию, о муза, будь послушна,

Обиды не страшась, не требуя венца,

Хвалу и клевету приемли равнодушно

И не оспоривай глупца.


To God’s command, O Muse, obedient be,

offends not dreading, and no wreath demanding;

accept indifferently praise and slander,
and do not contradict a fool.


As VN points out in his EO Commentary (vol. II, p. 310), the poem’s last line, although ostensibly referring to reviewers, slyly implies that only fools proclaim their immortality.


At the end of his poem Shade expresses his firm belief in survival after death:


I'm reasonably sure that we survive
And that my darling somewhere is alive,
As I am reasonably sure that I
Shall wake at six tomorrow, on July
The twenty-second, nineteen fifty-nine,
And that they day will probably be fine;
So this alarm clock let me set myself,
Yawn, and put back Shade's "Poems" on their shelf. (ll. 977-984)


A few minutes later Shade is killed by Gradus. Just before Shade’s death Kinbote asks him, if the muse has been kind to him:


"Well," I said, "has the muse been kind to you?"

"Very kind," he replied, slightly bowing his hand-propped head: "Exceptionally kind and gentle. In fact, I have here [indicating a huge pregnant envelope near him on the oilcloth] practically the entire product. A few trifles to settle and [suddenly striking the table with his fist] I've swung it, by God." (note to Line 991)


In his poem Shade calls his odd muse “my versipel.” VN’s neologism from versipellous (changeable; protean; having a form, nature or appearance that changes often), “versipel” seems to hint at Versilov, a character in Dostoevski’s novel Podrostok (“The Adolescent,” 1875). Ulichnyi podrostok (“The Street Adolescent,” 1914) is the sonnet with a coda by G. Ivanov, the author of an offensive article on VN that appeared in the Paris review Chisla (Numbers #1, 1930). Shade’s poem also seems to need a coda: Line 1001 (“By its own double in the windowpane”). 1001 is an odd number. In his Parizhskaya poema (“The Paris Poem,” 1943) VN compares a street wall to skala (a crag), mentions pissuary (the urinals) that murmur beyond their screens, chyot (even number) and nechet (odd number):


Чуден ночью Париж сухопарый.

Чу! Под сводами чёрных аркад,

где стена, как скала, писсуары

за щитами своими журчат.

Есть судьба и альпийское нечто

в этом плеске пустынном. Вот-вот

захлебнётся меж чётом и нечетом,

между мной и не мной, счетовод.


In Raspad atoma (“An Atom’s Disintegration,” 1938) G. Ivanov several times misquotes Pushkin’s poem Na kholmakh Gruzii lezhit nochnaya mgla… (The night murk lies on the hills of Georgia…” 1829), mentions polukrug pissuara (an urinal’s half-circle) and compares the murmur of water in it to the Aragva (the river that thunders in Pushkin’s poem):


"На холмы Грузии легла ночная мгла." И вот она так же ложится на холм  Монмартра. На крыши, на перекрёсток, на  вывеску кафе, на полукруг писсуара, где с тревожным шумом, совсем как в Арагве, шумит вода.


The Aragva is a Caucasian river (the Kura’s tributary). In Eight: IV: 6-11 of EO Pushkin mentions skaly Kavkaza (Caucasia’s crags), mgla nochnaya (the murk of night) and compares his muse to Lenore. The characters of VN’s novel Ada (1969) include Lenore Colline, an Irish actress who bears a physical resemblance to Ada (according to Kinbote, the name Zembla is a corruption of Semberland, a land of “resemblers”). Colline is French for “hill.” In VN’s novel Lenore Colline eventually marries her Alph (the son of Alphonse the First of Portugal, “a puppet potentate manipulated by Uncle Victor,” 3.3) and becomes the Queen of Portugal. In his Sonet (“The Sonnet,” 1830) Pushkin mentions Camoes, the great Portuguese poet who “wrapped in sonnet his mournful thought.” Zhukovski’s play in verse Kamoens (“Camoes,” 1839) ends in the line (the dying poet’s last words):


Poeziya est’ Bog v svyatykh mechtakh zemli.

Poetry is God in Earth’s sacred dreams.


According to Kinbote, Charles the Beloved (the last self-exiled King of Zembla) is the son of Alfin the Vague (Alfin = final). In his poem Kubla Khan (1797) S. T. Coleridge mentions Alph, the sacred river, and that deep romantic chasm which slants down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover. Kinbote writes his Foreword, Commentary and Index to Shade’s poem in Cedarn, Utana. There is a hope that, after he completes his work (on Oct. 19, 1959, the Lyceum anniversary) and commits suicide, Professor Botkin (an American scholar of Russian descent who went mad and became Shade, Kinbote and Gradus after the suicide of his daughter Nadezhda) will be “full” again.


In Canto Three of his poem Shade mentions Fra Karamazov (Ivan Fyodorovich, a character in Dostoevski’s novel Brothers Karamazov, 1880) who crept into some classes of I.P.H. (a lay Institute of Preparation for the Hereafter):


Fra Karamazov, mumbling his inept
All is allowed, into some classes crept;
And to fulfill the fish wish of the womb,
A school of Freudians headed for the tomb. (ll. 641-644)


Dostoevski is the author of Dvoynik (“The Double,” 1846) and Netochka Nezvanov (1849), a novel that remained unfinished because the author was arrested and imprisoned in the Peter-and-Paul Fortress (whose commander was at the time general Ivan Nabokov, the brother of VN’s great-grandfather). In PF Netochka is the nickname of Dr Oscar Nattochdag, head of the department to which Kinbote is attached. Describing a conversation in the lounge of the Faculty Club, Kinbote calls one of the interlocutors “Pink:”


Good Netochka, who had been looking singularly uncomfortable during this exchange, remarked in his gentle voice how sad it was to think that such a "sympathetic ruler" had probably perished in prison.

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."

"Strange, strange," said the German visitor, who by some quirk of alderwood ancestry had been alone to catch the eerie note that had throbbed by and was gone.

Shade [smiling and massaging my knee]: "Kings do not die--they only disappear, eh, Charles?"

"Who said that?" asked sharply, as if coming out of a trance, the ignorant, and always suspicious, Head of the English Department.

"Take my own case," continued my dear friend ignoring Mr. H. "I have been said to resemble at least four people: Samuel Johnson; the lovingly reconstructed ancestor of man in the Exton Museum; and two local characters, one being the slapdash disheveled hag who ladles out the mash in the Levin Hall cafeteria."

"The third in the witch row," I precised quaintly, and everybody laughed.

"I would rather say," remarked Mr. Pardon--American History--"that she looks like Judge Goldsworth" ("One of us," interposed Shade inclining his head), "especially when he is real mad at the whole world after a good dinner."

"I heard," hastily began Netochka, "that the Goldsworths are having a wonderful time--"

"What a pity I cannot prove my point," muttered the tenacious German visitor. "If only there was a picture here. Couldn't there be somewhere--"

"Sure," said young Emerald and left his seat.

Professor Pardon now spoke to me: "I was under the impression that you were born in Russia, and that your name was a kind of anagram of Botkin or Botkine?"

Kinbote: "You are confusing me with some refugee from Nova Zembla [sarcastically stressing the "Nova"].

"Didn't you tell me, Charles, that kinbote means regicide in your language?" asked my dear Shade.

"Yes, a king's destroyer," I said (longing to explain that a king who sinks his identity in the mirror of exile is in a sense just that).

Shade [addressing the German visitor]: "Professor Kinbote is the author of a remarkable book on surnames. I believe [to me] there exists an English translation?"

"Oxford, 1956," I replied.

"You do know Russian, though?" said Pardon. "I think I heard you, the other day, talking to--what's his name--oh, my goodness" [laboriously composing his lips].

Shade: "Sir, we all find it difficult to attack that name" [laughing].

Professor Hurley: "Think of the French word for 'tire': punoo."

Shade: "Why, sir, I am afraid you have only punctured the difficulty" [laughing uproariously].

"Flatman," quipped I. "Yes," I went on, turning to Pardon, "I certainly do speak Russian. You see, it was the fashionable language par excellence, much more so than French, among the nobles of Zembla at least, and at its court. Today, of course, all this has changed. It is now the lower classes who are forcibly taught to speak Russian."

"Aren't we, too trying to teach Russian in our schools?" said Pink.

In the meantime, at the other end of the room, young Emerald had been communing with the bookshelves. At this point he returned with the the T-Z volume of an illustrated encyclopedia.

"Well," said he, "here he is, that king. But look, he is young and handsome" ("Oh, that won't do," wailed the German visitor.) "Young, handsome, and wearing a fancy uniform," continued Emerald. "Quite the fancy pansy, in fact."

"And you," I said quietly, "are a foul-minded pup in a cheap green jacket."

"But what have I said?" the young instructor inquired of the company, spreading out his palms like a disciple in Leonardo's Last Supper.

"Now, now," said Shade. "I'm sure, Charles, are young friend never intended to insult your sovereign and namesake."

"He could not, even if he had wished," I observed placidly, turning it all into a joke.

Gerald Emerald extended his hand--which at the moment of writing still remains in that position. (note to Line 894)


Pink brings to mind oblatka rozovaya (the pink wafer) that in Pushkin’s EO (Three: XXXII: 1-7) dries on Tatiana’s fevered tongue while she lingers to seal her letter to Onegin:


Татьяна то вздохнёт, то охнет
Письмо дрожит в её руке:
Облатка розовая сохнет
На воспалённом языке.
К плечу головушкой склонилась.
Сорочка лёгкая спустилась
С её прелестного плеча...


By turns Tatiana sighs and ohs.

The letter trembles in her hand;

the pink wafer dries

on her fevered tongue.

Her poor head shoulderward she has inclined;

her light chemise has slid

down from her charming shoulder.


In his EO Commentary (vol. II, p. 397) VN writes:


Oblatka rozovaya: This was before the invention of envelopes; the folded letter was sealed by means of an adhesive disk of dried paste, colored pink in the present case. To this a personal seal might be added by letting a drop of gaudy wax fall upon the paper and impressing one’s monogram upon it (see XXXIII: 3-4).


“A drop of gaudy wax” brings to mind the waxwing mentioned by Shade in the first line (according to Kinbote, who believes that Shade’s almost finished poem should consist of 1000 lines, it is also the poem’s last line) of his poem: “I was the shadow of the waxwing slain.”


Tatiana, who knew Russian badly, wrote her letter to Onegin in French. According to Pink, “we too are trying to teach Russian in our schools.”


Professor Pardon finds it difficult to pronounce the name Pnin. In Wordsmith University Prof. Pnin (according to Kinbote, “a regular martinet in regard to his underlings and a grotesque perfectionist") is head of the bloated Russian department. In VN’s novel Pnin (1957) Pnin’s address in Waindell is Todd Road, 999. In its unfinished form Shade’s poem consists of 999 lines.


The French word for 'tire,' punoo, seems to hint not only at Pnin, but also at car paired with carrel in Canto Four of Shade’s poem. Incidentally, one of the photographs in Kim Beauharnais’ album in Ada shows kitayskaya punochka (Chinese Wall Bunting):


Ah, the famous first finch.

‘No, that’s a kitayskaya punochka (Chinese Wall Bunting). It has settled on the threshold of a basement door. The door is ajar. There are garden tools and croquet mallets inside. You remember how many exotic, alpine and polar, animals mixed with ordinary ones in our region.’ (2.7)


The kitchen boy and photographer at Ardis, Kim Beauharnais seems to be the son of Arkadiy Dolgorukiy (the narrator and main character in Dostoevski’s Adolescent) and Alfonsinka (a French girl in the same novel). As to Pnin, he is the first-rate croquet player:


After dinner, a game of croquet was suggested. These people favoured the time-honoured but technically illegal setting of hoops, where two of the ten are crossed at the centre of the ground to form the so-called Cage or Mousetrap. It became immediately clear that Pnin, who teamed with Madam Bolotov against Shpolyanski and Countess Poroshin, was by far the best player of the lot. (Pnin, Chapter Five, 5)


It is Gerald Emerald who gives Gradus a lift to Judge Goldsworth’s house:


"Are you by any chance Professor Pnin's new assistant?" asked Emerald.

"No," said the girl. "This man is looking for Dr. Kinbote, I think. You are looking for Dr. Kinbote, aren't you?"

"Yes, and I can't any more," said Gradus.

"I thought so," said the girl. "Doesn't he live somewhere near Mr. Shade, Gerry?"

"Oh, definitely," said Gerry, and turned to the killer: "I can drive you there if you like. It is on my way."

Did they talk in the car, these two characters, the man in green and the man in brown? Who can say? They did not. After all, the drive took only a few minutes (it took me, at the wheel of my powerful Kramler, four and a half).

"I think I'll drop you here," said Mr. Emerald. "It's that house up there." (note to Line 949)


According to Kinbote, before the assassination Gradus has dyspepsia:


Upon arriving after five at the New Wye airport he drank two papercupfuls of nice cold milk from a dispenser and acquired a map at the desk. With broad blunt finger tapping the configuration of the campus that resembled a writhing stomach, he asked the clerk what hotel was nearest to the university. A car, he was told, would take him to the Campus Hotel which was a few minutes' walk from the Main Hall (now Shade Hall). During the ride he suddenly became aware of such urgent qualms that he was forced to visit the washroom as soon as he got to the solidly booked hotel. There his misery resolved itself in a scalding torrent of indigestion. Hardly had he refastened his trousers and checked the bulge of his hip pocket than a renewal of stabs and queaks caused him to strip his thighs again which he did with such awkward precipitation that his small Browning was all but sent flying into the depth of the toilet. (ibid.)


Gradus’ stomach troubles bring to mind Pushkin’s epigram on one of Notbek’s illustrations (“Tatiana writing to Onegin”) in The Nevski Almanac:


Пупок чернеет сквозь рубашку,

Наружу <титька> - милый вид!

Татьяна мнёт в руке бумажку,

Зане живот у ней болит:


Она затем поутру встала

При бледных месяца лучах

И на <потирку> изорвала

Конечно "Невский Альманах".


Through her chemise a nipple blackens;

Delightful sight: one titty shows.

Tatiana holds a crumpled paper,

For she's beset with stomach throes.


So that is why she got up early

With the pale moonlight still about,

And tore up for wiping purpose

The Nevski Almanac, no doubt.


According to VN, the whole series of six illustrations reminds one of the artwork produced by inmates of lunatic asylums (EO Commentary, vol. II, p. 179). Notbek + nikto = Botkin + nekto (nikto – nobody; nekto – somebody). Poor Botkin is insane and probably writes Pale Fire in a madhouse.


Alexey Sklyarenko

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