A handshake, a flash of lightning. As the King waded into the damp, dark bracken, its odor, its lacy resilience, and the mixture of soft growth and steep ground reminded him of the times he had picnicked hereabouts - in another part of the forest but on the same mountainside, and higher up, as a boy, on the boulderfield where Mr. Campbell had once twisted an ankle and had to be carried down, smoking his pipe, by two husky attendants. Rather dull memories, on the whole. Wasn't there a hunting box nearby - just beyond Silfhar Falls? Good capercaillie and woodcock shooting - a sport much enjoyed by his late mother, Queen Blenda, a tweedy and horsy queen. Now as then, the rain seethed in the black trees, and if you paused you heard your heart thumping, and the distant roar of the torrent. What is the time, kot or? He pressed his repeater and, undismayed, it hissed and tinkled out ten twenty-one. (note to Line 149)


Kot or (“what is the time” in Zemblan) seems to hint at the phrase kotoryi chas (“what is the time” in Russian). In Pushkin’s story Pikovaya dama (“The Queen of Spades,” 1833) to the question kotoryi chas Hermann (who is obsessed by the idea that the three cards, three, seven and ace, will win him a fortune) replied bez pyati minut semyorka (instead of the correct bez pyati minut sem’, “five minutes to seven”):


У него спрашивали: «который час», он отвечал: «без пяти минут семёрка». (chapter VI)


Semyorka (Seven) is a character in Anya v strane chudes (1923), VN’s Russian version of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865):


– Будь осторожнее, Пятёрка! Ты меня всего обрызгиваешь краской.

– Я нечаянно, – ответил Пятёрка кислым голосом. – Меня под локоть толкнула Семёрка.

Семёрка поднял голову и пробормотал:

– Так, так, Пятёрка! Всегда сваливай вину на другого.

– Ты уж лучше молчи, – сказал Пятёрка. – Я ещё вчера слышал, как Королева говорила, что недурно было бы тебя обезглавить. (Глава 8. Королева играет в крокет)


'Look out now, Five! Don't go splashing paint over me like that!'

'I couldn't help it,' said Five, in a sulky tone; 'Seven jogged my elbow.'

On which Seven looked up and said, 'That's right, Five! Always lay the blame on others!'

'You'd better not talk!' said Five. 'I heard the Queen say only yesterday you deserved to be beheaded!' (Chapter VIII. The Queen's Croquet-Ground)


VN is the author of Korol’, dama, valet (“King, Queen, Knave,” 1928) and Priglashenie na kazn’ (“Invitation to a Beheading,” 1935). In VN’s novel Ada (1969) Van tells Ada that playing croquet with her should be rather using flamingoes and hedgehogs:


A pointer of sunlight daubed with greener paint a long green box where croquet implements were kept; but the balls had been rolled down the hill by some rowdy children, the little Erminins, who were now Van's age and had grown very nice and quiet.

'As we all are at that age,' said Van and stooped to pick up a curved tortoiseshell comb - the kind that girls use to hold up their hair behind; he had seen one, exactly like that, quite recently, but when, in whose hairdo?

'One of the maids,' said Ada. 'That tattered chapbook must also belong to her, Les Amours du Docteur Mertvago, a mystical romance by a pastor.'

'Playing croquet with you,' said Van, 'should be rather like using flamingoes and hedgehogs.'

'Our reading lists do not match,' replied Ada. 'That Palace in Wonderland was to me the kind of book everybody so often promised me I would adore, that I developed an insurmountable prejudice toward it.’ (1.8)


The surname Erminin (of the twins Greg and Grace) hints at Erminia, a character in Torquato Tasso’s La Gerusalemme liberata (Jerusalem Delivered, 1581) and the nickname of Pushkin’s friend Eliza Khitrovo. Umirayushiy Tass (“The Dying Tasso,” 1817) is an elegy by Batyushkov. In Mandelshtam’s poem Net, ne luna, a svetlyi tsiferblat… (No, not the moon, but a bright dial…” 1912) mad Batyushkov to the question kotoryi chas replies: vechnost’ (eternity):


Нет, не луна, а светлый циферблат
Сияет мне, — и чем я виноват,
Что слабых звёзд я осязаю млечность?

И Батюшкова мне противна спесь:
Который час, его спросили здесь,
А он ответил любопытным: вечность!


No, not the moon, but a clock's dial lit brightly
Shines upon me; must the blame be mine to bear
If I detect the weakest stars' lacticity?

Thus, Batyushkov's airs cannot fail to rile me:
"What is the time, please, Sir?" they asked him here,
And he replied to the curious: “Eternity!”

(transl. Philip Nikolayev)


Poor Batyushkov died in 1855, after thirty-three years of insanity. In 1855 Browning wrote his poem Memorabilia (“Ah, did you once see Shelley plain…”). In terms of clock-time, 18.55 is five minutes to seven. In Pushkin’s poem Ne day mne Bog soyti s uma (“The Lord Forbid my Going Mad…” 1833) the epithet yarkiy (bright) in the line ne golos yarkiy solov’ya (“not a nightingale’s bright voice”) signals Pushkin’s awareness of Batyushkov’s madness.


Describing old Countess’ bedroom in “The Queen of Spades,” Pushkin mentions two portraits painted in Paris by Mme Lebrun and table clocks made by the famous Leroy (the watchmaker Pierre Leroy, 1717-85):


На стене висели два портрета, писанные в Париже m-me Lebrun. Один из них изображал мужчину лет сорока, румяного и полного, в светло-зеленом мундире и со звездою; другой — молодую красавицу с орлиным носом, с зачёсанными висками и с розою в пудреных волосах. По всем углам торчали фарфоровые пастушки, столовые часы работы славного Leroy, коробочки, рулетки, веера и разные дамские игрушки, изобретённые в конце минувшего столетия вместе с Монгольфьеровым шаром и Месмеровым магнетизмом.


Two portraits, painted in Paris by Mme. Lebrun, hang on the wall. One of them showed a man about forty years old, red-faced and portly, wearing a light green coat with a star; the other a beautiful young woman with an aquiline nose, with her hair combed back over her temples, and with a rose in her powdered locks. Every nook and corner was crowded with china shepherdesses, table clocks made by the famous Leroy, little boxes, bandalores, fans, and diverse other ladies’ toys invented at the end of the last century, along with Montgolfier’s balloon and Mesmer’s magnetism. (chapter III)


In VN’s story Poseshchenie muzeya (“The Visit to the Museum,” 1938) the narrator’s friend wants to acquire a portrait of his grandfather by Leroy:


Несколько лет тому назад один мой парижский приятель, человек со странностями, чтобы не сказать более, узнав, что я собираюсь провести два-три дня вблизи Монтизера, попросил меня зайти в тамошний музей, где, по его сведениям, должен был находиться портрет его деда кисти Леруа. Улыбаясь и разводя руками, он мне поведал довольно дымчатую историю, которую я, признаться, выслушал без внимания, отчасти из-за того, что не люблю чужих навязчивых дел, но главное потому, что всегда сомневался в способности моего друга оставаться по сю сторону фантазии.


SEVERAL years ago a friend of mine in Paris—a person with oddities, to put it mildly—learning that I was going to spend two or three days at Montisert, asked me to drop in at the local museum where there hung, he was told, a portrait of his grandfather by Leroy. Smiling and spreading out his hands, he related a rather vague story to which I confess I paid little attention, partly because I do not like other people’s obtrusive affairs, but chiefly because I had always had doubts about my friend’s capacity to remain this side of fantasy.


The artist’s name hints at le roi (Fr., “the king”). The mad commentator of Shade’s poem, Kinbote imagines that he is Charles the Beloved, the last self-exiled king of Zembla.


The characters of VN’s novel Otchayanie (“Despair,” 1934) include the painter Ardalion (Lydia’s cousin). The novel’s narrator and main character, Hermann Karlovich (Lydia’s husband), murders Felix, a tramp who, as Hermann believes, is his perfect double. It seems that, to be completed, Shade’s unfinished poem needs two lines (1000-1001):


I was the shadow of the waxwing slain

By its own double in the windowpane.


Kot is Russian for “tomcat.” Among the creatures whom Anya (Alice) meets in strana chudes (Wonderland) is Cheshirskiy kot (the Cheshire Cat). Cheshire is one of Van’s schoolmates in Ada. And, vice versa, in the Lewis Carroll book Alice (Anya) mentions her playmate Ada. The very first creature whom Alice (Anya) sees in Wonderland, a White Rabbit (Krolik), takes a watch out of his waist-coat pocket and looks at it. In Ada Dr. Krolik is Ada’s teacher of natural history and Colonel Erminin’s chess partner. Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass (the sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland) begins with a chess problem. VN is the author of Tri shakhmatnykh soneta (“Three Chess Sonnets,” 1924). In his fragment Rim (“Rome,” 1842) Gogol describes a Roman carnival and mentions a great dead poet and his sonetto colla coda (sonnet with a coda):


Внимание толпы занял какой-то смельчак, шагавший на ходулях вравне с домами, рискуя всякую минуту быть сбитым с ног и грохнуться насмерть о мостовую. Но об этом, кажется, у него не было забот. Он тащил на плечах чучело великана, придерживая его одной рукою, неся в другой написанный на бумаге сонет с приделанным к нему бумажным хвостом, какой бывает у бумажного змея, и крича во весь голос: «Ecco il gran poeta morto. Ecco il suo sonetto colla coda!» («Вот умерший великий поэт! вот его сонет с хвостом!»)


In a footnote to his elegy “The Dying Tasso” Batyushkov explains that Torquato Tasso died a few days before his coronation in Rome as “the king of poets.” As if he had a presentiment of his own destiny, Batyushkov mentions the fact that for seven years, two months and several more days Tasso was confined in St. Anna’s hospital (i. e. in a madhouse):


Т. Тасс приписал свой «Иерусалим» Альфонсу, герцогу Феррарскому: («magnanimo Alfonso!..»); и великодушный покровитель без вины, без суда заключил его в больницу св. Анны, т. е. в дом сумасшедших. Там его видел Монтань, путешествовавший по Италии в 1580 году. Странное свидание в таком месте первого мудреца времён новейших с величайшим стихотворцем!.. Но вот что Монтань пишет в «Опытах»: «Я смотрел на Тасса ещё с большею досадою, нежели сожалением; он пережил себя; не узнавал ни себя, ни творений своих. Они без его ведома, но при нем, но почти в глазах его, напечатаны неисправно, безобразно». Тасс, к дополнению несчастия, не был совершенно сумасшедший, и, в ясные минуты рассудка, чувствовал всю горесть своего положения. Воображение, главная пружина его таланта и злополучий, нигде ему не изменило. И в узах он сочинял беспрестанно. Наконец, по усильным просьбам всей Италии, почти всей просвещенной Европы, Тасс был освобождён (заключение его продолжалось семь лет, два месяца и несколько дней).


It seems that Professor Vsevolod Botkin (an American scholar of Russian descent who went mad and became Shade, Kinbote and Gradus after the suicide of his daughter Nadezhda) writes Pale Fire in a madhouse. The last line of Shade’s poem, “By its own double in the windowpane,” together with Kinbote’s Foreword, Commentary and Index are the poem’s coda (which, as Gogol explains in a footnote, can be longer than a sonnet itself). There is a hope that, after Kinbote completes his work on Shade’s poem and commits suicide (on Oct. 19, 1959, the anniversary of Pushkin’s lyceum), Botkin will be full again.


Alexey Sklyarenko

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