In The New York Times for July 21, 1959, Gradus (one of the three main characters in VN’s novel Pale Fire, 1962) reads:
The Helman brothers said they had assisted in the negotiations for the placement of a sizable note: “$11,000,000, Decker Glass Manufacturing Company, Inc., note due July 1, 1979,” and Gradus, grown young again, reread this twice, with the background gray thought, perhaps, that he would be sixty-four four days after that (no comment). (note to Line 949)
1979 - 64 = 1915; 1 + 4 = 5. Gradus was born on July 5, 1915. July 5 is also Shade’s and Kinbote’s birthday. In Canto Two of his poem Shade writes:
And finally there was the sleepless night
When I decided to explore and fight
The foul, the inadmissible abyss,
Devoting all my twisted life to this
One task. Today I'm sixty-one. Waxwings
Are berry-pecking. A cicada sings. (ll. 177-182)
From Kinbote’s Commentary:
Namely, July 5, 1959, 6th Sunday after Trinity. Shade began writing Canto Two "early in the morning" (thus noted at the top of Card 14). He continued (down to line 208) on and off throughout the day. Most of the evening and a part of the night were devoted to what his favorite eighteenth-century writers have termed "the Bustle and Vanity of the World." After the last guest had gone (on a bicycle), and the ashtrays had been emptied, all the windows were dark for a couple of hours; but then, at about 3 A.M., I saw from my upstairs bedroom that the poet had gone back to his desk in the lilac light of his den, and this nocturnal session brought the canto to line 230 (card 18). On another trip to the bathroom an hour and a half later, at sunrise, I found the light transferred to my bedroom, and smiled indulgently, for, according to my deductions, only two nights had passed since the three-thousand-nine-hundred-ninety-ninth time--but no matter. A few minutes later all was solid darkness again, and I went back to bed.
On July 5th, a noontime, in the other hemisphere, on the rain-swept tarmac of the Onhava airfield, Gradus, holding a French passport, walked towards a Russian commercial plane bound for Copenhagen, and this event synchronized with Shade's starting in the early morning (Atlantic seaboard time) to compose, or to set down after composing in bed, the opening lines of Canto Two. When almost twenty-four hours later he got to line 230, Gradus, after a refreshing night at the summer house of our consul in Copenhagen, an important Shadow, had entered, with the Shadow, a clothes store in order to conform to his description in later notes (to lines 286 and 408). Migraine again worse today…
Next morning, as soon as I saw Sybil drive away to fetch Ruby the maid who did not sleep in the house, I crossed over with the prettily and reproachfully wrapped up carton. In front of their garage, on the ground, I noticed a buchmann, a little pillar of library books which Sybil had obviously forgotten there. I bent towards them under the incubus of curiosity: they were mostly by Mr. Faulkner; and the next moment Sybil was back, her tires scrunching on the gravel right behind me. I added the books to my gift and placed the whole pile in her lap. That was nice of me--but what was that carton? Just a present for John. A present? Well, was it not his birthday yesterday? Yes, it was, but after all are not birthdays mere conventions? Conventions or not, but it was my birthday too--small difference of sixteen years, that's all. Oh my! Congratulations. And how did the party go? Well, you know what such parties are (here I reached in my pocket for another book--a book she did not expect). Yes, what are they? Oh, people whom you've known all your life and simply must invite once a year, men like Ben Kaplun and Dick Colt with whom we went to school, and that Washington cousin, and the fellow whose novels you and John think so phony. We did not ask you because we knew how tedious you find such affairs. This was my cue. (note to Line 181)
In his Index to Pale Fire Kinbote says that Charles Xavier Vseslav, last King of Zembla, surnamed the Beloved, was born in 1915. Kinbote (Shade’s mad commentator who imagines that he is Charles the Beloved, the last self-exiled king of Zembla) and Gradus (Shade’s murderer) were born on the same day. Shade was born on July 5, 1898, and is seventeen (not “sixteen”) years Kinbote’s (and Gradus’s) senior. On July 5, 1979, when Gradus (and Kinbote) would be sixty-four, Shade would be eighty-one.
64 = 8 × 8
81 = 9 × 9
8 + 9 = 17. In a letter to his brother written on his seventeenth birthday (October 31, 1838) Dostoevski twice uses the word gradus (degree) and says that he was held back because he had been rude to his algebra teacher:
Я потерял, убил столько дней до экзамена, заболел, похудел, выдержал экзамен отлично в полной силе и объёме этого слова и остался... Так хотел один преподающий (алгебры), которому я нагрубил в продолженье года и который нынче имел подлость напомнить мне это, объясняя причину, отчего остался я...
In VN’s novel Lolita (1955) Humbert Humbert is afraid that Charlotte will bundle off her daughter to St. Algebra. At Beardsley College the teachers complain that Dolores Haze (Lolita’s full name) is rude to them. Lolita was born on January 1, 1935.
In his memoir essay Vospominaniya o F. M. Dostoevskom (“Reminiscences of F. M. Dostoevski,” 1881) Vsevolod Solovyov (son of the celebrated historian and brother of the celebrated philosopher) describes his first meeting with the writer and says that Dostoevski asked him about the year and day of his birth:
Я не замечал, как шло время. Переходя от одного к другому, мы начали сообщать друг другу сведения о самих себе. Я жадно ловил каждое его слово. Он спросил меня о годе и дне моего рожденья и стал припоминать:
-- Постойте, где я был тогда?.. в Перми... мы шли в Сибирь... да, это в Перми было... (III)
According to Dostoevski (who in 1850-1854 served four years of exile with hard labor at a prison camp in Omsk), on the day of Solovyov’s birth he was on his way to Siberia, namely in Perm. In his memoir essay on Dostoevski Vsevolod Solovyov says that his birthday is January 1 and that for the first time Dostoevski visited him on January 1, 1873:
Наступил новый, 1873-й год. Первого января, вернувшись к себе поздно вечером и подойдя к письменному столу, я увидел среди дожидавшихся меня писем визитную карточку, оборотная сторона которой была вся исписана. Взглянул -- "Фёдор Михайлович Достоевский".
From John Ray’s Foreword to Humbert Humbert’s manuscript we find out that Lolita died in childbed, giving birth to a stillborn girl:
Mrs. "Richard F. Schiller" died in childbed, giving birth to a stillborn girl, on Christmas Day 1952, in Gray Star, a settlement in the remotest Northwest.
In Dostoevski’s story Mal’chik u Khrista nay yolke (“The Boy at Christ’s Christmas-Tree Party,” 1876) the boy dies on Christmas Day. Unlike Humbert Humbert (who loves nymphets), Kinbote loves little boys.
In his Foreword to HH’s manuscript John Ray, Jr. says that the caretakers of the various cemeteries report that no ghosts walk. In Dostoevski’s story Bobok (1873) the action takes place at a cemetery and one of the deceased mentions Dr Botkin:
-- А я, знаете, всё собирался к Боткину... и вдруг...
-- Ну, Боткин кусается,-- заметил генерал.
-- Ах, нет, он совсем не кусается; я слышал, он такой внимательный и всё предскажет вперёд.
-- Его превосходительство заметил насчёт цены, -- поправил чиновник.
-- Ах, что вы, всего три целковых, и он так осматривает, и рецепт... и я непременно хотел, потому что мне говорили... Что же, господа, как же мне, к Эку или к Боткину?
“You know, I kept meaning to go to Botkin’s, and all at once . . .”
“Botkin is quite prohibitive,” observed the general.
“Oh, no, he is not forbidding at all; I’ve heard he is so attentive and foretells everything beforehand.”
“His Excellency was referring to his fees,” the government clerk corrected him.
“Oh, not at all, he only asks three roubles, and he makes such an examination, and gives you a prescription . . .and I was very anxious to see him, for I have been told . . . Well, gentlemen, had I better go to Ecke or to Botkin?”
Shade’s, Kinbote’s and Gradus’ “real” name seems to be Vsevolod Botkin. An American scholar of Russian descent, Professor Botkin went mad and became Shade, Kinbote and Gradus after the suicide of his daughter Nadezhda (Hazel Shade of Kinbote’s Commentary). In the same letter of October 31, 1838, Dostoevski tells his brother that it is sad to live without nadezhda (hope):
Брат, грустно жить без надежды... Смотрю вперёд, и будущее меня ужасает...
Brother, it is sad to live without hope… I look ahead and the future frightens me…
In Canto Two of his poem Shade speaks of his daughter and mentions hope:
I think she always nursed a small mad hope. (l. 383)
Bobok + Kind + Nova Zembla = bodkin + Nabokov + Zembla
Kind – Germ., child; a leitmotif in Pale Fire are the opening lines of Goethe’s Erlkönig (1782): Wer reitet so spät durch Nacht und Wind? / Es ist der Vater mit seinem Kind (Who rides, so late, through night and wind? / It is the father with his child).
In his Commentary Kinbote describes a conversation in the lounge of the Faculty Club and mentions Nova Zembla:
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]. (note to Line 894)
In his Index (entry on Botkin, V.) Kinbote mentions bodkin:
Botkin, V., American scholar of Russian descent, 894; king-bot, maggot of extinct fly that once bred in mammoths and is thought to have hastened their phylogenetic end, 247; bottekin-maker, 71; bot, plop, and boteliy, big-bellied (Russ.); botkin or bodkin, a Danish stiletto.