In his Foreword to Shade’s poem Kinbote (one of the three main characters in VN’s novel Pale Fire, 1962) mentions Dr. Nattochdag, the head of Kinbote’s department who was nicknamed Netochka:
There was also the morning when Dr. Nattochdag, head of the department to which I was attached, begged me in a formal voice to be seated, then closed the door, and having regained, with a downcast frown, his swivel chair, urged me "to be more careful." In what sense, careful? A boy had complained to his adviser. Complained of what, good Lord? That I had criticized a literature course he attended ("a ridiculous survey of ridiculous works, conducted by a ridiculous mediocrity"). Laughing in sheer relief, I embraced my good Netochka, telling him I would never be naughty again. I take this opportunity to salute him. He always behaved with such exquisite courtesy toward me that I sometimes wondered if he did not suspect what Shade suspected, and what only three people (two trustees and the president of the college) definitely knew.
Netochka Nezvanov is the unfinished novel (1849) by Dostoevski. In Chapter One of his poem Vozmezdie («Retribution», 1910-21) Alexander Blok mentions sick and sad Dostoevski who was friends with Pobedonostsev in the last years of his life:
На вечерах у Анны Вревской
Был общества отборный цвет.
Больной и грустный Достоевский
Ходил сюда на склоне лет
Суровой жизни скрасить бремя,
Набраться сведений и сил
Для "Дневника". (Он в это время
С Победоносцевым дружил).
In Blok’s poem it is Dostoevski who remarks that the hero resembles Byron:
Его заметил Достоевский.
"Кто сей красавец? - он спросил
Негромко, наклонившись к Вревской: -
Похож на Байрона". - Словцо
Крылатое все подхватили,
И все на новое лицо
Своё вниманье обратили. (ibid.)
According to Kinbote (Shade’s mad commentator who imagines that he is Charles the Beloved, the last self-exiled king of Zembla), the name Zembla is a corruption of Semberland, a land of reflections, of "resemblers:"
One day, however, in the lounge of the Faculty Club where I lolled surrounded by a number of my colleagues, I had to put up with a particularly embarrassing onset. A visiting German lecturer from Oxford kept exclaiming, aloud and under his breath, that the resemblance was "absolutely unheard of," and when I negligently observed that all bearded Zemblands resembled one another--and that, in fact, the name Zembla is a corruption not of the Russian zemlya, but of Semberland, a land of reflections, of "resemblers" -- my tormentor said: "Ah, yes, but King Charles wore no beard, and yet it is his very face! I had [he added] the honor of being seated within a few yards of the royal box at a Sport Festival in Onhava which I visited with my wife, who is Swedish, in 1956. We have a photograph of him at home, and her sister knew very well the mother of one of his pages, an interesting woman. Don't you see [almost tugging at Shade's lapel' the astounding similarity of features -- of the upper part of the face, and the eyes, yes, the eyes, and the nose bridge?"
"Nay, sir" [said Shade, refolding a leg and slightly rolling his armchair as wont to do when about to deliver a pronouncement] "there is no resemblance at all. I have seen the King in newsreels, and there is no resemblance. Resemblances are the shadows of differences. Different people see different similarities and similar differences."
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. (note to Line 894)
In Swedish Nattochdag means “night and day.” In Chapter Two of “Retribution” Blok mentions sovinye kryla (an owl’s wings) that Pobedonostsev spread over Russia and says that in those years there were neither day, nor night – only the shadow of huge wings:
В те годы дальние, глухие,
В сердцах царили сон и мгла:
Победоносцев над Россией
Простёр совиные крыла,
И не было ни дня, ни ночи
А только - тень огромных крыл… (I)
In his Commentary Kinbote quotes the words of Shade who listed Dostoevski among Russian humorists:
Speaking of the Head of the bloated Russian Department, Prof. Pnin, a regular martinet in regard to his underlings (happily, Prof. Botkin, who taught in another department, was not subordinated to that grotesque "perfectionist"): "How odd that Russian intellectuals should lack all sense of humor when they have such marvelous humorists as Gogol, Dostoevski, Chekhov, Zoshchenko, and those joint authors of genius Ilf and Petrov." (note to Line 172)
Ilf and Petrov are the authors of Dvenadtsat’ stuliev (“The Twelve Chairs,” 1928), Blok is the author of Dvenadtsat’ (“The Twelve,” 1918). In Chekhov’s play Tri sestry (“The Three Sisters,” 1901) Solyonyi imagines that he resembles Lermontov. Lermontov’s poem Net, ya ne Bayron, ya drugoy… (“No, I’m not Byron, I’m another…” 1832) ends in the line ya – ili Bog – ili nikto (myself – or god – or nobody):
Нет, я не Байрон, я другой,
Ещё неведомый избранник,
Как он гонимый миром странник,
Но только с русскою душой.
Я раньше начал, кончу ране,
Мой ум немного совершит;
В душе моей как в океане
Надежд разбитых груз лежит.
Кто может, океан угрюмый,
Твои изведать тайны? кто
Толпе мои расскажет думы?
Я - или Бог - или никто!
No, I'm not Byron, it's my role
To be an undiscovered wonder,
Like him, a persecuted wand'rer,
But furnished with a Russian soul.
I started sooner, sooner ending,
My mind will never reach so high;
Within my soul, beyond the mending,
My shattered aspirations lie:
Dark ocean answer me, can any
Plumb all your depth with skillful trawl?
Who will explain me to the many?
Myself – or God – or none at all!
Bog + nikto + ladon’ + Nabokov + slova = Botkin + ogon’ + Aldanov + Blok + sova
Bog – God
nikto – nobody
ladon’ – palm (of a hand)
slova – words (pl. of slovo)
Botkin – Shade’s, Kinbote’s and Gradus’ “real” name
ogon’ – fire
Aldanov – Mark Aldanov (1886-1957), a writer; Byron is the main character in Aldanov’s novel Mogila voina (“A Soldier’s Grave,” 1938); Dostoevski is the favorite writer of Musya Kremenetsky (one of the main characters in Aldanov’s trilogy “The Key,” “The Escape,” “The Cave”)
sova – owl