The characters in VN’s novel Pale Fire (1962) include Queen Disa (the wife of Charles the Beloved, the last self-exiled king of Zembla). Duchess of Payn, of Great Payn and Mone, Queen Disa seems to blend Shakespeare’s Desdemona with Leonardo’s Mona Lisa. In Shakespeare’s play Desdemona is the wife of Othello, the Moor of Venice. In his Zapiski (“Memoirs,” 1864) F. F. Vigel (1786-1856) says that he once in jest compared Pushkin (a poet who had African blood and was in love with Elizaveta Vorontsov, the wife of the governor general of New Russia) to Othello and Alexander Raevski (Pushkin’s “Demon”), to Othello’s treacherous friend Iago:


Ещё зимой чутьём слышал я опасность для Пушкина, не позволял себе давать ему советов, но раз шутя сказал ему, что по африканскому происхождению его всё мне хочется сравнить его с Отелло, а Раевского с неверным другом Яго. Он только что засмеялся. (Part XVII)


In his epistle to Vigel (in a letter of Oct. 22 - Nov. 4, 1823) Pushkin compares Kishinev to Sodom and, in the poem’s last line, asks Vigel to spare his zad (rear):


Проклятый город Кишинёв!
Тебя бранить язык устанет.
Когда-нибудь на грешный кров
Твоих запачканных домов
Небесный гром, конечно, грянет,
И — не найду твоих следов!
Падут, погибнут, пламенея,
И пёстрый дом Варфоломея,
И лавки грязные жидов:
Так, если верить Моисею,
Погиб несчастливый Содом.
Но с этим милым городком
Я Кишинёв равнять не смею,
Я слишком с библией знаком
И к лести вовсе не привычен.
Содом, ты знаешь, был отличен
Не только вежливым грехом,
Но просвещением, пирами,
Гостеприимными домами
И красотой нестрогих дев!

Как жаль, что ранними громами
Его сразил Еговы гнев!
В блистательном разврате света,
Хранимый богом человек
И член верховного совета,
Провел бы я смиренно век
В Париже ветхого завета!
Но в Кишинёве, знаешь сам,
Нельзя найти ни милых дам,
Ни сводни, ни книгопродавца. —
Жалею о твоей судьбе!
Не знаю, придут ли к тебе
Под вечер милых три красавца;
Однако ж кое-как, мой друг,
Лишь только будет мне досуг,
Явлюся я перед тобою;

Тебе служить я буду рад —
Стихами, прозой, всей душою,
Но, Вигель — пощади мой зад!

Like Vigel, Kinbote (Shade’s mad commentator who imagines that he is Charles the Beloved) is homosexual. In his Foreword Kinbote mentions two ping-pong tables that he installed in his basement:


I was not yet used to the rather fatiguing jesting and teasing that goes on among American intellectuals of the inbreeding academic type and so abstained from telling John Shade in front of all those grinning old males how much I admired his work lest a serious discussion of literature degenerate into mere facetiation. Instead I asked him about one of my newly acquired students who also attended his course, a moody, delicate, rather wonderful boy; but with a resolute shake of his hoary forelock the old poet answered that he had ceased long ago to memorize faces and names of students and that the only person in his poetry class whom he could visualize was an extramural lady on crutches. "Come, come," said Professor Hurley, "do you mean, John, you really don't have a mental or visceral picture of that stunning blonde in the black leotard who haunts Lit. 202?" Shade, all his wrinkles beaming, benignly tapped Hurley on the wrist to make him stop. Another tormentor inquired if it was true that I had installed two ping-pong tables in my basement. I asked, was it a crime? No, he said, but why two? "Is that a crime?" I countered, and they all laughed.


In his Commentary Kinbote mentions a candidate for his third ping-pong table:


As to my own activities, they were I am afraid most unsatisfactory from all points of view - emotional, creative, and social. That jinxy streak had started on the eve when I had been kind enough to offer a young friend - a candidate for my third ping-pong table who after a sensational series of traffic violations had been deprived of his driving license - to take him, in my powerful Kramler, all the way to his parents' estate, a little matter of two hundred miles. In the course of an all-night party among crowds of strangers - young people, old people, cloyingly perfumed girls - in an atmosphere of fireworks, barbecue smoke, horseplay, jazz music, and auroral swimming, I lost all contact with the silly boy, was made to dance, was made to sing, got involved in the most boring bibble-babble imaginable with various relatives of the child, and finally, in some inconceivable manner, found myself transported to a different party on a different estate, where, after some indescribable parlor games, in which my beard was nearly snipped off, I had a fruit-and-rice breakfast and was taken by my anonymous host, a drunken old fool in tuxedo and riding breeches, on a stumbling round of his stables. Upon locating my car (off the road, in a pine grove), I tossed out of the driver's seat a pair of soggy swimming trunks and a girl's silver slipper. The brakes had aged overnight, and I soon ran out of gas on a desolate stretch of road. Six o'clock was being chimed by the clocks of Wordsmith College, when I reached Arcady, swearing to myself never to be caught like that again and innocently looking forward to the solace of a quiet evening with my poet. Only when I saw the beribboned flat carton I had placed on a chair in my hallway did I realize that I had almost missed his birthday. (note to Line 181)


In his epistle to Vigel Pushkin mentions milykh tri krasavtsa (three handsome youths) who will come to Vigel’s place in the evening.


In the same note of his Commentary Kinbote tells Sybil Shade (the poet’s wife) that yesterday was not only her husband’s, but also his birthday:


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 wags 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.

"Speaking of novels," I said, "you remember we decided once, you, your husband and I, that Proust's rough masterpiece was a huge, ghoulish fairy tale, an asparagus dream, totally unconnected with any possible people in any historical France, a sexual travestissement and a colossal farce, the vocabulary of genius and its poetry, but no more, impossibly rude hostesses, please let me speak, and even ruder guests, mechanical Dostoevskian rows and Tolstoian nuances of snobbishness repeated and expanded to an unsufferable length, adorable seascapes, melting avenues, no, do not interrupt me, light and shade effects rivaling those of the greatest English poets, a flora of metaphors, described - by Cocteau, I think - as 'a mirage of suspended gardens,' and, I have not yet finished, an absurd, rubber-and-wire romance between a blond young blackguard (the fictitious Marcel), and an improbable jeune fille who has a pasted-on bosom, Vronski's (and Lyovin's) thick neck, and a cupid's buttocks for cheeks; but - and now let me finish sweetly - we were wrong, Sybil, we were wrong in denying our little beau ténébreux the capacity of evoking 'human interest': it is there, it is there - maybe a rather eighteenth-centuryish, or even seventeenth-centuryish, brand, but it is there. Please, dip or redip, spider, into this book [offering it], you will find a pretty marker in it bought in France, I want John to keep it. Au revoir, Sybil, I must go now. I think my telephone is ringing."

I am a very sly Zemblan. Just in case, I had brought with me in my pocket the third and last volume of the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade edition, Paris, 1954, of Proust's work, wherein I had marked certain passages on pages 269-271. Mme. de Mortemart, having decided that Mme. de Valcourt would not be among the "elected" at her soirée, intended to send her a note on the next day saying "Dear Edith, I miss you, last night I did not expect you too much (Edith would wonder: how could she at all, since she did not invite me?) because I know you are not overfond of this sort of parties which, if anything, bore you."

So much for John Shade's last birthday.


Volume Four of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (“In Search of Lost Time”) is entitled Sodom and Gomorrah. In Le temps retrouvé (“Time Regained”), the seventh and last volume of À la recherche du temps perdu, Dr Cottard tells the narrator that he has witnessed actual duplications of personality and Mme Cottard mentions the Scotchman Stevenson, her children’s favorite writer:


Et la suggestive dissertation passa, sur un signe gracieux de la maîtresse de maison, de la salle à manger au fumoir vénitien dans lequel Cottard me dit avoir assisté à de véritables dédoublements de la personnalité, nous citant le cas d’un de ses malades, qu’il s’offre aimablement à m’amener chez moi et à qui il suffisait qu’il touchât les tempes pour l’éveiller à une seconde vie, vie pendant laquelle il ne se rappelait rien de la première, si bien que, très honnête homme dans celle-là, il y aurait été plusieurs fois arrêté pour des vols commis dans l’autre où il serait tout simplement un abominable gredin. Sur quoi Mme Verdurin remarque finement que la médecine pourrait fournir des sujets plus vrais à un théâtre où la cocasserie de l’imbroglio reposerait sur des méprises pathologiques, ce qui, de fil en aiguille, amène Mme Cottard à narrer qu’une donnée toute semblable a été mise en œuvre par un amateur qui est le favori des soirées de ses enfants, l’Écossais Stevenson, un nom qui met dans la bouche de Swann cette affirmation péremptoire : « Mais c’est tout à fait un grand écrivain, Stevenson, je vous assure, M. de Goncourt, un très grand, l’égal des plus grands. »


This suggestive dissertation continued, on a gracious sign from the mistress of the house, from the dining-room into the Venetian smoking-room where Cottard told me he had witnessed actual duplications of personality, giving as example the case of one of his patients whom he amiably offers to bring to see me, in whose case Cottard has merely to touch his temples to usher him into a second life, a life in which he remembers nothing of the other, so much so that, a very honest man in this one, he had actually been arrested several times for thefts committed in the other during which he had been nothing less than a disgraceful scamp. Upon which Mme Verdurin acutely remarks that medicine could furnish subjects truer than a theatre where the humour of an imbroglio is founded upon pathological mistakes, which from thread to needle brought Mme Cottard to relate that a similar notion had been made use of by an amateur who is the prime favourite at her children’s evening parties, the Scotchman Stevenson, a name which forced from Swann the peremptory affirmation: ‘But Stevenson is a great writer, I can assure you, M. de Goncourt, a very great one, equal to the greatest.’


In his Cornell lecture on R. L. Stevenson VN points out that in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Stevenson’s novella that Mme Cottard has in mind) there are really three personalities: Jekyll, Hyde and a third, the Jekyll residue when Hyde takes over. Shade’s birthday, July 5, is also Kinbote’s and Gradus’ birthday (Shade was born in 1898, Kinbote and Gradus were born in 1915). The poet Shade, his mad commentator Kinbote and his murderer Gradus seem to represent three different aspects of Botkin’s personality. An American scholar of Russian descent, Professor Vsevolod Botkin went mad and became Shade, Kinbote and Gradus after the suicide of his daughter Nadezhda (Hazel Shade of Kinbote’s Commentary). In his famous epigram on Count Vorontsov (the the governor general of New Russia) Pushkin mentions nadezhda (hope):


Полу-милорд, полу-купец,
Полу-мудрец, полу-невежда,
Полу-подлец, но есть надежда,
Что будет полным наконец.


Half-milord, half-merchant,

Half-sage, half-ignoramus,

Half-scoundrel, but there is a hope

That he will be a full one at last.


There is a hope that, when 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.


In Rodoslovnaya moego geroya (“The Pedigree of My Hero,” 1836), a fragment written in the Onegin stanza, Pushkin mentions mladaya Dezdemona (young Desdemona) and, in the preceding line, chyornyi pen’ (a sear stump):

Зачем крутится ветр в овраге,
Подъемлет лист и пыль несёт,
Когда корабль в недвижной влаге
Его дыханья жадно ждёт?
Зачем от гор и мимо башен
Летит орёл, тяжел и страшен,
На чёрный пень? Спроси его.
Зачем Арапа своего
Младая любит Дездемона,
Как месяц любит ночи мглу?
Затем, что ветру и орлу
И сердцу девы нет закона.
Гордись: таков и ты поэт,
И для тебя условий нет.


Why does the wind revolve in the ravine,

sweep up the leaves and bear the dust,

when avidly on stirless water

wait for his breath the galleon must?

From mountains and past towers, why

does the dread heavy eagle fly

to a sear stump? Inquire of him.

Why does young Desdemona love

her blackamoor as the moon loves

the gloom of night? Because

the wind and eagle

and maiden’s heart no law is laid.

Poet, be proud: thus are you too:

Neither is there a law for you. (XIII)


The name Pnin (of the title character of a novel by VN) comes from pen’ (stump). In his Commentary to Shade’s poem Kinbote mentions Prof. Pnin, the Head of the bloated Russian Department at Wordsmith University, and Prof. Botkin, who belongs to another department:


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)


In Ilf and Petrov’s novel Zolotoy telyonok (“The Golden Calf,” 1931) Zosya Sinitski compares Ostap Bender to Othello:


-- Вы ревнуете? - лукаво спросила Зося. 

-- М-м, немножко. Что же вам пишет этот пошляк? 

-- Он вовсе не пошляк. Он просто очень несчастный и бедный человек. Садитесь, Остап. Почему вы встали? Серьёзно, я его совсем не люблю. Он просит меня приехать к нему. 

-- Куда, куда приехать? - закричал Остап. - Где он? 

-- Нет, я вам не скажу. Вы ревнивец. Вы его еще убьёте. 

-- Ну что вы, Зося! - осторожно сказал командор. – Просто любопытно узнать, где это люди устраиваются. 

-- О, он очень далеко! Пишет, что нашёл очень выгодную службу, здесь ему мало платили. Он теперь на постройке Восточной Магистрали, 

-- В каком месте? 

-- Честное слово, вы слишком любопытны! Нельзя быть таким Отелло!

-- Ей-богу, Зося, вы меня смешите. Разве я похож на старого глупого мавра?


"Are you jealous?" Zosya asked playfully.

“Well, a little. So what does this clown have to say?"

“He’s not a clown. He's just a very poor, unhappy man. Sit down, Ostap. Why did you get up. No, seriously, I don't love him at all. He's asking me to come join him."

"Where, join him where?" shouted Ostap. "Where is he?"

“No, I won’t tell you. You're too jealous. You'd go and kill him, God forbid."

"Oh, come on, Zosya!" said the captain carefully. "I'm just curious where people find work these days."

"Oh, he's very, very far from here. He writes that he found a well-paying job. He wasn't making much here. He's helping build the Eastern Line."

“Where exactly?”

"Honestly, you're way too nosy. You shouldn't be such an Othello!"

"For God's sake, Zosya, you make me laugh. Do I look like a silly old Moor?” (chapter XXIV “The Weather was Right for Love”)


The surname Sinitski comes sinitsa (titmouse). Queen Disa’s and Sybil Shade’s “real” name seems to be Sofia Botkin. Sofia Botkin’s maiden name, Lastochkin comes from lastochka (swallow).


Alexey Sklyarenko

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