A Note on Pale Fire and Khodasevich's "Ballada"
by Kevin Frazier

Introduction

In Pale Fire Nabokov makes a number of apparent references to Vladislav Khodasevich's poem "Ballada." The connections between Pale Fire and "Ballada" include:

a. The descriptions in the opening stanzas and in other passages of Nabokov's poem.
b. The theme of communication from the afterlife or another realm.
c. A potential parody of the literary relationship between Nabokov and Khodasevich in the relationship of Kinbote and Shade.
Nabokov's Translation of "Ballada"

Nabokov admired Khodasevich's writing in general and "Ballada" in particular.

Khodasevich, Nabokov wrote in 1939, is "the greatest Russian poet of our time" and "shall remain the pride of Russian poetry as long as its last memory lives."1 Of "Ballada," Nabokov said that in it Khodasevich attained "the limits of poetic skill."2

In 1941 Nabokov translated "Ballada" into English. The translation appeared along with his translations of two other Khodasevich poems in New Directions in Prose and Poetry.3 Contrary to his later practice, Nabokov wrote a relatively free rhyming translation of "Ballada." He switched the English title of the poem, for instance, to "Orpheus" and changed the meaning of the original poem in many small ways throughout:

Orpheus

Brightly lit from above I am sitting
in my circular room; this is I--
looking up at a sky made of stucco,
at a sixty-watt sun in that sky.

All around me, and also lit brightly,
all around me my furniture stands,
chair and table and bed--and I wonder
sitting there what to do with my hands.

Frost-engendered white feathery palmtrees
on the window-panes silently bloom;
loud and quick clicks the watch in my pocket
as I sit in my circular room.

Oh, the leaden, the beggarly bareness
of a life where no issue I see!
Whom on earth could I tell how I pity
my own self and the things around me?

And then clasping my knees I start slowly
to sway backwards and forwards, and soon
I am speaking in verse, I am crooning
to myself as I sway in a swoon.

What a vague, what a passionate murmur
lacking any intelligent plan;
but a sound may be truer than reason
and a word may be stronger than man.

And then melody, melody, melody
blends my accents and joins in their quest
and a delicate, delicate, delicate
pointed blade seems to enter my breast.

High above my own spirit I tower,
high above mortal matter I grow:
subterranean flames lick my ankles,
past my brow the cool galaxies flow.

With big eyes-as my singing grows wilder--
with the eyes of a serpent maybe,
I keep watching the helpless expression
of the poor things that listen to me.

And the room and the furniture slowly,
slowly start in a circle to sail,
and a great heavy lyre is from nowhere
handed me by a ghost through the gale.

And the sixty-watt sun has now vanished,
and away the false heavens are blown:
on the smoothness of glossy black boulders
this is Orpheus standing alone.

Here, for comparison, is a literal translation of "Ballada" as made by David M. Bethea:4
Ballada

I sit, illumined from above,
in my round room.
I look into a plaster sky
at a sixty-watt sun.

Around me, illumined also,
are chairs, and a table, and a bed.
I sit, and in confusion have no idea
what to do with my hands.

Frozen white palms
bloom noiselessly on the windowpanes.
My watch with a metallic sound
runs in my vest pocket.

O, stale, beggared paltriness
of my hopelessly closed life!
Whom can I tell how much I pity
myself and all these things?

And, embracing my knees,
I begin to rock,
and all at once I begin in a daze
to talk with myself in verse.

Unconnected, passionate speeches!
You can't understand them at all,
but sounds are truer than sense
and the word is strongest of all.

And music, music, music
threads its way into my singing
and sharp, sharp, sharp
is the blade that pierces me.

I begin to outgrow myself,
to rise above my dead being,
with steps into the subterranean flame,
with brow into the fleeting stars.

And I see with great eyes--
the eyes, perhaps, of a snake--
how to my wild song [now] harken
my wretched things.

And in a flowing, revolving dance
my entire room moves rhythmically,
and someone hands me
a heavy lyre through the wind.

And the plaster sky
and the sixty-watt sun are no more:
onto the smooth, black boulders
it is Orpheus planting his feet.

And, finally, the original Russian:
БАЛЛАДА

Сижу, освещаемый сверху,
Я в комнате круглой моей.
Смотрю в штукатурное небо
На солнце в шестнадцать свечей.

Кругом -- освещенные тоже,
И стулья, и стол. и кровать.
Сижу -- и в смущеньи не знаю,
Куда бы мне руки девать.

Морозные белые пальмы
На стеклах беззвучно цветут.
Часы с металлическим шумом
В жилетном кармане идут.

О, косная, нищая скудость
Безвыходной жизни моей!
Кому мне поведать, как жалко
Себя и всех этих вещей?

И я начинаю качаться,
Колени обнявши свои,
И вдруг начинаю стихами
С собой говорить в забытьи.

Бессвязные, страстные речи!
Нельзя в них понять ничего,
Но звуки правдивее смысла
И слово сильнее всего.

И музыка, музыка, музыка
Вплетается в пенье мое,
И узкое, узкое, узкое
Пронзает меня лезвие.

Я сам над собой вырастаю,
Над мертвым встаю бытием,
Стопами в подземное пламя,
В текучие звезды челом.

И вижу большими глазами --
Глазами, быть может, змей, --
Как пению дикому внемлют
Несчастные вещи мои.

И в плавный, вращательный танец
Вся комната мерно идет,
И кто-то тяжелую лиру
Мне в руки сквозь ветер дает.

И нет штукатурного неба
И солнца в шестнадцать свечей:
На гладкие черные скалы
Стопы опирает -- Орфей.

1921

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Notes

1. Vladimir Nabokov, "On Hodasevich," originally published in Sovremennye zapiski LIX (Paris, 1939), reprinted in Strong Opinions (New York: Vintage, 1990), p. 223.

2. Quoted by David M. Bethea in Khodasevich: His Life and Art (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983), p. 237, citing V. Sirin [Nabokov], "Vladislav Khodasevich" [a review of The Collected Verse], Rul' [The Rudder], no. 2142 (14 December 1927).

3. See New Directions in Prose and Poetry, 1941 (Norfolk, Conn.: New Directions, 1941), reprinted in TriQuarterly 27 (Spring 1973) and Simon Karlinsky and Alfred Appel, Jr. eds. The Bitter Air of Exile: Russian Writers in the West, 1922-1972 (Berkeley: University of California Press, rev. ed. 1977).

4. The translation appears in Bethea, Khodasevich: His Life and Art, pp. 239-240. Bethea also prints the Russian text of "Ballada" at pp. 238-239.

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