Infernal Sacraments

Much of my Nabokovian work has been devoted to annotating sources and allusions related to Pale Fire. I have posted many of these to the Nabokov listserv over the years, but I am going to reconstitute some of them on this blog from time to time. Today’s entry falls more in the source category, as opposed to an allusion. Explain. When VN uses an allusion to some other literary work or historical incident, he wants us to recognize it and make something of the connection. Sources are different in that they lie more or less hidden behind the process of composition, and the author does not expect us, or require us, to recognize them or make sense of their connection to the text at hand. Nevertheless, source work can be revealing insomuch as it provides context for the sourced material and may help us understand some of the unstated elements that undergird an author’s use of the material.

That said, I am not today going to undertake a full-scale source study but will instead simply lay out a couple of source passages for the reader’s delight and edification. Here we go:

Passage from Pale Fire (n. 171)

When the fallen tyrant is tied, naked and howling, to a plank in the public square and killed piecemeal by the people who cut slices out, and eat them, and distribute his living body among themselves (as I read when young in a story about an Italian despot, which made of me a vegetarian for life).

Passage from John Addington Symonds’ Renaissance in Italy: The Age of Despots (1885)

Dattiri was bound naked to a plank and killed piecemeal by the people, who bit his flesh, cut slices out, and sold and ate it–distributing his living body as a sort of infernal sacrament among themselves.

In this case, then, Nabokov cannibalized from Symonds a passage on cannibalism. I’m tempted to think VN was cognizant of the irony, but given that he plundered all kinds of passages from various writers, it’s hard to assign any particular intent to this one, despite the felicitous intersection of process and subject.

While not as definitive as the previous example, I can’t help thinking that the following passages are likewise linked.

PF (n. 62):

Everybody knows how given to regicide Zemblans are: two Queens, three Kings, and fourteen Pretenders died violent deaths, strangled, stabbed, poisoned, and drowned, in the course of only one century (1700-1800).


No one believed in the natural death of a prince: princes must be poisoned or poignarded. Out of thirteen of the Carrara family, in little more than a century (1318-1435) three were deposed or murdered by near relatives, one was expelled by a rival from his state, four were executed by the Venetians. Out of five of the La Scala family, three were killed by their brothers, and a fourth was poisoned in exile.

This passage from Symonds appears just a page prior to the cannibalism reference. I have not read all of the Symonds, but what I have read is highly entertaining. I can see why VN was drawn to it. Symonds himself, by the way, seems to have been a mix of equal (or, who knows, unequal) parts John Shade and Charles Kinbote.

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