shargar, Sudarg of Bokay & Bozhe moy in Pale Fire

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Fri, 11/08/2019 - 06:19

In his Commentary Kinbote (in VN’s novel Pale Fire, 1962, Shade’s mad commentator who imagines that he is Charles the Beloved, the last self-exiled king of Zembla) mentions Gradus’s puny ghost, shargar:


We all know those dreams in which something Stygian soaks through and Lethe leaks in the dreary terms of defective plumbing. Following this line, there is a false start preserved in the draft—and I hope the reader will feel something of the chill that ran down my long and supple spine when I discovered this variant:


Should the dead murderer try to embrace
His outraged victim whom he now must face?
Do objects have a soul? Or perish must
Alike great temples and Tanagra dust?


The last syllable of Tanagra and the first three letters of "dust" form the name of the murderer whose shargar (puny ghost) the radiant spirit of our poet was soon to face. "Simple chance!" the pedestrian reader may cry. But let him try to see, as I have tried to see, how many such combinations are possible and plausible. "Leningrad used to be Petrograd?" "A prig rad (obs. past tense of read) us?"

This variant is so prodigious that only scholarly discipline and a scrupulous regard for the truth prevented me from inserting it here, and deleting four lines elsewhere (for example, the weak lines 627-630) so as to preserve the length of the poem.

Shade composed these lines on Tuesday, July 14th. What was Gradus doing that day? Nothing. Combinational fate rests on its laurels. We saw him last on the late afternoon of July 10th when he returned from Lex to his hotel in Geneva, and there we left him.

For the next four days Gradus remained fretting in Geneva. The amusing paradox with these men of action is that they constantly have to endure long stretches of otiosity that they are unable to fill with anything, lacking as they do the resources of an adventurous mind. As many people of little culture, Gradus was a voracious reader of newspapers, pamphlets, chance leaflets and the multilingual literature that comes with nose drops and digestive tablets; but this summed up his concessions to intellectual curiosity, and since his eyesight was not too good, and the consumability of local news not unlimited, he had to rely a great deal on the torpor of sidewalk cafes and on the makeshift of sleep.

How much happier the wide-awake indolents, the monarchs among men, the rich monstrous brains deriving intense enjoyment and rapturous pangs from the balustrade of a terrace at nightfall, from the lights and the lake below, from the distant mountain shapes melting into the dark apricot of the afterglow, from the black conifers outlined against the pale ink of the zenith, and from the garnet and green flounces of the water along the silent, sad, forbidden shoreline. Oh my sweet Boscobel! And the tender and terrible memories, and the shame, and the glory, and the maddening intimation, and the star that no party member can ever reach.

On Wednesday morning, still without news, Gradus telegraphed headquarters saying that he thought it unwise to wait any longer and that he would be staying at Hotel Lazuli, Nice. (note to Line 596)


A Scottish word, shargar means “lean, faded, or stunted person or animal: starveling, runt.” Ioanna Runt was the maiden name of Valeriy Bryusov’s wife. In his memoir essay “Bryusov” (1925) Hodasevich describes Bryusov’s house in Moscow and mentions the Runt sisters:


Валерий Яковлевич не часто являлся на родительской половине. Была у него в том же дом своя квартира, где жил он с женою, Иоанной Матвеевной и со свояченицей, Брониславой Матвеевной Рунт, одно время состоявшей секретарём "Весов" и "Скорпиона".


In his memoir essay Hodasevich speaks of Bryusov's hope to direct Russian literature under the Bolsheviks and uses the word gradusov (Gen. pl. of gradus, “degree”):


Брюсову представлялось возможным прямое влияние на литературные дела; он мечтал, что большевики откроют ему долгожданную возможность «направлять» литературу твёрдыми административными мерами. Если бы это удалось, он мог бы командовать писателями, без интриг, без вынужденных союзов с ними, — единым окриком. А сколько заседаний, уставов, постановлений! А какая надежда на то, что в истории литературы будет сказано: «в таком-то году повернул русскую литературу на столько-то градусов».

…And what hope that in the history of literature it will be said: “in the year of grace so-and-so Bryusov has turned Russian literature to so-and-so many degrees.” 


Shade’s murderer, Jakob Gradus is a member of the Shadows (a regicidal organization). The poems in Bryusov’s collection Zerkalo teney (“The Mirror of Shadows,” 1912) include Prizraki (“The Ghosts”). Describing the days after his mother’s death, Kinbote mentions the strong ghost of Queen Blenda and Sudarg of Bokay (Jakob Gradus in reverse), a mirror maker of genius:


The forty days between Queen Blenda's death and his coronation was perhaps the most trying stretch of time in his life. He had had no love for his mother, and the hopeless and helpless remorse he now felt degenerated into a sickly physical fear of her phantom. The Countess, who seemed to be near him, to be rustling at his side, all the time, had him attend table-turning seances with an experienced American medium, seances at which the Queen's spirit, operating the same kind of planchette she had used in her lifetime to chat with Thormodus Torfaeus and A. R. Wallace, now briskly wrote in English: "Charles take take cherish love flower flower flower." An old psychiatrist so thoroughly bribed by the Countess as to look, even on the outside, like a putrid pear, assured him that his vices had subconsciously killed his mother and would continue "to kill her in him" if he did not renounce sodomy. A palace intrigue is a special spider that entangles you more nastily at every desperate jerk you try. Our Prince was young, inexperienced, and half-frenzied with insomnia. He hardly struggled at all. The Countess spent a fortune on buying his kamergrum (groom of the chamber), his bodyguard, and even the greater part of the Court Chamberlain. She took to sleeping in a small antechamber next to his bachelor bedroom, a splendid spacious circular apartment at the top of the high and massive South West Tower. This had been his father's retreat and was still connected by a jolly chute in the wall with a round swimming pool in the hall below, so that the young Prince could start the day as his father used to start it by slipping open a panel beside his army cot and rolling into the shaft whence he whizzed down straight into bright water. For other needs than sleep Charles Xavier had installed in the middle of the Persian rug-covered floor a so-called patifolia, that is, a huge, oval, luxuriously flounced, swansdown pillow the size of a triple bed. It was in this ample nest that Fleur now slept, curled up in its central hollow, under a coverlet of genuine giant panda fur that had just been rushed from Tibet by a group of Asiatic well-wishers on the occasion of his ascension to the throne. The antechamber, where the Countess was ensconced, had its own inner staircase and bathroom, but also communicated by means of a sliding door with the West Gallery. I do not know what advice or command her mother had given Fleur; but the little thing proved a poor seducer. She kept trying, as one quietly insane, to mend a broken viola d'amore or sat in dolorous attitudes comparing two ancient flutes, both sad-tuned and feeble. Meantime, in Turkish garb, he lolled in his father's ample chair, his legs over its arm, flipping through a volume of Historia Zemblica, copying out passages and occasionally fishing out of the nether recesses of his seat a pair of old-fashioned motoring goggles, a black opal ring, a ball of silver chocolate wrapping, or the star of a foreign order.

It was warm in the evening sun. She wore on the second day of their ridiculous cohabitation nothing except a kind of buttonless and sleeveless pajama top. The sight of her four bare limbs and three mousepits (Zemblan anatomy) irritated him, and while pacing about and pondering his coronation speech, he would toss towards her, without looking, her shorts or a terrycloth robe. Sometimes, upon returning to the comfortable old chair he would find her in it contemplating sorrowfully the picture of a bogtur (ancient warrior) in the history book. He would sweep her out of his chair, his eyes still on his writing pad, and stretching herself she would move over to the window seat and its dusty sunbeam; but after a while she tried to cuddle up to him, and he had to push away her burrowing dark curly head with one hand while writing with the other or detach one by one her little pink claws from his sleeve or sash.

Her presence at night did not kill insomnia, but at least kept at bay the strong ghost of Queen Blenda. Between exhaustion and drowsiness, he trifled with paltry fancies, such as getting up and pouring out a little cold water from a decanter onto Fleur's naked shoulder so as to extinguish upon it the weak gleam of a moonbeam. Stentoriously the Countess snored in her lair. And beyond the vestibule of his vigil (here he began falling asleep), in the dark cold gallery, lying all over the painted marble and piled three or four deep against the locked door, some dozing, some whimpering, were his new boy pages, a whole mountain of gift boys from Troth, and Tuscany, and Albanoland.

He awoke to find her standing with a comb in her hand before his - or rather, his grandfather's - cheval glass, a triptych of bottomless light, a really fantastic mirror, signed with a diamond by its maker, Sudarg of Bokay. She turned about before it: a secret device of reflection gathered an infinite number of nudes in its depths, garlands of girls in graceful and sorrowful groups, diminishing in the limpid distance, or breaking into individual nymphs, some of whom, she murmured, must resemble her ancestors when they were young – little peasant garlien combing their hair in shallow water as far as the eye could reach, and then the wistful mermaid from an old tale, and then nothing.

On the third night a great stomping and ringing of arms came from the inner stairs, and there burst in the Prime Councilor, three Representatives of the People, and the chief of a new bodyguard. Amusingly, it was the Representatives of the People whom the idea of having for queen the granddaughter of a fiddler infuriated the most. That was the end of Charles Xavier's chaste romance with Fleur, who was pretty yet not repellent (as some cats are less repugnant than others to the good-natured dog told to endure the bitter effluvium of an alien genus). With their white suitcases and obsolete musical instruments the two ladies wandered back to the annex of the Palace. There followed a sweet twang of relief - and then the door of the anteroom slid open with a merry crash and the whole heap of putti tumbled in. (note to Line 80)


Queen Disa’s favorite lady-in-waiting, Fleur de Fyler brings to mind traurnyi flyor (funerary veil) mentioned by Bryusov in his poem U groba dnya (“At the Coffin of the Day,” 1909):


Скорбные тени, окутаны чёрным,
Вышли, влекут свой задумчивый хор,
Головы клонят в молчаньи покорном,
Стелят над травами траурный флёр.


and flyor ot shlyapy (the hat’s gauze veil) mentioned by Pushkin in Chapter Six (XLI: 11) of Eugene Onegin:


Под ним (как начинает капать
Весенний дождь на злак полей)
Пастух, плетя свой пёстрый лапоть,
Поёт про волжских рыбарей;
И горожанка молодая,
В деревне лето провождая,
Когда стремглав верхом она
Несётся по полям одна,
Коня пред ним остановляет,
Ремянный повод натянув,
И, флёр от шляпы отвернув,
Глазами беглыми читает
Простую надпись - и слеза
Туманит нежные глаза.


Beneath it (as begins to drip
spring rain upon the herb of fields)
the herdsman, plaiting his pied shoe of bast,
sings of the Volga fishermen;
and the young townswoman
spending the summer in the country,
when she on horseback headlong
ranges, alone, over the fields,
before it halts her steed,
tightening the leathern rein
and, turning up the gauze veil of her hat,
with skimming eyes reads
the simple scripture-and a tear
dims her soft eyes.


In a canceled variant of the last stanza of Chapter Two (XLa: 7) of EO Pushkin mentions Bryusov Kalendar’ (Bruce’s Calendar) compiled under the auspices of Count Yakov Bryus (James Bruce, 1670-1735), one of Peter I’s generals who was Scottish and was reputed to be an alchemist (actually, he was an excellent astronomer and mathematician). Among “the fledglings of Peter’s nest” mentioned by Pushkin in Canto Three of his poem Poltava (1829) are Bryus, Bour and Repnin:


За ним вослед неслись толпой
Сии птенцы гнезда Петрова ―
В пременах жребия земного
В трудах державства и войны
Его товарищи, сыны:
И Шереметев благородный,
И Брюс, и Боур, и Репнин,
И, счастья баловень безродный,
Полудержавный властелин.


The fledglings of the Petrine nest
Surged after him, a loyal throng―
Through all the shifts of worldly fate,
In trials of policy and war,
These men, these comrades, were like sons:
The noble Sheremetev,
And Bryus, and Bour, and Repnin,
And, fortune’s humble favorite,
The mighty, quasi-sovereign.
(tr. Ivan Eubanks)


A character in Poltava, the Swedish king Charles XII brings to mind Charles Xavier Vseslav, nicknamed the Beloved. Bour recalls Elena Stanislavovna Bour, a character (Vorobyaninov’s former mistress) in Ilf and Petrov’s novel Dvenadtsat’ stuliev (“The Twelve Chairs,” 1928). In a conversation with Kinbote Shade mentioned those joint authors of genius Ilf and Petrov:


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 VN’s novel Look at the Harlequins! (1974) Other Books by the Narrator include Dr. Olga Repnin (1946), Vadim’s novel that corresponds to VN’s Pnin (1957). A young instructor at Wordsmith University, Gerald Emerald asks Gradus if he is Professor Pnin’s new assistant:


Gradus returned to the Main Desk.

"Too bad," said the girl, "I just saw him leave."

"Bozhe moy, Bozhe moy," muttered Gradus, who sometimes at moments of stress used Russian ejaculations.

"You'll find him in the directory," she said pushing it towards him, and dismissing the sick man's existence to attend to the wants of Mr. Gerald Emerald who was taking out a fat bestseller in a cellophane jacket.

Moaning and shifting from one foot to the other, Gradus started leafing through the college directory but when he found the address, he was faced with the problem of getting there.

"Dulwich Road," he cried to the girl. "Near? Far? Very far, probably?"

"Are you by any chance Professor Pnin's new assistant?" asked Emerald.

"No," said the girl. "This man is looking for Dr. Kinbote, I think. You are looking for Dr. Kinbote, aren't you?"

"Yes, and I can’t any more,” said Gradus.

“I thought so,” said the girl. “Doesn’t he live somewhere near Mr. Shade, Gerry?”

“Oh, definitely,” said Gerry, and turned to the killer: “I can drive you there if you like. It is on my way.”

Did they talk in the car, these two characters, the man in green and the man in brown?  Who can say?  They did not.  After all, the drive took only a few minutes (it took me, at the wheel of my powerful Kramler, four and a half).

“I think I’ll drop you here,” said Mr. Emerald. “It’s that house up there.”

One finds it hard to decide what Gradus alias Grey wanted more at that minute:  discharge his gun or rid himself of the inexhaustible lava in his bowels. As he began hurriedly fumbling at the car door, unfastidious Emerald leaned, close to him, across him, almost merging with him, to help him open it—and then, slamming it shut again, whizzed on to some tryst in the valley. My reader will, I hope appreciate all the minute particulars I have taken such trouble to present to him after a long talk I had with the killer; he will appreciate them even more if I tell him that, according to the legend spread later by the police, Jack Grey had been given a lift, all the way from Roanoke, or somewhere, by a lonesome trucker! One can only hope that an impartial search will turn up the trilby forgotten in the Library—or in Mr. Emerald’s car. (note to Line 949)


At the beginning of EO (One: I: 6) Pushkin uses the phrase bozhe moy (good God):


“Мой дядя самых честных правил,
Когда не в шутку занемог,
Он уважать себя заставил
И лучше выдумать не мог.
Его пример другим наука;
Но, боже мой, какая скука
С больным сидеть и день и ночь,
Не отходя ни шагу прочь!
Какое низкое коварство
Полуживого забавлять,
Ему подушки поправлять,
Печально подносить лекарство,
Вздыхать и думать про себя:
Когда же чёрт возьмёт тебя!”


“My uncle has most honest principles:

when he was taken gravely ill,

he forced one to respect him

and nothing better could invent.

To others his example is a lesson;

but, good God, what a bore to sit

by a sick person day and night, not stirring

a step away!

what base perfidiousness

to entertain one half-alive,

adjust for him his pillows,

sadly serve him his medicine,

sigh — and think inwardly

when will the devil take you?”


I den’ i noch’ (day and night) brings to mind Professor Nattochdag, the head of the department to which Kinbote is attached whose name means in Swedish “night and day” and who was nicknamed Netochka by his colleagues. Netochka Nezvanov (1849) is the unfinished novel by Dostoevski. In a letter of Oct. 31, 1838 (Dostoevski’s seventeenth birthday), to his brother Dostoevski twice uses the word gradus (degree):


Друг мой! Ты философствуешь как поэт. И как не ровно выдерживает душа градус вдохновенья, так не ровна, не верна и твоя философия. Чтоб больше знать, надо меньше чувствовать, и обратно, правило опрометчивое, бред сердца.


My friend, you philosophize like a poet. And just because the soul cannot be forever in a state of exaltation, your philosophy is not true and not just. To know more one must feel less, and vice versa. Your judgment is featherheaded – it is a delirium of the heart.


Философию не надо полагать простой математической задачей, где неизвестное - природа... Заметь, что поэт в порыве вдохновенья разгадывает бога, следовательно, исполняет назначенье философии. Следовательно, поэтический восторг есть восторг философии... Следовательно, философия есть та же поэзия, только высший градус её!..


Philosophy should not be regarded as a mere equation where nature is the unknown quantity… Remark that the poet, in the moment of inspiration, comprehends God, and consequently does the philosopher’s work. Consequently poetic inspiration is nothing less than philosophical inspiration. Consequently philosophy is nothing but poetry, a higher degree of poetry!..


Dostoevski is the author of Dvoynik ("The Double," 1846). Kinbote believes that, to be completed, Shade’s finished almost poem needs but one line (Line 1000, identical to Line 1: “I was the shadow of the waxwing slain”). But it seems that, like some sonnets, Shade’s poem also needs a coda (Line 1001: “By its own double in the windowpane”).


Like Onegin's uncle, Kinbote's uncle Conmal (Shakespeare's translator) has most honest principles. The name Conmal seems to hint at kon’ mal (a small horse), the first two words in a riddle about the swallow:


Конь мал за морем бывал:
Спереди — шильце,
Сзади — вильце,
Сверху — чёрное суконце,
Снизу — белое полотенце.


A small horse was oversees:

a little awl in front,

a little fork behind,

a piece of black cloth on the top,

a white towel underneath.


Kon' mal brings to mind Kon' bled ("Pale Horse," 1903), Bryusov's most famous poem.


In “The Mirror of Shadows” Bryusov's poem “The Ghosts” is followed by Demon samoubiystva ("The Demon of Suicide"). In his apology of suicide Kinbote mentions a packed parachute shuffled off and calls it "shootka" (a play on shutka, "joke"):


Of the not very many ways known of shedding one's body, falling, falling, falling is the supreme method, but you have to select your sill or ledge very carefully so as not to hurt yourself or others. Jumping from a high bridge is not recommended even if you cannot swim, for wind and water abound in weird contingencies, and tragedy ought not to culminate in a record dive or a policeman's promotion. If you rent a cell in the luminous waffle, room 1915 or 1959, in a tall business center hotel browing the star dust, and pull up the window, and gently - not fall, not jump - but roll out as you should for air comfort, there is always the chance of knocking clean through into your own hell a pacific noctambulator walking his dog; in this respect a back room might be safer, especially if giving on the roof of an old tenacious normal house far below where a cat may be trusted to flash out of the way. Another popular take-off is a mountaintop with a sheer drop of say 500 meters but you must find it, because you will be surprised how easy it is to miscalculate your deflection offset, and have some hidden projection, some fool of a crag, rush forth to catch you, causing you to bounce off it into the brush, thwarted, mangled and unnecessarily alive. The ideal drop is from an aircraft, your muscles relaxed, your pilot puzzled, your packed parachute shuffled off, cast off, shrugged off - farewell, shootka (little chute)! (note to Line 493)


Kinbote's shootka brings to mind kogda ne v shutku zanemog (when he was taken gravely ill), the second line of EO's first stanza. Kinbote completes his work on Shade's poem and commits suicide on Oct. 19, 1959 (the anniversary of Pushkin's Lyceum). This date is on the cusp of Libra and Scorpio. In his memoir essay on Bryusov (see the quote above) Hodasevich mentions Bryusov's sister-in-law, Bronislava Runt, who was a secretary in the literary magazines Vesy ("Libra") and Skorpion ("Scorpio").


In his memoir essay Hodasevich tells about the suicide of Bryusov's mistress Nadezhda Lvov. The "real" name of Hazel Shade (the poet's daughter) seems to be Nadezhda Botkin. Hazel Shade drowned in Lake Omega, the larger and sadder of the three conjoined lakes near New Wye:


Higher up on the same wooded hill stood, and still stands I trust, Dr. Sutton’s old clapboard house and, at the very top, eternity shall not dislodge Professor C.’s ultramodern villa from whose terrace one can glimpse to the south the larger and sadder of the three conjoined lakes called Omega, Ozero, and Zero (Indian names garbled by early settlers in such a way as to accommodate specious derivations and commonplace allusions). (note to Lines 47-48)


According to Sergey Solovyov (the philosopher's nephew, Alexander Blok's second cousin), in the book of Russian verse Pushkin is alpha and Bryusov, omega:


Прах, вспоённый влагой снега,

Режет гения соха.

Звука Пушкинского нега!

Пушкин – альфа, ты – омега

В книге русского стиха.


Alpha brings to mind Alfin the Vague (the father of Charles the Beloved) and Alphina, the youngest daughter of Judge Goldsworth (Kinbote's landlord).

"I trust you will plunge into the book as into a blue ice hole, gasp, re-plunge, and then (around p. 126) emerge and sleigh home, metaphorically, feeling the tingling and delightful warmth reach you on the way from  my strategically placed bonfires." (Nabokov to his publisher on PF)

Something similar happens while delving into Alexey's posts, every now and then!

Sani being Russian for "sleigh," this metaphor brings to mind the saying ne v svoi sani ne sadis' (don't try to do something you're not fit for; "let the cobbler stick to his last"). It seems that I sat in a sleigh that was prepared for somebody else. But who would resist the temptation to take a breathtaking sleigh ride (after plunging into a blue ice hole)?


In my Penguin copy of PF Queen Yaruga (who drowned in an ice-hole with her Russian lover during traditional New Year's festivities) is on page 194. (On page 126 is Kinbote's note to Line 181: Today.)


Btw., let me draw your attention to the updated versions of this and of the next ("Half-man half mad in PF") post.