Umruds & umyaks in Pale Fire

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Tue, 08/31/2021 - 05:57

According to 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), the name Izumrudov (of one of the greater Shadows who visits Gradus in Nice) sounds rather Russian but actually means "of the Umruds," an Eskimo tribe sometimes seen paddling their umyaks (hide-lined boats) on the emerald waters of Zembla’s northern shores:


On the morning of July 16 (while Shade was working on the 698-746 section of his poem) dull Gradus, dreading another day of enforced inactivity in sardonically, sparkling, stimulatingly noisy Nice, decided that until hunger drove him out he would not budge from a leathern armchair in the simulacrum of a lobby among the brown smells of his dingy hotel. Unhurriedly he went through a heap of old magazines on a nearby table. There he sat, a little monument of taciturnity, sighing, puffing out his cheeks, licking his thumb before turning a page, gaping at the pictures, and moving his lips as he climbed down the columns of printed matter. Having replaced everything in a neat pile, he sank back in his chair closing and opening his gabled hands in various constructions of tedium – when a man who had occupied a seat next to him got up and walked into the outer glare leaving his paper behind. Gradus pulled it into his lap, spread it out – and froze over a strange piece of local news that caught his eye: burglars had broken into Villa Disa and ransacked a bureau, taking from a jewel box a number of valuable old medals.

Here was something to brood upon. Had this vaguely unpleasant incident some bearing on his quest? Should he do something about it? Cable headquarters? Hard to word succinctly a simple fact without having it look like a cryptogram. Airmail a clipping? He was in his room working on the newspaper with a safety razor blade when there was a bright rap-rap at the door. Gradus admitted an unexpected visitor – one of the greater Shadows, whom he had thought to be onhava-onhava ("far, far away"), in wild, misty, almost legendary Zembla! What stunning conjuring tricks our magical mechanical age plays with old mother space and old father time!

He was a merry, perhaps overmerry, fellow, in a green velvet jacket. Nobody liked him, but he certainly had a keen mind. His name, Izumrudov, sounded rather Russian but actually meant "of the Umruds," an Eskimo tribe sometimes seen paddling their umyaks (hide-lined boats) on the emerald waters of our northern shores. Grinning, he said friend Gradus must get together his travel documents, including a health certificate, and take the earliest available jet to New York. Bowing, he congratulataed him on having indicated with such phenomenal acumen the right place and the right way. Yes, after a thorough perlustration of the loot that Andron and Niagarushka had obtained from the Queen's rosewood writing desk (mostly bills, and treasured snapshots, and those silly medals) a letter from the King did turn up giving his address which was of all places – our man, who interrupted the herald of success to say he had never – was bidden not to display so much modesty. A slip of paper was now produced on which Izumrudov, shaking with laughter (death is hilarious), wrote out for Gradus their client's alias, the name of the university where he taught, and that of the town where it was situated. No, the slip was not for keeps. He could keep it only while memorizing it. This brand of paper (used by macaroon makers) was not only digestible but delicious. The gay green vision withdrew – to resume his whoring no doubt. How one hates such men! (note to Line 741)


The umyaks of the Umruds seem to hint at na-umyak (without thinking, at random), a rare word used by Esenin in the last stanza of his poem Tucha kruzhevo v roshche svyazala (“A thundercloud knitted a lacework in the grove,” 1915):


Туча кружево в роще связала,

Закурился пахучий туман.

Еду грязной дорогой с вокзала

Вдалеке от родимых полян.


Лес застыл без печали и шума,

Виснет темь, как платок, за сосной.

Сердце гложет плакучая дума...

Ой, не весел ты, край мой родной.


Пригорюнились девушки-ели,

И поет мой ямщик на-умяк:

"Я умру на тюремной постели,

Похоронят меня кое-как".


…The maiden firs became sad,

And my coachman sings without thinking:

“I shall die on a prison bed,

They will bury me anyhow.”


The Umruds bring to mind Ya umru na tyuremnoy posteli (I shall die on a prison bed), the coachman’s song in Esenin’s poem, and I umru ya ne na posteli (And I shall die not in my bed), a line in Gumilyov’s poem Ya i Vy (“Me and You,” 1918):


...И умру я не на постели,
При нотариусе и враче,
А в какой-нибудь дикой щели,
Утонувшей в густом плюще,

Чтоб войти не во всем открытый,
Протестантский, прибранный рай,
А туда, где разбойник, мытарь
И блудница крикнут: вставай!


...I shall die not in my bedroom
with a notary and medicine
but in some old and creasy canyon
Deep and covered by ivy's green.

Just to enter not cute and common
Tidy protestant paradise,
But the place where the robber, the tax collector
And the prostitute will cry: «Rise!»


Protestantskiy, pribrannyi ray (tidy protestant paradise) reminds one of Gradus’ father, a Protestant minister in Riga:


By an extraordinary coincidence (inherent perhaps in the contrapuntal nature of Shade's art) our poet seems to name here (gradual, gray) a man, whom he was to see for one fatal moment three weeks later, but of whose existence at the time (July 2) he could not have known. Jakob Gradus called himself variously Jack Degree or Jacques de Grey, or James de Gray, and also appears in police records as Ravus, Ravenstone, and d'Argus. Having a morbid affection for the ruddy Russia of the Soviet era, he contended that the real origin of his name should be sought in the Russian word for grape, vinograd, to which a Latin suffix had adhered, making it Vinogradus. His father, Martin Gradus, had been a Protestant minister in Riga, but except for him and a maternal uncle (Roman Tselovalnikov, police officer and part-time member of the Social-Revolutionary party), the whole clan seems to have been in the liquor business. Martin Gradus died in 1920, and his widow moved to Strasbourg where she soon died, too. Another Gradus, an Alsatian merchant, who oddly enough was totally unrelated to our killer but had been a close business friend of his kinsmen for years, adopted the boy and raised him with his own children. It would seem that at one time young Gradus studied pharmacology in Zurich, and at another, traveled to misty vineyards as an itinerant wine taster. We find him next engaging in petty subversive activities - printing peevish pamphlets, acting as messenger for obscure syndicalist groups, organizing strikes at glass factories, and that sort of thing. Sometime in the forties he came to Zembla as a brandy salesman. There he married a publican's daughter. His connection with the Extremist party dates from its first ugly writhings, and when the revolution broke out, his modest organizational gifts found some appreciation in various offices. His departure for Western Europe, with a sordid purpose in his heart and a loaded gun in his pocket, took place on the very day that an innocent poet in an innocent land was beginning Canto Two of Pale Fire. We shall accompany Gradus in constant thought, as he makes his way from distant dim Zembla to green Appalachia, through the entire length of the poem, following the road of its rhythm, riding past in a rhyme, skidding around the corner of a run-on, breathing with the caesura, swinging down to the foot of the page from line to line as from branch to branch, hiding between two words (see note to line 596), reappearing on the horizon of a new canto, steadily marching nearer in iambic motion, crossing streets, moving up with his valise on the escalator of the pentameter, stepping off, boarding a new train of thought, entering the hall of a hotel, putting out the bedlight, while Shade blots out a word, and falling asleep as the poet lays down his pen for the night. (note to Line 17)


In his memoir essay Groza v Gertsegovine (“A Thunderstorm in Herzegovina,” 1940) Igor Severyanin (who lived in Estonia) mentions his visit to Fink (the fortune-teller) in Riga on his way to Yugoslavia in the fall of 1930 and, describing the Adriatic sea, uses the word zaizumrudilo (played with emerald colors):


В Риге мы пробыли дня два. Проездом.

— Не хотите ли зайти к Финку? — осведомился у меня знакомый доктор.

— Как хорошо, что Вы мне напомнили об этом: я уже давным-давно хотел с ним соприкоснуться. Я верю в него, его не зная: интуицией.

Но доктор слегка охладил мой порыв:

— Должен, однако, вас предупредить, что он отнюдь не со всеми «потусторонне» разговаривает. Он избегает подобных встреч, но мы все же попробуем. Пойдем со мной вместе.

На наш звонок дверь открыл нам сам ясновидящий.

— В настроении ли Вы сегодня побеседовать с моим знакомым? — спросил доктор, указывая на меня и не называя меня по моей просьбе.

— Что нужно ему от меня? — с каким-то недружелюбием в лице и в голосе воскликнул прорицатель: — Он сам не хуже меня может предсказывать людям их судьбу. — Затем он стал отплевываться:

— Фу, какими мерзкими людьми окружены Вы! Гоните их прочь от себя поскорее… Впрочем, раздевайтесь и входите, — гораздо уже любезнее сказал он.

— Прежде всего меня интересует, знаете ли Вы кто я? — спросил я у него, прямо смотря ему в глаза.

— Во всяком случае, человек искусства. Может быть, художник, композитор, артист.

— Куда мы едем? — задал я ему второй вопрос.

— Вы едете на юг. К дальнему теплому морю. Апельсины, пальмы…

(Тут я должен заметить, что мы южнее Белграда не собирались ехать. От него же до Адриатики тридцать шесть часов езды.)

— Благоприятна ли будет наша поездка? — О, да! Да! Много успеха, денег, славы! Постойте, постойте… О! Я вижу крушение поезда… Стоны, кровь… Трупы…

Он нервно, очень возбужденный, прикрыл рукою глаза. И вдруг просветлел вновь:

— Нет. Вас это не коснулось. Вы — живы. Даже не пострадали. Ясно вижу. Я вижу еще большой дом. Замок как будто. Тоже на юге. Вы вернетесь оттуда и снова туда поедете. В какой красивой местности находится этот замок! Горы, цветы, вода.


В Белграде было два градуса мороза, дул пронзительный, леденящий дыхание ветер. К утру (выехав в 10 часов вечера) мы ехали уже по гористой, живописной Боснии, несколько часов подряд долиной Дрины, мелькали бесчисленные тоннели и мосты, поезд взбирался все выше и выше, и, наконец, почти уже на закате, прибыли в нагорное Сараево, где мороз доходил уже до двенадцати градусов. Дав в этом красочном и историческом городе вечер стихов и завязав интересные знакомства, на другой день к вечеру мы пустились в дальнейший путь — на Дубровник (Рагузу), куда и попали к полудню следующего дня. Ночью мы проехали Герцеговину, унылую и каменисто-хаотическую. Вдруг из окон вагона перед нами заизумрудило море, поезд уступами стал спускаться к нему, все быстрее, все ниже, наконец он остановился, мы вышли из вагона, — и какой воздух! Какая теплота! Какой восторг! Солнце ярко сияло, небо — сплошная синь, пальмы, агавы, апельсины, мимоза, роза, глицинии! Все это произошло так внезапно, что буквально нас потрясло. Итак, мы были в Далмации, обворожительной и почти неземной. О ее воздухе ничего нельзя сказать словами: его нужно почувствовать, его нужно вдыхать самому, чтобы иметь о нем представление. Нигде и никогда, ни до, ни после такого воздуха я уже не встречал. 


According to Severyanin, Fink predicted to him and his companion Iris that they would escape uninjured in a train accident (that they indeed suffered in Bosnia on their way back). Describing his stay in Yugoslavia, Severyanin twice repeats the word gradus (degree).


Shade’s poem is almost finished, when the author is killed by Gradus. Kinbote believes that, to be completed, Shade’s 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”). Severyanin is the author of Poeza o tysyacha pervom znakomstve (“A Poem about the Thousand-and-First Acquaintance,” 1914). At the end of his poem Po spravedlivosti ("In All Fairness," 1918) Severyanin calls Lenin moy dvoynik (my double):


Его бесспорная заслуга

Есть окончание войны.

Его приветствовать, как друга

Людей, вы искренне должны.


Я – вне политики, и, право,

Мне все равно, кто б ни был он.

Да будет честь ему и слава,

Что мир им, первым, заключен.


Когда людская жизнь в загоне,

И вдруг – ее апологет,

Не все ль равно мне – как: в вагоне

Запломбированном иль нет?..


Не только из вагона – прямо

Пускай из бездны бы возник!

Твержу настойчиво-упрямо:

Он, в смысле мира, мой двойник.


Severyanin is the author of Medal’yony (“Medallions,” 1934), one hundred sonnets about poets, writers and composers placed in alphabetical order (from Andreev to Shmelyov, and including sonnets on Gumilyov and Esenin). Severyanin’s poem K Al’vine (“To Alvina,” 1918) brings to mind Alphina, the youngest daughter of Judge Goldsworth (Kinbote’s landlord):


Lines 47-48: the frame house between Goldsworth and Wordsmith


The first name refers to the house in Dulwich Road that I rented from Hugh Warren Goldsworth, authority on Roman Law and distinguished judge. I never had the pleasure of meeting my landlord but I came to know his handwriting almost as well as I do Shade's. The second name denotes, of course, Wordsmith University. In seeming to suggest a midway situation between the two places, our poet is less concerned with spatial exactitude than with a witty exchange of syllables invoking the two masters of the heroic couplet, between whom he embowers his own muse. Actually, the "frame house on its square of green" was five miles west of the Wordsmith campus but only fifty yards or so distant from my east windows.

In the Foreword to this work I have had occasion to say something about the amenities of my habitation. The charming, charmingly vague lady (see note to line 691), who secured it for me, sight unseen, meant well, no doubt, especially since it was widely admired in the neighborhood for its "old-world spaciousness and graciousness." Actually, it was an old, dismal, white-and-black, half-timbered house, of the type termed wodnaggen in my country, with carved gables, drafty bow windows and a so-called "semi-noble" porch, surmounted by a hideous veranda. Judge Goldsworth had a wife, and four daughters. Family photographs met me in the hallway and pursued me from room to room, and although I am sure that Alphina (9), Betty (10), Candida (12), and Dee (14) will soon change from horribly cute little schoolgirls to smart young ladies and superior mothers, I must confess that their pert pictures irritated me to such an extent that finally I gathered them one by one and dumped them all in a closet under the gallows row of their cellophane-shrouded winter clothes. In the study I found a large picture of their parents, with sexes reversed, Mrs. G. resembling Malenkov, and Mr. G. a Medusa-locked hag, and this I replaced by the reproduction of a beloved early Picasso: earth boy leading raincloud horse.


According to Kinbote, the whole clan of Gradus seems to have been in the liquor business. Severyanin’s poem “To Alvina” is addressed to a neighbor’s girl who brings milk in the morning and who is surprised that the poet drinks so much wine:


Не удивляйся ничему… К. Фофанов


Соседка, девочка Альвина,
Приносит утром молоко
И удивляется, что вина
Я пью так весело-легко.

Еще бы! — тридцать пять бутылок
Я выпил, много, в десять дней!
Мне позволяет мой затылок
Пить зачастую и сильней…

Послушай, девочка льняная,
Не удивляйся ничему:
Жизнь городская — жизнь больная,
Так что ж беречь ее? к чему?

Так страшно к пошлости прилипнуть, —
Вот это худшая вина.
А если суждено погибнуть,
Так пусть уж лучше от вина!


"A Medusa-locked hag" brings to mind Severyanin's poem Meduza (1922):


Глаза зеленые с коричневыми искрами.
Смуглянка с бронзовым загаром на щеках.
Идет высокая, смеющаяся искренно,
С вишневым пламенем улыбок на губах.

Такая стройная. Она такая стройная!
Она призывная и емкая. Она
Так создана уже, уж так она устроена,
Что льнуть к огнистому всегда принуждена…

Вся пророкфорена, и вместе с тем не тронута…
О, в этом самчестве ты девность улови!
И как медуза, что присосана к дредноуту,
Пригвождена она трагически к любви…