Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0027340, Mon, 27 Mar 2017 22:56:04 +0300

Gradus & Botkin in Pale Fire
One of the three main characters in VN’s novel Pale Fire (1962), John Shade
was born on July 5, 1898. Two other main characters, Charles Kinbote and
Jakob Gradus, were born seventeen years later, on July 5, 1915. In a letter
to his brother Mikhail that he wrote on his seventeenth birthday (October
31, 1838, OS) Dostoevski mentions gradus (degree):

Философию не надо полагать простой матем
атической задачей, где неизвестное - прир
ода... Заметь, что поэт в порыве вдохновень
я разгадывает бога, следовательно, исполн
яет назначенье философии. Следовательно,
поэтический восторг есть восторг философ
ии... Следовательно, философия есть та же п
оэзия, 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!..

In the same letter Dostoevski tells his brother that it is sad to live
without nadezhda (hope):

Брат, грустно жить без надежды... Смотрю вп
ерёд, и будущее меня ужасает...

“I look ahead and the future frightens me.”

Ten and a half years later (on April 23, 1849, OS) Dostoevski was arrested
as a member of a group of progressive-minded intellectuals and imprisoned in
the Peter-and-Paul Fortress (whose commander was General Ivan Nabokov, an
elder brother of VN’s great-grandfather) in St. Petersburg.

The intonation in Dostoevski’s letter is in a stark contrast with the
beginning of Pushkin’s Stansy (“Stanzas,” 1826), a poem written five
months after the execution of the Decembrists and addressed to the tsar
Nicholas I:

В надежде славы и добра
Гляжу вперёд я без боязни:
Начало славных дней Петра
Мрачили мятежи и казни.

In the hope of glory and good

I look ahead without fear:

The beginning of Peter’s glorious days

Was clouded by revolts and executions.

Ten years letter, in January of 1837, Pushkin was mortally wounded in his
duel with d’Anthès.

In his “Stanzas” Pushkin mentions Yakov Dolgoruki (1639\xa8C1720), a close
associate of Peter I:

Но правдой он привлёк сердца,
Но нравы укротил наукой,
И был от буйного стрельца
Пред ним отличен Долгорукой.

But he with truth engaged people's hearts,

With learning gentled uncouth ways,

And from a violent strelets*

He could distinguish Dolgoruki.

The name Yakov is the Russian form of Jakob (cf. Jakob Gradus). In
Dostoevski’s novel Podrostok (“The Adolescent,” 1875) the name of the
main character and narrator is Arkadiy Dolgoruki. The title of Dostoevski’s
novel brings to mind Ulichnyi podrostok (“The Street Adolescent,” 1914),
the sonnet with a coda by G. Ivanov. A good poet who wrote bad prose, G.
Ivanov is the author of Raspad atoma (“An Atom’s Disintegration,” 1938).
After the tragic death of his daughter Nadezhda (Hazel Shade of Kinbote’s
Commentary), Professor Vsevolod Botkin “disintegrated” and became Shade,
Kinbote and Gradus. Just before he is killed by Gradus, Shade sees a
butterfly Vanessa atalanta:

A dark Vanessa with crimson band
Wheels in the low sun, settles on the sand
And shows its ink-blue wingtips flecked with white.
And through the flowing shade and ebbing light
A man, unheedful of the butterfly--
Some neighbor's gardener, I guess--goes by
Trundling an empty barrow up the lane. (ll. 993-999)

According to VN (Strong Opinions, p. 170), in Russia Red Admirable (Vanessa
atalanta) was called “the Butterfly of Doom” because it was especially
abundant in 1881, the year Tsar Alexander II was assassinated, and the
markings on the underside of its two hind wings seem to read “1881.”
Dostoevski died in January, 1881, a month before the tsar was killed by the
bomb of the terrorists.

It seems that, to be completed, Shade’s unfinished poem needs not only Line
1000 (identical to Line 1: “I was the shadow of the waxwing slain), but
also a coda (Line 1001: “By its own double in the windowpane”). Dvoynik
(“The Double,” 1846) is a short novel by Dostoevski. According to Shade,
Dostoevski was a humorist (Kinbote’s note to Line 172). In Dostoevski’s
story Bobok (1873), in which the action takes place at a cemetery, the
narrator listens to the conversation of the deceased who mention Dr Botkin
(the father of Dr Eugene Botkin who in 1918 was executed with the family of
the last Russian tsar):

-- А я, знаете, всё собирался к Боткину... и в

-- Ну, Боткин кусается,-- заметил генерал.

-- Ах, нет, он совсем не кусается; я слышал,
он такой внимательный и всё предскажет вп

-- Его превосходительство заметил насчёт
цены,-- поправил чиновник.

-- Ах, что вы, всего три целковых, и он так о
сматривает, и рецепт... и я непременно хоте
л, потому что мне говорили... Что же, господ
а, как же мне, к Эку или к Боткину?

“You know, I kept meaning to go to Botkin’s, and all at once . . .”

“Botkin is quite prohibitive,” observed the general.

“Oh, no, he is not forbidding at all; I’ve heard he is so attentive and
foretells everything beforehand.”

“His Excellency was referring to his fees,” the government clerk corrected

“Oh, not at all, he only asks three roubles, and he makes such an
examination, and gives you a prescription . . .and I was very anxious to see
him, for I have been told . . . Well, gentlemen, had I better go to Ecke or
to Botkin?”

There is a hope that, after Kinbote completes his work on Shade’s poem and
commits suicide (on October 19, 1959, the anniversary of Pushkin’s Lyceum),
Botkin, like Count Vorontsov (a target of Pushkin’s epigrams), will be
“full” again.

*Strelets is a Russian guardsman armed with a firearm (in the 16th - early
18th centuries). On the other hand, Strelets means “Sagittarian” (a
zodiacal constellation and a person who was born when the sun was in that

Alexey Sklyarenko

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