NABOKV-L post 0026752, Thu, 31 Dec 2015 22:12:35 +0300

Gradus, Izumrudov, Queen Disa & Shade in Pale Fire
One of the three main characters in Pale Fire, Jakob Gradus is also known as Jack Degree:

Gradus, Jakob, 1915-1959; alias Jack Degree, de Grey, d'Argus, Vinogradus, Leningradus, etc.; a Jack of small trades and a killer, <> 12, <> 17; lynching the wrong people, <> 80; his approach synchronized with S's work on the poem, <> 120, <> 131; his election and past tribulations, <> 171; the first lap of his journey, Onhava to Copenhagen, <> 181, <> 209; to Paris, and meeting with Oswin Bretwit, <> 286; to Geneva, and talk with little Gordon at Joe Lavender's place near Lex, <> 408; calling headquarters from Geneva, <> 469; his name in a variant, and his wait in Geneva, <> 596; to Nice, and his wait there, <> 697; his meeting with Izumrudov in Nice and discovery of the King's address, <> 741; from Paris to New York, <> 873; in New York, <> 949; his morning in New York, his journey to New Wye, to the campus, to Dulwich Rd., <> 949; the crowning blunder, <> 1000. (Kinbote’s Index to PF)

In a letter of May 16, 1835, to Pushkin Pavel Katenin says that the names like Kukolnik (a very mediocre poet, Gogol’s schoolmate) strongly smack of Perrault and plays on a line from Canto Four of Boileau’s L'Art poétique (1674), Il n'est point de degré du médiocre au pire (there is no degree from mediocre to worst):

Судя по твоим, увы! слишком правдоподобным словам, ты умрёшь (дай бог тебе много лет здравствовать!) Вениямином русских поэтов, юнейшим из сынов Израиля, а новое поколение безъимянное; ибо имена, подобные Кукольнику, sentent fort le Perrault. Где ему до Шаховского? У того везде кое-что хорошо. Своя Семья мила, в Аристофане целая идея, и будь всё как второй акт, вышла бы в своём роде хорошая комедия; князь не тщательный художник и не великий поэт, но вопреки Boileau:

Il est bien des degrés du médiocre au pire

сиречь до Кукольника; и какими стихами, с тех пор как они взбунтовались противу всех правил, они пишут!

According to Katenin (who quotes Pushkin’s prediction that he, Pushkin, will die as the Benjamin of Russian poets, the youngest of Israel’s sons), there are many degrees from mediocre to worst. One of Gradus’ aliases, d’Argus, hints at Argus (a giant with 100 eyes, set to guard the heifer Io). In his poem Vsevolozhskomu (“To Vsevolozhski,” 1819) Pushkin mentions groznye Argusy (“the severe guards”) and nadezhda (hope):

Но вспомни, милый: здесь одна,

Тебя всечасно ожидая,

Вздыхает пленница младая;

Весь день уныла и томна,

В своей задумчивости сладкой

Тихонько плачет под окном

От грозных Аргусов украдкой,

И смотрит на пустынный дом,

Где мы так часто пировали

С Кипридой, Вакхом и тобой,

Куда с надеждой и тоской

Её желанья улетали. (ll. 47-58)

The surname Vsevolozhski comes from Vsevolod (a male given name). Shade’s, Kinbote’s and Gradus’ “real” name seems to be Vsevolod Botkin. An American scholar of Russian descent, Prof. Botkin went mad after the suicide of his daughter Nadezhda (who becomes Hazel Shade in her father’s poem). Kinbote (who never saw Shade’s daughter) admits that Hazel Shade resembled him in certain respects. (note to Lines 347-348)

On the other hand, d’Argus seems to hint at d’Anthès. The name of Pushkin’s adversary in the poet’s fatal duel “strongly smacks” of Dante, the author of The Divine Comedy who was born in Florence and who was exiled from his home city. Canto Four of Boileau’s L'Art poétique begins as follows:

Dans Florence, jadis, vivait un médecin,
Savant hâbleur, dit-on, et célèbre assassin.

In Florence once lived a physician,

skilful boaster, they say, and celebrated killer.

Shade’s murderer, Gradus is “a Jack of small trades and a killer.” Gradus learns the King’s address from Izumrudov (one of the greater Shadows):

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 congratulated 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 [Andronnikov and Niagarin, the two Soviet experts whom the new Zemblan government hired to find the crown jewels] 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 Izumudrov, 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. (note to Line 741)

In Pushkin’s poem K kastratu raz prishyol skrypach… ("The Violinist Once Visited the Eunuch..." 1835) the rich castrated singer mentions his almazy, izumrudy (“diamonds, emeralds”) and asks the poor violinist what does he do when he is bored:

К кастрату раз пришёл скрыпач,
Он был бедняк, а тот богач.
«Смотри, сказал певец <безмудый>, —
Мои алмазы, изумруды —
Я их от скуки разбирал.
А! кстати, брат, — он продолжал, —
Когда тебе бывает скучно,
Ты что творишь, сказать прошу».
В ответ бедняга равнодушно:
— Я? я <муде> себе чешу.

The poor fellow replies: “I scratch my testicles.” In his Sravnenie (“Comparison,” 1813-17), an amusing epigram on Boileau, Pushkin explains the difference between himself and the author of L'Art poétique:

Не хочешь ли узнать, моя драгая,
Какая разница меж Буало и мной?
У Депрео была лишь запятая,
А у меня две точки с запятой.

My dear, do you want to know

the difference between Boileau and me?

Desprèaux had only a comma [,]

And I have a colon with a comma [: ,].

In his Commentary Kinbote speaks of Gradus and mentions testicles:

It was now correctly conjectured that if Odon had fled, the King had fled too. At an extraordinary session of the Extremist government there was passed from hand to hand, in grim silence, a copy of a French newspaper with the headline: L’EX-ROI DE ZEMBLA EST-IL À PARIS? Vindictive exasperation rather than state strategy moved the secret organization of which Gradus was an obscure member to plot the destruction of the royal fugitive. Spiteful thugs! They may be compared to hoodlums who itch to torture the invulnerable gentleman whose testimony clapped them in prison for life. Such convicts have been known to go berserk at the thought that their elusive victim whose very testicles they crave to twist and tear with their talons, is sitting at a pergola feast on a sunny island or fondling some pretty young creature between his knees in serene security—and laughing at them! One supposes that no hell can be worse than the helpless rage they experience as the awareness of that implacable sweet mirth reaches them and suffuses them, slowly destroying their brutish brains. A group of especially devout Extremists calling themselves the Shadows had got together and swore to hunt down the King and kill him wherever he might be. (note to Line 171)

“Hell” mentioned by Kinbote brings to mind Inferno, the first part of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Like Dante, Leonardo da Vinci hailed from Florence. The name and title of the last Zemblan Queen (Disa, Duchess of Payn, of Great Payn and Mone) seems to hint at Shakespeare’s Desdemona and Leonardo’s Mona Lisa. The initial name of Villa Disa (where the burglars found a letter from the King giving his address), Villa Paradisa, hints at Paradiso, the third part of Dante’s Divine Comedy.

The “Florentine” doctor mentioned by Boileau in L'Art poétique is Claude Perrault (1613-88), a French architect, scientist, and physician, author of the Colonnade in the east wing of the Louvre Palace in Paris. He was the elder brother of Charles Perrault (1628-1703), the poet, critic, and author of fairy tales whom Katenin has in mind when he says (in the above quoted letter to Pushkin) that the names like Kukolnik strongly smack of Perrault. Queen Disa was born in 1928 (see Index to PF), three hundred years after Charles Perrault’s birth (and one hundred years after Leo Tolstoy’s birth). Charles Perrault died in 1703, the year when the tsar Peter I founded Sankt-Petersburg (the home city of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin and of VN – who was born there in 1899, one hundred years after Pushkin’s birth).

In his Commentary Kinbote mentions the German version of Charles Perrault’s fairy tale Le Petit Chaperon Rouge:

In my mind’s eye I see again the poet literally collapsing on his lawn, beating the grass with his fist, and shaking and howling with laughter, and myself, Dr. Kinbote, a torrent of tears streaming down my beard, as I try to read coherently certain tidbits from a book I had filched from a classroom: a learned work on psychoanalysis, used in American colleges, repeat, used in American colleges. Alas, I find only two items preserved in my notebook:

By picking the nose in spite of all commands to the contrary, or when a youth is all the time sticking his finger through his buttonhole … the analytic teacher knows that the appetite of the lustful one knows no limit in his phantasies. (Quoted by Prof. C. from Dr. Oskar Pfister, The Psychoanalytical Method, 1917, N.Y., p. 79)

The little cap of red velvet in the German version of Little Red Riding Hood is a symbol of menstruation. (Quoted by Prof. C. from Erich Fromm, The Forgotten Language, 1951, N.Y., p. 240.)

Do those clowns really believe what they teach? (note to Line 942)

As I pointed out before, in its finished form the German version of Shade’s poem can be longer than the original and have 1003 (instead of 1001) lines. To be completed it needs not two (as the English or, say, Russian versions), but four lines. Pushkin’s epigram on Boileau (written, like Shade’s poem, in iambic pentameter, but with the rhyme scheme abab) is a four-line poem. 999 (the number of lines in Shade’s unfinished poem) + 4 =1003.

In his mock epic in octaves, Domik v Kolomne (“The Small Cottage in Kolomna,” 1830), Pushkin says that it is cheerful to command the army of one’s numbered verses and compares the poet to Tamerlane or even to Napoleon himself:

Как весело стихи свои вести
Под цифрами, в порядке, строй за строем,
Не позволять им в сторону брести,
Как войску, в пух рассыпанному боем!
Тут каждый слог замечен и в чести,
Тут каждый стих глядит себе героем,
А стихотворец... с кем же равен он?
Он Тамерлан иль сам Наполеон. (V)

In his poem The Nature of Electricity (quoted in full by Kinbote in his Commentary) Shade mentions the streetlamp number 999 and Tamerlane:

The dead, the gentle dead—who knows?—
In tungsten filaments abide,
And on my bedside table glows
Another man’s departed bride.

And maybe Shakespeare floods a whole
Town with innumerable lights,
And Shelley’s incandescent soul
Lures the pale moths of starless nights.

Streetlamps are numbered, and maybe
Number nine-hundred-ninety-nine
(So brightly beaming through a tree
So green) is an old friend of mine.

And when above the livid plain
Forked lightning plays, therein may dwell
The torments of a Tamerlane,
The roar of tyrants torn in hell. (note to Line 347)

In “The Small Cottage in Kolomna” Pushkin says that in our times Parnassus got badly overgrown with nettles:

Скажу, рысак! Парнасский иноходец
Его не обогнал бы. Но Пегас
Стар, зуб уж нет. Им вырытый колодец
Иссох. Порос крапивою Парнас;
В отставке Феб живёт, а хороводец
Старушек муз уж не прельщает нас.
И табор свой с классических вершинок
Перенесли мы на толкучий рынок. (VIII)

In Canto Four of L'Art poétique Boileau, too, complains that Parnassus has lost its authentic nobility:

Mais enfin l'indigence amenant la bassesse,
Le Parnasse oublia sa première noblesse;

Un vil amour du gain, infestant les esprits,
De mensonges grossiers souilla tous les écrits,
Et partout, enfantant mille ouvrages frivoles,
Trafiqua du discours et vendit les paroles.

Le Parnasse mentioned by Boileau and Parnas mentioned by Pushkin bring to mind the Latin phrase Gradus ad Parnassum (Steps to Parnassus), which is sometimes shortened to Gradus.

Boileau wrote his poem in imitation of Horace’s Ars Poetica. Pushkin’s famous poem Exegi monumentum («Ya pamyatnik sebe vozdvig... » 1836) is a parody of Derzhavin’s Pamyatnik (“The Monument,” 1796), an ode written in imitation of Horace (Odes, III. 30). In Eugene Onegin (Six: VII: 8-14) Pushkin compares Zaretski (Lenski’s second in his duel with Onegin) to Horace:

Как я сказал, Зарецкий мой,
Под сень черемух и акаций
От бурь укрывшись наконец,
Живёт, как истинный мудрец,
Капусту садит, как Гораций,
Разводит уток и гусей
И учит азбуке детей.

As I’ve said, my Zaretski,

beneath the racemosas and the pea trees

from storms having at last found shelter,

lives like a true sage,

plants cabbages like Horace,

breeds ducks and geese,

and teaches children the ABC.

Pod sen’ cheryomukh i akatsiy (beneath the racemosas and the pea trees) is an allusion to the opening lines of Batyushkov’s poem Besedka muz (“The Bower of Muses,” 1817):

Pod teniyu cheryomukhi mlechnoy

I zolotom blistayushchikh akatsiy

In the shade of milky racemosas

and golden-glistening pea trees…

In 1822 poor Batyushkov went mad and attempted to take his own life. Like Kinbote and Gradus, Shade is one of the names of mad Professor Botkin. After completing his work on Shade’s poem (on Oct. 19, 1959), Kinbote commits suicide.

Apologies, if my translations from the French are incorrect. Happy New Year!

Alexey Sklyarenko

Search archive with Google:

Contact the Editors:,
Nabokv-L policies:
Nabokov Online Journal:"
AdaOnline: "
The Nabokov Society of Japan's Annotations to Ada:
The VN Bibliography Blog:
Search the archive with L-Soft:

Manage subscription options :