Jakob Gradus & the Shadows in Pale Fire

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Wed, 05/12/2021 - 08:46

In Memory of Hafid Bouazza


Shade’s murderer, Jakob Gradus (one of the three main characters in VN’s novel Pale Fire, 1962) is a member of the Shadows (a regicidal organization):


For almost a whole year after the King's escape the Extremists remained convinced that he and Odon had not left Zembla. The mistake can be only ascribed to the streak of stupidity that fatally runs through the most competent tyranny. Airborne machines and everything connected with them cast a veritable spell over the minds of our new rulers whom kind history had suddenly given a boxful of these zipping and zooming gadgets to play with. That an important fugitive would not perform by air the act of fleeing seemed to them inconceivable. Within minutes after the King and the actor had clattered down the backstairs of the Royal Theater, every wing in the sky and on the ground had been accounted for - such was the efficiency of the government. During the next weeks not one private or commercial plane was allowed to take off, and the inspection of transients became so rigorous and lengthy that international lines decided to cancel stopovers at Onhava. There were some casualties. A crimson balloon was enthusiastically shot down and the aeronaut (a well-known meteorologist) drowned in the Gulf of Surprise. A pilot from a Lapland base flying on a mission of mercy got lost in the fog and was so badly harassed by Zemblan fighters that he settled atop a mountain peak. Some excuse for all this could be found. The illusion of the King's presence in the wilds of Zembla was kept up by royalist plotters who decoyed entire regiments into searching the mountains and woods of our rugged peninsula. The government spent a ludicrous amount of energy on solemnly screening the hundreds of impostors packed in the country's jails. Most of them clowned their way back to freedom; a few, alas, fell. Then, in the spring of the following year, a stunning piece of news came from abroad. The Zemblan actor Odon was directing the making of a cinema picture in Paris!

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. They were, in a sense, the shadow twins of the Karlists and indeed several had cousins or even brothers among the followers of the King. No doubt, the origin of either group could be traced to various reckless rituals in student fraternities and military clubs, and their development examined in terms of fads and anti-fads; but, whereas an objective historian associates a romantic and noble glamor with Karlism, its shadow group must strike one as something definitely Gothic and nasty. The grotesque figure of Gradus, a cross between bat and crab, was not much odder than many other Shadows, such as, for example, Nodo, Odon's epileptic half-brother who cheated at cards, or a mad Mandevil who had lost a leg in trying to make anti-matter. Gradus had long been a member of all sorts of jejune leftist organizations. He had never killed, though coming rather close to it several times in his gray life. He insisted later that when he found himself designated to track down and murder the King, the choice was decided by a show of cards - but let us not forget that it was Nodo who shuffled and dealt them out. Perhaps our man's foreign origin secretly prompted a nomination that would not cause any son of Zembla to incur the dishonor of actual regicide. We can well imagine the scene: the ghastly neon lights of the laboratory, in an annex of the Glass Works, where the Shadows happened to hold their meeting that night; the ace of spades lying on the tiled floor, the vodka gulped down out of test tubes; the many hands clapping Gradus on his round back, and the dark exultation of the man as he received those rather treacherous congratulations. We place this fatidic moment at 0:05, July 2, 1959 - which happens to be also the date upon which an innocent poet penned the first lines of his last poem. (note to Line 171)


Prishli i stali teni nochi (“The shadows of the night came and mounted guard at my door,” 1842) is a poem by Yakov Polonski:


Пришли и стали тени ночи
На страже у моих дверей!
Смелей глядит мне прямо в очи
Глубокий мрак её очей;


Над ухом шепчет голос нежный,
И змейкой бьётся мне в лицо
Её волос, моей небрежной
Рукой измятое, кольцо.


Помедли, ночь! густою тьмою
Покрой волшебный мир любви!
Ты, время, дряхлою рукою
Свои часы останови!


Но покачнулись тени ночи,
Бегут, шатаяся, назад.
Её потупленные очи
Уже глядят и не глядят;


В моих руках рука застыла,
Стыдливо на моей груди
Она лицо своё сокрыла…
О солнце, солнце! Погоди!


The third word in Polonski's poem, stali ("mounted"), brings to mind Stalin (the Soviet leader in 1924-53). According to Kinbote (Shade’s mad commentator who imagines that he is Charles the Beloved, the last self-exiled king of Zembla), the terrible name of the leader of the Shadows cannot be mentioned, even in the Index to the obscure work of a scholar:


Shadows, the, a regicidal organization which commissioned Gradus (q. v.) to assassinate the self-banished king; its leader's terrible name cannot be mentioned, even in the Index to the obscure work of a scholar; his maternal grandfather, a well-known and very courageous master builder, was hired by Thurgus the Turgid, around 1885, to make certain repairs in his quarters, and soon after that perished, poisoned in the royal kitchens, under mysterious circumstances, together with his three young apprentices whose first names Yan, Yonny, and Angeling, are preserved in a ballad still to be heard in some of our wilder valleys. (Index)


The grandfather of Charles the Beloved, the king Thurgus the Third, surnamed the Turgid, brings to mind Polonski's friend Turgenev. “A well-known and very courageous master builder” seems to hint at Ibsen’s play Bygmester Solness (“The Master Builder,” 1892). The master builder’s name comes from sol (“sun” in Norwegian). In the last line of his poem Prishli i stali teni nochi Polonski repeats the word solntse (the sun) twice: O solntse, solntse, pogodi! (O sun, sun, wait!)


Polonski was one of Alexander Blok’s favorite poets. Blok’s cycle Yamby (“The Iambs,” 1907-14) is dedicated to the memory of Angelina Aleksandrovna Blok (the poet’s half-sister) and has the epigraph from Juvenal’s Satires (I, 79), Fecit indignatio versum (Indignation gives inspiration to verse). The epigraph to Blok’s poem Vozmezdie (“Retribution,” 1910-21), Yunost’ – eto vozmezdie (Youth is retribution), is from Ibsen’s “The Master Builder.” The Zemblan crown jewels vainly looked for by Andronnikov and Niagarin (the two Soviet experts hired by the new Zemblan government) seem to correspond to those infinitely high qualities that once shined like luchshie almazy v chelovecheskoy korone (the best diamonds in man’s crown), such as humanism, virtues, impeccable honesty, rectitude, etc., mentioned by Blok in his Foreword to “Retribution:”


Тема заключается в том, как развиваются звенья единой цепи рода. Отдельные отпрыски всякого рода развиваются до положенного им предела и затем вновь поглощаются окружающей мировой средой; но в каждом отпрыске зреет и отлагается нечто новое и нечто более острое, ценою бесконечных потерь, личных трагедий, жизненных неудач, падений и т. д.; ценою, наконец, потери тех бесконечно высоких свойств, которые в своё время сияли, как лучшие алмазы в человеческой короне (как, например, свойства гуманные, добродетели, безупречная честность, высокая нравственность и проч.)


In Chapter One of "Retribution" Blok pairs Dostoevski (who visited the soirées of Anna Vrevski) with Polonski (who recited his verses there):


На вечерах у Анны Вревской
Был общества отборный цвет.
Больной и грустный Достоевский
Ходил сюда на склоне лет
Суровой жизни скрасить бремя,
Набраться сведений и сил
Для «Дневника». (Он в это время
С Победоносцевым дружил).
С простертой дланью вдохновенно
Полонский здесь читал стихи.


At the end of “Retribution” Blok mentions quantum satis Branda voli (quantum satis of strong-willed Brand):


Когда ты загнан и забит
Людьми, заботой, иль тоскою;
Когда под гробовой доскою
Всё, что тебя пленяло, спит;
Когда по городской пустыне,
Отчаявшийся и больной,
Ты возвращаешься домой,
И тяжелит ресницы иней,
Тогда - остановись на миг
Послушать тишину ночную:
Постигнешь слухом жизнь иную,
Которой днём ты не постиг;
По-новому окинешь взглядом
Даль снежных улиц, дым костра,
Ночь, тихо ждущую утра
Над белым запушённым садом,
И небо - книгу между книг;
Найдёшь в душе опустошённой
Вновь образ матери склонённый,
И в этот несравненный миг -
Узоры на стекле фонарном,
Мороз, оледенивший кровь,
Твоя холодная любовь -
Всё вспыхнет в сердце благодарном,
Ты всё благословишь тогда,
Поняв, что жизнь - безмерно боле,
Чем quantum satis Бранда воли,
А мир - прекрасен, как всегда.


When you are cornered and depressed
By people, dues or anguish.
When, underneath the coffin lid,
All that inspired you, perished;
When through the deserted town dome,
Hopeless and weak,
You're finally returning home,
And rime is on thy eyelashes, -
Then - come to rest for short-lifted flash
To hear the silence of night
You'll fathom other life by ears
That's hard to fathom at daylight
In new way you will do the glance
Of long snow streets and foam of fire,
Of night, quite waiting for the lance
Of morning in white garden, piled.
Of heaven - Book among the books
You'll find in the drained soul
Again your loving mother's look
And at this moment, peerless, sole
The patterns on the lamppost's glass
The frost, that chilled your blood
Your stone-hold love, already past
All will flare up in your heart.
Then everything you'll highly bless
You'll see that life is much greater
Than quantum satis of strong-willed Brand
And the world is beautiful as always. (chapter III)


The title character of a play in verse (1865) by Ibsen, Brand brings to mind Baron Bland, the Keeper of the Treasure who jumped or fell from the North Tower:


However, not all Russians are gloomy, and the two young experts from Moscow whom our new government engaged to locate the Zemblan crown jewels turned out to be positively rollicking. The Extremists were right in believing that Baron Bland, the Keeper of the Treasure, had succeeded in hiding those jewels before he jumped or fell from the North Tower; but they did not know he had had a helper and were wrong in thinking the jewels must be looked for in the palace which the gentle white-haired Bland had never left except to die. I may add, with pardonable satisfaction, that they were, and still are, cached in a totally different - and quite unexpected - corner of Zembla. (note to Line 681)


Quantum satis means in Latin “the amount which is enough.” At the beginning of a letter (written soon after the wake commemorating Baron Delvig's death) of Jan. 31, 1831, to Pletnyov (to whom Eugene Onegin is dedicated) Pushkin thanks Pletnyov for the Boris Godunov money and quotes the words of St. Francis Xavier "satis est, Domine, satis est:"


Сейчас получил 2000 р., мой благодетель. Satis est, domine, satis est.


Shade's full name is John Francis Shade; the full name of Charles the Beloved is Charles Xavier Vseslav. In a letter of Apr. 11, 1831, to Pletnyov Pushkin asks Pletnyov (who was slow to reply to Pushkin’s letters) if he is still alive and calls him ten’ vozlyublennaya (the beloved shade):


Воля твоя, ты несносен: ни строчки от тебя не дождёшься. Умер ты, что ли? Если тебя уже нет на свете, то, тень возлюбленная, кланяйся от меня Державину и обними моего Дельвига.


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”). Dvoynik (“The Double”) is a short novel (1846) by Dostoevski, a poem (1862) by Polonski and a poem (1909) by Blok. In a letter of Oct. 31, 1838, to his brother Dostoevski twice repeats the word gradus (degree):


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!..


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 [gradus vdokhnoven'ya, a phrase used by Dostoevski, means "a degree of inspiration"], 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.


October 31, 1838 (OS), is Dostoevski’s seventeenth birthday. Shade’s birthday, July 5, is also Kinbote’s and Gradus’ birthday (Shade, who was born in 1898, is seventeen years Kinbote's and Gradus' senior). The poet Shade, his commentator Kinbote and his murderer Gradus seem to represent three different aspects of Botkin’s personality. An American scholar of Russian descent, Professor Vsevolod Botkin went mad and became Shade, Kinbote and Gradus after the tragic death of his daughter Nadezhda (Hazel Shade’s “real” name). Nadezhda means “hope.” There is a hope that, when Kinbote completes his work on Shade’s poem and commits suicide (on Oct. 19, 1959, the anniversary of Pushkin’s Lyceum), Botkin, like Count Vorontsov (a target of Pushkin’s epigram, “half-milord, half-merchant, etc.”), will be full again. Val’s “Luch nadezhdy” (“The Waltz The Ray of Hope,” 1845) is a poem by Polonski:


Надежды вальс зовёт, звучит —
И, замирая, занывает;
Он тихо к сердцу подступает,
И сердцу громко говорит:


Среди бесчисленных забав,
Среди страданий быстротечных —
Каких страстей ты хочешь вечных,
Каких ты хочешь вечных прав?


Напрасных благ не ожидай!
Живи, кружась под эти звуки,
И тайных ран глухие муки
Не раздражай, а усыпляй!


Когда ж красавица пройдёт
Перед тобой под маской чёрной
И руку с нежностью притворной
Многозначительно пожмёт, —


Тогда ослепни и пылай! —
Лови летучие мгновенья
И на пустые уверенья
Минутным жаром отвечай!


Izobretenie Val’sa (“The Waltz Invention,” 1938) is a play by VN. The action in it seems to take place in the dream of death that Lyubov’, the wife of the portrait painter Troshcheykin in VN’s play Sobytie (“The Event,” 1938), dreams after committing suicide on her dead son’s fifth birthday (two days after her mother’s fiftieth birthday). While Aleksey Maksimovich Troshcheykin has the same name and patronymic as Gorky, the name and patronymic of Lyubov’s mother (a lady writer), Antonina Pavlovna, clearly hints at Chekhov. Polonski’s poem U dveri (“At the Door,” 1888) is dedicated to Chekhov and Chekhov’s story Schast’ye (“Happiness,” 1887) is dedicated to Polonski. Polonski died on Oct. 18, 1898 (OS), aged seventy-eight, and Chekhov died on July 4, 1904 (OS). Like Chekhov, Kinbote and Gradus die at the age of forty-four.


Polonski's poem Prishli i stali teni nochi (that was published in 1844) was copied out by Gogol. In his fragment Rim ("Rome," 1842) Gogol describes a carnival in Rome and mentions the great dead poet (il gran poeta morto) and his sonnet with a coda (sonetto colla coda):


Внимание толпы занял какой-то смельчак, шагавший на ходулях вравне с домами, рискуя всякую минуту быть сбитым с ног и грохнуться насмерть о мостовую. Но об этом, кажется, у него не было забот. Он тащил на плечах чучело великана,
придерживая его одной рукою, неся в другой написанный на бумаге сонет с приделанным к нему бумажным хвостом, какой бывает у бумажного змея, и крича во весь голос: "Ecco il gran poeta morto. Ecco il suo sonetto colla coda!"


In a footnote Gogol says that in Italian poetry there is a kind of poem known as sonnet with the tail (con la coda) and explains what a coda is:


В итальянской поэзии существует род стихотворенья, известного под именем сонета с хвостом (con la coda), - когда мысль не вместилась и ведет за собою прибавление, которое часто бывает длиннее самого сонета.


Gogol points out that a coda can be longer than the sonnet itself. Not only (the unwritten) Line 1001 of Shade's poem, but also Kinbote's entire Foreword, Commentary and Index can thus be regarded as a coda of Shade's poem.