vebodar & coramen in Pale Fire; vinocherpiy in Ada

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Tue, 06/07/2022 - 09:00

In his Commentary to Shade’s poem 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) says that the Zemblan word coramen denotes the rude strap with which a Zemblan herdsman attaches his humble provisions and ragged blanket to the meekest of his cows when driving them up to the vebodar (upland pastures):


Line 137: lemniscate


"A unicursal bicircular quartic" says my weary old dictionary. I cannot understand what this has to do with bicycling and suspect that Shade's phrase has no real meaning. As other poets before him, he seems to have fallen here under the spell of misleading euphony.

To take a striking example: what can be more resounding, more resplendent, more suggestive of choral and sculptured beauty, than the word coramen? In reality, however, it merely denotes the rude strap with which a Zemblan herdsman attaches his humble provisions and ragged blanket to the meekest of his cows when driving them up to the vebodar (upland pastures).


Vebodar may hint at khlebodar (he who hands out bread), a word used by Leskov in his novel Gora (“The Mountain,” 1890):


У всех жрецов в руках были длинные серебряные посохи с белыми цветами лотоса в набалдашнике; у старшего жреца посох был золотой и серебряный цветок лотоса окружен был пуком страусовых перьев. От их одежд и париков далеко разносился запах мускуса. За жрецами шли чиновники, а потом факелоносцы, биченосцы, расстилатели ковров, жезлоносцы, виночерпии и хлебодары, а за этими следовали на мулах однообразно раскрашенные двухколески, на которых помещались ярко расцвеченные корзины и бочонки; за хлебодарами выступали в огромных высоких колпаках родовспомогатели и глазные врачи, за ними – одеватели и раздеватели, потом торжественные певцы и народные танцовщицы, более скромные, чем цветочницы, но одетые, впрочем, без лифов, в одних лишь прозрачных и легких коротеньких юбках; потом сотрапезники вместе обоего пола, в свободных и разнообразных нарядах и с иною свободой движений, но с однообразием веявшей около них атмосферы мускуса. За этою чрезвычайно большою вереницей пеших людей следовал сам правитель на прекрасном низейском коне, у которого хвост и грива были подстрижены, а сам конь весь искусно выкрашен голубою краской. (Chapter 25)


The action in Leskov’s novel takes place in Alexandria when it was a part of the Roman Empire. The epigraph to the novel is from Pushkin’s fragment My provodili vecher na dache (“We were spending the evening at the dacha…”):


Этот анекдот совершенно древний. Такой случай нынче не сбыточен, как сооружение пирамид, как римские зрелища — игры гладиаторов и зверей. Египетские ночи.

This anecdote is perfectly antique. Such an accident is as unfeasible now as the building of pyramids, as Roman spectacles – the plays of gladiators and animals. The Egyptian Nights.


Leskov misattributes this (slightly changed) quote to Pushkin’s unfinished novella The Egyptian Nights (1835). The antique anecdote is, of course, about Cleopatra:


“The point is that Cleopatra sold her beauty and that many bought a night with her at the price of their lives…”
“How terrible!” said the ladies. “What do you find astonishing about it?”
“You ask what? It seems to me that Cleopatra was no banal coquette and did not value herself cheaply. I suggested to*** that he make a poem out of it; he did begin one, but dropped it.”
“And he did well.”
“What did he want to draw from it? What was the main idea here—do you remember?”
“He begins with the description of a banquet in the gardens of the Egyptian queen.”


In a draft of his poem Cleopatra (1828) Pushkin mentions fontany (fountains):


И вот уже сокрылся день,
Восходит месяц златорогий.
Александрийские чертоги
Покрыла сладостная тень.
Фонтаны бьют, горят лампады,
Курится лёгкий фимиам.
И сладострастные прохлады
Земным готовятся богам.
В роскошном сумрачном покое
Средь обольстительных чудес
Под сенью пурпурных завес
Блистает ложе золотое.


In Canto Three of his poem John Shade (the poet in Pale Fire) describes his heart attack during which he saw a tall white fountain, his visits to Mrs. Z. (who saw a tall white mountain during her heart attack) and to her interviewer, Jim Coates:


I also called on Coates.

He was afraid he had mislaid her notes.

He took his article from a steel file:

"It's accurate. I have not changed her style.

There's one misprint - not that it matters much:

Mountain, not fountain. The majestic touch."


Life Everlasting - based on a misprint! (ll. 797-803)


In his Commentary Kinbote writes:


Translators of Shade's poem are bound to have trouble with the transformation, at one stroke, of "mountain" into "fountain": it cannot be rendered in French or German, or Russian, or Zemblan; so the translator will have to put it into one of those footnotes that are the rogue's galleries of words. However! There exists to my knowledge one absolutely extraordinary, unbelievably elegant case, where not only two, but three words are involved. The story itself is trivial enough (and probably apocryphal). A newspaper account of a Russian tsar's coronation had, instead of korona (crown), the misprint vorona (crow), and when next day this was apologetically "corrected," it got misprinted a second time as korova (cow). The artistic correlation between the crown-crow-cow series and the Russian korona-vorona-korova series is something that would have, I am sure, enraptured my poet. I have seen nothing like it on lexical playfields and the odds against the double coincidence defy computation. (note to Line 803)


Just as mountain differs only in one letter from fountain, gora (mountain) differs only in the initial from cora (the first two syllables of coramen), kora (bark, crust, cortex) and nora (hole, burrow, den). Btw., cora is a gazelle (Gazella arabica) found from Persia to North Africa. In VN’s novel Ada (1969) Van Veen mentions Cora Day (an opera singer who shot dead Murat, the Navajo chieftain, in his swimming pool):


The year 1880 (Aqua was still alive — somehow, somewhere!) was to prove to be the most retentive and talented one in his long, too long, never too long life. He was ten. His father had lingered in the West where the many-colored mountains acted upon Van as they had on all young Russians of genius. He could solve an Euler-type problem or learn by heart Pushkin’s ‘Headless Horseman’ poem in less than twenty minutes. With white-bloused, enthusiastically sweating Andrey Andreevich, he lolled for hours in the violet shade of pink cliffs, studying major and minor Russian writers — and puzzling out the exaggerated but, on the whole, complimentary allusions to his father’s volitations and loves in another life in Lermontov’s diamond-faceted tetrameters. He struggled to keep back his tears, while AAA blew his fat red nose, when shown the peasant-bare footprint of Tolstoy preserved in the clay of a motor court in Utah where he had written the tale of Murat, the Navajo chieftain, a French general’s bastard, shot by Cora Day in his swimming pool. What a soprano Cora had been! Demon took Van to the world-famous Opera House in Telluride in West Colorado and there he enjoyed (and sometimes detested) the greatest international shows — English blank-verse plays, French tragedies in rhymed couplets, thunderous German musical dramas with giants and magicians and a defecating white horse. He passed through various little passions — parlor magic, chess, fluff-weight boxing matches at fairs, stunt-riding — and of course those unforgettable, much too early initiations when his lovely young English governess expertly petted him between milkshake and bed, she, petticoated, petititted, half-dressed for some party with her sister and Demon and Demon’s casino-touring companion, bodyguard and guardian angel, monitor and adviser, Mr Plunkett, a reformed card-sharper. (1.28)


Darkbloom (‘Notes to Ada’): The Headless Horseman: Mayn Reid’s title is ascribed here to Pushkin, author of The Bronze Horseman.

Lermontov: author of The Demon.

Tolstoy etc.: Tolstoy’s hero, Haji Murad, (a Caucasian chieftain) is blended here with General Murat, Napoleon’s brother-in-law, and with the French revolutionary leader Marat assassinated in his bath by Charlotte Corday.


In their jingles Van and Ada rhyme goru (Acc. of gora) with Ladoru (Acc. of Ladora, the Ladore):


Sestra moya, tï pomnish’ goru,

I dub vïsokiy, i Ladoru?


Darkbloom (‘Notes to Ada’): sestra moya etc.: my sister, do you remember the mountain, and the tall oak, and the Ladore?


Describing his travels, Van mentions the pyramids of Ladorah:


He traveled, he studied, he taught.

He contemplated the pyramids of Ladorah (visited mainly because of its name) under a full moon that silvered the sands inlaid with pointed black shadows. He went shooting with the British Governor of Armenia, and his niece, on Lake Van. From a hotel balcony in Sidra his attention was drawn by the manager to the wake of an orange sunset that turned the ripples of a lavender sea into goldfish scales and was well worth the price of enduring the quaintness of the small striped rooms he shared with his secretary, young Lady Scramble. On another terrace, overlooking another fabled bay, Eberthella Brown, the local Shah’s pet dancer (a naive little thing who thought ‘baptism of desire’ meant something sexual), spilled her morning coffee upon noticing a six-inch-long caterpillar, with fox-furred segments, qui rampait, was tramping, along the balustrade and curled up in a swoon when picked up by Van — who for hours, after removing the beautiful animal to a bush, kept gloomily plucking itchy bright hairs out of his fingertips with the girl’s tweezers. (3.1)


Describing his dinner in 'Ursus' with Ada and Lucette (Van's and Ada's half-sister), Van mentions the vinocherpiy:


The captain, the vinocherpiy, the shashlikman, and a crew of waiters had been utterly entranced by the amount of zernistaya ikra and Ai consumed by the vaporous-looking Veens and were now keeping a multiple eye on the tray that had flown back to Van with a load of gold change and bank notes. (2.8)


Darkbloom (‘Notes to Ada’): vinocherpiy: Russ., the ‘wine-pourer’.


In Gora Leskov pairs vinocherpii (the wine-pourers) with khlebodary (the bread-givers).