vebodar, coramen & Starover Blue in Pale Fire

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Wed, 06/08/2022 - 12:55

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 seems to hint at khlebodar (he who hands out bread), a word used by Leskov ("the most Russian of all Russian writers," according to Svyatopolk-Mirski) 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)


Na gorakh (“In the Mountains,” 1881) is a novel by Melnikov-Pecherski. In his novel V lesakh (“In the Woods,” 1874) Melnikov-Pecherski describes a tea party of the Old Believers and says that sugar is skoromen (forbidden on fasting days), because (as the Old Believers think) they add bull's blood to it:


Семья уселась чайничать. Позвали и канонницу Евпраксию. Пили чай с изюмом, потому что сочельник, а сахар скоромен: в него-де кровь бычачью кладут. (Book One, chapter 2)


The action in Melnikov-Pecherski’s novels takes place in the Volga region, and the characters are mainly starovery (the Old Believers). At the beginning of Canto Two of his poem Shade describes paring of his fingernails and compares his index finger to the lean and glum College astronomer Starover Blue:


The little scissors I am holding are

A dazzling synthesis of sun and star.

I stand before the window and I pare

My fingernails and vaguely am aware

Of certain flinching likenesses: the thumb,

Our grocer's son; the index, lean and glum

College astronomer Starover Blue;

The middle fellow, a tall priest I knew;

The feminine fourth finger, an old flirt;

And little pinky clinging to her skirt.

And I make mouths as I snip off the thin

Strips of what Aunt Maud used to call "scarf-skin." (ll. 183-194)


In his poem Vinograd ("Grapes," 1824) Pushkin compares the elongated and transparent grapes to the fingers of a young girl and uses the phrase pod goroy (upon the hillside; literary "under the mountain"):


Не стану я жалеть о розах,
Увядших с легкою весной;
Мне мил и виноград на лозах,
В кистях созревший под горой,
Краса моей долины злачной,
Отрада осени златой,
Продолговатый и прозрачный,
Как персты девы молодой.


I shall not miss the roses, fading
As soon as spring's fleet days are done;
I like the grapes whose clusters ripen
Upon the hillside in the sun —
The glory of my fertile valley,
They hang, each lustrous as a pearl,
Gold autumn's joy: oblong, transparent,
Like the slim fingers of a girl.

(tr. B. Deutsch)


According to Kinbote, Gradus (Shade’s murderer) contended that the real origin of his name should be sought in the Russian word for grape, vinograd:


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 and Line 29)


In his Commentary Kinbote says that Starover Blue is a grandson of a Russian starover (Old Believer) named Sinyavin who migrated from Saratov to Seattle and married Stella Lazurchik, an Americanized Kashube:


Presumably, permission from Prof. Blue was obtained but even so the plunging of a real person, no matter how sportive and willing, into an invented milieu where he is made to perform in accordance with the invention, strikes one as a singularly tasteless device, especially since other real-life characters, except members of the family, of course, are pseudonymized in the poem. 

This name, no doubt, is most tempting. The star over the blue eminently suits an astronomer though actually neither his first nor second name bears any relation to the celestial vault: the first was given him in memory of his grandfather, a Russian starover (accented, incidentally, on the ultima), that is, Old Believer (member of a schismatic sect), named Sinyavin, from siniy, Russ. "blue." This Sinyavin migrated from Saratov to Seattle and begot a son who eventually changed his name to Blue and married Stella Lazurchik, an Americanized Kashube. So it goes. Honest Starover Blue will probably be surprised by the epithet bestowed upon him by a jesting Shade. The writer feels moved to pay here a small tribute to the amiable old freak, adored by everybody on the campus and nicknamed by the students Colonel Starbottle, evidently because of his exceptionally convivial habits. After all, there were other great men in our poet's entourage - for example, that distinguished Zemblan scholar Oscar Nattochdag. (note to Line 627)


In Leskov's "Mountain" Nefora (a rich young widow) asks a barefooted girl with sinie kudri (blue curls) the way to Zenon's house:


Вскоре они увидали широколиственное дерево, под которым паслись четыре желтые козы, и посреди их сидела на траве простоволосая босая девочка в грубой рубашке из холста коричневого цвета.

Нефора спросила ее о Зеноне.

Босоногая девочка тряхнула своими синими кудрями и отвечала:

— Конечно, я знаю, где живет красивый и добрый Зенон. Я ношу ему молоко от наших коз, и он часто дарит мне дыни и виноград из своего сада. Ни добрей, ни красивей Зенона нет человека на свете. Поверни вправо по третьей тропинке, и ты увидишь поляну, с которой вдали заблестят воды Нила, а перед тобою прямо будет сад, в том саду белый дом с пестрою крышей и большой медный аист над входом, — это и есть жилище Зенона. (Chapter 3)


The barefooted blue-haired girl brings to mind Garh, a farmer's daughter who shows to the King the way to the mountain pass:


The gnarled farmer and his plump wife who, like personages in an old tedious tale offered the drenched fugitive a welcome shelter, mistook him for an eccentric camper who had got detached from his group. He was allowed to dry himself in a warm kitchen where he was given a fairy-tale meal of bread and cheese, and a bowl of mountain mead. His feelings (gratitude, exhaustion, pleasant warmth, drowsiness and so on) were too obvious to need description. A fire of larch roots crackled in the stove, and all the shadows of his lost kingdom gathered to play around his rocking chair as he dozed off between that blaze and the tremulous light of a little earthenware cresset, a beaked affair rather like a Roman lamp, hanging above a shelf where poor beady baubles and bits of nacre became microscopic soldiers swarming in desperate battle. He woke up with a crimp in the neck at the first full cowbell of dawn, found his host outside, in a damp corner consigned to the humble needs of nature, and bade the good grunter (mountain farmer) show him the shortest way to the pass. "I'll rouse lazy Garh," said the farmer.

A rude staircase led up to a loft. The farmer placed his gnarled hand on the gnarled balustrade and directed toward the upper darkness a guttural call: "Garh! Garh!" Although given to both sexes, the name is, strictly speaking, a masculine one, and the King expected to see emerge from the loft a bare-kneed mountain lad like a tawny angel. Instead there appeared a disheveled young hussy wearing only a man's shirt that came down to her pink shins and an oversized pair of brogues. A moment later, as in a transformation act, she reappeared, her yellow hair still hanging lank and loose, but the dirty shirt replaced by a dirty pullover, and her legs sheathed in corduroy pants. She was told to conduct the stranger to a spot from which he could easily reach the pass. A sleepy and sullen expression blurred whatever appeal her snub-nosed round face might have had for the local shepherds; but she complied readily enough with her father's wish. His wife was crooning an ancient song as she busied herself with pot and pan.

Before leaving, the King asked his host, whose name was Griff, to accept an old gold piece he chanced to have in his pocket, the only money he possessed. Griff vigorously refused and, still remonstrating, started the laborious business of unlocking and unbolting two or three heavy doors. The King glanced at the old woman, received a wink of approval, and put the muted ducat on the mantelpiece, next to a violet seashell against which was propped a color print representing an elegant guardsman with his bare-shouldered wife - Karl the Beloved, as he was twenty odd years before, and his young queen, an angry young virgin with coal-black hair and ice-blue eyes.

The stars had just faded. He followed the girl and a happy sheepdog up the overgrown trail that glistened with the ruby dew in the theatrical light of an alpine dawn. The very air seemed tinted and glazed. A sepulchral chill emanated from the sheer cliff along which the trail ascended; but on the opposite precipitous side, here and there between the tops of fir trees growing below, gossamer gleams of sunlight were beginning to weave patterns of warmth. At the next turning this warmth enveloped the fugitive, and a black butterfly came dancing down a pebbly rake. The path narrowed still more and gradually deteriorated amidst a jumble of boulders. The girl pointed to the slopes beyond it. He nodded. "Now go home," he said. "I shall rest here and then continue alone."

He sank down on the grass near a patch of matted elfinwood and inhaled the bright air. The panting dog lay down at his feet. Garh smiled for the first time. Zemblan mountain girls are as a rule mere mechanisms of haphazard lust, and Garh was no exception. As soon as she had settled beside him, she bent over and pulled over and off her tousled head the thick gray sweater, revealing her naked back and blancmange breasts, and flooded her embarrassed companion with ail the acridity of ungroomed womanhood. She was about to proceed with her stripping but he stopped her with a gesture and got up. He thanked her for all her kindness. He patted the innocent dog; and without turning once, with a springy step, the King started to walk up the turfy incline. (note to Line 149)


According to Leskov, he wrote Gora (an anti-pogrom tale that was at first forbidden by censure) in order to show that, with his faith, a man can move the mountains: 


— Отымите от рассказа тенденцию,— отвечал Лесков, — от него ничего не останется. Выйдет глупая басня. Я именно и писал его затем, чтобы человек своей верой мог увлекать людей, двигать горами, как Зенон готовностью умереть за веру тронул и сдвинул чужое сердце... Мне только это и мило в моем рассказе, а вы меня просите пожертвовать тенденцией и оставить только рамки рассказа и краски.

Так они и разошлись. По уходе Гайдебурова Лесков сказал:

— Настоящий литератор никогда не посоветовал бы сохранить художественность без идеи...» (А. И. Фаресов. А. К. Шеллер, СПб., 1901, стр. 135—136.)


In the library of Wordsmith University Gradus asks the librarian girl the way to Kinbote's house:


Gradus returned to the Main Desk.

"Too bad," said the girl, "I just saw him leave."

"Bozhe moy, Bozhe moy," muttered Gradus, who sometimes at moments of stress used Russian ejaculations.

"You'll find him in the directory," she said pushing it towards him, and dismissing the sick man's existence to attend to the wants of Mr. Gerald Emerald who was taking out a fat bestseller in a cellophane jacket.

Moaning and shifting from one foot to the other, Gradus started leafing through the college directory but when he found the address, he was faced with the problem of getting there.

"Dulwich Road," he cried to the girl. "Near? Far? Very far, probably?"

"Are you by any chance Professor Pnin's new assistant?" asked Emerald.

"No," said the girl. "This man is looking for Dr. Kinbote, I think. You are looking for Dr. Kinbote, aren't you?"

"Yes, and I can't any more," said Gradus.

"I thought so," said the girl. "Doesn't he live somewhere near Mr. Shade, Gerry?"

"Oh, definitely," said Gerry, and turned to the killer: "I can drive you there if you like. It is on my way."

Did they talk in the car, these two characters, the man in green and the man in brown? Who can say? They did not. After all, the drive took only a few minutes (it took me, at the wheel of my powerful Kramler, four and a half).

"I think I'll drop you here," said Mr. Emerald. "It's that house up there." (note to Line 949)


A young instructor who gives Gradus a lift to Kinbote's house, Gerald Emerald brings to mind izumrud moy yakhontovyi (my ruby emerald), as in Leskov's novel Ocharovannyi strannik ("The Enchanted Wanderer," 1873) Grusha calls the Prince:


"Давай, - говорит, - станем лошадьми торговать. Я хочу, чтобы ко мне опять ремонтеры и заводчики ездили".

Пустое это и не господское дело лошадьми торговать, но, думаю, чем бы дитя ни тешилось, абы не плакало, и говорю: "Извольте".

И начали мы с ним заводить ворок. Но чуть за это принялись, князь так и унесся в эту страсть: где какие деньжонки добудет, сейчас покупать коней, и все берет, хватает зря; меня не слушает... Накупили обельму, а продажи нет... Он сейчас же этого не стерпел и коней бросил да давай что попало городить: то кинется необыкновенную мельницу строить, то шорную мастерскую завел, и все от всего убытки и долги, а более всего расстройство в характере... Постоянно он дома не сидит, а летает то туда, то сюда да чего-то ищет, а Груша одна и в таком положении... в тягости. Скучает. "Мало, - говорит, - его вижу", - а перемогает себя и великатится; чуть заметит, что он день-другой дома заскучает, сейчас сама скажет:

"Ты бы, - говорит, - изумруд мой яхонтовый, куда-нибудь поехал, прогулялся, что тебе со мною сидеть: я проста, неученая".

Этих слов он, бывало, сейчас застыдится, и руки у нее целует, и дня-два-три крепится, а зато потом как выкатит, так уже и завьется, а ее мне заказывает.

"Береги, - говорит, - ее, полупочтенный Иван Северьянов, ты артист, ты не такой, как я, свистун, а ты настоящий, высокой степени артист, и оттого ты с нею как-то умеешь так говорить, что вам обоим весело, а меня от этих "изумрудов яхонтовых" в сон клонит". (chapter 15)


Gradus learns the king's address and new name from Izumrudov (one of the greater Shadows):


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 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 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)