Gradus, Alphina & King Alfin in Pale Fire

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Thu, 06/23/2022 - 20:53

At the end of his poem John Shade (the poet in VN's novel Pale Fire, 1962) says that he understands existence, or at least a minute part of his existence, only through his art:


Maybe my sensual love for the consonne

D'appui, Echo's fey child, is based upon

A feeling of fantastically planned,

Richly rhymed life.

                              I feel I understand

Existence, or at least a minute part

Of my existence, only through my art,

In terms of combinational delight;

And if my private universe scans right,

So does the verse of galaxies divine

Which I suspect is an iambic line. (ll. 967-976)


In his autobiography Zhili-byli (“There Once Were,” 1961) Shklovsky quotes the critic Alexandre Benois, a founding member of Mir iskusstva (World of Art), who says in his essay in Rech’ (No. 100, April 13, 1912) that art is the most precise gradusnik (thermometer) of society’s spiritual health:


Либеральный художественный критик Александр Бенуа в газете «Речь» № 100 от 13 апреля 1912 года писал:
«Мы живем в такое время, которое будут или поднимать на смех, или считать за несчастное и прямо трагически-полоумное время. Уже были такие полосы в истории культуры, когда значительная часть общества уходила в какие-то лабиринты теоретизации и теряла всякую живую радость. Но едва ли можно сравнить одну из тех эпох с нашей. Вот уже десять лет, как усиливается какой-то сплошной кошмар в искусстве, в этом вернейшем градуснике духовного здоровья общества». (“The Futurists,” 1)


Benois is the author of the libretto of Scheherazade (1910), a ballet by Rimsky-Korsakov based on A Thousand and One Night (a collection of Arabian fairy tales). Shade’s poem consists of 999 lines and is almost finished when the author is killed by Gradus. Shade’s mad commentator who imagines that he is Charles the Beloved, the last self-exiled king of Zembla, 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"). 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 плща ечах 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 a 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 ведёт 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 Kinbote's entire Foreword, Commentary and Index can thus be regarded as a coda of Shade's poem.


According to Shklovsky, Gogol's images are precious because they are zemlya (the earth):


Великий узбекский поэт Навои говорил ученикам, чтобы они не писали про драгоценные камни. Если хотите создать розы, будьте землею, писал он.

Образы Гоголя оттого драгоценны, что они земля. (4)


In the first line of his poem Shade calls himself “the shadow of the waxwing.” Tam, gde zhili sviristeli (“Where the Waxwings Lived…” 1908) is a poem by Velimir Khlebnikov. In the same chapter of his autobiography Shklovsky mentions Khlebnikov and people who understand their astronomical position in the universe:


Хлебникова издали после его смерти. Его друзья Бурлюки издавали Хлебникова как сенсацию. Как поэзию, как поэта его узнала только революция.

Хлебников ушел к людям, в революцию. (3)


Летят через космос, пользуясь планетой как средством передвижения, люди. Те, которые понимают свое астрономическое положение, кажутся наивными в комнатном представлении обывателя. (4)


In New Wye Kinbote lives in Judge Goldsworth’s rented house:


Lines 47-48: the frame house between Goldsworth and Wordsmith


The first name refers to the house in Dulwich Road that I rented from Hugh Warren Goldsworth, authority on Roman Law and distinguished judge. I never had the pleasure of meeting my landlord but I came to know his handwriting almost as well as I do Shade's. The second name denotes, of course, Wordsmith University. In seeming to suggest a midway situation between the two places, our poet is less concerned with spatial exactitude than with a witty exchange of syllables invoking the two masters of the heroic couplet, between whom he embowers his own muse. Actually, the "frame house on its square of green" was five miles west of the Wordsmith campus but only fifty yards or so distant from my east windows.

In the Foreword to this work I have had occasion to say something about the amenities of my habitation. The charming, charmingly vague lady (see note to line 691), who secured it for me, sight unseen, meant well, no doubt, especially since it was widely admired in the neighborhood for its "old-world spaciousness and graciousness." Actually, it was an old, dismal, white-and-black, half-timbered house, of the type termed wodnaggen in my country, with carved gables, drafty bow windows and a so-called "semi-noble" porch, surmounted by a hideous veranda. Judge Goldsworth had a wife, and four daughters. Family photographs met me in the hallway and pursued me from room to room, and although I am sure that Alphina (9), Betty (10), Candida (12), and Dee (14) will soon change from horribly cute little schoolgirls to smart young ladies and superior mothers, I must confess that their pert pictures irritated me to such an extent that finally I gathered them one by one and dumped them all in a closet under the gallows row of their cellophane-shrouded winter clothes. In the study I found a large picture of their parents, with sexes reversed, Mrs. G. resembling Malenkov, and Mr. G. a Medusa-locked hag, and this I replaced by the reproduction of a beloved early Picasso: earth boy leading raincloud horse. I did not bother, though, to do much about the family books which were also all over the house - four sets of different Children's Encyclopedias, and a stolid grown-up one that ascended all the way from shelf to shelf along a flight of stairs to burst an appendix in the attic. Judging by the novels in Mrs. Goldsworth's boudoir, her intellectual interests were fully developed, going as they did from Amber to Zen. The head of this alphabetic family had a library too, but this consisted mainly of legal works and a lot of conspicuously lettered ledgers. All the layman could glean for instruction and entertainment was a morocco-bound album in which the judge had lovingly pasted the life histories and pictures of people he had sent to prison or condemned to death: unforgettable faces of imbecile hoodlums, last smokes and last grins, a strangler's quite ordinary-looking hands, a self-made widow, the close-set merciless eyes of a homicidal maniac (somewhat resembling, I admit, the late Jacques d'Argus), a bright little parricide aged seven ("Now, sonny, we want you to tell us -"), and a sad pudgy old pederast who had blown up his blackmailer. What rather surprised me was that he, my learned landlord, and not his "missus," directed the household. Not only had he left me a detailed inventory of all such articles as cluster around a new tenant like a mob of menacing natives, but he had taken stupendous pains to write out on slips of paper recommendations, explanations, injunctions and supplementary lists. Whatever I touched on the first day of my stay yielded a specimen of Goldsworthiana. I unlocked the medicine chest in the second bathroom, and out fluttered a message advising me that the slit for discarded safety blades was too full to use. I opened the icebox, and it warned me with a bark that "no national specialties with odors hard to get rid of" should be placed therein. I pulled out the middle drawer of the desk in the study - and discovered a catalogue raisonné of its meager contents which included an assortment of ashtrays, a damask paperknife (described as "one ancient dagger brought by Mrs. Goldsworth's father from the Orient"), and an old but unused pocket diary optimistically maturing there until its calendric correspondencies came around again. Among various detailed notices affixed to a special board in the pantry, such as plumbing instructions, dissertations on electricity, discourses on cactuses and so forth, I found the diet of the black cat that came with the house:


Mon, Wed, Fri: Liver

Tue, Thu, Sat: Fish

Sun: Ground meat


(All it got from me was milk and sardines; it was a likable little creature but after a while its movements began to grate on my nerves and I farmed it out to Mrs. Finley, the cleaning woman.) But perhaps the funniest note concerned the manipulations of the window curtains which had to be drawn in different ways at different hours to prevent the sun from getting at the upholstery. A description of the position of the sun, daily and seasonal, was given for the several windows, and if I had heeded all this I would have been kept as busy as a participant in a regatta. A footnote, however, generously suggested that instead of manning the curtains, I might prefer to shift and reshift out of sun range the more precious pieces of furniture (two embroidered armchairs and a heavy "royal console") but should do it carefully lest I scratch the wall moldings. I cannot, alas, reproduce the meticulous schedule of these transposals but seem to recall that I was supposed to castle the long way before going to bed and the short way first thing in the morning. My dear Shade roared with laughter when I led him on a tour of inspection and had him find some of those bunny eggs for himself. Thank God, his robust hilarity dissipated the atmosphere of damnum infectum in which I was supposed to dwell. On his part, he regaled me with a number of anecdotes concerning the judge's dry wit and courtroom mannerisms; most of these anecdotes were doubtless folklore exaggerations, a few were evident inventions, and all were harmless. He did not bring up, my sweet old friend never did, ridiculous stories about the terrifying shadows that Judge Goldsworth's gown threw across the underworld, or about this or that beast lying in prison and positively dying of raghdirst (thirst for revenge) - crass banalities circulated by the scurrilous and the heartless - by all those for whom romance, remoteness, sealskin-lined scarlet skies, the darkening dunes of a fabulous kingdom, simply do not exist. But enough of this. Let us turn to our poet's windows. I have no desire to twist and batter an unambiguous apparatus criticus into the monstrous semblance of a novel.


In the same chapter of his autobiography Shklovsky describes a 1960 Swedish drama film “The Judge” directed by Alf Sjöberg:


Сейчас вспомнил ленту Московского фестиваля 1961 года. Лента шведская, называется она «Судья», режиссер ее Альф Шёберг и сценаристы Вильгельм Моберг и Альф Шёберг.

Это талантливое произведение рассказывает об отсутствии правосудия в буржуазном обществе. Молодого поэта его опекун, судья, сперва лишает наследства, потом сажает в сумасшедший дом.

Дело кончается условно благополучно. Комическая старуха, преподавательница музыки, при помощи магнитофона записала саморазоблачающий разговор судьи, и в результате поэт получает обратно свою невесту, вероятно, и свое состояние.

Это сделано условно и пародийно.

Самое талантливое место в ленте – это изображение сумасшедшего дома. В легком тумане стоят зимние деревья с обрубленными сучьями, туман, снег, тишина.

Поэт, загнанный в сумасшедший дом, сидит и пишет стихи. Здесь он получил «жизненный опыт» и защиту от жизни – двери сумасшедшего дома. Доктор-тюремщик теперь почти любит сломанного человека и восхищается его стихами.

Юноша пишет стихи о ласточке, которая на белой стене неба начертила какие-то простые слова.

Это сердце ленты, здесь нет иронии, здесь есть вдохновение.

Левое искусство прошлого у нас и левое искусство Запада так освобождалось от «судьи», получая иллюзорную свободу в больнице.

Но из больницы надо уходить, а уходить можно только в борьбу.

Хлебников после Октябрьской революции писал такие стихи, как «Ночь перед Советами». (3)


The director’s name brings to mind not only Alphina (Judge Goldsworth’s youngest daughter), but also King Alfin (the father of Charles the Beloved):


My friend could not evoke the image of his father. Similarly, the King, who also was not quite three when his father, King Alfin, died, was unable to recall his face, although oddly he did remember perfectly well the little monoplane of chocolate that he, a chubby babe, happened to be holding in that very last photograph (Christmas 1918) of the melancholy, riding-breeched aviator in whose lap he reluctantly and uncomfortably sprawled.

Alfin the Vague (1873-1918; regnal dates 1900-1918, but 1900-1919 in most biographical dictionaries, a fumble due to the coincident calendar change from Old Style to New) was given his cognomen by Amphitheatricus, a not unkindly writer of fugitive poetry in the liberal gazettes (who was also responsible for dubbing my capital Uranograd!). King Alfin's absent-mindedness knew no bounds. He was a wretched linguist, having at his disposal only a few phrases of French and Danish, but every time he had to make a speech to his subjects - to a group of gaping Zemblan yokels in some remote valley where he had crash-landed - some uncontrollable switch went into action in his mind, and he reverted to those phrases, flavoring them for topical sense with a little Latin. Most of the anecdotes relating to his naïve fits of abstraction are too silly and indecent to sully these pages; but one of them that I do not think especially funny induced such guffaws from Shade (and returned to me, via the Common Room, with such obscene accretions) that I feel inclined to give it here as a sample (and as a corrective). One summer before the first world war, when the emperor of a great foreign realm (I realize how few there are to choose from) was paying an extremely unusual and flattering visit to our little hard country, my father took him and a young Zemblan interpreter (whose sex I leave open) in a newly purchased custom-built car on a jaunt in the countryside. As usual, King Alfin traveled without a vestige of escort, and this, and his brisk driving, seemed to trouble his guest. On their way back, some twenty miles from Onhava, King Alfin decided to stop for repairs. While he tinkered with the motor, the emperor and the interpreter sought the shade of some pines by the highway, and only when King Alfin was back in Onhava, did he gradually realize from a reiteration of rather frantic questions that he had left somebody behind ("What emperor?" has remained his only memorable mot). Generally speaking, in respect of any of my contributions (or what I thought to be contributions) I repeatedly enjoined my poet to record them in writing, by all means, but not to spread them in idle speech; even poets, however, are human.

King's Alfin's absent-mindedness was strangely combined with a passion for mechanical things, especially for flying apparatuses. In 1912, he managed to rise in an umbrella-like Fabre "hydroplane" and almost got drowned in the sea between Nitra and Indra. He smashed two Farmans, three Zemblan machines, and a beloved Santos Dumont Demoiselle. A very special monoplane, Blenda IV, was built for him in 1916 by his constant "aerial adjutant" Colonel Peter Gusev (later a pioneer parachutist and, at seventy, one of the greatest jumpers of all time), and this was his bird of doom. On the serene, and not too cold, December morning that the angels chose to net his mild pure soul, King Alfin was in the act of trying solo a tricky vertical loop that Prince Andrey Kachurin, the famous Russian stunter and War One hero, had shown him in Gatchina. Something went wrong, and the little Blenda was seen to go into an uncontrolled dive. Behind and above him, in a Caudron biplane, Colonel Gusev (by then Duke of Rahl) and the Queen snapped several pictures of what seemed at first a noble and graceful evolution but then turned into something else. At the last moment, King Alfin managed to straighten out his machine and was again master of gravity when, immediately afterwards, he flew smack into the scaffolding of a huge hotel which was being constructed in the middle of a coastal heath as if for the special purpose of standing in a king's way. This uncompleted and badly gutted building was ordered razed by Queen Blenda who had it replaced by a tasteless monument of granite surmounted by an improbable type of aircraft made of bronze. The glossy prints of the enlarged photographs depicting the entire catastrophe were discovered one day by eight-year-old Charles Xavier in the drawer of a secretary bookcase. In some of these ghastly pictures one could make out the shoulders and leathern casque of the strangely unconcerned aviator, and in the penultimate one of the series, just before the white-blurred shattering crash, one distinctly saw him raise one arm in triumph, and reassurance. The boy had hideous dreams after that but his mother never found out that he had seen those infernal records. (note to Line 71)


At the end of his Commentary Kinbote says that he may join forces with Odon (a world famous actor and Zemblan patriot who helps the king to escape from Zembla) in a new motion picture:


"And you, what will you be doing with yourself, poor King, poor Kinbote?" a gentle young voice may inquire.

God will help me, I trust, to rid myself of any desire to follow the example of two other characters in this work. I shall continue to exist. I may assume other disguises, other forms, but I shall try to exist. I may turn up yet, on another campus, as an old, happy, healthy, heterosexual Russian, a writer in exile, sans fame, sans future, sans audience, sans anything but his art. I may join forces with Odon in a new motion picture: Escape from Zembla (ball in the palace, bomb in the palace square). I may pander to the simple tastes of theatrical critics and cook up a stage play, an old-fashioned Melodrama with three principals: a lunatic who intends to kill an imaginary king, another lunatic who imagines himself to be that king, and a distinguished old poet who stumbles by chance into the line of fire, and perishes in the clash between the two figments. Oh, I may do many things! History permitting, I may sail back to my recovered kingdom, and with a great sob greet the gray coastline and the gleam of a roof in the rain. I may huddle and groan in a madhouse. But whatever happens, wherever the scene is laid, somebody, somewhere, will quietly set out - somebody has already set out, somebody still rather far away is buying a ticket, is boarding a bus, a ship, a plane, has landed, is walking toward a million photographers, and presently he will ring at my door - a bigger, more respectable, more competent Gradus. (note to Line 1000)


In Alf Sjöberg’s film the judge puts away a young talented poet in a madhouse. In the lunatic asylum the poet writes about lastochka (a swallow) drawing some simple words on the white wall of the sky. Describing the last moments of Shade’s life, Kinbote mentions a bat writing a legible tale of torture in the bruised and branded sky:


Well did I know he could never resist a golden drop of this or that, especially since he was severely rationed at home. With an inward leap of exultation I relieved him of the large envelope that hampered his movements as he descended the steps of the porch, sideways, like a hesitating infant. We crossed the lawn, we crossed the road. Clink-clank, came the horseshoe music from Mystery Lodge. In the large envelope I carried I could feel the hard-cornered, rubberbanded batches of index cards. We are absurdly accustomed to the miracle of a few written signs being able to contain immortal imagery, involutions of thought, new worlds with live people, speaking, weeping, laughing. We take it for granted so simply that in a sense, by the very act of brutish routine acceptance, we undo the work of the ages, the history of the gradual elaboration of poetical description and construction, from the treeman to Browning, from the caveman to Keats. What if we awake one day, all of us, and find ourselves utterly unable to read? I wish you to gasp not only at what you read but at the miracle of its being readable (so I used to tell my students). Although I am capable, through long dabbling in blue magic, of imitating any prose in the world (but singularly enough not verse - I am a miserable rhymester), I do not consider myself a true artist, save in one matter: I can do what only a true artist can do - pounce upon the forgotten butterfly of revelation, wean myself abruptly from the habit of things, see the web of the world, and the warp and the weft of that web. Solemnly I weighed in my hand what I was carrying under my left armpit, and for a moment, I found myself enriched with an indescribable amazement as if informed that fireflies were making decodable signals on behalf of stranded spirits, or that a bat was writing a legible tale of torture in the bruised and branded sky.

I was holding all Zembla pressed to my heart. (note to Line 991)


According to Kinbote, Gradus is a cross between bat and crab:


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. (note to Line 171)


The “real” name of both Sybil Shade (the poet’s wife) and Queen Disa (the wife of Charles the Beloved) seems to be Sofia Botkin, born Lastochkin. Her husband, Professor Vsevolod Botkin, went mad and became the poet Shade, his commentator Kinbote and his murderer 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 October 19, 1959, the anniversary of Pushkin’s Lyceum), Botkin, like Count Vorontsov (Pushkin’s boss in Odessa and a target of his epigrams, “half-milord, half-merchant,” etc.), will be “full” again. Poor Kinbote writes his Commentary, Index and Foreword (in that order) to Shade’s poem not in “Cedarn, Utana,” but in a madhouse in Quebec.


Shklovsky’s Zoo ili Pis'ma ne o lyubvi ("Zoo, or Letters not about Love," 1923) bring to mind Martin’s and Sonia’s Zoorland in VN's novel Podvig (“Glory,” 1932).