Gradus' father & wife in Pale Fire

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Mon, 07/05/2021 - 08:32

According to 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), Jakob Gradus (Shade’s murderer) is the son of a Protestant minister in Riga:


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)


In his poem Meksika (“Mexico,” 1925) Mayakovski compares Mexico City to Riga:


Что Рига, что Мехико -

                                            родственный жанр.


                            тропического леса.

                     Вся разница:

                                  зонтик в руке у рижан,

                     а у мексиканцев

                                     "Смит и Вессон".

                     Две Латвии

                                с двух земных боков -

                              различные собой они

                     лишь тем,

                               что в Мексике

                                             режут быков

                     в театре,

                               а в Риге -

                                          на бойне.


According to Mayakovski, the only difference between Mexico and Riga is that in Mexico they kill bulls in a theater and in Riga, at a slaughterhouse. In Canto Four of his poem Shade speaks of the things that he dislikes and mentions the white-hosed moron torturing a black bull:


Now I shall speak of evil as none has

Spoken before. I loathe such things as jazz;

The white-hosed moron torturing a black

Bull, rayed with red; abstractist bric-a-brac;

Primitivist folk-masks; progressive schools;

Music in supermarkets; swimming pools;

Brutes, bores, class-conscious Philistines, Freud, Marx,

Fake thinkers, puffed-up poets, frauds and sharks. (ll. 923-930)


Mayakovski is a puffed-up poet. According to Kinbote, Shade’s mother assisted her husband in his work and drew the admirable figures of his Birds of Mexico:


With commendable alacrity, Professor Hurley produced an Appreciation of John Shade's published works within a month after the poet's death. It came out in a skimpy literary review, whose name momentarily escapes me, and was shown to me in Chicago where I interrupted for a couple of days my automobile journey from New Wye to Cedarn, in these grim autumnal mountains.

A Commentary where placid scholarship should reign is not the place for blasting the preposterous defects of that little obituary. I have only mentioned it because that is where I gleaned a few meager details concerning the poet's parents. His father, Samuel Shade, who died at fifty, in 1902, had studied medicine in his youth and was vice-president of a firm of surgical instruments in Exton. His chief passion, however, was what our eloquent necrologist calls "the study of the feathered tribe," adding that "a bird had been named for him: Bombycilla Shadei" (this should be "shadei," of course). The poet's mother, née Caroline Lukin, assisted him in his work and drew the admirable figures of his Birds of Mexico, which I remember having seen in my friend's house. What the obituarist does not know is that Lukin comes from Luke, as also do Locock and Luxon and Lukashevich. It represents one of the many instances when the amorphous-looking but live and personal hereditary patronymic grows, sometimes in fantastic shapes, around the common pebble of a Christian name. The Lukins are an old Essex family. Other names derive from professions such as Rymer, Scrivener, Limner (one who illuminates parchments), Botkin (one who makes bottekins, fancy footwear) and thousands of others. My tutor, a Scotsman, used to call any old tumble-down building "a hurley-house." But enough of this. (note to Line 71)


In his poem “Mexico” Mayakovski mentions a sombrero made of the feathers of the bird Quetzal:



                              чемоданов куча


                             от которых

                                        никуда не деться... -


                                и пошёл,

                                         сомбреро нахлобуча

                     вместо радуги

                                   из перьев

                                          птицы Кетцаль.


In his poem Horosho (“Good,” 1927) written for the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution Mayakovski says that in his head zhar podymaet gradus (the fever raises its degree):


В голове


подымает градус.

Зацветают луга,



       в уши -


   тянется угар

из-под черных вьюшек. (13)


The Mayakovski pastiche in VN's story Istreblenie tiranov ("Tyrants Destroyed," 1938) begins with the word horosho-s (now then):


Хорошо-с,-- а помните, граждане,
Как хирел наш край без отца?
Так без хмеля сильнейшая жажда
Не создаст ни пивца, ни певца.


Вообразите, ни реп нет,
Ни баклажанов, ни брюкв...
Так и песня, что днесь у нас крепнет,
Задыхалась в луковках букв.


Шли мы тропиной исторенной,
Горькие ели грибы,
Пока ворота истории
Не дрогнули от колотьбы!


Пока, белизною кительной
Сияя верным сынам,
С улыбкой своей удивительной
Правитель не вышел к нам.


Now then, citizens,
You remember how long
Our land wilted without a Father?...
Thus, without hops, no matter how strong
One’s thirst, it is rather
Difficult, isn’t it,
To make both the beer and the drinking song!
Just imagine, we lacked potatoes,
No turnips, no beets could we get:
Thus the poem, now blooming, wasted
In the bulbs of the alphabet!
A well-trodded road we had taken,
Bitter toadstools we ate.
Until by great thumps was shaking
History’s gate!
Until in his trim white tunic
Which upon us its radiance cast,
With his wonderful smile the Ruler
Came before his subjects at last! (chapter 16)


At the end of his poem O pravitelyakh (“On Rulers,” 1944) VN mentions his “late namesake:”


Покойный мой тёзка,
писавший стихи и в полоску,
и в клетку, на самом восходе
всесоюзно-мещанского класса,
кабы дожил до полдня,
нынче бы рифмы натягивал
на "монументален",
на "переперчил"
и так далее.


If my late namesake,
who used to write verse, in rank
and in file, at the very dawn
of the Soviet Small-Bourgeois order,
had lived till its noon
he would be now finding taut rhymes
such as “praline”
or “air chill,”
and others of the same kind.


VN’s footnotes: Line 52: my late namesake. An allusion to the Christian name and patronymic of Vladimir Vladimirovich Mayakovski (1893-1930), minor Soviet poet, endowed with a certain brilliance and bite, but fatally corrupted by the regime he faithfully served.

Lines 58-59: “praline” … “air chill.” In the original, monumentalen, meaning “[he is] monumental” rhymes pretty closely with Stalin; and pereperchil, meaning “[he] put in too much pepper,” offers an ingenuous correspondence with the name of the
British politician in a slovenly Russian pronunciation (“chair-chill”).


Gradus is a member of the Shadows (a regicidal organization). According to Kinbote, 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 Shadows and the terrible name of their leader bring to mind Yakov Polonski’s poem Prishli i stali teni nochi (“The shadows of the night came and mounted guard at my door,” 1842):


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!


In 1940 Trotsky was assassinated in Mexico City by Stalin's agent. By a delightful coincidence, Polonski’s birthday, December 18, is also Stalin’s birthday (Polonski was born in 1819, Stalin was born in 1878). Similarly, Shade’s birthday, July 5 is also Kinbote’s and Gradus’ birthday (while Shade was born in 1898, Kinbote and Gradus were born in 1915). Shade is seventeen years Kinbote’s and Gradus’ senior. In a letter of Oct. 31, 1838 (Dostoevski’s seventeenth birthday), 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.


In poem Vozmezdie (“Retribution,” 1910-21) Alexander Blok pairs Dostoevski with Polonski (the guests at the soirées of Anna Vrevski):


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 простёртой дланью вдохновенно

Полонский здесь читал стихи.

Какой-то экс-министр смиренно

Здесь исповедывал грехи. (Chapter One)


Some ex-minister who humbly confessed his sins at Anna Vrevski’s soirées brings to mind Martin Gradus, the former Protestant minister in Riga. According to Kinbote, Gradus’ wife is a beader in Radugovitra:


At his hotel the beaming proprietress handed him a telegram. It chided him in Danish for leaving Geneva and told him to undertake nothing until further notice. It also advised him to forget his work and amuse himself. But what (save dreams of blood) could be his amusements? He was not interested in sightseeing or seasiding. He had long stopped drinking. He did not go to concerts. He did not gamble. Sexual impulses had greatly bothered him at one time but that was over. After his wife, a beader in Radugovitra, had left him (with a gypsy lover), he had lived in sin with his mother-in-law until she was removed, blind and dropsical, to an asylum for decayed widows. Since then he had tried several times to castrate himself, had been laid up at the Glassman Hospital with a severe infection, and now, at forty-four, was quite cured of the lust that Nature, the grand cheat, puts into us to inveigle us into propagation. No wonder the advice to amuse himself infuriated him. I think I shall break this note here. (note to Line 697)


In his poem Videnie Osmana (“The Vision of Osman”) Polonski describes a fountain that plays in paradise at the feet of Osman and the houris and mentions biser (the beads) and radugi (rainbows):


От ужаса и ран очнулся я в раю:
В раю разостлан был ковер, как шаль узорный,
И на него склонил я голову мою,
Отдавшись ласкам дев и страсти непритворной…
У наших ног фонтан вздымал свои струи,—
В алмазы, в бисер, в пыль струи те рассыпались,—
Прохладой веяло, и радуги качались
В ароматической серебряной пыли;
Деревья райские, тенисты, плодовиты,
Росли, как острова, лианами повиты,
И приглашали вас в таинственную сень,
Любовью услаждать божественную лень…


The fountain in Polonski’s poem brings to mind a tall white fountain that Shade saw during his heart attack:


                                      Give me now

Your full attention. I can't tell you how

I knew - but I did know that I had crossed

The border. Everything I loved was lost

But no aorta could report regret.

A sun of rubber was convulsed and set;

And blood-black nothingness began to spin

A system of cells interlinked within

Cells interlinked within cells interlinked

Within one stem. And dreadfully distinct

Against the dark, a tall white fountain played. (ll. 697-707)


According to Kinbote, Shade’s heart attack almost coincided with the disguised king’s arrival in America:


John Shade's heart attack (Oct. 17, 1958) practically coincided with the disguised king's arrival in America where he descended by parachute from a chartered plane piloted by Colonel Montacute, in a field of hay-feverish, rank-flowering weeds, near Baltimore whose oriole is not an oriole. (note to Line 691)


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 his diary (the entry of Aug. 30, 1918) Blok mentions dvoyniki (the dopplegangers) whom he conjured up in 1901 (when the poet courted Lyubov Mendeleev, his future wife), drugoe ya (alter ego) and Botkinskiy period (the Botkin period) of his life:


К ноябрю началось явное моё колдовство, ибо я вызвал двойников  ("Зарево белое...", "Ты - другая, немая...").

Любовь Дмитриевна ходила на уроки к М. М. Читау, я же ждал её выхода, следил за ней и иногда провожал её до Забалканского с Гагаринской - Литейной (конец ноября, начало декабря). Чаще, чем со мной, она встречалась с кем-то - кого не видела и о котором я знал.

Появился мороз, "мятель", "неотвязный" и царица, звенящая дверь, два старца, "отрава" (непосланных цветов), свершающий и пользующийся плодами свершений ("другое я"), кто-то "смеющийся и нежный". Так кончился 1901 год.

Тут - Боткинский период.


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!


The characters in VN's play Izobretenie Val’sa (“The Waltz Invention,” 1938) include the Minister of War. The action in "The Waltz Invention" 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 (who commits suicide in prison) die at the age of forty-four.


Re Aztec Red in my previous post: the allusion is to cochineal, a scale insect in the suborder Sternorrhyncha native to Mexico from which a natural dye carmine is derived.