Tokay wine & Gradus in Pale Fire

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Wed, 08/04/2021 - 14:39

Just before Shade (the poet in VN’s novel Pale Fire, 1962) is killed by Gradus, Kinbote (Shade’s mad commentator who imagines that he is Charles the Beloved, the last self-exiled king of Zembla) invites the poet to a glass of Tokay at his place:


"Well," I said, "has the muse been kind to you?"

"Very kind," he replied, slightly bowing his hand-propped head. "exceptionally kind and gentle. In fact, I have here [indicating a huge pregnant envelope near him on the oilcloth] practically the entire product. A few trifles to settle and [suddenly striking the table with his fist] I've swung it, by God."

The envelope, unfastened at one end, bulged with stacked cards.

"Where is the missus?" I asked (mouth dry).

"Help me, Charlie, to get out of here," he pleaded. "Foot gone to sleep. Sybil is at a dinner-meeting of her club."

"A suggestion," I said, quivering. "I have at my place half a gallon of Tokay. I'm ready to share my favorite wine with my favorite poet. We shall have for dinner a knackle of walnuts, a couple of large tomatoes, and a bunch of bananas. And if you agree to show me your 'finished product,' there will be another treat: I promise to divulge to you why I gave you, or rather who gave you, your theme."
"What theme?" said Shade absently, as he leaned on my arm and gradually recovered the use of his numb limb.
"Our blue inenubilable Zembla, and the red-caped Steinmann, and the motorboat in the sea cave, and-"
"Ah," said Shade, "I think I guessed your secret quite some time ago. But all the same I shall sample your wine with pleasure. Okay, I can manage by myself now." (Kinbote's note to Line 991)


In his story Zhenshchina s tochki zreniya p'yanitsy ("Woman as Seen by a Drunkard," 1885) Chekhov says that woman is an intoxicating product and compares young women in the age group of twenty to twenty-three to the Tokay wine:


Женщина есть опьяняющий продукт, который до сих пор еще не догадались обложить акцизным сбором. На случай, если когда-нибудь догадаются, предлагаю смету крепости означенного продукта в различные периоды его существования, беря в основу не количество градусов, а сравнение его с более или менее известными напитками:

Женщина до 16 лет — дистиллированная вода.

16 лет — ланинская фруктовая.

От 17 до 20 — шабли и шато д’икем.

От 20 до 23 — токайское.

От 23 до 26 — шампанское.

26 и 27 лет — мадера и херес.

28 — коньяк с лимоном.

29, 30, 31, 32 — ликёры.

От 32 до 35 — пиво завода «Вена».

От 35 до 40 — квас.

От 40 до 100 лет — сивушное масло.

Если же единицей меры взять не возраст, а семейное положение, то:

Жена — зельтерская вода.

Теща — огуречный рассол.

Прелестная незнакомка — рюмка водки перед завтраком.

Вдовушка от 23 до 28 лет — мускат-люнель и марсала.

Вдовушка от 28 и далее — портер.

Старая дева — лимон без коньяка.

Невеста — розовая вода.

Тетенька — уксус.

Все женщины, взятые вместе — подкисленное, подсахаренное, подкрашенное суриком и сильно разбавленное «кахетинское» братьев Елисеевых.


According to Kinbote, John Shade and Sybil Swallow (as Kinbote calls the poet's wife, née Irondell) were married in 1919. Shade was born on July, 5, 1898. In 1919 Sybil (who is several months her husband's senior) was twenty-one. In 1949, when Charles the Beloved married Disa, Duchess of Payn, of Great Payn and Mone, Disa (who was born in 1928) was also twenty-one. Kinbote is indifferent to women. According to Chekhov, all women taken together are the soured, sugared, tinted with red lead and much diluted “Kakhetian wine” of brothers Eliseyev.


Kolichestvo gradusov (strength of the drink) mentioned by Chekhov in "Woman as Seen by a Drunkard" brings to mind the name of Shade’s murderer. 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”). Chekhov is the author of Tysyacha odna strast’, ili Strashnaya noch’ (“A Thousand and One Passions, or The Terrible Night,” 1880), a parody of Gothic story dedicated to Victor Hugo (the author of Notre Dame de Paris, 1831). At the beginning of his poem Notre Dame (1912) Osip Mandelshtam mentions rimskiy sudiya (the Roman judge) who judged the alien nation:


Где римский судия судил чужой народ —
Стоит базилика, и — радостный и первый —
Как некогда Адам, распластывая нервы,
Играет мышцами крестовый лёгкий свод.


Kinbote's landlord, Judge Goldsworth is an authority on Roman law. In Chekhov’s story Ionych (1898) Ivan Petrovich Turkin (the jovial punster) mentions rimskoe pravo (Roman law) and his wife Vera Iosifovna tells Dr. Startsev that her husband is an Othello:


-- Здравствуйте пожалуйста, -- сказал Иван Петрович, встречая его на крыльце. -- Очень, очень рад видеть такого приятного гостя. Пойдёмте, я представлю вас своей благоверной. Я говорю ему, Верочка, -- продолжал он, представляя доктора жене, -- я ему говорю, что он не имеет никакого римского права сидеть у себя в больнице, он должен отдавать свой досуг обществу. Не правда ли, душенька?

   -- Садитесь здесь, -- говорила Вера Иосифовна, сажая гостя возле себя. -- Вы можете ухаживать за мной. Мой муж ревнив, это Отелло, но ведь мы постараемся вести себя так, что он ничего не заметит.


"How do you do, if you please?" said Ivan Petrovich, meeting him on the steps. "Delighted, delighted to see such an agreeable visitor. Come along; I will introduce you to my better half. I tell him, Verochka," he went on, as he presented the doctor to his wife --"I tell him that he has no human right* to sit at home in a hospital; he ought to devote his leisure to society. Oughtn't he, darling?"

"Sit here," said Vera Iosifovna, making her visitor sit down beside her. "You can dance attendance on me. My husband is jealous -- he is an Othello; but we will try and behave so well that he will notice nothing." (chapter I)


*“he has no Roman law/right” in the original (in Russian pravo means “law” and “right”).


Duchess of Payn, of Great Payn and Mone, Queen Disa seems to be a cross between Leonardo’s Mona Lisa and Desdemona, Othello’s wife in Shakespeare’s Othello. At the beginning of a poem that he contributed to the school magazine Liza Bogolepov’s son Victor (a character in VN’s novel Pnin, 1957) mentions Mona Lisa’s lips:


Leonardo! Strange diseases
strike at madders mixed with lead:
nun-pale now are Mona Lisa's
lips that you had made so red. (Chapter Four, 5)


A gifted young artist, Victor imagines that his father is a king who refuses to abdicate and prefers to go into exile:


The King, his father, wearing a very white sports shirt open at the throat and a very black blazer, sat at a spacious desk whose highly polished surface twinned his upper half in reverse, making of him a kind of court card. Ancestral portraits darkened the walls of the vast panelled room. Otherwise, it was not unlike the headmaster's study at St Bart's School, on the Atlantic seaboard, some three thousand miles west of the imagined Palace. A copious spring shower kept lashing at the french windows, beyond which young greenery, all eyes, shivered and streamed. Nothing but this sheet of rain seemed to separate and protect the Palace from the revolution that for several days had been rocking the city...


…Victor indulged night after night in these mild fancies, trying to induce sleep in his cold cubicle which was exposed to every noise in the restless dorm. Generally he did not reach that crucial flight episode when the King alone - solus rex (as chess problem makers term royal solitude) - paced a beach on the Bohemian Sea, at Tempest Point, where Percival Blake, a cheerful American adventurer, had promised to meet him with a powerful motor-boat. (Chapter Four, 1)


At the Library of Wordsmith University Gradus sees Professor Pnin (a bald-headed suntanned professor in a Hawaiian shirt sitting at a round table reading with an ironic expression on his face a Russian book):


Our pursuer made for the nearest stairs - and soon found himself among the bewitched hush of Rare Books. The room was beautiful and had no doors; in fact, some moments passed before he could discover the draped entrance he himself had just used. The awful perplexities of his quest blending with the renewal of impossible pangs in his belly, he dashed back - ran three steps down and nine steps up, and burst into a circular room where a bald-headed suntanned professor in a Hawaiian shirt sat at a round table reading with an ironic expression on his face a Russian book. He paid no attention to Gradus who traversed the room, stepped over a fat little white dog without awakening it, clattered down a helical staircase and found himself in Vault P. Here, a well-lit, pipe-lined, white-washed passage led hint to the sudden paradise of a water closet for plumbers or lost scholars where, cursing, he hurriedly transferred his automatic from its precarious dangle-pouch to his coat and relieved himself of another portion of the liquid hell inside him. He started to climb up again, and noticed in the temple light of the stacks an employee, a slim Hindu boy, with a call card in his hand. I had never spoken to that lad but had felt more than once his blue-brown gaze upon me, and no doubt my academic pseudonym was familiar to him but some sensitive cell in him, some chord of intuition, reacted to the harshness of the killer's interrogation and, as if protecting me from a cloudy danger, he smiled and said: "I do not know him, sir." (note to Line 949)


According to Kinbote, Prof. Pnin is a regular martinet in regard to his underlings:


Speaking of the Head of the bloated Russian Department, Prof. Pnin, a regular martinet in regard to his underlings (happily, Prof. Botkin, who taught in another department, was not subordinated to that grotesque "perfectionist"): "How odd that Russian intellectuals should lack all sense of humor when they have such marvelous humorists as Gogol, Dostoevski, Chekhov, Zoshchenko, and those joint authors of genius Ilf and Petrov." (note to Line 172).


The poet Shade, his commentator Kinbote and his murderer Gradus seem to represent three different aspects of one and the same person whose “real” name is Botkin. 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 is the name of the title character in Chekhov's last story Nevesta ("The Betrothed," 1903). In "Woman as Seen by a Drunkard" Chekhov compares nevesta (a bride) to rose water. There is nadezhda (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 epigrams, “half-milord, half-merchant, etc."), will be full again.


It seems that Kinbote writes his Commentary, Index and Foreword (in that order) to Shade's poem not in "Cedarn, Utana," but in a madhouse in Quebec. In his memoirs Peterburgskie zimy ("The St. Petersburg Winters," 1931) G. Ivanov describes his and his friends' trip to Tsarskoe Selo (the site of Pushkin's Lyceum) and visit to Count Komarovski, the brilliant poet who lived mainly in a mad house and had at the time a lucid interval. Komarovski invited everybody to his house and treated his guests to the Tokay wine:


-- Приехали на скамейку посмотреть. Да, да -- та самая. Я здесь часто сижу... когда здоров. Здесь хорошее место, тихое, глухое. Даже и днём редко кто заходит. Недавно гимназист здесь застрелился -- только на другой день нашли. Тихое место...
-- На этой скамейке застрелился?
-- На этой. Это уже второй случай. Почему-то выбирают все эту. За уединённость, должно быть:
Он в течение нашего короткого разговора несколько раз повторяет "моя болезнь", "когда я здоров", "тогда я был болен". Что это за болезнь у этого широкоплечего и краснощекого?
... -- Болезнь вернётся? -- повторяю я машинально конец его фразы.
-- Да, -- говорит он, -- болезнь. Сумасшествие. Вот Николай Степанович знает. Сейчас у меня "просветление", вот я и гуляю. А вообще я больше в больнице живу.
И, не меняя голоса, продолжает:
-- Если вы, господа, не торопитесь, -- вот мой дом, выпьем чаю, -- почитаем стихи.
...В большой столовой, под сияющей люстрой, мы пьём токайское из тонких желтоватых рюмок.


In his memoir essay on Alexander Blok G. Ivanov says that, to his question "does a sonnet need coda," Blok replied that he did not know what a coda is. In his poem Neznakomka ("The Unknown Woman," 1906) Blok mentions p'yanitsy s glazami krolikov (the drunks with the eyes of rabbits) who cry out "In vino veritas!" (in wine is the truth). In "Woman as Seen by a Drunkard" Chekhov compares prelestnaya neznakomka (a charming unknown girl) to a pony of vodka before breakfast.


Jakob Gradus is also known as de Grey. In Benjamin Disraeli's first novel Vivian Grey (1826) the Prince mentions Tokay:


"Pray what wine is this, Mr. Beckendorff?" eagerly asked the Prince, with a countenance glowing with delight - and his Highness was vulgar enough to smack his lips, which, for a Prince, is really shocking.
"I really don't know. I never drink wine."
"Not know! Grey, take a glass. What's your opinion? I never tasted such wine in my life. Why I do declare it is real Tokay!"


Benjamin Disraeli (who would later become Prime Minister of Great Britain) is the author of Sybil, or The Two Nations (1845)Sybil Shade (the poet’s wife) and Queen Disa seem to be one and the same person whose "real" name is Sofia Botkin (born Lastochkin). Lastochki ("The Swallows," 1884) is a poem by Afanasiy Fet. In 1857 Fet married Maria Botkin. In Disraeli’s novel The Infernal Marriage (1834) Pluto, the king of hell, whisks Proserpine, the daughter of Jupiter, away to Hades. Hades = Shade. In his poem Prozerpina (“Proserpine,” 1824) Pushkin mentions koni blednogo Plutona (pale Pluto’s horses):


Плещут волны Флегетона,
Своды Тартара дрожат,
Кони бледного Плутона
Быстро к нимфам Пелиона
Из аида бога мчат.


The waves of the Phlegethon splash,
The vaults of Tartarus tremble,
Pale Pluto’s horses
Quickly to the nymphs of Pelion
Rush the god from Hades.


In a letter of Sept. 10, 1824, to Pushkin Delvig (who soon married Sofia Saltykov) says that Pushkin’s poem “Proserpine” is pure music, a bird of paradise's singing that one can listen for a thousand years without noticing the passage of time:


Милый Пушкин, письмо твоё и «Прозерпину» я получил и тоже в день получения благодарю тебя за них. «Прозерпина» не стихи, а музыка: это пенье райской птички, которое слушая, не увидишь, как пройдёт тысяча лет. Эти двери давно мне знакомы. Сквозь них, ещё в Лицее, меня [иногда] часто выталкивали из Элизея. Какая искусная щеголиха у тебя истина. Подобных цветов мороз не тронет!