ufgut, ufgut in Pale Fire

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Wed, 09/01/2021 - 15:52

Describing Gradus’ day in New York, 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) mentions a Zemblan moppet who cried to her Japanese friend: Ufgut, ufgut, velkam ut Semblerland! (Adieu, adieu, till we meet in Zembla!):


He [Gradus] began with the day's copy of The New York Times. His lips moving like wrestling worms, he read about all kinds of things. Hrushchov (whom they spelled "Khrushchev") had abruptly put off a visit to Scandinavia and was to visit Zembla instead (here I tune in: "Vï nazïvaete sebya zemblerami, you call yourselves Zemblans, a ya vas nazïvayu zemlyakami, and I call you fellow countrymen!" Laughter and applause.) The United States was about to launch its first atom-driven merchant ship (just to annoy the Ruskers, of course. J. G.). Last night in Newark, an apartment house at 555 South Street was hit by a thunderbolt that smashed a TV set and injured two people watching an actress lost in a violent studio storm (those tormented spirits are terrible! C. X. K. teste J. S.). The Rachel Jewelry Company in Brooklyn advertised in agate type for a jewelry polisher who "must have experience on costume jewelry (oh, Degré had!). The Helman brothers said they had assisted in the negotiations for the placement of a sizable note: "$11, 000, 000, Decker Glass Manufacturing Company, Inc., note due July 1, 1979," and Gradus, grown young again, reread this this twice, with the background gray thought, perhaps, that he would be sixty-four four days after that (no comment). On another bench he found a Monday issue of the same newspaper. During a visit to a museum in Whitehorse (Gradus kicked at a pigeon that came too near), the Queen of England walked to a corner of the White Animals Room, removed her right glove and, with her back turned to several evidently observant people, rubbed her forehead and one of her eyes. A pro-Red revolt had erupted in Iraq. Asked about the Soviet exhibition at the New York Coliseum, Carl Sandburg, a poet, replied, and I quote: "They make their appeal on the highest of intellectual levels." A hack reviewer of new books for tourists, reviewing his own tour through Norway, said that the fjords were too famous to need (his) description, and that all Scandinavians loved flowers. And at a picnic for international children a Zemblan moppet cried to her Japanese friend: Ufgut, ufgut, velkam ut Semblerland! (Adieu, adieu, till we meet in Zembla!) I confess it has been a wonderful game - this looking up in the WUL of various ephemerides over the shadow of a padded shoulder. (note to Line 949)


Zemblan word for “adieu,” ufgut seems to hint at the German phrase auf gut Glück (at random, blindly, on a whim). In the last stanza of his poem Tucha kruzhevo v roshche svyazala (“A thundercloud knitted a lacework in the grove,” 1915) Esenin uses a rare word na-umyak (without thinking, at random):


Туча кружево в роще связала,

Закурился пахучий туман.

Еду грязной дорогой с вокзала

Вдалеке от родимых полян.


Лес застыл без печали и шума,

Виснет темь, как платок, за сосной.

Сердце гложет плакучая дума...

Ой, не весел ты, край мой родной.


Пригорюнились девушки-ели,

И поет мой ямщик на-умяк:

"Я умру на тюремной постели,

Похоронят меня кое-как".


…The maiden firs became sad,

And my coachman sings without thinking:

“I shall die on a prison bed,

They’ll bury me anyhow.”


Esenin’s coachman sings na-umyak: Ya umru na tyuremnoy posteli (I shall die on a prison bed). Shade's murderer, Gradus dies in prison. Describing Gradus’ day in Nice, Kinbote mentions the Umruds (an Eskimo tribe) and their umyaks (hide-lined boats):


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 congratulataed 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)


Esenin’s last poem begins Do svidan’ya, drug moy, do svidan’ya (Goodbye, my friend, goodbye):


До свиданья, друг мой, до свиданья.
Милый мой, ты у меня в груди.
Предназначенное расставанье
Обещает встречу впереди.

До свиданья, друг мой, без руки, без слова,
Не грусти и не печаль бровей, —
В этой жизни умирать не ново,
Но и жить, конечно, не новей.


Goodbye, my friend, goodbye.
My dear, you are in my heart.
This predestined parting
Promises a meeting in time to come.

Goodbye, my friend, without a hand, without a word,
Don’t be sad and furrow your brow in sorrow, —
To die in this life is not new,
But to live, of course, is hardly newer.

(tr. Marina Chetner)


Esenin wrote his final poem with his own blood (because he had no ink in his hotel Angleterre room). In his Foreword to Shade’s poem Kinbote mentions Shade’s former literary agent who has wondered with a sneer if Mrs. Shade's tremulous signature might not have been penned "in some peculiar kind of red ink:”


Immediately after my dear friend's death I prevailed on his distraught widow to forelay and defeat the commercial passions and academic intrigues that were bound to come swirling around her husband's manuscript (transferred by me to a safe spot even before his body had reached the grave) by signing an agreement to the effect that he had turned over the manuscript to me; that I would have it published, without delay, with my commentary by a firm of my choice; that all profits, except the publisher's percentage, would accrue to her; and that on publication day the manuscript would be handed over to the Library of Congress for permanent preservation. I defy any serious critic to find this contract unfair. Nevertheless, it has been called (by Shade's former lawyer) "a fantastic farrago of evil," while another person (his former literary agent) has wondered with a sneer if Mrs. Shade's tremulous signature might not have been penned "in some peculiar kind of red ink." Such hearts, such brains, would be unable to comprehend that one's attachment to a masterpiece may be utterly overwhelming, especially when it is the underside of the weave that entrances the beholder and only begetter, whose own past intercoils there with the fate of the innocent author.


Esenin committed suicide (on Dec. 28, 1925) in Leningrad (St. Petersburg’s name in 1924-1991). Kinbote mockingly calls Gradus “Vinogradus” and “Leningradus:”


Such things rankle – but what can Gradus do? The huddled fates engage in a great conspiracy against Gradus. One notes with pardonable glee that his likes are never granted the ultimate thrill of dispatching their victim themselves. Oh, surely, Gradus is active, capable, helpful, often indispensable. At the foot of the scaffold, on a raw and gray morning, it is Gradus who sweeps the night's powder snow off the narrow steps; but his long leathery face will not be the last one that the man who must mount those steps is to see in this world. It is Gradus who buys the cheap fiber valise that a luckier guy will plant, with a time bomb inside, under the bed of a former henchman. Nobody knows better than Gradus how to set a trap by means of a fake advertisement, but the rich old widow whom it hooks is courted and slain by another. When the fallen tyrant is tied, naked and howling, to a plank in the public square and killed piecemeal by the people who cut slices out, and eat them, and distribute his living body among themselves (as I read when young in a story about an Italian despot, which made of me a vegetarian for life), Gradus does not take part in the infernal sacrament: he points out the right instrument and directs the carving.

All this is as it should be; the world needs Gradus. But Gradus should not kill kings. Vinogradus should never, never provoke God. Leningradus should not aim his peashooter at people even in dreams, because if he does, a pair of colossally thick, abnormally hairy arms will hug him from behind and squeeze, squeeze, squeeze. (note to Line 171)


Auf gut Glück brings to mind "the great Glück," the composer mentioned by Salieri in Pushkin’s little tragedy “Mozart and Salieri" (1830):


Что говорю? Когда великий Глюк
Явился и открыл нам новы тайны
(Глубокие, пленительные тайны),
Не бросил ли я все, что прежде знал,
Что так любил, чему так жарко верил,
И не пошел ли бодро вслед за ним
Безропотно, как тот, кто заблуждался
И встречным послан в сторону иную?


And what of that? When the great Glück
Came and discovered for us new secrets
(Deep, fascinating secrets),
Did I not leave all I had known before,
And loved so much, and trusted with such fervor,
To follow him, submissively and gaily,
Like one who has gone errant yet encounters
A man to set him on a different course? (Scene I)


In Pushkin’s little tragedy Mozart mentions his chyornyi chelovek (man in black) who ordered a Requiem and who seems to sit with him and Salieri sam-tretey (as a third):


М о ц а р т

Мне день и ночь покоя не дает

Мой черный человек. За мною всюду

Как тень он гонится. Вот и теперь

Мне кажется, он с нами сам-третей


С а л ь е р и

И, полно! что за страх ребячий?

Рассей пустую думу. Бомарше

Говаривал мне: "Слушай, брат Сальери,

Как мысли черные к тебе придут,

Откупори шампанского бутылку

Иль перечти "Женитьбу Фигаро".

М о ц а р т

Да! Бомарше ведь был тебе приятель;

Ты для него "Тарара" сочинил,

Вещь славную. Там есть один мотив...

Я все твержу его, когда я счастлив...

Ла ла ла ла... Ах, правда ли, Сальери,

Что Бомарше кого-то отравил?

С а л ь е р и

Не думаю: он слишком был смешон

Для ремесла такого.

М о ц а р т

Он же гений,

Как ты да я. А гений и злодейство --

Две вещи несовместные. Не правда ль?



He gives me no rest night or day,
My man in black. He’s everywhere behind
Me like a shadow. Even now he seems
To sit here with us as a third.


                                                       Come, come!
What sort of childish fright is this? Dispel
These empty fancies. Beaumarchais would often
Say to me "Listen, Salieri, old friend,
When black thoughts come your way, uncork the champagne
Bottle, or re-read The Marriage of Figaro."


Yes, you and Beaumarchais were pals, weren’t you?
It was for him you wrote Tarare, a lovely
Work. There is one tune in it, I always
Hum it to myself when I feel happy . . .
La la la la . . . Salieri, is it true
That Beaumarchais once poisoned somebody?


I don’t think so. He was too droll a fellow
For such a trade.


     Besides, he was a genius,
Like you and me. And genius and villainy
Are two things incompatible, aren’t they?

(Scene II)


Chyornyi chelovek (“The Black Man,” 1925) is a poem by Esenin. Glück is German for “happiness.” In Esenin's poem the Black Man says that schast'ye (happiness) is a sleight of mind and hand:


Счастье, — говорил он, —
Есть ловкость ума и рук.
Все неловкие души
За несчастных всегда известны.
Это ничего,
Что много мук
Приносят изломанные
И лживые жесты.


Happiness — he said —
is a sleight of mind and hand.
All clumsy souls are always
known for being unhappy.

It does not matter much

that broken and false gestures
bring many tortures.


In Pushkin’s "Mozart and Salieri" Mozart uses the phrase nikto b (none would):


Когда бы все так чувствовали силу
Гармонии! Но нет: тогда б не мог
И мир существовать; никто б не стал
Заботиться о нуждах низкой жизни;
Все предались бы вольному искусству.


If all could feel like you the power

of harmony! But no: the world

could not go on then. None would

bother about the needs of lowly life;

All would surrender to free art. (Scene II)


Nikto b is Botkin (Shade’s, Kinbote’s and Gradus’ “real” name) in reverse. 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 epigrams, “half-milord, half-merchant, etc.”), will be full again.