Starover Blue, Oscar Nattochdag & Saratov in Pale Fire

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Sun, 09/05/2021 - 15:41

In Canto Three of his poem John Shade (the poet in VN’s novel Pale Fire, 1962) describes IPH (a lay Institute of Preparation for the Hereafter) and mentions the great Starover Blue:


We heard cremationists guffaw and snort

At Grabermann's denouncing the Retort

As detrimental to the birth of wraiths.

We all avoided criticizing faiths.

The great Starover Blue reviewed the role

Planets had played as landfalls of the soul.

The fate of beasts was pondered. A Chinese

Discanted on the etiquette at teas

With ancestors, and how far up to go.

I tore apart the fantasies of Poe,

And dealt with childhood memories of strange

Nacreous gleams beyond the adults' range. (ll. 623-634)


According to Kinbote (Shade’s mad commentator who imagines that he is Charles the Beloved, the last self-exiled king of Zembla), 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)


At the end of Act Three (scene 22) of Griboedov’s play in verse Gore ot uma (“Woe from Wit,” 1824) Chatski says puskay menya ob’yavyat staroverom (They may call me an Old Believer):


Пускай меня объявят старовером,
Но хуже для меня наш Север во сто крат
С тех пор, как отдал всё в обмен на новый лад —
И нравы, и язык, и старину святую,
И величавую одежду на другую

По шутовскому образцу:

Хвост сзади, спереди какой-то чудный выем,
Рассудку вопреки, наперекор стихиям;
Движенья связаны, и не краса лицу;
Смешные, бритые, седые подбородки!
Как платья, волосы, так и умы коротки!..


I may be called

An old-believer, yet I think

Our North is worse a hundredfold

Since I adopted the new mode,

Having abandoned everything :

Our customs and our conditions,

The language, moral values and traditions,

And, in exchange of the grand gown,

Regardless of all trends

And common sense,

We put on this apparel of a clown:

A tail, a funny cut - oh, what a scene !

It's tight and doesn't match the face;

This funny, grey-haired shaven chin !

'Which covers thee discovers thee!'- there's a phrase.

(transl. Alec Vagapov)


At the end of Griboedov’s play (Act Four, scene 14) Famusov tells his daughter Sofia that he will send her to her aunt in the backwoods of Saratov:


Ты, быстроглазая, все от твоих проказ;
Вот он, Кузнецкий мост, наряды и обновы;
Там выучилась ты любовников сводить,
Постой же, я тебя исправлю:
Изволь-ка в избу, марш, за птицами ходить;
Да и тебя, мой друг, я, дочка, не оставлю,
Еще дни два терпение возьми:
Не быть тебе в Москве, не жить тебе с людьми;
Подалее от этих хватов,
В деревню, к тетке, в глушь, в Саратов,
Там будешь горе горевать,
За пяльцами сидеть, за святцами зевать.


You, watchful girl ! With your perpetual tricks;

That is the fruit of love of fashion shops and clothes !

You've learnt to pimp and pander lovers.

I'll put you right. I know what I can do.

Go feed the poultry ! Move to the service-house !

My dear daughter, you, too, will get your due,

Have patience; my decision will be simple:

You will not live here in Moscow with the people.

In a day or two I'll send you off

To a god-forsaken place, your aunt's, near Saratov.

You'll pass the time there grieving,

Sitting tambour in hand, card-reading.


Starover Blue's nickname, "Colonel Starbottle" brings to mind Colonel Skalozub, a character in Griboedov’s play. The surname Skalozub hints at zuboskal (scoffer). A similar transposition of syllables in Kinbote gives Botkin (Shade’s, Kinbote’s and Gradus’ “real” name). 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. At the beginning and at the end of his poem K lastochke ("To the Swallow," 1820) Griboedov mentions pale Cynthia (the moon):


Что мне делать с тобой, докучная ласточка!
Каждым утром меня — едва зарумянится
Небо алой зарей и бледная Цинтия
Там в туманы покатится, —
Каждым утром меня ты криком безумолкным
Будишь, будто назло!...


… Я проснулся — вдали едва зарумянилось
Небо алой зарей, и бледная Цинтия
Там в туманы скатилася.


Cynthia and Sybil are the two sisters in VN's story The Vane Sisters (1958). Chatski's famous monologue A sud'yi kto ("And who are the judges?”) brings to mind Judge Goldsworth (Kinbote's landlord).


After Shade's death his widow moves to her relatives in Quebec. 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 Griboedov's play it is Sofia who spreads the rumors about Chatski's insanity. Everybody agrees that Chatski went mad because of excessive drinking:


Безумный по всему.
Графиня внучка
Я видела из глаз.
По матери пошёл, по Анне Алексевне;
Покойница с ума сходила восемь раз.
На свете дивные бывают приключенья!
В его лета с ума спрыгну́л!
Чай, пил не по летам.
О! верно...
Графиня внучка
Без сомненья.
Шампанское стаканами тянул.
Наталья Дмитриевна
Бутылками-с, и пребольшими.
Загорецкий (с жаром)
Нет-с, бочками сороковыми.


Z a g o r e t s k i
All things considered he is mad.
C o u n t e s s t h e G r a n d d a u g h t e r
I judge it from his eyes.
F a m u s o v
He takes after his mother. No surprise !
She's known to have lost mind eight times.
K h l y o s t o v a
Strange things can happen in this world,
A man of his age should turn insane !
He must have drunk from young.
C o u n t e s s
It's true ! . .
C o u n t e s s t h e G r a n d d a u g h t e r
No, doubt. Upon my word !
K h l y o s t o v a
He would drink glasses of Champaign
N a t a l i a D m i t r i e v n a
He drank it by the bottle !
Z a g o r e t s k i (with passion)
No! It's by the barrel for all I know.
(Act Three, scene 21)


According to Kinbote, Starover Blue was nicknamed Colonel Starbottle because of his exceptionally convivial habits.


On the other hand, Saratov is the birthplace of Chernyshevski, a radical critic who died in his home city. The narrator and main character in VN's novel Dar ("The Gift," 1937), Fyodor Godunov-Cherdyntsev is the author of a book on Chernyshevski. A character in "The Gift," Alexander Yakovlevich Chernyshevski went mad after the suicide of his son Yasha.


In his novel Povesti v povesti ("Tales within a Tale," publ. in 1930) written, like Chto delat' ("What to Do?" 1864), during the author's confinement in the Peter-and-Paul Fortress Chernyshevski says that by nature he is a starover:


Я по натуре старовер. Где возможно сомнение, я — за старое, потому что я люблю его.


In the Preface Chernyshevski says that his novel Povesti v povesti came directly from his love to the charming fairy tales of "A Thousand and One Nights:"


"Мой роман "Повести в повести" вышел прямо из моей любви к прелестным сказкам "Тысячи и одной ночи". <...> Даже форма перенеслась в мой сборник из арабских сказок."


Shade’s poem is almost finished, when, on July 21, 1959, 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”). In "The Gift" Fyodor's book "The Life of Chernyshevski" begins and ends with a reversed sonnet. Dvoynik ("The Double," 1846) is a short novel by Dostoevski, the author of Netochka Nezvanov (a novel that remained unfinished because Dostoevski was arrested and confined in the Peter-and-Paul Fortress). In his Foreword and Commentary Kinbote mentions Dr. Oscar Nattochdag, a distinguished Zemblan scholar who was nicknamed Netochka by his colleagues:


Alas, my peace of mind was soon to be shattered. The thick venom of envy began squirting at me as soon as academic suburbia realized that John Shade valued my society above that of all other people. Your snicker, my dear Mrs. C., did not escape our notice as I was helping the tired old poet to find his galoshes after that dreary get-together party at your house. One day I happened to enter the English Literature office in quest of a magazine with the picture of the Royal Palace in Onhava, which I wanted my friend to see, when I overheard a young instructor in a green velvet jacket, whom I shall mercifully call Gerald Emerald, carelessly saying in answer to something the secretary had asked: "I guess Mr. Shade has already left with the Great Beaver." Of course I am quite tall, and my brown beard is of a rather rich tint and texture; the silly cognomen evidently applied to me, but was not worth noticing, and after calmly taking the magazine from a pamphlet-cluttered table, I contented myself on my way out with pulling Gerald Emerald's bow-tie loose with a deft jerk of my fingers as I passed by him. There was also the morning when Dr. Nattochdag, head of the department to which I was attached, begged me in a formal voice to be seated, then closed the door, and having regained, with a downcast frown, his swivel chair, urged me "to be more careful." In what sense, careful? A boy had complained to his adviser. Complained of what, good Lord? That I had criticized a literature course he attended ("a ridiculous survey of ridiculous works, conducted by a ridiculous mediocrity"). Laughing in sheer relief, I embraced my good Netochka, telling him I would never be naughty again. I take this opportunity to salute him. He always behaved with such exquisite courtesy toward me that I sometimes wondered if he did not suspect what Shade suspected, and what only three people (two trustees and the president of the college) definitely knew. (Foreword)


Natt och dag is Swedish for "night and day." Belye nochi ("The White Nights," 1848) is a novel by Dostoevski. Oscar Nattochdag is a namesake of Oscar Mertz, Zina Mertz's late father in "The Gift." In one of his poems addressed to Zina Mertz Fyodor mentions a star that sheds on Pulkovo (the site of a famous observatory near St. Petersburg) its beam:


Люби лишь то, что редкостно и мнимо, что крадется окраинами сна, что злит глупцов, что смердами казнимо; как родине, будь вымыслу верна. Наш час настал. Собаки и калеки одни не спят. Ночь летняя легка. Автомобиль, проехавший, навеки последнего увез ростовщика. Близ фонаря, с оттенком маскарада, лист жилками зелеными сквозит. У тех ворот – кривая тень Багдада, а та звезда над Пулковом висит. О, поклянись что…


Love only what is fanciful and rare; what from the distance of a dream steals through; what knaves condemn to death and fools can't bear. To fiction be as to your country true. Now is our time. Stray dogs and cripples are alone awake. Mild is the summer night. A car speeds by: Forever that last car has taken the last banker out of sight. Near that streetlight veined lime-leaves masquerade in chrysoprase with a translucent gleam. Beyond that gate lies Baghdad's crooked shade, and yon star sheds on Pulkovo its beam. Oh, swear to me- (Chapter Three)


In the same poem Fyodor calls Zina "half-Mnemosyne" and mentions a half-shimmer in her surname:


Как звать тебя? Ты полу-Мнемозина, полу-мерцанье в имени твоем, – и странно мне по сумраку Берлина с полувиденьем странствовать вдвоем. Но вот скамья под липой освещенной… Ты оживаешь в судорогах слез: я вижу взор сей жизнью изумленный и бледное сияние волос. Есть у меня сравненье на примете, для губ твоих, когда целуешь ты: нагорный снег, мерцающий в Тибете, горячий ключ и в инее цветы. Ночные наши, бедные владения, – забор, фонарь, асфальтовую гладь – поставим на туза воображения, чтоб целый мир у ночи отыграть! Не облака – а горные отроги; костер в лесу, – не лампа у окна… О поклянись, что до конца дороги ты будешь только вымыслу верна…


What shall I call you? Half-Mnemosyne? There's a half-shimmer in your surname too. In dark Berlin, it is so strange to me to roam, oh, my half-fantasy, with you. A bench stands under the translucent tree. Shivers and sobs reanimate you there, and all life's wonder in your gaze I see, and see the pale fair radiance of your hair. In honor of your lips when they kiss mine I might devise a metaphor some time: Tibetan mountain-snows, their glancing shine, and a hot spring near flowers touched with rime. Our poor nocturnal property-that wet asphaltic gloss, that fence and that street light-upon the ace of fancy let us set to win a world of beauty from the night. Those are not clouds-but star-high mountain spurs; not lamplit blinds-but camplight on a tent! O swear to me that while the heartblood stirs, you will be true to what we shall invent. (Chapter Three)


In his famous epigram (1824) on Count Vorontsov Pushkin calls Vorontsov polu-milord, polu-kupets (half-milord, half-merchant…):


Полу-милорд, полу-купец,
Полу-мудрец, полу-невежда,
Полу-подлец, но есть надежда,
Что будет полным наконец.


Half-milord, half-merchant,

Half-sage, half-ignoramus,

Half-scoundrel, but there's a hope

Thet he will be a full one at last. 


The "real" name of Hazel Shade (the poet's daughter who drowned in Lake Omega) seems to be Nadezhda Botkin. 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), Professor Vsevolod Botkin (an American scholar of Russian descent who went mad and became Shade, Kinbote and Gradus after the tragic death of his daughter Nadezhda), like Count Vorontsov, will be “full” again.


See also the expanded version of my previous post, “velkam ut Semblerland.”