shargar & Tessera Square in Pale Fire

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Thu, 10/21/2021 - 09:54

In his Commentary 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 Gradus’ puny ghost, shargar:


We all know those dreams in which something Stygian soaks through and Lethe leaks in the dreary terms of defective plumbing. Following this line, there is a false start preserved in the draft – and I hope the reader will feel something of the chill that ran down my long and supple spine when I discovered this variant:

Should the dead murderer try to embrace
His outraged victim whom he now must face?
Do objects have a soul? Or perish must
Alike great temples and Tanagra dust?

The last syllable of Tanagra and the first three letters of "dust" form the name of the murderer whose shargar (puny ghost) the radiant spirit of our poet was soon to face. "Simple chance!" the pedestrian reader may cry. But let him try to see, as I have tried to see, how many such combinations are possible and plausible. "Leningrad used to be Petrograd?" "A prig rad (obs. past tense of read) us?"

This variant is so prodigious that only scholarly discipline and a scrupulous regard for the truth prevented me from inserting it here, and deleting four lines elsewhere (for example, the weak lines 627-630) so as to preserve the length of the poem.

Shade composed these lines on Tuesday, July 14th. What was Gradus doing that day? Nothing. Combinational fate rests on its laurels. We saw him last on the late afternoon of July 10th when he returned from Lex to his hotel in Geneva, and there we left him.

For the next four days Gradus remained fretting in Geneva. The amusing paradox with these men of action is that they constantly have to endure long stretches of otiosity that they are unable to fill with anything, lacking as they do the resources of an adventurous mind. As many people of little culture, Gradus was a voracious reader of newspapers, pamphlets, chance leaflets and the multilingual literature that comes with nose drops and digestive tablets; but this summed up his concessions to intellectual curiosity, and since his eyesight was not too good, and the consumability of local news not unlimited, he had to rely a great deal on the torpor of sidewalk cafes and on the makeshift of sleep.

How much happier the wide-awake indolents, the monarchs among men, the rich monstrous brains deriving intense enjoyment and rapturous pangs from the balustrade of a terrace at nightfall, from the lights and the lake below, from the distant mountain shapes melting into the dark apricot of the afterglow, from the black conifers outlined against the pale ink of the zenith, and from the garnet and green flounces of the water along the silent, sad, forbidden shoreline. Oh my sweet Boscobel! And the tender and terrible memories, and the shame, and the glory, and the maddening intimation, and the star that no party member can ever reach.

On Wednesday morning, still without news, Gradus telegraphed headquarters saying that he thought it unwise to wait any longer and that he would be staying at Hotel Lazuli, Nice. (note to Line 596)


The word shargar (Shargar is the hero’s nickname) is explained in George MacDonald’s novel Robert Falconer (1868):


Robert went out into the thin drift, and again crossing the wide desolate-looking square, turned down an entry leading to a kind of court, which had once been inhabited by a well-to-do class of the townspeople, but had now fallen in estimation. Upon a stone at the door of what seemed an outhouse he discovered the object of his search.

'What are ye sittin' there for, Shargar?'

Shargar is a word of Gaelic origin, applied, with some sense of the ridiculous, to a thin, wasted, dried-up creature. In the present case it was the nickname by which the boy was known at school; and, indeed, where he was known at all. (Chapter IV “Shargar”)


Falconer brings to mind Falconet, a French sculptor (1716-91) who executed a colossal statue of Peter the First in bronze, known as the Bronze Horseman. In Pushkin’s poem Mednyi vsadnik (“The Bronze Horseman,” 1833) poor Eugene goes mad after the death of his beloved in the disastrous Neva flood of 1824 and is pursued by the ghost of the tsar's equestrian statue. Describing Shade’s murder by Gradus, Kinbote compares himself to a stone king on a stone charger in the Tessera Square of Onhava (the capital of Zembla):


One of the bullets that spared me struck him in the side and went through his heart. His presence behind me abruptly failing me caused me to lose my balance, and, simultaneously, to complete the farce of fate, my gardener's spade dealt gunman Jack from behind the hedge a tremendous blow on the pate, felling him and sending his weapon flying from his grasp. Our savior retrieved it and helped me to my feet. My coccyx and right wrist hurt badly but the poem was safe. John, though, lay prone on the ground, with a red spot on his white shirt. I still hoped he had not been killed. The madman sat on the porch step, dazedly nursing with bloody hands a bleeding head. Leaving the gardener to watch over him I hurried into the house and concealed the invaluable envelope under a heap of girls' galoshes, furred snowboots and white wellingtons heaped at the bottom of a closet, from which I exited as if it had been the end of the secret passage that had taken me all the way out of my enchanted castle and right from Zembla to this Arcady. I then dialed 11111 and returned with a glass of water to the scene of the carnage. The poor poet had now been turned over and lay with open dead eyes directed up at the sunny evening azure. The armed gardener and the battered killer were smoking side by side on the steps. The latter, either because he was in pain, or because he had decided to play a new role, ignored me as completely as if I were a stone king on a stone charger in the Tessera Square of Onhava; but the poem was safe.

The gardener took the glass of water I had placed near a flowerpot beside the porch steps and shared it with the killer, and then accompanied him to the basement toilet, and presently the police and the ambulance arrived, and the gunman gave his name as Jack Grey, no fixed abode, except the Institute for the Criminal Insane, ici, good dog, which of course should have been his permanent address all along, and which the police thought he had just escaped from.

"Come along, Jack, we'll put something on that head of yours," said a calm but purposeful cop stepping over the body, and then there was the awful moment when Dr. Sutton's daughter drove up with Sybil Shade. (note to Line 1000)


“A stone king on a stone charger in the Tessera Square of Onhava” seems to be a cross between Pushkin’s Kamennyi gost’ (“The Stone Guest”) and Mednyi vsadnik. It is supposed that Pushkin completed his little tragedy “The Stone Guest” on the morning before his fatal duel (Jan. 27, 1837) with d’Anthès. In his poem January 29th, 1837 (1837) Tyutchev calls d’Anthès tsareubiytsa (a regicide), summons peace onto the Poet’s shade and says that Russia’s heart, like first love, will never forget Pushkin. According to Kinbote, his name means in Zemblan “a king's destroyer:”


Professor Pardon now spoke to me: "I was under the impression that you were born in Russia, and that your name was a kind of anagram of Botkin or Botkine?"

Kinbote: "You are confusing me with some refugee from Nova Zembla" [sarcastically stressing the "Nova'"].

"Didn't you tell me, Charles, that kinbote means regicide in your language?" asked my dear Shade.

"Yes, a king's destroyer," I said (longing to explain that a king who sinks his identity in the mirror of exile is in a sense just that).

Shade [addressing the German visitor]: "Professor Kinbote is the author of a remarkable book on surnames. I believe [to me] there exists an English translation?"

"Oxford, 1956," I replied. (note to Line 894)


Sybil Shade (the poet's wife) and Queen Disa (the wife of Charles the Beloved) seem to be one and the same person (whose "real" name is Sofia Botkin, born Lastochkin). In Book VI of Virgil's Aeneid Aeneas inquires whether the Cumaean Sibyl can gain him entrance to Dis (the underworld), so that he might visit his father's spirit. In Book VII of the Aeneid Virgil mentions tessera (a square tablet; a ticket inscribed with the watchword; the watchword or password):


classica iamque sonant, it bello tessera signum;

hic galeam tectis trepidus rapit, ille trementisad

iuga cogit equos, clipeumque auroque trilicem

loricam induitur fidoque accingitur ense. (ll. 637-640)


And now the clarion sounds; the password goes forth, the sign for war.

One in wild haste snatches a helmet from his home;

another harnesses his quivering steeds to the yoke,

dons his shield and coat of mail, triple-linked with gold, and girds on his trusty sword.


In Eugene Onegin (One: VI: 7-8) Pushkin says that Onegin remembered, though not without fault, two lines from the Aeneid:


Латынь из моды вышла ныне:
Так, если правду вам сказать,
Он знал довольно по-латыне,
Чтоб эпиграфы разбирать,
Потолковать об Ювенале,
В конце письма поставить vale,
Да помнил, хоть не без греха,
Из Энеиды два стиха.
Он рыться не имел охоты
В хронологической пыли
Бытописания земли;
Но дней минувших анекдоты,
От Ромула до наших дней,
Хранил он в памяти своей.


Latin has gone at present out of fashion;

still, to tell you the truth,

he had enough knowledge of Latin

to make out epigraphs,

expatiate on Juvenal,

put at the bottom of a letter vale,

and he remembered, though not without fault,

two lines from the Aeneid.

He had no inclination

to rummage in the chronological

dust of the earth's historiography,

but anecdotes of days gone by,

from Romulus to our days,

he did keep in his memory.


According to VN (EO Commentary, vol. II, p. 53), one of those lines could be “una salus victis, sperare nullam salutem” – “Le seul salute des vaincus est de n’attendre aucun salut” (Aeneid, II, 354, with a comfortable French position for nullam after, instead of before, sperare). Virgil is Dante’s guide in Dante’s Divine Comedy. The inscription at the gate of hell in its first part, Inferno, is “All hope abandon ye who enter here.” In the first line of his Sonet (“A Sonnet,” 1830) Pushkin mentions Dante:


Scorn not the sonnet, critic.



Суровый Дант не презирал сонета;
В нём жар любви Петрарка изливал;
Игру его любил творец Макбета;
Им скорбну мысль Камоэнс облекал.

И в наши дни пленяет он поэта:
Вордсворт его орудием избрал,
Когда вдали от суетного света
Природы он рисует идеал.

Под сенью гор Тавриды отдаленной
Певец Литвы в размер его стесненный
Свои мечты мгновенно заключал.

У нас ещё его не знали девы,
Как для него уж Дельвиг забывал
Гекзаметра священные напевы.


Scorn not the sonnet, critic.



Stern Dante did not despise the sonnet;

Into it Petrarch poured out the ardor of love;

Its play the creator of Macbeth loved;

With it Camoes clothed his sorrowful thought.


Even in our days it captivates the poet:

Wordsworth chose it as an instrument,

When far from the vain world

He depicts nature's ideal.


Under the shadow of the mountains of distant Tavrida

The bard of Lithuania in its constrained measure

His dreams he in an instant enclosed.


Here the maidens did not yet know it,

When for it even Delvig forgot

The sacred melodies of the hexameter.

(tr. Ober)


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 (who uses the word gradus, “degree,” twice in a letter of Oct. 31, 1838, to his brother Mikhail) and a poem (1904) by Nik. T-o (“Mr. Nobody,” I. Annenski’s penname). In his essay O poezii Innokentiya Annenskogo (“On the Poetry of Innokentiy Annenski,” 1910) included in his book Borozdy i mezhi (“Furrows and Boundaries,” 1916) Vyacheslav Ivanov says that it is zhalost’ (pity) that makes Annenski, this half-Frenchman, half-Hellene of the period of decline, a profoundly Russian poet:


Естественным результатом этого обращения к тюремному мученичеству своего или чужого я является в возможности, как последнее слово лирического порыва, целая гамма отрицательных эмоций — отчаяния, ропота, уныния, горького скепсиса, жалости к себе и своему соседу по одиночной камере. В поэзии Анненского из этой гаммы настойчиво слышится повсюду нота жалости. И именно жалость, как неизменная стихия всей лирики и всего жизнечувствия, [делает] этого полу-француза, полу-эллина времен упадка, — глубоко русским поэтом, как бы вновь приобщает его нашим родным христианским корням. Подобно античным скептикам, он сомневался во всем, кроме одного: реальности испытываемого страдания. Отсюда — mens pagana, anima christiana. И кто так, как он, думал о дочери Иаира, поистине должен был знать сердцем Христа. (I)


Polu-frantsuz, polu-ellin (“a half-Frenchman, half-Hellene,” as V. Ivanov calls Annenski) brings to mind polurusskiy sosed (a half-Russian neighbor), as in Eugene Onegin (Two: XII: 1-5) Pushkin calls Lenski:


Богат, хорош собою, Ленской
Везде был принят как жених;
Таков обычай деревенской;
Все дочек прочили своих
За полурусского соседа:


Wealthy, good-looking, Lenski
was as a suitor everywhere received:
such is the country custom;
all for their daughters planned a match
with the half-Russian neighbor.


According to Kinbote, in a theological dispute with him Shade said that the password was Pity:


We happened to start speaking of the general present-day nebulation of the notion of "sin," of its confusion with the much more carnally colored ideal of "crime," and I alluded briefly to my childhood contacts with certain rituals of our church. Confession with us is auricular and is conducted in a richly ornamented recess, the confessionist holding a lighted taper and standing with it beside the priest's high-backed seat which is shaped almost exactly as the coronation chair of a Scottish king. Little polite boy that I was, I always feared to stain his purple-black sleeve with the scalding tears of wax that kept dripping onto my knuckles, forming there tight little crusts, and I was fascinated by the illumed concavity of his ear resembling a seashell or a glossy orchid, a convoluted receptacle that seemed much too large for the disposal of my peccadilloes.

SHADE: All the seven deadly sins are peccadilloes but without three of them, Pride, Lust and Sloth, poetry might never have been born.

KINBOTE: Is it fair to base objections upon obsolete terminology?

SHADE: All religions are based upon obsolete terminology.

KINBOTE: What we term Original Sin can never grow obsolete.

SHADE: I know nothing about that. In fact when I was small I thought it meant Cain killing Abel. Personally, I am with the old snuff-takers: L'homme est né bon.

KINBOTE: Yet disobeying the Divine Will is a fundamental definition of Sin.

SHADE: I cannot disobey something which I do not know and the reality of which I have the right to deny.

KINBOTE: Tut-tut. Do you also deny that there are sins?

SHADE: I can name only two: murder, and the deliberate infliction of pain.

KINBOTE: Then a man spending his life in absolute solitude could not be a sinner?

SHADE: He could torture animals. He could poison the springs on his island. He could denounce an innocent man in a posthumous manifesto.

KINBOTE: And so the password is – ?

SHADE: Pity.

KINBOTE: But who instilled it in us, John? Who is the Judge of life, and the Designer of death?

SHADE: Life is a great surprise. I do not see why death should not be an even greater one.

KINBOTE: Now I have caught you, John: once we deny a Higher Intelligence that plans and administrates our individual hereafters we are bound to accept the unspeakably dreadful notion of Chance reaching into eternity. Consider the situation, Throughout eternity our poor ghosts are exposed to nameless vicissitudes. There is no appeal, no advice, no support, no protection, nothing. Poor Kinbote's ghost, poor Shade's shade, may have blundered, may have taken the wrong turn somewhere - oh, from sheer absent-mindedness, or simply through ignorance of a trivial rule in the preposterous game of nature - if there be any rules.

SHADE: There are rules in chess problems: interdiction of dual solutions, for instance.

KINBOTE: I had in mind diabolical rules likely to be broken by the other party as soon as we come to understand them. That is why goetic magic does not always work. The demons in their prismatic malice betray the agreement between us and them, and we are again in the chaos of chance. Even if we temper Chance with Necessity and allow godless determinism, the mechanism of cause and effect, to provide our souls after death with the dubious solace of metastatistics, we still have to reckon with the individual mishap, the thousand and second highway accident of those scheduled for independence Day in Hades. No-no, if we want to be serious about the hereafter let us not begin by degrading it to the level of a science-fiction yarn or a spiritualistic case history. The ideal of one's soul plunging into limitless and chaotic afterlife with no Providence to direct her –

SHADE: There is always a psychopompos around the corner, isn't there?

KINBOTE: Not around that corner, John. With no Providence the soul must rely on the dust of its husk, on the experience gathered in the course of corporeal confinement, and cling childishly to small-town principles, local by-laws and a personality consisting mainly of the shadows of its own prison bars. Such an idea is not to be entertained one instant by the religious mind. How much more intelligent it is - even from a proud infidel's point of view! - to accept God's Presence - a faint phosphorescence at first, a pale light in the dimness of bodily life, and a dazzling radiance after it? I too, I too, my dear John, have been assailed in my time by religious doubts. The church helped me to fight them off. It also helped me not to ask too much, not to demand too clear an image of what is unimaginable. St. Augustine said –

SHADE: Why must one always quote St. Augustine to me?

KINBOTE: As St. Augustine said, "One can know what God is not; one cannot know what He is." I think I know what He is not: He is not despair, He is not terror, He is not the earth in one's rattling throat, not the black hum in one's ears fading to nothing in nothing. I know also that the world could not have occurred fortuitously and that somehow Mind is involved as a main factor in the making of the universe. In trying to find the right name for that Universal Mind, or First Cause, or the Absolute, or Nature, I submit that the Name of God has priority. (note to Line 549)


In his essay Zemlya vo rtu (“The Earth in the Mouth,” 1906) Merezhkovski (the author of "The Antichrist. Peter and Alexey," 1905) compares Russia to Abel and Europe, to Cain:


В маленьком недавнем случае со смертной казнью испанского анархиста Феррера выразился этот мистический рубеж между русским Авелем и европейским Каином. На одном конце Европы кого-то повесили -- и вся она как один человек содрогнулась от гнева и ужаса. А чего бы, казалось? На другом конце -- сколько вешают! Но ей до этого дела нет. Эскимосы едят сырое мясо, а русские вешают.
Однажды Европе почудилось, что и нам сырое мясо опротивело: Каин подошел к Авелю с братским приветом. Но это оказалось недоразумением -- и Каин вновь отшатнулся от Авеля: живите-де по-своему, -- во Христе нисходите, умирайте, убивайте друг друга; мы не судим вас, -- только и вы не мешайте нам жить по-нашему, по-окаянному.
И вот они летят, а мы сидим в луже, утешаясь тем, что это вовсе не лужа, а "русская идея".
Св. Христофор не узнал младенца Христа, которого нёс на плечах. Не так же ли Россия, слепой великан, не видит, кого несёт, -- только изнемогает под страшной тяжестью, вот-вот упадёт раздавленная? Не видит Россия, кто сидит у неё на плечах, -- младенец Христос или щенок антихристов. (VI)


Luzha (the puddle) to which Merezhkovski compares the Russian idea brings to mind the puddles in the basement (when something Stygian soaks through and Lethe leaks in the dreary terms of defective plumbing) mentioned by Shade in Canto Three of his poem:


For as we know from dreams it is so hard

To speak to our dear dead! They disregard

Our apprehension, queaziness and shame -

The awful sense that they're not quite the same.

And our school chum killed in a distant war

Is not surprised to see us at his door.

And in a blend of jauntiness and gloom

Points at the puddles in his basement room. (ll. 589-596)


In his essay Merezhkovski asks:


Что если русская идея -- русское безумие?
What if the Russian idea is the Russian madness? (VII)


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). In his poem Nadezhda ("Hope," 1894) Merezhkovski compares Hope to izgnannaya doch’ velikogo tsarya (“the expelled daughter of a great king”):


Ты в рубище зимой встречалась мне порою
На снежных улицах, в мерцанье фонаря;
Как изгнанная дочь великого царя,
С очами гордыми, с протянутой рукою.


In his essay Pushkin (1896) Merezhkovski mentions neyasnyi shyopot Sibilly (the unclear whisper of the Sybil) in Baratynski's verses and quotes Pushkin's poem Ne day mne Bog soyti s uma... ("The Lord Forbid my Going Mad…" 1833):


Наконец сомнения в благах западной культуры - неясный шёпот сибиллы у Баратынского - Лев Толстой превратил в громовый воинственный клич; любовь к природе Лермонтова, его песни о безучастной красоте моря и неба - в "четыре упряжки", в полевую работу; христианство Достоевского и Гоголя, далекое от действительной жизни, священный огонь, пожиравший их сердца, - в страшный циклопический молот, направленный против главных устоев современного общества. Но всего замечательнее, что это русское возвращение к природе - русский бунт против культуры, первый выразил Пушкин, величайший гений культуры среди наших писателей:


Когда б оставили меня
На воле, как бы резво я
Пустился в тёмный лес!

Я пел бы в пламенном бреду,
Я забывался бы в чаду
Нестройных, чудных грез,

И силен, волен был бы я,
Как вихорь, роющий поля,
Ломающий леса.

И я б заслушивался волн,
И я глядел бы, счастья полн,
В пустые небеса.


Pustye nebesa (empty skies) bring to mind Onhava, the capital of Zembla whose name seems to hint at heaven.