According to Fyodor Konstantinovich Godunov-Cherdyntsev (the main character and narrator in VN’s novel Dar, “The Gift,” 1937), there is polu-mertsanie (a half-shimmer) in Zina Mertz’s 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 the same poem Fyodor mentions the star that sheds on Pulkovo (the site of a famous observatory) 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- (ibid.)


In his poem Sredi mirov (“Among the Worlds,” 1901) I. Annenski (Nik. T-o) mentions mertsanie svetil (the shimmer of luminaries) and odna Zvezda (one star) whose name the poet repeats:


Среди миров, в мерцании светил

Одной Звезды я повторяю имя.

Не потому, что б я её любил,

А потому, что мне темно с другими.


И если мне сомненье тяжело,

Я у неё одной ищу ответа,

Не потому, что от неё светло,

А потому, что с ней не надо света.


This poem was published posthumously in Annenski’s collection Kiparisovyi larets (“The Cypress Box,” 1910). By “cypress box” Annenski means the coffin. In Griboedov’s play in verse Gore ot uma (“Woe from Wit,” 1824) Famusov calls the coffin larchik (a diminutive of larets), and Chatski calls himself starover (Old Believer; conservative):


Пускай меня отъявят 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 it 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.

(Act Three, scene 22; transl. A. Vagapov)


In Canto Three of Pale Fire Shade mentions “the great Starover Blue,” an astronomer who was “nicknamed by the students Colonel Starbottle, evidently because of his exceptionally convivial habits” (Kinbote’s note to Line 627). In Griboedov’s play 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)


One wonders what was the reason of V. Botkin’s madness? His daughter’s suicide? In his Commentary Kinbote writes:


A beautiful variant, with one curious gap, branches off at this point in the draft (dated July 6):


                        Strange Other World where all our still-born dwell,
                        And pets, revived, and invalids, grown well,
                        And minds that died before arriving there:
                        Poor old man Swift, poor —-, poor Baudelaire


What might that dash stand for? Unless Shade gave prosodic value to the mute e in "Baudelaire," which I am quite he would never have done in English verse (cp. "Rabelais," line 501), the name required here must scan as a trochee. Among the names of celebrated poets, painters, philosophers, etc., known to have become insane or to have sunk into senile imbecility, we find many suitable ones. Was Shade confronted by too much variety with nothing to help logic choose and so left a blank, relying upon the mysterious organic force that rescues poets to fill it in at its own convenience? Or was there something else—some obscure intuition, some prophetic scruple that prevented him from spelling out the name of an eminent man who happened to be an intimate friend of his? Was he perhaps playing safe because a reader in his household might have objected to that particular name being mentioned? And if it comes to that, why mention it at all in this tragical context? Dark, disturbing thoughts. (note to Line 231)


Kinbote (who is not a poet) suspects that this dash stands for his name. Actually, it stands for Botkin (the real name of Shade, Kinbote and Gradus). Of course, Sybil Shade (or whatever her real name is) would have objected to her husband’s real name being mentioned in this tragical context. Incidentally, in “The Gift” Yasha Chernyshevski’s father goes mad after his son’s suicide. Poor Aleksandr Yakovlevich does not live to read Fyodor’s book on his famous namesake (in which Botkin is mentioned).


Kinbote arrives in America descending by parachute from a chartered plane (note to Line 691). In Griboedov’s play (Act I, scene 9) Famusov tells Chatski that he gryanul vdrug kak s oblakov (came suddenly, as if off the clouds). In VN’s Universitetskaya poema (“The University Poem,” 1927) the author upal iz russkikh oblakov (fell from Russian clouds) in an English University town (see my post of Aug. 20, 2015).


In VN‘s novel Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle (1969) Ada in her old age “amused herself by translating (for the Oranger editions en regard) Griboedov into French and English, Baudelaire into English and Russian, and John Shade into Russian and French” (5.4).


Alexey Sklyarenko

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