Casanovia, Kvirn & Venice in LATH

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Fri, 11/30/2018 - 08:25

Describing his affair with Dolly von Borg, Vadim Vadimovich (the narrator and main character in VN’s novel Look at the Harlequins!, 1974) mentions “Casanovia of all places:”


The increasing disarray of my nerves was such that the bother of getting a driver's license could not be contemplated: hence I had to rely on Dolly's use of Todd's dirty old sedan in order to seek the conventional darkness of country lanes that were difficult to find and disappointing when found. We had three such rendezvous, near New Swivington or thereabouts, in the complicated vicinity of Casanovia of all places, and despite my muddled condition I could not help noticing that Dolly welcomed the restless wanderings, the wrong turns, the torrents of rain which attended our sordid little  affair. "Just think," she said one especially boggy June night in unknown surroundings, "how much simpler things would be if somebody explained the situation to your wife, just think!" (3.3)


It seems that “Casanovia of all places” was inspired not only by Cazenovia, NY (as pointed out by Matt Roth in his post), but also by Casanova’s Memoirs. In 1861 Dostoevski published in Vremya (“Time,” a literary magazine of brothers Dostoevski) a chapter from Casanova’s Memoirs, Histoire de ma fuite des «Plombes» des Venise, in a Russian translation and with his own introduction. Vadim’s novel The Dare (1950) includes a concise biography and critical appraisal of Fyodor Dostoyevski. According to Vadim, Dostoevski’s novels are "absurd with their black-bearded killers presented as mere negatives of Jesus Christ's conventional image, and weepy whores borrowed from maudlin romances of an earlier age." (2.5)


In her farewell letter to Vadim Annette Blagovo (Vadim’s second wife) contemptuously transliterates Quirn (Vadim’s University that corresponds to VN’s Cornell) “Kvirn:”


We have never been very happy together, you and I, during our twelve3 years of marriage. You regarded me from the start as a cute, dutiful, but definitely disappointing little circus animal4 which you tried to teach immoral disgusting tricks--condemned as such according to the faithful companion without whom I might not have survived in ghastly"Kvirn"5 by the latest scientific stars of our fatherland. (3.4)


Kvirn seems to hint at Dostoevski’s story Skvernyi anekdot (A Disgraceful Affair, 1862). Its characters include Stepan Nikiforovich Nikiforov (Pralinski's former chief). A model of graceful little Amy in Vadim's novel Krasnyi Tsilindr (“The Red Top Hat,” 1934), Dolly von Borg is a granddaughter of Stepan Ivanovich Stepanov. Count Nikifor Nikodimovich Starov (Vadim’s benefactor) seems to be the real father not only of Vadim, but also of Vadim’s three successive wives (Iris Black, Annette Blagovo and Louise Adamson).


Quirn means "a mill for grinding grain, the upper stone of which is turned by hand." Dostoevski's first biographer was Orest Miller (1833-89). On the other hand, it is near Miller's, the confectioner's, that the hero and narrator of Dostoevski's novel Unizhennye i oskorblyonnye ("Humiliated and Insulted," 1861) meets Jeremy Smith and his dog Azorka:


Поровнявшись с кондитерской Миллера, я вдруг остановился как вкопанный и стал смотреть на ту сторону улицы, как будто предчувствуя, что вот сейчас со мной случится что-то необыкновенное, и в это-то самое мгновение на противоположной стороне я увидел старика и его собаку.

As I reached Miller’s, the confectioner’s, I suddenly stood stock-still and began staring at that side of the street, as though I had a presentiment that something extra-ordinary was just going to happen to me; and at that very instant I saw, on the opposite side of the street, the old man with his dog. (Part One, chapter 1)


И походка их и весь их вид чуть не проговаривали тогда с каждым шагом: Стары-то мы, стары, господи, как мы стары!

And their gait and their whole appearance seemed almost to cry aloud at every step: “We are old, old. Oh Lord, how old we are!” (ibid.)


The surname Starov comes from staryi (old). 


Describing his visit to Leningrad in the late 1960s, Vadim mentions Venice:


That sunset, with a triumph of bronze clouds and flamingo-pink meltings in the far-end archway of the Winter Canalet, might have been first seen in Venice. (5.2)


After Vadim’s return from the Soviet Russia, in the Orly airport, Oleg Orlov twice mentions Fyodor Mihaylovich (Dostoevski’s name-and-patronymic!) himslef:


"Ekh!" he exclaimed, "Ekh, Vadim Vadimovich dorogoy (dear), aren't you ashamed of deceiving our great warm-hearted country, our benevolent, credulous government, our overworked Intourist staff, in this nasty infantile  manner! A Russian writer! Snooping! Incognito! By the way, I am Oleg Igorevich Orlov, we met in Paris when we were young."

“What do you want, merzavetz (you scoundrel)?" I coldly inquired as he plopped into the chair on my left.

He raised both hands in the "see-I'm-unarmed" gesture: "Nothing, nothing. Except to ruffle (potormoshit') your conscience. Two courses presented themselves. We had to choose. Fyodor Mihaylovich [?] himself had to choose. Either to welcome you po amerikanski (the American way) with reporters, interviews, photographers, girls, garlands, and, naturally, Fyodor Mihaylovich himself [President of the Union of Writers? Head of the ‘Big House’?]; or else to ignore you--and that's what we did. By the way: forged passports may be fun in detective stories, but our people are  just not interested in passports. Aren't you sorry now?"

I made as if to move to another seat, but he made as if to accompany me there. So I stayed where I was, and feverishly grabbed something to read--that book in my coat pocket.
"Et ce n'est pas tout," he went on. "Instead of writing for us, your compatriots, you, a Russian writer of genius, betray them by concocting, for your paymasters, this (pointing with a dramatically quivering index at A Kingdom by the Sea in my hands), this obscene novelette about little Lola or
Lotte, whom some Austrian Jew or reformed pederast rapes after murdering her mother--no, excuse me--marrying mama first before murdering her--we like to legalize everything in the West, don't we, Vadim Vadimovich?"
Still restraining myself, though aware of the uncontrollable cloud of black fury growing within my brain, I said: "You are mistaken. You are a somber imbecile. The novel I wrote, the novel I'm holding now, is A Kingdom by the Sea. You are talking of some other book altogether."
"Vraiment? And maybe you visited Leningrad merely to chat with a lady in pink under the lilacs? Because, you know, you and your friends are
phenomenally naоve. The reason Mister (it rhymed with 'Easter' in his foul serpent-mouth) Vetrov was permitted to leave a certain labor camp in
Vadim--odd coincidence--so he might fetch his wife, is that he has been cured now of his mystical mania--cured by such nutcrackers, such shrinkers
as are absolutely unknown in the philosophy of your Western sharlatany. Oh yes, precious (dragotsennyy) Vadim Vadimovich--"
The swing I dealt old Oleg with the back of my left fist was of quite presentable power, especially if we remember--and I remembered it as I swung--that our combined ages made 140. (5.3)


In a Russian poem written soon after the publication of LATH VN mentions Venetsiya (Venice): 


Ах, угонят их в степь, Арлекинов моих,
В буераки, к чужим атаманам!
Геометрию их, Венецию их
Назовут шутовством и обманом.

Только ты, только ты всё дивилась вослед
Чёрным, синим, оранжевым ромбам...
"N" писатель недюжинный, сноб и атлет,
Наделённый огромным апломбом..."


(Ah, they will be despatched to the steppe, my Harlequins,

into gullies, to alien atamans!

Their geometry, their Venice

will be called buffoonery and deceit...)