history & Karamzin in Ada

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Wed, 07/14/2021 - 10:06

During Van’s first tea party at Ardis Marina (in VN’s novel Ada, 1969, Van’s, Ada’s and Marina’s mother) says that, as a girl, she used to love history:


They now had tea in a prettily furnished corner of the otherwise very austere central hall from which rose the grand staircase. They sat on chairs upholstered in silk around a pretty table. Ada’s black jacket and a pink-yellow-blue nosegay she had composed of anemones, celandines and columbines lay on a stool of oak. The dog got more bits of cake than it did ordinarily. Price, the mournful old footman who brought the cream for the strawberries, resembled Van’s teacher of history, ‘Jeejee’ Jones.

‘He resembles my teacher of history,’ said Van when the man had gone.

‘I used to love history,’ said Marina, ‘I loved to identify myself with famous women. There’s a ladybird on your plate, Ivan. Especially with famous beauties — Lincoln’s second wife or Queen Josephine.’

‘Yes, I’ve noticed — it’s beautifully done. We’ve got a similar set at home.’

‘Slivok (some cream)? I hope you speak Russian?’ Marina asked Van, as she poured him a cup of tea.

‘Neohotno no sovershenno svobodno (reluctantly but quite fluently),’ replied Van, slegka ulïbnuvshis’ (with a slight smile). ‘Yes, lots of cream and three lumps of sugar.’

‘Ada and I share your extravagant tastes. Dostoevski liked it with raspberry syrup.’

‘Pah,’ uttered Ada. (1.5)


Darkbloom ('Notes to Ada'): with a slight smile: a pet formula of Tolstoy’s denoting cool superiority, if not smugness, in a character’s manner of speech.


In Dusha Tolstogo (“The Soul of Tolstoy,” 1927) Ivan Nazhivin quotes the words of Tolstoy’s fellow student at the Kazan University with whom Tolstoy was locked up in the dark University cell for the skipping of a lecture in history. “Having noticed that I am reading Lermontov’s “The Demon,” Tolstoy spoke ironically about verses in general and then, turning to Karamzin’s “History” that lay beside me, said that history was the most boring and nearly useless subject:


"Заметив, что я читаю "Демона" Лермонтова, Толстой иронически отнесся к стихам вообще, а потом, обратившись к лежавшей возле меня истории Карамзина, напустился на историю, как на самый скучный и чуть ли не бесполезный предмет. "История, - рубил он с плеча, - это не что иное, как собрание басен и бесполезных мелочей, пересыпанных массой ненужных цифр и собственных имен. Смерть Игоря, змея, ужалившая Олега, - что же это как не сказки, и кому нужно знать, что второй брак Иоанна на дочери Темрюка совершился 21 августа 1562 года, а четвертый, на Анне Алексеевне Колтовской, в 1572 году, а ведь от меня требуют, чтобы я задолбил все это, а не знаю, так ставят единицу. А как пишется история? Все пригоняется к известной мерке, измышленной историком. Грозный царь, о котором в настоящее время читает профессор Иванов, вдруг с 1560 года из добродетельного и мудрого превращается в бессмысленного и свирепого тирана. Как и почему, об этом не спрашивайте..." (Chapter Three)


Vtoroy brak Ioanna (the second marriage of Ivan) and Groznyi tsar' (the terrible tsar) bring to mind nurse Joan the Terrible mentioned by Aqua (Marina's poor mad twin sister) in her suicide note:


Aujourd’hui (heute-toity!) I, this eye-rolling toy, have earned the psykitsch right to enjoy a landparty with Herr Doktor Sig, Nurse Joan the Terrible, and several ‘patients,’ in the neighboring bar (piney wood) where I noticed exactly the same skunk-like squirrels, Van, that your Darkblue ancestor imported to Ardis Park, where you will ramble one day, no doubt. The hands of a clock, even when out of order, must know and let the dumbest little watch know where they stand, otherwise neither is a dial but only a white face with a trick mustache. Similarly, chelovek (human being) must know where he stands and let others know, otherwise he is not even a klok (piece) of a chelovek, neither a he, nor she, but ‘a tit of it’ as poor Ruby, my little Van, used to say of her scanty right breast. I, poor Princesse Lointaine, très lointaine by now, do not know where I stand. Hence I must fall. So adieu, my dear, dear son, and farewell, poor Demon, I do not know the date or the season, but it is a reasonably, and no doubt seasonably, fair day, with a lot of cute little ants queuing to get at my pretty pills.

[Signed] My sister’s sister who teper’

iz ada (‘now is out of hell’) (1.3)


It seems that Aqua went mad, because she was poisoned by Marina. According to Nazhivin, there were rumors that Tolstoy's father (who walked along the street in Tula and suddenly died when his son Leo was nine years old) was poisoned by his valet:


Его мать умерла, когда ему было полтора года, а отец, когда ему исполнилось девять лет: он шел в Туле по улице и вдруг скончался. Одни говорили, что он умер от удара, а другие, что его отравил его камердинер, так как все наличные деньги его пропали, а именные бумаги, которые были при нем, потом принесла Толстым в Москве какая-то таинственная нищенка. Впоследствии Толстой рассказывал, что смерть отца впервые вызвала в нем чувство религиозного ужаса пред тайной жизни и смерти. Он как-то не верил в смерть и все надеялся среди московской сутолоки на улицах - они переехали в Москву ради образования детей - встретить отца живым. И это чувство неверия в смерть - для него чрезвычайно характерное: ни в ком, кажется, жизнь не била с такой силой, как в нем, - вызывало в нем чувство умиления. (Chapter II)


Describing his childhood travels, Van pairs Karamzin with Count Tolstoy:


After that, they tried to settle whether their ways had merged somewhere or run closely parallel for a bit that year in Europe. In the spring of 1881, Van, aged eleven, spent a few months with his Russian tutor and English valet at his grandmother’s villa near Nice, while Demon was having a much better time in Cuba than Dan was at Mocuba. In June, Van was taken to Florence, and Rome, and Capri, where his father turned up for a brief spell. They parted again, Demon sailing back to America, and Van with his tutor going first to Gardone on Lake Garda, where Aksakov reverently pointed out Goethe’s and d’Annunzio’s marble footprints, and then staying for a while in autumn at a hotel on a mountain slope above Leman Lake (where Karamzin and Count Tolstoy had roamed). Did Marina suspect that Van was somewhere in the same general area as she throughout 1881? Probably no. Both girls had scarlet fever in Cannes, while Marina was in Spain with her Grandee. After carefully matching memories, Van and Ada concluded that it was not impossible that somewhere along a winding Riviera road they passed each other in rented victorias that both remembered were green, with green-harnessed horses, or perhaps in two different trains, going perhaps the same way, the little girl at the window of one sleeping car looking at the brown sleeper of a parallel train which gradually diverged toward sparkling stretches of sea that the little boy could see on the other side of the tracks. The contingency was too mild to be romantic, nor did the possibility of their having walked or run past each other on the quay of a Swiss town afford any concrete thrill. But as Van casually directed the searchlight of backthought into that maze of the past where the mirror-lined narrow paths not only took different turns, but used different levels (as a mule-drawn cart passes under the arch of a viaduct along which a motor skims by), he found himself tackling, in still vague and idle fashion, the science that was to obsess his mature years — problems of space and time, space versus time, time-twisted space, space as time, time as space — and space breaking away from time, in the final tragic triumph of human cogitation: I am because I die. (1.24)


Van and Ada are the children of Demon Veen. As a boy of ten, Van puzzles out the exaggerated but, on the whole, complimentary allusions to his father’s volitations and loves in another life in Lermontov’s diamond-faceted tetrameters:


The year 1880 (Aqua was still alive — somehow, somewhere!) was to prove to be the most retentive and talented one in his long, too long, never too long life. He was ten. His father had lingered in the West where the many-colored mountains acted upon Van as they had on all young Russians of genius. He could solve an Euler-type problem or learn by heart Pushkin’s ‘Headless Horseman’ poem in less than twenty minutes. With white-bloused, enthusiastically sweating Andrey Andreevich, he lolled for hours in the violet shade of pink cliffs, studying major and minor Russian writers — and puzzling out the exaggerated but, on the whole, complimentary allusions to his father’s volitations and loves in another life in Lermontov’s diamond-faceted tetrameters. He struggled to keep back his tears, while AAA blew his fat red nose, when shown the peasant-bare footprint of Tolstoy preserved in the clay of a motor court in Utah where he had written the tale of Murat, the Navajo chieftain, a French general’s bastard, shot by Cora Day in his swimming pool. What a soprano Cora had been! Demon took Van to the world-famous Opera House in Telluride in West Colorado and there he enjoyed (and sometimes detested) the greatest international shows — English blank-verse plays, French tragedies in rhymed couplets, thunderous German musical dramas with giants and magicians and a defecating white horse. He passed through various little passions — parlor magic, chess, fluff-weight boxing matches at fairs, stunt-riding — and of course those unforgettable, much too early initiations when his lovely young English governess expertly petted him between milkshake and bed, she, petticoated, petititted, half-dressed for some party with her sister and Demon and Demon’s casino-touring companion, bodyguard and guardian angel, monitor and adviser, Mr Plunkett, a reformed card-sharper. (1.28)


Darkbloom ('Notes to Ada'): The Headless Horseman: Mayn Reid’s title is ascribed here to Pushkin, author of The Bronze Horseman.

Lermontov: author of The Demon.

Tolstoy etc.: Tolstoy’s hero, Haji Murad, (a Caucasian chieftain) is blended here with General Murat, Napoleon’s brother-in-law, and with the French revolutionary leader Marat assassinated in his bath by Charlotte Corday.


The year 1880 was the hardest year in the life of Ivan Ilyich Golovin, the main character in Tolstoy’s story Smert’ Ivana Ilyicha (“The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” 1886).


In the same chapter of Ada Van mentions his University for the first time:


In 1885, having completed his prep-school education, he went up to Chose University in England, where his fathers had gone, and traveled from time to time to London or Lute (as prosperous but not overrefined British colonials called that lovely pearl-gray sad city on the other side of the Channel). (1.28)


Darkbloom ('Notes to Ada'): Lute: from ‘Lutèce’, ancient name of Paris.

Old Paar of Chose (Van’s University Professor whose name suggests “old pair of shoes”) brings to mind the peasant-bare footprint of Tolstoy.


Demon Veen has a not very high opinion of Tolstoy ("naughty old Leo"):


‘I don’t know if you know,’ said Van, resuming his perch on the fat arm of his father’s chair. ‘Uncle Dan will be here with the lawyer and Lucette only after dinner.’

‘Capital,’ said Demon.

‘Marina and Ada should be down in a minute — ce sera un dîner à quatre.’

‘Capital,’ he repeated. ‘You look splendid, my dear, dear fellow — and I don’t have to exaggerate compliments as some do in regard to an aging man with shoe-shined hair. Your dinner jacket is very nice — or, rather it’s very nice recognizing one’s old tailor in one’s son’s clothes — like catching oneself repeating an ancestral mannerism — for example, this (wagging his left forefinger three times at the height of his temple), which my mother did in casual, pacific denial; that gene missed you, but I’ve seen it in my hairdresser’s looking-glass when refusing to have him put Crêmlin on my bald spot; and you know who had it too — my aunt Kitty, who married the Banker Bolenski after divorcing that dreadful old wencher Lyovka Tolstoy, the writer.’

Demon preferred Walter Scott to Dickens, and did not think highly of Russian novelists. As usual, Van considered it fit to make a corrective comment:

‘A fantastically artistic writer, Dad.’

‘You are a fantastically charming boy,’ said Demon, shedding another sweet-water tear. He pressed to his cheek Van’s strong shapely hand. Van kissed his father’s hairy fist which was already holding a not yet visible glass of liquor. Despite the manly impact of their Irishness, all Veens who had Russian blood revealed much tenderness in ritual overflows of affection while remaining somewhat inept in its verbal expression. (1.38)


Nazhivin points out that Tolstoy did not finish the University:


И для Толстого все эти рассуждения не были праздным кипением, мысли пленной раздражением, как это часто бывает у русских людей: эти мысли всплывут многие годы спустя в его проповеди. И мало того: и в карцере-то он сидел за непосещение лекции истории. А весной 1847 года, разочаровавшись в университетской науке окончательно, он подал прошение об увольнении его из университета и, когда славная речка Казанка гуляла по полям и лесам, студенты шумно проводили своего буйного товарища в неизвестное. И все, что напоминает теперь о пребывании Толстого в Казанском университете, это надпись, нацарапанная ножом или гвоздем на стене одной из аудиторий: "граф Лев Николаевич Толстой... (Chapter III)


In her letter to Van (written a month before Demon's death in an airplane disaster) Ada (now married to Andrey Vinelander) says that her sister-in-law, Dorothy Vinelander, finished Chose where she read History:


He greeted the dawn of a placid and prosperous century (more than half of which Ada and I have now seen) with the beginning of his second philosophic fable, a ‘denunciation of space’ (never to be completed, but forming in rear vision, a preface to his Texture of Time). Part of that treatise, a rather mannered affair, but nasty and sound, appeared in the first issue (January, 1904) of a now famous American monthly, The Artisan, and a comment on the excerpt is preserved in one of the tragically formal letters (all destroyed save this one) that his sister sent him by public post now and then. Somehow, after the interchange occasioned by Lucette’s death such nonclandestine correspondence had been established with the tacit sanction of Demon:


And o’er the summits of the Tacit

He, banned from Paradise, flew on:

Beneath him, like a brilliant’s facet,

Mount Peck with snows eternal shone.


It would seem indeed that continued ignorance of each other’s existence might have looked more suspicious than the following sort of note:


Agavia Ranch

February 5, 1905

I have just read Reflections in Sidra, by Ivan Veen, and I regard it as a grand piece, dear Professor. The ‘lost shafts of destiny’ and other poetical touches reminded me of the two or three times you had tea and muffins at our place in the country about twenty years ago. I was, you remember (presumptuous phrase!), a petite fille modèle practicing archery near a vase and a parapet and you were a shy schoolboy (with whom, as my mother guessed, I may have been a wee bit in love!), who dutifully picked up the arrows I lost in the lost shrubbery of the lost castle of poor Lucette’s and happy, happy Adette’s childhood, now a ‘Home for Blind Blacks’ — both my mother and L., I’m sure, would have backed Dasha’s advice to turn it over to her Sect. Dasha, my sister-in-law (you must meet her soon, yes, yes, yes, she’s dreamy and lovely, and lots more intelligent than I), who showed me your piece, asks me to add she hopes to ‘renew’ your acquaintance — maybe in Switzerland, at the Bellevue in Mont Roux, in October. I think you once met pretty Miss ‘Kim’ Blackrent, well, that’s exactly dear Dasha’s type. She is very good at perceiving and pursuing originality and all kinds of studies which I can’t even name! She finished Chose (where she read History — our Lucette used to call it ‘Sale Histoire,’ so sad and funny!). For her you’re le beau ténébreux, because once upon a time, once upon libellula wings, not long before my marriage, she attended — I mean at that time, I’m stuck in my ‘turnstyle’ — one of your public lectures on dreams, after which she went up to you with her latest little nightmare all typed out and neatly clipped together, and you scowled darkly and refused to take it. Well, she’s been after Uncle Dementiy to have him admonish le beau ténébreux to come to Mont Roux Bellevue Hotel, in October, around the seventeenth, I guess, and he only laughs and says it’s up to Dashenka and me to arrange matters.

So ‘congs’ again, dear Ivan! You are, we both think, a marvelous, inimitable artist who should also ‘only laugh,’ if cretinic critics, especially lower-upper-middle-class Englishmen, accuse his turnstyle of being ‘coy’ and ‘arch,’ much as an American farmer finds the parson ‘peculiar’ because he knows Greek.


Dushevno klanyayus’ (‘am souledly bowing’, an incorrect and vulgar construction evoking the image of a ‘bowing soul’) nashemu zaochno dorogomu professoru (‘to our "unsight-unseen" dear professor’), o kotorom mnogo slïshal (about whom have heard much) ot dobrago Dementiya Dedalovicha i sestritsï (from good Demon and my sister).

S uvazheniem (with respect),

Andrey Vaynlender (3.7)


Dorothy Vinelander marries an archeologist:


So she did write as she had promised? Oh, yes, yes! In seventeen years he received from her around a hundred brief notes, each containing around one hundred words, making around thirty printed pages of insignificant stuff — mainly about her husband’s health and the local fauna. After helping her to nurse Andrey at Agavia Ranch through a couple of acrimonious years (she begrudged Ada every poor little hour devoted to collecting, mounting, and rearing!), and then taking exception to Ada’s choosing the famous and excellent Grotonovich Clinic (for her husband’s endless periods of treatment) instead of Princess Alashin’s select sanatorium, Dorothy Vinelander retired to a subarctic monastery town (Ilemna, now Novostabia) where eventually she married a Mr Brod or Bred, tender and passionate, dark and handsome, who traveled in eucharistials and other sacramental objects throughout the Severnïya Territorii and who subsequently was to direct, and still may be directing half a century later, archeological reconstructions at Goreloe (the ‘Lyaskan Herculanum’); what treasures he dug up in matrimony is another question. (3.8)


In his book on Tolstoy Nazhivin mentions Tolstoy's visit of Naples in 1861 (soon after the death of his brother Nikolay) and says that the antiquities and graves of Italy must have made a big impression on Tolstoy (because the death of even the closest relative is not the same as the death of nations, the whole epochs, gods):


Эта напряженная духовная работа его была скрыта от постороннего глаза глубоко в душе, и сила жизни, ее обманов, ее чар в нем была так велика, что даже смерть близкого человека не могла убить ее. И, постепенно отходя от того оцепенения, в которое погрузило его зрелище страданий и смерти любимого брата, он бродит один по живописным окрестностям, занимается с детьми сестры, поднимается с ними в развалины старого замка, где по мертвым камням цветет барвинок, и поражает общество всякими эксцентрическими выходками - вроде появления на вечере одной княгини в деревянных сабо. Он не раз посещает Марсель, чтобы ознакомиться с постановкой дела в его школах, а потом едет в Женеву, во Флоренцию, в Рим, в Неаполь и снова чрез Марсель возвращается в Париж. К большому сожалению, в опубликованных о Толстом биографических материалах я не нашел ни малейшего указания на его итальянские впечатления. Древности и могилы Италии должны были произвести на него большое впечатление: смерть даже самого близкого человека это все же совсем не то, что смерть народов, целых эпох, богов... (Chapter X)


Tolstoy spent nine months (a timespan equal to human gestation) abroad and returned to Russia in spring, 1861, soon after the Emancipation Manifesto:


Из Брюсселя, после свидания с Прудоном, Толстой проехал в Веймар, где был представлен великому герцогу: как пчела, он брал взяточку с каждого цветочка, который встречался ему на путях жизни. В Веймаре он осмотрел закрытое тогда для простых смертных жилище Гёте, в Дрездене снова повидался с Ауэрбахом, в Готе осматривал фрёбелевские сады, везде очень интересовался школами и, наконец, весной 1861 г., после девятимесячного отсутствия, переехал русскую границу.

В России тем временем совершилось дело огромного исторического значения: 19 февраля Александром II было уничтожено на Руси крепостное право. Культурные и передовые круги ликовали шумно, но всегда верный себе, недоверчивый Толстой внутренне сопротивлялся этим - как он выражался - эпидемическим увлечениям и пошел, как всегда, своим особым путем...