Describing his success as Mascodagama (Van’s stage name under which he performs in variety shows dancing a jig and a tango on his hands), Van Veen (the narrator and main character in VN’s novel Ada, 1969) mentions the Ladore, Ladoga, Laguna, Lugano and Luga papers:
Mascodagama’s fame reached inevitably the backwoods of America: a photograph of him, masked, it is true, but unable to mislead a fond relative or faithful retainer, was reproduced by the Ladore, Ladoga, Laguna, Lugano and Luga papers in the first week of 1888; but the accompanying reportage was not. The work of a poet, and only a poet (‘especially of the Black Belfry group,’ as some wit said), could have adequately described a certain macabre quiver that marked Van’s extraordinary act. (1.30)
Later we learn the name of the Lugano paper:
The three of them cuddled and cosseted so frequently and so thoroughly that at last one afternoon on the long-suffering black divan he and Ada could no longer restrain their amorous excitement, and under the absurd pretext of a hide-and-seek game they locked up Lucette in a closet used for storing bound volumes of The Kaluga Waters and The Lugano Sun, and frantically made love, while the child knocked and called and kicked until the key fell out and the keyhole turned an angry green. (1.34)
Solntse i more ("The Sun and the Sea," 1910) is a poem by Igor Severyanin. In his sonnet Conan Doyle (1926) Severyanin says that the author of Sherlock Holmes is revered both in Kamchatka and in Lugano:
Кумир сопливого ученика,
Банкира, сыщика и хулигана,
Он чтим и на Камчатке, и в Лугано,
Плод с запахом навозным парника.
Помилуй Бог меня от дневника,
Где детективы в фабуле романа
О преступленьях повествуют рьяно,
В них видя нечто вроде пикника…
«Он учит хладнокровью, сметке, риску,
А потому хвала и слава сыску!» —
Воскликнул бы любитель кровопийц,
Меня всегда мутило от которых…
Не ужас ли, что землю кроет ворох
Убийственных романов про убийц?
Like Severyanin, VN loathed detective novels. Nevertheless, according to Kinbote (Shade’s mad commentator in VN’s novel Pale Fire, 1962), Sherlock Holmes is “a hawk-nosed, lanky, rather likable private detective.” Van suspects that his incognito had been divulged by one of the special detectives at Chose (Van’s English University):
On February 5, 1887, an unsigned editorial in The Ranter (the usually so sarcastic and captious Chose weekly) described Mascodagama’s performance as ‘the most imaginative and singular stunt ever offered to a jaded music-hall public.’ It was repeated at the Rantariver Club several times, but nothing in the programme or in publicity notices beyond the definition ‘Foreign eccentric’ gave any indication either of the exact nature of the ‘stunt’ or of the performer’s identity. Rumors, carefully and cleverly circulated by Mascodagama’s friends, diverted speculations toward his being a mysterious visitor from beyond the Golden Curtain, particularly since at least half-a-dozen members of a large Good-will Circus Company that had come from Tartary just then (i.e., on the eve of the Crimean War) — three dancing girls, a sick old clown with his old speaking goat, and one of the dancers’ husbands, a make-up man (no doubt, a multiple agent) — had already defected between France and England, somewhere in the newly constructed ‘Chunnel.’ Mascodagama’s spectacular success in a theatrical club that habitually limited itself to Elizabethan plays, with queens and fairies played by pretty boys, made first of all a great impact on cartoonists. Deans, local politicians, national statesmen, and of course the current ruler of the Golden Horde were pictured as mascodagamas by topical humorists. A grotesque imitator (who was really Mascodagama himself in an oversophisticated parody of his own act!) was booed at Oxford (a women’s college nearby) by local rowdies. A shrewd reporter, who had heard him curse a crease in the stage carpet, commented in print on his ‘Yankee twang.’ Dear Mr ‘Vascodagama’ received an invitation to Windsor Castle from its owner, a bilateral descendant of Van’s own ancestors, but he declined it, suspecting (incorrectly, as it later transpired) the misprint to suggest that his incognito had been divulged by one of the special detectives at Chose — the same, perhaps, who had recently saved the psychiatrist P.O. Tyomkin from the dagger of Prince Potyomkin, a mixed-up kid from Sebastopol, Id. (1.30)
In his sonnet Potyomkin (1926) Severyanin compares the poet Pyotr Potyomkin (1886-1926) to a Yankee:
Его я встретил раза два в гостиной
У Сологуба в грешный год войны,
Когда мы были пьяны и гнойны
Своей опустошенностью гордынной…
Американцем он казался: длинный,
Проборчатый — как янки быть должны —
В сопровождении своей жены —
Красавицы воистину картинной.
О чем он пел? Кому он отдал рань
Своей души? Простецкая герань
К цветам принадлежит, что ни скажите…
Над пошлостью житейскою труня,
Незлобивость и скромность сохраня,
Посильно он рассказывал о быте…
According to Severyanin, he met Potyomkin several times in Sologub's drawing-room. Fyodor Sologub is the author of Nyurembergskiy palach ("The Executioner of Nuremberg," 1908). Describing his conversation with Father (when Demon tells him to stop his affair with Ada), Van mentions the Nuremberg Old Maid's iron sting:
Demon to Van: 'However, before I advise you of those two facts, I would like to know how long this - how long this has been...' ('going ingon,' one presumes, or something equally banal, but then all ends are banal - hangings, the Nuremberg Old Maid's iron sting, shooting oneself, last words in the brand-new Ladore hospital, mistaking a drop of thirty thousand feet for the airplane's washroom, being poisoned by one's wife, expecting a bit of Crimean hospitality, congratulating Mr and Mrs Vinelander -) (2.11)
In March, 1905, Demon Veen perishes in a mysterious airplane disaster above the Pacific. Van fails to see that his farher died, because Ada (who could not pardon Demon his forcing Van to give her up) managed to persuade the pilot to destroy his machine in midair.
In his sonnet Severyanin makes an allusion to Potyomkin's collection Geran' ("Geranium," 1912). In the Night of the Burning Barn (when Van and Ada make love for the first time) Ada says that the texture of Van's male organ reminds her of geranium or rather pelargonium bloom:
He discarded his makeshift kilt, and her tone of voice changed immediately.
‘Oh, dear,’ she said as one child to another. ‘It’s all skinned and raw. Does it hurt? Does it hurt horribly?’
‘Touch it quick,’ he implored.
‘Van, poor Van,’ she went on in the narrow voice the sweet girl used when speaking to cats, caterpillars, pupating puppies, ‘yes, I’m sure it smarts, would it help if I’d touch, are you sure?’
‘You bet,’ said Van, ‘on n’est pas bête à ce point’ (‘there are limits to stupidity,’ colloquial and rude).
‘Relief map,’ said the primrose prig, ‘the rivers of Africa.’ Her index traced the blue Nile down into its jungle and traveled up again. ‘Now what’s this? The cap of the Red Bolete is not half as plushy. In fact’ (positively chattering), ‘I’m reminded of geranium or rather pelargonium bloom.’
‘God, we all are,’ said Van.
‘Oh, I like this texture, Van, I like it! Really I do!’
‘Squeeze, you goose, can’t you see I’m dying.’
But our young botanist had not the faintest idea how to handle the thing properly — and Van, now in extremis, driving it roughly against the hem of her nightdress, could not help groaning as he dissolved in a puddle of pleasure.
She looked down in dismay.
‘Not what you think,’ remarked Van calmly. ‘This is not number one. Actually it’s as clean as grass sap. Well, now the Nile is settled stop Speke.’ (1.19)
According to Severyanin, Conan Doyle is the idol of a snotty schoolboy, a banker, a sleuth and a hooligan. Van’s and Ada’s father, Demon Veen is a Manhattan banker of ancient Anglo-Irish ancestry (1.1). Describing his dinner with the three Vinelanders (Ada, her husband Andrey and her sister-in-law Dorothy), Yuzlik (the film director) and two agents of Lemorio, at Bellevue Palace in Mont Roux, Van mentions Hoole’s hooliganism:
The first person whom she introduced him to, at that island of fauteuils and androids, now getting up from around a low table with a copper ashbowl for hub, was the promised belle-sœur, a short plumpish lady in governess gray, very oval-faced, with bobbed auburn hair, a sallowish complexion, smoke-blue unsmiling eyes, and a fleshy little excrescence, resembling a ripe maize kernel, at the side of one nostril, added to its hypercritical curve by an afterthought of nature as not seldom happens when a Russian’s face is mass-produced. The next outstretched hand belonged to a handsome, tall, remarkably substantial and cordial nobleman who could be none other than the Prince Gremin of the preposterous libretto, and whose strong honest clasp made Van crave for a disinfecting fluid to wash off contact with any of her husband’s public parts. But as Ada, beaming again, made fluttery introductions with an invisible wand, the person Van had grossly mistaken for Andrey Vinelander was transformed into Yuzlik, the gifted director of the ill-fated Don Juan picture. ‘Vasco de Gama, I presume,’ Yuzlik murmured. Beside him, ignored by him, unknown by name to Ada, and now long dead of dreary anonymous ailments, stood in servile attitudes the two agents of Lemorio, the flamboyant comedian (a bearded boor of exceptional, and now also forgotten, genius, whom Yuzlik passionately wanted for his next picture). Lemorio had stood him up twice before, in Rome and San Remo, each time sending him for ‘preliminary contact’ those two seedy, incompetent, virtually insane, people with whom by now Yuzlik had nothing more to discuss, having exhausted everything, topical gossip, Lemorio’s sex life, Hoole’s hooliganism, as well as the hobbies of his, Yuzlik’s, three sons and those of their, the agents’, adopted child, a lovely Eurasian lad, who had recently been slain in a night-club fracas — which closed that subject. Ada had welcomed Yuzlik’s unexpected reality in the lounge of the Bellevue not only as a counterpoise to the embarrassment and the deceit, but also because she hoped to sidle into What Daisy Knew; however, besides having no spells left in the turmoil of her spirit for business blandishments, she soon understood that if Lemorio were finally engaged, he would want her part for one of his mistresses. (3.8)
Howard Hoole played Don Juan in Don Juan’s Last Fling, Yuzlik’s film in which Ada played the gitanilla. On Admiral Tobakoff Lucette (Van’s and Ada’s half-sister) asks Van, if he wants to see Hoole as Hooan:
‘Hey, look!’ he cried, pointing to a poster. ‘They’re showing something called Don Juan’s Last Fling. It’s prerelease and for adults only. Topical Tobakoff!’
‘It’s going to be an unmethylated bore,’ said Lucy (Houssaie School, 1890) but he had already pushed aside the entrance drapery.
They came in at the beginning of an introductory picture, featuring a cruise to Greenland, with heavy seas in gaudy technicolor. It was a rather irrelevant trip since their Tobakoff did not contemplate calling at Godhavn; moreover, the cinema theater was swaying in counterrhythm to the cobalt-and-emerald swell on the screen. No wonder the place was emptovato, as Lucette observed, and she went on to say that the Robinsons had saved her life by giving her on the eve a tubeful of Quietus Pills.
‘Want one? One a day keeps "no shah" away. Pun. You can chew it, it’s sweet.’
‘Jolly good name. No, thank you, my sweet. Besides you have only five left.’
‘Don’t worry, I have it all planned out. There may be less than five days.’
‘More in fact, but no matter. Our measurements of time are meaningless; the most accurate clock is a joke; you’ll read all about it someday, you just wait.’
‘Perhaps, not. I mean, perhaps I shan’t have the patience. I mean, his charwoman could never finish reading Leonardo’s palm. I may fall asleep before I get through your next book.’
‘An art-class legend,’ said Van.
‘That’s the final iceberg, I know by the music. Let’s go, Van! Or you want to see Hoole as Hooan?’
She brushed his cheek with her lips in the dark, she took his hand, she kissed his knuckles, and he suddenly thought: after all, why not? Tonight? Tonight.
He enjoyed her impatience, the fool permitted himself to be stirred by it, the cretin whispered, prolonging the free, new, apricot fire of anticipation:
‘If you’re a good girl we’ll have drinks in my sitting room at midnight.’
The main picture had now started. The three leading parts — cadaverous Don Juan, paunchy Leporello on his donkey, and not too irresistible, obviously forty-year-old Donna Anna — were played by solid stars, whose images passed by in ‘semi-stills,’ or as some say ‘translucencies,’ in a brief introduction. Contrary to expectations, the picture turned out to be quite good. (3.5)
Don Juan (1926) is yet another sonnet by Severyanin:
Чем в юности слепительнее ночи,
Тем беспросветней старческие дни.
Я в женщине не отыскал родни:
Я всех людей на свете одиноче.
Очам непредназначенные очи
Блуждающие теплили огни.
Не проникали в глубину они:
Был ровным свет. Что может быть жесточе?
Не находя Искомой, разве грех
Дробить свой дух и размещать во всех?
Но что в отдар я получал от каждой?
Лишь кактус ревности, чертополох
Привычки, да забвенья трухлый мох.
Никто меня не жаждал смертной жаждой.
In the first quatrain of his poem The Epilogue (1912) Severyanin says that he is povsegradno oekranen (screened in every town):
Я, гений Игорь-Северянин,
Своей победой упоён:
Я повсеградно оэкранен!
Я повсесердно утверждён!
I, the genius Igor-Severyanin,
Intoxicated with my victory,
I am screened in every town,
I am confirmed by every heart.
At the end of "The Epilogue" Severyanin compares his universal soul to solntse (the sun):
До долгой встречи! В беззаконце
В ненастный день взойдёт, как солнце,
Моя вселенская душа!
A friend of Alexander Alekhine, Pyotr Potyomkin was an amateur chess player (who once managed to beat Capablanca) and the author of Gens una Sumus (Latin for “We are one Family”), the motto of FIDE. According to Van, he is a first-rate chess player:
Van, a first-rate chess player — he was to win in 1887 a match at Chose when he beat the Minsk-born Pat Rishin (champion of Underhill and Wilson, N.C.) — had been puzzled by Ada’s inability of raising the standard of her, so to speak, damsel-errant game above that of a young lady in an old novel or in one of those anti-dandruff color-photo ads that show a beautiful model (made for other games than chess) staring at the shoulder of her otherwise impeccably groomed antagonist across a preposterous traffic jam of white and scarlet, elaborately and unrecognizably carved, Lalla Rookh chessmen, which not even cretins would want to play with — even if royally paid for the degradation of the simplest thought under the itchiest scalp.
Ada did manage, now and then, to conjure up a combinational sacrifice, offering, say, her queen — with a subtle win after two or three moves if the piece were taken; but she saw only one side of the question, preferring to ignore, in the queer lassitude of clogged cogitation, the obvious counter combination that would lead inevitably to her defeat if the grand sacrifice were not accepted. On the Scrabble board, however, this same wild and weak Ada was transformed into a sort of graceful computing machine, endowed, moreover, with phenomenal luck, and would greatly surpass baffled Van in acumen, foresight and exploitation of chance, when shaping appetizing long words from the most unpromising scraps and collops. (1.36)
Darkbloom ('Notes to Ada'): Pat Rishin: a play on ‘patrician’. One may recall Podgoretz (Russ. ‘underhill’) applying that epithet to a popular critic, would-be expert in Russian as spoken in Minsk and elsewhere. Minsk and Chess also figure in Chapter Six of Speak, Memory (p.133, N.Y. ed. 1966).