Ben Kulich, Ninel Ilinishna Langley & Rustic Roses in LATH

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Sat, 08/14/2021 - 19:34

Describing his life in Paris in the 1930s, Vadim Vadimovich (the narrator and main character in VN’s novel Look at the Harlequins!, 1974) mentions one of his translators, Mr. Kulich:


I received the typed translations of The Red Topper (sic) and Camera Lucida virtually at the same time, in the autumn of 1937. They proved to be even more ignoble than I expected. Miss Haworth, an Englishwoman, had spent three happy years in Moscow where her father had been Ambassador; Mr. Kulich was an elderly Russian-born New Yorker who signed his letters Ben. Both made identical mistakes, choosing the wrong term in their identical dictionaries, and with identical recklessness never bothering to check the treacherous homonym of  a familiar-looking word. They were blind to contextual shades of color and deaf to nuances of noise. Their classification of natural objects seldom descended from  the class to the  family; still more seldom to the genus in the strict sense. They confused the specimen with the species; Hop, Leap, and Jump wore in their minds the drab uniform of regimented synonymity; and not one page passed without a boner. What struck me as especially fascinating, in a  dreadful diabolical way, was their  taking for granted that a respectable author could have written this or that descriptive passage, which their  ignorance  and carelessness had reduced to the cries  and grunts of a cretin. In all their habits of expression Ben Kulich and Miss Haworth were so close that I now think they might have been secretly married  to one another and had corresponded regularly when trying to settle a tricky paragraph; or else, maybe, they used to meet midway for lexical picnics on the grassy lip of some crater in the Azores. (2.10)


Kulich means “Easter cake.” In a poem written on the occasion of Lenin’s death, Byl on v detstve osobennyi mal’chik (“He was in childhood a special boy,” 1924), Sasha Chyornyi compares Lenin’s chelo (brow) to paskhal’nyi kulich (an Easter cake):


«Был он в детстве особенный мальчик – 
Красил клюквой кору у берёз, 
И с резинкой клал в красный пенальчик 
Лепестки красно-огненных роз. 

Был он кроток, как птичка лесная. 
Как-то дети убили ежа... 
Встав на бочку, он крикнул, рыдая: 
"Лишь буржуи достойны ножа!" 

А ночами, покинув кроватку, 
Алым бантом украсив плечо, 
Зажигал перед Марксом лампадку 
И молился в слезах горячо: 

Чтобы массы рабочих могучих 
Все буржуями сделались вдруг. 
Чтоб буржуи в лохмотьях вонючих 
На коленках стояли вокруг... 

Шли года. Постепенно взрослея, 
Вот и вырос Владимир Ильич. 
Борода, словно локоны феи, 
А чело, как пасхальный кулич».

Миллионы обрёк он на казни, 
Ну а сам не рубил он мечом. 
Только чёрный поклёп неприязни 
Мог его называть палачом. 

Смерти он наблюдал безучастно, 
Но у сердца особенный лад 
И сиротам расстрелянных часто 
Посылал он тайком шоколад.


…He watched the deaths indifferently,

but the heart has a peculiar way

and he often sent on the quiet

chocolate to the orphans of executed people.


In Sasha Chyorny’s poem kulich rhymes with Ilyich (Lenin’s patronymic). At Quirn (Vadim’s American University) Annette Blagovo (Vadim’s second wife and mother of his daughter Bel) makes friends with Ninel Ilinishna Langley:


Ninel Ilinishna Langley, a displaced person in more senses than one, had recently left her husband, the "great" Langley, author of A Marxist History of America, the bible (now out of print) of a whole generation of morons. I do not know the reason of their separation (after one year of American Sex, as the woman told Annette, who relayed the information to me in a tone of idiotic condolence); but I did have the occasion of seeing and disliking Professor Langley at an official dinner on the eve of his departure for Oxford. I disliked him for his daring to question my teaching Ulysses my way--in a purely textual light, without organic allegories and quasi-Greek myths and that sort of tripe; his "Marxism," on the other hand, was a pleasantly comic and very mild affair (too mild, perhaps, for his wife's taste) compared to the general attitude of ignorant admiration which American intellectuals had toward Soviet Russia. I remember the sudden hush, and furtive exchange of incredulous grimaces, when at a party, given for me by the most eminent member of our English department, I described the Bolshevist state as Philistine in repose and bestial in action; internationally vying in rapacious deceit with the praying mantis; doctoring the mediocrity of its literature by first sparing a few talents left over from a previous period and then blotting them out with their own blood. One professor, a left-wing moralist and dedicated muralist (he was experimenting that year with automobile paint), stalked out of the house. He wrote me next day, however, a really magnificent, larger-than-nature letter of apology saying that he could not be really cross with the author of Esmeralda and Her Parandrus (1941), which despite its "motley style and baroque imagery" was a masterpiece "pinching strings of personal poignancy which he, a committed artist, never knew could vibrate in him." Reviewers of my books took the same line, chiding me formally for underestimating  the "greatness" of Lenin, yet paying me compliments of a kind that could not fail to touch, in the long run, even me, a scornful and austere author, whose homework in Paris had never received its due. Even the President of Quirn, who timorously sympathized with the fashionable Sovietizers, was really on my side: he told me when he called on us (while Ninel crept up to grow an ear on our landing) that he was proud, etc., and had found my "last (?) book very interesting" though he could not help regretting that I took every opportunity of criticizing "our Great Ally" in my classes. I answered, laughing, that this criticism was a child's caress when set alongside the public lecture on "The Tractor in Soviet Literature" that I planned to deliver at the end of the term. He laughed, too, and asked Annette what it was like to live with a genius (she only shrugged her pretty shoulders). All this was très américain and thawed a whole auricle in my icy heart.

But to return to good Ninel.

She had been christened Nonna at birth (1902) and renamed twenty years later Ninel (or Ninella), as petitioned by her father, a Hero of Toil and a toady. She wrote it Ninella in English but her friends called her Ninette or Nelly just as my wife's Christian  name Anna (as Nonna liked to observe) turned into Annette and Netty.

Ninella Langley was a stocky, heavily built creature with a ruddy and rosy face (the two tints unevenly distributed), short hair dyed a mother-in-law ginger, brown eyes even madder than mine, very thin lips, a fat Russian nose, and three or four hairs on her chin. Before the young reader heads for Lesbos, I wish to say that as far as I could discover (and I am a peerless spy) there was nothing sexual in her ludicrous and unlimited affection for my wife. I had not yet acquired the white Desert Lynx that Annette did not live to see, so it was Ninella who took her shopping in a dilapidated jalopy while the resourceful lodger, sparing the copies of his own novels, would autograph for the  grateful twins old mystery paperbacks and unreadable pamphlets from the Langley collection in the attic whose dormer looked out obligingly on the road to, and from, the Shopping Center. It was Ninella who kept her adored "Netty" well supplied with white knitting wool. It was Ninella who twice daily invited her for a cup of coffee or tea in her rooms; but the woman made a point of avoiding our flat, at least when we were at home, under the pretext that it still reeked of her husband's tobacco: I rejoined that it  was my own pipe--and later, on the same day, Annette told me I really ought not to smoke so much, especially indoors; and she also upheld another absurd complaint coming from downstairs, namely, that I walked back and forth too late and too long, right over Ninella's forehead. Yes--and a third grievance: why didn't I put back the encyclopedia volumes in alphabetic order as her husband had always been careful to do, for (he said) "a misplaced book is a lost book"--quite an aphorism.

Dear Mrs. Langley was not particularly happy about her job. She owned a lakeside bungalow ("Rustic Roses") thirty miles north of Quirn, not very far from Honeywell College, where she taught summer school and with which she intended to be even more closely associated, if a "reactionary" atmosphere persisted at Quirn. Actually, her only grudge was against decrepit Mme. de Korchakov, who had accused her, in public, of having a sdobnyy ("mellow") Soviet accent and a provincial vocabulary--all of which could not be denied, although Annette maintained I was a heartless bourgeois to say so. (3.1)


Ninel is Lenin in reverse, the patronymic Ilinishna means “daughter if Ilya” (Ilyich is “son of Ilya”). The name of Ninel’s lakeside bungalow, "Rustic Roses," seems to blend Mascagni’s opera Rustic Chivalry (1890) with Severyanin’s poem Klassicheskie rozy (“Classical Roses,” 1925). In his poem Gastrol’ Vaalyary ("Iris" Maskanyi) (“The Tour of Vaalyara. Mascagni’s Iris”) Severyanin describes a performance in the Royal Theater of Mascagni’s opera Iris (1898):


В королевском театре
Ваальяру рассматривая,
Королева прослушала год не шедшую «Ирис».
Автор сам дирижировал,
А король игнорировал
Потому платья нового помрачительный вырез.
Убаюканный тактами,
Развлекаемый антрактами,
Проводимыми весело в императорской ложе,
Был Масканья блистательный
В настроеньи мечтательном,
И Ее Светозарности было солнечно тоже…
Королевскими просьбами
Привлеченная, гроздями
Бриллиантов сверкавшая, в дверь вошла Ваальяра, —
Прима колоратурная, —
Вся такая ажурная,
Как изыски Бердслеевы, как bегсеusе’ы Годара
И блестя эполетами,
Бонбоньерку с конфетами,
В виде Леды и Лебедя, предлагает ей Эрик.
Ваальяра кокетничает,
А придворные сплетничают —
Открыватели глупые небывалых Америк…
Композитор признательно,
Правда, очень старательно,
Ей целует под веером надушенную руку.
И король комплиментами,
Загораясь моментами,
Угощает дающую крылья каждому звуку.
Королевой же ласково
(Что там скрыто под маскою?)
Ободряется пламная от смущенья актриса.
И полна благодарности, —
Дар Ее Светозарности
Примадонна пришпилила к лифу ветку ириса.


Mascagni’s seldom performed opera brings to mind Iris Black, Vadim’s first wife who is shot dead on April 23, 1930 (VN’s and Vadim’s birthday; the Christian Easter in 1930 was on April 20; April 22 is Lenin’s birthday) by a White Russian, Wladimir Blagidze, alias Starov (1.13).


In his poem on Lenin’s death Sasha Chyornyi (whose pseudonym means “black”) compares Lenin’s beard to lokony fei (a fairy’s locks). In his epigram on Severyanin (1924) Shasha Chyornyi calls Severyanin galantnyi bradobrey (“the gallant barber”):


Весь напомаженный, пустой поэзофат

Бесстыдно рявкнул, легких не жалея:

«Поэт, как Дант, мыслитель, как Сократ,

Не я ль достиг в искусстве апогея?!»


Достиг, увы… Никто из писарей

Не сочинил подобного «изыска»…

Поверьте мне, галантный брадобрей,—

Теперь не миновать вам обелиска.


For his incognito visit of Leningrad Vadim Vadimovich grows a beard:


"Shall I grow a beard to cross the frontier?" muses homesick General Gurko in Chapter Six of Esmeralda and Her Parandrus.

"Better than none," said Harley Q., one of my gayest advisers. "But," he added, "do it before we glue on and stamp O.B.'s picture and don't lose weight afterwards." So I grew it--during the atrocious heartracking wait for the room I could not mock up and the visa I could not forge. It was an ample Victorian affair, of a nice, rough, tawny shade threaded with silver. It reached up to my apple-red cheekbones and came down to my waistcoat, commingling on the way with my lateral yellow-gray locks. Special contact lenses not only gave another, dumbfounded, expression to my eyes, but somehow changed their very shape from squarish leonine, to round Jovian. Only upon my return did I notice that the old tailor-made trousers, on me and in my bag, displayed my real name on the inside of the waistband. (5.1)


Arlekin (Harlequin) was the penname of Ivan Ignatiev (1892-1914), a friend of Severyanin and fellow futurist poet who committed suicide (by cutting his throat with a razor) on the next day after his wedding. The daughters of Count Starov (a retired diplomat), Vadim’s first three wives (Iris Black, Annette Blagovo and Louise Adamson) seem to be his half-sisters. Vadim Vadimovich's surname seems to be Yablonski. Vesennyaya yablonya ("The Spring Apple Tree," 1910) is a poem by Severyanin:


Весенней яблони, в нетающем снегу,
Без содрогания я видеть не могу:
Горбатой девушкой — прекрасной, но немой –
Трепещет дерево, туманя гений мой…
Как будто в зеркало, смотрясь в широкий плес,
Она старается смахнуть росинки слез
И ужасается, и стонет, как арба,
Вняв отражению зловещего горба.
Когда на озеро слетает сон стальной,
Бываю с яблоней, как с девушкой больной,
И, полный нежности и ласковой тоски,
Благоуханные целую лепестки.
Тогда доверчиво, не сдерживая слез,
Она касается слегка моих волос,
Потом берет меня в ветвистое кольцо, –
И я целую ей цветущее лицо.


Ninel’s sdobnyi (mellow) Soviet accent brings to mind sdobnyi khleb (a bun) mentioned by Severyanin in his Poeza dlya bezhentsev (“A Poem for Refugees”):


В этой маленькой русской колонии,
Здесь спасающей от беззаконий
Свои бренные дух и тела,
Интересы такие мизерные,
Чувства подленькие, лицемерные,
Ищут все лишь еды и тепла.
Все едят — это очень естественно,
И тепло в наше время существенно —
С этим спорить не будет никто.
Но ведь, кроме запросов желудочных
И телесных, есть ряд мозгогрудочных,
Кроме завтраков, дров и пальто.
Есть театр, есть стихи, есть симфонии.
Есть картины, и, если в Эстонии
Ничего нет такого для вас,
Соотечественники слишком русские,
Виноваты вы сами, столь узкие,
Что теряете ухо и глаз.
Если здесь, в деревушке, подобного
Ничего не найти, кроме сдобного
Хлеба, можно давать вечера
Можно пьесы поставить лояльные
И, пожалуй, плясать до утра.
Можно вслух проштудировать Гоголя
(Ах, сознайтесь, читали вы много ли
Из него в своей жизни, друзья!..).
Можно что-нибудь взять из Некрасова,
Путешествие взять Гаттерасово,
Если Нитцше, допустим, нельзя…
Но куда вам такие занятия,
Вызывающие лишь проклятия, —
Лучше карты, еда и разврат!
Лучше сплетни, интриги и жалобы,
Что давно-де войскам не мешало бы
Взять для ваших удобств Петроград!..


After leaving Soviet Russia in 1918, Severyanin lived Estland (he died in Tallinn at the end of 1941, when Estland was occupied by the Germans). "A Hero of Toil and a today" (as Vadim calls Ninel's father) brings to mind Toila, a settlement on the southern shore of the Gulf of Finland where Severyanin lived. Nona is a poem by Severyanin. According to Ninel, she first met Professor Langley when she was stranded and lost in a territory suddenly occupied by Estonian fascists:


I can especially sympathize with Netty in this domestic catastrophe because my own marriage resembled hers in many, many ways. It began so auspiciously! I was stranded and lost in a territory suddenly occupied by Estonian fascists, a poor little war-tossed Moscow girl,14 when I first  met Professor Langley in quite romantic circumstances: I was interpreting for him (the study of foreign languages stands at a remarkable level in the Soviet Land), but when I was shipped with other DP's to the UK, and we met again and married, all went wrong--he ignored me in the daytime, and our nights were full of incompatibility.15 One good consequence is that I inherited, so to speak, a lawyer, Mr. Horace Peppermill, who has consented to grant you a consultation and help you to settle all business details. It will be  wise  on your part to follow Professor Langley's example and give your wife a monthly allowance while placing a sizable "guarantee sum" in the bank which can be available to her in  extreme  cases and, naturally, after your demise or during an overprotracted terminal illness. We do not have to remind you that Mrs. Blagovo should  continue to  receive regularly her usual check until further notice. (from Ninel’s Postscript to Annette’s farewell letter to Vadim)


Vadim’s footnotes: 14. The little Muscovite must have been around forty at the time.

15. En Anglais dans le texte. (3.4)


Annette's and Ninel's letter to Vadim was written on Apr. 13, 1946, at Rustic Roses.


Kvirn (Quirn in Annette's contemptuous transliteration) seems to hint at Dostoevski's story Skvernyi anekdot ("A Nasty Story," 1862), but it also brings to mind Severyanin's poem Ya nesomnenno skvernyi patriot (I doubtlessly am a bad patriot):


Я несомненно скверный патриот,
Но я могу не радоваться бою
У петербургских западных ворот:
Быть может, жизнь несет тот бой с собою,
А значит — и искусство, и — любовь.
В нем чувствуется что-то голубое.
А в голубом всегда сияет новь.


At the end of his poem Po spravedlivosti ("In All Fairness," 1918) written in Toila Severyanin calls Lenin moy dvoynik (my double):


Его бесспорная заслуга

Есть окончание войны.

Его приветствовать, как друга

Людей, вы искренне должны.


Я – вне политики, и, право,

Мне все равно, кто б ни был он.

Да будет честь ему и слава,

Что мир им, первым, заключен.


Когда людская жизнь в загоне,

И вдруг – ее апологет,

Не все ль равно мне – как: в вагоне

Запломбированном иль нет?..


Не только из вагона – прямо

Пускай из бездны бы возник!

Твержу настойчиво-упрямо:

Он, в смысле мира, мой двойник.


Dvoynik ("The Double," 1846) is a short novel by Dostoevski. Vadim's novel The Dare (1950) that corresponds to VN's Dar ("The Gift," 1937) includes a concise biography and critical appraisal of Fyodor Dostoevski:


The reader must have noticed that I speak only in a very general way about my Russian fictions of the Nineteen-Twenties and Thirties, for I assume that he is familiar with them or can easily obtain them in their English versions. At this point, however, I must say a few words about The Dare (Podarok Otchizne was its original title, which can be translated as "a gift to the fatherland"). When in 1934 I started to dictate its beginning to Annette, I knew it would be my longest novel. I did not foresee however that it would be almost as long as General Pudov's vile and fatuous "historical" romance about the way the Zion Wisers usurped St. Rus. It took me about four years in all to write its four hundred pages, many of which Annette typed at least twice. Most of it had been serialized in émigré magazines by May, 1939, when she and I, still childless, left for America; but in book form, the Russian original appeared only in 1950 (Turgenev Publishing House, New York), followed another decade later by an English translation, whose title neatly refers not only to the well-known device used to bewilder noddies but also to the daredevil nature of Victor, the hero and part-time narrator.

The novel begins with a nostalgic account of a Russian childhood (much happier, though not less opulent than mine). After that comes adolescence in England (not unlike my own Cambridge years); then life in émigré Paris, the writing of a first novel (Memoirs of a Parrot Fancier) and the tying of amusing knots in various literary intrigues. Inset in the middle part is a complete version of the book my Victor wrote "on a dare": this is a concise biography and critical appraisal of Fyodor Dostoyevski, whose politics my author finds hateful and whose novels he condemns as 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. The next chapter deals with the rage and bewilderment of émigré reviewers, all of them priests of the Dostoyevskian persuasion; and in the last pages my young hero accepts a flirt's challenge and accomplishes a final gratuitous feat by walking through a perilous forest into Soviet territory and as casually strolling back.

I am giving this summary to exemplify what even the poorest reader of my Dare must surely retain, unless electrolysis destroys some essential cells soon after he closes the book. Now part of Annette's frail charm lay in her forgetfulness which veiled everything toward the evening of everything, like the kind of pastel haze that obliterates mountains, clouds, and even its own self as the summer day swoons. I know I have seen her many times, a copy of Patria in her languid lap, follow the printed lines with the pendulum swing of eyes suggestive of reading, and actually reach the "To be continued" at the end of the current installment of The Dare. I also know that she had typed every word of it and most of its commas. Yet the fact remains that she retained nothing--perhaps in result of her having decided once for all that my prose was not merely "difficult" but hermetic ("nastily hermetic," to repeat the compliment Basilevski paid me the moment he realized--a moment which came in due time--that his manner and mind were being ridiculed in Chapter Three by my gloriously happy Victor. I must say I forgave her readily her attitude to my work. At public readings, I admired her public smile, the "archaic" smile of Greek statues. When her rather dreadful parents asked to see my books (as a suspicious physician might ask for a  sample of semen), she gave them to read by mistake another man's novel because of a silly similarity of titles. The only real shock I experienced was when I overheard her informing some idiot woman friend that my Dare included biographies of "Chernolyubov and Dobroshevski"! She actually  started to argue when I retorted that only a lunatic would have chosen a pair of third-rate publicists to write about--spoonerizing their names in addition! (2.5)


A copy of Patria in Annette's languid lap brings to mind ubi bene, ibi patria (homeland is where it is good), a Latin saying reverted by Mandelshtam in a humorous poem:


Ubi bene, ibi patria, ―
Но имея другом Бена
Лившица, скажу обратное:
Ubi patria, ibi bene.


Ubi bene, ibi patria,

but, Ben Lifshits being my friend,

I'll say the opposite:

Ubi patria, ibi bene.


According to Vadim, Mr. Kulich signed his letters Ben.