Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0027231, Fri, 25 Nov 2016 13:20:29 +0300

electricity, ha-ha of doubled ocean,
hundred-year gap between Terra & Antiterra, teuton,
houri & peri in Ada
After the L disaster in the middle of the 19th century electricity was banned on Demonia (aka Antiterra, Earth’s twin planet on which Ada is set). In Adam Mickiewicz’s poem Cztery toasty (“Four Toasts,” 1821) the fourth toast is to elektryczność (electricity):

…A gdy zrośniem w okrąg wielki
Przez magnesowaną styczność,
Wtenczas z lejdejskiej butelki
Palniem: — wiwat elektryczność!

In a footnote to Mednyi vsadnik (“The Bronze Horseman,” 1833) Pushkin mentions the description of the day that preceded the day of the disastrous Neva flood (Nov. 7, 1824) in Oleszkiewicz, one of Mickiewicz’s best poems:

Мицкевич прекрасными стихами описал день, предшествовавший петербургскому наводнению, в одном из лучших своих стихотворений — Oleszkiewicz. Жаль только, что описание его не точно. Снегу не было — Нева не была покрыта льдом. Наше описание вернее, хотя в нём и нет ярких красок польского поэта.

In another footnote Pushkin mentions Mickiewicz’s description (borrowed from Ruban) of Falconet’s monument of Peter I:

Смотри описание памятника в Мицкевиче. Оно заимствовано из Рубана — как замечает сам Мицкевич.

Pushkin alludes to Mickiewicz’s poem Pomnik Piotra Wielkiego (“The Monument of Peter the Great,” 1832) in which Pushkin and Mickiewicz stand hand in hand under one cloak and their souls are compared to two Alpine crags forever separated by a current of water:

Ich dusze wyższe nad ziemne przeszkody,

Jako dwie Alpów spokrewnione skały:

Choć je na wieki rozerwał nurt wody.

Nurt wody (a current of water) brings to mind Aqua, Marina’s mad twin sister who believed that she could understand the language of her namesake, water:

She developed a morbid sensitivity to the language of tap water - which echoes sometimes (much as the bloodstream does predormitarily) a fragment of human speech lingering in one's ears while one washes one's hands after cocktails with strangers. Upon first noticing this immediate, sustained, and in her case rather eager and mocking but really quite harmless replay of this or that recent discourse, she felt tickled at the thought that she, poor Aqua, had accidentally hit upon such a simple method of recording and transmitting speech, while technologists (the so-called Eggheads) all over the world were trying to make publicly utile and commercially rewarding the extremely elaborate and still very expensive, hydrodynamic telephones and other miserable gadgets that were to replace those that had gone k chertyam sobach'im (Russian 'to the devil') with the banning of an unmentionable 'lammer.' (1.3)

Darkbloom ('Notes to Ada'): lammer: amber (Fr: l'ambre), allusion to electricity.

On the other hand, it reminds one of “the ha-ha of a doubled ocean” separating America from Tartary (on Antiterra, the country that occupies the territory of the Soviet Russia):

Ved’ (‘it is, isn’t it’) sidesplitting to imagine that ‘Russia,’ instead of being a quaint synonym of Estoty, the American province extending from the Arctic no longer vicious Circle to the United States proper, was on Terra the name of a country, transferred as if by some sleight of land across the ha-ha of a doubled ocean to the opposite hemisphere where it sprawled over all of today’s Tartary, from Kurland to the Kuriles! But (even more absurdly), if, in Terrestrial spatial terms, the Amerussia of Abraham Milton was split into its components, with tangible water and ice separating the political, rather than poetical, notions of ‘America’ and ‘Russia,’ a more complicated and even more preposterous discrepancy arose in regard to time — not only because the history of each part of the amalgam did not quite match the history of each counterpart in its discrete condition, but because a gap of up to a hundred years one way or another existed between the two earths; a gap marked by a bizarre confusion of directional signs at the crossroads of passing time with not all the no-longers of one world corresponding to the not-yets of the other. (1.3)

A gap of up to a hundred years between Terra and Antiterra brings to mind the phrase sto let (a hundred years) used by Pushkin in the Introduction to “The Bronze Horseman:”

Прошло сто лет, и юный град,
Полнощных стран краса и диво,
Из тьмы лесов, из топи блат
Вознесся пышно, горделиво.

On the other hand, Pushkin’s translation of a fragment from Mickiewicz’s poem Konrad Wallenrod begins: Sto let minulo, kak tevton… (“A hundred years have passed since the Teuton…” 1828). As he speaks to Cordula, Van mentions the Teuton and his petit topinambour:

She shook her short curls. No - she went there very seldom. Twice to a concert, in a pine forest. She had not been aware that Ada took music lessons. How was Ada?

'Lucette,' he said, 'Lucette takes or took piano lessons. Okay. Let's dismiss Kalugano. These crumpets are very poor relatives of the Chose ones. You're right, j'ai des ennuis. But you can make me forget them. Tell me something to distract me, though you distract me as it is, un petit topinambour as the Teuton said in the story. Tell me about your affairs of the heart.' (1.42)

Darkbloom (‘Notes to Ada’): topinambour: tuber of the girasole; pun on 'pun' ('calembour').

Topinambour, or the Jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus), is also called “earth apple” and “earth pear.” In his poem Royal’ (“The Grand Piano,” 1931) Mandelshtam (the author of Polacy! who was born in Warsaw) mentions koren’ sladkovatoy grushi zemnoy (a tuber of the sweet earth pear) and Nyurenbergskaya pruzhina, vypryamlyayushchaya mertvetsov (the Nuremberg spring that straightens out the dead):

…Чтобы в мире стало просторней,
Ради сложности мировой,
Не втирайте в клавиши корень
Сладковатой груши земной.

Чтоб смолою соната джина
Проступила из позвонков,
Нюренбергская есть пружина,
Выпрямляющая мертвецов.

…To make the world more spacious,
for the sake of global complexity,
do not rub into the piano keys
a tuber of sweet earthly pear.

To make a jinn’s sonata appear

like resin from the vertebrae
there exists the Nuremberg spring
that straightens out the dead.

One of Ada’s lovers, the composer Philip Rack was poisoned by his jealous wife Elsie and dies in the Kalugano hospital (1.42). In his poem On mezhdu nami zhil… (“He lived among us…” 1834) Pushkin says that Mickiewicz (who left Russia in 1829 and settled in Paris) fills his verses with poison in order to please the violent mob:

Но теперь

Наш мирный гость нам стал врагом - и ядом

Стихи свои, в угоду черни буйной,

Он напояет.

Mickiewicz died in 1855 in Constantinople, during the Crimean war. Another lover of Ada, Percy de Prey goes to the Crimean war where an old Tartar shots him dead. As he listens to Demon (Van’s and Ada’s father who just found out about his children’s romance), Van recalls the destiny of Ada’s lovers and thinks of the Nuremberg Old Maid’s iron sting:

The first thing Demon said was:

'I insist that you face me when I'm speaking to you.'

'However, before I advise you of those two facts, I would like to know how long this - how long this has been...' ('going on,' 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)

Mickiewicz is the author of Sonety Krymskie (“Crimean Sonnets,” 1826). In his poem V prokhlade sladostnoy fontanov… (“In the delicious cool of fountains…” 1828) Pushkin says that the sons of Saadi loved the Crimea and, in the poem’s last stanza, mentions the poet of that wondrous land (Lithuania) where men are severe and shaggy and women equal houris (beautiful virgins provided in paradise for all faithful Muslims):

Но ни один волшебник милый,
Владетель умственных даров,
Не вымышлял с такою силой,
Так хитро сказок и стихов,

Как прозорливый и крылатый
Поэт той чудной стороны,
Где мужи грозны и косматы,
А жёны гуриям равны.

By “the sagacious and winged poet” Pushkin probably has in mind Mickiewicz. According to Van, David van Veen (a wealthy architect of Flemish extraction who built one hundred floramors in memory of his grandson Eric, the author of an essay “Villa Venus: an Organized Dream”) wanted to be the first sampler of the first houri he would hire for his last house:

Eccentricity is the greatest grief's greatest remedy. The boy's grandfather set at once to render in brick and stone, concrete and marble, flesh and fun, Eric's fantasy. He resolved to be the first sampler of the first houri he would hire for his last house, and to live until then in laborious abstinence.

It must have been a moving and magnificent sight - that of the old but still vigorous Dutchman with his rugged reptilian face and white hair, designing with the assistance of Leftist decorators the thousand and one memorial floramors he resolved to erect all over the world - perhaps even in brutal Tartary, which he thought was ruled by 'Americanized Jews,' but then 'Art redeemed Politics' - profoundly original concepts that we must condone in a lovable old crank. He began with rural England and coastal America, and was engaged in a Robert Adam-like composition (cruelly referred to by local wags as the Madam-I'm-Adam House), not far from Newport, Rodos Island, in a somewhat senile style, with marble columns dredged from classical seas and still encrusted with Etruscan oyster shells - when he died from a stroke while helping to prop up a propylon. It was only his hundredth house! (1.3)

In Marina Tsvetaev’s Povest’ o Sonechke (“A Tale about Little Sonya,” 1937) Sonya tells Volodya (a young man who in Marina Tsvetaev’s presence dared to stare at a dancing girl) that Marina in each sleeve of her fustian dress has a hundred houris and peris (beautiful fairylike beings of Persian mythology):

Я, когда узнала, сразу ему сказала: “Как вам не стыдно, Володя, ходить к Марине и заглядываться на танцовщицу! Да у Марины из каждого рукава её бумазейного платья - по сотне гурий и пэри! Вы просто - дурак!”

According to Sonya, Volodya is simply durak (a fool). In 1871 Marina Durmanov (Van’s, Ada’s and Lucette’s mother) marries Durak Walter (or simply Red Veen):

On April 23, 1869, in drizzly and warm, gauzy and green Kaluga, Aqua, aged twenty-five and afflicted with her usual vernal migraine, married Walter D. Veen, a Manhattan banker of ancient Anglo-Irish ancestry who had long conducted, and was soon to resume intermittently, a passionate affair with Marina. The latter, some time in 1871, married her first lover’s first cousin, also Walter D. Veen, a quite as opulent, but much duller, chap.

The ‘D’ in the name of Aqua’s husband stood for Demon (a form of Demian or Dementius), and thus was he called by his kin. In society he was generally known as Raven Veen or simply Dark Walter to distinguish him from Marina’s husband, Durak Walter or simply Red Veen. Demon’s twofold hobby was collecting old masters and young mistresses. He also liked middle-aged puns. (1.1)

In February of 1893 Marina’s husband dies in a brand-new Ladore hospital. In his deathbed delirium Daniel Veen raves about Bosch and uses the phrase k chertyam sobach’im:

‘Or better — come at once, both of you, because I’ll cancel my appointment and go home right now.’ He spoke, or thought he spoke, with the self-control and the clarity of enunciation which so frightened and mesmerized blunderers, blusterers, a voluble broker, a guilty schoolboy. Especially so now — when everything had gone to the hell curs, k chertyam sobach’im, of Jeroen Anthniszoon van Äken and the molti aspetti affascinati of his enigmatica arte, as Dan explained with a last sigh to Dr Nikulin and to nurse Bellabestia (‘Bess’) to whom he bequeathed a trunkful of museum catalogues and his second-best catheter. (2.10)

Describing Percy de Prey’s death, Van mentions the pitcher peri:

When a couple of minutes later, Percy — still Count Percy de Prey — regained consciousness he was no longer alone on his rough bed of gravel and grass. A smiling old Tartar, incongruously but somehow assuagingly wearing American blue-jeans with his beshmet, was squatting by his side. ‘Bednïy, bednïy’ (you poor, poor fellow), muttered the good soul, shaking his shaven head and clucking: ‘Bol’no (it hurts)?’ Percy answered in his equally primitive Russian that he did not feel too badly wounded: ‘Karasho, karasho ne bol’no (good, good),’ said the kindly old man and, picking up the automatic pistol which Percy had dropped, he examined it with naive pleasure and then shot him in the temple. (One wonders, one always wonders, what had been the executed individual’s brief, rapid series of impressions, as preserved somewhere, somehow, in some vast library of microfilmed last thoughts, between two moments: between, in the present case, our friend’s becoming aware of those nice, quasi-Red Indian little wrinkles beaming at him out of a serene sky not much different from Ladore’s, and then feeling the mouth of steel violently push through tender skin and exploding bone. One supposes it might have been a kind of suite for flute, a series of ‘movements’ such as, say: I’m alive — who’s that? — civilian — sympathy — thirsty — daughter with pitcher — that’s my damned gun — don’t... et cetera or rather no cetera... while Broken-Arm Bill prayed his Roman deity in a frenzy of fear for the Tartar to finish his job and go. But, of course, an invaluable detail in that strip of thought would have been — perhaps, next to the pitcher peri — a glint, a shadow, a stab of Ardis.) (1.42)

“The pitcher peri” brings to mind Devushka s kuvshinom (“The Girl with a Pitcher”), a fountain in the park of Tsarskoe Selo. Pushkin describes it in Tsarskoselskaya statuya ("A Statue in Tsarskoe Selo," 1830), a poem written in hexameter:

Урну с водой уронив, об утёс её дева разбила.
‎Дева печально сидит, праздный держа черепок.
Чудо! не сякнет вода, изливаясь из урны разбитой;
‎Дева, над вечной струёй, вечно печальна сидит.

A miracle! The water doesn’t dry up, pouring off from the broken urn;

over the perpetual current the maiden sits perpetually sad.

After electricity was banned on Antiterra, in gadgets like dorophones (hydraulic telephones), dorotellies, dorocene lamps, etc. water is used. On the eve of his duel with Captain Tapper that he fights in the Kalugano forest (near the Dorofey Road) Van dreams of Bouteillan (the French butler at Ardis) who tells him that the ‘dor’ in the name of an adored river (Ladore) equals the corruption of hydro in ‘dorophone:’

Van was roused by the night porter who put a cup of coffee with a local ‘eggbun’ on his bedside table, and expertly palmed the expected chervonetz. He resembled somewhat Bouteillan as the latter had been ten years ago and as he had appeared in a dream, which Van now retrostructed as far as it would go: in it Demon’s former valet explained to Van that the ‘dor’ in the name of an adored river equaled the corruption of hydro in ‘dorophone.’ Van often had word dreams. (1.42)

The name Bouteillan comes from bouteille (bottle). In Mickiewicz’s “Four Toasts” w okrąg wielki (in a great circle) rhymes with z lejdejskiej butelki (from the Leyden jar). Butelka is Polish for “bottle.” Leyden (or Leiden) is a city in the Netherlands. On the other hand, Leiden means in German “sufferings” (cf. Die Leiden des jungen Werther, a novel by J. W. Goethe). The Antiterran L disaster in the beau milieu of the 19th century seems to correspond to the mock execution of Dostoevski and the Petrashevskians on Jan. 3, 1850 (NS). A tormentor and a martyr, Dostoevski believed that, in order to write good, one has to suffer. Like Prince Myshkin (the main character in Dostoevski’s novel Idiot, 1869), Dostoevski suffered from epilepsy. Van several times compares himself to an epileptic:

'Well, that bit about spinsters is rot,' said Van, 'we'll pull it off somehow, we'll become more and more distant relations in artistically forged papers and finally dwindle to mere namesakes, or at the worst we shall live quietly, you as my housekeeper, I as your epileptic, and then, as in your Chekhov, "we shall see the whole sky swarm with diamonds."'

‘Did you find them all, Uncle Van?’ she inquired, sighing, laying her dolent head on his shoulder. She had told him everything. (1.31)

Darkbloom (‘Notes to Ada’): Uncle Van: allusion to a line in Chekhov’s play Uncle Vanya: We shall see the sky swarming with diamonds.

In Chekhov’s play it is Sonya who promises to Uncle Vanya that they will see the sky swarming with diamonds. The main character in Marina Tsvetaev’s Povest’ o Sonechke is a namesake of Uncle Vanya’s niece. Like Maurice Gerald (the main character in Captain Mayne Reid’s Headless Horseman), Sonya Golidey (Marina Tsvetaev’s Sonechka) is Irish. On Antiterra The Headless Horseman is a poem by Pushkin:

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. (1.28)

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

Marina Tsvetaev is the author of Chudo s loshad’mi (“A Miracle with Horses,” 1934), an autobiographical story. Like Beaupré (Grinyov’s tutor in Pushkin’s Captain’s Daughter, 1836), the main character in Marina Tsvetaev’s story (a recognizable portrait of Ivan Rukavishnikov) is not vrag butylki (averse to the bottle).

Btw., a character in Chekhov’s story Tri goda (“Three Years,” 1895), Panaurov explains love as a manifestation of electric force:

Дама была смущена, всё время улыбалась, показывая зубы, Панауров объяснял научно, что такое влюбленность и от чего она происходит.

— Мы тут имеем дело с одним из явлений электричества, — говорил он по-французски, обращаясь к даме. — В коже каждого человека заложены микроскопические желёзки, которые содержат в себе токи. Если вы встречаетесь с особью, токи которой параллельны вашим, то вот вам и любовь.

Panaurov expounded didactically what being in love was, and what it was due to:
'We have in it an example of the action of electricity,' he said in French addressing the lady. 'Every man has in his skin microscopic glands which contain currents of electricity. If you meet a person whose currents are parallel with your own, then you get love'. (chapter IV)

Alexey Sklyarenko

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