Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0027294, Mon, 6 Feb 2017 15:14:15 +0300

Russian roulette, Irish loo & Monaco in Ada; waterproof,
Valeria & Rita in Lolita
As he speaks to Van, Demon Veen (Van’s and Ada’s father) mentions Russian roulette and Irish loo:

‘He is — I mean, Vinelander is — the scion, s,c,i,o,n, of one of those great Varangians who had conquered the Copper Tartars or Red Mongols — or whoever they were — who had conquered some earlier Bronze Riders — before we introduced our Russian roulette and Irish loo at a lucky moment in the history of Western casinos.’ (2.10)

Demon comes to the apartment where Van lives with Ada in the company of Valerio, a waiter at ‘Monaco’ (a restaurant in the entresol of the tall building crowned by Van’s penthouse):

With the simple and, combinationally speaking, neat, thought that, after all, there was but one sky (white, with minute multicolored optical sparks), Demon hastened to enter the lobby and catch the lift which a ginger-haired waiter had just entered, with breakfast for two on a wiggle-wheel table and the Manhattan Times among the shining, ever so slightly scratched, silver cupolas. Was his son still living up there, automatically asked Demon, placing a piece of nobler metal among the domes. Si, conceded the grinning imbecile, he had lived there with his lady all winter.

'Then we are fellow travelers,' said Demon inhaling not without gourmand anticipation the smell of Monaco's coffee, exaggerated by the shadows of tropical weeds waving in the breeze of his brain. (ibid.)

In a letter of Apr. 15, 1891, to his family Chekhov describes Monte Carlo (a gambling resort in Monaco) and compares its ruletochnaya roskosh’ (roulette luxury) to a luxurious water-closet:

Около казино с рулеткой есть другая рулетка – это рестораны. Дерут здесь страшно и кормят великолепно. Что ни порция, то целая композиция, перед которой в благоговении нужно преклонять колена, но отнюдь не осмеливаться есть её. Всякий кусочек изобильно уснащён артишоками, трюфлями, всякими соловьиными языками… И, боже ты мой господи, до какой степени презренна и мерзка эта жизнь с её артишоками, пальмами, запахом померанцев! Я люблю роскошь и богатство, но здешняя рулеточная роскошь производит на меня впечатление роскошного ватерклозета. В воздухе висит что-то такое, что, Вы чувствуете, оскорбляет вашу порядочность, опошляет природу, шум моря, луну.

Beside the Casino where roulette is played there is another swindle — the restaurants. They fleece one frightfully and feed one magnificently. Every dish is a regular work of art, before which one is expected to bow one’s knee in homage and to be too awe-stricken to eat it. Every morsel is rigged out with lots of artichokes, truffles, and nightingales’ tongues of all sorts. And, good Lord! how contemptible and loathsome this life is with its artichokes, its palms, and its smell of orange blossoms! I love wealth and luxury, but the luxury here, the luxury of the gambling saloon, reminds one of a luxurious water-closet. There is something in the atmosphere that offends one’s sense of decency and vulgarizes the scenery, the sound of the sea, the moon.

In letter of Dec. 2, 1898, to his sister Chekhov describes a house that he was building for himself in Yalta and calls the water-closet “waterloo:”

Милая Маша, посылаю тебе набросок северного фасада. Окон почти нет, стена глухая, потому что север. Круглые окошечки — это запасный бак над ванной и ватерлоо.

There is loo in Waterloo (a village in central Belgium, the place of Napoleon’s decisive defeat in June, 1815). Duke of Wellington (the British general who opposed Napoleon in the battle of Waterloo) was born in Ireland. Grace Erminin (Greg’s twin sister in Ada) marries a Wellington. Like Cordula, Grace believed that Demon and Ada were lovers:

Ada’s bobrï (princely plural of bobr) were a gift from Demon, who as we know, had lately seen in the Western states considerably more of her than he had in Eastern Estotiland when she was a child. The bizarre enthusiast had developed the same tendresse for her as he had always had for Van. Its new expression in regard to Ada looked sufficiently fervid to make watchful fools suspect that old Demon ‘slept with his niece’ (actually, he was getting more and more occupied with Spanish girls who were getting more and more youthful every year until by the end of the century, when he was sixty, with hair dyed a midnight blue, his flame had become a difficult nymphet of ten). So little did the world realize the real state of affairs that even Cordula Tobak, born de Prey, and Grace Wellington, born Erminin, spoke of Demon Veen, with his fashionable goatee and frilled shirtfront, as ‘Van’s successor.’ (2.6).

Waterloo brings to mind waterproof, in VN’s novel Lolita (1955) the word uttered by Charlotte (Lolita’s mother) and remembered by Humbert Humbert the moment Lolita tells him the name of her lover:

Waterproof. Why did a flash from Hourglass Lake cross my consciousness? I, too, had known it, without knowing it, all along. There was no shock, no surprise. Quietly the fusion took place, and everything fell into order, into the pattern of branches that I have woven throughout this memoir with the express purpose of having the ripe fruit fall at the right moment; yes, with the express and perverse purpose of rendering – she was talking but I sat melting in my golden peace – of rendering that golden and monstrous peace through the satisfaction of logical recognition, which my most inimical reader should experience now. (2.29)

Valerio (the waiter at ‘Monaco’) brings to mind Valeria, Humbert Humbert’s first wife in Lolita who left him for Colonel Maximovich (a White Russian who worked as a taxi driver in Paris). Describing the colonel’s visit to his Paris apartment, Humbert Humbert mentions the bathroom and toilet:

Clumsily playing my part, I stomped to the bathroom to check if they had taken my English toilet water; they had not; but I noticed with a spasm of fierce disgust that the former Counselor of the Tsar, after thoroughly easing his bladder, had not flushed the toilet. That solemn pool of alien urine with a soggy, tawny cigarette butt disintegrating in it struck me as a crowning insult, and I wildly looked around for a weapon. Actually I daresay it was nothing but middle-class Russian courtesy (with an oriental tang, perhaps) that had prompted the good colonel (Maximovich! his name suddenly taxies back to me), a very formal person as they all are, to muffle his private need in decorous silence so as not to underscore the small size of his host’s domicile with the rush of a gross cascade on top of his own hushed trickle. (1.8)

Demon asks Van if he can use his W.C.:

‘My gloves! Cloak! Thank you. Can I use your W.C.? No? All right. I’ll find one elsewhere. Come over as soon as you can, and we’ll meet Marina at the airport around four and then whizz to the wake, and —’ (2.10)

As he listens to Demon (who just found out that Van and Ada were lovers), the airplane’s washroom pops up in Van’s stream of consciousness:

‘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)

Van’s and Ada’s uncle Dan (Demon Veen’s cousin who married Marina, Van’s, Ada’s and Lucette’s mother) dies in the Ladore hospital. Dan’s last words are addressed to Dr Nikulin and nurse Bellabestia (‘Bess’):

And here Ada entered. Not naked — oh no; in a pink peignoir so as not to shock Valerio — comfortably combing her hair, sweet and sleepy. She made the mistake of crying out ‘Bozhe moy!’ and darting back into the dusk of the bedroom. All was lost in that one chink of a second.

‘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)

In a letter of Dec. 19, 1888, to Suvorin Chekhov describes his visit to Nadezhda Nikulin, the actress of the Moscow Malyi Theater who played Kokoshkin in Suvorin’s play Tatiana Repin (1888):

Никулина встретила меня радостной вестью, что Машенька согласилась играть Репину. Мы сели за стол и составили такую афишу:

Репина — Ермолова.

Кокошкина — Никулина.

Оленина — Лешковская.

Адашев — Ленский.

Матвеев — Макшеев.

The characters of Suvorin’s play include Adashev (who was played by Lenski).

Bellabestia = bella (It., beautiful) + bestia (It., beast, animal). In a letter of March 5, 1889, to Suvorin Chekhov praises the singing of the gypsies and calls them dikie bestii (the wild creatures):

Вчера ночью ездил за город и слушал цыганок. Хорошо поют эти дикие бестии. Их пение похоже на крушение поезда с высокой насыпи во время сильной метели: много вихря, визга и стука...

Last night I drove out of town and listened to the gypsies. They sing well, the wild creatures. Their singing reminds me of a train falling off a high bank in a violent snow-storm: there is a lot of turmoil, screeching and banging.

Bella is the first novella in Lermontov’s novel Geroy nashego vremeni (“A Hero of Our Time,” 1841). The second novella is Maxim Maximovich. The characters of the third novella, Taman’ (Chekhov’s favorite), are the smugglers. The Black Miller (about whom Demon promises to tell Van some other time) is a professional smuggler of neonegine:

Dr Lapiner’s wife, born Countess Alp, not only left him, in 1871, to live with Norbert von Miller, amateur poet, Russian translator at the Italian Consulate in Geneva, and professional smuggler of neonegrine — found only in the Valais — but had imparted to her lover the melodramatic details of the subterfuge which the kindhearted physician had considered would prove a boon to one lady and a blessing to the other. Versatile Norbert spoke English with an extravagant accent, hugely admired wealthy people and, when name-dropping, always qualified such a person as ‘enawmously rich’ with awed amorous gusto, throwing himself back in his chair and spreading tensely curved arms to enfold an invisible fortune. He had a round head as bare as a knee, a corpse’s button nose, and very white, very limp, very damp hands adorned with rutilant gems. His mistress soon left him. Dr Lapiner died in 1872. About the same time, the Baron married an innkeeper’s innocent daughter and began to blackmail Demon Veen; this went on for almost twenty years, when aging Miller was shot dead by an Italian policeman on a little-known border trail, which had seemed to get steeper and muddier every year. Out of sheer kindness, or habit, Demon bade his lawyer continue to send Miller’s widow — who mistook it naively for insurance money — the trimestrial sum which had been swelling with each pregnancy of the robust Swissess. Demon used to say that he would publish one day ‘Black Miller’s’ quatrains which adorned his letters with the jingle of verselets on calendarial leaves:

My spouse is thicker, I am leaner.

Again it comes, a new bambino.

You must be good like I am good.

Her stove is big and wants more wood. (2.11)

In an impromptu poem addressed to Lyov Pushkin (the poet’s younger brother) Lermontov (the author of The Demon, 1829-40, and of Valerik, 1840) calls Pyatigorsk (a Caucasian spa) Kavkazskiy nash Monako (our Caucasian Monaco):

Очарователен кавказский наш Монако!
Танцоров, игроков, бретёров в нём толпы;
В нём лихорадят нас вино, игра и драка,
И жгут днём женщины, а по ночам — клопы.

The place name Pyatigorsk comes from pyat’ (five) and gora (mountain). The composer Philip Rack (Ada’s lover who was poisoned by his jealous wife) dies in Ward Five of the Kalugano hospital (1.42). In a letter of Nov. 25, 1892, to Suvorin Chekhov complains that modern art, and literature in particular, lacks the alcohol that would intoxicate the reader and modestly compares his story Palata №. 6 (“Ward No. 6,” 1892) to lemonade:

Вас нетрудно понять, и Вы напрасно браните себя за то, что неясно выражаетесь. Вы горький пьяница, а я угостил Вас сладким лимонадом, и Вы, отдавая должное лимонаду, справедливо замечаете, что в нём нет спирта. В наших произведениях нет именно алкоголя, который бы пьянил и порабощал, и это Вы хорошо даёте понять. Отчего нет? Оставляя в стороне «Палату № 6» и меня самого, будем говорить вообще, ибо это интересней.

It is easy to understand you, and there is no need for you to abuse yourself for obscurity of expression. You are a hard drinker, and I have regaled you with sweet lemonade, and you, after giving the lemonade its due, justly observe that there is no spirit in it. That is just what is lacking in our productions—the alcohol which could intoxicate and subjugate, and you state that very well. Why not? Putting aside "Ward No. 6" and myself, let us discuss the matter in general, for that is more interesting.

The characters of Chekhov’s story Volodya bol’shoy i Volodya malen’kiy (The Two Volodyas, 1893) include Rita, a spinster who can drink any amount of wine and liquor without being drunk and who tells scandalous anecdotes in a languid and tasteless way.

In Lolita Rita is a never quite sober girl whom Humbert Humbert picks up at a darkishly burning bar between Montreal and New York after Lolita was abducted from him. One day Rita proposes playing Russian roulette:

Then one day she proposed playing Russian roulette with my sacred automatic; I said you couldn’t, it was not a revolver, and we struggled for it, until at last it went off, touching off a very thin and very comical spurt of hot water from the hole it made in the wall of the cabin room; I remember her shrieks of laughter. (2.26)

In Ada Rita is Van’s partner when, as Mascodagama, he dances tango on his hands:

For the tango, which completed his number on his last tour, he was given a partner, a Crimean cabaret dancer in a very short scintillating frock cut very low on the back. She sang the tango tune in Russian:

Pod znóynïm nébom Argentínï,

Pod strástnïy góvor mandolinï

'Neath sultry sky of Argentina,

To the hot hum of mandolina

Fragile, red-haired 'Rita' (he never learned her real name), a pretty Karaite from Chufut Kale, where, she nostalgically said, the Crimean cornel, kizil', bloomed yellow among the arid rocks, bore an odd resemblance to Lucette as she was to look ten years later. (1.30)

On Antiterra (aka Demonia, Earth’s twin planet on which Ada is set) VN’s Lolita is known as The Gitanilla by the Spanish writer Osberg (1.13, et passim). Osberg = Borges. J. L. Borges (1899-1986) was an Argentinean author.

By voskovaya mushmula (mentioned in VN’s poem Krym, 1921) VN means the waxen fruit (not “blossom” as I wrote in my previous post) of medlar.

Alexey Sklyarenko

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