Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0027295, Thu, 9 Feb 2017 14:26:17 +0300

Irish loo, Chose, L disaster & Bosch in Ada
Demon to Van: ‘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)

Loo is a part of “waterloo,” the word used by Chekhov in a letter of Dec. 2, 1898, to his sister. On the next day Chekhov wrote his first letter to A. M. Peshkov (Maxim Gorky). In this letter of Dec. 3, 1898, Chekhov speaks of Gorky’s talent and compares its defects to those of a tree:

Вы спрашиваете, какого я мнения о Ваших рассказах. Какого мнения? Талант несомненный, и притом настоящий, большой талант. Например, в рассказе «В степи» он выразился с необыкновенной силой, и меня даже зависть взяла, что это не я написал. Вы художник, умный человек, Вы чувствуете превосходно, Вы пластичны, т. е. когда изображаете вещь, то видите её и ощупываете руками. Это настоящее искусство. Вот Вам моё мнение, и я очень рад, что могу высказать Вам его. Я, повторяю, очень рад, и если бы мы познакомились и поговорили час-другой, то Вы убедились бы, как я высоко Вас ценю и какие надежды возлагаю на Ваше дарование.

Говорить теперь о недостатках? Но это не так легко. Говорить о недостатках таланта — это всё равно, что говорить о недостатках большого дерева, которое растёт в саду; тут ведь главным образом дело не в самом дереве, а во вкусах того, кто смотрит на дерево. Не так ли?

You ask what is my opinion of your stories. My opinion? The talent is unmistakable and it is a real, great talent. For instance, in the story “In the Steppe” it is expressed with extraordinary vigour, and I actually felt a pang of envy that it was not I who had written it. You are an artist, a clever man, you feel superbly, you are plastic — that is, when you describe a thing you see it and you touch it with your hands. That is real art. There is my opinion for you, and I am very glad I can express it to you. I am, I repeat, very glad, and if we could meet and talk for an hour or two you would be convinced of my high appreciation of you and of the hopes I am building on your gifts.

Shall I speak now of defects? But that is not so easy. To speak of the defects of a talent is like speaking of the defects of a great tree growing in the garden; what is chiefly in question, you see, is not the tree itself but the tastes of the man who is looking at it. Is not that so?

Veshch’ (a thing) mentioned by Chekhov brings to mind Chose (Fr., “thing”), Van’s and Demon’s English University (1.28, et passim). The third part of Gorky’s autobiographical trilogy is entitled Moi universitety (“My Universities,” 1923). The letter L being called lyudi in the old Russian alphabet, the second part of Gorky’s memoirs, V lyudyakh (“Out in the World,” 1916), brings to mind the Antiterran L disaster. The mysterious L disaster (“Lettrocalamity,” as Vanvitelli, an opera singer, called it, 1.24) that happened on Demonia (aka Antiterra, Earth’s twin planet on which Ada is set) 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) in our world. In a letter of March 5, 1889, to Suvorin Chekhov mentions Dostoevski:

Купил я в Вашем магазине Достоевского и теперь читаю. Хорошо, но очень уж длинно и нескромно. Много претензий.

I bought Dostoevsky in your shop and am now reading him. It is fine, but very long and indiscreet. It is over-pretentious.

In the same letter of March 5, 1889, Chekhov praises the singing of the gypsies and compares it to a train falling off a high bank in a violent snow-storm. Dikie bestii (“the wild creatures,” as Chekhov calls the gypsy women) bring to mind Dan’s nurse Bellabestia (“Bess”).

Demon visits Van in order to tell him about Uncle Dan’s death:

According to Bess (which is ‘fiend’ in Russian), Dan’s buxom but otherwise disgusting nurse, whom he preferred to all others and had taken to Ardis because she managed to extract orally a few last drops of ‘play-zero’ (as the old whore called it) out of his poor body, he had been complaining for some time, even before Ada’s sudden departure, that a devil combining the characteristics of a frog and a rodent desired to straddle him and ride him to the torture house of eternity. To Dr Nikulin Dan described his rider as black, pale-bellied, with a black dorsal buckler shining like a dung beetle’s back and with a knife in his raised forelimb. On a very cold morning in late January Dan had somehow escaped, through a basement maze and a toolroom, into the brown shrubbery of Ardis; he was naked except for a red bath towel which trailed from his rump like a kind of caparison, and, despite the rough going, had crawled on all fours, like a crippled steed under an invisible rider, deep into the wooded landscape. On the other hand, had he attempted to warn her she might have made her big Ada yawn and uttered something irrevocably cozy at the moment he opened the thick protective door.

‘I beg you, sir,’ said Van, ‘go down, and I’ll join you in the bar as soon as I’m dressed. I’m in a delicate situation.’

‘Come, come,’ retorted Demon, dropping and replacing his monocle. ‘Cordula won’t mind.’

‘It’s another, much more impressionable girl’ — (yet another awful fumble!). ‘Damn Cordula! Cordula is now Mrs Tobak.’

‘Oh, of course!’ cried Demon. ‘How stupid of me! I remember Ada’s fiancé telling me — he and young Tobak worked for a while in the same Phoenix bank. Of course. Splendid broad-shouldered, blue-eyed, blond chap. Backbay Tobakovich!’

‘I don’t care,’ said clenched Van, ‘if he looks like a crippled, crucified, albino toad. Please, Dad, I really must —’

‘Funny your saying that. I’ve dropped in only to tell you poor cousin Dan has died an odd Boschean death. He thought a fantastic rodent sort of rode him out of the house. They found him too late, he expired in Nikulin’s clinic, raving about that detail of the picture. I’m having the deuce of a time rounding up the family. The picture is now preserved in the Vienna Academy of Art.’

‘Father, I’m sorry — but I’m trying to tell you —’

‘If I could write,’ mused Demon, ‘I would describe, in too many words no doubt, how passionately, how incandescently, how incestuously — c’est le mot — art and science meet in an insect, in a thrush, in a thistle of that ducal bosquet. Ada is marrying an outdoor man, but her mind is a closed museum, and she, and dear Lucette, once drew my attention, by a creepy coincidence, to certain details of that other triptych, that tremendous garden of tongue-in-cheek delights, circa 1500, and, namely, to the butterflies in it — a Meadow Brown, female, in the center of the right panel, and a Tortoiseshell in the middle panel, placed there as if settled on a flower — mark the "as if," for here we have an example of exact knowledge on the part of those two admirable little girls, because they say that actually the wrong side of the bug is shown, it should have been the underside, if seen, as it is, in profile, but Bosch evidently found a wing or two in the corner cobweb of his casement and showed the prettier upper surface in depicting his incorrectly folded insect. I mean I don’t give a hoot for the esoteric meaning, for the myth behind the moth, for the masterpiece-baiter who makes Bosch express some bosh of his time, I’m allergic to allegory and am quite sure he was just enjoying himself by crossbreeding casual fancies just for the fun of the contour and color, and what we have to study, as I was telling your cousins, is the joy of the eye, the feel and taste of the woman-sized strawberry that you embrace with him, or the exquisite surprise of an unusual orifice — but you are not following me, you want me to go, so that you may interrupt her beauty sleep, lucky beast! A propos, I have not been able to alert Lucette, who is somewhere in Italy, but I’ve managed to trace Marina to Tsitsikar — flirting there with the Bishop of Belokonsk — she will arrive in the late afternoon, wearing, no doubt, pleureuses, very becoming, and we shall then travel à trois to Ladore, because I don’t think —’

Was he perhaps under the influence of some bright Chilean drug? That torrent was simply unstoppable, a crazy spectrum, a talking palette palette —

‘— no really, I don’t think we should bother Ada in her Agavia. 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)

In Gorky’s novel Zhizn’ Klima Samgina (“The Life of Klim Samgin,” 1925-36) Samgin is impressed by the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch that he saw in a Berlin museum:

Он встал, пошёл дальше, взволнованно повторяя стихи, остановился пред темноватым квадратом, по которому в хаотическом беспорядке разбросаны были странные фигуры фантастически смешанных форм: человеческое соединялось с птичьим и звериным, треугольник, с лицом, вписанным в него, шёл на двух ногах. Произвол художника разорвал, разъединил знакомое существующее на части и комически дерзко связал эти части в невозможное, уродливое. Самгин постоял пред картиной минуты три и вдруг почувствовал, что она внушает желание повторить работу художника, - снова разбить его фигуры на части и снова соединить их, но уже так, как захотел бы он, Самгин. Протестуя против этого желания и недоумевая, он пошел прочь, но тотчас вернулся, чтоб узнать имя автора. "Иероним Босх" - прочитал он на тусклой, медной пластинке и увидел еще две маленьких, но столь же странных. Он сел в кресло и, рассматривая работу, которая как будто не определялась понятием живописи, долго пытался догадаться: что думал художник Босх, создавая из разрозненных кусков реального этот фантастический мир? И чем более он всматривался в соединение несоединимых форм птиц, зверей, геометрических фигур, тем более требовательно возникало желание разрушить все эти фигуры, найти смысл, скрытый в их угрюмой фантастике. Имя - Иероним Босх - ничего не напоминало из истории живописи. Странно, что эта раздражающая картина нашла себе место в лучшем музее столицы немцев. (Part Four)

In Gorky’s novel Samgin and his mistress attend a session of the Duma (Russian Parliament) and Elena points out Nabokov (VN’s father) to Samgin:

- Знал бы ты, какой он дурак, этот Макаров, - точно оса, жужжала Елена в ухо ему. - А вон этот, который наклонился к Набокову, Шура Протопопов, забавный человечек. Набоков очень элегантный мужчина. А вообще какие все неуклюжие, серые... (ibid.)

Actually, VDN was a member of the First Duma (1906). Samgin and Elena attend a session of the Fourth Duma (1912-17). According to Elena, Nabokov is ochen’ elegantnyi muzhchina (“a very elegant man”). Ada likes the word “elegant:”

‘I am sentimental,’ she said. ‘I could dissect a koala but not its baby. I like the words damozel, eglantine, elegant. I love when you kiss my elongated white hand.’

She had on the back of her left hand the same small brown spot that marked his right one. She was sure, she said — either disingenuously or giddily — it descended from a birthmark Marina had had removed surgically from that very place years ago when in love with a cad who complained it resembled a bedbug. (1.17)

Klopy (the bedbugs) is the last word in Lermontov’s impromptu poem Ocharovatelen kavkazskiy nash Monako! (“Our Caucasian Monaco is enchanting!” 1841):

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.

…and in the day the women sting us, and in the night the bedbugs do.

Demon (a cad who complained that a birthmark on Marina’s hand resembled a bedbug) comes to Van’s penthouse apartment in the company of Valerio, a waiter at ‘Monaco.’ Valerik (1840) is a poem by Lermontov. In the last line of his poem Vykhozhu odin ya na dorogu… (“I go out on the road alone…” 1841) Lermontov mentions tyomnyi dub (a dark oak tree):

Выхожу один я на дорогу;

Сквозь туман кремнистый путь блестит;

Ночь тиха. Пустыня внемлет богу,

И звезда с звездою говорит.

В небесах торжественно и чудно!

Спит земля в сиянье голубом...

Что же мне так больно и так трудно?

Жду ль чего? жалею ли о чём?

Уж не жду от жизни ничего я,

И не жаль мне прошлого ничуть;

Я ищу свободы и покоя!

Я б хотел забыться и заснуть!

Но не тем холодным сном могилы...

Я б желал навеки так заснуть,

Чтоб в груди дремали жизни силы,

Чтоб дыша вздымалась тихо грудь;

Чтоб всю ночь, весь день мой слух лелея,

Про любовь мне сладкий голос пел,

Надо мной чтоб вечно зеленея

Тёмный дуб склонялся и шумел.

Alone I set out on the road;

The flinty path is sparkling in the mist;

The night is still. The desert harks to God,

And star with star converses.

The vault is overwhelmed with solemn wonder

The earth in cobalt aura sleeps. . .

Why do I feel so pained and troubled?

What do I harbor: hope, regrets?

I see no hope in years to come,

Have no regrets for things gone by.

All that I seek is peace and freedom!

To lose myself and sleep!

But not the frozen slumber of the grave...

I'd like eternal sleep to leave

My life force dozing in my breast

Gently with my breath to rise and fall;

By night and day, my hearing would be soothed

By voices sweet, singing to me of love.

And over me, forever green,

A dark oak tree would bend and rustle.

In his rhymes composed in “Ardis the First” Van mentions dub vysokiy (the tall oak tree) and Ladora (the Ladore):

Sestra moya, tï pomnish' goru,
I dub vïsokiy, i Ladoru?

My sister, you remember still
The spreading oak tree and my hill? (1.22)

Uncle Dan dies in a brand-new Ladore hospital, raving about Bosch:

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)

Maksim Maximovich, the title character of the second novella in Lermontov’s Geroy nashego vremeni (“A Hero of Our Time,” 1841), brings to mind Aleksey Maksimovich Peshkov’s patronymic and his penname, Maxim Gorky. The main character of Gorky’s novel “The Life of Klim Samgin” has the same first name as Baron Klim Avidov, one of Marina’s lovers who gave her children a set of Flavita (Russian Scrabble):

The set our three children received in 1884 from an old friend of the family (as Marina’s former lovers were known), Baron Klim Avidov, consisted of a large folding board of saffian and a boxful of weighty rectangles of ebony inlaid with platinum letters, only one of which was a Roman one, namely the letter J on the two joker blocks (as thrilling to get as a blank check signed by Jupiter or Jurojin). It was, incidentally, the same kindly but touchy Avidov (mentioned in many racy memoirs of the time) who once catapulted with an uppercut an unfortunate English tourist into the porter’s lodge for his jokingly remarking how clever it was to drop the first letter of one’s name in order to use it as a particule, at the Gritz, in Venezia Rossa. (1.36)

Flavita is an anagram of alfavit (alphabet), Baron Klim Avidov is an anagram of Vladimir Nabokov. The characters of Gorky’s play Na dne (“At the Bottom,” 1902) include Baron and Tatarin (a Tartar; cf. “Copper Tartars” mentioned by Demon).

Alexey Sklyarenko

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