Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0027297, Fri, 10 Feb 2017 22:33:40 -0800

talking pallette, Khazar guerillas
Editorial Note:

Dear Members of the List:

The message below ought to have appeared before the most recently posted message ("Irish loo...").

With apologies and best wishes,

From Alexey Sklyarenko:

When Demon tells him in detail about Uncle Dan’s death, Van compares his father’s speech to “a talking palette:”

‘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 —

‘— 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 VN’s novel Lolita (1955) Humbert Humbert composes a poem for Rita:

In the silent painted park where I walked her and aired her a little, she sobbed and said I would soon, soon leave her as everybody had, and I sang her a wistful French ballad, and strung together some fugitive rhymes to amuse her:

The place was called Enchanted Hunters. Query:

What Indian dyes, Diana, did thy dell

endorse to make of Picture Lake a very

blood bath of trees before the blue hotel?

She said: “Why blue when it is white, why blue for heaven’s sake?” and started to cry again, and I marched her to the car, and we drove on to New York, and soon she was reasonably happy again high up in the haze on the little terrace of our flat. (2.26)

In VN’s Russian translation of Lolita (1967) Humbert Humbert’s poem begins: Palitra klyonov v ozere kak rana / otrazhena (The palette of maples is reflected in the lake / like a wound). “The palette of maples” brings to mind the second quatrain of Coppée’s sonnet Matin d'Octobre translated by Ada in “Ardis the First” and recited by Van in “Ardis the Second:”

She had to finish a translation for Mlle Larivière. She showed him her draft. François Coppée? Yes.

Their fall is gentle. The woodchopper

Can tell, before they reach the mud,

The oak tree by its leaf of copper,

The maple by its leaf of blood.

‘Leur chute est lente,’ said Van, ‘on peut les suivre du regard en reconnaissant — that paraphrastic touch of "chopper" and "mud" is, of course, pure Lowden (minor poet and translator, 1815–1895). Betraying the first half of the stanza to save the second is rather like that Russian nobleman who chucked his coachman to the wolves, and then fell out of his sleigh.’ (1.20)

‘Old storytelling devices,’ said Van, ‘may be parodied only by very great and inhuman artists, but only close relatives can be forgiven for paraphrasing illustrious poems. Let me preface the effort of a cousin — anybody’s cousin — by a snatch of Pushkin, for the sake of rhyme —’

‘For the snake of rhyme!’ cried Ada. ‘A paraphrase, even my paraphrase, is like the corruption of "snakeroot" into "snagrel" — all that remains of a delicate little birthwort.’

‘Which is amply sufficient,’ said Demon, ‘for my little needs, and those of my little friends.’

‘So here goes,’ continued Van (ignoring what he felt was an indecent allusion, since the unfortunate plant used to be considered by the ancient inhabitants of the Ladore region not so much as a remedy for the bite of a reptile, as the token of a very young woman’s easy delivery; but no matter).

‘By chance preserved has been the poem. In fact, I have it. Here it is: Leur chute est lente and one can know ‘em…’

‘Oh, I know ‘em,’ interrupted Demon:

‘Leur chute est lente. On peut les suivre

Du regard en reconnaissant

Le chêne à sa feuille de cuivre

L’érable à sa feuille de sang

‘Grand stuff!’

‘Yes, that was Coppée and now comes the cousin,’ said Van, and he recited:

‘Their fall is gentle. The leavesdropper

Can follow each of them and know

The oak tree by its leaf of copper,

The maple by its blood-red glow.’

‘Pah!’ uttered the versionist.

‘Not at all!’ cried Demon. ‘That "leavesdropper" is a splendid trouvaille, girl.’ He pulled the girl to him, she landing on the arm of his Klubsessel, and he glued himself with thick moist lips to her hot red ear through the rich black strands. Van felt a shiver of delight. (1.38)

“The snake of rhyme” mentioned by Ada brings to mind the poisonous snake that slithers out of the scull of Oleg’s favorite horse (long dead and buried) and bites Oleg in Pushkin’s Pesn’ o veshchem Olege (“The Song of Wise Oleg,” 1822). At the beginning of his poem Pushkin mentions nerazumnye khozary (the unwise Khozars):

Как ныне сбирается вещий Олег
Отмстить неразумным хозарам…

One of Ada's lovers, Percy de Prey goes to the Crimean War and is wounded in a skirmish with Khazar guerillas:

Percy had been shot in the thigh during a skirmish with Khazar guerillas in a ravine near Chew-Foot-Calais, as the American troops pronounced 'Chufutkale,' the name of a fortified rock. (1.42)

In “The Song of Wise Oleg” Pushkin mentions the old sorcerer who obeys to Perun (“the Russian Jupiter”) alone:

Из тёмного леса навстречу ему
Идёт вдохновенный кудесник,
Покорный Перуну старик одному,
Заветов грядущего вестник,
В мольбах и гаданьях проведший весь век.
И к мудрому старцу подъехал Олег.

Describing the family dinner in “Ardis the Second,” Van mentions Perun, the unmentionable god of thunder:

Ada ran to the window. From under the anxious magnolias a white-faced boy flanked by two gaping handmaids stood aiming a camera at the harmless, gay family group. But it was only a nocturnal mirage, not unusual in July. Nobody was taking pictures except Perun, the unmentionable god of thunder. (1.38)

The picture of Van, Ada and their parents was taken on the sly by Kim Beauharnais (the kitchen boy and photographer at Ardis). Describing Kim’s album, Van mentions Diana (the Roman goddess of hunting):

‘Well,’ said Van, when the mind took over again, ‘let’s go back to our defaced childhood. I’m anxious’ — (picking up the album from the bedside rug) — ‘to get rid of this burden. Ah, a new character, the inscription says: Dr Krolik.’

‘Wait a sec. It may be the best Vanishing Van but it’s terribly messy all the same. Okay. Yes, that’s my poor nature teacher.’

Knickerbockered, panama-hatted, lusting for his babochka (Russian for 'lepidopteron'). A passion, a sickness. What could Diana know about that chase?

'How curious - in the state Kim mounted him here, he looks much less furry and fat than I imagined. In fact, darling, he's a big, strong, handsome old March Hare! Explain!'

'There's nothing to explain. I asked Kim one day to help me carry some boxes there and back, and here's the visual proof. Besides, that's not my Krolik but his brother, Karol, or Karapars, Krolik. A doctor of philosophy, born in Turkey.'

'I love the way your eyes narrow when you tell a lie. The remote mirage in Effrontery Minor.'

'I'm not lying!' - (with lovely dignity): 'He is a doctor of philosophy.'

'Van ist auch one,' murmured Van, sounding the last word as 'wann.' (2.7)

In Pushkin’s poem the old sorcerer predicts to Oleg that he will die because of his horse. Before the family dinner in “Ardis the Second” Demon predicts his own death in an airplane disaster, as he reads Van’s palm:

‘I say,’ exclaimed Demon, ‘what’s happened — your shaftment is that of a carpenter’s. Show me your other hand. Good gracious’ (muttering:) ‘Hump of Venus disfigured, Line of Life scarred but monstrously long...’ (switching to a gipsy chant:) ‘You’ll live to reach Terra, and come back a wiser and merrier man’ (reverting to his ordinary voice:) ‘What puzzles me as a palmist is the strange condition of the Sister of your Life. And the roughness!’

‘Mascodagama,’ whispered Van, raising his eyebrows.

‘Ah, of course, how blunt (dumb) of me. Now tell me — you like Ardis Hall?’ (1.38)

Van lies to his father when he tells Demon that he had an affair with Rita, his tango-partner in the Mascodagama stunt:

‘Well, I’m glad you get along so well with Ada. That’s fine. A moment ago, in that gallery, I ran into a remarkably pretty soubrette. She never once raised her lashes and answered in French when I — Please, my boy, move that screen a little, that’s right, the stab of a sunset, especially from under a thunderhead, is not for my poor eyes. Or poor ventricles. Do you like the type, Van — the bowed little head, the bare neck, the high heels, the trot, the wiggle, you do, don’t you?’

‘Well, sir —’

(Tell him I’m the youngest Venutian? Does he belong, too? Show the sign? Better not. Invent.)

‘— Well, I’m resting after my torrid affair, in London, with my tango-partner whom you saw me dance with when you flew over for that last show — remember?’

‘Indeed, I do. Curious, you calling it that.’ (ibid.)

In his poem Olegov shchit (“Oleg’s Shield,” 1829) Pushkin calls the Kievan Prince Oleg (d. 912) voinstvennyi varyag (a warlike Varangian):

Когда ко граду Константина
С тобой, воинственный варяг,
Пришла славянская дружина
И развила победы стяг,
Тогда во славу Руси ратной,
Строптиву греку в стыд и страх,
Ты пригвоздил свой щит булатный
На цареградских воротах.

Настали дни вражды кровавой;
Твой путь мы снова обрели.
Но днесь, когда мы вновь со славой
К Стамбулу грозно притекли,
Твой холм потрясся с бранным гулом,
Твой стон ревнивый нас смутил,
И нашу рать перед Стамбулом
Твой старый щит остановил.

When you, O warlike soldier-Viking,
Accompanied by Slav brigade,
At Constantine’s Great City striking
Unfurled the victory banner frayed,
Then to great Russia’s martial glory,
To shame and fear of stubborn Greek,
You pinned amidst the great furore
Your damask shield to gates antique.

The days of bloody strife’s furore
Are here again, we’ve followed you.
But now we’ve come afresh in glory
With menaces on Stamboul too,
Your hill by fearsome roar was shaken,
Resounded loud your jealous moan,
And though Stamboul again was taken
By ancient shield we still were thrown.

(transl. Rupert Moreton)

According to Demon, Andrey Vinelander (Ada’s future husband) is the scion of one of those great Varangians who had conquered the Copper Tartars or Red Mongols.

Alexey Sklyarenko

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