Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0020754, Thu, 23 Sep 2010 07:29:16 -0300

Fw: [NABOKOV-L] Spring in Fialta and ETA HOffman's "The Automata."
Nabokov's early short-stories, some of them written in Germany, carry a Romantic atmosphere with their "uncanny" ("Unheimlich") otherwordly accents, and a longing for an ideal emotional state, often associated to a loved and unattainable woman. Although Nabokov frequently quotes or indicates Edgar A. Poe's gothic tales, I cannot remember ever having read a reference to ETA Hoffmann, not even while Nabokov lived in Berlin. Art critic Wilson Martins, in the late fifties, asserted that he could understand and appreciate Nabokov's audacities because "he had a Machado de Assis." In my case and, at least, twenty years later, I was able to fall in love with "Lolita" because... I "had an ETA Hoffman."

I realized recently that, when Nabokov began to write of "hurricane Lolita" and "Lolita fashion" (Ada wore "lolitas"...), he began to make a split, as we encounter at present, between the more philistine "Lolitas" and the unearthly "nymphets," the poetic idea of which is so close to Nabokov's own heart. I never seriously considered Maar's hypothesis of a Nabokovian cryptomnesic copy of a German "Ur-Lolita," however the fusion of an uncanny fantasy-world nymph, and a real girl, may also be intimated from Hoffmann's stories, such as "The Golden Vase." Nevertheless, I was unable to find any comprobatory link to Hoffmann, nor any clear alusion to him, in Nabokov. After I read a new translation of Hoffman's "The Automata" I decided to check again, not into KQKn with its mannekins, but, in "Spring in Fialta." An Italian aria, which kept ringing inside the main character's heart, linking love, marriage and death in Hoffman's story carried me to VN's Nina. At first, I only remembered her name, not Victor's,nor her husband's. I decided on a bet: if, in "Spring in Fialta" he, or anyone else, were named "Ferdinand" (like one of Hoffman's characters), I would have at least an initial foothold to find material clues to prod me further.

And...Yes! There's also a Ferdinand in "Spring in Fialta." Nevertheless, he is Nina's husband, not her hapless lover as in Hoffmann's tale. The lines of the melody Ferdinand once heard, while lying half-asleep in Hoffman's "The Automata," ( when the author includes a ghostly presence of a wonderful lady in the lad's room, reaffirming his recognition of their undying love), were originally written by Pietro Metastasio (1608-1782), in his libreto for "Alessandro nell'Indie". They were set into music by different composers and, thanks to the youtube, I could even hear them sung by Cecilia Bartoli (Franz Schubert's "Mio ben ricordati," D 688/4)

Here are the lines:
Mio ben ricordati,
S'avvien, ch'io mora:
Quanto quest'anima
Fedel t'amò.

E se pur amano
Le fredde ceneri:
Nell'urna ancora

Metastasio's verses, particularly "s'avvien, ch'io mora," reminded me of the insistent melody that haunted Victor after he learned that Nina was about to marry Ferdinand. In Nabokov's story the verses came from "some Parisian drama of love," sung "by an old maiden aunt" of his."

On dit que tu te maries
tu sais que j'en vai mourir."

In Hoffmann's story the song initially deals solely with the lady-singer's promise to remain faithful to her lover, even in death. There is no reference, then, to "marriage." However, in Hoffman's story there's a Professor X, who is responsible for a prophecy issued to Ferdinand from an automaton's mouth:"Your beloved shall die on the day you finally meet her." Professor X is a master musician and the creator of various kinds of strange automata and music boxes. He lives in a secluded house, surrounded by a garden that resounds with crystal bells and singing flowers. Actually, when Ferdinand meets his beloved singer, she is just entering a church to get married to Professor X when both, he and the girl, drop in a swoon.
In Nabokov's story on the day the narrator is on the verge of realizing the intensity of his love for Nina, she dies in a car accident. Her "salamander" husband, Ferdinand, survives.
Did Hoffmann manage to reconcile the "unreal intimations" he transformed into fiction, with "real life" events, did he merge life, fiction and Art? No, garantees Paul de Man. Yes, opines Jean Starobinski... Did Nabokov*?

According to a source "Hoffmann, a brilliant music critic and respectable composer as well as writer, is one of the major figures of German Romanticism, and a powerful and disturbing writer - and disturbed, according to many; Sir Walter Scott, in his extended discussion of Hoffmann and literary supernaturalism, concludes that Hoffmann needs medical attention more than he needs literary criticism, and no less a student of dysfunctional minds (which I guess is just about everyone's) than Sigmund Freud made Hoffman's "The Sandman" the center of his essay on "The Uncanny." Hoffmann, although strongly influenced by Gothic literature, is probably best regarded as a fantasist rather than a "Gothic" or "horror" writer, although Freud's term is perhaps the most apt." www.litgothic.com/Authors/hoffmann.html - Perhaps Sir Walter Scott was wrong. Only a very mature author could write, as did Hoffmann: "Der Moment, in dem der Mensch umfällt, ist der erste in dem sein wahrhaftes Ich sich aufrichtet." ( Tne instant in which a man suffers a fall is the first one when his true self arises). Perhaps Nabokov wanted to play it safe when he avoided associating his otherwordly aspersions, to Hoffmann's?

When we read "Spring in Fialta" bearing Hoffmann's tale in mind we may find the same emotional climate as the one described by German writer, also his music boxes and chimes: ..."while a song of the last century...kept ringing and ringing in my head, having emerged, God knows why, from the music box of memory, a sobbing ballad, which often used to be sung by an old maiden aunt of mine...whom nature had given such a powerful, ecstatically full voice that it seemed to swallow her up in the glory of a fiery cloud as soon as she would begin... and that melody, the pain, the offense, the link between hymen and death evoked by the rythm, and the voice itself of the dead singer, which accompanied the recollection as the sole owner of the song, gave me no rest after Nina's departure..."

btw: Nabokov's "aunts" are everpresent in his stories...Uncle Ruka's fascinating castles and crates filled with exotica (later to be inherited, lost and despised by Nabokov) and Mademoiselle's lovely voice, reciting French poems to young Vladimir, could have been blended into one fantastic menacing, but also protective and beloved being, a magic "haunting aunt"?

Alexey wrote, at the end of today's message on Pale Fire and Dostoievsky: "I am note sure I am on the right track but can not come up with anything better at the moment."
I have a similar feeling as his, concerning hypothesis,thesis, hunches. .I wish I could contribute and add something to his comments, however my reading experience is, alas, insufficient. I hope the Forum will come alive soon.

*- SF's narrator confesses that "were I a writer, I should allow only my heart to have imagination, and for the rest rely upon memory, that long-drawn sunset shadow of one's personal truth." ... "I felt myself bound to seek for a rational, if not moral interpretation of my existence, and this mean choosing between the world in which I sat for my portrait, with my wife... between that happy, wise and good world... and what?"

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