Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0027372, Tue, 2 May 2017 15:07:30 +0300

solitude, Father Sergius, Count Tolstoy & ectric light in Ada
Describing Lucette’s suicide, Van says that death is only a more complete assortment of the infinite fractions of solitude:

The sky was also heartless and dark, and her body, her head, and particularly those damned thirsty trousers, felt clogged with Oceanus Nox, n,o,x. At every slap and splash of cold wild salt, she heaved with anise-flavored nausea and there was an increasing number, okay, or numbness, in her neck and arms. As she began losing track of herself, she thought it proper to inform a series of receding Lucettes – telling them to pass it on and on in a trick-crystal regression – that what death amounted to was only a more complete assortment of the infinite fractions of solitude. (3.5)

Van’s and Ada’s half-sister Lucette drowns herself in the Atlantic. In Otkroveniya smerti (“Revelations of Death”), Part One of his book Na vesakh Iova (“In Job’s Balances,” 1929), Lev Shestov speaks of Tolstoy’s stories “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” (1886) and “Father Sergius” (1898) and mentions odinochestvo (the solitude) which could not have been more absolute even at the bottom of the sea:

Отец Сергий — колоссальная фигура, святой подвижник — тем не менее, и его Толстой обрёк при жизни на те же муки, которые выпали на долю Ивана Ильича пред смертью. То же одиночество, полнее которого не бывает на дне морском, те же ужасы и та же безысходность — совершенная беспомощность и неспособность что-либо делать для своего спасения.

Father Sergius is a colossal figure, an ascetic saint, but Tolstoy condemned him to the same suffering which Ivan Ilyich had to endure before he died. He knew the same solitude which could not have been more absolute even at the bottom of the sea; the same terrors, the same impossible situation without issue, the same inability to "do" anything at all for his own salvation. (“The Last Judgment: Tolstoy’s last works,” 7)

Odinochestvo (solitude; loneliness) comes from odinokiy (solitary; lonely), and odinokiy comes from odin (one; alone). When Lucette rings him up, Van tells her that he is ne odin (not alone) in his cabin:

No doubt he was morally right in using the first pretext at hand to keep her away from his bed; but he also knew, as a gentleman and an artist, that the lump of words he brought up was trite and cruel, and it was only because she could not accept him as being either, that she believed him:

‘Mozhno pridti teper’ (can I come now)?’ asked Lucette.

‘Ya ne odin (I’m not alone),’ answered Van.

A small pause followed; then she hung up. (3.5)

Van spurns Lucette after masturbating in his bathroom. Describing “the disgusting but necessary act,” Van mentions Father Sergius:

In a series of sixty-year-old actions which now I can grind into extinction only by working on a succession of words until the rhythm is right, I, Van, retired to my bathroom, shut the door (it swung open at once, but then closed of its own accord) and using a temporary expedient less far-fetched than that hit upon by Father Sergius (who chops off the wrong member in Count Tolstoy’s famous anecdote), vigorously got rid of the prurient pressure as he had done the last time seventeen years ago. And how sad, how significant that the picture projected upon the screen of his paroxysm, while the unlockable door swung open again with the movement of a deaf man cupping his ear, was not the recent and pertinent image of Lucette, but the indelible vision of a bent bare neck and a divided flow of black hair and a purple-tipped paint brush. (ibid.)

In Tolstoy's story Father Sergius chops off his finger in order to resist the charms of a young woman who wants to seduce him. In Merezhkovski's novel Peter and Alexey (1905) tsar Peter I tells his son, Prince Alexey:

Когда гангрена сделалась в пальце моём, не должен ли я отсечь оный, хотя и часть тела моего? Так и тебя, яко уд гангренный, отсеку!"

"When my finger is affected by gangrene, shouldn't I cut it off, even though it is a part of my body? And so, like a gangrenous member, I will cut you off!" (Book Four, "The Flood", chapter IV)

It was Pyotr Tolstoy (Leo’s ancestor) who brought Prince Alexey back to Russia (where he was tortured to death) and, as a reward, made a Count by Peter I. (On the other hand, Russia is indebted to Tolstoy who bought for the tsar Abram Hannibal, Pushkin’s maternal great-grandfather.)

According to Demon (Van’s and Ada’s father), his aunt Kitty was married to Lyovka Tolstoy, the writer:

'Your dinner jacket is very nice - or, rather it's very nice recognizing one's old tailor in one's son's clothes - like catching oneself repeating an ancestral mannerism - for example, this (wagging his left forefinger three times at the height of his temple), which my mother did in casual, pacific denial; that gene missed you, but I've seen it in my hairdresser's looking-glass when refusing to have him put Crêmlin on my bald spot; and you know who had it too - my aunt Kitty, who married the Banker Bolenski after divorcing that dreadful old wencher Lyovka Tolstoy, the writer.' (1.38)

Demon caught himself wagging his left forefinger in his hairdresser’s looking-glass. In the last stanza of his poem Pered zerkalom (“In Front of the Mirror,” 1924) Khodasevich mentions the Solitude in the frame of the truth-telling looking-glass:

Да, меня не пантера прыжками

На парижский чердак загнала.

И Виргилия нет за плечами,-

Только есть Одиночество - в раме

Говорящего правду стекла.

Well, there was no leaping panther
chasing me up to my Paris garret,
and there's no Virgil at my shoulder -
there's only the Solitude in the frame
of the truth-telling looking-glass.

Khodasevich’s poem has for epigraph the opening line of Dante’s Inferno: Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita. Ad (“hell,” the Russian title of the first part of Dante’s Divine Comedy) needs but an a at the end to become Ada. ‘A’ is the first letter of the alphabet. The last letter of the Russian alphabet, я (pronounced like German ja), is also the first person pronoun (“I”). At the beginning of his poem “In Front of the Mirror” Khodasevich repeats the word ‘я’ three times:

Я, я, я. Что за дикое слово!

Me, me, me. What a preposterous word!

Flavita (the Russian Scrabble that Van, Ada and Lucette play at Ardis) is an anagram of alfavit (alphabet). During one of the games Lucette’s letters form the word ‘Kremlin’ and Ada makes a gesture that she inherited from Demon:

'Je ne peux rien faire,' wailed Lucette, 'mais rien - with my idiotic Buchstaben, REMNILK, LINKREM...'

'Look,' whispered Van, 'c'est tout simple, shift those two syllables and you get a fortress in ancient Muscovy.'

'Oh, no,' said Ada, wagging her finger at the height of her temple in a way she had. 'Oh, no. That pretty word does not exist in Russian. A Frenchman invented it. There is no second syllable.'

‘Ruth for a little child?’ interposed Van.

‘Ruthless!’ cried Ada.

‘Well,’ said Van, ‘you can always make a little cream, KREM or KREME — or even better — there’s KREMLI, which means Yukon prisons. Go through her ORHIDEYA.’

‘Through her silly orchid,’ said Lucette. (1.36)

Orchids are Ada’s favorite flowers. In “Ardis the First” she anoints Van’s forehead with her paintbrush and then proceeds to paint one of her fantastic orchids:

But nature is motion and growth. One afternoon he came up behind her in the music room more noiselessly than ever before because he happened to be barefooted — and, turning her head, little Ada shut her eyes and pressed her lips to his in a fresh-rose kiss that entranced and baffled Van.

‘Now run along,’ she said, ‘quick, quick, I’m busy,’ and as he lagged like an idiot, she anointed his flushed forehead with her paintbrush in the semblance of an ancient Estotian ‘sign of the cross.’ ‘I have to finish this,’ she added, pointing with her violet-purple-soaked thin brush at a blend of Ophrys scolopax and Ophrys veenae, ‘and in a minute we must dress up because Marina wants Kim to take our picture — holding hands and grinning’ (grinning, and then turning back to her hideous flower). (1.16)

When Van gets rid of the prurient pressure in the bathroom of his Tobakoff cabin, “the picture projected upon the screen of his paroxysm is the indelible vision of a bent bare neck and a divided flow of black hair and a purple-tipped paint brush.”

According to Van, Ada likes balls, orchids and The Cherry Orchard:

‘She likes,’ said Van, ‘what all our belles like — balls, orchids, and The Cherry Orchard.’ (1.38)

While Vishnyovyi sad (The Cherry Orchard, 1904) is a play by Chekhov, balls bring to mind Tolstoy’s story Posle bala (“After the Ball,” 1903). In his letter to Van, written after Lucette’s suicide, Demon mentions “naughty old Leo” and “consumptive Anton:”

I have followed your instructions, anent that letter, to the letter. Your epistolary style is so involute that I should suspect the presence of a code, had I not known you belonged to the Decadent School of writing, in company of naughty old Leo and consumptive Anton. I do not give a damn whether you slept or not with Lucette; but I know from Dorothy Vinelander that the child had been in love with you. (3.6)

According to Lucette, Dorothy Vinelander (Ada’s sister-in-law) has a private collection of keys (and other little keys to open people's hearts):

‘Dorothy is a prissy and pious monster who comes to stay for months, orders the meals, and has a private collection of keys to the servants' rooms - which our bumb brunette should have known - and other little keys to open people's hearts - she has tried, by the way, to make a practicing Orthodox not only of every American Negro she can catch, but of our sufficiently pravoslavnaya mother - though she only succeeded in making the Trimurti stocks go up.’ (3.3)

Shestov is the author of Potestas Clavium. Vlast’ klyuchey (“Power of the Keys,” 1923) and Vlast’ idey (“The Power of Ideas,” 1905), a review of the second volume of Merezhkovski’s “Tolstoy and Dostoevski” (1902). Unlike Tolstoy and Chekhov, Merezhkovski was a Decadent writer. Odinochestvo (“Solitude,” 1890) is a poem by Merezhkovski.

The title of Shestov’s essay on Chekhov, Tvorchestvo iz nichego (“Creation from Nothing,” 1905), brings to mind Graf Nulin (“Count Null,” 1825), Pushkin’s poem that appeared under one cover with Baratynski’s Bal (“The Ball,” 1828). Baratynski’s poem Smert’ (“Death,” 1828) begins: Smert’ dshcher’yu t’my ne nazovu ya… (“I won’t call death the Daughter of Darkness…). Tolstoy is the author of Vlast’ t’my (“The Power of Darkness,” 1886). In his poem Ni svetlym imenem bogov… (“Neither in the bright name of gods…” 1931) G. Ivanov (the poet who attacked VN in the Paris émigré review Numbers, 1930, #1) mentions t’ma i svet (darkness and light):

И тьма — уже не тьма, а свет.

И да — уже не да, а нет.

And darkness isn’t darkness anymore, but light.

And yes is not anymore yes, but no.

Ivanov’s poem is an elaboration of Elektrichestvo (“Electricity,” 1902), Zinaida Hippius’ poem quoted in full by Shestov in his essay on Merezhkovski (Hippius’ husband). After the L disaster in the middle of the 19th century electricity was banned on Antiterra (aka Demonia, Earth’s twin planet on which Ada is set) and even the word ‘electricity’ became unmentionable. Describing Lucette’s suicide, Van mentions the ‘ectric’ light in his cabin:

He saw the situation dispassionately now and felt he was doing right by going to bed and switching off the ‘ectric’ light (a surrogate creeping back into international use). The blue ghost of the room gradually established itself as his eyes got used to the darkness. He prided himself on his willpower. He welcomed the dull pain in his drained root. He welcomed the thought which suddenly seemed so absolutely true, and new, and as lividly real as the slowly widening gap of the sitting room’s doorway, namely, that on the morrow (which was at least, and at best, seventy years away) he would explain to Lucette, as a philosopher and another girl’s brother, that he knew how agonizing and how absurd it was to put all one’s spiritual fortune on one physical fancy and that his plight closely resembled hers, but that he managed, after all, to live, to work, and not pine away because he refused to wreck her life with a brief affair and because Ada was still a child. At that point the surface of logic began to be affected by a ripple of sleep, but he sprang back into full consciousness at the sound of the telephone. The thing seemed to squat for each renewed burst of ringing and at first he decided to let it ring itself out. Then his nerves surrendered to the insisting signal, and he snatched up the receiver. (3.5)

‘Electric’ compressed to six letters (btw., the name Shestov comes from shest’, “six”), ‘ectric’ also seems to hint at ‘eccentric,’ a word used by Van several times when he describes his performance as Mascodagama:

On February 5, 1887, an unsigned editorial in The Ranter (the usually so sarcastic and captious Chose weekly) described Mascodagama's performance as 'the most imaginative and singular stunt ever offered to a jaded music-hall public.' It was repeated at the Rantariver Club several times, but nothing in the programme or in publicity notices beyond the definition 'Foreign eccentric' gave any indication either of the exact nature of the 'stunt' or of the performer's identity. Rumors, carefully and cleverly circulated by Mascodagama's friends, diverted speculations toward his being a mysterious visitor from beyond the Golden Curtain, particularly since at least half-a-dozen members of a large Good-will Circus Company that had come from Tartary just then (i.e., on the eve of the Crimean War) — three dancing girls, a sick old clown with his old speaking goat, and one of the dancers’ husbands, a make-up man (no doubt, a multiple agent) — had already defected between France and England, somewhere in the newly constructed ‘Chunnel.’ (1.30)

In his memoir essay V. I. Lenin (1924) Gorky says that Lenin liked ekstsentrika (eccentricity on stage):

One evening in London when we had nothing particular to do a group of us went to see a show at a small, democratic theatre. Vladimir Ilyich laughed heartily at the clowns and the comic numbers, looked at most of the others with indifference, and keenly watched the scene where a couple of lumberjacks from British Columbia felled a tree. The stage depicted a lumber camp, and these two strapping fellows axed through a treetrunk over a yard thick in a minute.

‘That’s only for the public, of course. In real life they can’t work that fast,’ commented Vladimir Ilyich. ‘It’s obvious, though, that they use axes over there too, reducing a lot of good wood to useless chips. That’s the cultured British for you!’

He talked about the anarchy of production under the capitalist system, about the enormous percentage of wasted raw materials, and concluded with an expression of regret that no one had yet thought of writing a book about it. The idea was not entirely clear to me, but before I could ask any questions he was off on the subject of ‘eccentricity’ as a special form of theatrical art.

‘It is a satirical or sceptical attitude to the conventional, a desire to turn it inside out, - to twist it a little, and disclose what is illogical in the customary. It’s intricate - and interesting.’

In VN’s story Soglyadatay (“The Eye,” 1930) Weinstock at a séance asks Lenin about afterlife:

В а й н ш т о к

Нашел ли ты успокоение?

Л е н и н

Нет. Я страдаю.

В а й н ш т о к

Желаешь ли ты мне рассказать о загробной жизни?

Л е н и н /(после паузы)/


В а й н ш т о к


Л е н и н

Там ночь. (chapter 3)

Lenin’s reply, Tam noch’ (it’s night there), brings to mind Oceanus Nox mentioned by Van when he describes Lucette’s suicide.

Alexey Sklyarenko

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