Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0027406, Sun, 4 Jun 2017 17:28:54 +0300

charming Monsieur de Pastrouil & Colonel St Alin, a scoundrel,
in Ada; John Ray, Jr., in Lolita
The challenge was accepted; two native seconds were chosen; the Baron plumped for swords; and after a certain amount of good blood (Polish and Irish - a kind of American 'Gory Mary' in barroom parlance) had bespattered two hairy torsoes, the whitewashed terrace, the flight of steps leading backward to the walled garden in an amusing Douglas d'Artagnan arrangement, the apron of a quite accidental milkmaid, and the shirtsleeves of both seconds, charming Monsieur de Pastrouil and Colonel St Alin, a scoundrel, the latter gentlemen separated the panting combatants, and Skonky died, not 'of his wounds' (as it was viciously rumored) but of a gangrenous afterthought on the part of the least of them, possibly self-inflicted, a sting in the groin, which caused circulatory trouble, notwithstanding quite a few surgical interventions during two or three years of protracted stays at the Aardvark Hospital in Boston - a city where, incidentally, he married in 1869 our friend the Bohemian lady, now keeper of Glass Biota at the local museum. (1.2)

Charming Monsieur de Pastrouil seems to be the Antiterran twin of Louis Pasteur (1822-95), a French chemist and bacteriologist. In Chekhov’s story Palata No. 6 (“Ward Six,” 1892) the discoveries of Pasteur and of Koch are mentioned:

Радикально излечивается сифилис. А теория наследственности, гипнотизм, открытия Пастера и Коха, гигиена со статистикой, а наша русская земская медицина? Психиатрия с её теперешнею классификацией болезней, методами распознавания и лечения — это в сравнении с тем, что было, целый Эльборус.

A radical cure for syphilis had been discovered. And the theory of heredity, hypnotism, the discoveries of Pasteur and of Koch, hygiene based on statistics, and the work of Zemstvo doctors! Psychiatry with its modern classification of mental diseases, methods of diagnosis, and treatment, was a perfect Elborus in comparison with what had been in the past. (chapter VII)

“Elborus” is an old spelling of Elbrus, a mountain in the Caucasus range (the highest peak in Europe). “Colonel St Alin, a scoundrel” clearly hints at Stalin (1879-1953). Like Dzhugashvili (Stalin’s real name), Vasiliy Nemirovich-Danchenko (a novelist, 1845-1936) hailed from the Caucasus. In a letter of October 17 (29), 1897, to V. M. Sobolevski, Chekhov quotes the words of Jakobi, the painter who called Vasiliy Nemirovich-Danchenko merzavets (a scoundrel):

Играю в пикет с Якоби и с Ковалевским. Якоби говорит, что Вас. Немирович-Данченко военный писарь, мерзавец и бездарность. Вы, кажется, единственный человек, о котором он отзывается хорошо.

In his memoir essay O Chekhove (“On Chekhov”) included in his book Na kladbishchakh (“At the Cemeteries,” 1921) Nemirovich describes his sojourn with Chekhov and Jakobi in Pension Russe in Nice. Demon’s duel with Baron d’Onsky took place in Nice. The Baron who “plumped for swords” brings to mind Dmitri Nikolaevich Nabokov, VN’s grandfather, who plumped for the more solid reward than the title of count and who lived in Nice after his retirement:

At his retirement, Alexander the Third offered him to choose between the title of count and a sum of money, presumably large—I do not know what exactly an earldom was worth in Russia, but contrary to the thrifty Tsar’s hopes my grandfather (as also his uncle Ivan, who had been offered a similar choice by Nicholas the First) plumped for the more solid reward. (“Encore un comte raté,” dryly comments Sergey Sergeevich.) After that he lived mostly abroad. In the first years of this century his mind became clouded but he clung to the belief that as long as he remained in the Mediterranean region everything would be all right. Doctors took the opposite view and thought he might live longer in the climate of some mountain resort or in Northern Russia. There is an extraordinary story, which I have not been able to piece together adequately, of his escaping from his attendants somewhere in Italy. There he wandered about, denouncing, with King Lear-like vehemence, his children to grinning strangers, until he was captured in a wild rocky place by some matter-of-fact carabinieri. During the winter of 1903, my mother, the only person whose presence, in his moments of madness, the old man could bear, was constantly at his side in Nice… He kept mistaking the attendant who rolled him along the Promenade des Anglais for Count Loris-Melikov, a (long-deceased) colleague of his in the ministerial cabinet of the eighties. (Speak, Memory, Three, 1)

In Nemirovich’s book “At the Cemeteries” the memoir essay on Chekhov is followed by Diktator na pokoe (“The Retired Dictator”), a memoir essay on Loris-Melikov. Like Nemirovich and Stalin, Loris-Melikov was born in the Caucasus. In his memoir essay Nemirovich quotes the words of Loris-Melikov who said that the tsar Alexander III had kurdskie mozgi (the Kurdish brain):

-- Если бы ум Александра III равнялся его характеру и воле, да при этом дано было ему ещё и образование, хотя бы такое же, как и германским принцам, например, -- его царствование отметилось бы как одна из блистательнейших страниц в истории России. Но, к сожалению, он был не только невежда. Это ещё ничего. Недостаток сведений пополняется знаниями окружающих. Он боялся умных и ученых людей! Он ненавидел их. Самым ужасным приговором для государственных людей в его устах было: он слишком умён для меня. Настоящие курдские мозги!

-- Что? -- не понял я.

-- Курдские мозги... А вы ещё кавказец! Неужели не слышали дома: "У него курдские мозги"?

-- Не случалось!

-- У нас есть пословица: вбил дурак гвоздь в курдский мозг и сто умных, как ни потели, вытащить его не могли. Раз А. III влетела в голову какая-нибудь мысль, -- кончено. Вы могли созвать всю Академию наук и доказывать, что это чепуха -- всё равно. Он тупо смотрел бы вам в глаза и повторял: "Я сказал".

Loris-Melikov quotes a Caucasian saying: “the fool had hammered a nail in the Kurdish brain that a hundred clever people, despite all their efforts, could not draw out.” Alin (in the name St Alin) is an anagram of “nail.”

St Alin is a colonel. When Van Veen (the main character and narrator in Ada) meets Greg Erminin in Paris (on Antiterra, also known as Lute), he tells Greg (who uses his British title): “your father preferred to pass for a Chekhovian colonel.” (3.2) The characters of Chekhov’s play “The Three Sisters” (1901) include Colonel Vershinin (whose surname comes from vershina, “summit”). In Lermontov’s poem “The Demon” (in the lines paraphrased by Van, 3.7) the Demon flew on nad vershinami Kavkaza (over the summits of the Caucasus).

Like Uncle Dan and Dr Krolik (Ada’s teacher of natural history), Colonel Erminin does not appear at the picnic on Ada's twelfth birthday:

Three adult gentlemen, moreover, were expected but never turned up: Uncle Dan, who missed the morning train from town; Colonel Erminin, a widower, whose liver, he said in a note, was behaving like a pecheneg; and his doctor (and chess partner), the famous Dr Krolik, who called himself Ada's court jeweler, and indeed brought her his birthday present early on the following day. (1.13)

Pecheneg (“The Savage,” 1894) is a story by Chekhov about a man with bad temper. Like a matryoshka doll, the surname Zhmukhin (the main character in Pecheneg) has Mukhin in it. In VN’s story Soglyadatay (“The Eye,” 1930) Mukhin is the fiancé of the girl with whom Smurov is in love. The story’s characters include Khrushchyov (Evgenia Evgenyevna’s husband), a namesake of Stalin’s successor as a Soviet leader.

Colonel Erminin’s pechen’ (liver) behaves like a pecheneg probably because he drinks hard after his wife’s suicide. The name Krolik brings to mind p’yanitsy s glazami krolikov (the drunks with the eyes of rabbits) who in Blok’s poem Neznakomka (“Incognita,” 1906) cry out: “In vino veritas!” In a letter of November 25, 1892, to Suvorin Chekhov compares his story “Ward Six” to lemonade and complains of the lack of alcohol in the works of contemporary artists:

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 нем нет спирта. В наших произведениях нет именно алкоголя, который бы пьянил и порабощал, и это Вы хорошо даете попять. Отчего нет? Оставляя в стороне "Палату No 6" и меня самого, будем говорить вообще, ибо это интересней. Будем говорить об общих причинах, коли Вам не скучно, и давайте захватим целую эпоху. Скажите по совести, кто из моих сверстников, т. е. людей в возрасте 30--45 лет, дал миру хотя одну каплю алкоголя? Разве Короленко, Надсон и все нынешние драматурги не лимонад? Разве картины Репина или Шишкина кружили Вам голову? Мило, талантливо, Вы восхищаетесь и в то же время никак не можете забыть, что Вам хочется курить. Наука и техника переживают теперь великое время, для нашего же брата это время рыхлое, кислое, скучное, сами мы кислы и скучны, умеем рождать только гуттаперчевых мальчиков, и не видит этого только Стасов, которому природа дала редкую способность пьянеть даже от помоев. Причины тут не в глупости нашей, не в бездарности и не в наглости, как думает Буренин, а в болезни, которая для художника хуже сифилиса и полового истощения. У нас нет "чего-то", это справедливо, и это значит, что поднимите подол нашей музе, и Вы увидите там плоское место. Вспомните, что писатели, которых мы называем вечными или просто хорошими и которые пьянят нас, имеют один общий и весьма важный признак: они куда-то идут и Вас зовут туда же, и Вы чувствуете не умом, а всем своим существом, что у них есть какая-то цель, как у тени отца Гамлета, которая недаром приходила и тревожила воображение. У одних, смотря по калибру, цели ближайшие -- крепостное право, освобождение родины, политика, красота или просто водка, как у Дениса Давыдова, у других цели отдалённые -- бог, загробная жизнь, счастье человечества и т. п. Лучшие из них реальны и пишут жизнь такою, какая она есть, но оттого, что каждая строчка пропитана, как соком, сознанием цели, Вы, кроме жизни, какая есть, чувствуете ещё ту жизнь, какая должна быть, и это пленяет Вас.

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. Let ms discuss the general causes, if that won't bore you, and let us include the whole age. Tell me honestly, who of my contemporaries—that is, men between thirty and forty-five—have given the world one single drop of alcohol? Are not Korolenko, Nadson, and all the playwrights of to-day, lemonade? Have Repin's or Shishkin's pictures turned your head? Charming, talented, you are enthusiastic; but at the same time you can't forget that you want to smoke. Science and technical knowledge are passing through a great period now, but for our sort it is a flabby, stale, and dull time. We are stale and dull ourselves, we can only beget gutta-percha boys, and the only person who does not see that is Stasov, to whom nature has given a rare faculty for getting drunk on slops. The causes of this are not to be found in our stupidity, our lack of talent, or our insolence, as Burenin imagines, but in a disease which for the artist is worse than syphilis or sexual exhaustion. We lack "something," that is true, and that means that, lift the robe of our muse, and you will find within an empty void. Let me remind you that the writers, who we say are for all time or are simply good, and who intoxicate us, have one common and very important characteristic; they are going towards something and are summoning you towards it, too, and you feel not with your mind, but with your whole being, that they have some object, just like the ghost of Hamlet's father, who did not come and disturb the imagination for nothing. Some have more immediate objects—the abolition of serfdom, the liberation of their country, politics, beauty, or simply vodka, like Denis Davydov; others have remote objects—God, life beyond the grave, the happiness of humanity, and so on. The best of them are realists and paint life as it is, but, through every line's being soaked in the consciousness of an object, you feel, besides life as it is, the life which ought to be, and that captivates you.

In VN’s novel Lolita (1955) John Ray, Jr. (the character who pens the Foreword) mentions the caretakers of various cemeteries who report that no ghosts walk. In his memoir essay on Chekhov (the first one in his book “At the Cemeteries”) Nemirovich compares Chekhov’s laughter to luch v potyomkakh (a ray in the dark):

Смеялся он редко, но когда смеялся, всем становилось весело, точно луч в потёмках.

He laughed seldom, but when he laughed, everybody was merry, like a ray in the dark.

Alexey Sklyarenko

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