Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0027426, Thu, 29 Jun 2017 12:28:34 +0300

mediocre mermaid, waterproof,
Hourglass Lake & Charlie Holmes in Lolita
According to Humbert Humbert (the narrator and main character in VN’s novel Lolita, 1955), his wife Charlotte (Lolita’s mother) is a very mediocre mermaid:

So there was Charlotte swimming on with dutiful awkwardness (she was a very mediocre mermaid), but not without a certain solemn pleasure (for was not her merman by her side?); and as I watched, with the stark lucidity of a future recollection (you know - trying to see things as you will remember having seen them), the glossy whiteness of her wet face so little tanned despite all her endeavors, and her pale lips, and her naked convex forehead, and the tight black cap, and the plump wet neck, I knew that all I had to do was to drop back, take a deep breath, then grab her by the ankle and rapidly dive with my captive corpse. (1.20)

Rusalka (“The Mermaid,” 1829) is an unfinished drama in blank verse by Pushkin (in 1942 VN wrote its conclusion, “The Final Scene of Pushkin’s Mermaid”). In Chekhov’s story Pripadok (“A Nervous Breakdown,” 1888) the medical student sings from Dargomyzhsky’s opera The Mermaid (1855):

«Невольно к этим грустным берегам, — запел медик приятным тенором, — меня влечёт неведомая сила...»

— «Вот мельница... — подтянул ему художник. — Она уж развалилась...»

— «Вот мельница... Она уж развалилась...», — повторил медик, поднимая брови и грустно покачивая головою. Он помолчал, потёр лоб, припоминая слова, и запел громко и так хорошо, что на него оглянулись прохожие:

— «Здесь некогда меня встречала свободного свободная любовь...»

"Against my will an unknown force," hummed the medical student in his agreeable tenor, "has led me to these mournful shores."

"Behold the mill . . ." the artist seconded him, "in ruins now. . . ."

"Behold the mill . . . in ruins now," the medical student repeated, raising his eyebrows and shaking his head mournfully.

He paused, rubbed his forehead, trying to remember the words, and then sang aloud, so well that passers-by looked round:

"Here in old days when I was free,
Love, free, unfettered, greeted me." (chapter I)

Chekhov wrote “A Nervous Breakdown” for the Garshin collection. In a letter of November 10, 1888, to Pleshcheev (the editor of the Garshin collection) Chekhov says that the story’s topic is so delicate that any trifle can seem an elephant:

Милый Алексей Николаевич, рассказ близится совсем к концу. Завтра или послезавтра кончу, перепишу, а в понедельник в 3 часа дня Вы его уже получите. Я пишу и всё время стараюсь быть скромным, скромным до скуки. Предмет, как мне кажется, настолько щекотлив, что малейший пустяк может показаться слоном.

In a letter of November 11, 1888, to Suvorin Chekhov says that he has finished his story for the Garshin sbornik:

Сегодня я кончил рассказ для «Гаршинского сборника» — словно гора с плеч. В этом рассказе я сказал своё, никому не нужное мнение о таких редких людях, как Гаршин. Накатал чуть ли не 2000 строк. Говорю много о проституции, но ничего не решаю. Отчего у Вас в газете ничего не пишут о проституции? Ведь она страшнейшее зло. Наш Соболев переулок — это рабовладельческий рынок.

I finished today the story for the Garshin sbornik: it is such a load off my mind. In this story I have told my own opinion — which is of no interest to anyone — of such rare men as Garshin. I have run to almost 2,000 lines. I speak at length about prostitution, but settle nothing. Why do they write nothing about prostitution in your paper? It is the most fearful evil, you know. Our Sobolev street is a regular slave-market.

In his essay on Garshin (in “The Silhouettes of Russian Writers”) the critic Yuli Ayhenvald mentions Gamlet ubivayushchiy (Hamlet who kills):

Самый красный цветок - это цветок зла. Ничто не требует такой душевной силы, такого напряжения и действенности, как именно убийство. В нём - высшая потенция человеческой энергии, оно являет собою дело по преимуществу. Рождающая сила - в двух существах; убиваем же только мы сами, мы одни. И когда Гамлет перешел от размышления к действию, когда он стал делать, он стал убивать. Гамлет убивающий - это очень зловещее и трагическое явление жизни.

In a letter of January 26, 1891, to A. F. Koni Chekhov describes a funeral that he attended in Sakhalin and compares himself to Hamlet. According to Chekhov, in Sakhalin girls begin to live by prostitution from twelve years old (Lolita is twelve when Humbert Humbert meets her). In a letter of September 11, 1890, to Suvorin Chekhov, sailing on the Gulf of Tartary from the north of Sakhalin to the south, quotes the punch line of Krylov’s fable Lyubopytnyi (“The Sightseer,” 1814): Slona-to ya i ne primetil (the elephant I did not notice). In Lolita the elephant that Humbert Humbert does not notice is Jean Farlow (who would witness HH’s crime, had he attempted to kill Charlotte). In reply to Jean Farlow’s remark that HH had his wrist watch on when bathing in Hourglass Lake Charlotte says that her husband’s wrist watch is waterproof:

From the debouchment of the trail came a rustle, a footfall, and Jean Farlow marched down with her easel and things.

“You scared us,” said Charlotte.

Jean said she had been up there, in a place of green concealment, spying on nature (spies are generally shot), trying to finish a lakescape, but it was no good, she had no talent whatever (which was quite true). - “And have you ever tried painting, Humbert?” Charlotte, who was a little jealous of Jean, wanted to know if John was coming.

He was. He was coming home for lunch today. He had dropped her on the way to Parkington and should be picking her up any time now. It was a grand morning. She always felt a traitor to Cavall and Melampus for leaving them roped on such gorgeous days. She sat down on the white sand between Charlotte and me. She wore shorts. Her long brown legs were about as attractive to me as those of a chestnut mare. She showed her gums when she smiled.

“I almost put both of you into my lake,” she said. “I even noticed something you overlooked. You [addressing Humbert] had your wrist watch on in, yes, sir, you had.”

“Waterproof,” said Charlotte softly, making a fish mouth.

Jean took my wrist upon her knee and examined Charlotte’s gift, then put back Humbert’s hand on the sand, palm up.

“You could see anything that way,” remarked Charlotte coquettishly.

Jean sighed. “I once saw,” she said, “two children, male and female, at sunset, right here, making love. Their shadows were giants. And I told you about Mr. Tomson at daybreak. Next time I expect to see fat old Ivor in the ivory. He is really a freak, that man. Last time he told me a completely indecent story about his nephew. It appears - ”

“Hullo there,” said John’s voice. (1.20)

Five years later, when Lolita tells Humbert Humbert the name of her lover (who turns out to be Ivor Quilty’s nephew), HH recalls the word uttered by Charlotte:

And softly, confidentially, arching her thin eyebrows and puckering her parched lips, she emitted, a little mockingly, somewhat fastidiously, not untenderly, in a kind of muted whistle, the name that the astute reader has guessed long ago.

Waterproof. Why did a flash from Hourglass Lake cross my consciousness? I, too, had known it, without knowing it, all along. There was no shock, no surprise. Quietly the fusion took place, and everything fell into order, into the pattern of branches that I have woven throughout this memoir with the express purpose of having the ripe fruit fall at the right moment; yes, with the express and perverse purpose of rendering - she was talking but I sat melting in my golden peace - of rendering that golden and monstrous peace through the satisfaction of logical recognition, which my most inimical reader should experience now. (2.29)

In Chekhov’s play Chayka (“The Seagull,” 1896) the action takes place in Sorin’s country estate at the lakeside. In Chekhov’s story Poprygun’ya (“The Grasshopper,” 1891) Olga Ivanovna (like Jean Farlow, an amateur artist) wears a waterproof (raincoat):

Приехала она домой через двое с половиной суток. Не снимая шляпы и ватерпруфа, тяжело дыша от волнения, она прошла в гостиную, а оттуда в столовую.

She arrived home two and a half days later. Breathless with excitement, she went, without taking off her hat or waterproof, into the drawing-room and thence into the dining-room. (chapter V)

Hourglass Lake in Lolita brings to mind pesochnye chasy (the hourglass) mentioned in Chekhov’s story V sude (“In the Court,” 1886). According to predsedatel’ (the chairman), Koreyski (the old investigator) is razvalina, pesochnye chasy (“a wreck dropping to bits”):

— Михаил Владимирович, — нагнулся прокурор к уху председателя: — удивительно неряшливо этот Корейский вёл следствие. Родной брат не допрошен, староста не допрошен, из описания избы ничего не поймёшь...

— Что делать... что делать! — вздохнул председатель, откидываясь на спинку кресла: — развалина... песочные часы!

"Mikhail Vladimirovich," said the assistant prosecutor, bending down to the chairman’s ear, "amazingly slovenly the way that Koreyski conducted the investigation. The prisoner's brother was not examined, the village elder was not examined, there's no making anything out of his description of the hut…"

"It can't be helped, it can't be helped," said the chairman, sinking back in his chair. "He's a wreck . . . dropping to bits!"

In Chekhov’s story the prisoner (who is charged with the murder of his wife) turns out to be the father of one of the escorts. In Lolita Humbert Humbert manages to convince the Farlows that Lolita is his daughter:

"Well, you are the doctor," said John a little bluntly. "But after all I was Charlotte's friend and adviser. One would like to know what you are going to do about the child anyway."

"John," cried Jean, "she is his child, not Harold Haze's. Don't you understand? Humbert is Dolly's real father."

"I see," said John. "I am sorry. Yes. I see. I did not realize that. It simplifies matters, of course. And whatever you feel is right." (1.23)

The surname Koreyski comes from Korea. When Humbert Humbert revisits Ramsdale in 1952, Mrs. Chatfield tells him that Charlie Holmes (Lolita’s first lover who had debauched her in Camp Q.) was just killed in Korea:

It was Mrs. Chatfield. She attacked me with a fake smile, all aglow with evil curiosity. (Had I done to Dolly, perhaps, what Frank Lasalle, a fifty-year-old mechanic, had done o eleven-year-old Sally Horner in 1948?) Very soon I had that avid glee well under control She thought I was in California. How was? With exquisite pleasure I informed her that my stepdaughter had just married a brilliant young mining engineer with a hush-hush job in the Northwest. She said she disapproved of such early marriages, she would never let her Phillys, who was now eighteen -

“Oh yes, of course,” I said quietly. “I remember Phyllis. Phyllis and Camp Q. yes, of course. By the way, did she ever tell you how Charlie Holmes debauched there his mother’s little charges?”

Mrs. Chatfield’s already broken smile now disintegrated completely.

“For shame,” she cried, “for shame, Mr. Humbert! The poor boy has just been killed in Korea.”

I said didn’t she think “vient de,” with the infinitive, expressed recent events so much more neatly than the English “just,” with the past? But I had to be trotting off, I said. (2.33)

Charlie is the son of Shirley Holmes, the camp director whose name hints at Sherlock Holmes (the private detective in the Conan Doyle stories). In his memoir essay “On Chekhov” Vasiliy Nemirovich-Danchenko mentions a Russian lady (“one of our most furious compatriots”) whom he and Chekhov met in Nice and who preferred Sherlock Holmes to Maupassant (the author of Sur l’Eau to whom Chekhov was often compared):

Я не могу забыть встречи в Ницце с одною из самых неистовых наших соотечественниц. На беду А. П. Чехова мы с ним как-то пошли завтракать в "Reserve". Я был ей накануне представлен. Она оказалась за соседним столом. Ей сказали, кто со мной, и вдруг, не успели мы ещё заказать себе, как она на всю залу мне:

-- C'est monsieur Tchekoff.

И произнесла, как будто забыла русские "ч" и "х" -- Tшekoff.

-- Alors presentez le moi, je veux faire sa connaissance... Пришлось представить. Какой-то недоносок рядом взбросил монокль в глаз и тоже: "Tiensi c'est monsieur Tchekoff" И французу около -- и француз-то был поганый с лакированной мордашкой и усами штопором: "Это русский писатель... Celebre!" И во все глаза на Антона Павловича... Дама, разумеется, захотела сейчас же поразить всех своей образованностью, и с места:

-- Ах, я так люблю писателей... У меня бывают... M-sieur Forcer... Вы его знаете, он в Petit Niçois Когда я приехала, он обо мне целую статью: La belle de Moscou... Хотите, я вас ему представлю? Скажите, М. Tшekoff, вы в каком роде пишете?.. Вот князь (кивок по направлению к своему кавалеру) уверяет, что вы почти русский Мопассан... C'est tres joli -- Maupassant... Хоть я больше люблю Шерлока Гольмса... У нас так не умеют. Я вашего Толстого не выношу, хоть он и граф... У него всё а la moujik... А что вы теперь творите? (Не пишете, а творите!)

И Чехов мрачно:

-- "Хороший тон" Германа Гоппе.

-- Это что же, роман?

-- Вроде...

In the Pension Russe in Nice where Chekhov and Nemirovich lived at the end of the 1890s one of their neighbors, a young man from Warsaw, turned out to be a spy:

Второй, совсем уж шут гороховый, явился из Варшавы и с первой же встречи огорошил Чехова. За общим столом он оказался рядом. Я передаю точно всё это -- хоть порою оно сбивает на анекдот.

-- Извините, я, может быть, неприятен вам, -- шёпотом обратился он к А. П. Чехову.

-- Почему?

-- По роду своих занятий.

Бледный. Усы ещё не пробиваются, глаза испуганные, наивные. Весь в веснушках. Губы по-детски пухлые... Из чудом выживших недоносков.

-- А вы кто же будете? Какие у вас занятия?.. -- Вижу, Чехов серьёзен, а в глазах у него загораются весёлые искорки.

-- Я... извините... шпион.

-- Что?

-- Шпион.

According to Humbert Humbert, “spies are generally shot.” In one of his conversations with Chekhov the spy mentioned Chekhov’s voyage to Sakhalin:

-- Вы знаете, чем он меня утешил?

-- Кто?

-- "Извините, шпион-с!" "Я, говорит, маленький человек, а сейчас на одну линию с вами попал". -- "Например?" -- спрашиваю. -- "А как же! Вы были на Сахалине в казённой командировке, а я на такой же здесь... Для пользы службы". -- "Помните один из анекдотов Якоби о концертировавшем Николае Рубинштейне и господине, ехавшем в одном с ним вагоне на Нижегородскую ярмарку: Ну, как наши с вами дела пойдут?"

И расхохотался.

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

Nemirovich compares Chekhov’s laughter to luch v potyomkakh (a ray in the dark). O Chekhove (“On Chekhov”) is the first memoir essay in Nemirovich’s book Na kladbishchakh (“At Cemeteries,” 1921). In his Foreword to Humbert Humbert’s manuscript John Ray, Jr. mentions the caretakers of the various cemeteries:

For the benefit of old-fashioned readers who wish to follow the destinies of the "real" people beyond the "true" story, a few details may be given as received from Mr. "Windmuller," of "Ramsdale," who desires his identity suppressed so that "the long shadow of this sorry and sordid business" should not reach the community to which he is proud to belong. His daughter "Louise," is by now a college sophomore, "Mona Dahl" is a student in Paris. "Rita" has recently married the proprietor of a hotel in Florida. Mrs. "Richard F. Schiller" died in childbed, giving birth to a stillborn girl, on Christmas Day 1952, in Gray Star. a settlement in the remotest Northwest. "Vivian Darkbloom" has written a biography, "My Cue," to be published shortly, and critics who have perused the manuscript call it her best book. The caretakers of the various cemeteries involved report that no ghosts walk.

In a letter of November 25, 1892, to Suvorin Chekhov mentions the ghost of Hamlet’s father, who did not come and disturb the imagination for nothing:

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 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.

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.

Alexey Sklyarenko

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