Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0026691, Tue, 8 Dec 2015 23:26:23 +0300

Izumrudov, Gerald Emerald,
Oleg & Peter Gusev in Pale Fire; Yasha Chernyshevski in The Gift
He was a merry, perhaps overmerry fellow, in a green velvet jacket. Nobody liked him, but he certainly had a keen mind. His name, Izumrudov, sounded rather Russian but actually meant "of the Umruds," an Eskimo tribe sometimes seen paddling their umyaks (hide-lined boats) on the emerald waters of our northern shores. Grinning, he said friend Gradus must get together his travel documents, including a health certificate, and take the earliest available jet to New York. Bowing, he congratulated him on having indicated with such phenomenal acumen the right place and the right way. Yes, after a thorough perlustration of the loot that Andron and Niagarushka had obtained from the Queen's rosewood writing desk (mostly bills, and treasured snapshots, and those silly medals) a letter from the King did turn up giving his address which was of all places-- Our man, who interrupted the herald of success to say he had never--was bidden not to display so much modesty. A slip of paper was now produced on which Izumudrov, shaking with laughter (death is hilarious), wrote out for Gradus their client's alias, the name of the university where he taught, and that of the town where it was situated. No, the slip was not for keeps. He could keep it only while memorizing it. This brand of paper (used by macaroon makers) was not only digestible but delicious. The gay green vision withdrew--to resume his whoring no doubt. How one hates such men! (Kinbote’s note to Line 741)

Izumrud (1907) is a story by Kuprin in which the racehorse Izumrud (Emerald) dies after its oats was poisoned. In Chekhov’s story “The Teacher of Literature” (1894) Ippolit Ippolitovich (the geography teacher) dies repeating in his deathbed delirium that the Volga flows into the Caspian Sea and that horses eat oats and hay. Chekhov is also the author of Loshadinaya familiya (“A Horsey Name,” 1885).

Like Gerald Emerald (a young instructor in New Wye whose “name” hints at Morris Gerald, the young mustanger in Captain Mayne Reid’s Headless Horseman), Izumrudov wears a green velvet jacket. The name Izumrudov brings to mind Samorodov (from samorodok, “nugget; talented person without education”), the counterfeiter in Chekhov’s story V ovrage (“In the Ravine,” 1900). The story’s characters include Aksinya, Stepan Tsybukin’s wife who wears a green dress and is compared to a viper:

Aksinya had naïve grey eyes which rarely blinked, and a naïve smile played continually on her face. And in those unblinking eyes, and in that little head on the long neck, and in her slenderness there was something snake-like; all in green but for the yellow on her bosom, she looked with a smile on her face as a viper looks out of the young rye in the spring at the passers-by, stretching itself and lifting its head. (chapter III) It is Aksinya who kills Lipa’s little son Nikifor.

In Pushkin’s Pesn’ o veshchem Olege (“The Song of the Wise Oleg,” 1822) a poisonous snake slithers out from the scull of Oleg’s favorite horse (long dead and buried) and bites Oleg. In PF Oleg is the name of Charles Xavier’s first lover and playmate with whom young Charles Xavier discovered a secret passage through which he later escapes from the palace. A sportsman who was killed in a toboggan accident, Oleg, Duke of Rahl, is the son of Colonel Peter Gusev, King Alfin’s ‘aerial adjutant’ who becomes a pioneer parachutist. Gusev (1890) is a story by Chekhov. The name Gusev comes from gus’ (goose). The writer who had met Chekhov in Yalta and who later settled in Gatchina, Kuprin is the author of several stories about Russian aviation pioneers: Lyudi-ptitsy ("Men-Birds," 1917), Poteryannoe serdtse ("The Lost Heart," 1931), and of a memoir essay (1915) on Utochkin (the sportsman and airman whose name comes from utochka, “little duck”), in which Dyuk (the monument of Duc de Richelieu in Odessa) is mentioned.

In his Commentary Kinbote mentions Gatchina (a city about half-way between St. Petersburg and Rozhdesveno, the Nabokovs’ country estate):

On the serene, and not too cold, December morning that the angels chose to net his mild pure soul, King Alfin was in the act of trying solo a tricky vertical loop that Prince Andrey Kachurin, the famous Russian stunter and War One hero, had shown him in Gatchina. (note to Line 71)

In Chapter Three of VN’s Dar (“The Gift,” 1937) Fyodor mentions General Kachurin’s novel Krasnaya Knyazhna (“The Red Princess”). The novel’s title hints at Pyotr Krasnov, the White General who became a popular novelist in emigration. The name Krasnov comes from krasnyi (red). According to Kinbote (the author of a book on names), Charles the Beloved escaped from green Zembla in a sportsman’s red clothes.

In “The Life of Chernyshevski” (Chapter Four of “The Gift”) Fyodor, as he mentions the snakes that bit Chernyshevski during his life, makes an allusion to Pushkin’s Song of the Wise Oleg:

Для Чернышевского гений был здравый смысл. Если Пушкин был гений, рассуждал он, дивясь, то как истолковать количество помарок в его черновиках? Ведь это уже не «отделка», а чёрная работа. Ведь здравый смысл высказывается сразу, ибо знает, что хочет сказать. При этом, как человек, творчеству до смешного чуждый, он полагал, что «отделка» происходит «на бумаге», а «настоящая работа», т. е. составление общего плана – «в уме», – признак того опасного дуализма, той трещины в его «материализме», откуда выползла не одна змея, в жизни ужалившая его. Своеобразность Пушкина вообще внушала ему серьёзные опасения. «Поэтические произведения хороши тогда, когда прочитав их, каждый (разрядка моя) говорит: да, это не только правдоподобно, но иначе и быть не могло, потому что всегда так бывает».

Chernyshevski equated genius with common sense. If Pushkin was a genius, he argued perplexedly, then how should one interpret the profusion of corrections in his drafts? One can understand some "polishing" in a fair copy but this was the rough work itself. It should have flowed effortless since common sense speaks its mind immediately, for it knows what it wants to say. Moreover, as a person ridiculously alien to artistic creation, he supposed that "polishing" took place on paper while the "real work" – i.e., "the task of forming the general plan" – occurred "in the mind" – another sign of that dangerous dualism, that crack in his "materialism," whence more than one snake was to slither and bite him during his life. Pushkin's originality filled him with fears. "Poetic works are good when everyone [my italics] says after reading them: yes, this is not only verisimilar, but also it could not be otherwise, for that's how it always is."

Chernyshevski was born and died in Saratov, a city on the Volga (a river that flows into the Caspian city). After he was pardoned by Alexander III, Chernyshevski lived in Astrakhan, another Volgan city. In his deathbed delirium (taken down by a secretary) Chernyshevski mentioned Copenhagen (“the Swedes turned the whole population of the Danish capital into shining silver, banished the energetic men of the patriotic parties to Egypt”). In Chapter Five of the novel Zina Mertz’s mother and step-father leave for Copenhagen where Shchyogolev was offered a job. In his Commentary to Shade’s poem Kinbote, as he speaks of Gradus, mentions “grey-blue Copenhagen:”

On July 5th, a noontime, in the other hemisphere, on the rain-swept tarmac of the Onhava airfield, Gradus, holding a French passport, walked towards a Russian commercial plane bound for Copenhagen, and this event synchronized with Shade's starting in the early morning (Atlantic seaboard time) to compose, or to set down after composing in bed, the opening lines of Canto Two. When almost twenty-four hours later he got to <http://www.shannonrchamberlain.com/palefirepoem.html#line230> line 230, Gradus, after a refreshing night at the summer house of our consul in Copenhagen, an important Shadow, had entered, with the Shadow, a clothes store in order to conform to his description in later notes (to <http://www.shannonrchamberlain.com/commentary.html#comline286> lines 286 and <http://www.shannonrchamberlain.com/commentary.html#comline408> 408). Migraine again worse today. (note to Line 181)

July 5 is Shade’s, Kinbote’s and Gradus’ birthday. In “The Gift” the birthday of Fyodor’s father, the explorer of Asia who never returned from his last expedition, coincides with Chernyshevski’s birthday (July 12, OS).

The characters of “The Gift” include the Chernyshevski couple: Aleksandr Yakovlevich and his wife Aleksandra Yakovlevna. Aleksandr Yakovlevich suffers a mental illness after his son Yasha committed suicide. Poor Yasha Chernyshevski was hopelessly in love with Rudolf, a German boy who loved Olya (a diminutive of Olga), a Russian girl who fell for Yasha (a diminutive of Yakov). It seems to me that Professor Vsevolod Botkin, the American scholar of Russian descent, went mad and became John Shade (the American poet), Charles Kinbote (the American name of Charles the Beloved, the last self-exiled king of Zembla) and Jakob Gradus (the killer who assassinates Kinbote but murdedrs Shade) after the suicide of his daughter Nadezhda (Hazel Shade of her father’s poem). In Chekhov’s last story Nevesta (“The Bride,” 1903) the name of the heroine is Nadezhda.

In Chapter Four of “The Gft” Fyodor quotes Count Vorontsov’s and the critic Nadezhdin’s words about Pushkin (who called Nadezhdin “Nevezhdin,” from nevezhda, ignoramus):

When Chernyshevski said that Pushkin was "only a poor imitator of Byron," he reproduced with monstrous accuracy the definition given by Count Vorontsov (Pushkin's boss in Odessa): "A poor imitator of Lord Byron."

"To be a genius it is not enough to have manufactured Eugene Onegin" wrote the progressive Nadezhdin, comparing Pushkin to a tailor, an inventor of waistcoat patterns, and thus concluding an intellectual pact with the reactionary Count Uvarov, Minister of Education, who remarked on the occasion of Pushkin's death: "To write jingles does not mean yet to achieve a great career."

Pushkin is the author of a famous epigram on Vorontsov in which nadezhda (hope) is mentioned:

Полу-милорд, полу-купец,

Полу-мудрец, полу-невежда,

Полу-подлец, но есть надежда,

Что будет полным наконец.

Half-milord, half-merchant,

Half-sage, half-ignoramus,

Half-scoundrel, but there's a hope

Thet he will be a full one at last.

There is a hope that after Kinbote finishes his work on Shade’s poem (on Oct. 19, 1959, the anniversary of Pushkin’s Lyceum) and commits suicide, Botkin will be “full” again.

Alexey Sklyarenko

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