Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0027651, Sun, 21 Jan 2018 18:50:54 +0300

clystere de Tchekhov, Kalikakov & Bolshevist revolution in LATH
According to Vadim Vadimovich (the narrator and main character in VN’s
novel Look at the Harlequins!), spying had been his “clystère de Tché
khov” (a play on violon d’Ingres, “a hobby”) even before he married Iris
Black (Vadim’s first wife):

Brushing all my engagements aside, I surrendered again--after quite a few
years of abstinence!--to the thrill of secret investigations. Spying had
been my clystère de Tchékhov even before I married Iris Black whose later
passion for working on an interminable detective tale had been sparked by
this or that hint I must have dropped, like a passing bird's lustrous
feather, in relation to my experience in the vast and misty field of the
Service. In my little way I have been of some help to my betters. The tree,
a blue-flowering ash, whose cortical wound I caught the two "diplomats,"
Tornikovski and Kalikakov, using for their correspondence, still stands,
hardly scarred, on its hilltop above San Bernardino. But for structural
economy I have omitted that entertaining strain from this story of love and
prose. Its existence, however, helped me now to ward off--for a while, at
least--the madness and anguish of hopeless regret. (5.1)

In a letter of October 22, 1896, to Suvorin Chekhov mentions gromadnye
klistiry (huge clysters) that he made to a rich peasant whose bowel was
blocked with kal (faeces):

Вчера у одного богатого мужика заткнуло к
алом кишку, и мы ставили ему громадные кли
стиры. Ожил.

In the same letter to Suvorin Chekhov speaks of the flop of the first
performance of his play Chayka (“The Seagull,” 1896) in the Aleksandrinsky
Theater and compares himself to a man who made a proposal and received a

Я поступил так же разумно и холодно, как ч
еловек, который сделал предложение, получ
ил отказ и которому ничего больше не оста
ётся, как уехать. Да, самолюбие моё было уя
звлено, но ведь это не с неба свалилось; я
ожидал неуспеха и уже был подготовлен к н
ему, о чём и предупреждал Вас с полною иск

I acted as coldly and reasonably as a man who has made an offer, received a
refusal, and has nothing left but to go. Yes, my vanity was stung, but you
know it was not a bolt from the blue; I was expecting a failure, and was
prepared for it, as I warned you with perfect sincerity beforehand.

One of the main characters in “The Seagull” is Nina Zarechnyi. Her name
brings to mind Mme de Rechnoy (alias Nina Lecerf), Sebastian’s mistress in
VN’s novel The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941). Describing his first
meeting with Iris Black, Vadim mentions Nina Lecerf:

Ivor had gone to fetch my whisky. Iris and I stood on the terrace in the
saintly dusk. I was lighting my pipe while Iris nudged the balustrade with
her hip and pointed out with mermaid undulations--supposed to imitate
waves--the shimmer of seaside lights in a parting of the india-ink hills. At
that moment the telephone rang in the drawing room behind us, and she
quickly turned around--but with admirable presence of mind transformed her
dash into a nonchalant shawl dance. In the meantime Ivor had already skated
phoneward across the parquetry to hear what Nina Lecerf or some other
neighbor wanted. We liked to recall, Iris and I, in our later intimacy that
revelation scene with Ivor bringing us drinks to toast her fairy-tale
recovery and she, without minding his presence, putting her light hand on my
knuckles: I stood gripping the balustrade in exaggerated resentment and was
not prompt enough, poor dupe, to acknowledge her apology by a Continental
hand kiss. (1.3)

In the first production of “The Seagull” Vera Komissarzhevskaya played
Nina Zarechnyi. Na smert’ Komissarzhevskoy (“On the Death of
Komissarzhevskaya,” 1910) is a poem by Alexander Blok. In the Introduction
to his poem Vozmezdie (“Retribution,” 1910-21) Blok mentions
Komissarzhevskaya, Vrubel and Tolstoy (the tree great artists who died in

1910 год - это смерть Комиссаржевской, смерт
ь Врубеля и смерть Толстого. С Комиссарже
вской умерла лирическая нота на сцене; с В
рубелем - громадный личный мир художника,
безумное упорство, ненасытность исканий -
вплоть до помешательства. С Толстым умерл
а человеческая нежность \xa8C мудрая человеч

In Blok’s “Retribution” the hero’s father was nicknamed Demon. In
Chapter Three of his poem Blok mentions Vrubel (the author of The Demon
Seated and The Demon Downcast):

Его опустошает Демон,

Над коим Врубель изнемог...

Его прозрения глубоки,

Но их глушит ночная тьма,

И в снах холодных и жестоких

Он видит "Горе от ума".

According to Vadim, his father (whose society nickname was Demon) was
portrayed by Vrubel:

My father was a gambler and a rake. His society nickname was Demon. Vrubel
has portrayed him with his vampire-pale cheeks, his diamond eyes, his black
hair. What remained on the palette has been used by me, Vadim, son of Vadim,
for touching up the father of the passionate siblings in the best of my
English romaunts, Ardis (1970).

The scion of a princely family devoted to a gallery of a dozen Tsars, my
father resided on the idyllic outskirts of history. His politics were of the
casual, reactionary sort. He had a dazzling and complicated sensual life,
but his culture was patchy and commonplace. He was born in 1865, married in
1896, and died in a pistol duel with a young Frenchman on October 22, 1898,
after a card-table fracas at Deauville, some resort in gray Normandy. (2.5)

Chekhov is the author of Duel’ (“The Duel,” 1891). Chekhov’s letter to
Suvorin in which he speaks of the flop of “The Seagull” is dated October
22, 1896. In a letter of Oct. 17, 1897, to Sobolevski Chekhov says that one
of his neighbors in the Pension Russe in Nice turned out to be a spy:

Живу всё в том же Pension Russe, всё так же тихо и
мирно, как и при Вас. Впрочем, была и револ
юция. До моего сведения дошло, что живущие
в том же пансионе шпион (варшавский молод
ой человек оказался таковым в конце концо
в) и земский начальник платят Вере Дмитри
евне по 9 франков в день; я же плачу 11. Меня
это немножко покоробило, я стал бунтовать
и мне сбавили 1 фр. Плачу теперь 10.

Revolyutsiya (a revolution), as Chekhov calls a reduction of the rent,
brings to mind the Bolshevist revolution mentioned by Vadim:

I was eighteen when the Bolshevist revolution struck--a strong and anomalous
verb, I concede, used here solely for the sake of narrative rhythm. (1.2)

The Bolshevist coup took place on Oct. 25 (OS), 1917. It means that Vadim
was born in the time span between Oct. 25, 1898, and Oct. 25, 1899.
Therefore he simply could not have seen his father. But in the same chapter
of LATH Vadim says that he did see his parents:

I saw my parents infrequently. They divorced and remarried and redivorced at
such a rapid rate that had the custodians of my fortune been less alert, I
might have been auctioned out finally to a pair of strangers of Swedish or
Scottish descent, with sad bags under hungry eyes. An extraordinary
grand-aunt, Baroness Bredow, born Tolstoy, amply replaced closer blood. As a
child of seven or eight, already harboring the secrets of a confirmed
madman, I seemed even to her (who also was far from normal) unduly sulky and
indolent; actually, of course, I kept daydreaming in a most outrageous

"Stop moping!" she would cry: "Look at the harlequins!

"What harlequins? Where?"

"Oh, everywhere. All around you. Trees are harlequins, words are harlequins.
So are situations and sums. Put two things together--jokes, images--and you
get a triple harlequin. Come on! Play! Invent the world! Invent reality!"

I did. By Jove, I did. I invented my grand-aunt in honor of my first
daydreams, and now, down the marble steps of memory's front porch, here she
slowly comes, sideways, sideways, the poor lame lady, touching each step
edge with the rubber tip of her black cane. (ibid.)

The name Bredow comes from bred (delirium; gibberish; nonsense). In
Aldanov’s novel Bred (“Delirium,” 1955) Shell (the main character) is a
professional spy. In the opening line of his poem Smychok i struny (“The
Bow and the Strings”) Innokentiy Annenski mentions tyazhyolyi, tyomnyi bred
(“heavy, dark delirium”):

Какой тяжёлый, тёмный бред!

Как эти выси мутно-лунны!

Касаться скрипки столько лет

И не узнать при свете струны!

Кому ж нас надо? Кто зажёг

Два жёлтых лика, два унылых...

И вдруг почувствовал смычок,

Что кто-то взял и кто-то слил их.

"О, как давно! Сквозь эту тьму

Скажи одно: ты та ли, та ли?"

И струны ластились к нему,

Звеня, но, ластясь, трепетали.

"Не правда ль, больше никогда

Мы не расстанемся? довольно?.."

И скрипка отвечала да,

Но сердцу скрипки было больно.

Смычок всё понял, он затих,

А в скрипке эхо всё держалось...

И было мукою для них,

Что людям музыкой казалось.

Но человек не погасил

До утра свеч... И струны пели...

Лишь солнце их нашло без сил

На чёрном бархате постели.

What heavy, dark delirium!
What dim and moonlit heights!
To touch the violin for years
And not to know the strings by light!

Who needs us now? And who lit up
Two hollow, melancholy faces...
And suddenly the bow felt
Someone take them up, unite them.

"How long it's been! Amidst this gloom
Just tell me this: are you still the same?"
The strings caressed the bow,
Rang out, caressed it slightly trembling.

"Is it not true, that we will never more
Be parted. It's enough..."
Yes, replied the violin,
But pain was throbbing in her heart.

The bow discerned it and grew mute,
The echo still continued in the violin...
What was a torture to them both
The people heard as music.

But the violinist didn't snuff
The candles out 'til dawn...The strings sang on...
The sun found them worn out
On the black velvet of their bed.

“To touch the violin for years and not to know the strings by light!”
Vadim never finds out that the three of his three or four successive wives
are the daughters of Count Starov (a diplomat who seems to be Vadim’s real
father). Skripka Rotshil’da (“Rothschild’s Violin,” 1894) is a story by
Chekhov. Vadim’s full name seems to be Prince Vadim Vadimovich Yablonski.
One of Annenski’s poems begins Pod yablon’koy, pod vishneyu… (“Under the
apple tree, under the cherry tree”). Chekhov is the author of Vishnyovyi
sad (“The Cherry Orchard,” 1904).

Alexey Sklyarenko

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