Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0027706, Thu, 5 Apr 2018 16:59:54 +0300

Paradox & dummy in Ada
In VN’s novel Ada (1969) Van arrives at the site of his duel with Captain Tapper in Paradox, his second’s cheap ‘semi-racer:’

Van was roused by the night porter who put a cup of coffee with a local “eggbun” on his bedside table, and expertly palmed the expected chervonetz. He resembled somewhat Bouteillan as the latter had been ten years ago and as he had appeared in a dream, which Van now retrostructed as far as it would go: in it Demon’s former valet explained to Van that the “dor” in the name of an adored river equaled the corruption of hydro in “dorophone.” Van often had word dreams.

He shaved, disposed of two blood-stained safety blades by leaving them in a massive bronze ashtray, had a structurally perfect stool, took a quick bath, briskly dressed, left his bag with the concierge, paid his bill and at six punctually squeezed himself next to blue-chinned and malodorous Johnny into the latter’s Paradox, a cheap “semi-racer.” For two or three miles they skirted the dismal bank of the lake—coal piles, shacks, boat-houses, a long strip of black pebbly mud and, in the distance, over the curving bank of autumnally misted water, the tawny fumes of tremendous factories. (1.42)

In his essay on Spengler, Predsmertnye mysli Fausta (“The Pre-Death Thoughts of Faust,” 1922), Berdyaev calls Spengler “a paradoxicalist” and says that for Spengler and Nietzsche paradox is a means of cognition:

Шпенглер очень произволен, он не считает себя связанным никакой общеобязательностью. Он, прежде всего, – парадоксолист. Для него, как и для Ницше, парадокс есть способ познания. В книге Шпенглера есть какое-то сходство с книгой гениального юноши Вейнингера "Пол и характер", несмотря на всё различие тем и духовной настроенности. Книга Шпенглера – столь же замечательное явление в духовной культуре Германии, как и книга Вейнингера.

Spengler is very capricious, he does not consider himself bound by anything in general obligatory. He is, first of all -- a paradoxicalist. For him, just as for Nietzsche, paradox is a means of cognition. In the book of Spengler there is a sort of affinity with the book of the youthful genius [Otto] Weininger, "Sex and Character", and despite all the different themes and spiritual outlook, the book of Spengler -- is just as remarkable a phenomenon in the spiritual culture of Germany, as is the book of Weininger.

In VN’s novel Dar (“The Gift,” 1937) Yasha Chernyshevski (the boy who fell in love with Rudolf’s soul and committed suicide) was in a daze for a whole week after reading Spengler. In his ‘Notes to Ada’ Vivian Darkbloom mentions the ‘pansy’ character of Van’s adversary and of the two seconds. The name Tapper seems to hint at Chekhov’s story Tapyor (“The Ballroom Pianist,” 1885). In a letter of Feb. 6, 1891, to Suvorin Chekhov says that he recently mentioned Goethe’s conversations with Eckermann (absent from the final version of Chekhov’s story) in his story Duel’ (“The Duel,” 1891):

Гёте и Эккерман легки на помине. Я недавно упоминал об их разговорах в своей великой повести. Называю её великою, потому что она в самом деле выходит великою, т. е. большою и длинною, так что даже мне надоело писать её. Пишу громоздко и неуклюже, а главное — без плана. Ну, да всё равно. Пусть Буренин получит ещё новое доказательство, что молодые писатели ни к чёрту не годятся.

In the same letter to Suvorin Chekhov mentions the addition about the sister (“she is your sister!”) made by Tolstoy in his Russian version of Maupassant’s story Le Port (1889):

Ваша статья о Толстом сплошная прелесть. Очень, очень хорошо. И сильно, и деликатно. Вообще какой-то особенно удачный номер: и Ваша статья, и «Франсуаза». Прекрасный рассказ. Прибавка о сестре («она твоя сестра!»), сделанная Толстым, не так портит, как Вы боялись. Только от неё рассказ утерял как будто свою свежесть. Впрочем, всё равно.

Port (“The Seaport,” 1924) is also a story by VN. As she speaks to Van, Ada (Van’s sister) mentions some Greek or Turkish port for which Percy de Prey left on the eve:

She walked swiftly toward him across the iridescently glistening lawn. ‘Van,’ she said, ‘I must tell you my dream before I forget. You and I were high up in the Alps — Why on earth are you wearing townclothes?’

‘Well, I’ll tell you,’ drawled dreamy Van. ‘I’ll tell you why. From a humble but reliable sauce, I mean source, excuse my accent, I have just learned qu’on vous culbute behind every hedge. Where can I find your tumbler?’

‘Nowhere,’ she answered quite calmly, ignoring or not even perceiving his rudeness, for she had always known that disaster would come today or tomorrow, a question of time or rather timing on the part of fate.

‘But he exists, he exists,’ muttered Van, looking down at a rainbow web on the turf.

‘I suppose so,’ said the haughty child, ‘however, he left yesterday for some Greek or Turkish port. Moreover, he was going to do everything to get killed, if that information helps. Now listen, listen! Those walks in the woods meant nothing. Wait, Van! I was weak only twice when you had hurt him so hideously, or perhaps three times in all. Please! I can’t explain in one gush, but eventually you will understand. Not everybody is as happy as we are. He’s a poor, lost, clumsy boy. We are all doomed, but some are more doomed than others. He is nothing to me. I shall never see him again. He is nothing, I swear. He adores me to the point of insanity.’

‘I think,’ said Van, ‘we’ve got hold of the wrong lover. I was asking about Herr Rack, who has such delectable gums and also adores you to the point of insanity.’

He turned, as they say, on his heel, and walked toward the house. (1.41)

In the Kalugano hospital (where he recovers after his duel with Tapper) Van learns about poor Rack’s death. Poisoned by his jealous wife, Rack dies in Ward Five (where hopeless cases are kept) of the same hospital. In his essay on Chekhov, Tvorchestvo iz nichego (“Creation from Nothing,” 1905), Lev Shestov calls Chekhov (the author of “Ward No. 6”) pevets beznadyozhnosti (a poet of hopelessness). When he learns about Percy de Prey’s death in the Crimean War, Van has the impression that he managed to dispatch Ada’s two lovers in a duel with a dummy:

‘How strange, how strange,’ murmured Van when Cordula had finished her much less elaborate version of the report Van later got from Bill Fraser.

What a strange coincidence! Either Ada’s lethal shafts were at work, or he, Van, had somehow managed to dispatch her two wretched lovers in a duel with a dummy. (1.42)

In a letter of Jan. 15, 1889, to Pleshcheyev Chekhov calls his play Ivanov (1889) “Bolvanov:”

Когда покончу со своим «Болвановым», сяду писать для «Сев<ерного> вестника». Беллетристика — покойное и святое дело. Повествовательная форма — это законная жена, а драматическая — эффектная, шумная, наглая и утомительная любовница.

Bolvan is Russian for “dummy.” In the same letter to Pleshcheyev Chekhov says that he now hates his play and is ready to finish it with Kean’s words (in Dumas’s play Kean ou Désordre et Génie), Palkami Ivanova, palkami! (“Beat Ivanov with sticks!”):

Всю неделю я возился над пьесой, строчил варианты, поправки, вставки, сделал новую Сашу (для Савиной), изменил IV акт до неузнаваемого, отшлифовал самого Иванова и так замучился, до такой степени возненавидел свою пьесу, что готов кончить ее словами Кина: «Палками Иванова, палками!»

Before his duel with Tapper Van muses that Rack would accept plain thrashing in lieu of combat. According to Lucette, Demon (Van’s and Ada’s father) said that Van should have simply cudgeled Tapper:

Who told you about that lewd cordelude — I mean, interlude?’

‘Your father, mon cher — we saw a lot of him in the West. Ada supposed, at first, that Tapper was an invented name — that you fought your duel with another person — but that was before anybody heard of the other person’s death in Kalugano. Demon said you should have simply cudgeled him.’

‘I could not,’ said Van, ‘the rat was rotting away in a hospital bed.’

‘I meant the real Tapper,’ cried Lucette (who was making a complete mess of her visit), ‘not my poor, betrayed, poisoned, innocent teacher of music, whom not even Ada, unless she fibs, could cure of his impotence.’

‘Driblets,’ said Van.

‘Not necessarily his,’ said Lucette. ‘His wife’s lover played the triple viol. Look, I’ll borrow a book’ (scanning on the nearest bookshelf The Gitanilla, Clichy Clichés, Mertvago Forever, The Ugly New Englander) ‘and curl up, komondi, in the next room for a few minutes, while you — Oh, I adore The Slat Sign.’

There’s no hurry,’ said Van.

Pause (about fifteen minutes to go to the end of the act). (2.5)

Describing the family dinner in “Ardis the Second,” Van calls Marina (Van’s, Ada’s and Lucette’s mother) “a dummy in human disguise” (1.38). In the epilogue of Ada Van mentions his “dummy-mummy” and “the crowning paradox of our boxed brain’s eschatologies:”

Nirvana, Nevada, Vaniada. By the way, should I not add, my Ada, that only at the very last interview with poor dummy-mummy, soon after my premature — I mean, premonitory — nightmare about, ‘You can, Sir,’ she employed mon petit nom, Vanya, Vanyusha — never had before, and it sounded so odd, so tend… (voice trailing off, radiators tinkling).

‘Dummy-mum’ — (laughing). ‘Angels, too, have brooms — to sweep one’s soul clear of horrible images. My black nurse was Swiss-laced with white whimsies.’ (5.6)

I had a schoolmate called Vanda. And I knew a girl called Adora, little thing in my last floramor. What makes me see that bit as the purest sanglot in the book? What is the worst part of dying?

For you realize there are three facets to it (roughly corresponding to the popular tripartition of Time). There is, first, the wrench of relinquishing forever all one’s memories — that’s a commonplace, but what courage man must have had to go through that commonplace again and again and not give up the rigmarole of accumulating again and again the riches of consciousness that will be snatched away! Then we have the second facet — the hideous physical pain — for obvious reasons let us not dwell upon that. And finally, there is the featureless pseudo-future, blank and black, an everlasting nonlastingness, the crowning paradox of our boxed brain’s eschatologies! (ibid.)

Berdyaev is the author of Opyt eskhatologicheskoy metafiziki (“An Attempt of Eschatological Metaphysics,” 1941).

Alexey Sklyarenko

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