Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0027006, Fri, 20 May 2016 16:00:03 +0300

arethusoides, Philip Rack, Percy de Prey & aquatic peacock in Ada
Dr Fitzbishop had said, rubbing his hands, that the Luga laboratory said it was the not always lethal 'arethusoides' but it had no practical importance now, because the unfortunate music teacher, and composer, was not expected to spend another night on Demonia, and would be on Terra, ha-ha, in time for evensong. Doc Fitz was what Russians call a poshlyak ('pretentious vulgarian') and in some obscure counter-fashion Van was relieved not to be able to gloat over the wretched Rack's martyrdom. (1.42)

Arethusoides comes from Arethusa, a nymph who fled from her home in Arcadia beneath the sea and came up as a fresh water fountain on the island of Ortygia in Syracuse, Sicily. Arethusa (1820) is a poem by P. B. Shelley. In Shelley’s tragedy The Cenci (1819) Beatrice twice repeats the word “rack:”

Brother, lie down with me upon the rack,

And let us each be silent as a corpse;

It soon will be as soft as any grave.

'Tis but the falsehood it can wring from fear

Makes the rack cruel. (Act Five, scene III)

In Pushkin’s story Egipetskie nochi (“The Egyptian Nights,” 1835) one of the themes proposed by the audience to the improvisatore is La famiglia dei Cenci (“The family of Cenci”):

Возвратясь на свои подмостки, импровизатор поставил урну на стол и стал вынимать бумажки одну за другой, читая каждую вслух:

Семейство Ченчи.

(La famiglia dei Cenci.)

L’ultimo giorno di Pompeïa.

Cleopatra e i suoi amanti.

La primavera veduta da una prigione.

Il trionfo di Tasso. (chapter III)

Another theme, L’ultimo giorno di Pompeïa, brings to mind “Pompeianella” (as Van calls Ada):

'Good for you, Pompeianella (whom you saw scattering her flowers in one of Uncle Dan's picture books, but whom I admired last summer in a Naples museum). Now don't you think we should resume our shorts and shirts and go down, and bury or burn this album at once, girl. Right?’

'Right,' answered Ada. 'Destroy and forget. But we still have an hour before tea.' (1.1)

One of the characters in Torquato Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered (cf. Il trionfo di Tasso, yet another theme), Erminia, is hopelessly in love with Tancred. In Ada, Greg Erminin is hopelessly in love with Ada.

In “The Egyptian Nights” the improvisatore begins his performance after the musicians had played the overture from Tancred (Rossini’s opera based on a tragedy by Voltaire):

Все с нетерпением ожидали начала; наконец в половине осьмого музыканты засуетилися, приготовили смычки и заиграли увертюру из «Танкреда». Все уселось и примолкло, последние звуки увертюры прогремели... (chapter III)

Philip Rack is a composer. His first name may also hint at Sir Philip Sidney (1554-86), the English poet. Another lover of Ada, Count Percy de Prey, is a namesake of Percy Bysshe Shelley. In his poem Time (1821) Shelley speaks of Ocean of Time “sick of prey, yet howling on for more:”

Unfathomable Sea! whose waves are years,

Ocean of Time, whose waters of deep woe

Are brackish with the salt of human tears!

Thou shoreless flood, which in thy ebb and flow

Claspest the limits of mortality!

And sick of prey, yet howling on for more,

Vomitest thy wrecks on its inhospitable shore;

Treacherous in calm, and terrible in storm,

Who shall put forth on thee,

Unfathomable Sea?

“Thy ebb and flow” and the title of Shelley’s poem bring to mind VN’s story Time and Ebb (1944). Its ninety-year-old narrator was born in Paris. Lucette sends her last note to Van (the author of Texture of Time who writes Ada in his nineties) from Paris:

Van hastened to join Ada in the attic. At that moment he felt quite proud of his stratagem. He was to recall it with a fatidic shiver seventeen years later when Lucette, in her last note to him, mailed from Paris to his Kingston address on June 2, 1901, 'just in case,' wrote:

'I kept for years - it must be in my Ardis nursery - the anthology you once gave me; and the little poem you wanted me to learn by heart is still word-perfect in a safe place of my jumbled mind, with the packers trampling on my things, and upsetting crates, and voices calling, time to go, time to go. Find it in Brown and praise me again for my eight-year-old intelligence as you and happy Ada did that distant day, that day somewhere tinkling on its shelf like an empty little bottle. Now read on:

'Here, said the guide, was the field,

There, he said, was the wood.

This is where Peter kneeled,

That's where the Princess stood.

No, the visitor said,

You are the ghost, old guide.

Oats and oaks may be dead,

But she is by my side.' (1.23)

When Van makes eight-year-old Lucette learn by heart Brown's poem Peter and Margaret, Ada suggests that he chooses another poem by Brown, the one about finding a feather and seeing Peacock plain:

‘If' (lightly brushing her bobbed hair with his lips), 'if, my sweet, you can recite it and confound Ada by not making one single slip - you must be careful about the "here-there" and the "this-that", and every other detail - if you can do it then I shall give you this valuable book for keeps.' ('Let her try the one about finding a feather and seeing Peacock plain,' said Ada drily - 'it's a bit harder.') (1.23)

T. L. Peacock (1785-1866) was a close friend of Shelley. In the opening line of his poem Memorabilia (1855) Robert Browning mentions Shelley:

Ah, did you once see Shelley plain,

And did he stop and speak to you?

And did you speak to him again?

How strange it seems, and new!

But you were living before that,

And you are living after,

And the memory I started at—

My starting moves your laughter!

I crossed a moor, with a name of its own

And a certain use in the world no doubt,

Yet a hand's-breadth of it shines alone

'Mid the blank miles round about:

For there I picked up on the heather

And there I put inside my breast

A moulted feather, an eagle-feather—

Well, I forget the rest.

In the first night of his transatlantic journey onboard Admiral Tobakoff Van dreams of an aquatic peacock:

A tempest went into convulsions around midnight, but despite the lunging and creaking (Tobakoff was an embittered old vessel) Van managed to sleep soundly, the only reaction on the part of his dormant mind being the dream image of an aquatic peacock, slowly sinking before somersaulting like a diving grebe, near the shore of the lake bearing his name in the ancient kingdom of Arrowroot. Upon reviewing that bright dream he traced its source to his recent visit to Armenia where he had gone fowling with Armborough and that gentleman's extremely compliant and accomplished niece. (3.5)

Van’s visit to Armenia brings to mind Pushkin’s “Journey to Arzrum during the Campaign of 1829” (1835). One of the settlements in the itinerary appended to the text of Pushkin’s “Journey,” Ardos, only in one letter differs from Ardis (Daniel Veen’s country estate where the action of Part One of Ada takes place). The place name Ardis hints at paradise. This Side of Paradise is a novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1920). Its title was taken from Rupert Brooke’s poem Tiare Tahiti. In his essay (1922) on Rupert Brooke VN (who translated several poems of Brooke into Russian) quotes this poem and calls Brooke grezyashchaya ryba (a day-dreaming fish):

И Брук сам - "грезящая рыба", когда, заброшенный на тропический остров, он обещает своей гавайской возлюбленной совершенства заоблачного края, "где живут Бессмертные, - благие, прекрасные, истинные, те Подлинники, с которых мы - земные, глупые, скомканные снимки. Там - Лик, а мы здесь только призраки его. Там - верная беззакатная Звезда и Цветок, бледную тень которого любим мы на земле. Там нет ни единой слезы, а есть только Скорбь. Нет движущихся ног, а есть Пляска. Все песни исчезнут в одной Песне. Вместо любовников будет Любовь..." Но тут, спохватившись, поэт восклицает: "Как же мы будем плести наши любимые венки, если там нет ни голов, ни цветов? Господи, как мы станем жалеть о пальмах, о солнце, о юге. И уж больше, кажется, не будет поцелуев, ибо все уста сольются в единые Уста... Внемли зову луны и шепчущим благоуханьям, которые блуждают вдоль тёплой лагуны. Поспеши, положив руку в руку человеческую, сквозь сумрак цветущей тропы к белой полосе песка и в мягкой ласке воды смой пыль мудрованья. И до зари, под сияющей луной, нагоняй в беззвучно-глубокой воде чьё-то мерцающее тело и теневые волосы, а то предавайся волне полудремотно. Ныряй, изгибайся, выплывай, выглядывай из цветов, смейся, призывай - пока уста наши ещё не поблекли, пока у нас на лицах не стерлась печать нашего "я"..."

“The dream image of an aquatic peacock” brings to mind Aqua, the twin sister of Marina Durmanov (Van’s, Ada’s and Lucette’s mother) who married Demon Veen (Van’s and Ada’s father). On a train she took to reach Demon’s country house sly Aqua, imitating a foreigner, addressed the conductor in Russo-Italian, mentioned Lago di Luga (Lake Luga) and used a German phrase as she paid for the ticket:

Some confusion ensued less than two years later (September, 1871 — her proud brain still retained dozens of dates) when upon escaping from her next refuge and somehow reaching her husband’s unforgettable country house (imitate a foreigner: ‘Signor Konduktor, ay vant go Lago di Luga, hier geld’) she took advantage of his being massaged in the solarium, tiptoed into their former bedroom — and experienced a delicious shock: her talc powder in a half-full glass container marked colorfully Quelques Fleurs still stood on her bedside table; her favorite flame-colored nightgown lay rumpled on the bedrug; to her it meant that only a brief black nightmare had obliterated the radiant fact of her having slept with her husband all along — ever since Shakespeare’s birthday on a green rainy day, but for most other people, alas, it meant that Marina (after G.A. Vronsky, the movie man, had left Marina for another long-lashed Khristosik as he called all pretty starlets) had conceived, c’est bien le cas de le dire, the brilliant idea of having Demon divorce mad Aqua and marry Marina who thought (happily and correctly) she was pregnant again. (1.3)

In “The Egyptian Nights” the improvisatore (a poor artist from Naples) addresses Charski “Signor” and “Eccelenza.” Philip Rack is a poor German musician.

Poor mad Aqua committed suicide by taking poison:

In less than a week Aqua had accumulated more than two hundred tablets of different potency. She knew most of them - the jejune sedatives, and the ones that knocked you out from eight p.m. till midnight, and several varieties of superior soporifics that left you with limpid limbs and a leaden head after eight hours of non-being, and a drug which was in itself delightful but a little lethal if combined with a draught of the cleansing fluid commercially known as Morona; and a plump purple pill reminding her, she had to laugh, of those with which the little gypsy enchantress in the Spanish tale (dear to Ladore schoolgirls) puts to sleep all the sportsmen and all their bloodhounds at the opening of the hunting season. (ibid.)

Delightful “but a little lethal” drug brings to mind “the not always lethal 'arethusoides'” that kills poor Rack.

Before jumping to her death into the Atlantic, Lucette (Van’s and Ada’s half-sister) in Tobakoff’s cinema hall watches with Van Don Juan’s Last Fling, a movie in which Ada played the gitanilla. Don Juan was the name of Shelley’s schooner. The poet drowned when it got shipwrecked in a storm in the Tyrrhenian Sea. On the other hand, Don Guan is the main character in Pushkin’s little tragedy Kamennyi gost’ (“The Stone Guest,” 1830). It is believed that the poet completed it in the morning before his fatal duel.

“The Egyptian Nights” bring to mind three Egyptian squaws in Van’s first floramor (Eric Veen’s Villa Venus):

Three Egyptian squaws, dutifully keeping in profile (long ebony eye, lovely snub, braided black mane, honey-hued faro frock, thin amber arms, Negro bangles, doughnut earring of gold bisected by a pleat of the mane, Red Indian hairband, ornamental bib), lovingly borrowed by Eric Veen from a reproduction of a Theban fresco (no doubt pretty banal in 1420 B.C.), printed in Germany (Künstlerpostkarte Nr. 6034, says cynical Dr Lagosse), prepared me by means of what parched Eric called 'exquisite manipulations of certain nerves whose position and power are known only to a few ancient sexologists,' accompanied by the no less exquisite application of certain ointments, not too specifically mentioned in the pornolore of Eric's Orientalia, for receiving a scared little virgin, the descendant of an Irish king, as Eric was told in his last dream in Ex, Switzerland, by a master of funerary rather than fornicatory ceremonies. (2.3)

Btw., Arethusa bulbosa is an orchid and Arethusana arethusa is a butterfly from the subfamily Satyrinae.

Alexey Sklyarenko

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