Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0027033, Tue, 31 May 2016 17:02:29 -0300

RES: [NABOKV-L] Novaya Zemlya and Kuzma's mother
Victor Fet:* "I wonder if VN ever knew that the true-life island of Novaya
Zemlya was, exactly at the time of Pale Fire publication,
<https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Novaya_Zemlya> a site of Soviet nuclear
tests:in particular (as we NOW know) the October 30, 1961
<https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Air_burst#Nuclear_weapons> air burst
explosion of <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tsar_Bomba> Tsar Bomba, the
largest, most powerful nuclear weapon ever detonated:.50 Megaton TNT, aka
Kuz'kina Mat' ( <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russian_language> Russian:
Кузькина мать, <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kuzma%27s_mother> Kuzma's
mother) referring to <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nikita_Khrushchev>
Nikita Khrushchev's promise to show the
<https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States> United States a "Kuz'kina Mat'
at the 1960 UN General Assembly. / Tomsk or Atomsk, indeed, still to our

Jansy Mello: V. Nabokov's 1942 poem "The Refrigerator Awakes" has been cited
as a stylistic example of personification or "vitalization", also of "kitsch
and Americana"** Today one of its hidden associations ( Nova Zembla's "B in
her bonnet") hit me differently, namely the indications of torture, untold
stories, crime, freezing death.

The doubts raised by Victor Fet concerning VN's knowledge about "the
true-life island" are justified by the dates of his writing Pale Fire and
the Tsar Bomba explosion but, by the early forties when VN's refrigerator
lines were published in America, it's impossible to admit that the poet
could have had information about how the region was being exploited at that
time. And yet, there are uncanny forebodings of tragedy in it, Poe-like
transformations into horror and mysterious bobolinks.

One of these derives from the sudden shift in the poem when it moves from
events in the Artic ( Nova Zembla, its "semblances", "mirrors", "parhelions"
in PF) to those in the Antartic ( Shackleton, pemmican, penguin, Poe's Pym

In his contribution to the VN-L (2003) Jasper Fidget mentions the mirage
effect named after Novaya Zemlya. Its relation to Shackleton is present

"In the winter of 1596, a ship under the command of Willem Barents in search
for the Northeast Passage to Asia was ice-bound off the north coast of the
Russian arctic island of Novaya Zemlya (latitude 76 degrees North). Barents
and his officers were astonished one day in early March to see a distorted
sun appear for a short time above the horizon. They had not expected to see
the breaking of the long arctic night at this latitude for another few
weeks. Yet, there it appeared, approximately 5 degrees of arc higher than
its actual position. Because such mirages were rarely seen by Europeans,
Barents' reports were not taken seriously by scientists of his time. Indeed,
his observations were not confirmed for over three centuries when, in 1915
and half a world away, Sir Ernest Shackleton briefly observed a distorted
sun suddenly visible over the horizon seven days after it had set for the
Antarctic winter night./ The Novaya Zemlya mirage requires the sun's rays to
travel within an inversion layer for hundreds of kilometres. The layer must
have just the right temperature gradient so that the light more or less
continuously bends with the curvature of the Earth over that long distance -
400 km (250 miles) for a 5 degree elevation rise according to calculations
by W.H. Lehn - to allow a sighting of the sun's disk./With many permanent or
long-term scientific settlements in polar regions established over the last
fifty years, the Novaya Zemlya mirage has been more frequently observed and
even photographed.

Curiously I find more omens related to the future "Kuzma's Mother," reported
by Victor, in VN's brief, intense early poem than in the entire novel "Pale
Fire" - but Victor's connection lit up a warning note about frozen secrets,
poisonous solvents and "criminal nights" in that book.

* Jansy Mello's former post: "While reading a fantasy story in the internet
I was directed to a site about Novaya Zemlya [
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Novaya_Zemlya ] where I read about this
northern island and examined assorted maps. At the end of this wikipedia
entry, in a reference to "Literature" Vladimir Nabokov's name was cited -
but simply because of a line in his poem "The Refrigerator Awakes" (The New
Yorker, June 6,1942). I copied some of the verses to provide a half-frozen
context to line 27."


And if darkness could sound, it would sound like this giant

waking up in the torture house, trying to die

and not dying [...]


the line, hold the line, lest its tale be untold;

let it amble along through the thumping pain

and horror of dichlordisometing methane,

a trembling white heart with the frost froth upon it,

Nova Zembla, poor thing, with that B in her bonnet,

stunned bees in the bonnets of cars on hot roads,

Keep It Kold...[...]

of that wide-open white

god, the pride and delight

of starry-eyed couples in dream kitchenettes,

and it groans and it drones and it toils and it sweats -

Shackleton, pemmican, penguin, Poe's Pym -

collapsing at last in the criminal


** "The pinnacle of Nabokov's English poetry comes unsurprisingly during
his American period, where we see not only the characteristic preoccupation
with kitsch and Americana ('The Refrigerator Awakens', 'Ode to a Model'),
but also the development and culmination of the same philosophical themes
that occupied his later prose: life, death and artistic creation" Cf..the
unknown nabokov, part 1: poetic prose or prosaic poetry? by Bryan Karetnyk.
The emphasis on early examples of "animation/vitalization" derives from an
excerpt from the chapter on "Mary" found in
bPBiIQ6AEIJTAB> The Garland Companion to Vladimir Nabokov, edited by V. E.
Alexandrov, 2014 (I didn't check it in the book itself).

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