Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0027069, Tue, 21 Jun 2016 11:27:41 +0300

Aqua, howling creatures, gradual shade & Quelques Fleurs in Ada
The rosy remoteness of Terra was soon veiled for her [Aqua] by direful mists. Her disintegration went down a shaft of phases, every one more racking than the last; for the human brain can become the best torture house of all those it has invented, established and used in millions of years, in millions of lands, on millions of howling creatures. (1.3)

“Racking” brings to mind Philip Rack (Lucette’s music teacher who was poisoned by his jealous wife and who dies in the Kalugano hospital, 1.42). In 1901, when Van meets Greg Erminin in Paris, Greg mentions Rack and Van says that it was a great pleasure to make Greg’s chum (Percy de Prey, another lover of Ada) howl:

'So odd to recall! It was frenzy, it was fantasy, it was reality in the x degree. I'd have consented to be beheaded by a Tartar, I declare, if in exchange I could have kissed her instep. You were her cousin, almost a brother, you can't understand that obsession. Ah, those picnics! And Percy de Prey who boasted to me about her, and drove me crazy with envy and pity, and Dr Krolik, who, they said, also loved her, and Phil Rack, a composer of genius - dead, dead, all dead!'

'I really know very little about music but it was a great pleasure to make your chum howl. I have an appointment in a few minutes, alas. Za tvoyo zdorovie, Grigoriy Akimovich.'

'Arkadievich,' said Greg, who had let it pass once but now mechanically corrected Van.

'Ach yes! Stupid slip of the slovenly tongue. How is Arkadiy Grigorievich?'

'He died. He died just before your aunt. I thought the papers paid a very handsome tribute to her talent. And where is Adelaida Danilovna? Did she marry Christopher Vinelander or his brother?'

'In California or Arizona. Andrey's the name, I gather. Perhaps I'm mistaken. In fact, I never knew my cousin very well: I visited Ardis only twice, after all, for a few weeks each time, years ago.'

'Somebody told me she's a movie actress.'

'I've no idea, I've never seen her on the screen.'

'Oh, that would be terrible, I declare - to switch on the dorotelly, and suddenly see her. Like a drowning man seeing his whole past, and the trees, and the flowers, and the wreathed dachshund. She must have been terribly affected by her mother's terrible death.'

Likes the word 'terrible,' I declare, A terrible suit of clothes, a terrible tumor. Why must I stand it? Revolting - and yet fascinating in a weird way: my babbling shadow, my burlesque double. (3.2)

In his poem Time (1821) Percy Byssche 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?

In Shelley’s tragedy The Cenci (1819) Beatrice several times 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 his poem The Nature of Electricity John Shade (one of the three main characters in VN’s novel Pale Fire, 1962) mentions “Shelley’s incandescent soul:”

The dead, the gentle dead—who knows?—
In tungsten filaments abide,
And on my bedside table glows
Another man’s departed bride.

And maybe Shakespeare floods a whole
Town with innumerable lights,
And Shelley’s incandescent soul
Lures the pale moths of starless nights.

Streetlamps are numbered, and maybe
Number nine-hundred-ninety-nine
(So brightly beaming through a tree
So green) is an old friend of mine.

And when above the livid plain
Forked lightning plays, therein may dwell
The torments of a Tamerlane,
The roar of tyrants torn in hell. (Kinbote’s note to Line 347)

In its unfinished form Shade’s poem Pale Fire (in which “Terra the Fair, an orbicle of jasp” is mentioned) has 999 lines. It seems that, to be completed, it needs two more lines:

I was the shadow of the waxwing slain

By its own double in the windowpane.

According to Van, Greg Erminin is his “babbling shadow,” his “burlesque double.”

After the L disaster in the beau milieu of the 19th century electricity was banned on Antiterra (1.3). The Antiterran L disaster seems to correspond to the mock execution of Dostoevski and the Petrashevskians on Jan. 3, 1850 (NS). January 3, 1876, is Lucette’s birthday (1.1). Dostoevski is the author of Bednye Lyudi (“Poor Folk,” 1846) and Dvoinik (“The Double,” 1848). In the old Russian alphabet the letter L was called lyudi. In a draft of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin (Chapter Three) Tatiana Larin signs her letter to Onegin with her initials:

Podumala, chto skazhut lyudi?

I podpisala T. L. [Tvyordo, Lyudi].

Van’s conversation with Greg Erminin in Paris is, in part, a parody of Onegin’s dialogue with Prince N. (Tatiana’s husband) in Chapter Eight of EO:

Van considered for a moment those red round cheeks, that black goatee.

'Ne uznayosh' (You don't recognize me)?'

'Greg! Grigoriy Akimovich!' cried Van tearing off his glove.

'I grew a regular vollbart last summer. You'd never have known me then. Beer? Wonder what you do to look so boyish, Van.'

'Diet of champagne, not beer,' said Professor Veen, putting on his spectacles and signaling to a waiter with the crook of his 'umber.' 'Hardly stops one adding weight, but keeps the scrotum crisp.'

'I'm also very fat, yes?'

'What about Grace, I can't imagine her getting fat?'

'Once twins, always twins. My wife is pretty portly, too.'

'Tak tï zhenat (so you are married)? Didn't know it. How long?'

'About two years.'

'To whom?'

'Maude Sween.'

'The daughter of the poet?'

'No, no, her mother is a Brougham.' (3.2)

Darkbloom (‘Notes to Ada’): So you are married, etc.: see Eugene Onegin, Eight: XVIII: 1-4.

The name Aqua means “water.” In The Fragments of Onegin's Journey ([XVII]: 13-14) Pushkin confesses that he has admixed a lot of water unto his poetic goblet:

И в поэтический бокал

Воды я много подмешал.

Poor mad Aqua believed that she could understand the language of her namesake:

She developed a morbid sensitivity to the language of tap water - which echoes sometimes (much as the bloodstream does predormitarily) a fragment of human speech lingering in one's ears while one washes one's hands after cocktails with strangers. Upon first noticing this immediate, sustained, and in her case rather eager and mocking but really quite harmless replay of this or that recent discourse, she felt tickled at the thought that she, poor Aqua, had accidentally hit upon such a simple method of recording and transmitting speech, while technologists (the so-called Eggheads) all over the world were trying to make publicly utile and commercially rewarding the extremely elaborate and still very expensive, hydrodynamic telephones and other miserable gadgets that were to replace those that had gone k chertyam sobach'im (Russian 'to the devil') with the banning of an unmentionable 'lammer.' Soon, however, the rhythmically perfect, but verbally rather blurred volubility of faucets began to acquire too much pertinent sense. The purity of the running water's enunciation grew in proportion to the nuisance it made of itself. It spoke soon after she had listened, or been exposed, to somebody talking - not necessarily to her - forcibly and expressively, a person with a rapid characteristic voice, and very individual or very foreign phrasal intonations, some compulsive narrator's patter at a horrible party, or a liquid soliloquy in a tedious play, or Van's lovely voice, or a bit of poetry heard at a lecture, my lad, my pretty, my love, take pity, but especially the more fluid and flou Italian verse, for instance that ditty recited between knee-knocking and palpebra-lifting, by a half-Russian, half-dotty old doctor, doc, toc, ditty, dotty, ballatetta, deboletta... tu, voce sbigottita... spigotty e diavoletta... de lo cor dolente... con ballatetta va... va... della strutta, destruttamente... mente... mente... stop that record, or the guide will go on demonstrating as he did this very morning in Florence a silly pillar commemorating, he said, the 'elmo' that broke into leaf when they carried stone-heavy-dead St Zeus by it through the gradual, gradual shade; or the Arlington harridan talking incessantly to her silent husband as the vineyards sped by, and even in the tunnel (they can't do this to you, you tell them, Jack Black, you just tell them...). Bathwater (or shower) was too much of a Caliban to speak distinctly - or perhaps was too brutally anxious to emit the hot torrent and get rid of the infernal ardor - to bother about small talk; but the burbly flowlets grew more and more ambitious and odious, and when at her first 'home' she heard one of the most hateful of the visiting doctors (the Cavalcanti quoter) garrulously pour hateful instructions in Russian-lapped German into her hateful bidet, she decided to stop turning on tap water altogether. (1.3)

“The gradual, gradual shade” hints at Gradus (Shade’s murderer in Pale Fire) and Shade. Shade, Kinbote and Gradus seem to represent three different aspects of Botkin’s personality. An American scholar of Russian descent, Professor Vsevolod Botkin went mad and became Shade, Kinbote and Gradus after the suicide of his daughter Nadezhda (Hazel Shade of her father’s poem).

It seems that Aqua went mad because she was poisoned by her twin sister Marina (Van’s, Ada’s and Lucette’s mother). In her memoir essay on Maximilian Voloshin, Zhivoe o zhivom ("A Living Word about the Living Man," 1932), Marina Tsvetaev compares Voloshin to Zeus and mentions Florence:

Макс тогда только что женился и вот, приезжает в Коктебель с Маргаритой, а у нас жила одна дама с маленькой девочкой. Сидим все, обедаем. Девочка смотрит, смотрит на молодых, то на Макса, то на Маргариту, то опять на Маргариту, то опять на Макса, и громким шёпотом - матери: "Мама! Почему эта царевна вышла замуж за этого дворника?" А Маргарита, действительно, походила на царевну, во Флоренции её на улице просто звали: Ангел!

According to Marina Tsvetaev, in Florence people in the street called Margarita Sabashnikov (Voloshin's first wife who looked like a Princess) "an angel."

Voloshin is the author of Lutetia Parisiorum (1915), a sonnet about Paris (also known as Lute on Antiterra), and Kitezh, a poem included in Rossia Raspyataya (Russia Crucified, 1920). Marina spent a rukuliruyushchiy (cooing) month with Demon at Kitezh:

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. Marina had spent a rukuliruyushchiy month with him at Kitezh but when she smugly divulged her intentions (just before Aqua's arrival) he threw her out of the house. (1.3)

“Quelques Fleurs” (Marina’s talc powder) bring to mind Fleur de Fyler, a character in Pale Fire.

Alexey Sklyarenko

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