Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0027073, Fri, 24 Jun 2016 07:59:29 +0300

Belladonna, Braun & Brown in Ada
'Your father,' added Lucette, 'paid a man from Belladonna to take pictures - but of course, real fame begins only when one's name appears in that cine-magazine's crossword puzzle. We all know it will never happen, never! Do you hate me now?' (3.5)

Belladonna (1900) is a poem by Balmont (Shelley’s Russian translator) quoted in full by Annenski in Balmont-lirik ("Balmont the Lyric Poet"), an essay included in Kniga otrazheniy ("The Book of Reflections," 1906). According to Annenski, любовь Бальмонта - это его "Белладонна" (Balmont's love is his Belladonna). Annenski’s Book of Reflections and The Second Book of Reflections (1909) bring to mind Van’s book Reflections in Sidra. Sidra is Ardis (the country estate of Daniel Veen, Van’s and Ada’s uncle) backwards. Van saw the photograph of Ada Ardis (Ada’s stage-name) in Belladonna:

Van had seen the picture [Four Sisters] and had liked it. An Irish girl, the infinitely graceful and melancholy Lenore Colline -

Oh! qui me rendra ma colline

Et le grand chêne and my colleen!

- harrowingly resembled Ada Ardis as photographed with her mother in Belladonna, a movie magazine which Greg Erminin had sent him, thinking it would delight him to see aunt and cousin, together, on a California patio just before the film was released. (2.9)

In the Hollywood version of Four Sisters (as Chekhov's play "The Three Sisters" is known on Antiterra) Marina (Van’s and Ada’s mother) played the deaf nun Varvara, the fourth sister whose name hints at the Varvarka street in Moscow and brings to mind the popular song about Kamarinskiy muzhik:

Kak po ulitse Varvarinskoy

shyol Kas'yan, muzhik kamarinskiy.

As along the Street Varvarinski

went Kasian, muzhik kamarinski.

The epithet kamarinskiy hints at komar (mosquito). Describing his nights at Ardis, Van mentions Venus, the Kamargsky Komar of our muzhiks and the Moustique moscovite of their no less alliterative retaliators:

The windows in the black castle went out in rows, files, and knight moves. The longest occupant of the nursery water closet was Mlle Larivière, who came there with a rose-oil lampad and her buvard. A breeze ruffled the hangings of his now infinite chamber. Venus rose in the sky; Venus set in his flesh.

All that was a little before the seasonal invasion of a certain interestingly primitive mosquito (whose virulence the not-too-kind Russian contingent of our region attributed to the diet of the French winegrowers and bogberry-eaters of Ladore); but even so the fascinating fireflies, and the still more eerie pale cosmos coming through the dark foliage, balanced with new discomforts the nocturnal ordeal, the harassments of sweat and sperm associated with his stuffy room. Night, of course, always remained an ordeal, throughout the near-century of his life, no matter how drowsy or drugged the poor man might be - for genius is not all gingerbread even for Billionaire Bill with his pointed beardlet and stylized bald dome, or crusty Proust who liked to decapitate rats when he did not feel like sleeping, or this brilliant or obscure V.V. (depending on the eyesight of readers, also poor people despite our jibes and their jobs); but at Ardis, the intense life of the star-haunted sky troubled the boy's night so much that, on the whole, he felt grateful when foul weather or the fouler gnat - the Kamargsky Komar of our muzhiks and the Moustique moscovite of their no less alliterative retaliators - drove him back to his bumpy bed. (1.12)

According to Tomski, a character in Pushkin’s story Pikovaya dama (“The Queen of Spades,” 1833), sixty years ago his eighty-year-old grandmother (the old Countess) was known in Paris as la Vénus muscovite:

Надобно знать, что бабушка моя, лет шестьдесят тому назад, ездила в Париж и была там в большой моде. Народ бегал за нею, чтоб увидеть la Vénus moscovite; Ришелье за нею волочился, и бабушка уверяет, что он чуть было не застрелился от её жестокости.

About sixty years ago, my grandmother went to Paris, where she created quite a sensation. People used to run after her to catch a glimpse of the 'Muscovite Venus.' Richelieu courted her, and my grandmother maintains that he almost blew out his brains in consequence of her cruelty. (chapter I)

In his poem The Eve of St Mark John Keats mentions “some ghostly Queen of spades:”

Untir'd she read; her shadow still
Glower'd about as it would fill
The room with wildest forms and shades,
As though some ghostly Queen of spades
Had come to mock behind her back—
And dance, and ruffle her garments black. (ll. 83-88)

St. Mark is the patron saint of Venice whose feast takes place on April 25. The Eve of St. Mark is April 24. Demon married Marina’s twin sister Aqua on April 23, 1869 (St. George’s Day):

The modest narrator has to remind the rereader of all this, because in April (my favorite month), 1869 (by no means a mirabilic year), on St George's Day (according to Mlle Larivière's maudlin memoirs) Demon Veen married Aqua Veen - out of spite and pity, a not unusual blend. (1.3)

1819 was annus mirabilis in Keats’ life: “the winter of 1818–19, though a difficult period for the poet, marked the beginning of his annus mirabilis in which he wrote his most mature work.” On the other hand, 1866 was annus mirabilis in the life of Dostoevski (who married his second wife, Anna Snitkin, in 1867).

In The Eve of St Mark Keats describes Venice. In Mark Aldanov’s novel Mogila voina (“A Soldier’s Grave,” 1938) the action begins in Venice. The novel’s main character is Lord Byron (who lived in Venice in 1816-17). In Aldanov's novel Klyuch ("The Key," 1929) the police believes that Fisher was poisoned with an alkaloid of the belladonna type:

- Алкaлоид родa беллaдонны, - хмурясь и морщa лоб, повторил вслух Яценко. (Part One, chapter XXXIII)

Braun questions the results of the post-mortem examination. He suggests that Fisher was poisoned with cantharidin:

"Есть яды, которые веселящимися людьми употребляются с особой целью. Тогда ваше возражение падает. Вполне возможно и правдоподобно, что, отправляясь на ту квартиру, Фишер принял одно из таких средств. Да вот кантаридин. Есть такой яд особого назначения, ангидрид кантаридиновой кислоты… Он вообще мало изучен, и немногочисленные исследователи чрезвычайно расходятся насчёт того, какова смертельная доза этого вещества. Яд этот должен был бы дать при вскрытии приблизительно те же симптомы, что и «белладонна»." (“The Key,” Part Two, Chapter XV)

Cantharidin comes from Cantharis (Spanish fly), a common European blister beetle, Cantharis (Lytta) vesicatoria. In 'Ursus' (the best Franco-Estotian restaurant in Manhattan Major to which Van takes his sisters) both young ladies wear the very short and open evening gowns that Vass 'miraged' that season - in the phrase of that season: Ada, a gauzy black, Lucette, a lustrous cantharid green. (2.8)

The main character in Aldanov’s trilogy (“The Key,” “The Escape,” “The Cave”), Braun is a namesake of the Philadelphian dipterist (entomologist who specializes in the order Diptera, the true flies) mentioned by Van:

The girl's pale skin, so excitingly delicate to Van's eye, so vulnerable to the beast's needle, was, nevertheless, as strong as a stretch of Samarkand satin and withstood all self-flaying attempts whenever Ada, her dark eyes veiled as in the erotic trances Van had already begun to witness during their immoderate kissing, her lips parted, her large teeth lacquered with saliva, scraped with her five fingers the pink mounds caused by the rare insect's bite - for it is a rather rare and interesting mosquito (described - not quite simultaneously - by two angry old men - the second was Braun, the Philadelphian dipterist, a much better one than the Boston professor), and rare and rapturous was the sight of my beloved trying to quench the lust of her precious skin, leaving at first pearly, then ruby, stripes along her enchanting leg and briefly attaining a drugged beatitude into which, as into a vacuum; the ferocity of the itch would rush with renewed strength. (1.17)

“The Boston Professor” is Brown, the author of the Original Description of Chateaubriand’s mosquito:

During the last week of July, there emerged, with diabolical regularity, the female of Chateaubriand's mosquito. Chateaubriand (Charles), who had not been the first to be bitten by it... but the first to bottle the offender, and with cries of vindictive exultation to carry it to Professor Brown who wrote the rather slap-bang Original Description ('small black palpi... hyaline wings... yellowy in certain lights... which should be extinguished if one keeps open the kasements [German printer!]...' The Boston Entomologist for August, quick work, 1840) was not related to the great poet and memoirist born between Paris and Tagne (as he'd better, said Ada, who liked crossing orchids). (ibid.)

As she speaks of Marina’s old herbarium that she and Van found in the attic of Ardis Hall, Ada mentions Brown and Smith:

‘I can add,' said the girl, 'that the petal belongs to the common Butterfly Orchis; that my mother was even crazier than her sister; and that the paper flower so cavalierly dismissed is a perfectly recognizable reproduction of an early-spring sanicle that I saw in profusion on hills in coastal California last February. Dr Krolik, our local naturalist, to whom you, Van, have referred, as Jane Austen might have phrased it, for the sake of rapid narrative information (you recall Brown, don't you, Smith?), has determined the example I brought back from Sacramento to Ardis, as the Bear-Foot, B,E,A,R, my love, not my foot or yours, or the Stabian flower girl's - an allusion, which your father, who, according to Blanche, is also mine, would understand like this' (American finger-snap). 'You will be grateful,' she continued, embracing him, 'for my not mentioning its scientific name. Incidentally the other foot - the Pied de Lion from that poor little Christmas larch, is by the same hand - possibly belonging to a very sick Chinese boy who came all the way from Barkley College.'

'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)

“Destroy and forget” seems to hint at oubli ou regret? (oblivion or regret?), the question with which in Pushkin’s Queen of Spades three ladies at a ball approach Tomski (who dances a mazurka with Lizaveta Ivanovna):

Подошедшие к ним три дамы с вопросами — oubli ou regret? — прервали разговор, который становился мучительно любопытен для Лизаветы Ивановны.

Дама, выбранная Томским, была сама княжна ***. Она успела с ним изъясниться, обежав лишний круг и лишний раз повертевшись перед своим стулом.

Three ladies approaching him with the question: "oubli ou regret?" interrupted the conversation, which had become so tantalizingly interesting to Lizaveta Ivanovna.

The lady chosen by Tomski was Princess Polina herself. She succeeded in effecting a reconciliation with him during the numerous turns of the dance, after which he conducted her to her chair. (chapter IV)

The phrase “destroy and forget” (repeated in Ada at least three times) rhymes with “oubli ou regret.” Moreover, oublier means in French “to forget.”

Traveling in the East, Van meets Eberthella Brown, the local Shah's pet dancer:

He contemplated the pyramids of Ladorah (visited mainly because of its name) under a full moon that silvered the sands inlaid with pointed black shadows. He went shooting with the British Governor of Armenia, and his niece, on Lake Van. From a hotel balcony in Sidra his attention was drawn by the manager to the wake of an orange sunset that turned the ripples of a lavender sea into goldfish scales and was well worth the price of enduring the quaintness of the small striped rooms he shared with his secretary, young Lady Scramble. On another terrace, overlooking another fabled bay, Eberthella Brown, the local Shah's pet dancer (a naive little thing who thought 'baptism of desire' meant something sexual), spilled her morning coffee upon noticing a six-inch-long caterpillar, with fox-furred segments, qui rampait, was tramping, along the balustrade and curled up in a swoon when picked up by Van - who for hours, after removing the beautiful animal to a bush, kept gloomily plucking itchy bright hairs out of his fingertips with the girl's tweezers. (3.1)

‘Baptism of desire’ (Baptismus flaminis) is a teaching of the <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_Catholic_Church> Roman Catholic Church explaining that those who desire <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baptism> baptism, but are not baptized with water through the <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian> Christian ritual because of death, nevertheless receive the fruits of Baptism at the moment of death if their grace of conversion included "divine and Catholic faith", an internal act of perfect charity, and <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Perfect_contrition> perfect contrition by which their soul was cleansed of all sin.

In the same chapter of Ada Van speaks of Marina’s death. On her deathbed Marina mentions Aqua, her twin sister who committed suicide:

The last time he had seen mummy-wizened Marina and told her he must return to America (though actually there was no hurry - only the smell in her hospital room that no breeze could dislodge), she had asked, with her new, tender, myopic, because inward, expression: 'Can't you wait till I'm gone?'; and his reply had been 'I'll be back on the twenty-fifth. I have to deliver an address on the Psychology of Suicide'; and she had said, stressing, now that everything was tripitaka (safely packed), the exact kinship: 'Do tell them about your silly aunt Aqua,' whereupon he had nodded, with a smirk, instead of answering: 'Yes, mother.' (ibid.)

It seems that poor Aqua went mad because she was poisoned by Marina (who collected flowers when she was pregnant with Van). In her last note Aqua mentioned Ardis Park:

Aujourd'hui (heute-toity!) I, this eye-rolling toy, have earned the psykitsch right to enjoy a landparty with Herr Doktor Sig, Nurse Joan the Terrible, and several 'patients,' in the neighboring bor (piney wood) where I noticed exactly the same skunk-like squirrels, Van, that your Darkblue ancestor imported to Ardis Park, where you will ramble one day, no doubt… (1.3)

In her last note to Van Lucette mentions her Ardis nursery and writes down “Peter and Margaret,” a poem by Robert Brown that Van made her learn by heart when she was eight:

'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…’ (1.23)

Aqua was a student of fashionable Brown Hill College:

In her erratic student years Aqua had left fashionable Brown Hill College, founded by one of her less reputable ancestors, to participate (as was also fashionable) in some Social Improvement project or another in the Severnïya Territorii. (1.3)

Brownhill is Ada’s school for girls:

The rules of her school were old-fashioned and strict to the point of lunacy, but they reminded Marina nostalgically of the Russian Institute for Noble Maidens in Yukonsk (where she had kept breaking them with much more ease and success than Ada or Cordula or Grace could at Brownhill). Girls were allowed to see boys at hideous teas with pink cakes in the headmistress's Reception Room three or four times per term, and any girl of twelve or thirteen could meet a gentleman's son in a certified milk-bar, just a few blocks away, every third Sunday, in the company of an older girl of irreproachable morals. (1.27)

Grace Erminin (Greg’s twin sister) marries a Wellington (2.6). Duke of Wellington is a character in Aldanov’s Mogila voina (“A Soldier’s Grave”).

Alexey Sklyarenko

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