Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0022164, Fri, 11 Nov 2011 19:49:28 +0300

in vino veritas
In his Cornell lecture on R. L. Stevenson VN speaks of the exquisite vinous fragrance of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Stevenson's contemporary, Mark Twain famously compared his books to water and the books of the great geniuses to wine. In a letter of November 25, 1892, to Suvorin, A. P. Chekhov modestly compares his story "Палата № 6" ("Ward Six") to lemonade that wouldn't intoxicate gor'kiy* pyanitsa ("the inveterate drunkard") Suvorin** and complains that alcohol is absent from the works of contemporary writers, playwrights and artists, including the celebrated paintings of Il'ya Repin:

Скажите по совести, кто из моих сверстников... дал миру хотя одну каплю алкоголя? Разве Короленко, Надсон и все нынешние драматурги не лимонад? Разве картины Репина или Шишкина кружили Вам голову? Мило, талантливо. Вы восхищаетесь и в то же время никак не можете забыть, что Вам хочется курить.

In "The Model on Portraitists" Evreinov (who was portrayed, among other artists, by Repin) quotes Grillparzer's words: "art is to life what wine is to grape."***
All of Nabokov's books have one thing in common: they intoxicate the reader. The alcohol content (that increased with years) may be different in them, but one always "drinks" them smoothly, as one would Champagne (cf. Smurov's description of a book he recommends to a customer in VN's novella "The Eye" and the advice "to drink Maupassant" the lawyer gives to his client in Chekhov's story "Women's Realm") or Bordeaux. VN's mature plays ("The Event" and "The Walz Invention," 1938) are no exception. Note the mention of Moёt and (bad) Cognac in "The Event" (incidentally, this play has many affinities with later Ada). The name Baumgarten (of the wine-merchant who paid Troshcheykin a dozen bottles of Moёt for a half-length portrait of him) hints at the title of Chekhov's play "The Cherry Orchard" (as does Vishnevsky, the name of the lawyer in "The Event").

*Aleksei Maksimovich Troshcheykin is a namesake of Aleksei Maksimovich Peshkov (a pen name of Maxim Gorky, Chekhov's young friend and correspondent).
**Suvorin's first wife Anna Ivanovna was murdered by her lover Komarov (who then committed suicide) out of jealousy. Tolstoy learnt about this murder from Kramskoy, the artist who painted a portrait (or, rather, two portraits) of the writer (see also my article "Barboshin instead of Barbashin: Does an Event Happen in Nabokov's Play The Event?"). Repin, too, painted several portraits of Tolstoy (who complained that in one of them he looked like an old tippler).
***Aesthetische Studien. Btw., Chekhov, who called his friend Lika Mizinov Melita and the mistress of his friend Levitan (the great landscape painter), Sofia Kuvshinnikov, Sappho (after characters in Grillparzer's tragedy "Sappho"), might have known this aphorism.

Alexey Sklyarenko

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