Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0027140, Tue, 9 Aug 2016 13:45:33 +0300

telephone in Pale Fire & in Pnin
From Kinbote’s note to Line 802:

There was no cloud in the wistful sky, and the very earth seemed to be sighing after our Lord Jesus Christ. On such sunny, sad mornings I always feel in my bones that there is a chance yet of my not being excluded from Heaven, and that salvation may be granted to me despite the frozen mud and horror in my heart. As I was ascending with bowed head the gravel path to my poor rented house, I heard with absolute distinction, as if he were standing at my shoulder and speaking loudly, as to a slightly deaf man, Shade's voice say: "Come tonight, Charlie." I looked around me in awe and wonder: I was quite alone. I looked around me in awe and wonder: I was quite alone. I at once telephoned. The Shades were out, said the cheeky ancillula, an obnoxious little fan who came to book for them on Sundays and no doubt dreamt of getting the old poet to cuddle her some wifeless day. I retelephoned two hours later; got, as usual, Sybil; insisted on talking to my friend (my "messages" were never transmitted), obtained him, and asked him as calmly as possible what he had been doing around noon when I had heard him like a big bird in my garden.

In the last stanza of his poem Telefon (“The Telephone,” 1918) Mandelshtam (the poet who compared God’s name to a big bird) mentions golos-ptitsa (the voice-bird) and calls telephone izbavlenie (a good riddance) and zarnitsa samoubiystva (a sheet-lightning of suicide):

На этом диком страшном свете

Ты, друг полночных похорон,

В высоком строгом кабинете

Самоубийцы — телефон!

Асфальта чёрные озёра

Изрыты яростью копыт,

И скоро будет солнце; скоро

Безумный петел прокричит.

А там дубовая Валгалла

И старый пиршественный сон;

Судьба велела, ночь решала,

Когда проснулся телефон.

Весь воздух выпили тяжёлые портьеры,

На театральной площади темно.

Звонок — и закружились сферы:

Самоубийство решено.

Куда бежать от жизни гулкой,

От этой каменной уйти?

Молчи, проклятая шкатулка!

На дне морском цветёт: прости!

И только голос, голос-птица

Летит на пиршественный сон.

Ты — избавленье и зарница

Самоубийства — телефон!

In Pushkin’s poem Ne day mne Bog soyti s uma (“The Lord Forbid my Going Mad…” 1833) the epithet yarkiy (bright) in the line ne golos yarkiy solov’ya (“not a nightingale’s bright voice”) signals Pushkin’s awareness of Batyushkov’s madness. Similarly, Kinbote’s “big bird” (Shade’s voice that Kinbote heard in his garden) seems to signal Botkin’s awareness of his madness. An American scholar of Russian descent, Professor Vsevolod Botkin went mad and became Shade, Kinbote and Gradus after the suicide of his daughter Nadezhda. In the penultimate stanza of his poem K drugu (“To a Friend,” 1815) beginning Skazhi, mudrets mladoy, chto prochno na zemli? (“Tell me, young sage, what is firm on Earth?”) Batyushkov mentions glas sovesti moey (the voice of my conscience), Vera (Faith) and Nadezhda (Hope):

Я с страхом вопросил глас совести моей…
‎И мрак исчез, прозрели вежды:
И Вера пролила спасительный елей
‎В лампаду чистую Надежды.

Vera, Nadezhda and Lyubov’ (Love) are the three daughters of Sophia (Wisdom). Sybil Shade’s “real” name seems to be Sofia Botkin (b. Lastochkin).

Batyushkov’s poem Besedka muz (“The Bower of Muses,” 1817) begins as follows:

Под тению черёмухи млечной

И золотом блистающих акаций

Спешу восстановить алтарь и муз и граций,

Сопутниц жизни молодой.

In the shade of milky racemosas

And golden-glistening pea trees

I hasten to re-establish the altar of Muses and Graces,

the companions of young life.

In the Russian version of his autobiography Drugie berega (“Other Shores,” 1954) VN speaks of his uncle Vasiliy Ivanovich (“Uncle Ruka”) and mentions imeni bezumnogo Batyushkova mlechnaya cheryomukha (milky racemosa of mad Batyushkov’s fame):

И опять в июне, на восхитительном севере, когда весело цвела имени безумного Батюшкова млечная черёмуха, и солнце припекало после очередного ливня, крупные, иссиня-чёрные с белой перевязью бабочки (восточный подвид тополёвой нимфы) низко плавали кругами над лакомой грязью дороги, с которой их спугивала его мчавшаяся к нам коляска. С обещанием дивного подарка в голосе, жеманно переступая маленькими своими ножками в белых башмаках на высоких каблуках, он подводил меня к ближайшей липке и, изящно сорвав листок, протягивал его со словами: «Pour mon neveu, ia chose la plus belle au monde - une feuille verte». (3.4)

Then, in June again, when the fragrant cheryomuha (racemose old-world bird cherry or simply “racemosa” as I have baptized it in my work on “Onegin”) was in foamy bloom, his private flag would be hoisted on his beautiful Rozhestveno house. He traveled with half-a-dozen enormous trunks, bribed the Nord-Express to make a special stop at our little country station, and with the promise of a marvelous present, on small, mincing feet in high-heeled white shoes would lead me mysteriously to the nearest tree and delicately pluck and proffer a leaf, saying, “Pour mon neveu, la chose la plus belle au monde—une feuille verte.” (3.3)

In his poem Chto poyut chasy-kuznechik… (“What sings the clock-grasshopper…” 1918) Mandelshtam mentions lastochka i dochka (a swallow and daughter) and cheryomukha (racemosa):

Что поют часы-кузнечик,
Лихорадка шелестит
И шуршит сухая печка —
Это красный шёлк горит.

Что зубами мыши точат
Жизни тоненькое дно —
Это ласточка и дочка
Отвязала мой челнок.

Что на крыше дождь бормочет —
Это чёрный шелк горит,
Но черёмуха услышит
И на дне морском простит.

Потому что смерть невинна,
И ничем нельзя помочь,
Что в горячке соловьиной
Сердце теплое ещё.

In his poem Eto bylo utrom rano… (“It was early in the morning…” 1954) G. Ivanov (the author of an offensive article on VN in the Paris review Chisla, Numbers) uses Mandelshtam’s lines about the racemosa blossom that will hear and, on the bottom of the sea, forgive as the epigraph:

Но черёмуха услышит
И на дне морском простит...
О. Мандельштам.

Это было утром рано
Или было поздно вечером
(Может быть, и вовсе не было).

Фиолетовое небо
И, за просиявшим глетчером,
Чёрный рокот океана.

...Без прицела и без промаха
А потом домой шажком...

И оглохшая черёмуха
Не простит на дне морском!

…Without taking aim and without missing,

And then slowly walking home…

And the deafened racemosa

Won’t forgive on the bottom of the sea!

VN’s poem Rasstrel (“The Execution,” 1927) ends in the lines: Rossiya, zvyozdy, noch’ rasstrela / i ves’ v cheryomukhe ovrag! (“Russia, stars, night of the execution / and full of racemosas the ravine!”)

At the beginning of his poem Batyushkov (1932) Mandelshtam mentions Batyushkov’s magic walking-stick:

Словно гуляка с волшебною тростью,
Батюшков нежный со мною живёт.

In VN’s story Usta k ustam (“Lips to Lips,” 1931), a satire on the editors of Chisla (including G. Ivanov), a walking-stick plays an important part. The name of the story’s main character, Dolinin (in the English version, Tal) comes from dolina (valley). In his poem’s Brozhu li ya vdol’ ulits shumnykh… (“Whether I wander along noisy streets,” 1829) Pushkin mentions sosednyaya dolina (the neighboring dale):

День каждый, каждую годину
Привык я думой провождать,
Грядущей смерти годовщину
Меж их стараясь угадать.

И где мне смерть пошлёт судьбина?
В бою ли, в странствии, в волнах?
Или соседняя долина
Мой примет охладелый прах?

In VN’s novel Pnin (1957) Pnin tries to explain to the class Pushkin’s poem “Whether I wander along noisy streets” and mentions dolina:

Pnin, rippling with mute mirth, sat down again at his desk: he had a tale to tell. That line in the absurd Russian grammar, 'Brozhu li ya vdol' ulits shumnïh (Whether I wander along noisy streets),' was really the opening of a famous poem. Although Pnin was supposed in this Elementary Russian class to stick to language exercises ('Mama, telefon! Brozhu li ya vdol' ulits shumnïh. Ot Vladivostoka do Vashingtona 5000 mil'.'), he took every opportunity to guide his students on literary and historical tours.

In a set of eight tetrametric quatrains Pushkin described the morbid habit he always had - wherever he was, whatever he was doing - of dwelling on thoughts of death and of closely inspecting every passing day as he strove to find in its cryptogram a certain 'future anniversary': the day and month that would appear, somewhere, sometime upon his tombstone.
'"And where will fate send me", imperfective future, "death",' declaimed inspired Pnin, throwing his head back and translating with brave literality, '"in fight, in travel, or in waves? Or will the neighbouring dale" - dolina, same word, "valley" we would now say - "accept my refrigerated ashes", poussière, "cold dust" perhaps more correct. And though it is indifferent to the insensible body..."' (Chapter Three, 3)

Note the phrase 'Mama, telefon!’ in language exercises to which Pnin is supposed to stick.

In his elegy Na smert’ I. P. Pnina (“On the Death of I. P. Pnin,” 1805) Batyushkov calls Pnin pitomets Gratsiy, Muz (“the fosterling of Graces, Muses”):

Питомец Граций, Муз, ты жив у нас в сердцах!

The fosterling of Graces, Muses, you are alive in our hearts!

Alexey Sklyarenko

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