Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0027169, Tue, 13 Sep 2016 03:58:15 +0300

Varvara, Vanda,
Cordula & Grace in Ada; Alfin the Vague in Pale Fire
My previous post (“Adora, ryuen' & purest sanglot in Ada; parachute & Colonel Gusev in Pale Fire”) should have ended as follows:

Solyony (the bretteur who kills Baron Tuzenbakh in a pistol duel) imagines that he resembles Lermontov (the poet who was killed in a pistol duel with Martynov). Jakob Gradus (Shade’s murderer) is the son of Martin Gradus, a Protestant minister in Riga (Kinbote’s note to Line 17). In his essay on Khodasevich VN uses the metaphor borrowed from a poem by Baratynski accusing critics of lauding Lermontov on the occasion of his death with the unique object of disparaging living poets:

Тут нет у меня намерения кого-либо задеть кадилом: кое-кто из поэтов здешнего поколения ещё в пути и -- как знать -- дойдёт до вершин искусства, коль не загубит себя в том второсортном Париже, который плывёт с легким креном в зеркалах кабаков, не сливаясь никак с Парижем французским, неподвижным и непроницаемым.

Here I have no intention of hitting bystanders with a swing of the thurible. A few poets of the émigré generation are still on their way up and, who knows, may reach the summits of art — if only they do not fritter away life in a second-rate Paris of their own which sails by with a slight list in the mirrors of taverns without mingling in any way with the French Paris, a motionless and impenetrable town.

Lermontov is the author of The Demon (1829-40). On Demonia (aka Antiterra, Earth’s twin planet on which Ada is set) Chekhov’s play “The Three Sisters” is known as Four Sisters (2.1 et passim). The name of the fourth sister, Varvara, brings to mind the saying lyubopytnoy Varvare na bazare nos otorvali (at the bazaar they tore off the nose of curious Varvara). Lyubopytnyi ("The Sightseer," 1814) is a fable by Krylov. In a letter of September 11, 1890, to Suvorin Chekhov, sailing from the north part of Sakhalin to the island's south extremity, quotes the punch line of this fable, slona-to ya i ne primetil ("the elephant I did not notice"):

Не знаю, что у меня выйдет, но сделано мною немало. Хватило бы на три диссертации. Я вставал каждый день в 5 часов утра, ложился поздно и все дни был в сильном напряжении от мысли, что мною многое ещё не сделано, а теперь, когда уже я покончил с каторгою, у меня такое чувство, как будто я видел всё, но слона-то и не приметил.

Now that I have done with the convict system, I have the feeling that I have seen everything but have missed the elephant.

Slon is Russian for "elephant" and “bishop” (chessman). On the other hand, SLON (Solovetskiy Lager' Osobogo Naznacheniya) was a particularly cruel force labor camp in Solovki (the Solovetsky Islands in the White Sea). In 1929 Chekhov's friend Gorky visited SLON and wrote a favorable essay, praising the camp's administration and rules. Indeed, he had not noticed the elephant! Gorky’s real name, Peshkov, comes from peshka (in chess, “pawn”). The penname Gorky means “bitter,” Solyony is “Mr. Salt.” When he was bitten by mosquitoes in Priyutino (the Olenins’ estate near St. Petersburg where he courted Annette Olenin; btw., Krylov was also a frequent guest of the Olenins), Pushkin exclaimed ‘Sladko! (Sweet!).’ On Antiterra Pushkin exclaims ‘Sladko!’ in Yukon:

‘Sladko! (Sweet!)’ Pushkin used to exclaim in relation to a different species [of mosquitoes] in Yukon. (1.17)

Describing the last game of Flavita (Russian Scrabble) that he played with Ada and Lucette in “Ardis the Second,” Van mentions Yukon prisons:

‘Je ne peux rien faire,’ wailed Lucette, ‘mais rien — with my idiotic Buchstaben, REMNILK, LINKREM...’

‘Look,’ whispered Van, ‘c’est tout simple, shift those two syllables and you get a fortress in ancient Muscovy.’

‘Oh, no,’ said Ada, wagging her finger at the height of her temple in a way she had. ‘Oh, no. That pretty word does not exist in Russian. A Frenchman invented it. There is no second syllable.’

‘Ruth for a little child?’ interposed Van.

‘Ruthless!’ cried Ada.

‘Well,’ said Van, ‘you can always make a little cream, KREM or KREME — or even better — there’s KREMLI, which means Yukon prisons. Go through her ORHIDEYA.’

‘Through her silly orchid,’ said Lucette. (1.36)

Like Ada and Cordula, Vanda is the name of an orchid. The name Vanda Broom is secretly present in the poem that Ada wrote down under her photo in the graduation album (shown to Van by Cordula de Prey):

‘It’s a gruesome girl!’ she cried after the melodious adieux. ‘Her name is Vanda Broom, and I learned only recently what I never suspected at school — she’s a regular tribadka — poor Grace Erminin tells me Vanda used to make constant passes at her and at — at another girl. There’s her picture here,’ continued Cordula with a quick change of tone, producing a daintily bound and prettily printed graduation album of Spring, 1887, which Van had seen at Ardis, but in which he had not noticed the somber beetle-browed unhappy face of that particular girl, and now it did not matter any more, and Cordula quickly popped the book back into a drawer; but he remembered very well that among the various more or less coy contributions it contained a clever pastiche by Ada Veen mimicking Tolstoy’s paragraph rhythm and chapter closings; he saw clearly in mind her prim photo under which she had added one of her characteristic jingles:

In the old manor, I’ve parodied

Every veranda and room,

And jacarandas at Arrowhead

In supernatural bloom. (1.43)

During his visit to Ardis in the summer of 1888 (“Ardis the Second”) Demon speaks to Van and mentions an ancestral mannerism (inherited by Ada), Crêmlin and “that dreadful old wencher Lyovka Tolstoy, the writer:”

‘I don’t know if you know,’ said Van, resuming his perch on the fat arm of his father’s chair. ‘Uncle Dan will be here with the lawyer and Lucette only after dinner.’

‘Capital,’ said Demon.

‘Marina and Ada should be down in a minute — ce sera un dîner à quatre.’

‘Capital,’ he repeated. ‘You look splendid, my dear, dear fellow — and I don’t have to exaggerate compliments as some do in regard to an aging man with shoe-shined hair. Your dinner jacket is very nice — or, rather it’s very nice recognizing one’s old tailor in one’s son’s clothes — like catching oneself repeating an ancestral mannerism — for example, this (wagging his left forefinger three times at the height of his temple), which my mother did in casual, pacific denial; that gene missed you, but I’ve seen it in my hairdresser’s looking-glass when refusing to have him put Crêmlin on my bald spot; and you know who had it too — my aunt Kitty, who married the Banker Bolenski after divorcing that dreadful old wencher Lyovka Tolstoy, the writer.’

Demon preferred Walter Scott to Dickens, and did not think highly of Russian novelists. As usual, Van considered it fit to make a corrective comment:

‘A fantastically artistic writer, Dad.’ (1.38)

“One’s old tailor” mentioned by Demon brings to mind the title character of Khodasevich’s ballad John Bottom (1926). In his review in Rul’ (“The Rudder”) the critic Yuli Ayhenvald highly praised Khodasevich’s ballad and said that its intonations and music reminded him of Ivan Kozlov, the blind poet. There are three blind characters in Ada. One of them is Kim Beauharnais, the kitchen boy and photographer at Ardis whom Van blinds for spying on him and Ada and attempting to blackmail Ada (2.11). Kim’s surname hints at Josephine Beauharnais, Napoleon’s first wife. The answer to the riddle Letit gus’ na svyatuyu Rus’ (A goose is flying to Holy Russia) is Napoleon.

Grace Erminin (who eventually marries a Wellington, 2.6) could not come to the picnic on Ada’s sixteenth birthday:

Ada had declined to invite anybody except the Erminin twins to her picnic; but she had had no intention of inviting the brother without the sister. The latter, it turned out, could not come, having gone to New Cranton to see a young drummer, her first boy friend, sail off into the sunrise with his regiment. (1.39)

Grace’s first boy friend and his regiment bring to mind the opening line of Kozlov’s poem Na pogrebenie angliyskogo generala Sira Dzhona Mura (“On the Burial of the English general Sir John Moor,” 1826), Ne bil baraban pered smutnym polkom… (“A Drum did not Beat in front of the Vague Regiment…”). Smutnyi polk (the vague regiment) brings to mind Alfin the Vague, the father of Charles the Beloved (the last self-exiled king of Zembla in VN’s novel Pale Fire, 1962). King Alfin’s “aerial adjutant,” Colonel Peter Gusev built for him a very special monoplane, Blenda IV, that became the King’s bird of doom (note to Line 71). Van’s and Ada’s father, Demon Veen perishes in a mysterious airplane disaster above the Pacific (3.7).

Alexey Sklyarenko

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