Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0027170, Wed, 14 Sep 2016 16:57:33 +0300

de gustibus (shaftment of carpenter & Mascodagama in Ada)
‘I say,’ exclaimed Demon, ‘what’s happened — your shaftment is that of a carpenter’s. Show me your other hand. Good gracious’ (muttering:) ‘Hump of Venus disfigured, Line of Life scarred but monstrously long…’ (switching to a gipsy chant:) ‘You’ll live to reach Terra, and come back a wiser and merrier man’ (reverting to his ordinary voice:) ‘What puzzles me as a palmist is the strange condition of the Sister of your Life. And the roughness!’

‘Mascodagama,’ whispered Van, raising his eyebrows.

‘Ah, of course, how blunt (dumb) of me. Now tell me — you like Ardis Hall?’

‘I adore it,’ said Van. ‘It’s for me the château que baignait la Dore. I would gladly spend all my scarred and strange life here. But that’s a hopeless fancy.’

‘Hopeless? I wonder. I know Dan wants to leave it to Lucile, but Dan is greedy, and my affairs are such that I can satisfy great greed. When I was your age I thought that the sweetest word in the language rhymes with "billiard," and now I know I was right. If you’re really keen, son, on having this property, I might try to buy it. I can exert a certain pressure upon my Marina. She sighs like a hassock when you sit upon her, so to speak. Damn it, the servants here are not Mercuries. Pull that cord again. Yes, maybe Dan could be made to sell.’ (1.38)

In Khodasevich’s ballad John Bottom (1926) the hero is buried in Westminster Abbey in London (as the unknown soldier of the World War I) with a hand that belonged to another man, a carpenter:

Рука-то плотничья была,

В мозолях. Бедный Джон!

В такой руке держать иглу

Никак не смог бы он.

Demon uses the phrase “I say” in imitation of some of his London pals. The same phrase is used by Van when he plays poker with Dick C., a fellow student at Chose (Van’s English University) and cardsharp:

‘I say, Dick, ever met a gambler in the States called Plunkett? Bald gray chap when I knew him.’

‘Plunkett? Plunkett? Must have been before my time. Was he the one who turned priest or something? Why?’

‘One of my father’s pals. Great artist.’


‘Yes, artist. I’m an artist. I suppose you think you’re an artist. Many people do.’

‘What on earth is an artist?’

‘An underground observatory,’ replied Van promptly.

‘That’s out of some modem novel,’ said Dick, discarding his cigarette after a few avid inhales.

‘That’s out of Van Veen,’ said Van Veen. (1.28)

Describing a game of poker that he played with Dick and the French twins, Van mentions London tailors:

He now constatait avec plaisir, as he told his victims, that only a few hundred pounds separated him from the shoreline of the minimal sum he needed to appease his most ruthless creditor. whereupon he went on fleecing poor Jean and Jacques with reckless haste, and then found himself with three honest aces (dealt to him lovingly by Van) against Van’s nimbly mustered four nines. This was followed by a good bluff against a better one; and with Van’s generously slipping the desperately flashing and twinkling young lord good but not good enough hands, the latter’s martyrdom came to a sudden end (London tailors wringing their hands in the fog, and a moneylender, the famous St Priest of Chose, asking for an appointment with Dick’s father). (ibid.)

In Khodasevich’s ballad John Bottom is a tailor. As he speaks to Van, Demon mentions “one’s old tailor” and “that dreadful old wencher Lyovka Tolstoy, the writer:”

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)

Demon hardly ever heard of Mark Aldanov (1886-1957), a Russian novelist. When Van met Dick in Monte Carlo, the latter told Van that he should “mark” his cards:

He did not 'twinkle' long after that. Five or six years later, in Monte Carlo, Van was passing by an open-air café when a hand grabbed him by the elbow, and a radiant, ruddy, comparatively respectable Dick C. leaned toward him over the petunias of the latticed balustrade:

'Van,' he cried, 'I've given up all that looking-glass dung, congratulate me! Listen: the only safe way is to mark 'em! Wait, that's not all, can you imagine, they've invented a microscopic - and I mean microscopic - point of euphorion, a precious metal, to insert under your thumbnail, you can't see it with the naked eye, but one minuscule section of your monocle is made to magnify the mark you make with it, like killing a flea, on one card after another, as they come along in the game, that's the beauty of it, no preparations, no props, nothing! Mark 'em! Mark 'em!' good Dick was still shouting, as Van walked away. (1.28)

In Aldanov’s novel Bred (“Delirium,” 1955) the Soviet Colonel (“Colonel No. 2”) predicts the end of England as a Great Power, mentions Winston Churchill and uses the obsolete word asei (as the Englishmen were once called in Russia; from “I say”):

-- Исчезнет Черчилль, и асеи выйдут в тираж, кончена будет совсем Англия как великая держава, -- говорил полковник. Он произносил имя Черчилля с ударением на втором слоге. "Никто и в России уже лет сто не называет англичан "асеями", там и не знают слов "I say". (chapter IV)

Describing the family dinner in “Ardis the Second,” Van mentions the British writer Richard Leonard Churchill:

Van remembered that his tutor's great friend, the learned but prudish Semyon Afanasievich Vengerov, then a young associate professor but already a celebrated Pushkinist (1855-1954), used to say that the only vulgar passage in his author's work was the cannibal joy of young gourmets tearing 'plump and live' oysters out of their 'cloisters' in an unfinished canto of Eugene Onegin. But then 'everyone has his own taste,' as the British writer Richard Leonard Churchill mistranslates a trite French phrase (chacun à son gout) twice in the course of his novel about a certain Crimean Khan once popular with reporters and politicians, 'A Great Good Man' - according, of course, to the cattish and prejudiced Guillaume Monparnasse about whose new celebrity Ada, while dipping the reversed corolla of one hand in a bowl, was now telling Demon, who was performing the same rite in the same graceful fashion. (1.38)

Darkbloom ('Notes to Ada'): Great good man: a phrase that Winston Churchill, the British politician, enthusiastically applied to Stalin.

The characters of Aldanov’s Bred include Stalin. Dorothy Vinelander (Ada’s sister-in-law) marries a Mr. Brod or Bred:

After helping her to nurse Andrey at Agavia Ranch through a couple of acrimonious years (she begrudged Ada every poor little hour devoted to collecting, mounting, and rearing!), and then taking exception to Ada's choosing the famous and excellent Grotonovich Clinic (for her husband's endless periods of treatment) instead of Princess Alashin's select sanatorium, Dorothy Vinelander retired to a subarctic monastery town (Ilemna, now Novostabia) where eventually she married a Mr Brod or Bred, tender and passionate, dark and handsome, who traveled in eucharistials and other sacramental objects throughout the Severnïya Territorii and who subsequently was to direct, and still may be directing half a century later, archeological reconstructions at Goreloe (the 'Lyaskan Herculanum'); what treasures he dug up in matrimony is another question. (3.8)

In Voina i mir (“War and Peace,” 1869) Leo Tolstoy mentions Krymskiy Brod (the Crimean Ford Bridge across the Moskva river):

Войска Даву, к которым принадлежали пленные, шли через Крымский брод и уже отчасти вступали в Калужскую улицу. Но обозы так растянулись, что последние обозы Богарне ещё не вышли из Москвы в Калужскую улицу, а голова войск Нея уже выходила из Большой Ордынки.

Davoust's troops, in whose charge the prisoners were, had crossed the Krymskyi Brod, or Crimean Ford Bridge, and already some of the divisions we're debouching into Kaluga Street. But the teams stretched out so endlessly that the last ones belonging to Beauharnais's division had not yet left Moscow to enter Kaluga Street, while the head of Ney's troops had already left Bolshaya Ordynka. (Part IV, chapter XIV)

As he reads Van’s palm, Demon predicts his own death in an airplane disaster above the Pacific (3.7). According to Ada, at Marina’s funeral Demon (who promised to Ada that he will not cheat the poor grubs) and d’Onsky’s son (a person with only one arm) wept comme des fontaines:

‘Oh, I like you better with that nice overweight — there’s more of you. It’s the maternal gene, I suppose, because Demon grew leaner and leaner. He looked positively Quixotic when I saw him at Mother’s funeral. It was all very strange. He wore blue mourning. D’Onsky’s son, a person with only one arm, threw his remaining one around Demon and both wept comme des fontaines. Then a robed person who looked like an extra in a technicolor incarnation of Vishnu made an incomprehensible sermon. Then she went up in smoke. He said to me, sobbing: "I will not cheat the poor grubs!" Practically a couple of hours after he broke that promise we had sudden visitors at the ranch — an incredibly graceful moppet of eight, black-veiled, and a kind of duenna, also in black, with two bodyguards. The hag demanded certain fantastic sums — which Demon, she said, had not had time to pay, for "popping the hymen" — whereupon I had one of our strongest boys throw out vsyu (the entire) kompaniyu.’ (3.8)

Fontan (“The Fountain,” 1836) is a poem by Tyutchev (the author of Silentium!; cf. Greg Erminin’s Silentium motorcycle, 1.39 et passim). In his biography of Tyutchev (1874) Ivan Aksakov (the poet’s son-in-law) quotes, among other poems, Silentium!, Fontan and mentions “Tolstoy’s last arm” (a hero of the anti-Napoleon war, Count Osterman-Tolstoy lost his arm in the battle of Kulm):

Судьбе угодно было вооружиться последней рукой Толстого (вспоминает Фёдор Иванович в одном из писем своих к брату лет 45 спустя), чтоб переселить меня на чужбину.

Fate equipped itself with Tolstoy’s last arm in order to resettle me to a foreign land.

Aksakov quotes Tyutchev’s words from a letter (written in 1867) to his brother.

In Aldanov’s Bred Colonel No. 2 avidly reads a book on hunting by Sergey Aksakov (the author of The Family Chronicle and The Childhood Years of Bagrov Grandson, father of Ivan Aksakov).

At the beginning of Ada the opening sentence of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenin (1877) is turned inside out:

'All happy families are more or less dissimilar; all unhappy ones are more or less alike,' says a great Russian writer in the beginning of a famous novel (Anna Arkadievitch Karenina, transfigured into English by R. G. Stonelower, Mount Tabor Ltd., 1880). That pronouncement has little if any relation to the story to be unfolded now, a family chronicle, the first part of which is, perhaps, closer to another Tolstoy work, Detstvo i Otrochestvo (Childhood and Fatherland, Pontius Press, 1858). (1.1)

As Mascodagama, Van performs in variety shows dancing on his hands.

Mascodagama + Van = Vasco da Gama + Man

Vasco da Gama (c1460-1524) is the Portuguese navigator who discovered the sea route from Portugal around the continent of Africa to India. In Pushkin’s short novel Kapitanskaya dochka (“The Captain’s Daughter,” 1836) Grinyov mentions the Cape of Good Hope (Africa’s southern extremity):

Надобно знать, что для меня выписана была из Москвы географическая карта. Она висела на стене безо всякого употребления и давно соблазняла меня шириною и добротою бумаги. Я решился сделать из неё змей и, пользуясь сном Бопре, принялся за работу. Батюшка вошел в то самое время, как я прилаживал мочальный хвост к Мысу Доброй Надежды.

A map had been procured for me from Moscow, which hung against the wall without ever being used, and which had been tempting me for a long time from the size and strength of its paper. I had at last resolved to make a kite of it, and, taking advantage of Beaupré's slumbers, I had set to work. My father came in just at the very moment when I was tying a tail to the Cape of Good Hope. (chapter I)

The name Beaupré means “bowsprit” (a spar extending forward from the vessel's prow). According to Beaupré, he was not vrag butylki (averse to the bottle):

Бопре в отечестве своём был парикмахером, потом в Пруссии солдатом, потом приехал в Россию pour être outchitel, не очень понимая значение этого слова. Он был добрый малый, но ветрен и беспутен до крайности. Главною его слабостию была страсть к прекрасному полу; нередко за свои нежности получал он толчки, от которых охал по целым суткам. К тому же не был он (по его выражению) и врагом бутылки, т. е. (говоря по-русски) любил хлебнуть лишнее.

Beaupré, in his native country, had been a hairdresser, then a soldier in Prussia, and then had come to Russia to be "outchitel," without very well knowing the meaning of this word. He was a good creature, but wonderfully absent and hare-brained. His greatest weakness was a love of the fair sex. Neither, as he said himself, was he averse to the bottle, that is, as we say in Russia, that his passion was drink. (ibid.)

The name of the butler at Ardis, Bouteillan, comes from bouteille (bottle). According to Van, Bouteillan had helped him to fly a box kite:

None of the family was at home when Van arrived. A servant in waiting took his horse. He entered the Gothic archway of the hall where Bouteillan, the old bald butler who unprofessionally now wore a mustache (dyed a rich gravy brown), met him with gested delight - he had once been the valet of Van's father - 'Je parie,' he said, 'que Monsieur ne me reconnaït pas,' and proceeded to remind Van of what Van had already recollected unaided, the farmannikin (a special kind of box kite, untraceable nowadays even in the greatest museums housing the toys of the past) which Bouteillan had helped him to fly one day in a meadow dotted with buttercups. Both looked up: the tiny red rectangle hung for an instant askew in a blue spring sky. (1.5)

As he speaks to Ada, Demon mentions Man (i. e. Manhattan, the Antiterran name of New York) and London:

‘The last time I enjoyed you,’ said Demon ‘was in April when you wore a raincoat with a white and black scarf and simply reeked of some arsenic stuff after seeing your dentist. Dr Pearlman has married his receptionist, you’ll be glad to know. Now to business, my darling. I accept your dress’ (the sleeveless black sheath), ‘I tolerate your romantic hairdo, I don’t care much for your pumps na bosu nogu (on bare feet), your Beau Masque perfume — passe encore, but, my precious, I abhor and reject your livid lipstick. It may be the fashion in good old Ladore. It is not done in Man or London.’

‘Ladno (Okay),’ said Ada and, baring her big teeth, rubbed fiercely her lips with a tiny handkerchief produced from her bosom.

‘That’s also provincial. You should carry a black silk purse. And now I’ll show what a diviner I am: your dream is to be a concert pianist!’

‘It is not,’ said Van indignantly. ‘What perfect nonsense. She can’t play a note!’

‘Well, no matter,’ said Demon. ‘Observation is not always the mother of deduction. However, there is nothing improper about a hanky dumped on a Bechstein. You don’t have, my love, to blush so warmly. Let me quote for comic relief

‘Lorsque son fi-ancé fut parti pour la guerre

Irène de Grandfief, la pauvre et noble enfant

Ferma son pi-ano… vendit son éléphant’

‘The gobble enfant is genuine, but the elephant is mine.’

‘You don’t say so,’ laughed Ada. (1.38)

While Ada’s ladno brings to mind Aldanov (whose real surname was Landau), Demon’s “elephant” seems to hint at the punch line of Krylov’s fable Lyubopytnyi ("The Sightseer," 1814):

Slona-to ya i ne primetil.

The elephant I did not notice.

The name Krylov comes from krylo (wing) and brings to mind King Wing, Demon’s wrestling master. It is King Wing who taught Van to walk on his hands:

Two years earlier, when about to begin his first prison term at the fashionable and brutal boarding school, to which other Veens had gone before him (as far back as the days 'when Washingtonias were Wellingtonias'), Van had resolved to study some striking stunt that would give him an immediate and brilliant ascendancy. Accordingly, after a conference with Demon, King Wing, the latter's wrestling master, taught the strong lad to walk on his hands by means of a special play of the shoulder muscles, a trick that necessitated for its acquirement and improvement nothing short of a dislocation of the caryatics. (1.13)

When Van walks on his hands at the picnic on Ada’s twelfth birthday, his legs are hoisted like a sail:

His reversed body gracefully curved, his brown legs hoisted like a Tarentine sail, his joined ankles tacking, Van gripped with splayed hands the brow of gravity, and moved to and fro, veering and sidestepping, opening his mouth the wrong way, and blinking in the odd bilboquet fashion peculiar to eyelids in his abnormal position. (ibid.)

Krylov is the author of Pushki i parusa (“Cannons and Sails”). There is pushki (Nom. pl. and Gen. sing. of pushka, “cannon”) in Pushkin. Before reciting Ada’s (or, more likely, his own) translation of Coppée’s poem, Van mentions Pushkin and quotes a line from Chapter Six (XXI: 1) of Eugene Onegin:

‘Old storytelling devices,’ said Van, ‘may be parodied only by very great and inhuman artists, but only close relatives can be forgiven for paraphrasing illustrious poems. Let me preface the effort of a cousin — anybody’s cousin — by a snatch of Pushkin, for the sake of rhyme —’

‘For the snake of rhyme!’ cried Ada. ‘A paraphrase, even my paraphrase, is like the corruption of "snakeroot" into "snagrel" — all that remains of a delicate little birthwort.’

‘Which is amply sufficient,’ said Demon, ‘for my little needs, and those of my little friends.’

‘So here goes,’ continued Van (ignoring what he felt was an indecent allusion, since the unfortunate plant used to be considered by the ancient inhabitants of the Ladore region not so much as a remedy for the bite of a reptile, as the token of a very young woman’s easy delivery; but no matter). ‘By chance preserved has been the poem. In fact, I have it. Here it is: Leur chute est lente and one can know ‘em…’

‘Oh, I know ‘em,’ interrupted Demon:

‘Leur chute est lente. On peut les suivre

Du regard en reconnaissant

Le chêne à sa feuille de cuivre

L’érable à sa feuille de sang

‘Grand stuff!’

‘Yes, that was Coppée and now comes the cousin,’ said Van, and he recited:

‘Their fall is gentle. The leavesdropper

Can follow each of them and know

The oak tree by its leaf of copper,

The maple by its blood-red glow.’

‘Pah!’ uttered the versionist. (1.38)

“Pah” was the first word that Van heard Ada say:

Price, the mournful old footman who brought the cream for the strawberries, resembled Van’s teacher of history, ‘Jeejee’ Jones.

‘He resembles my teacher of history,’ said Van when the man had gone.

‘I used to love history,’ said Marina, ‘I loved to identify myself with famous women. There’s a ladybird on your plate, Ivan. Especially with famous beauties — Lincoln’s second wife or Queen Josephine.’

‘Yes, I’ve noticed — it’s beautifully done. We’ve got a similar set at home.’

‘Slivok (some cream)? I hope you speak Russian?’ Marina asked Van, as she poured him a cup of tea.

‘Neohotno no sovershenno svobodno (reluctantly but quite fluently),’ replied Van, slegka ulïbnuvshis’ (with a slight smile). ‘Yes, lots of cream and three lumps of sugar.’

‘Ada and I share your extravagant tastes. Dostoevski liked it with raspberry syrup.’

‘Pah,’ uttered Ada. (1.5)

Darkbloom (‘Notes to Ada’): with a slight smile: a pet formula of Tolstoy's denoting cool superiority, if not smugness, in a character's manner of speech.

In his memoir essay Moskovskiy literaturno-khudozhestvennyi kruzhok (“The Moscow Literature-and-Art Circle,” 1937) Khodasevich describes gambling, mentions his two partners in chemin de fer, Tolstoy and Dostoevski (the writers’ elderly sons), and uses the word bred (delirium; nonsense):

Помню как сейчас. Я сижу между Толстым и Достоевским. Толстой ставит в банк три рубля, я открываю восьмёрку, он пододвигает мне карту и зелёную трёшницу. Я оставляю её в банке. "Карту", - говорит Достоевский и тоже открывает восьмерку. Тотчас, однако, он брезгливо приподымает трёшницу, держа её за угол кончиками ногтей, и цедит сквозь зубы: "Такую грязную бумажку я не приму". Остолбенев, я не успеваю ему ответить, как Толстой вмешивается: "Эту бумажку я пустил".

Достоевский: В таком случае вы её и перемените.

Толстой: Даже не подумаю. Я её не сам делал.

Достоевский: Весьма вероятно. Но, может быть, вы сами её замуслили?

Разгорается ссора, во время которой Толстой грубит, а Достоевский язвит и нервничает, покрываясь красными пятнами.

Всё это - не ложь и не бред. Просто действие происходит в игорной зале Литературно-художественного кружка, в 1907 или 1908 году, и участвуют в нём не те самые Толстой и Достоевский, а их сыновья, впрочем - уже пожилые: Сергей Львович и Фёдор Фёдорович. Кончается всё тем, что окружающие, потеряв терпение, зовут дежурного директора, который решает спор в пользу Толстого. Достоевский встаёт и уходит. Игра продолжается.

In his obituary essay O Khodaseviche (“On Khodasevich,” 1939) VN calls his friend “Pushkin's literary descendant in Tyutchev's line of succession:”

Крупнейший поэт нашего времени, литературный потомок Пушкина по тютчевской линии, он останется гордостью русской поэзии, пока жива последняя память о ней.

This poet, the greatest Russian poet of our time, Pushkin's literary descendant in Tyutchev's line of succession, shall remain the pride of Russian poetry as long as its last memory lives.

VN and Aldanov (both of whom shared Ada’s tastes and loathed the author of Crime and Punishment) are Pushkin's literary descendants in Tolstoy's line of succession. Incidentally, in a draft of his translation of The Good, Great Man, a poem by S. T. Coleridge (the author of Kubla Khan), Pushkin uses the formula velikiy dobryi chelovek (a great good man):

Kak redko platu poluchaet

Velikiy dobryi chelovek…

How seldom a great good man

receives a due reward…

Alexey Sklyarenko

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