In VN’s novel Ada (1969) Marina’s mad twin sister Aqua imagines that she can understand the language of her namesake, water:


She developed a morbid sensitivity to the language of tap water — which echoes sometimes (much as the bloodstream does predormitarily) a fragment of human speech lingering in one’s ears while one washes one’s hands after cocktails with strangers. Upon first noticing this immediate, sustained, and in her case rather eager and mocking but really quite harmless replay of this or that recent discourse, she felt tickled at the thought that she, poor Aqua, had accidentally hit upon such a simple method of recording and transmitting speech, while technologists (the so-called Eggheads) all over the world were trying to make publicly utile and commercially rewarding the extremely elaborate and still very expensive, hydrodynamic telephones and other miserable gadgets that were to replace those that had gone k chertyam sobach’im (Russian ‘to the devil’) with the banning of an unmentionable ‘lammer.’ Soon, however, the rhythmically perfect, but verbally rather blurred volubility of faucets began to acquire too much pertinent sense. The purity of the running water’s enunciation grew in proportion to the nuisance it made of itself. It spoke soon after she had listened, or been exposed, to somebody talking — not necessarily to her — forcibly and expressively, a person with a rapid characteristic voice, and very individual or very foreign phrasal intonations, some compulsive narrator’s patter at a horrible party, or a liquid soliloquy in a tedious play, or Van’s lovely voice, or a bit of poetry heard at a lecture, my lad, my pretty, my love, take pity, but especially the more fluid and flou Italian verse, for instance that ditty recited between knee-knocking and palpebra-lifting, by a half-Russian, half-dotty old doctor, doc, toc, ditty, dotty, ballatetta, deboletta... tu, voce sbigottita... spigotty e diavoletta... de lo cor dolente... con ballatetta va... va... della strutta, destruttamente... mente... mente... stop that record, or the guide will go on demonstrating as he did this very morning in Florence a silly pillar commemorating, he said, the ‘elmo’ that broke into leaf when they carried stone-heavy-dead St Zeus by it through the gradual, gradual shade; or the Arlington harridan talking incessantly to her silent husband as the vineyards sped by, and even in the tunnel (they can’t do this to you, you tell them, Jack Black, you just tell them...). (1.3)


Darkbloom (‘Notes to Ada’): ballatetta: fragmentation and distortion of a passage in a ‘little ballad’ by the Italian poet Guido Cavalcanti (1255–1300). The relevant lines are: ‘you frightened and weak little voice that comes weeping from my woeful heart, go with my soul and that ditty, telling of a destroyed mind.’


In Gumilyov’s story Radosti zemnoy lyubvi ("The Joys of Earthly Love," 1908) the action takes place in Florence at the end of the 13th century and the main character is Guido Cavalcanti. In a sonnet that a signor from Venice wrote for Primavera (a beautiful young woman with whom Cavalcanti is in love) her looks are compared to poisoned arrows of the inhabitants of wild Tartary:


В то время вся Флоренция говорила о заезжем венецианском синьоре и о его скорее влюблённом, чем почтительном, преклонении перед красотой Примаверы. Этот венецианец одевался в костюмы, напоминающие цветом попугаев; ломаясь, пел песни, пригодные разве только для таверн или грубых солдатских попоек; и хвастливо рассказывал о путешествиях своего соотечественника Марко Поло, в которых сам и не думал участвовать. И как-то Кавальканти видел, что Примавера приняла предложенный ей сонет этого высокомерного глупца, где воспевалась её красота в выражениях напыщенных и смешных: её груди сравнивались со снеговыми вершинами Гималайских гор, взгляды с отравленными стрелами обитателей дикой Тартарии, а любовь, возбуждаемая ею, с чудовищным зверем Симлой, который живёт во владениях Великого Могола, ежедневно пожирая тысячи людей; вдобавок размер часто пропадал, и рифмы были расставлены неверно.


On Antiterra (aka Demonia, Earth’s twin planet on which Ada is set) Tartary is the country that occupies the territory of the Soviet Russia:


Ved’ (‘it is, isn’t it’) sidesplitting to imagine that ‘Russia,’ instead of being a quaint synonym of Estoty, the American province extending from the Arctic no longer vicious Circle to the United States proper, was on Terra the name of a country, transferred as if by some sleight of land across the ha-ha of a doubled ocean to the opposite hemisphere where it sprawled over all of today’s Tartary, from Kurland to the Kuriles! (1.3)


Describing Aqua’s bivouacs in her War of the Worlds, Van mentions Tartary and calls it “an independent inferno:”


Of course, Tartary, an independent inferno, which at the time spread from the Baltic and Black seas to the Pacific Ocean, was touristically unavailable, though Yalta and Altyn Tagh sounded strangely attractive... (ibid.)


Inferno is the first part of Dante’s Divine Comedy. At the beginning of “The Joys of Earthly Love” Gumilyov mentions Dante Alighieri and his love for tender Beatrice:


Одновременно с благородной страстью, которая запылала в сердце Данте Алигиери к дочери знаменитого Фолько Понтимари, называемой её подругами нежной Беатриче, Флоренция видела другую любовь, радости и печали которой проходили не среди холодных небесных пространств, а здесь, на цветущей итальянской земле.

И для того, кому Господь Бог в бесконечной мудрости своей не позволил быть свидетелем этого прекрасного зрелища, я расскажу то немногое, что мне известно о любви благородного Гвидо Кавальканти к стройной Примавере.


In VN’s novel Lolita (1955) Humbert Humbert speaks of his love for Lolita and mentions Dante’s Bea:


What next? I proceeded to the business center of Parkington and devoted the whole afternoon (the weather had cleared, the wet town was like silver-and-glass) to buying beautiful things for Lo. Goodness, what crazy purchases were prompted by the poignant predilection Humbert had in those days for check weaves, bright cottons, frills, puffed-out short sleeves, soft pleats, snug-fitting bodices and generously full skirts! Oh Lolita, you are my girl, as Vee was Poe’s and Bea Dante’s, and what little girl would not like to whirl in a circular skirt and scanties? Did I have something special in mind? coaxing voices asked me. Swimming suits? We have them in all shades. Dream pink, frosted aqua, glans mauve, tulip red, oolala black. What about paysuits? Slips? No slips. Lo and I loathed slips. (1.25)


In Ada lolita is an ample skirt that Ada wears at the picnic on her twelfth birthday:


For the big picnic on Ada’s twelfth birthday and Ida’s forty-second jour de fête, the child was permitted to wear her lolita (thus dubbed after the little Andalusian gipsy of that name in Osberg’s novel and pronounced, incidentally, with a Spanish ‘t,’ not a thick English one), a rather long, but very airy and ample, black skirt, with red poppies or peonies, ‘deficient in botanical reality,’ as she grandly expressed it, not yet knowing that reality and natural science are synonymous in the terms of this, and only this, dream. (1.13)


Darkbloom (‘Notes to Ada’): Osberg: another good-natured anagram, scrambling the name of a writer with whom the author of Lolita has been rather comically compared. Incidentally, that title’s pronunciation has nothing to do with English or Russian (pace an anonymous owl in a recent issue of the TLS).


At the picnic on her twelfth birthday Ada plays anagrams with Grace Erminin (Greg’s twin sister who later marries a Wellington, 2.6) and Van walks on his hands for the first time.


Osberg = Borges. In Borges’ story El Aleph (“The Aleph,” 1945) the characters include Beatriz Viterbo (a woman whom the narrator loved) and her first cousin Danieri (a poet whose name hints at Dante Alighieri). J. L. Borges (1899-1986) was an Argentinean writer. As Mascodagama, Van dances tango on his hands to the tune Pod znoynym nebom Argentiny (Neath sultry sky of Argentina):


For the tango, which completed his number on his last tour, he was given a partner, a Crimean cabaret dancer in a very short scintillating frock cut very low on the back. She sang the tango tune in Russian:


Pod znóynïm nébom Argentínï,

Pod strástnïy góvor mandolinï


‘Neath sultry sky of Argentina,

To the hot hum of mandolina


Fragile, red-haired ‘Rita’ (he never learned her real name), a pretty Karaite from Chufut Kale, where, she nostalgically said, the Crimean cornel, kizil’, bloomed yellow among the arid rocks, bore an odd resemblance to Lucette as she was to look ten years later. (1.30)


In Lolita Rita is a girl whom Humbert Humbert picks up after Lolita was abducted from him by Clare Quilty (Vivian Darkbloom’s co-author). In a poem that Humbert Humbert wrote for Rita Diana (the ancient Roman goddess of the moon and of hunting) is mentioned:


The place was called Enchanted Hunters. Query:

What Indian dyes, Diana, did thy dell

endorse to make of Picture Lake a very

blood bath of trees before the blue hotel? (2.26)


Blending Ada with Diana, Van mentally calls his mistress “Adiana:”


‘Van, I’m boring you?’

‘Oh, nonsense, it’s a gripping and palpitating little case history.’

Because that was really not bad: bringing down three in as many years — besides winging a fourth. Jolly good shot — Adiana! Wonder whom she’ll bag next. (2.5)


Van’s stage name, Mascodagama, hints at Vasco da Gama, the Portuguese navigator who discovered the sea route from Portugal around the continent of Africa to India. The author of Kapitany (“The Captains,” 1910), a cycle of four poems, and Mik (1915), a long poem in which the action takes place in Africa, Gumilyov was one of the first Russian explorers of Africa.


In his poem Vy i ya (“You and I,” 1918) Gumilyov says that he will die not in his bed, in the presence of a notary and a doctor, but in some wild ravine deep in dense ivy:


И умру я не на постели,
При нотариусе и враче,
А в какой-нибудь дикой щели,
Утонувшей в густом плюще.


I shall die not in my bedroom
with a notary and medicine
but in some old and creasy canyon
Deep and covered by ivy's green.


One of Ada’s lovers, Percy de Prey, goes to the Crimean War and is killed by an old Tartar in a ravine near Chufutkale. Describing Percy’s death, Van mentions Ada’s “lethal shafts:”


Panting, Cordula said:

‘My mother rang me up from Malorukino’ (their country estate at Malbrook, Mayne): ‘the local papers said you had fought a duel. You look a tower of health, I’m so glad. I knew something nasty must have happened because little Russel, Dr Platonov’s grandson — remember? — saw you from his side of the train beating up an officer on the station platform. But, first of all, Van, net, pozhaluysta, on nas vidit (no, please, he sees us), I have some very bad news for you. Young Fraser, who has just been flown back from Yalta, saw Percy killed on the second day of the invasion, less than a week after they had left Goodson airport. He will tell you the whole story himself, it accumulates more and more dreadful details with every telling, Fraser does not seem to have shined in the confusion, that’s why, I suppose, he keeps straightening things out.’

(Bill Fraser, the son of Judge Fraser, of Wellington, witnessed Lieutenant de Prey’s end from a blessed ditch overgrown with cornel and medlar, but, of course, could do nothing to help the leader of his platoon and this for a number of reasons which he conscientiously listed in his report but which it would be much too tedious and embarrassing to itemize here. Percy had been shot in the thigh during a skirmish with Khazar guerillas in a ravine near Chew-Foot-Calais, as the American troops pronounced ‘Chufutkale,’ the name of a fortified rock. He had, immediately assured himself, with the odd relief of the doomed, that he had got away with a flesh wound. Loss of blood caused him to faint, as we fainted, too, as soon as he started to crawl or rather squirm toward the shelter of the oak scrub and spiny bushes, where another casualty was resting comfortably. When a couple of minutes later, Percy — still Count Percy de Prey — regained consciousness he was no longer alone on his rough bed of gravel and grass. A smiling old Tartar, incongruously but somehow assuagingly wearing American blue-jeans with his beshmet, was squatting by his side. ‘Bednïy, bednïy’ (you poor, poor fellow), muttered the good soul, shaking his shaven head and clucking: ‘Bol’no (it hurts)?’ Percy answered in his equally primitive Russian that he did not feel too badly wounded: ‘Karasho, karasho ne bol’no (good, good),’ said the kindly old man and, picking up the automatic pistol which Percy had dropped, he examined it with naive pleasure and then shot him in the temple. (One wonders, one always wonders, what had been the executed individual’s brief, rapid series of impressions, as preserved somewhere, somehow, in some vast library of microfilmed last thoughts, between two moments: between, in the present case, our friend’s becoming aware of those nice, quasi-Red Indian little wrinkles beaming at him out of a serene sky not much different from Ladore’s, and then feeling the mouth of steel violently push through tender skin and exploding bone. One supposes it might have been a kind of suite for flute, a series of ‘movements’ such as, say: I’m alive — who’s that? — civilian — sympathy — thirsty — daughter with pitcher — that’s my damned gun — don’t... et cetera or rather no cetera... while Broken-Arm Bill prayed his Roman deity in a frenzy of fear for the Tartar to finish his job and go. But, of course, an invaluable detail in that strip of thought would have been — perhaps, next to the pitcher peri — a glint, a shadow, a stab of Ardis.)

‘How strange, how strange,’ murmured Van when Cordula had finished her much less elaborate version of the report Van later got from Bill Fraser.

What a strange coincidence! Either Ada’s lethal shafts were at work, or he, Van, had somehow managed to dispatch her two wretched lovers in a duel with a dummy. (1.42)


Alexey Sklyarenko

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