Describing his novel Letters from Terra, Van Veen (the narrator and main character in VN’s novel Ada, 1969) mentions a review that appeared in Elsinore, a distinguished London weekly:


Statistically speaking no reviews could have been expected, given the unorthodox circumstances in which poor Terra’s correspondence had been handled. Curiously enough, as many as two did appear. One, by the First Clown in Elsinore, a distinguished London weekly, popped up in a survey entitled, with a British journalist’s fondness for this kind of phoney wordplay, ‘Terre à terre, 1891,’ and dealt with the year’s ‘Space Romances,’ which by that time had begun to fine off. He sniffed Voltemand’s contribution as the choicest of the lot, calling it (alas, with unerring flair) ‘a sumptuously fripped up, trite, tedious and obscure fable, with a few absolutely marvelous metaphors marring the otherwise total ineptitude of the tale.’ (2.2)


Elsinore is the royal castle in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In his essay Problema Gamleta (“The Problem of Hamlet,” 1907) I. Annenski says that after the cold and moonlit night in the Elsinore garden (when he saw the ghost of his father) life for Hamlet can be neither action, nor pleasure:


Для Гамлета, после холодной и лунной ночи в Эльсинорском саду, жизнь не может уже быть ни действием, ни наслаждением. (II)


According to Annenski, the first critic of Hamlet was Polonius who imagined that he could in the language of market express the Eleusinian mystery of Shakespeare’s twin:


Серию критиков Гамлета открыл Полоний. Он первый считал себя обладателем гамлетовской тайны. Хотя Гамлет прокалывает его случайно, но зато Шекспир вполне сознательно сажает на булавку первого, кто в дерзости своей вообразил, что он языком рынка сумеет высказать элевсинскую тайну его близнеца. (I)


“The Eleusinian mystery of his twin” (as Annenski calls Hamlet) brings to mind the mystery of Van’s birth and the Elysian Games mentioned by Marina (Van’s, Ada’s and Lucette’s mother, poor mad Aqua’s twin sister):


“I would have liked so much to know everything, everything, about you, but now it’s too late. Recollections are always a little "stylized" (stilizovanï), as your father used to say, an irrisistible and hateful man, and now, even if you showed me your old diaries, I could no longer whip up any real emotional reaction to them, though all actresses can shed tears, as I’m doing now. You see (rummaging for her handkerchief under her pillow), when children are still quite tiny (takie malyutki), we cannot imagine that we can go without them, for even a couple of days, and later we do, and it’s a couple of weeks, and later it’s months, gray years, black decades, and then the opéra bouffe of the Christians’ eternity. I think even the shortest separation is a kind of training for the Elysian Games — who said that? I said that.” (1.37)


In Shakespeare’s play Polonius is the father of Ophelia. In his essay Annenski calls Ophelia bezvol’naya doch’ starogo shuta (a weak-willed daughter of the old clown):


Офелия погибла для Гамлета не оттого, что она безвольная дочь старого шута, не оттого даже, что она живность, которую тот хотел бы продать подороже, а оттого, что брак вообще не может быть прекрасен и что благородная красота девушки должна умирать одинокая, под чёрным вуалем и при тающем воске церковной свечи. (III)


“The old clown” (as Annenski calls Polonius) brings to mind the First Clown in Elsionre, Van’s first critic. The characters in Van’s novel include Sig Leymanski:


Poor Van! In his struggle to keep the writer of the letters from Terra strictly separate from the image of Ada, he gilt and carmined Theresa until she became a paragon of banality. This Theresa maddened with her messages a scientist on our easily maddened planet; his anagram-looking name, Sig Leymanksi, had been partly derived by Van from that of Aqua’s last doctor. When Leymanski’s obsession turned into love, and one’s sympathy got focused on his enchanting, melancholy, betrayed wife (née Antilia Glems), our author found himself confronted with the distressful task of now stamping out in Antilia, a born brunette, all traces of Ada, thus reducing yet another character to a dummy with bleached hair.

After beaming to Sig a dozen communications from her planet, Theresa flies over to him, and he, in his laboratory, has to place her on a slide under a powerful microscope in order to make out the tiny, though otherwise perfect, shape of his minikin sweetheart, a graceful microorganism extending transparent appendages toward his huge humid eye. Alas, the testibulus (test tube — never to be confused with testiculus, orchid), with Theresa swimming inside like a micromermaid, is ‘accidentally’ thrown away by Professor Leyman’s (he had trimmed his name by that time) assistant, Flora, initially an ivory-pale, dark-haired funest beauty, whom the author transformed just in time into a third bromidic dummy with a dun bun.

(Antilia later regained her husband, and Flora was weeded out. Ada’s addendum.) (2.2)


In Russian sig means “lake whitefish” (Coregonus clupeaformis). In “The Problem of Hamlet” Annenski compares the critic to a fisherman and mentions the worm of analysis that can be used as a bait for Hamlet:


Гамлет идёт и на червяка анализа, хотя не раз уже благополучно его проглатывал. Попадался он и в сети слов, и довольно часто даже, так что если его теперь выловят, то не иначе, как с остатками этих трофеев. Впрочем, не ручайтесь, чтобы тайна Гамлета, сверкнув нам и воочию своей загадочной серебристостью, не оказалась на берегу лишь стогом никуда не годной и даже зловонной морской травы. (I)


According to Annenski, Hamlet has his roots in Orestes, and for Aeschylus it was the father, not mother, who gives birth:


Что такое мать? Гамлет уходит корнями в Ореста. А для Эсхила рождавшим был ещё отец, а не мать -- τιχτει ο θρωσχων. (IV)


Van compares his work on Letters from Terra to pregnancy and childbearing:


His main industry consisted of research at the great granite-pillared Public Library, that admirable and formidable palace a few blocks from Cordula’s cosy flat. One is irresistibly tempted to compare the strange longings and nauseous qualms that enter into the complicated ecstasies accompanying the making of a young writer’s first book with childbearing. Van had only reached the bridal stage; then, to develop the metaphor, would come the sleeping car of messy defloration; then the first balcony of honeymoon breakfasts, with the first wasp. In no sense could Cordula be compared to a writer’s muse but the evening stroll back to her apartment was pleasantly saturated with the afterglow and afterthought of the accomplished task and the expectation of her caresses; he especially looked forward to those nights when they had an elaborate repast sent up from ‘Monaco,’ a good restaurant in the entresol of the tall building crowned by her penthouse and its spacious terrace. The sweet banality of their little ménage sustained him much more securely than the company of his constantly agitated and fiery father did at their rare meetings in town or was to do during a fortnight in Paris before the next term at Chose. Except gossip — gossamer gossip — Cordula had no conversation and that also helped. She had instinctively realized very soon that she should never mention Ada or Ardis. He, on his part, accepted the evident fact that she did not really love him. Her small, clear, soft, well-padded and rounded body was delicious to stroke, and her frank amazement at the variety and vigor of his love-making anointed what still remained of poor Van’s crude virile pride. She would doze off between two kisses. When he could not sleep, as now often happened, he retired to the sitting room and sat there annotating his authors or else he would walk up and down the open terrace, under a haze of stars, in severely restricted meditation, till the first tramcar jangled and screeched in the dawning abyss of the city.

When in early September Van Veen left Manhattan for Lute, he was pregnant. (1.43)


Darkbloom (‘Notes to Ada’): the last paragraph of Part One imitates, in significant brevity of intonation (as if spoken by an outside voice), a famous Tolstoyan ending, with Van in the role of Kitty Lyovin.


In Anna Karenin (1875-77) Kitty Lyovin (born Shcherbatski) is a younger sister of Dolly Oblonski (who has the same first name as Aqua’s and Marina’s mother, 1.3). In Tolstoy’s novel Vronski tells Anna (the sister of Stiva Oblonski, Dolly’s husband) that Dolly is very kind but much too terre-à-terre:


Когда она вошла в спальню, Вронский внимательно посмотрел на неё. Он искал следов того разговора, который, он знал, она, так  долго  оставаясь в комнате Долли, должна была иметь с нею. Но в её выражении, возбужденно-сдержанном и что-то скрывающем, он ничего не нашёл, кроме хотя и привычной ему, но все ещё пленяющей его красоты, сознания её и желания, чтоб она на него действовала. Он не хотел спросить её о том, что они говорили, но надеялся, что она сама скажет что-нибудь. Но она сказала только:

- Я рада, что тебе понравилась Долли. Не правда ли?

- Да ведь я её давно знаю. Она очень добрая, кажется, mais exessivement terre-à-terre. Но всё-таки я ей очень был рад.


When she went into the bedroom, Vronski looked intently at her. He was looking for traces of the conversation which he knew that, staying so long in Dolly's room, she must have had with her. But in her expression of restrained excitement, and of a sort of reserve, he could find nothing but the beauty that always bewitched him afresh though he was used to it, the consciousness of it, and the desire that it should affect him. He did not want to ask her what they had been talking of, but he hoped that she would tell him something of her own accord. But she only said:

"I am so glad you like Dolly. You do, don't you?"

"Oh, I've known her a long while, you know. She's very good-hearted, I suppose, mais excessivement terre-a-terre. Still, I'm very glad to see her." (Part Six, chapter XXIV)


In his essay Ob Annenskom (“On Annenski,” 1921) Hodasevich compares Annenski (a poet and essayist who wrote under the penname Nik. T-o, “Mr. Nobody”) to Ivan Ilyich Golovin, the main character in Tolstoy’s story Smert’ Ivana Ilyicha (“The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” 1886). Invited to a chat in Marina’s room, Van sits down on the ivanilich:


Naked-faced, dull-haired, wrapped up in her oldest kimono (her Pedro had suddenly left for Rio), Marina reclined on her mahogany bed under a golden-yellow quilt, drinking tea with mare’s milk, one of her fads.

‘Sit down, have a spot of chayku,’ she said. ‘The cow is in the smaller jug, I think. Yes, it is.’ And when Van, having kissed her freckled hand, lowered himself on the ivanilich (a kind of sighing old hassock upholstered in leather): ‘Van, dear, I wish to say something to you, because I know I shall never have to repeat it again. Belle, with her usual flair for the right phrase, has cited to me the cousinage-dangereux-voisinage adage — I mean "adage," I always fluff that word — and complained qu’on s’embrassait dans tous les coins. Is that true?

Van’s mind flashed in advance of his speech. It was, Marina, a fantastic exaggeration. The crazy governess had observed it once when he carried Ada across a brook and kissed her because she had hurt her toe. I’m the well-known beggar in the saddest of all stories. (1.37)


Darkbloom (‘Notes to Ada’): Ivanilich: a pouf plays a marvelous part in Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, where it sighs deeply under a friend of the widow’s.


According to Hodasevich, Annenski’s muse was death itself. The main question in Hamlet is “to be or not to be.” “The Problem of Hamlet” was included in Annenski’s Vtoraya kniga otrazheniy (“The Second Book of Reflections,” 1909). In a letter to Van Ada (now married to Andrey Vinelander) mentions Van’s book Reflections in Sidra:


I have just read Reflections in Sidra, by Ivan Veen, and I regard it as a grand piece, dear Professor. The ‘lost shafts of destiny’ and other poetical touches reminded me of the two or three times you had tea and muffins at our place in the country about twenty years ago. I was, you remember (presumptuous phrase!), a petite fille modèle practicing archery near a vase and a parapet and you were a shy schoolboy (with whom, as my mother guessed, I may have been a wee bit in love!), who dutifully picked up the arrows I lost in the lost shrubbery of the lost castle of poor Lucette’s and happy, happy Adette’s childhood, now a ‘Home for Blind Blacks’ — both my mother and L., I’m sure, would have backed Dasha’s advice to turn it over to her Sect. Dasha, my sister-in-law (you must meet her soon, yes, yes, yes, she’s dreamy and lovely, and lots more intelligent than I), who showed me your piece, asks me to add she hopes to ‘renew’ your acquaintance — maybe in Switzerland, at the Bellevue in Mont Roux, in October. I think you once met pretty Miss ‘Kim’ Blackrent, well, that’s exactly dear Dasha’s type. She is very good at perceiving and pursuing originality and all kinds of studies which I can’t even name! She finished Chose (where she read History — our Lucette used to call it ‘Sale Histoire,’ so sad and funny!). For her you’re le beau ténébreux, because once upon a time, once upon libellula wings, not long before my marriage, she attended — I mean at that time, I’m stuck in my ‘turnstyle’ — one of your public lectures on dreams, after which she went up to you with her latest little nightmare all typed out and neatly clipped together, and you scowled darkly and refused to take it. Well, she’s been after Uncle Dementiy to have him admonish le beau ténébreux to come to Mont Roux Bellevue Hotel, in October, around the seventeenth, I guess, and he only laughs and says it’s up to Dashenka and me to arrange matters.

So ‘congs’ again, dear Ivan! You are, we both think, a marvelous, inimitable artist who should also ‘only laugh,’ if cretinic critics, especially lower-upper-middle-class Englishmen, accuse his turnstyle of being ‘coy’ and ‘arch,’ much as an American farmer finds the parson ‘peculiar’ because he knows Greek. (3.7)


Sidra is Ardis (Daniel Veen’s family estate; in Greek ardis means “point of an arrow”) in reverse. Describing a lunch at Ardis, Van mentions Elsie de Nord, a vulgar literary demimondaine who thought that Lyovin went about Moscow in a nagol’nïy tulup:


Weekday lunch at Ardis Hall. Lucette between Marina and the governess; Van between Marina and Ada; Dack, the golden-brown stoat, under the table, either between Ada and Mlle Larivière, or between Lucette and Marina (Van secretly disliked dogs, especially at meals, and especially that smallish longish freak with a gamey breath). Arch and grandiloquent, Ada would be describing a dream, a natural history wonder, a special belletristic device — Paul Bourget’s ‘monologue intérieur’ borrowed from old Leo — or some ludicrous blunder in the current column of Elsie de Nord, a vulgar literary demimondaine who thought that Lyovin went about Moscow in a nagol’nïy tulup, ‘a muzhik’s sheepskin coat, bare side out, bloom side in,’ as defined in a dictionary our commentator produced like a conjurer, never to be procurable by Elsies. (1.10)


In a letter to Van Demon Veen (Van’s and Ada’s father) mentions “naughty old Leo” and “consumptive Anton” (Chekhov):


I have followed your instructions, anent that letter, to the letter. Your epistolary style is so involute that I should suspect the presence of a code, had I not known you belonged to the Decadent School of writing, in company of naughty old Leo and consumptive Anton. I do not give a damn whether you slept or not with Lucette; but I know from Dorothy Vinelander that the child had been in love with you. (3.6)


In a letter to Ada written after Lucette’s suicide Van compares Lucette to Ophelia and mentions her Voltemand:


As a psychologist, I know the unsoundness of speculations as to whether Ophelia would not have drowned herself after all, without the help of a treacherous sliver, even if she had married her Voltemand. (ibid.)


In a letter of Dec. 27, 1889, to Suvorin Chekhov pairs Bourget with Tolstoy:


Когда я в одном из своих последних писем писал Вам о Бурже и Толстом, то меньше всего думал о прекрасных одалисках и о том, что писатель должен изображать одни только тихие радости. Я хотел только сказать, что современные лучшие писатели, которых я люблю, служат злу, так как разрушают. Одни из них, как Толстой, говорят: «не употребляй женщин, потому что у них бели; жена противна, потому что у неё пахнет изо рта; жизнь — это сплошное лицемерие и обман, так как человек по утрам ставит себе клистир, а перед смертью с трудом сидит на судне, причем видит свои исхудалые ляжки». Другие же, ещё не импотенты, не пресыщенные телом, но уж пресыщенные духом, изощряют свою фантазию до зеленых чёртиков и изобретают несуществующего полубога Сикста и «психологические» опыты. Правда, Бурже приделал благополучный конец, но этот банальный конец скоро забывается, и в памяти остаются только Сикст и «опыты», которые убивают сразу сто зайцев: компрометируют в глазах толпы науку, которая, подобно жене Цезаря, не должна быть подозреваема, и третируют с высоты писательского величия совесть, свободу, любовь, честь, нравственность, вселяя в толпу уверенность, что всё это, что сдерживает в ней зверя и отличает её от собаки и что добыто путём вековой борьбы с природою, легко может быть дискредитировано «опытами», если не теперь, то в будущем. Неужели подобные авторы «заставляют искать лучшего, заставляют думать и признавать, что скверное действительно скверно»? Неужели они заставляют «обновляться»? Нет, они заставляют Францию вырождаться, а в России они помогают дьяволу размножать слизняков и мокриц, которых мы называем интеллигентами. Вялая, апатичная, лениво философствующая, холодная интеллигенция, которая никак не может придумать для себя приличного образца для кредитных бумажек, которая не патриотична, уныла, бесцветна, которая пьянеет от одной рюмки и посещает пятидесятикопеечный бордель, которая брюзжит и охотно отрицает всё, так как для ленивого мозга легче отрицать, чем утверждать; которая не женится и отказывается воспитывать детей и т. д. Вялая душа, вялые мышцы, отсутствие движений, неустойчивость в мыслях — и всё это в силу того, что жизнь не имеет смысла, что у женщин бели и что деньги — зло.

Где вырождение и апатия, там половое извращение, холодный разврат, выкидыши, ранняя старость, брюзжащая молодость, там падение искусств, равнодушие к науке, там несправедливость во всей своей форме. Общество, которое не верует в бога, но боится примет и чёрта, которое отрицает всех врачей и в то же время лицемерно оплакивает Боткина и поклоняется Захарьину, не смеет и заикаться о том, что оно знакомо с справедливостью.

Германия не знает авторов вроде Бурже и Толстого, и в этом её счастье. В ней и наука, и патриотизм, и хорошие дипломаты, и всё, что хотите. Она побьёт Францию, и союзниками её будут французские авторы.

Chekhov predicts that Germany (a country that does not know authors like Bourget and Tolstoy) will beat France and that her allies will be French writers. The author of another review of Van’s Letters from Terra, the poet Max Mispel, is a member of the German department at Goluba University:


The only other compliment was paid to poor Voltemand in a little Manhattan magazine (The Village Eyebrow) by the poet Max Mispel (another botanical name — ‘medlar’ in English), member of the German Department at Goluba University. Herr Mispel, who liked to air his authors, discerned in Letters from Terra the influence of Osberg (Spanish writer of pretentious fairy tales and mystico-allegoric anecdotes, highly esteemed by short-shift thesialists) as well as that of an obscene ancient Arab, expounder of anagrammatic dreams, Ben Sirine, thus transliterated by Captain de Roux, according to Burton in his adaptation of Nefzawi’s treatise on the best method of mating with obese or hunchbacked females (The Perfumed Garden, Panther edition, p.187, a copy given to ninety-three-year-old Baron Van Veen by his ribald physician Professor Lagosse). His critique ended as follows: ‘If Mr Voltemand (or Voltimand or Mandalatov) is a psychiatrist, as I think he might be, then I pity his patients, while admiring his talent.’ (2.2)


In his film version of Van’s Letters from Terra Victor Vitry (a director whose name hints at vitrina nemetskogo magazina, “the shop window of a German shop,” mentioned by Hodasevich in his essay on Mayakovski, “The Horse in a Décolleté Dress,” 1927) depicts a big European war:


Vitry dated Theresa’s visit to Antiterra as taking place in 1940, but 1940 by the Terranean calendar, and about 1890 by ours. The conceit allowed certain pleasing dips into the modes and manners of our past (did you remember that horses wore hats — yes, hats — when heat waves swept Manhattan?) and gave the impression — which physics-fiction literature had much exploited — of the capsulist traveling backward in terms of time. Philosophers asked nasty questions, but were ignored by the wishing-to-be-gulled moviegoers.

In contrast to the cloudless course of Demonian history in the twentieth century, with the Anglo-American coalition managing one hemisphere, and Tartary, behind her Golden Veil, mysteriously ruling the other, a succession of wars and revolutions were shown shaking loose the jigsaw puzzle of Terrestrial autonomies. In an impressive historical survey of Terra rigged up by Vitry — certainly the greatest cinematic genius ever to direct a picture of such scope or use such a vast number of extras (some said more than a million, others, half a million men and as many mirrors) — kingdoms fell and dictatordoms rose, and republics, half-sat, half-lay in various attitudes of discomfort. The conception was controversial, the execution flawless. Look at all those tiny soldiers scuttling along very fast across the trench-scarred wilderness, with explosions of mud and things going pouf-pouf in silent French now here, now there!

In 1905, Norway with a mighty heave and a long dorsal ripple unfastened herself from Sweden, her unwieldy co-giantess, while in a similar act of separation the French parliament, with parenthetical outbursts of vive émotion, voted a divorce between State and Church. Then, in 1911, Norwegian troops led by Amundsen reached the South Pole and simultaneously the Italians stormed into Turkey. In 1914 Germany invaded Belgium and the Americans tore up Panama. In 1918 they and the French defeated Germany while she was busily defeating Russia (who had defeated her own Tartars some time earlier). In Norway there was Siegrid Mitchel, in America Margaret Undset, and in France, Sidonie Colette. In 1926 Abdel-Krim surrendered, after yet another photogenic war, and the Golden Horde again subjugated Rus. In 1933, Athaulf Hindler (also known as Mittler — from ‘to mittle,’ mutilate) came to power in Germany, and a conflict on an even more spectacular scale than the 1914–1918 war was under way, when Vitry ran out of old documentaries and Theresa, played by his wife, left Terra in a cosmic capsule after having covered the Olympic Games held in Berlin (the Norwegians took most of the prizes, but the Americans won the fencing event, an outstanding achievement, and beat the Germans in the final football match by three goals to one). (5.5)


In Hamlet Voltemand is an ambassador to Norway. In a letter of Nov. 25, 1892, to Suvorin Chekhov mentions the ghost of Hamlet’s father who did not come and disturb the imagination for nothing:

У нас нет «чего-то», это справедливо, и это значит, что поднимите подол нашей музе, и Вы увидите там плоское место. Вспомните, что писатели, которых мы называем вечными или просто хорошими и которые пьянят нас, имеют один общий и весьма важный признак: они куда-то идут и Вас зовут туда же, и Вы чувствуете не умом, а всем своим существом, что у них есть какая-то цель, как у тени отца Гамлета, которая недаром приходила и тревожила воображение. У одних, смотря по калибру, цели ближайшие — крепостное право, освобождение родины, политика, красота или просто водка, как у Дениса Давыдова, у других цели отдаленные — бог, загробная жизнь, счастье человечества и т. п. Лучшие из них реальны и пишут жизнь такою, какая она есть, но оттого, что каждая строчка пропитана, как соком, сознанием цели, Вы, кроме жизни, какая есть, чувствуете еще ту жизнь, какая должна быть, и это пленяет Вас.


We lack “something,” that is true, and that means that, lift the robe of our muse, and you will find within an empty void. Let me remind you that the writers, who we say are for all time or are simply good, and who intoxicate us, have one common and very important characteristic; they are going towards something and are summoning you towards it, too, and you feel not with your mind, but with your whole being, that they have some object, just like the ghost of Hamlet’s father, who did not come and disturb the imagination for nothing. Some have more immediate objects — the abolition of serfdom, the liberation of their country, politics, beauty, or simply vodka, like Denis Davydov; others have remote objects — God, life beyond the grave, the happiness of humanity, and so on. The best of them are realists and paint life as it is, but, through every line’s being soaked in the consciousness of an object, you feel, besides life as it is, the life which ought to be, and that captivates you.


Denis Davydov + nom = syn Davidov + Demon/monde = son/nos + dym + den + Avidov


Denis Davydov – a poet and soldier (1784-1839), hero of the anti-Napoleon wars

nom – Fr., name

syn Davidov – son of David (Jesus Christ)

monde – Fr., world

son – sleep; dream

nos – nose

dym – smoke

Avidov - Baron Klim Avidov (anagram of Vladimir Nabokov), Marina’s former lover who gave her children a set of Flavita (Russian Scrabble, 1.36)

Alexey Sklyarenko

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AdaOnline NSJ Ada Annotations VN Bibliography Blog

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