In VN’s novel Lolita (1955) Humbert Humbert regrets that he did not ask a stranger on the porch for a sip of whiskey and compares himself to a violin string:
I left the porch. At least half an hour in all had elapsed. I ought to have asked for a sip. The strain was beginning to tell. If a violin string can ache, then I was that string. But it would have been unseemly to display any hurry. As I made my way through a constellation of fixed people in one corner of the lobby, there came a blinding flash – and beaming Dr. Braddock, two orchid-ornamentalized matrons, the small girl in white, and presumably the bared teeth of Humbert Humbert sidling between the bride like lassie and the enchanted cleric, were immortalized – in so far as the texture and print of small-town newspapers can be deemed immortal. A twittering group had gathered near the elevator. I again chose the stairs. 342 was near the fire escape. One could still – but the key was already in the lock, and then I was in the room. (1.28)
In his poem Smychok i struny (“The Bow and the Strings,” 1908) included in Trilistnik soblazna (“The Trefoil of Temptation”) Innokentiy Annenski mentions a violin’s aching heart:
Какой тяжёлый, тёмный бред!
Как эти выси мутно-лунны!
Касаться скрипки столько лет
И не узнать при свете струны!
Кому ж нас надо? Кто зажёг
Два жёлтых лика, два унылых...
И вдруг почувствовал смычок,
Что кто-то взял и кто-то слил их.
"О, как давно! Сквозь эту тьму
Скажи одно: ты та ли, та ли?"
И струны ластились к нему,
Звеня, но, ластясь, трепетали.
"Не правда ль, больше никогда
Мы не расстанемся? довольно?.."
И скрипка отвечала да,
Но сердцу скрипки было больно.
Смычок всё понял, он затих,
А в скрипке эхо всё держалось...
И было мукою для них,
Что людям музыкой казалось.
Но человек не погасил
До утра свеч... И струны пели...
Лишь солнце их нашло без сил
На чёрном бархате постели.
What heavy, dark delirium!
What dim and moonlit heights!
To touch the violin for years
And not to know the strings by light!
Who needs us now? And who lit up
Two hollow, melancholy faces...
And suddenly the bow felt
Someone take them up, unite them.
"How long it's been! Amidst this gloom
Just tell me this: are you still the same?"
The strings caressed the bow,
Rang out, caressed it slightly trembling.
"Is it not true, that we will never more
Be parted. It's enough..."
Yes, replied the violin,
But pain was throbbing in her heart.
The bow discerned it and grew mute,
The echo still continued in the violin...
What was a torture to them both
The people heard as music.
But the violinist didn't snuff
The candles out till dawn...The strings sang on...
The sun found them worn out
On the black velvet of their bed.
In his essay Ob Annenskom (“On Annenski,” 1921) Hodasevich compares Annenski (a poet and critic 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). Tolstoy’s story appeared in the same year as R. L. Stevenson’s novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. After murdering Sir Danvers Carew, Edward Hyde (a character in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Henry Jekyll’s alternative personality) feels that his love of life is screwed to the topmost peg:
Instantly the spirit of hell awoke in me and raged. With a transport of glee, I mauled the unresisting body, tasting delight from every blow; and it was not till weariness had begun to succeed, that I was suddenly, in the top fit of my delirium, struck through the heart by a cold thrill of terror. A mist dispersed; I saw my life to be forfeit; and fled from the scene of these excesses, at once glorying and trembling, my lust of evil gratified and stimulated, my love of life screwed to the topmost peg. (chapter 10)
A stranger on the porch of The Enchanted Hunters (a hotel where Humbert Humbert and Lolita spend their first night together) turns out to be Clare Quilty, a playwright who two years later abducts Lolita from Humbert Humbert and five years later is tracked down and murdered by Humbert Humbert. In Tolstoy’s story Kreytserova sonata (“The Kreutzer Sonata,” 1889) Pozdnyshev (the main character and part-time narrator) murders his unfaithful wife (whose lover is a violinist). Above Humbert Humbert’s bed in the Haze house there is a reproduction of Rene Prinet’s “Kreutzer Sonata:”
I was led upstairs, and to the left – into “my” room. I inspected it through the mist of my utter rejection of it; but I did discern above “my” bed Rene Prinet’s “Kreutzer Sonata.” (1.10)
Humbert Humbert meets Lolita (Mrs. Haze’s daughter), because McCoo’s house burned down:
I exchanged letters with these people, satisfying them I was housebroken, and spent a fantastic night on the train, imagining in all possible detail the enigmatic nymphet I would coach in French and fondle in Humbertish. Nobody met me at the toy station where I alighted with my new expensive bag, and nobody answered the telephone; eventually, however, a distraught McCoo in wet clothes turned up at the only hotel of green-and-pink Ramsdale with the news that his house had just burned down – possibly, owing to the synchronous conflagration that had been raging all night in my veins. His family, he said, had fled to a farm he owned, and had taken the car, but a friend of his wife's, a grand person, Mrs. Haze of 342 Lawn Street, offered to accommodate me. (ibid.)
Room 342 at The Enchanted Hunters is near the fire escape. In his Cornell lecture on R. L. Stevenson and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde VN mentions the “spontaneous combustion” of the gin-soaked Mr. Krook in Dickens’s Bleak House (1853) and compares Stevenson to Leo Tolstoy (who was, like Dickens and Stevenson, a Victorian writer and did not go too far in describing his characters’ vices). Describing one of his quarrels with Lolita, Humbert Humbert compares himself to Mr. Hyde (who tramples a child in Stevenson’s novella):
With people in movies I seem to share the services of the machina telephonica and its sudden god. This time it was an irate neighbor. The east window happened to be agape in the living room, with the blind mercifully down, however; and behind it the damp black night of a sour New England spring had been breathlessly listening to us. I had always thought that type of haddocky spinster with the obscene mind was the result of considerable literary inbreeding in modern fiction; but now I am convinced that prude and prurient Miss East – or to explode her incognito, Miss Finton Lebone – had been probably protruding three-quarter-way from her bedroom window as she strove to catch the gist of our quarrel.
“…This racket… lacks all sense of…” quacked the receiver, “we do not live in a tenement here. I must emphatically…”
I apologized for my daughter’s friends being so loud. Young people, you know - and cradled the next quack and a half.
Downstairs the screen door banged. Lo? Escaped?
Through the casement on the stairs I saw a small impetuous ghost slip through the shrubs; a silvery dot in the dark - hub of bicycle wheel - moved, shivered, and she was gone.
It so happened that the car was spending the night in a repair shop downtown. I had no other alternative than to pursue on foot the winged fugitive. Even now, after more than three years have heaved and elapsed, I cannot visualize that spring-night street, that already so leafy street, without a gasp of panic. Before their lighted porch Miss Lester was promenading Miss Fabian's dropsical dackel. Mr. Hyde almost knocked it over. Walk three steps and run three. A tepid rain started to drum on the chestnut leaves. At the next corner, pressing Lolita against an iron railing, a blurred youth held and kissed - no, not her, mistake. My talons still tingling, I flew on.
Half a mile or so east of number fourteen, Thayer Street tangles with a private lane and a cross street; the latter leads to the town proper; in front of the first drugstore, I saw – with what melody of relief! – Lolita’s fair bicycle waiting for her. I pushed instead of pulling, pulled, pushed, pulled, and entered. Look out! some ten paces away Lolita, though the glass of a telephone booth (membranous god still with us), cupping the tube, confidentially hunched over it, slit her eyes at me, turned away with her treasure, hurriedly hung up, and walked out with a flourish. (2.14)
Lolita talks over the phone with her lover, Clare Quilty. Lolita’s treasure (the tube she cups) brings to mind R. L. Stevenson’s novel Treasure Island (1882). A copy of that book is one of Lolita’s hiding places:
Once I found eight one-dollar notes in one of her books (fittingly – Treasure Island), and once a hole in the wall behind Whistler’s ‘Mother’ yielded as much as twenty-four dollars and some change – say, twenty-four sixty – which I quietly removed, upon which, next day, she accused, to my face, honest Mrs. Holigan of being a filthy thief. Eventually, she lived up to her I.Q. by finding a safer hoarding place which I never discovered; but by that time I had brought prices down drastically by having her earn the hard and nauseous way permission to participate in the school’s theatrical program; because what I feared most was not that she might ruin me, but that she might accumulate sufficient cash to run away. I believe the poor fierce-eyed child had figured out that with a mere fifty dollars in her purse she might somehow reach Broadway or Hollywood – or the foul kitchen of a diner (Help Wanted) in a dismal ex-prairie state, with the wind blowing, and the stars blinking, and the cars, and the bars, and the barmen, and everything soiled, torn, dead. (2.7)
In the last stanza of his poem Neznakomka (“Incognita,” 1906) Alexander Blok, the author of a collection of poetry Arfy i skripki (“Harps and Violins,” 1908-16), says that in his soul lies a treasure:
В моей душе лежит сокровище,
И ключ поручен только мне!
Ты право, пьяное чудовище!
Я знаю: истина в вине.
A treasure lies in my soul,
And the key belongs to me alone!
You are right, the drunken beast!
I know: in wine is truth.
The key that belongs to the poet alone brings to mind the key with which Humbert Humbert opens room 342 at the Enchanted Hunters.
In his Cornell lecture on The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde VN points out that “there is a delightful winey taste about this book; in fact, a good deal of old mellow wine is drunk in the story: one recalls the wine that Utterson so comfortably sips.”
In his interview to Briceland Gazette Clare Quilty (“the author of Dark Age”) repeated the word “wine” three times:
Wine, wine, wine, quipped the author of Dark Age who refused to be photographed, may suit a Persian bubble bird, but I say give me rain, rain, rain on the shingle roof for roses and inspiration every time. Dimples are caused by the adherence of the skin to the deeper tissues. Greeks repulse a heavy guerrilla assault – and, ah, at last, a little figure in white, and Dr. Braddock in black, but whatever spectral shoulder was brushing against his ample form – nothing of myself could I make out. (2.26)
A Persian bubble bird and roses mentioned by the interviewee bring to mind “sleep is a rose, as the Persians say” (Quilty’s words to Humbert Humbert on the porch of The Enchanted Hunters):
I left the loud lobby and stood outside, on the white steps, looking at the hundreds of powdered bugs wheeling around the lamps in the soggy black night, full of ripple and stir. All I would do – all I would dare do – would amount to such a trifle… Suddenly I was aware that in the darkness next to me there was somebody sitting in a chair on the pillared porch. I could not really see him but what gave him away was the rasp of a screwing off, then a discreet gurgle, then the final note of a placid screwing on. I was about to move away when his voice addressed me:
“Where the devil did you get her?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“I said: the weather is getting better.”
“Who’s the lassie?”
“You lie she’s not.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“I said: July was hot. Where’s her mother?”
“I see. Sorry. By the way, why don’t you two lunch with me tomorrow. That dreadful crowd will be gone by then.”
“We’ll be gone too. Good night.”
“Sorry. I’m pretty drunk. Good night. That child of yours needs a lot of sleep. Sleep is a rose, as the Persians say. Smoke?”
He struck a light, but because he was drunk, or because the wind was, the flame illumined not him but another person, a very old man, one of those permanent guests of old hotels – and his white rocker. Nobody said anything and the darkness returned to its initial place. Then I heard the old-timer cough and deliver himself of some sepulchral mucus. (1.28)
Describing his first journey with Lolita across the USA, Humbert Humbert mentions R. L. Stevenson’s footprint on an extinct volcano:
A winery in California, with a church built in the shape of a wine barrel. Death Valley. Scotty’s Castle. Works of Art collected by one Rogers over a period of years. The ugly villas of handsome actresses. R. L. Stevenson’s footprint on an extinct volcano. Mission Dolores: good title for book. Surf-carved sandstone festoons. A man having a lavish epileptic fit on the ground in Russian Gulch State Park. Blue, blue Crater Lake. A fish hatchery in Idaho and the State Penitentiary. Somber Yellowstone Park and its colored hot springs, baby geysers, rainbows of bubbling mudsymbols of my passion. (2.2)
The name of Lolita’s best friend at Beardsley School, Mona Dahl, seems to blend Leonardo’s Mona Lisa with dahlia (a genus of bushy, tuberous, herbaceous perennial plants native to Mexico). In his poem K portretu A. A. Bloka (“To the Portrait of A. A. Blok,” 1908) Annenski says that Blok’s verses burn, like na solntse georgina (a dahlia in the sun):
Под беломраморным обличьем андрогина
Он стал бы радостью, но чьих-то давних грёз.
Стихи его горят — на солнце георгина,
Горят, но холодом невыстраданных слёз.
The poem’s first line, pod belomramornym oblich’yem androgina (under the white marble mask of an androgyne), brings to mind na mramore moey ruki (upon the marble of my hand), the last line of VN’s poem Kakoe sdelal ya durnoe delo… (“What is the evil deed I have committed…” 1959):
Какое сделал я дурное дело,
и я ли развратитель и злодей,
я, заставляющий мечтать мир целый
о бедной девочке моей?
О, знаю я, меня боятся люди,
и жгут таких, как я, за волшебство,
и, как от яда в полом изумруде,
мрут от искусства моего.
Но как забавно, что в конце абзаца,
корректору и веку вопреки,
тень русской ветки будет колебаться
на мраморе моей руки.
What is the evil deed I have committed?
Seducer, criminal—is this the word
for me who set the entire world a-dreaming
of my poor little girl?
Oh, I know well that I am feared by people:
They burn the likes of me for wizard wiles
and as of poison in a hollow smaragd
of my art die.
Amusing, though, that at the last indention,
despite proofreaders and my age’s ban,
a Russian branch’s shadow shall be playing
upon the marble of my hand.