Minsk, birds with human hands and feet & insomnia in Signs and Symbols

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Mon, 11/25/2019 - 17:21

In VN’s story Signs and Symbols (1948) one of the old couple’s fellow travelers in the subway resembles Rebecca Borisovna, whose daughter had married one of the Soloveichiks—in Minsk, years ago:


During the long ride to the subway station, she and her husband did not exchange a word, and every time she glanced at his old hands, clasped and twitching upon the handle of his umbrella, and saw their swollen veins and brown-spotted skin, she felt the mounting pressure of tears. As she looked around, trying to hook her mind onto something, it gave her a kind of soft shock, a mixture of compassion and wonder, to notice that one of the passengers—a girl with dark hair and grubby red toenails—was weeping on the shoulder of an older woman. Whom did that woman resemble? She resembled Rebecca Borisovna, whose daughter had married one of the Soloveichiks—in Minsk, years ago. (1)


In his memoir essay Muni (1926) Hodasevich tells about his closest friend Samuil Kissin (1885-1916) who wrote poetry under the pen name Muni and who committed suicide in March, 1916, in Minsk:


Под конец и приезды его стали тяжелы. В последний раз, уезжая из Москвы 25 марта 1916 года, он еще с дороги прислал открытку с просьбой известить об исходе одного дела, касавшегося меня. Но не только он не дождался ответа, а и открытка пришла, когда его уже не было в живых. По приезде в Минск, на рассвете 28 марта Муни покончил с собой. Сохранился набросок песенки, сочиненной им, вероятно, в вагоне. Она называется "Самострельная".

Однажды, осенью 1911 года, в дурную полосу жизни, я зашёл к своему брату. Дома никого не было. Доставая коробочку с перьями, я выдвинул ящик письменного стола, и первое, что мне попалось на глаза, был револьвер. Искушение было велико. Я, не отходя от стола, позвонил Муни по телефону.

- Приезжай сейчас же. Буду ждать двадцать минут, больше не смогу.

Муни приехал.

В одном из писем с войны он писал мне: "Я слишком часто чувствую себя так, как - помнишь? - ты в пустой квартире у Михаила".

Тот случай, конечно, он вспомнил и умирая: "наше" не забывалось. Муни находился у сослуживца. Сослуживца вызвали по какому-то делу. Оставшись один, Муни взял из чужого письменного стола револьвер и выстрелил себе в правый висок. Через сорок минут он умер.


In the fall of 1911, when Hodasevich found a revolver in the drawer of his brother’s writing desk and telephoned Muni asking him to come at once, Muni managed to prevent his friend’s suicide. Four and a half years later Muni shot himself dead in Minsk using a revolver that he found in a drawer of his colleague's writing desk.


Hodasevich’s poem Ledi dolgo ruki myla… (“Lady's washed her hands so long,” 1922) expresses the guilt the poet still felt in 1922 over the suicide of Muni:


Леди долго руки мыла,
Леди крепко руки тёрла.
Эта леди не забыла
Окровавленного горла.

Леди, леди! Вы как птица
Бьётесь на бессонном ложе.
Триста лет уж вам не спится —
Мне лет шесть не спится тоже.


Lady's washed her hands so long,
Lady's scrubbed her hands so hard,
and this lady won't forget
the blood around the neck.

Lady, lady! Like a bird
you twitch about your sleepless bed.
Three hundred years you've had no sleep -
and six years now I've stayed awake.

(tr. Peter Daniels)


The lady in Hodasevich’s poem is, of course, Lady Macbeth. At the age of six (cf. “six years now I've stayed awake”) the boy in Signs and Symbols drew wonderful birds and suffered from insomnia like a grown-up man:


The boy, aged six—that was when he drew wonderful birds with human hands and feet, and suffered from insomnia like a grown-up man. (2)


At the end of his Commentary Kinbote (in VN’s novel Pale Fire, 1962, Shade’s mad commentator who imagines that he is Charles the Beloved, the last self-exiled king of Zembla) quotes a Zemblan saying that, as a boy of six, he has heard from his nurse:


Many years ago--how many I would not care to say--I remember my Zemblan nurse telling me, a little man of six in the throes of adult insomnia: "Minnamin, Gut mag alkan, Pern dirstan" (my darling, God makes hungry, the Devil thirsty). Well, folks, I guess many in this fine hall are as hungry and thirsty as me, and I'd better stop, folks, right here.


In Semipudovaya kupchikha, a chapter in his memoir essay Muni, Hodasevich describes Muni's attempt to abandon his personality altogether and become a totally different person, with a different name, habits and everything else:


Муни состоял из широкого костяка, обтянутого кожей. Но он мешковато одевался, тяжело ступал, впалые щеки прикрывал большой бородой. У него были непомерно длинные руки, и он ими загребал, как горилла или борец.

- Видишь ли, - говорил он, - меня, в сущности, нет, как ты знаешь. Но нельзя, чтобы это знали другие, а то сам понимаешь, какие пойдут неприятности.

И кончал по обыкновению цитатой:

- Моя мечта - это воплотиться, но чтобы уж окончательно, безвозвратно, в какую-нибудь толстую семипудовую купчиху.


In Dostoevski's Brothers Karamazov (1880) the devil tells Ivan that he dreams of being incarnated in semipudovaya kupchikha, a fat merchant wife seven poods in weight (Book Eleven, chapter IX; one pood = 16 kg). According to Muni, he does not really exist but, to avoid problems, others should not know this. Like the devil in Dostoevski's novel, Muni dreams of being incarnated, permanently and irrevocably, in some fat merchant wife.


The poet Shade, his commentator Kinbote and his murderer Gradus seem to represent three different aspects of Botkin’s personality. An American scholar of Russian descent, Professor Vsevolod Botkin went mad and became Shade, Kinbote and Gradus after the tragic death of his daughter Nadezhda (Hazel Shade of Kinbote’s Commentary). There is a hope that, when Kinbote completes his work on Shade’s poem and commits suicide (on Oct. 19, 1959, the anniversary of Pushkin's Lyceum), Botkin, like Count Vorontsov (a target of Pushkin’s epigrams, “half-milord, half-merchant, etc."), will be full again.


According to Shade, his daughter “took her poor young life.” When the old couple in Signs and Symbols comes to the sanatorium, they are told by a nurse that their son had again attempted to take his life and that he is all right.


The last time the boy had tried to do it, his method had been, in the doctor’s words, a masterpiece of inventiveness; he would have succeeded had not an envious fellow-patient thought he was learning to fly and stopped him just in time. What he had really wanted to do was to tear a hole in his world and escape. (1)


After the final (successful) suicide attempt the boy in Signs and Symbols manages dovoplotit’sya (to be fully incarnated) in Sirin, a bird of Russian fairy tales (and VN’s Russian nom de plume). All three telephone calls at the end of the story are from VN himself (the sweet-voiced Sirin is a woman). When the telephone rings again, it is the reader who must respond. Similarly, it is up to the reader of Pale Fire to complete Shade’s almost finished poem.


Just as Hamlet (in his letter to Ophelia) is ill at these numbers, the girl with dull little voice who wants Charlie (at the end of Signs and Symbols) has the incorrect number. We may doubt that stars are fire, that sun doth move, that truth is a liar, but we should not doubt VN's love.


Btw., we can also hear VN's bird-like voice (that Kinbote mistakes for Shade's voice) in Pale Fire:


The passage 797 (second part of line)-809, on the poet's sixty-fifth card, was composed between the sunset of July 18 and the dawn of July 19. That morning I had prayed in two different churches (on either side, as it were, of my Zemblan denomination, not represented in New Wye) and had strolled home in an elevated state of mind. There was no cloud in the wistful sky, and the very earth seemed to be sighing after our Lord Jesus Christ. On such sunny, sad mornings I always feel in my bones that there is a chance yet of my not being excluded from Heaven, and that salvation may be granted to me despite the frozen mud and horror in my heart. As I was ascending with bowed head the gravel path to my poor rented house, I heard with absolute distinction, as if he were standing at my shoulder and speaking loudly, as to a slightly deaf man, Shade's voice say: "Come tonight, Charlie." I looked around me in awe and wonder: I was quite alone. I looked around me in awe and wonder: I was quite alone. I at once telephoned. The Shades were out, said the cheeky ancillula, an obnoxious little fan who came to book for them on Sundays and no doubt dreamt of getting the old poet to cuddle her some wifeless day. I retelephoned two hours later; got, as usual, Sybil; insisted on talking to my friend (my "messages" were never transmitted), obtained him, and asked him as calmly as possible what he had been doing around noon when I had heard him like a big bird in my garden. He could not quite remember, said wait a minute, he had been playing golf with Paul (whoever that was), or at least watching Paul play with another colleague. I cried that I must see him in the evening and all at once, with no reason at all, burst into tears, flooding the telephone and gasping for breath, a paroxysm which had not happened to me since Bob left me on March 30. There was a flurry of confabulation between the Shades, and then John said: "Charles, listen. Let's go for a good ramble tonight, I'll meet you at eight." It was my second good ramble since July 6 (that unsatisfactory nature talk); the third one, on July 21, was to be exceedingly brief. (note to Line 802)


Shade is killed by Gradus on July 21, during his third ramble with Kinbote. In a letter of July 21, 1822, from Kishinev to his brother Lyov in St. Petersburg Pushkin asks his brother if it is true that Batyushkov went mad:


Мне писали что Батюшков помешался: быть не льзя; уничтожь это вранье.


As VN points out in his Eugene Onegin Commentary (vol. III, p. 74), in Pushkin’s poem Ne day mne Bog soyti s uma... (“The Lord forbid my going mad,” 1833) the epithet yarkiy (brilliant) in the second line of the last stanza, Ne golos yarkiy solov’ya (Not the brilliant voice of the nightingale), signals Pushkin’s awareness of Batyushkov’s madness. Kinbote compares the voice that he heard in his garden to a big bird. This bird seems to signal Botkin’s awareness of his madness. On the other hand, it hints at Sirin (the author of PF whose voice Kinbote mistakes for Shade's voice).


Soloveychik (cf. one of the Soloveichiks who married Rebecca Borisovna's daughter) is a diminutive of solovey (nightingale). In a letter of June 28, 1888, to Pleshcheev Chekhov compares the little naked soloveychiki (nightingales) that just hatched out from the eggs to undressed Jewish babies:


Именье Смагиных велико и обильно, но старо, запущено и мертво, как прошлогодняя паутина. Дом осел, двери не затворяются, изразцы на печке выпирают друг друга и образуют углы, из щелей полов выглядывают молодые побеги вишен и слив. В той комнате, где я спал, между окном и ставней соловей свил себе гнездо, и при мне вывелись из яиц маленькие, голенькие соловейчики, похожие на раздетых жиденят. На риге живут солидные аисты. На пасеке обитает дед, помнящий царя Гороха и Клеопатру Египетскую.


The Smagins’ estate is “great and fertile,” but old, neglected, and dead as last year’s cobwebs. The house has sunk, the doors won’t shut, the tiles in the stove squeeze one another out and form angles, young suckers of cherries and plums peep up between the cracks of the floors. In the room where I slept a nightingale had made herself a nest between the window and the shutter, and while I was there little naked nightingales, looking like undressed Jew babies, hatched out from the eggs. Sedate storks live on the barn. At the beehouse there is an old grandsire who remembers the King Gorokh [Translator’s Note: The equivalent of Old King Cole.] and Cleopatra of Egypt.


In the same letter to Pleshcheev Chekhov mentions polubog (demigod) Vorontsov (the economics writer, author of "The Fates of Capitalism in Russia," 1882) who was a guest of the Linvaryov family (Chekhov's Ukrainian friends):


Жорж уехал в Славянск, Вата — в Купянск, Петровский — в Чернигов. К Линтваревым приехал полубог Воронцов — очень вумная, политико-экономическая фигура с гиппократовским выражением лица, вечно молчащая и думающая о спасении России; у меня гостит Баранцевич.


Let me also draw your attention to the updated version of my previous post, “Kurland, L disaster & chertog in Ada.”

Nothing to disagree about unfortunately ;) your points re: Signs and Symbols are good and well-thought. That Vivian Darkbloom or VN can be impersonating the girl at the end of that story will tie in well with what VN wrote in the foreword to Bend Sinister:

". . . this deity experiences a pang of pity for his creature and hastens to take over. Krug, in a sudden moonburst of madness, understands that he is in good hands: nothing on earth really matters, there is nothing to fear, and death is but a question of style, a mere literary device, a musical resolution.... and comfortably Krug returns unto the bosom of its maker."

And so, it seems for the moonstruck lad from Signs & Symbols that his author experiences a stab of pity for him at the last moment. However two more points: the juxtaposition of the girl asking for Charlie (from S&S) and Kinbote's hearing (voices in his head) of "Come tonight, Charlie" is striking, and to my ear the intonation seems uncannily similar. Secondly, the incidents at Minsk (both real life and fictional one) brings to mind something from Spring in Fialta, where Victor learns about Nina's accident from the newspaper. Although, the English translation mentions "station platform of Mlech" what does the Russian original say (last sentence)? Name of station there?

Lastly, my problem with Shade/Gradus/Kinbote as a monad, or different aspects of one personality (despite VN's comment about being an indivisible monist) is that it takes away something from the novel itself. In my eyes, it will be too monolithic(!) (how many m's so far?), like putting too much stress on one (singular) consciousness. However, these are rather vague (and murky) philosophic terms, so I would like to put a full stop here.


PS - Your repeated emphasis on the connections, from Chekhov's 'little naked soloveychiki', to the motif of impersonation ("I have doffed my identity in order to pass for a conventional spook"; SM) reminds me something from Robbe-Grillet's interview where he says rather testily, "No. It is the other way round; it is not because a scene is important that it is repeated, but by being repeated it becomes important."

In Vesna v Fial'te the narrator learns of Nina's death in Milan (I wrote about it before).


And, yes, I too thought of the ending (I mean Foreword) of Bend Sinister. But why this hostility ("unfortunately")?

That's why I put a colon and bracket -- following it "hostility", in case people were expecting a duel or something. Comments have to be catchy enough to draw people in but not too overly-subtle so as to provoke their shrug. (This is a rather poor imitation of both VN's "post master's frown and past master's chuckle" as well as Churchill's analogy of a speech to a woman's skirt.)