vinocherpiy & dervish drums in Ada

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Tue, 08/17/2021 - 07:12

Describing his dinner in ‘Ursus’ (the best Franco-Estotian restaurant in Manhattan Major) with Ada and Lucette (Van’s and Ada’s half-sister), Van Veen (the narrator and main character in VN’s novel Ada, 1969) mentions the vinocherpiy:


The captain, the vinocherpiy, the shashlikman, and a crew of waiters had been utterly entranced by the amount of zernistaya ikra and Ai consumed by the vaporous-looking Veens and were now keeping a multiple eye on the tray that had flown back to Van with a load of gold change and bank notes.


Darkbloom (‘Notes to Ada’): vinocherpiy: Russ., the ‘wine-pourer’.

zernistaya ikra: ‘large-grained’ caviar (Russ.).


In his poem P’yanyi dervish (“The Drunk Dervish,” 1920) Gumilyov mentions vinocherpiy:


Соловьи на кипарисах и над озером луна,
Камень черный, камень белый, много выпил я вина.
Мне сейчас бутылка пела громче сердца моего:
Мир лишь луч от лика друга, всё иное тень его!


Виночерпия взлюбил я не сегодня, не вчера,
Не вчера и не сегодня пьяный с самого утра.
И хожу и похваляюсь, что узнал я торжество:
Мир лишь луч от лика друга, всё иное тень его!


Я бродяга и трущобник, непутевый человек,
Всё, чему я научился, всё забыл теперь навек,
Ради розовой усмешки и напева одного:
Мир лишь луч от лика друга, всё иное тень его!


Вот иду я по могилам, где лежат мои друзья,
О любви спросить у мертвых неужели мне нельзя?
И кричит из ямы череп тайну гроба своего:
Мир лишь луч от лика друга, всё иное тень его!


Под луною всколыхнулись в дымном озере струи,
На высоких кипарисах замолчали соловьи,
Лишь один запел так громко, тот, не певший ничего:
Мир лишь луч от лика друга, всё иное тень его!


Nightingales in the cypresses, a moon on the lake,
Black stone, white stone, much wine I have drunk.
The bottle singing loud in my heart says now:
The world’s the light in a friend’s face, all else shadow!

I am smitten by the wine server, not today, not yesterday.
Not just yesterday, not today, have I drunk all day.
Wherever I go I proclaim I’ve found a great joy:
The world’s the light in a friend’s face, all else shadow!

A vagrant in a slum, a derelict and a beggar
All I ever knew I’ve now forgotten forever,
All because of a gentle tune and a blush’s glow:
The world’s the light in a friend’s face, all else shadow!

I pass among the tombs now where my friends lie,
Why is it so hard to ask the dead about love?
Then a skull screams its secret from the grave’s hole:
The world’s the light in a friend’s face, all else shadow!

Under the moon, beams stir the lakes surface,
The nightingale song has ceased in the cypress,
One alone sings loudly, about nothing at all:
The world’s the light in a friend’s face, all else shadow!

(transl. Don Mager)


Describing his performance in variety shows as Mascodagama (Van’s stage name), Van mentions the accompaniment of dervish drums:


Mascodagama’s fame reached inevitably the backwoods of America: a photograph of him, masked, it is true, but unable to mislead a fond relative or faithful retainer, was reproduced by the Ladore, Ladoga, Laguna, Lugano and Luga papers in the first week of 1888; but the accompanying reportage was not. The work of a poet, and only a poet (‘especially of the Black Belfry group,’ as some wit said), could have adequately described a certain macabre quiver that marked Van’s extraordinary act.

The stage would be empty when the curtain went up; then, after five heartbeats of theatrical suspense, something swept out of the wings, enormous and black, to the accompaniment of dervish drums. The shock of his powerful and precipitous entry affected so deeply the children in the audience that for a long time later, in the dark of sobbing insomnias, in the glare of violent nightmares, nervous little boys and girls relived, with private accretions, something similar to the ‘primordial qualm,’ a shapeless nastiness, the swoosh of nameless wings, the unendurable dilation of fever which came in a cavern draft from the uncanny stage. Into the harsh light of its gaudily carpeted space a masked giant, fully eight feet tall, erupted, running strongly in the kind of soft boots worn by Cossack dancers. A voluminous, black shaggy cloak of the burka type enveloped his silhouette inquiétante (according to a female Sorbonne correspondent — we’ve kept all those cuttings) from neck to knee or what appeared to be those sections of his body. A Karakul cap surmounted his top. A black mask covered the upper part of his heavily bearded face. The unpleasant colossus kept strutting up and down the stage for a while, then the strut changed to the restless walk of a caged madman, then he whirled, and to a clash of cymbals in the orchestra and a cry of terror (perhaps faked) in the gallery, Mascodagama turned over in the air and stood on his head.

In this weird position, with his cap acting as a pseudopodal pad, he jumped up and down, pogo-stick fashion — and suddenly came apart. Van’s face, shining with sweat, grinned between the legs of the boots that still shod his rigidly raised arms. Simultaneously his real feet kicked off and away the false head with its crumpled cap and bearded mask. The magical reversal ‘made the house gasp.’ Frantic (‘deafening,’ ‘delirious,’ ‘a veritable tempest of’) applause followed the gasp. He bounded offstage — and next moment was back, now sheathed in black tights, dancing a jig on his hands. (1.30)


Darkbloom (‘Notes to Ada’): inquiétante: disturbing.


Van’s silhouette inquiétante brings to mind la silhouette d'une ville gothique (the silhouette of a gothic city) mentioned by Verlaine in his poem Effet de nuit (“The Night Effect”), une scène nocturne inquiétante:


La nuit. La pluie. Un ciel blafard que déchiquette
De flèches et de tours à jour la silhouette
D'une ville gothique éteinte au lointain gris.
La plaine. Un gibet plein de pendus rabougris
Secoués par le bec avide des corneilles
Et dansant dans l'air noir des gigues nonpareilles,
Tandis, que leurs pieds sont la pâture des loups.
Quelques buissons d'épine épars, et quelques houx
Dressant l'horreur de leur feuillage à droite, à gauche,
Sur le fuligineux fouillis d'un fond d'ébauche.
Et puis, autour de trois livides prisonniers
Qui vont pieds nus, un gros de hauts pertuisaniers
En marche, et leurs fers droits, comme des fers de herse,
Luisent à contresens des lances de l'averse.


Verlaine is the author of Chansons pour Elle (1891). Lucette’s note to Van and Ada written after their dinner in ‘Ursus’ and debauch à trois in Van’s Manhattan flat is signed ‘Pour Elle:’


After a while he adored [sic! Ed.] the pancakes. No Lucette, however, turned up, and when Ada, still wearing her diamonds (in sign of at least one more caro Van and a Camel before her morning bath) looked into the guest room, she found the white valise and blue furs gone. A note scrawled in Arlen Eyelid Green was pinned to the pillow.


Would go mad if remained one more night shall ski at Verma with other poor woolly worms for three weeks or so miserable

Pour Elle


Van walked over to a monastic lectern that he had acquired for writing in the vertical position of vertebrate thought and wrote what follows:


Poor L.

We are sorry you left so soon. We are even sorrier to have inveigled our Esmeralda and mermaid in a naughty prank. That sort of game will never be played again with you, darling firebird. We apollo [apologize]. Remembrance, embers and membranes of beauty make artists and morons lose all self-control. Pilots of tremendous airships and even coarse, smelly coachmen are known to have been driven insane by a pair of green eyes and a copper curl. We wished to admire and amuse you, BOP (bird of paradise). We went too far. I, Van, went too far. We regret that shameful, though basically innocent scene. These are times of emotional stress and reconditioning. Destroy and forget.

Tenderly yours A & V.

(in alphabetic order).


‘I call this pompous, puritanical rot,’ said Ada upon scanning Van’s letter. ‘Why should we apollo for her having experienced a delicious spazmochka? I love her and would never allow you to harm her. It’s curious — you know, something in the tone of your note makes me really jealous for the first time in my fire [thus in the manuscript, for "life." Ed.] Van, Van, somewhere, some day, after a sunbath or dance, you will sleep with her, Van!’

‘Unless you run out of love potions. Do you allow me to send her these lines?’

‘I do, but want to add a few words.’

Her P.S. read:


The above declaration is Van’s composition which I sign reluctantly. It is pompous and puritanical. I adore you, mon petit, and would never allow him to hurt you, no matter how gently or madly. When you’re sick of Queen, why not fly over to Holland or Italy?



‘Now let’s go out for a breath of crisp air,’ suggested Van. ‘I’ll order Pardus and Peg to be saddled.’

‘Last night two men recognized me,’ she said. ‘Two separate Californians, but they didn’t dare bow — with that silk-tuxedoed bretteur of mine glaring around. One was Anskar, the producer, and the other, with a cocotte, Paul Whinnier, one of your father’s London pals. I sort of hoped we’d go back to bed.’

‘We shall now go for a ride in the park,’ said Van firmly, and rang, first of all, for a Sunday messenger to take the letter to Lucette’s hotel — or to the Verma resort, if she had already left.

‘I suppose you know what you’re doing?’ observed Ada.

‘Yes,’ he answered.

‘You are breaking her heart,’ said Ada.

‘Ada girl, adored girl,’ cried Van, ‘I’m a radiant void. I’m convalescing after a long and dreadful illness. You cried over my unseemly scar, but now life is going to be nothing but love and laughter, and corn in cans. I cannot brood over broken hearts, mine is too recently mended. You shall wear a blue veil, and I the false mustache that makes me look like Pierre Legrand, my fencing master.’

‘Au fond,’ said Ada, ‘first cousins have a perfect right to ride together. And even dance or skate, if they want. After all, first cousins are almost brother and sister. It’s a blue, icy, breathless day,’

She was soon ready, and they kissed tenderly in their hallway, between lift and stairs, before separating for a few minutes.

‘Tower,’ she murmured in reply to his questioning glance, just as she used to do on those honeyed mornings in the past, when checking up on happiness: ‘And you?’

‘A regular ziggurat.’ (2.8)


Gumilyov is the author of Zabludivshiysya tramvay (“The Lost Tram,” 1921). In his poem Zabludilsya ya v nebe – chto delat’? (“I am lost in the sky – what to do?” 1937) Mandelshtam mentions vinocherpiy and chashnik (cellarer), a word that in Mandelshtam’s poem rhymes with bashni (Gen. of bashnya, “tower”):


Заблудился я в небе — что делать?

Тот, кому оно близко, — ответь!
Легче было вам, Дантовых девять
Атлетических дисков, звенеть,
Задыхаться, чернеть, голубеть.


Если я не вчерашний, не зряшний, —
Ты, который стоишь надо мной,
Если ты виночерпий и чашник —
Дай мне силу без пены пустой
Выпить здравье кружащейся башни —
Рукопашной лазури шальной.


Голубятни, черноты, скворешни,
Самых синих теней образцы, —
Лед весенний, лед вышний, лед вешний —
Облака, обаянья борцы, —
Тише: тучу ведут под уздцы.


Tower is an important concept in Ada’s philosophy:


Children of her type contrive the purest philosophies. Ada had worked out her own little system. Hardly a week had elapsed since Van’s arrival when he was found worthy of being initiated in her web of wisdom. An individual’s life consisted of certain classified things: ‘real things’ which were unfrequent and priceless, simply ‘things’ which formed the routine stuff of life; and ‘ghost things,’ also called ‘fogs,’ such as fever, toothache, dreadful disappointments, and death. Three or more things occurring at the same time formed a ‘tower,’ or, if they came in immediate succession, they made a ‘bridge.’ ‘Real towers’ and ‘real bridges’ were the joys of life, and when the towers came in a series, one experienced supreme rapture; it almost never happened, though. In some circumstances, in a certain light, a neutral ‘thing’ might look or even actually become ‘real’ or else, conversely, it might coagulate into a fetid ‘fog.’ When the joy and the joyless happened to be intermixed, simultaneously or along the ramp of duration, one was confronted with ‘ruined towers’ and ‘broken bridges.’ (1.12)


“A regular ziggurat” mentioned by Van makes one think not only of the Tower of Babel, but also of Lenin’s mausoleum. In the last game of Flavita (Russian Scrabble) that Van played at Ardis with Ada and Lucette the latter’s letters form the word ‘Kremlin’ (that does not exist in Russian):


‘Je ne peux rien faire,’ wailed Lucette, ‘mais rien — with my idiotic Buchstaben, REMNILK, LINKREM...’

‘Look,’ whispered Van, ‘c’est tout simple, shift those two syllables and you get a fortress in ancient Muscovy.’

‘Oh, no,’ said Ada, wagging her finger at the height of her temple in a way she had. ‘Oh, no. That pretty word does not exist in Russian. A Frenchman invented it. There is no second syllable.’

‘Ruth for a little child?’ interposed Van.

‘Ruthless!’ cried Ada.

‘Well,’ said Van, ‘you can always make a little cream, KREM or KREME — or even better — there’s KREMLI, which means Yukon prisons. Go through her ORHIDEYA.’

‘Through her silly orchid,’ said Lucette. (1.36)


Darkbloom (‘Notes to Ada’): Je ne peux etc.: I can do nothing, but nothing.

Buchstaben: Germ., letters of the alphabet.

c’est tout simple: it’s quite simple.


Before the family dinner in “Ardis the Second” Demon Veen (Van’s and Ada’s father) tells Van that he refused to have his hairdresser put Crêmlin on his bald spot:


‘I don’t know if you know,’ said Van, resuming his perch on the fat arm of his father’s chair. ‘Uncle Dan will be here with the lawyer and Lucette only after dinner.’

‘Capital,’ said Demon.

‘Marina and Ada should be down in a minute — ce sera un dîner à quatre.’

‘Capital,’ he repeated. ‘You look splendid, my dear, dear fellow — and I don’t have to exaggerate compliments as some do in regard to an aging man with shoe-shined hair. 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.’

‘You are a fantastically charming boy,’ said Demon, shedding another sweet-water tear. He pressed to his cheek Van’s strong shapely hand. Van kissed his father’s hairy fist which was already holding a not yet visible glass of liquor. Despite the manly impact of their Irishness, all Veens who had Russian blood revealed much tenderness in ritual overflows of affection while remaining somewhat inept in its verbal expression.

‘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)


Darkbloom (‘Notes to Ada’): ce sera etc.: it will be a dinner for four.

Wagging his left forefinger: that gene did not miss his daughter (see p.178, where the name of the cream is also prefigured).

Lyovka: derogative or folksy diminutive of Lyov (Leo).


Reading Van’s palm, Demon seems to predict his own death in a mysterious airplane disaster above the Pacific in March, 1905. Van does not realize that his father died, because Ada (who could not pardon Demon his forcing Van to give her up) managed to persuade the pilot to destroy his machine in midair. Btw., Mandelshtam’s poem “I am lost in the sky” has a different variant:


Заблудился я в небе, — что делать?
Тот, кому оно близко, ответь!
Легче было вам, дантовых девять
Атлетических дисков, звенеть.


Не разнять меня с жизнью, — ей снится
Убивать и сейчас же ласкать,
Чтобы в уши, в глаза и в глазницы
Флорентийская била тоска.


Не кладите же мне, не кладите
Остроласковый лавр на виски,
Лучше сердце мое разорвите
Вы на синего звона куски!


И когда я умру, отслуживши,
Всех живущих прижизненный друг,
Чтоб раздался и глубже и выше
Отклик неба — в остывшую грудь!


I am lost in the sky — what to do?
He to whom it is near, reply!
It was easier to ring for you,
Dante's discuses nine.


Not I can be sundered from life.
Its dream is: to kill, then to kiss.
And my ears, my eyes, my eyeholes
Overflow with Florentine grief.


Then lay not upon my temples
Laurels that kiss and cut
But tear my heart into pieces
Of that blue ringing sound...


And when I sleep, after serving,
In life to the living a friend,
It will echo deeper and higher —
The reply of the sky in my breast.

(transl. I. Bernstein)