The characters in VN’s novel Look at the Harlequins! (1974) include the poet Basilevski:
It was good to see old Morozov's rough-hewn clever face with its shock of dingy hair and bright frosty eyes; and for a special reason I closely observed podgy dour Basilevski--not because he had just had or was about to have a row with his young mistress, a feline beauty who wrote doggerel verse and vulgarly flirted with me, but because I hoped he had already seen the fun I had made of him in the last issue of a literary review in which we both collaborated. Although his English was inadequate for the interpretation of, say, Keats (whom he defined as "a pre-Wildean aesthete in the beginning of the Industrial Era") Basilevski was fond of attempting just that. In discussing recently the "not altogether
displeasing preciosity" of my own stuff, he had imprudently quoted a popular line from Keats, rendering it as:
Vsegda nas raduet krasivaya veshchitsa
which in retranslation gives:
"A pretty bauble always gladdens us."
Our conversation, however, turned out to be much too brief to disclose whether or not he had appreciated my amusing lesson. He asked me what I thought of the new book he was telling Morozov (a monolinguist) about--namely Maurois' "impressive work on Byron," and upon my answering that I had found it to be impressive trash, my austere critic muttered, "I don't think you have read it," and went on educating the serene old poet. (2.1)
In her memoirs about Alexander Blok (“Alexander Blok. A Biographical Sketch,” 1930) Maria Beketov (the poet’s aunt) mentions Basilevski, a composer who set to music Blok’s drama Roza i krest (“The Rose and the Cross,” 1912):
В конце мая Александр Александрович узнал, что "Роза и Крест" пропущена цензурой без всяких ограничений. Около этого времени он сообщал матери, что написал краткие сведения о "Розе и Кресте" для композитора Базилевского, который написал музыку на его драму и собирался исполнять её в Москве. Сведения нужны были для концертной программы. Тут же Александр Александрович прибавляет: "Базилевский пишет, что Свободный театр думает о постановке "Розы и Креста". (Chapter 11)
There is Blok in yabloko (apple). A Red Army soldier on the Soviet border calls Vadim (the narrator and main character in LATH) yablochko (“little apple”) and asks him whither is he rolling:
I thought I had crossed the frontier when a bare-headed Red Army soldier with a Mongol face who was picking whortleberries near the trail challenged me: "And whither," he asked picking up his cap from a stump, "may you be rolling (kotishsya), little apple (yablochko)? Pokazyvay-ka dokumentiki (Let me see your papers)." (1.2)
In exile Vadim discovers an unexpected patron in the person of Count Starov, a retired diplomat:
On the gray eve of poverty, the author, then a self-exiled youth (I transcribe from an old diary), discovered an unexpected patron in the person of Count Starov, a grave old-fashioned Mason who had graced several great Embassies during a spacious span of international intercourse, and who since 1913 had resided in London. (ibid.)
The name Starov comes from staryi (old). At the beginning of “The Rose and the Cross” Bertrand mentions yabloni staryi stvol (the trunk of an old apple-tree):
Яблони старый ствол,
Расшатанный бурей февральской!
Жадно ждёшь ты весны...
Тёплый ветер дохнёт, и нежной травою
Зазеленеет замковый вал...
Чем ты, старый, ответишь тогда
Ручьям и птицам певучим?
Лишь две-три бледно-розовых ветви протянешь
В воздух, омытый дождями,
Чёрный, бурей измученный ствол!
During their visit to Count Starov in Mentone Iris Black (the first of Vadim’s three or four successive wives) mentions the temple that she and her husband will build and Count Starov offers Vadim a job in the White Cross:
"Your bride," he said, using, I knew, the word in the sense of fiancée (and speaking an English which Iris said later was exactly like mine in Ivor's unforgettable version) "is as beautiful as your wife will be!"
I quickly told him--in Russian--that the maire of Cannice had married us a month ago in a brisk ceremony. Nikifor Nikodimovich gave Iris another stare and finally kissed her hand, which I was glad to see she raised in the proper fashion (coached, no doubt, by Ivor who used to take every opportunity to paw his sister).
"I misunderstood the rumors," he said, "but all the same I am happy to make the acquaintance of such a charming young lady. And where, pray, in what church, will the vow be sanctified?"
"In the temple we shall build, Sir," said Iris--a trifle insolently, I thought.
Count Starov "chewed his lips," as old men are wont to do in Russian novels. Miss Vrode-Vorodin, the elderly cousin who kept house for him, made a timely entrance and led Iris to an adjacent alcove (illuminated by a resplendent portrait by Serov, 1896, of the notorious beauty, Mme. De Blagidze, in Caucasian costume) for a nice cup of tea. The Count wished to talk business with me and had only ten minutes "before his injection."
What was my wife's maiden name?
I told him. He thought it over and shook his head. What was her mother's name?
I told him that, too. Same reaction. What about the financial aspect of the marriage?
I said she had a house, a parrot, a car, and a small income--I didn't know exactly how much.
After another minute's thought, he asked me if I would like a permanent job in the White Cross? It had nothing to do with Switzerland. It was an organization that helped Russian Christians all over the world. The job would involve travel, interesting connections, promotion to important posts.
I declined so emphatically that he dropped the silver pill box he was holding and a number of innocent gum drops were spilled all over the table at his elbow. He swept them onto the carpet with a gesture of peevish dismissal. (1.10)
Ivan Starov (1745-1808) was a Russian architect who built the Trinity Cathedral of the Alexander Nevski Monastery and Prince Potyomkin’s Tauride Palace (in 1906 transformed into the seat of the first Russian parliament, the Imperial State Duma) in St. Petersburg. In the same chapter of her memoirs Maria Beketov mentions “the famous Johannes temple” that was being built in the Swiss town Dornach under the surveillance of Dr Steiner (the founder of theosophy):
В этом сезоне Александр Александрович много и плодотворно работал, имея дело с разными издателями. Продолжая посещать издательство "Сирин", в работе которого он принимал живое участие, он устроил мимоходом дела Андрея Белого, который жил в то время в швейцарском городке Дорнахе, где строился знаменитый Иоанновский храм под наблюдением доктора Штейнера. Александр Александрович знал, что Борис Николаевич в очень стеснённом положении. Он подал Терещенко мысль сделать отдельную книгу из его романа "Петербург", напечатанного в альманахах "Сирина", что и было исполнено. Гонорар, полученный за эту книгу, дал возможность Борису Николаевичу пополнить свои средства и погасить ту ссуду, которой помог ему Александр Александрович в то время, когда тот писал свой роман. В 1915 году "Сирин" прекратил своё существование, так как Терещенко не находил возможным продолжать это дело в военное время. Он обратил свою энергию на нужды войны, предоставив в распоряжение военных организаций несколько грандиозных сооружений. (chapter 11)
According to the memoirist, Blok helped Andrey Bely (who participated in the construction of the Goetheanum in Dornach) to publish his novel Petersburg (1913) in the publishing house “Sirin.” Vadim’s penname V. Irisin hints not only at the name of his first wife, but also at Sirin (VN’s Russian nom de plume). Andrey Bely’s poem Arlekinada (“The Harlequinade,” 1906) is dedicated to sovremennye arlekiny (the modern harlequins).
In Blok-muzykant (“Blok the Musician”), a chapter in his essay Alexander Blok (1932), Lunacharski (the former minister of education in Lenin’s government) mentions nadumannaya sistema (vrode Shteynera), “a far-fetched system (like Steiner’s),” that enslaved Bely for such a long period of time:
Символизм Блока не обладал бы достаточной силой, если бы он свёлся к более или менее сухой аллегории или какой-нибудь надуманной системе (вроде Штейнера), которая странным образом могла так надолго поработить Белого (человека гораздо более рационального или метафизического, чем Блок).
The name Vrode-Vorodin (of Count Starov’s elderly cousin) seems to combine the word vrode (“like; a sort of, a kind of; such as”) with Borodin, a composer whom Maria Beketov mentions in the chapter of her memoirs:
В конце лета приезжала на неделю Л. А. Дельмас, она пела нам, аккомпанируя себе на нашем старом piano-carre, напоминавшем клавесин – и из «Кармен», и из «Хованщины», и просто цыганские и другие романсы. Между прочим, и «Стеньку Разина»: «Из-за острова на стрежень». Необыкновенно хорошо выходил у неё романс Бородина «Для берегов отчизны дальной». Такого проникновенного исполнения этой вещи я никогда не слыхала. Блок особенно любил и эти стихи Пушкина, и музыку Бородина. Во время пребывания Дельмас погода была всё время хорошая. Они с Ал. Ал. много гуляли и разводили костёр под шахматовским садом (одно из любимейших занятий Блока). (chapter 11)
Borodin set to music Pushkin’s poem Dlya beregov otchizny dal’ney… (“For the shores of distant fatherland…” 1830), a romance that Lyubov’ Delmas (Blok’s mistress) sang in Shakhmatovo (Blok’s country estate in the Province of Moscow). Blok died in August of 1921. In his poem Ya vspomnil o tebe, moya mogila… (“I remembered you, my grave…”), included in his collection Sady (“Gardens,” 1921), G. Ivanov mentions his otdalyonnaya otchizna (distant fatherland):
Я вспомнил о тебе, моя могила,
Отчизна отдалённая моя,
Где рокот волн, где ива осенила
Глухую тень скалистого ручья.
Закат над рощею. Проходит стадо
Сквозь лёгкую тумана пелену…
Мой милый друг, мне ничего не надо,
Вот я добрёл сюда и отдохну.
Старинный друг! Кто плачет, кто мечтает,
А я стою у этого ручья
И вижу, как горит и отцветает
Закатным облаком любовь моя…
Basilevski is a satire on G. Ivanov, a poet who attacked VN in the Paris émigré review Chisla (“Numbers,” #1, 1930). In his memoirs Peterburgskie zimy (“The St. Petersburg Winters,” 1931) G. Ivanov describes his first visit to Blok in the fall of 1909. According to Ivanov, to his question “does a sonnet need a coda” Blok replied that he did not know what a coda is. Telling about an old Russian doctor who visited him in New York soon upon his arrival in America, Vadim Vadimovich mentions a coda (using this term in a “musical,” rather than poetical, sense):
The traversal of my particular bridge ended, weeks after landing, in a charming New York apartment (it was leant to Annette and me by a generous relative of mine and faced the sunset flaming beyond Central Park). The neuralgia in my right forearm was a gray adumbration compared to the solid black headache that no pill could pierce. Annette rang up James Lodge, and he, out of the misdirected kindness of his heart, had an old little physician of Russian extraction examine me. The poor fellow drove me even crazier than I was by not only insisting on discussing my symptoms in an execrable version of the language I was trying to shed, but on translating into it various irrelevant terms used by the Viennese Quack and his apostles (simbolizirovanie, mortidnik). Yet his visit, I must confess, strikes me in retrospect as a most artistic coda. (2.10)
Alexander Blok was a symbolist poet. In G. Ivanov’s poetry the fear of death (cf. mortidnik) is the main theme.
Vadim and his second wife, Annette Blagovo, have a daughter Bel who likes to walk naked in the house (as her father did when he was young), confirming the saying yabloko ot yabloni nedaleko padaet (“like mother, like child;” literally: “an apple falls not far from the apple-tree”). Vadim’s full name (that he forgets in his old age) seems to be Prince Vadim Vadimovich Yablonski.
In 1960 Bel marries Charlie Everett who changes his name to Karl Vetrov and takes his wife to the Soviet Russia:
In the summer of 1960, Christine Dupraz, who ran the summer camp for disabled children between cliff and highway, just east of Larive, informed me that Charlie Everett, one of her assistants, had eloped with my Bel after burning--in a grotesque ceremony that she visualized more clearly than I--his passport and a little American flag (bought at a souvenir stall especially for that purpose) "right in the middle of the Soviet Consul's back garden"; whereupon the new "Karl Ivanovich Vetrov" and the eighteen-year-old Isabella, a ci-devant's daughter, had gone through some form of mock marriage in Berne and incontinently headed for Russia. (5.1)
The name Vetrov comes from veter (wind), a word that brings to mind the saying ishchi vetra v pole (“look for the wind in the field”). At the beginning of his poem Dvenadtsat’ (“The Twelve,” 1918) Blok repeats the word veter four times:
На ногах не стоит человек.
Ветер, ветер –
На всём божьем свете!
The wind, the wind!
Impossible to stay on your feet.
The wind, the wind!
Blowing across God’s world!
(tr. Maria Carlson)
“Black night” and “white snow” bring to mind Iris Black and her brother Ivor. In his “Italian Verses” (1909) Blok calls Florence “Bella:”
Умри, Флоренция, Иуда,
Исчезни в сумрак вековой!
Я в час любви тебя забуду,
В час смерти буду не с тобой!
О, Bella, смейся над собою,
Уж не прекрасна больше ты!
Гнилой морщиной гробовою
Искажены твои черты!..
and compares the city to iris dymnyi, iris nezhnyi (smoky iris, tender iris):
Страстью длинной, безмятежной
Занялась душа моя,
Ирис дымный, ирис нежный,
Переплыть велит все реки
На воздушных парусах,
Утонуть велит навеки
В тех вечерних небесах,
И когда предамся зною,
Голубой вечерний зной
В голубое голубою
Унесёт меня волной...
In March of 1922 VN was reading this poem to his mother, when the telephone rang and he learnt of his father’s assassination in a Berlin lecture hall. In the spring of 1930 Vadim’s wife Iris is assassinated in a Paris street by Wladimir Blagidze, alias Starov:
The story that appeared among other faits-divers in the Paris dailies after an investigation by the police--whom Ivor and I contrived to mislead thoroughly--amounted to what follows--I translate: a White Russian, Wladimir Blagidze, alias Starov, who was subject to paroxysms of insanity, ran amuck Friday night in the middle of a calm street, opened fire at random, and after killing with one pistol shot an English tourist Mrs. [name garbled], who chanced to be passing by, blew his brains out beside her. Actually he did not die there and then, but retained in his remarkably tough brainpan fragments of consciousness and somehow lingered on well into May, which was unusually hot that year. Out of some perverse dream-like curiosity, Ivor visited him at the very special hospital of the renowned Dr. Lazareff, a very round, mercilessly round, building on the top of a hill, thickly covered with horse chestnut, wild rose, and other poignant plants. The hole in Blagidze's mind had caused a complete set of recent memories to escape; but the patient remembered quite clearly (according to a Russian male nurse good at decoding the tales of the tortured) how at six years of age he was taken to a pleasure park in Italy where a miniature train consisting of three open cars, each seating six silent children, with a battery-operated green engine that emitted at realistic intervals puffs of imitation smoke, pursued a circular course through a brambly picturesque nightmare grove whose dizzy flowers nodded continuous assent to all the horrors of childhood and hell. (1.13)
The surname Lazareff comes from Lazar’ (Lazarus). In his poem Na dne preispodney (“On the Bottom of the Inferno,” 1922) dedicated to the memory of Blok and Gumilyov (the poet who was executed in August, 1921, less than three weeks after Blok’s death) Maximilian Voloshin mentions smradnyi vetr (a stinking wind) that extinguishes the lives, like candles, and, in the poem’s last line, compares himself (and Russia) to Lazarus who was restored to life by Jesus:
Памяти А. Блока и Н. Гумилёва
С каждым днём всё диче и всё глуше
Мертвенная цепенеет ночь.
Смрадный ветр, как свечи, жизни тушит:
Ни позвать, ни крикнуть, ни помочь.
Тёмен жребий русского поэта:
Неисповедимый рок ведёт
Пушкина под дуло пистолета,
Достоевского на эшафот.
Может быть, такой же жребий выну,
Горькая детоубийца - Русь!
И на дне твоих подвалов сгину,
Иль в кровавой луже поскользнусь,
Но твоей Голгофы не покину,
От твоих могил не отрекусь.
Доконает голод или злоба,
Но судьбы не изберу иной:
Умирать, так умирать с тобой,
И с тобой, как Лазарь, встать из гроба!
In the poem’s second stanza Voloshin mentions Fate that leads Pushkin to the site of his fatal duel and Dostoevski to the scaffold. Vadim’s novel The Dare (1950) that corresponds to VN’s Dar (“The Gift,” 1937) includes a concise biography and critical appraisal of Fyodor Dostoevski:
The novel begins with a nostalgic account of a Russian childhood (much happier, though not less opulent than mine). After that comes adolescence in England (not unlike my own Cambridge years); then life in émigré Paris, the writing of a first novel (Memoirs of a Parrot Fancier) and the tying of amusing knots in various literary intrigues. Inset in the middle part is a complete version of the book my Victor wrote "on a dare": this is a concise biography and critical appraisal of Fyodor Dostoyevski, whose politics my author finds hateful and whose novels he condemns as absurd with their black-bearded killers presented as mere negatives of Jesus Christ's conventional image, and weepy whores borrowed from maudlin romances of an earlier age. The next chapter deals with the rage and bewilderment of émigré reviewers, all of them priests of the Dostoyevskian persuasion; and in the last pages my young hero accepts a flirt's challenge and accomplishes a final gratuitous feat by walking through a perilous forest into Soviet territory and as casually strolling back. (2.5)
The ending of Vadim’s novel turns inside out the ending of VN’s novel Podvig (“Glory,” 1932). O doblestyakh, o podvigakh, o slave (“About valours, feats and glory…” 1908) is a poem by Alexander Blok. In his sonnet Poetu (“To a Poet,” 1830) Pushkin mentions podvig blagorodnyi (a noble feat).