Describing his fellow writers in Paris, Vadim Vadimovich (the narrator and main character in VN’s novel Look at the Harlequins!) mentions two minor critics, the inimitable "Prostakov-Skotinin" and his archrival Hristofor Boyarski:
The editor of Patria, the émigré monthly in which Pawn Takes Queen had begun to be serialized, invited "Irida Osipovna" and me to a literary samovar. I mention it only because this was one of the few salons that my unsociability deigned to frequent. Iris helped with the sandwiches. I smoked my pipe and observed the feeding habits of two major novelists, three minor ones, one major poet, five minor ones of both sexes, one major critic (Demian Basilevski), and nine minor ones, including the inimitable "Prostakov-Skotinin," a Russian comedy name (meaning "simpleton and brute") applied to him by his archrival Hristofor Boyarski. (1.11)
Taras Skotinin and his sister, Mme Prostakov (Mitrofan’s mother), are the characters in Fonvizin’s comedy Nedorosl’ (“The Minor,” 1782). In his poem Ten’ Fonvizina (“The Shade of Fonvizin,” 1815) Pushkin calls Fonvizin tvorets, lyubimyi Apollonom (the author beloved by Apollo):
В раю, за грустным Ахероном,
Зевая в рощице густой,
Творец, любимый Аполлоном,
Увидеть вздумал мир земной.
То был писатель знаменитый,
Известный русский весельчак,
Насмешник, лаврами повитый,
Денис, невежде бич и страх.
and tvorets, spisavshiy Prostakovu (the author who portrayed Mme Prostakov):
Меж тем, поклон отдав Хвостову,
Творец, списавший Простакову,
Три ночи в мрачных чердаках
В больших и малых городах
Пугал российских стиходеев.
Pushkin rhymes Prostakovu (Acc. of Prostakova) with Khvostovu (to Khvostov). In his poem Mednyi vsadnik (“The Bronze Horseman,” 1833) Pushkin describes the disastrous Neva flood of 1824 and in Part Two mentions graf Khvostov, poet, lyubimyi nebesami (Count Kvostov, a poet beloved by heavens) who in immortal verses already sang the misfortune of the Neva’s banks:
Поэт, любимый небесами,
Уж пел бессмертными стихами
Несчастье невских берегов.
According to Vadim, his and Morozov’s publishing firm was "Bronze Horseman:"
The "Boyan" publishing firm (Morozov's and mine was the "Bronze Horseman," its main rival), with a bookshop (selling not only émigré editions but also tractor novels from Moscow) and a lending library, occupied a smart three-story house of the hôtel particulier type. In my day it stood between a garage and a cinema: forty years before (in the vista of reverse metamorphosis) the former had been a fountain and the latter a group of stone nymphs. The house had belonged to the Merlin de Malaune family and had been acquired at the turn of the century by a Russian cosmopolitan, Dmitri de Midoff who with his friend S. I. Stepanov established there the headquarters of an antidespotic conspiracy. The latter liked to recall the sign language of old-fashioned rebellion: the half-drawn curtain and alabaster vase revealed in the drawing-room window so as to indicate to the expected guest from Russia that the way was clear. An aesthetic touch graced revolutionary intrigues in those years. Midoff died soon after World War One, and by that time the Terrorist party, to which those cozy people belonged, had lost its "stylistic appeal" as Stepanov himself put it. I do
not know who later acquired the house or how it happened that Oks (Osip Lvovich Oksman, 1885?--1943?) rented it for his business. (2.4)
Like Pushkin’s Onegin, VN was born upon the Neva’s banks. The name Oks seems to blend the Oka (a river that flows through Marina Tsvetaev’s poetry and memoir prose) with Krasnyi bychok (“A Red Bull-Calf,” 1928), Marina Tsvetaev’s poem whose title brings to mind the proverbial Skazka pro belogo bychka (“Tale about White Bull-Calf”). In her memoir essay on Maximilian Voloshin, Zhivoe o zhivom (“A Living Word about the Living Man,” 1932), Marina Tsvetaev mentions tela bez teney (bodies without shadows) and Demon de Midi:
Ибо сущность Волошина - полдневная, а полдень из всех часов суток - самый телесный, вещественный, с телами без теней и с телами, спящими без снов, а если их и видящими - то один сплошной сон земли. И, одновременно, самый магический, мифический и мистический час суток, такой же маго-мифо-мистический, как полночь. Час Великого Пана, Demon de Midi, и нашего скромного русского полуденного, о котором я в детстве, в Калужской губернии, своими ушами: "Ленка, идём купаться!" - "Не пойду-у: полуденный утащит". - Магия, мифика и мистика самой земли, самого земного состава.
In her Poema Vozdukha (“The Poem of Air,” 192) Marina Tsvetaev mentions Irida, Iris (the goddess of rainbow):
Для чего Гермесу —
Кры́льца? Плавнички бы —
Пловче! Да ведь ливмя
Льёт! Ирида! Ирис!
and compares herself to Columbus:
Ритм, впервые мой!
Как Колумб здороваюсь
С новою землёй —
Iris Black (whom the editor of Patria calls “Irida Osipovna”) is Vadim’s first wife. Christopher Columbus brings to mind Hristofor Boyarski (Prostakov-Skotinin’s archrival). Vadim’s typist, Lyuba Savich pairs Boyarski with Boris Nyet:
Would I despise her for having an album with reviews of my books pasted in—Morozov's and Yablokov's lovely essays as well as the trash of such hacks as Boris Nyet, and Boyarski? Did I know it was she who had left that mysterious bunch of irises on the spot where the urn with my wife's ashes had been interred four years ago? (2.2)
N’et (Nyet) being an anagram of ten’ (“shade, shadow”), Boris Nyet seems to be the real name of the inimitable "Prostakov-Skotinin." In Pushkin’s tragedy “Boris Godunov” (1925) Grigoriy Otrepiev (the Impostor) tells Marina Mnishek that ten’ Groznogo (the shade of Ivan the Terrible) has adopted him and named him Dmitri from his grave:
Тень Грозного меня усыновила,
Димитрием из гроба нарекла,
Вокруг меня народы возмутила
И в жертву мне Бориса обрекла —
The shade of tsar Ivan has adopted me,
And named me Dmitri from his grave,
It has stirred up the people all around,
And sacrificed Boris to me
I am the Prince!
The characters of “Boris Godunov” include Pimen, the old chronicler. Marina Tsvetaev’s memoir essay on the historian Ilovayski (grandfather of Marina’s half-brother Andrey) is entitled Dom u starogo Pimena (“A House at the Old Pimen,” 1933). Vadim and his first three wives (Iris Black, Annette Blagovo and Louise Adamson) seem to be the children of Count Starov. At the beginning of LATH Vadim mentions his three or four successive wives:
I met the first of my three or four successive wives in somewhat odd circumstances, the development of which resembled a clumsy conspiracy, with nonsensical details and a main plotter who not only knew nothing of its real object but insisted on making inept moves that seemed to preclude the slightest possibility of success. Yet out of those very mistakes he unwittingly wove a web, in which a set of reciprocal blunders on my part caused me to get involved and fulfill the destiny that was the only aim of the plot. (1.1)
In the second poem of her cycle Marina (1921) Marina Tsvetaev calls her namesake, Marina Mnishek, “the wife of three impostors:”
Трём Самозванцам жена,
Мнишка надменного дочь,
Ты — гордецу своему
Не родившая сына…
Vadim tells Oks that his father died six months before he was born:
“Let me take advantage of this pleasant stroll to describe my two meetings with your celebrated father. The first was at the opera in the days of the First Duma. I knew, of course, the portraits of its most prominent members. From high up in the gods I, a poor student, saw him appear in a rosy loge with his wife and two little boys, one of which must have been you. The other time was at a public discussion of current politics in the auroral period of the Revolution; he spoke immediately after Kerenski, and the contrast between our fiery friend and your father, with his English sangfroid and absence of gesticulation--"
"My father," I said, "died six months before I was born."
"Well, I seem to have goofed again (opyat' oskandalisya)," observed Oks, after taking quite a minute to find his handkerchief, blow his nose with the grandiose deliberation of Varlamov in the role of Gogol's Town Mayor, wrap up the result, and pocket the swaddle. "Yes, I'm not lucky with you. Yet that image remains in my mind. The contrast was truly remarkable." (2.4)
According to Vadim, the society nickname of his father was Demon:
My father was a gambler and a rake. His society nickname was Demon. Vrubel has portrayed him with his vampire-pale cheeks, his diamond eyes, his black hair. What remained on the palette has been used by me, Vadim, son of Vadim, for touching up the father of the passionate siblings in the best of my English romaunts, Ardis (1970).
The scion of a princely family devoted to a gallery of a dozen Tsars, my father resided on the idyllic outskirts of history. His politics were of the casual, reactionary sort. He had a dazzling and complicated sensual life, but his culture was patchy and commonplace. He was born in 1865, married in 1896, and died in a pistol duel with a young Frenchman on October 22, 1898, after a card-table fracas at Deauville, some resort in gray Normandy. (2.5)
Ardis means in Greek “point of an arrow.” In his epigram Luk zvenit, strela trepeshchet… (“The Bowstring sounds, the arrow quivers…” 1827) Pushkin mentions Belvederskiy Apollon (the Belvedere Apollo) and Belvederskiy Mitrofan (the Belvedere Mitrofan). Bel is the name of Vadim’s daughter.
Vadim’s Ardis corresponds to VN’s Ada. In her French “transversion” of Marvell’s Garden Ada mentions the Oka:
‘On the other hand,’ said Van, ‘one can well imagine a similarly bilingual Miss Rivers checking a French version of, say, Marvell’s Garden —’
‘Oh,’ cried Ada, ‘I can recite "Le jardin" in my own transversion — let me see —
En vain on s’amuse à gagner
L’Oka, la Baie du Palmier...’
‘...to win the Palm, the Oke, or Bayes!’ shouted Van.
‘You know, children,’ interrupted Marina resolutely with calming gestures of both hands, ‘when I was your age, Ada, and my brother was your age, Van, we talked about croquet, and ponies, and puppies, and the last fête-d’enfants, and the next picnic, and — oh, millions of nice normal things, but never, never of old French botanists and God knows what!’
‘But you just said you collected flowers?’ said Ada.
‘Oh, just one season, somewhere in Switzerland. I don’t remember when. It does not matter now.’ (1.10)
The name Tsvetaev comes from tsvet (flower; color). Van and Ada are the children of Demon Veen and Marina Durmanov. According to Van, Demon is a form of Demian or Dementius (1.1). Among the people whom Vadim and Iris meet at the literary samovar is the critic Demian Basilevski (Vadim’s faithful Zoilus).
Vadim’s name and patronymic, Vadim Vadimovich, hints not only at Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov (the writer with whom Oks confuses Vadim), but also at Maksim Maksimovich, the title character of the second novella in Lermontov’s Geroy nashego vremeni (“A Hero of Our Time,” 1840). Lermontov is the author of Demon (“The Demon, 1829-40). Count Starov’s son (whose name seems to be Prince Yablonski), Vadim could have said:
Ten’ Demona menya usynovila,
Yablonskim iz mogily narekla.
The shade of Demon has adopted me,
named me Yablonski from his grave.
The name Yablonski comes from yablonya (apple-tree). At the end of Boris Godunov an incidental character quotes the saying yabloko ot yabloni nedaleko padaet (“like parents, like children;” literally: “an apple falls not far from the apple-tree”).
According to Vadim, soon after his meeting with Oks he gave up his penname and reverted to his real name:
As soon as the last sound of poor Oksman's farewells and excuses had subsided, I tore off the striped woollen snake strangling me and wrote down in cipher every detail of my meeting with him. Then I drew a thick line underneath and a caravan of question marks.
Should I ignore the coincidence and its implications? Should I, on the contrary, repattern my entire life? Should I abandon my art, choose another line of achievement, take up chess seriously, or become, say, a lepidopterist, or spend a dozen years as an obscure scholar making a Russian translation of Paradise Lost that would cause hacks to shy and asses to kick? But only the writing of fiction, the endless re-creation of my fluid self could keep me more or less sane. All I did finally was drop my pen name, the rather cloying and somehow misleading "V. Irisin" (of which my Iris herself used to say that it sounded as if I were a villa), and revert to my own family name. (2.5)
Vadim’s penname hints at Sirin, VN’s Russian nom de plume. When Sirin switched to English and in 1940 moved to America, he turned into Nabokov. The author of LATH (whose father died in an assassination, as Shade does in VN’s novel Pale Fire, 1962) could have said:
Ten’ Pushkina menya usynovila,
Nabokovym iz groba narekla.
The shade of Pushkin has adopted me,
named me Nabokov from his grave.