At the end of his poem O pravitelyakh (“On Rulers,” 1944) VN says that, if his late namesake (V. V. Mayakovski) were still alive, he would be now finding taut rhymes such as monumentalen and pereperchil:
Покойный мой тёзка,
писавший стихи и в полоску,
и в клетку, на самом восходе
кабы дожил до полдня,
нынче бы рифмы натягивал
и так далее.
If my late namesake,
who used to write verse, in rank
and in file, at the very dawn
of the Soviet Small-Bourgeois order,
had lived till its noon
he would be now finding taut rhymes
such as “praline”
or “air chill,”
and others of the same kind.
VN’s footnote: Lines 58–59/“praline” … “air chill.” In the original, monumentalen, meaning “[he is] monumental” rhymes pretty closely with Stalin; and pereperchil, meaning “[he] put in too much pepper,” offers an ingenuous correspondence with the name of the British politician in a slovenly Russian pronunciation (“chair-chill”).
Pereperchil brings to mind Chekhov’s story Peresolil (“Overdoing it,” 1885; literally peresolil means “[he] put in too much salt”) in which General Khokhotov’s estate is mentioned:
— Скажите, пожалуйста, где я могу найти здесь почтовых лошадей? — обратился землемер к станционному жандарму.
— Которых? Почтовых? Тут за сто вёрст путевой собаки не сыщешь, а не то что почтовых... Да вам куда ехать?
— В Девкино, имение генерала Хохотова.
— Что ж? — зевнул жандарм. — Ступайте за станцию, там на дворе иногда бывают мужики, возят пассажиров.
"Tell me, please, where can I get post-horses here?" the surveyor asked of the station gendarme.
"What? Post-horses? There's no finding a decent dog for seventy miles round, let alone post-horses. . . . But where do you want to go?"
"To Devkino, General Khokhotov's estate."
"Well," yawned the gendarme, "go outside the station, there are sometimes peasants in the yard there, they will take passengers."
The name Khokhotov comes from khokhotat’ (roar with laughter), a verb used by VN at the beginning of his poem “On Rulers:”
Вы будете (как иногда
смеяться, вы будете (как ясновидцы
говорят) хохотать, господа -
но, честное слово,
у меня есть приятель,
привела бы в волнение мысль поздороваться
с главою правительства или другого какого
You will (as sometimes
laugh; you will (as clairvoyants
say) roar with laughter, gentlemen—
but, word of honor,
I have a crony,
would be thrilled to shake hands
with the head of a state or of any other
In “On Rulers” VN mentions kuchera gosudarstv (the coachmen of empires):
Кучера государств зато хороши
при исполнении должности: шибко
ледяная навстречу летит синева,
огневые трещат на ветру рукава...
Наблюдатель глядит иностранный
и спереди видит прекрасные очи навыкат,
а сзади прекрасную помесь диванной
подушки с чудовищной тыквой.
Per contra, the coachmen of empires look good
when performing their duties: swiftly
toward them flies the blue of the sky;
their flame-colored sleeves clap in the wind;
the foreign observer looks on and sees
in front bulging eyes of great beauty
and behind a beautiful blend
of divan cushion and monstrous pumpkin.
The characters in Chekhov’s story Peresolil include the coachman Klim. He has the same first name as the hero of Gorky’s novel Zhizn’ Klima Samgina (“The Life of Klim Samgin,” 1925-36) and Baron Klim Avidov (anagram of Vladimir Nabokov), in VN’s novel Ada (1969) Marina’s former lover who gave her children (Van, Ada and Lucette) a set of Flavita (the Russian Scrabble). The characters in Gorky’s play Na dne (“At the Bottom,” 1902) include Baron. The penname Gorky means “bitter.” The characters in Chekhov’s play Tri sestry (“The Three Sisters,” 1901), known on Antiterra (aka Demonia, Earth’s twin planet on which Ada is set) as “Four Sisters” (2.1 et passim), include Solyony (“Mr. Salt”). It is Solyony who kills Baron Tuzenbakh (Irina’s fiancé) in a pistol duel. Duel’ (“The Duel,” 1891) is a story by Chekhov. Describing his father’s sword duel with Baron d’Onsky, Van Veen (the narrator and main character in Ada) mentions Colonel St Alin, a scoundrel:
The challenge was accepted; two native seconds were chosen; the Baron plumped for swords; and after a certain amount of good blood (Polish and Irish — a kind of American ‘Gory Mary’ in barroom parlance) had bespattered two hairy torsoes, the whitewashed terrace, the flight of steps leading backward to the walled garden in an amusing Douglas d’Artagnan arrangement, the apron of a quite accidental milkmaid, and the shirtsleeves of both seconds, charming Monsieur de Pastrouil and Colonel St Alin, a scoundrel, the latter gentlemen separated the panting combatants, and Skonky died, not ‘of his wounds’ (as it was viciously rumored) but of a gangrenous afterthought on the part of the least of them, possibly self-inflicted, a sting in the groin, which caused circulatory trouble, notwithstanding quite a few surgical interventions during two or three years of protracted stays at the Aardvark Hospital in Boston — a city where, incidentally, he married in 1869 our friend the Bohemian lady, now keeper of Glass Biota at the local museum. (1.2)
On Antiterra Stalin is represented by Khan Sosso, the current ruler of the Golden Horde (ruthless Sovietnamur Khanate):
Western Europe presented a particularly glaring gap: ever since the eighteenth century, when a virtually bloodless revolution had dethroned the Capetians and repelled all invaders, Terra’s France flourished under a couple of emperors and a series of bourgeois presidents, of whom the present one, Doumercy, seemed considerably more lovable than Milord Goal, Governor of Lute! Eastward, instead of Khan Sosso and his ruthless Sovietnamur Khanate, a super Russia, dominating the Volga region and similar watersheds, was governed by a Sovereign Society of Solicitous Republics (or so it came through) which had superseded the Tsars, conquerors of Tartary and Trst. Last but not least, Athaulf the Future, a fair-haired giant in a natty uniform, the secret flame of many a British nobleman, honorary captain of the French police, and benevolent ally of Rus and Rome, was said to be in the act of transforming a gingerbread Germany into a great country of speedways, immaculate soldiers, brass bands and modernized barracks for misfits and their young. (2.2)
Describing the family dinner in Ardis the Second, Van mentions Richard Leonard Churchill’s novel about a certain Crimean Khan, “A Great Good Man:”
Van remembered that his tutor’s great friend, the learned but prudish Semyon Afanasievich Vengerov, then a young associate professor but already a celebrated Pushkinist (1855-1954), used to say that the only vulgar passage in his author’s work was the cannibal joy of young gourmets tearing ‘plump and live’ oysters out of their ‘cloisters’ in an unfinished canto of Eugene Onegin. But then ‘everyone has his own taste,’ as the British writer Richard Leonard Churchill mistranslates a trite French phrase (chacun à son gout) twice in the course of his novel about a certain Crimean Khan once popular with reporters and politicians, ‘A Great Good Man’ — according, of course, to the cattish and prejudiced Guillaume Monparnasse about whose new celebrity Ada, while dipping the reversed corolla of one hand in a bowl, was now telling Demon, who was performing the same rite in the same graceful fashion. (1.38)
Darkbloom (‘Notes to Ada’): Great good man: a phrase that Winston Churchill, the British politician, enthusiastically applied to Stalin.
Ustritsy (“Oysters,” 1884) is a story by Chekhov. The characters in Chekhov’s play Platonov (also known as “Fatherlessness” and “A Play without a Title,” 1878) include Vengerovich père and Vengerovich fils. Old Dr Platonov on whose foot Van stepped in a train asks Van to spare his gout:
First, he decided to go to Kalugano to settle accounts with Herr Rack. Out of sheer misery he fell asleep in a corner of a compartment, full of alien legs and voices, in the crack express tearing north at a hundred miles per hour. He dozed till noon and got off at Ladoga, where after an incalculably long wait he took another, even more jerky and crowded train. As he was pushing his unsteady way through one corridor after another, cursing under his breath the window-gazers who did not draw in their bottoms to let him pass, and hopelessly seeking a comfortable nook in one of the first-class cars consisting of four-seat compartments, he saw Cordula and her mother facing each other on the window side. The two other places were occupied by a stout, elderly gentleman in an old-fashioned brown wig with a middle parting, and a bespectacled boy in a sailor suit sitting next to Cordula, who was in the act of offering him one half of her chocolate bar. Van entered, moved by a sudden very bright thought, but Cordula’s mother did not recognize him at once, and the flurry of reintroductions combined with a lurch of the train caused Van to step on the prunella-shod foot of the elderly passenger, who uttered a sharp cry and said, indistinctly but not impolitely: ‘Spare my gout (or ‘take care’ or ‘look out’), young man!’
‘I do not like being addressed as "young man,"’ Van told the invalid in a completely uncalled-for, brutal burst of voice.
‘Has he hurt you, Grandpa?’ inquired the little boy.
‘He has,’ said Grandpa, ‘but I did not mean to offend anybody by my cry of anguish.’
‘Even anguish should be civil,’ continued Van (while the better Van in him tugged at his sleeve, aghast and ashamed).
‘Cordula,’ said the old actress (with the same apropos with which she once picked up and fondled a fireman’s cat that had strayed into Fast Colors in the middle of her best speech), ‘why don’t you go with this angry young demon to the tea-car? I think I’ll take my thirty-nine winks now.’
‘What’s wrong?’ asked Cordula as they settled down in the very roomy and rococo ‘crumpeter,’ as Kalugano College students used to call it in the ‘Eighties and ‘Nineties.
‘Everything,’ replied Van, ‘but what makes you ask?’
‘Well, we know Dr Platonov slightly, and there was absolutely no reason for you to be so abominably rude to the dear old man.’
I apologize,’ said Van. ‘Let us order the traditional tea.’
‘Another queer thing,’ said Cordula, ‘is that you actually noticed me today. Two months ago you snubbed me.’
‘You had changed. You had grown lovely and languorous. You are even lovelier now. Cordula is no longer a virgin! Tell me — do you happen to have Percy de Prey’s address? I mean we all know he’s invading Tartary — but where could a letter reach him? I don’t care to ask your snoopy aunt to forward anything.’
‘I daresay the Frasers have it, I’ll find out. But where is Van going? Where shall I find Van?’
‘At home — 5 Park Lane, in a day or two. Just now I’m going to Kalugano.’
‘That’s a gruesome place. Girl?’
‘Man. Do you know Kalugano? Dentist? Best hotel? Concert hall? My cousin’s music teacher?’
She shook her short curls. No — she went there very seldom. Twice to a concert, in a pine forest. She had not been aware that Ada took music lessons. How was Ada?
‘Lucette,’ he said, ‘Lucette takes or took piano lessons. Okay. Let’s dismiss Kalugano. These crumpets are very poor relatives of the Chose ones. You’re right, j’ai des ennuis. But you can make me forget them. Tell me something to distract me, though you distract me as it is, un petit topinambour as the Teuton said in the story. Tell me about your affairs of the heart.’ (1.42)
Darkbloom (‘Notes to Ada’): topinambour: tuber of the girasole; pun on ‘pun’ (‘calembour’). Another name of topinambour is earth pear. In his poem Royal’ (“The Piano,” 1931) Mandelshtam (who, according to Hodasevich and other memoirists, could not live without sweets) mentions koren’ sladkovatoy grushi zemnoy (a tuber of the sweet earth pear):
Чтобы в мире стало просторней,
Ради сложности мировой,
Не втирайте в клавиши корень
Сладковатой груши земной.
In his Oda Betkhovenu (“Ode to Beethoven,” 1914) Mandelshtam compares Beethoven to Dionysus:
О Дионис, как муж, наивный
И благодарный, как дитя!
Ты перенёс свой жребий дивный
То негодуя, то шутя!
С каким глухим негодованьем
Ты собирал с князей оброк
Или с рассеянным вниманьем
На фортепьянный шел урок!
Describing a stage performance in which Marina played the heroine, Van mentions a sign of Dionysian origin:
In a splendid orchard several merry young gardeners wearing for some reason the garb of Georgian tribesmen were popping raspberries into their mouths, while several equally implausible servant girls in sharovars (somebody had goofed — the word ‘samovars’ may have got garbled in the agent’s aerocable) were busy plucking marshmallows and peanuts from the branches of fruit trees. At an invisible sign of Dionysian origin, they all plunged into the violent dance called kurva or ‘ribbon boule’ in the hilarious program whose howlers almost caused Veen (tingling, and light-loined, and with Prince N.’s rose-red banknote in his pocket) to fall from his seat. (1.2)
Darkbloom (‘Notes to Ada’): Raspberries; ribbon: allusions to ludicrous blunders in Lowell’s versions of Mandelshtam’s poems (in the N.Y. Review, 23 December 1965).
In his poem My zhivyom, pod soboyu ne chuya strany… (“We live, not feeling land beneath us…” 1934) Mandelshtam says: “whatever the execution, it’s raspberry to him [Stalin].” At Van’s first tea-party in Ardis Marina says that she and Ada share Van’s extravagant tastes and that Dostoevski liked tea with raspberry syrup:
They now had tea in a prettily furnished corner of the otherwise very austere central hall from which rose the grand staircase. They sat on chairs upholstered in silk around a pretty table. Ada’s black jacket and a pink-yellow-blue nosegay she had composed of anemones, celandines and columbines lay on a stool of oak. The dog got more bits of cake than it did ordinarily. Price, the mournful old footman who brought the cream for the strawberries, resembled Van’s teacher of history, ‘Jeejee’ Jones.
‘He resembles my teacher of history,’ said Van when the man had gone.
‘I used to love history,’ said Marina, ‘I loved to identify myself with famous women. There’s a ladybird on your plate, Ivan. Especially with famous beauties — Lincoln’s second wife or Queen Josephine.’
‘Yes, I’ve noticed — it’s beautifully done. We’ve got a similar set at home.’
‘Slivok (some cream)? I hope you speak Russian?’ Marina asked Van, as she poured him a cup of tea.
‘Neohotno no sovershenno svobodno (reluctantly but quite fluently),’ replied Van, slegka ulïbnuvshis’ (with a slight smile). ‘Yes, lots of cream and three lumps of sugar.’
‘Ada and I share your extravagant tastes. Dostoevski liked it with raspberry syrup.’
‘Pah,’ uttered Ada. (1.5)
In Dostoevski’s “Brothers Karamazov” (1880) the action takes place in Skotoprigonievsk (“Cattlebringinton”). Scotty (Marina’s impresario) brought the Russian dancers (who played merry young gardeners and servant girls) all the way in two sleeping cars from Belokonsk, Western Estoty. According to Darkbloom, Belokonsk is the Russian twin of Whitehorse (city in N.W. Canada). On the other hand, White Horse is a Scotch whisky. In his memoirs Lyudi, gody, zhizn’ (“People, Years, Life,” 1960) Ehrenburg describes his meetings in the fall of 1928 in Paris with Mayakovski (who used to order at La Coupole the White Horse whisky) and quotes “a little song” composed by Mayakovski:
Я вспоминаю его осенью 1928 года - он пробыл тогда больше месяца в Париже. Мы часто встречались. Вижу его мрачным в маленьком баре «Куполь». Он заказывал виски марки «уайт хорс» («белая лошадь»); пил он мало, но сочинил песенку:
Белая грива, белый хвост…
White Horse is a good horse.
A white mane, a white tail.
Before the family dinner in Ardis the Second Demon tells Van:
“Only Yukonians think cognac is bad for the liver, because they have nothing but vodka.” (1.38)
At the dinner Demon tells Marina that he does not want to criticize her husband’s tastes in white wines:
‘Marina,’ murmured Demon at the close of the first course. ‘Marina,’ he repeated louder. ‘Far from me’ (a locution he favored) ‘to criticize Dan’s taste in white wines or the manners de vos domestiques.’ (ibid.)
When Van meets in Paris (also known as Lute on Antiterra) Greg Erminin (whose father preferred to pass for a Chekhovian Colonel), they order champagne:
On a bleak morning between the spring and summer of 1901, in Paris, as Van, black-hatted, one hand playing with the warm loose change in his topcoat pocket and the other, fawn-gloved, upswinging a furled English umbrella, strode past a particularly unattractive sidewalk café among the many lining the Avenue Guillaume Pitt, a chubby bald man in a rumpled brown suit with a watch-chained waistcoat stood up and hailed him.
Van considered for a moment those red round cheeks, that black goatee.
‘Ne uznayosh’ (You don’t recognize me)?’
‘Greg! Grigoriy Akimovich!’ cried Van tearing off his glove.
‘I grew a regular vollbart last summer. You’d never have known me then. Beer? Wonder what you do to look so boyish, Van.’
‘Diet of champagne, not beer,’ said Professor Veen, putting on his spectacles and signaling to a waiter with the crook of his ‘umber.’ ‘Hardly stops one adding weight, but keeps the scrotum crisp.’
‘I’m also very fat, yes?’
‘What about Grace, I can’t imagine her getting fat?’
‘Once twins, always twins. My wife is pretty portly, too.’
‘Tak tï zhenat (so you are married)? Didn’t know it. How long?’
‘About two years.’
‘The daughter of the poet?’
‘No, no, her mother is a Brougham.’
Might have replied ‘Ada Veen,’ had Mr Vinelander not been a quicker suitor. I think I met a Broom somewhere. Drop the subject. Probably a dreary union: hefty, high-handed wife, he more of a bore than ever.
‘I last saw you thirteen years ago, riding a black pony — no, a black Silentium. Bozhe moy!’
‘Yes — Bozhe moy, you can well say that. Those lovely, lovely agonies in lovely Ardis! Oh, I was absolyutno bezumno (madly) in love with your cousin!’
‘You mean Miss Veen? I did not know it. How long —’
‘Neither did she. I was terribly —’
‘How long are you staying —’
‘— terribly shy, because, of course, I realized that I could not compete with her numerous boy friends.’
Numerous? Two? Three? Is it possible he never heard about the main one? All the rose hedges knew, all the maids knew, in all three manors. The noble reticence of our bed makers.
‘How long will you be staying in Lute? No, Greg, I ordered it. You pay for the next bottle. Tell me —’
‘So odd to recall! It was frenzy, it was fantasy, it was reality in the x degree. I’d have consented to be beheaded by a Tartar, I declare, if in exchange I could have kissed her instep. You were her cousin, almost a brother, you can’t understand that obsession. Ah, those picnics! And Percy de Prey who boasted to me about her, and drove me crazy with envy and pity, and Dr Krolik, who, they said, also loved her, and Phil Rack, a composer of genius — dead, dead, all dead!’
‘I really know very little about music but it was a great pleasure to make your chum howl. I have an appointment in a few minutes, alas. Za tvoyo zdorovie, Grigoriy Akimovich.’
‘Arkadievich,’ said Greg, who had let it pass once but now mechanically corrected Van.
‘Ach yes! Stupid slip of the slovenly tongue. How is Arkadiy Grigorievich?’
‘He died. He died just before your aunt. I thought the papers paid a very handsome tribute to her talent. And where is Adelaida Danilovna? Did she marry Christopher Vinelander or his brother?’
‘In California or Arizona. Andrey’s the name, I gather. Perhaps I’m mistaken. In fact, I never knew my cousin very well: I visited Ardis only twice, after all, for a few weeks each time, years ago.’
‘Somebody told me she’s a movie actress.’
‘I’ve no idea, I’ve never seen her on the screen.’ (3.2)
Darkbloom (‘Notes to Ada’): So you are married, etc.: see Eugene Onegin, Eight: XVIII: 1-4.
za tvoyo etc.: Russ., your health.
Btw., in the Russian Lolita (1967) Nik. Pavlych Khokhotov, Vran, Arizona (an anagram of Prival zacharovannykh okhotnikov, “The Enchanted Hunters”) is the most penetrating bodkin prepared by Quilty in the register of Chestnut Lodge (2.23). “Nik. Pavlych” hints at the tsar Nicholas I (who was nicknamed Nikolay Palkin). Palkin was a famous restaurant in St. Petersburg (Nevsky 47).