Describing his novel Letters from Terra, Van Veen (the narrator and main character in VN’s novel Ada, 1969) mentions Mr Nekto:
There were good reasons to disregard the technological details involved in delineating intercommunication between Terra the Fair and our terrible Antiterra. His knowledge of physics, mechanicalism and that sort of stuff had remained limited to the scratch of a prep-school blackboard. He consoled himself with the thought that no censor in America or Great Britain would pass the slightest reference to ‘magnetic’ gewgaws. Quietly, he borrowed what his greatest forerunners (Counterstone, for example) had imagined in the way of a manned capsule’s propulsion, including the clever idea of an initial speed of a few thousand miles per hour increasing, under the influence of a Counterstonian type of intermediate environment between sibling galaxies, to several trillions of light-years per second, before dwindling harmlessly to a parachute’s indolent descent. Elaborating anew, in irrational fabrications, all that Cyraniana and ‘physics fiction’ would have been not only a bore but an absurdity, for nobody knew how far Terra, or other innumerable planets with cottages and cows, might be situated in outer or inner space: ‘inner,’ because why not assume their microcosmic presence in the golden globules ascending quick-quick in this flute of Moët or in the corpuscles of my, Van Veen’s —
(or my, Ada Veen’s)
— bloodstream, or in the pus of a Mr Nekto’s ripe boil newly lanced in Nektor or Neckton. (2.2)
Darkbloom (‘Notes to Ada’): Nekto: Russ., quidam.
Letters from Terra is Van’s first literary work. In a letter of March 28, 1820, to Vyazemski Pushkin says that he will soon finish his first long poem (Ruslan and Lyudmila) and sends to Vyazemski a little poem that he composed in French. In this poem Pushkin mentions deux grands auteurs, les héros du Parnasse (two great authors, the heroes of Parnassus) and certain Quidam who shows to those authors their place:
Deux grands auteurs, les héros du Parnasse
Sont par le monde et choyés et chéris.
En vain leur Muse et détonne et grimace,
Des Visigoths ils sont les favoris.
Certain Quidam distinguant leurs écrits
De ces Messieurs nous désigne la place.
L’un est, dit-il, le chantre du Midi,
L’autre du Nord. Touchez là. C’est bien dit
Tant l’un est sec! et tant l’autre est de glace!
In his memoirs Na Parnase serebryanogo veka (“On the Parnassus of the Silver Age,” 1962) S. Makovski quotes Gumilyov’s one-line poem (a satire on the symbolists) that begins with the word nekto (someone):
Nekto nekogda nechto negde uzrel…
Someone sometime somewhere saw something…
In his poem Slonyonok (“A Baby Elephant,” 1920) Gumilyov mentions midinetki (the midinettes):
Моя любовь к тебе сейчас - слонёнок,
Родившийся в Берлине иль Париже
И топающий ватными ступнями
По комнатам хозяина зверинца.
Не предлагай ему французских булок,
Не предлагай ему кочней капустных -
Он может съесть лишь дольку мандарина,
Кусочек сахару или конфету.
Не плачь, о нежная, что в тесной клетке
Он сделается посмеяньем черни,
Чтоб в нос ему пускали дым сигары
Приказчики под хохот мидинеток.
Не думай, милая, что день настанет,
Когда, взбесившись, разорвет он цепи
И побежит по улицам, и будет,
Как автобус, давить людей вопящих.
Нет, пусть тебе приснится он под утро
В парче и меди, в страусовых перьях,
Как тот, Великолепный, что когда-то
Нес к трепетному Риму Ганнибала.
Right now my love for you is a baby elephant
Born in Berlin or in Paris,
And treading with its cushioned feet
Around the zoo director's house.
Do not offer it French pastries,
Do not offer it cabbage heads,
It can eat only sections of tangerines,
Or lumps of sugar and pieces of candy.
Don't cry, my sweet, because it will be put
Into a narrow cage, become a joke for mobs,
When salesman blow cigar smoke into its trunk
To the cackles of the midinettes.
Don't imagine, my dear, that the day will come
When, infuriated, it will snap its chains
And rush along the streets,
Crushing howling people like a bus.
No, may you dream of it at dawn,
Clad in bronze and brocade and ostrich feathers,
Like Magnificus, the animal that once
Bore Hannibal to trembling Rome.
(tr. Carl Proffer)
The author of “The Necklace” who writes under the penname Guillaume de Monparnasse (sic, the leaving out of ‘t’ made it more intime), Mlle Larivière (Lucette’s governess) is a doom-fearing ‘midinette:’
But she was not down yet. In the bright dining room, full of yellow flowers in drooping clusters of sunshine, Uncle Dan was feeding. He wore suitable clothes for a suitably hot day in the country — namely, a candy-striped suit over a mauve flannel shirt and piqué waistcoat, with a blue-and-red club tie and a safety-goldpinned very high soft collar (all his trim stripes and colors were a little displaced, though, in the process of comic strip printing, because it was Sunday). He had just finished his first buttered toast, with a dab of ye-old Orange Marmalade and was making turkey sounds as he rinsed his dentures orally with a mouthful of coffee prior to swallowing it and the flavorous flotsam. Being, as I had reason to believe, plucky, I could make myself suffer a direct view of the man’s pink face with its (rotating) red ‘tashy’, but I was not obliged (mused Van, in 1922, when he saw those baguenaudier flowers again) to stand his chinless profile with its curly red sideburn. So Van considered, not without appetite, the blue jugs of hot chocolate and baton-segments of bread prepared for the hungry children. Marina had her breakfast in bed, the butler and Price ate in a recess of the pantry (a pleasing thought, somehow) and Mlle Larivière did not touch any food till noon, being a doom-fearing ‘midinette’ (the sect, not the shop) and had actually made her father confessor join her group. (1.20)
The word midinette is a blend of midi (noon, midday; south) and dînette (tea party). In Pushkin’s French poem one of the two authors is le chantre du Midi (the bard of South) and the other le chantre du Nord (the bard of North). Describing a lunch at Ardis, Van mentions Elsie de Nord, a vulgar literary demimondaine:
Weekday lunch at Ardis Hall. Lucette between Marina and the governess; Van between Marina and Ada; Dack, the golden-brown stoat, under the table, either between Ada and Mlle Larivière, or between Lucette and Marina (Van secretly disliked dogs, especially at meals, and especially that smallish longish freak with a gamey breath). Arch and grandiloquent, Ada would be describing a dream, a natural history wonder, a special belletristic device — Paul Bourget’s ‘monologue intérieur’ borrowed from old Leo — or some ludicrous blunder in the current column of Elsie de Nord, a vulgar literary demimondaine who thought that Lyovin went about Moscow in a nagol’nïy tulup, ‘a muzhik’s sheepskin coat, bare side out, bloom side in,’ as defined in a dictionary our commentator produced like a conjurer, never to be procurable by Elsies. Her spectacular handling of subordinate clauses, her parenthetic asides, her sensual stressing of adjacent monosyllables (‘Idiot Elsie simply can’t read’) — all this somehow finished by acting upon Van, as artificial excitements and exotic torture-caresses might have done, in an aphrodisiac sinistral direction that he both resented and perversely enjoyed. (1.10)
The columnist’s name hints at Elsinore, the royal castle in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Van’s novel Letters from Terra was reviewed by the First Clown in Elsinore, a distinguished London weekly, and by the poet Max Mispel:
Statistically speaking no reviews could have been expected, given the unorthodox circumstances in which poor Terra’s correspondence had been handled. Curiously enough, as many as two did appear. One, by the First Clown in Elsinore, a distinguished London weekly, popped up in a survey entitled, with a British journalist’s fondness for this kind of phoney wordplay, ‘Terre à terre, 1891,’ and dealt with the year’s ‘Space Romances,’ which by that time had begun to fine off. He sniffed Voltemand’s contribution as the choicest of the lot, calling it (alas, with unerring flair) ‘a sumptuously fripped up, trite, tedious and obscure fable, with a few absolutely marvelous metaphors marring the otherwise total ineptitude of the tale.’
The only other compliment was paid to poor Voltemand in a little Manhattan magazine (The Village Eyebrow) by the poet Max Mispel (another botanical name — ‘medlar’ in English), member of the German Department at Goluba University. Herr Mispel, who liked to air his authors, discerned in Letters from Terra the influence of Osberg (Spanish writer of pretentious fairy tales and mystico-allegoric anecdotes, highly esteemed by short-shift thesialists) as well as that of an obscene ancient Arab, expounder of anagrammatic dreams, Ben Sirine, thus transliterated by Captain de Roux, according to Burton in his adaptation of Nefzawi’s treatise on the best method of mating with obese or hunchbacked females (The Perfumed Garden, Panther edition, p. 187, a copy given to ninety-three-year-old Baron Van Veen by his ribald physician Professor Lagosse). His critique ended as follows: ‘If Mr Voltemand (or Voltimand or Mandalatov) is a psychiatrist, as I think he might be, then I pity his patients, while admiring his talent.’ (2.2)
In the next paragraph Van calls Max Mispel “Mr. Medlar” and “Max Mushmula” (mushmula is Russian for “medlar”) and mentions Max’s promise to send Van his next article, ‘The Weed Exiles the Flower’ (Melville & Marvell). Mispel, Medlar, Mushmula, Mandalatov, Melville and Marvell begin with an M. At a Mad Tea-Party the Dormouse (a character in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland) tells a story about three little sisters who lived at the bottom of a well and drew everything that begins with an M:
'They were learning to draw,' the Dormouse went on, yawning and rubbing its eyes, for it was getting very sleepy; 'and they drew all manner of things — everything that begins with an M — '
'Why with an M?' said Alice.
'Why not?' said the March Hare.
Alice was silent.
The Dormouse had closed its eyes by this time, and was going off into a doze; but, on being pinched by the Hatter, it woke up again with a little shriek, and went on: ' — that begins with an M, such as mouse-traps, and the moon, and memory, and muchness — you know you say things are "much of a muchness" — did you ever see such a thing as a drawing of a muchness?' (chapter 7: “A Mad Tea-Party”)
“A drawing of a muchness” brings to mind sad nothings fingerpainted on wet stone by Philip Rack (Lucette’s music teacher):
The melancholy young German was in a philosophical mood shading into the suicidal. He had to return to Kalugano with his Elsie, who Doc Ecksreher thought ‘would present him with driplets in dry weeks.’ He hated Kalugano, his and her home town, where in a moment of ‘mutual aberration’ stupid Elsie had given him her all on a park bench after a wonderful office party at Muzakovski’s Organs where the oversexed pitiful oaf had a good job.
‘When are you leaving?’ asked Ada.
‘Forestday — after tomorrow.’
‘Fine. That’s fine. Adieu, Mr Rack.’
Poor Philip drooped, fingerpainting sad nothings on wet stone, shaking his heavy head, gulping visibly.
‘One feels… One feels,’ he said, ‘that one is merely playing a role and has forgotten the next speech.’
‘I’m told many feel that,’ said Ada; ‘it must be a furchtbar feeling.’
‘Cannot be helped? No hope any more at all? I am dying, yes?’
‘You are dead, Mr Rack,’ said Ada. (1.32)
The name of one of the three sisters in the Dormouse’s story was Elsie:
'Once upon a time there were three little sisters,' the Dormouse began in a great hurry; 'and their names were Elsie, Lacie, and Tillie; and they lived at the bottom of a well — ' (chapter 7)
Muzakovski’s Organs (where Rack’s wife had a good job) bring to mind organ dlya shestogo chuvstva (an organ for the sixth sense) mentioned by Gumilyov in the last line of his poem Shestoe chuvstvo (“The Sixth Sense,” 1920):
Прекрасно в нас влюблённое вино
И добрый хлеб, что в печь для нас садится,
И женщина, которою дано,
Сперва измучившись, нам насладиться.
Но что нам делать с розовой зарёй
Над холодеющими небесами,
Где тишина и неземной покой,
Что делать нам с бессмертными стихами?
Ни съесть, ни выпить, ни поцеловать.
Мгновение бежит неудержимо,
И мы ломаем руки, но опять
Осуждены идти всё мимо, мимо.
Как мальчик, игры позабыв свои,
Следит порой за девичьим купаньем
И, ничего не зная о любви,
Всё ж мучится таинственным желаньем;
Как некогда в разросшихся хвощах
Ревела от сознания бессилья
Тварь скользкая, почуя на плечах
Ещё не появившиеся крылья;
Так век за веком - скоро ли, Господь? -
Под скальпелем природы и искусства
Кричит наш дух, изнемогает плоть,
Рождая орган для шестого чувства.
Fine is the wine that loves us,
and the bread baked for our sake,
and the woman who lies and loves us
when she’s finished her tweaking games.
But sunset clouds, rose
in a sky turned cold,
calm like some other earth?
All inedible, non-potable, un-kissable.
Time comes, time goes,
and we wring our hands
and never decide, never touch the circle.
Like a boy forgetting his games
and watching girls in the river
and knowing nothing but eaten
by desires stranger
Than he knows — like a slippery creature
sensing unformed wings
on its back and howling helpless
in the bushes and brambles — like hundred
Years after hundred years — how long, Lord,
how long ? — as nature and art
cut, and we scream, and slowly, slowly,
our sixth-sense organ is surgically born.
(tr. Burton Raffel)
Man has five senses. Poisoned by his jealous wife Elsie, Philip Rack dies in Ward Five (where hopeless cases are kept) of the Kalugano hospital. In his essay on Chekhov, Tvorchestvo iz nichego (“Creation from Nothing,” 1905), Lev Shestov calls Chekhov (the author of “Ward No. 6”) pevets beznadyozhnosti (a poet of hopelessness). In his essay Shestov points out that the doctor in “Ward No. 6” dies very beautifully, in his last moments he sees a herd of deer:
И, кажется, “Палату № 6” в своё время очень сочувственно приняли. Кстати прибавим, что доктор умирает очень красиво: в последние минуты видит стадо оленей и т. п.
Chekhov had openly repented and renounced the theory of non-resistance; and, I believe, Ward No. 6 met with a sympathetic reception at the time. In passing I would say that the doctor dies very beautifully: in his last moments he sees a herd of deer... (VI)
At the end of Ada Van (whom Dr Lagosse made the last merciful injection of morphine and who hastens to complete the book before it is too late) mentions a doe at gaze in the ancestral park:
Not the least adornment of the chronicle is the delicacy of pictorial detail: a latticed gallery; a painted ceiling; a pretty plaything stranded among the forget-me-nots of a brook; butterflies and butterfly orchids in the margin of the romance; a misty view descried from marble steps; a doe at gaze in the ancestral park; and much, much more. (5.6)
Ada’s last words bring to mind ‘much of a muchness” mentioned by the Dormouse in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. In the novel’s epilogue Van mentions Ada’s adventures in Adaland:
At least twice a year our happy couple indulged in fairly long travels. Ada did not breed or collect butterflies any more, but throughout her healthy and active old age loved to film them in their natural surroundings, at the bottom of her garden or the end of the world, flapping and flitting, settling on flowers or filth, gliding over grass or granite, fighting or mating. Van accompanied her on picture-shooting journeys to Brazil, the Congo, New Guinea, but secretly preferred a long drink under a tent to a long wait under a tree for some rarity to come down to the bait and be taken in color. One would need another book to describe Ada’s adventures in Adaland. The films — and the crucified actors (Identification Mounts) — can be seen by arrangement at the Lucinda Museum, 5, Park Lane, Manhattan. (5.1)
The characters in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland include the Queen of Hearts who often says: “off with their heads!” Pushkin is the author of Pikovaya dama (“The Queen of Spades,” 1833). On Demonia (aka Antiterra, Earth’s twin planet on which Ada is set) Pushkin’s last long poem Mednyi vsadnik (“The Bronze Horseman,” 1833) is known as Headless Horseman:
The year 1880 (Aqua was still alive — somehow, somewhere!) was to prove to be the most retentive and talented one in his long, too long, never too long life. He was ten. His father had lingered in the West where the many-colored mountains acted upon Van as they had on all young Russians of genius. He could solve an Euler-type problem or learn by heart Pushkin’s ‘Headless Horseman’ poem in less than twenty minutes. With white-bloused, enthusiastically sweating Andrey Andreevich, he lolled for hours in the violet shade of pink cliffs, studying major and minor Russian writers — and puzzling out the exaggerated but, on the whole, complimentary allusions to his father’s volitations and loves in another life in Lermontov’s diamond-faceted tetrameters. He struggled to keep back his tears, while AAA blew his fat red nose, when shown the peasant-bare footprint of Tolstoy preserved in the clay of a motor court in Utah where he had written the tale of Murat, the Navajo chieftain, a French general’s bastard, shot by Cora Day in his swimming pool. What a soprano Cora had been! Demon took Van to the world-famous Opera House in Telluride in West Colorado and there he enjoyed (and sometimes detested) the greatest international shows — English blank-verse plays, French tragedies in rhymed couplets, thunderous German musical dramas with giants and magicians and a defecating white horse. He passed through various little passions — parlor magic, chess, fluff-weight boxing matches at fairs, stunt-riding — and of course those unforgettable, much too early initiations when his lovely young English governess expertly petted him between milkshake and bed, she, petticoated, petititted, half-dressed for some party with her sister and Demon and Demon’s casino-touring companion, bodyguard and guardian angel, monitor and adviser, Mr Plunkett, a reformed card-sharper. (1.28)
In our world The Headless Horseman (1866) is a novel by Captain Mayne Reid. In Chapter Ten of his autobiography Speak, Memory (1951) VN describes his childhood games with his cousin Yuri Rausch and mentions Mayne Reid’s novel. Among the things that the sisters drew in the Dormouse’s story was memory. Pamyat’ (“Memory,” 1920) is a poem by Gumilyov:
Только змеи сбрасывают кожи,
Чтоб душа старела и росла.
Мы, увы, со змеями не схожи,
Мы меняем души, не тела.
Память, ты рукою великанши
Жизнь ведёшь, как под уздцы коня,
Ты расскажешь мне о тех, что раньше
В этом теле жили до меня.
Самый первый: некрасив и тонок,
Полюбивший только сумрак рощ,
Лист опавший, колдовской ребёнок,
Словом останавливавший дождь.
Дерево да рыжая собака -
Вот кого он взял себе в друзья,
Память, память, ты не сыщешь знака,
Не уверишь мир, что то был я.
И второй... Любил он ветер с юга,
В каждом шуме слышал звоны лир,
Говорил, что жизнь - его подруга,
Коврик под его ногами - мир.
Он совсем не нравится мне, это
Он хотел стать богом и царем,
Он повесил вывеску поэта
Над дверьми в мой молчаливый дом.
Я люблю избранника свободы,
Мореплавателя и стрелка,
Ах, ему так звонко пели воды
И завидовали облака.
Высока была его палатка,
Мулы были резвы и сильны,
Как вино, впивал он воздух сладкий
Белому неведомой страны.
Память, ты слабее год от году,
Тот ли это или кто другой
Променял весёлую свободу
На священный долгожданный бой.
Знал он муки голода и жажды,
Сон тревожный, бесконечный путь,
Но святой Георгий тронул дважды
Пулею не тронутую грудь.
Я - угрюмый и упрямый зодчий
Храма, восстающего во мгле,
Я возревновал о славе Отчей,
Как на небесах, и на земле.
Сердце будет пламенем палимо
Вплоть до дня, когда взойдут, ясны,
Стены Нового Иерусалима
На полях моей родной страны.
И тогда повеет ветер странный -
И прольется с неба страшный свет,
Это Млечный Путь расцвел нежданно
Садом ослепительных планет.
Предо мной предстанет, мне неведом,
Путник, скрыв лицо; но все пойму,
Видя льва, стремящегося следом,
И орла, летящего к нему.
Крикну я... но разве кто поможет,
Чтоб моя душа не умерла?
Только змеи сбрасывают кожи,
Мы меняем души, не тела.
Only snakes shed their skin,
So their souls can age and grow.
We, alas, do not resemble snakes,
We change souls, not bodies.
Memory, with the hand of a giantess
You lead life like a horse by the reins,
You will tell me about those who lived
In this body before it was mine.
The very first was plain and thin,
And loved only forests in twilight,
He was a fallen leaf, a magic child
Who stopped the rain with a word.
A tree and a red dog -
These he took as friends.
Memory, memory, you will not find proof,
You will not convince the world he was me.
And the second...He loved a wind from the south,
Heard the ring of the lyre in every noise,
Said that life was a friend to him,
And the world a carpet beneath his feet.
I don't like him at all, it was he
Who wanted to be God and king,
He hung the sign of a poet
Over the doors of my silent house.
I like freedom's chosen one,
The seafarer and rifleman.
Ah, the waters clearly sang to him
And the clouds were full of envy.
His tent was on high ground,
The mules were strong and frisky
He drank in like wine the sweet air
Of a country unknown to the white man.
Memory, you weaken year to year,
Was it that one or another one
Who traded happy freedom
For a sacred, long-awaited battle.
He knew the pains of hunger and thirst,
Sleep disturbed, the endless road,
But St. George twice touched
His breast untouched by a bullet.
I am the somber and stubborn builder
Of a temple rising up in the gloom.
I covet the glory of Savaoth,
Both in heaven and on earth.
My heart will be scorched to the depths by flame
Until the day when the walls of the New Jerusalem
Will rise up clean
From the fields of my native land.
And then a peculiar wind will blow
And a terrible light will pour from the sky -
The Milky Way will unexpectedly bloom
Like a garden of blinding planets.
An unknown traveler will appear before me,
Hiding his face; but I'll understand all
When I see the lion following his tracks,
And the eagle flying toward him.
I will cry out... but who can prevent
My soul from dying?
Only snakes shed their skin
We change souls, not bodies.