In his letter to V. the hero of VN’s story That in Aleppo Once… (1943) compares himself to that gushing lady in Chekhov who was dying to be described:
I have a story for you. Which reminds me - I mean putting it like this reminds me - of the days when we wrote our first udder-warm bubbling verse, and all things, a rose, a puddle, a lighted window, cried out to us: "I'm a rhyme!" Yes, this is a most useful universe. We play, we die: ig-rhyme, umi-rhyme. And the sonorous souls of Russian verbs lend a meaning to the wild gesticulation of trees or to some discarded newspaper sliding and pausing, and shuffling again, with abortive flaps and apterous jerks along an endless windswept embankment. But just now I am not a poet. I come to you like that gushing lady in Chekhov who was dying to be described.
The heroine of Chekhov’s story Zagadochnaya natura (“An Enigmatic Nature,” 1883) is dying to be described:
Купе первого класса.
На диване, обитом малиновым бархатом, полулежит хорошенькая дамочка. Дорогой бахромчатый веер трещит в ее судорожно сжатой руке, pince-nez то и дело спадает с ее хорошенького носика, брошка на груди то поднимается, то опускается, точно ладья среди волн. Она взволнована... Против нее на диванчике сидит губернаторский чиновник особых поручений, молодой начинающий писатель, помещающий в губернских ведомостях небольшие рассказы или, как сам он называет, «новэллы» — из великосветской жизни... Он глядит ей в лицо, глядит в упор, с видом знатока. Он наблюдает, изучает, улавливает эту эксцентрическую, загадочную натуру, понимает ее, постигает... Душа ее, вся ее психология у него как на ладони.
— О, я постигаю вас! — говорит чиновник особых поручений, целуя её руку около браслета. — Ваша чуткая, отзывчивая душа ищет выхода из лабиринта... Да! Борьба страшная, чудовищная, но... не унывайте! Вы будете победительницей! Да!
— Опишите меня, Вольдемар! — говорит дамочка, грустно улыбаясь. — Жизнь моя так полна, так разнообразна, так пестра... Но главное — я несчастна! Я страдалица во вкусе Достоевского... Покажите миру мою душу, Вольдемар, покажите эту бедную душу! Вы — психолог. Не прошло и часа, как мы сидим в купе и говорим, а вы уже постигли меня всю, всю!
— Говорите! Умоляю вас, говорите!
— Слушайте. Родилась я в бедной чиновничьей семье. Отец добрый малый, умный, но... дух времени и среды... vous comprenez, я не виню моего бедного отца. Он пил, играл в карты... брал взятки... Мать же... Да что говорить! Нужда, борьба за кусок хлеба, сознание ничтожества... Ах, не заставляйте меня вспоминать! Мне нужно было самой пробивать себе путь... Уродливое институтское воспитание, чтение глупых романов, ошибки молодости, первая робкая любовь... А борьба со средой? Ужасно! А сомнения? А муки зарождающегося неверия в жизнь, в себя?.. Ах! Вы писатель и знаете нас, женщин. Вы поймете... К несчастью, я наделена широкой натурой... Я ждала счастья, и какого! Я жаждала быть человеком! Да! Быть человеком — в этом я видела своё счастье!
— Чудная! — лепечет писатель, целуя руку около браслета. — Не вас целую, дивная, а страдание человеческое! Помните Раскольникова? Он так целовал.
— О, Вольдемар! Мне нужна была слава... шум, блеск, как для всякой — к чему скромничать? — недюжинной натуры. Я жаждала чего-то необыкновенного... не женского! И вот... И вот... подвернулся на моем пути богатый старик-генерал... Поймите меня, Вольдемар! Ведь это было самопожертвование, самоотречение, поймите вы! Я не могла поступить иначе. Я обогатила семью, стала путешествовать, делать добро... А как я страдала, как невыносимы, низменно-пошлы были для меня объятия этого генерала, хотя, надо отдать ему справедливость, в свое время он храбро сражался. Бывали минуты... ужасные минуты! Но меня подкрепляла мысль, что старик не сегодня — завтра умрет, что я стану жить, как хотела, отдамся любимому человеку, буду счастлива... А у меня есть такой человек, Вольдемар! Видит бог, есть!
Дамочка усиленно машет веером. Лицо её принимает плачущее выражение.
— Но вот старик умер... Мне он оставил кое-что, я свободна, как птица. Теперь-то и жить мне счастливо... Не правда ли, Вольдемар? Счастье стучится ко мне в окно. Стоит только впустить его, но... нет! Вольдемар, слушайте, заклинаю вас! Теперь-то и отдаться любимому человеку, сделаться его подругой, помощницей, носительницей его идеалов, быть счастливой... отдохнуть... Но как всё пошло, гадко и глупо на этом свете! Как всё подло, Вольдемар! Я несчастна, несчастна, несчастна! На моем пути опять стоит препятствие! Опять я чувствую, что счастье мое далеко, далеко! Ах, сколько мук, если б вы знали! Сколько мук!
— Но что же? Что стало на вашем пути? Умоляю вас, говорите! Что же?
— Другой богатый старик...
Изломанный веер закрывает хорошенькое личико. Писатель подпирает кулаком свою многодумную голову, вздыхает и с видом знатока-психолога задумывается. Локомотив свищет и шикает, краснеют от заходящего солнца оконные занавесочки...
On the red velvet seat of a first-class railway carriage a pretty lady sits half reclining. An expensive fluffy fan trembles in her tightly closed fingers, a pince-nez keeps dropping off her pretty little nose, the brooch heaves and falls on her bosom, like a boat
on the ocean. She is greatly agitated.
On the seat opposite sits the Provincial Secretary of Special Commissions, a budding young author, who from time to time publishes long stories of high life, or "Novelli" as he calls them, in the leading paper of the province. He is gazing into her face, gazing
intently, with the eyes of a connoisseur. He is watching, studying, catching every shade of this exceptional, enigmatic nature. He understands it, he fathoms it. Her soul, her whole psychology lies open before him.
"Oh, I understand, I understand you to your inmost depths!" says the Secretary of Special Commissions, kissing her hand near the bracelet. "Your sensitive, responsive soul is seeking to escape from the maze of ---- Yes, the struggle is terrific, titanic. But do not lose heart, you will be triumphant! Yes!"
"Write about me, Voldemar!" says the pretty lady, with a mournful smile. "My life has been so full, so varied, so chequered. Above all, I am unhappy. I am a suffering soul in some page of Dostoevsky. Reveal my soul to the world, Voldemar. Reveal that hapless soul. You are a psychologist. We have not been in the train an hour together, and you have already fathomed my heart."
“Tell me! I beseech you, tell me!”
“Listen. My father was a poor clerk in the Service. He had a good heart and was not without intelligence; but the spirit of the age—of his environment—vous comprenez?—I do not blame my poor father. He drank, gambled, took bribes. My mother—but why say more? Poverty, the struggle for daily bread, the consciousness of insignificance—ah, do not force me to recall it! I had to make my own way. You know the monstrous education at a boarding-school, foolish novel-reading, the errors of early youth, the first timid flutter of love. It was awful! The vacillation! And the agonies of losing faith in life, in oneself! Ah, you are an author. You know us women. You will understand. Unhappily I have an intense nature. I looked for happiness—and what happiness! I longed to set my soul free. Yes. In that I saw my happiness!”
“Exquisite creature!” murmured the author, kissing her hand close to the bracelet. “It’s not you I am kissing, but the suffering of humanity. Do you remember Raskolnikov and his kiss?”
“Oh, Voldemar, I longed for glory, renown, success, like every—why affect modesty?—every nature above the commonplace. I yearned for something extraordinary, above the common lot of woman! And then—and then—there crossed my path—an old general—very well off. Understand me, Voldemar! It was self-sacrifice, renunciation! You must see that! I could do nothing else. I restored the family fortunes, was able to travel, to do good. Yet how I suffered, how revolting, how loathsome to me were his embraces—though I will be fair to him—he had fought nobly in his day. There were moments—terrible moments—but I was kept up by the thought that from day to day the old man might die, that then I would begin to live as I liked, to give myself to the man I adore—be happy. There is such a man, Voldemar, indeed there is!”
The pretty lady flutters her fan more violently. Her face takes a lachrymose expression. She goes on:
“But at last the old man died. He left me something. I was free as a bird of the air. Now is the moment for me to be happy, isn’t it, Voldemar? Happiness comes tapping at my window, I had only to let it in—but—Voldemar, listen, I implore you! Now is the time for me to give myself to the man I love, to become the partner of his life, to help, to uphold his ideals, to be happy—to find rest—but—how ignoble, repulsive, and senseless all our life is! How mean it all is, Voldemar. I am wretched, wretched, wretched! Again there is an obstacle in my path! Again I feel that my happiness is far, far away! Ah, what anguish!—if only you knew what anguish!”
“But what—what stands in your way? I implore you tell me! What is it?”
“Another old general, very well off——”
The broken fan conceals the pretty little face. The author props on his fist his thought-heavy brow and ponders with the air of a master in psychology. The engine is whistling and hissing while the window curtains flush red with the glow of the setting sun.
The lady’s broken fan brings to mind “Her fan, her gloves, her mask” mentioned by the author of the letter in That in Aleppo Once…:
Some time later, as I sat on the edge of the only chair in my garret and held her by her slender young hips (she was combing her soft hair and tossing her head back with every stroke), her dim smile changed all at once into an odd quiver and she placed one hand on my shoulder, staring down at me as if I were a reflection in a pool, which she had noticed for the first time. "I've been lying to you, dear," she said. "Ya lgunia. I stayed for several nights in Montpellier with a brute of a man I met on the train. I did not want it at all. He sold hair lotions."
The time, the place, the torture. Her fan, her gloves, her mask. I spent that night and many others getting it out of her bit by bit, but not getting it all. I was under the strange delusion that first I must find out every detail, reconstruct every minute, and only then decide whether I could bear it. But the limit of desired knowledge was unattainable, nor could I ever foretell the approximate point after which I might imagine myself satiated, because of course the denominator of every fraction of knowledge was potentially as infinite as the number of intervals between the fractions themselves.
Lgunia means "a liar" (of the fair sex). In Shakespeare’s Othello (5.2) Othello compares his dead wife to a liar:
She's, like a liar, gone to burning hell:
'Twas I that kill'd her.
Lgunia rhymes with poprygunia. Maska (“The Mask,” 1884) and Poprygunia (“The Grasshopper,” 1892) are the stories by Chekhov.
At the end of Othello Lodovico mentions “the time, the place, the torture:”
To you, lord governor,
Remains the censure of this hellish villain;
The time, the place, the torture: O, enforce it!
Myself will straight aboard: and to the state
This heavy act with heavy heart relate. (ibid.)
As he speaks to Emilia, Othello mentions Desdemona’s fan, gloves and mask:
OTH. Yes, you have seen Cassio and she together.
EMIL. But then I saw no harm, and then I heard
Each syllable that breath made up between them.
OTH. What? Did they never whisper?
EMIL. Never, my lord.
OTH. Nor send you out o’ th’ way?
OTH. To fetch her fan, her gloves, her mask, nor nothing?
EMIL. Never, my lord.
OTH. That’s strange.(4.2)
In a letter of Oct. 9, 1888, to Mme Lintvaryov (the owner of a farm in Ukraine where Chekhov spent the summer) Chekhov (who just received the Pushkin Prize) says that the prize award will be officially announced at the Academy on October 19 and quotes Othello's monologue (3.3) in Veynberg’s translation:
Получил я известие, что Академия наук присудила мне Пушкинскую премию в 500 р. Это, должно быть, известно уже Вам из газетных телеграмм. Официально объявят об этом 19-го октября в публичном заседании Академии с подобающей случаю классической торжественностью. Это, должно быть, за то, что я раков ловил.
Премия, телеграммы, поздравления, приятели, актёры, актрисы, пьесы — всё это выбило меня из колеи. Прошлое туманится в голове, я ошалел; тина и чертовщина городской, литераторской суеты охватывают меня, как спрут-осьминог. Всё пропало! Прощай лето, прощайте раки, рыба, остроносые челноки, прощай моя лень, прощай голубенький костюмчик.
Прощай, покой, прости, мое довольство!
Всё, всё прости! Прости, мой ржущий конь,
И звук трубы, и грохот барабана,
И флейты свист, и царственное знамя,
Все почести, вся слава, всё величье
И бурные тревоги славных войн!
Простите вы, смертельные орудья,
Которых гул несётся по земле,
Как грозный гром бессмертного Зевеса!
Если когда-нибудь страстная любовь выбивала Вас из прошлого и настоящего, то то же самое почти я чувствую теперь. Ах, нехорошо всё это, доктор, нехорошо! Уж коли стал стихи цитировать, то, стало быть, нехорошо!
Farewell the tranquil mind! farewell content!
Farewell the plumed troop, and the big wars,
That make ambition virtue! O, farewell!
Farewell the neighing steed, and the shrill trump,
The spirit-stirring drum, the ear-piercing fife,
The royal banner, and all quality,
Pride, pomp and circumstance of glorious war!
And, O you mortal engines, whose rude throats
The immortal Jove's dead clamours counterfeit,
In the next scene (3.4) of Shakespeare's tragedy Othello mentions a two-hundred-year-old Egyptian sibyl who gave his mother a magic handkerchief:
'Tis true. There’s magic in the web of it.
A sibyl, that had numbered in the world
The sun to course two hundred compasses,
In her prophetic fury sewed the work.
The worms were hallowed that did breed the silk,
And it was dyed in mummy which the skillful
Conserved of maidens' hearts.
Duchess of Payn, of Great Payn and Moan, Queen Disa (the King’s wife in VN’s novel Pale Fire, 1962) seems to blend Leonardo’s Mona Lisa with Shakespeare’s Desdemona. The “real” name of both Sybil Shade (the poet’s wife whom Kinbote, Shade’s mad commentator who imagines that he is Charles the Beloved, the last self-exiled king of Zembla, calls “Sybil Swallow”) and Queen Disa seems to be Sofia Botkin. In a letter of June 11, 1831, to Vyazemski Pushkin asks Vyazemski if Sofia Karamzin (the historian’s daughter) reigns on the saddle and quotes King Richard's famous words at the end of Shakespeare’s history play Richard III (5.4):
Что Софья Николаевна? царствует на седле? A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse!
“A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse!” is the epigraph to Vyazemski's poem Progulka v stepi ("A Ride in the Steppe," 1831). Chekhov was awarded the Pushkin Prize for his story Step’ (“The Steppe,” 1888).
In Shakespeare’s play Richmond says that true hope is swift and flies with swallow’s wings:
True hope is swift, and flies with swallow’s wings.
Kings it makes gods, and meaner creatures kings. (Richard III, 5.2)
The “real” name of Hazel Shade (the poet’s daughter) seems to be Nadezhda Botkin. Nadezhda means “hope.” An American scholar of Russian descent, Professor Vsevolod Botkin went mad and became Shade, Kinbote and Gradus (the poet’s murderer) after the tragic death of his daughter. There is a hope that, after Kinbote completes his work on Shade’s poem and commits suicide (on Oct. 19, 1959), Botkin, like Count Vorontsov (a target of Pushkin’s epigrams, “half-milord, half-merchant, etc.”), will be full again. In a classical Russian translation “My kingdom for a horse!” (King Richard’s words) is pol-tsarstva za konya (half of my kingdom for a horse).
Describing his ten secret trysts with Ada in Mont Roux, Van Veen (the narrator and main character in VN’s novel Ada, 1969) calls Demonia (aka Antiterra, Earth’s twin planet on which Ada is set) “Desdemonia:”
That meeting, and the nine that followed, constituted the highest ridge of their twenty-one-year-old love: its complicated, dangerous, ineffably radiant coming of age. The somewhat Italianate style of the apartment, its elaborate wall lamps with ornaments of pale caramel glass, its white knobbles that produced indiscriminately light or maids, the slat-eyes, veiled, heavily curtained windows which made the morning as difficult to disrobe as a crinolined prude, the convex sliding doors of the huge white 'Nuremberg Virgin'-like closet in the hallway of their suite, and even the tinted engraving by Randon of a rather stark three-mast ship on the zigzag green waves of Marseilles Harbor – in a word, the alberghian atmosphere of those new trysts added a novelistic touch (Aleksey and Anna may have asterisked here!) which Ada welcomed as a frame, as a form, something supporting and guarding life, otherwise unprovidenced on Desdemonia, where artists are the only gods. (3.8)
In Pushkin’s little tragedy Mozart and Salieri (1830) Salieri calls Mozart bog (a god)
Какая смелость и какая стройность!
Ты, Моцарт, бог, и сам того не знаешь;
Я знаю, я.
Ба! право? может быть...
Но божество мое проголодалось.
What symmetry and what audacity!
You, Mozart, are a god -- and you don't know it.
But I, I know.
Well! rightly? well, perhaps...
But My Divinity has gotten hungry. (scene I)
and Mozart uses the phrase nikto b (none would), Botkin in reverse:
Когда бы все так чувствовали силу
Гармонии! но нет; тогда б не мог
И мир существовать; никто б не стал
Заботиться о нуждах низкой жизни;
Все предались бы вольному искусству.
If all could feel like you the power of harmony!
But no: the world could not go on then. None
Would bother with the needs of lowly life;
All would surrender to free art. (scene II)
In their old age (even on the last day of their long lives) Van and Ada translate Shade's poem into Russian:
She insisted that if there were no future, then one had the right of making up a future, and in that case one’s very own future did exist, insofar as one existed oneself. Eighty years quickly passed — a matter of changing a slide in a magic lantern. They had spent most of the morning reworking their translation of a passage (lines 569-572) in John Shade’s famous poem:
...Sovetï mï dayom
Kak bït’ vdovtsu: on poteryal dvuh zhyon;
On ih vstrechaet — lyubyashchih, lyubimïh,
Revnuyushchih ego drug k druzhke...
(...We give advice
To widower. He has been married twice:
He meets his wives, both loved, both loving, both
Jealous of one another...)
Van pointed out that here was the rub — one is free to imagine any type of hereafter, of course: the generalized paradise promised by Oriental prophets and poets, or an individual combination; but the work of fancy is handicapped — to a quite hopeless extent — by a logical ban: you cannot bring your friends along — or your enemies for that matter — to the party. The transposition of all our remembered relationships into an Elysian life inevitably turns it into a second-rate continuation of our marvelous mortality. Only a Chinaman or a retarded child can imagine being met, in that Next-Installment World, to the accompaniment of all sorts of tail-wagging and groveling of welcome, by the mosquito executed eighty years ago upon one’s bare leg, which has been amputated since then and now, in the wake of the gesticulating mosquito, comes back, stomp, stomp, stomp, here I am, stick me on.
She did not laugh; she repeated to herself the verses that had given them such trouble. The Signy brain-shrinkers would gleefully claim that the reason the three ‘boths’ had been skipped in the Russian version was not at all, oh, not at all, because cramming three cumbersome amphibrachs into the pentameter would have necessitated adding at least one more verse for carrying the luggage.
‘Oh, Van, oh Van, we did not love her enough. That’s whom you should have married, the one sitting feet up, in ballerina black, on the stone balustrade, and then everything would have been all right — I would have stayed with you both in Ardis Hall, and instead of that happiness, handed out gratis, instead of all that we teased her to death!’ (5.6)
The three 'boths' in Shade's poem bring to mind the three 'hers' ("Her fan, her gloves, her mask") in That in Aleppo Once... In VN's story the heroine's lover sales hair lotions. When Van and Lucette (Van's and Ada's half-sister whom they teased to death) cross the Atlantic on the Admiral Tobakoff, Lucette mentions oceans of lotions and streams of creams:
She returned after a brief swim to the sun terrace where Van lay and said:
‘You can’t imagine’ — (‘I can imagine anything,’ he insisted) — ‘you can imagine, okay, what oceans of lotions and streams of creams I am compelled to use — in the privacy of my balconies or in desolate sea caves — before I can exhibit myself to the elements. I always teeter on the tender border between sunburn and suntan — or between lobster and Obst as writes Herb, my beloved painter — I’m reading his diary published by his last duchess, it’s in three mixed languages and lovely, I’ll lend it to you. You see, darling, I’d consider myself a pied cheat if the small parts I conceal in public were not of the same color as those on show.’ (3.5)
Chekhov is the author of the two monologue scenes O vrede tabaka ("On the Harm of Tobacco," 1886, 1903).
At the end of his letter to V. the hero of VN's story quotes Othello's words "but yet the pity of it, Iago! / O Iago, the pity of it, Iago!" (4.1):
Yet the pity of it. Curse your art, I am hideously unhappy. She keeps on walking to and fro where the brown nets are spread to dry on the hot stone slabs and the dappled light of the water plays on the side of a moored fishing boat. Somewhere, somehow, I have made some fatal mistake. There are tiny pale bits of broken fish scales glistening here and there in the brown meshes. It may all end in Aleppo if I am not careful. Spare me, V.: you would load your dice with an unbearable implication if you took that for a title.
In VN's story all quotes from Shakespeare's Othello are italicized. In VN’s novel Lolita (1955) Humbert Humbert mentions a French detective tale where the clues were actually in italics:
I now warn the reader not to mock me and my mental daze. It is easy for him and me to decipher now a past destiny; but a destiny in the making is, believe me, not one of those honest mystery stories where all you have to do is keep an eye on the clues. In my youth I once read a French detective tale where the clues were actually in italics; but that is not McFate’s way – even if one does learn to recognize certain obscure indications. (2.16)
Like Chekhov's story Shvedskaya spichka ("The Swedish Match," 1884), in which, incidentally, no crime is committed, That in Aleppo Once... is a parody of those honest mystery stories. But, if we keep an eye on the clues, we find out that the hero is a murderer and that he commits suicide after killing his wife and his wife's lover.
After murdering Clare Quilty (Lolita's lover), Humbert Humbert asks Lolita not to pity CQ:
Thus, neither of us is alive when the reader opens this book. But while the blood still throbs through my writing hand, you are still as much part of blessed matter as I am, and I can still talk to you from here to Alaska. Be true to your Dick. Do not let other fellows touch you. Do not talk to strangers. I hope you will love your baby. I hope it will be a boy. That husband of yours, I hope, will always treat you well, because otherwise my specter shall come at him, like black smoke, like a demented giant, and pull him apart nerve by nerve. And do not pity C. Q. One had to choose between him and H. H., and one wanted H. H. to exist at least a couple of months longer, so as to have him make you live in the minds of later generations. I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art. And this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita. (2.36)
According to John Ray, Jr. (the author of the Foreword to HH’s manuscript), Humbert Humbert died in legal captivity, of coronary thrombosis, on Nov. 16, 1952. But it seems that "coronary thrombosis" is just an euphemism and that, immediately after completing his manuscript, HH commits suicide.