Vladimir Nabokov

Number 50 (Spring 2003) The Nabokovian

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                                          THE NABOKOVIAN


   Number 50                                                                    Spring 2003





News                                                                                                      3
by Stephen Jan Parker

Pierre, or the Ambiguities of Allusion                                    6
by Brian Boyd

by Suellen Stringer-Hye

Thou Are Not Thou: Evelyn Waugh and                             24
Vladimir Nabokov
by Margarit Tadevosyan and Maxim D. Shrayer

Notes and Brief Commentaries                                              40
by Priscilla Meyer

“The Sores of Eros in Nabokov’s Ada”                                40
–Alexey Sklyarenko

“A Note on the Last Name of Dolores                                   51
Haze alias Lolita”
–Alexander Dolinin


“References to Russian Art in The Defense”                      58

–Gavriel Shapiro

‘‘Pninelungenlied: The Siegfried Myth in                          63

Nabokov’s Pnin'
–Alex Rocklin

“On the Parallel of Lake Ohrida”                                            72
–Mikhail Avrekh

Annotations to Ada: 21. Part I Chapter 21                            75
by Brian Boyd


Note on content:

This webpage contains the full content of the print version of Nabokovian Number 50, except for:

  • Brian Boyd’s “Annotations to Ada” (because superseded by, updated, hyperlinked and freely available on, his website AdaOnline).


by Stephen Jan Parker


Nabokov Society News

In 2002, the Society had 204 individual members (138 USA, 66 abroad) and 89 institutional members (74 USA, 15 abroad). Society membership/subscription income for the year was $6,092; expenses were $5,605. Thanks to the generosity of its members, in 2002 the Society forwarded $496 to The Pennsylvania State University for support of the Zembla website.

The annual Society panels at next winter’s MLA Convention in San Diego, 27-30 December, are (1) “Approaches to Teaching Lolita,” chaired by Zoran Kuzmanovich and (2) “Nabokov After Lolita: Pnin and Pale Fire,” chaired by Charles D. Nicol.

The annual Society panel at the American Literature Association Convention, held this spring in Cambridge, Massachusetts, chaired by Susan Elizabeth Sweeney, had as its topic, “Vladimir Nabokov, Private Investigator: Detective Stories, True Crime, Espionage Fiction, and Film Noir Influences.”


On April 24 the St. Petersburg, Russia, Nabokov Museum held an evening in memory of Natalia Ivanovna Artemenko-Tolstaia, who passed away on 24 January. To quote Brian Boyd, she was “a tireless collector, coordinator and promoter of things Nabokovian....Her enthusiasm, her knowledge and insight, her good grace in establishing and maintaining contacts among Nabokovians, and her energy and optimism,


even as her health failed, will all be sorely missed.” To quote Dmitri Nabokov, “The correspondence with her was long a source of joy for my mother, and her devotion to my father’s works was a joy for us both.”


Odds and Ends

— The St. Petersburg Nabokov Museum is hosting its fourth annual summer study program, August 4-12. The instructors will be Prof. Julian Connolly and Prof. Alexander Dolinin. Lectures and seminars will cover various subjects with a strong emphasis on applying modern critical methodology to the study of Nabokov’s work. For additional information contact Tatyana Ponomareva at vnabokov@mail.wplus.net. To learn more about the various programs and events sponsored by the Nabokov Museum check out their new website, www.nabokovinrussia.org.

— Leona Toker has brought to our attention a new publication, Partial Answers: Journal of Literature and the History of Ideas (The Hebrew University Magnes Press, P.O. Box 39099, Jerusalem 91390, Israel). It has and will continue to regularly review publications on Nabokov and welcomes articles on the history-of-ideas aspect of Nabokov’s work.


Recent Books

— Jane Grayson, Priscilla Meyer and Arnold McMillin eds. Nabokov’s World. Two volumes. London: Macmillan. 2001. Omitted in the 2001 Annual Bibliography.


— Ellen Pifer, ed. Vladimir Nabokov’s LOLITA: A Casebook. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2003.


Thanks, as always, to Ms. Paula Courtney for her constant support and assistance in the production of this publication.



by Brian Boyd

Nabokov, who almost never pays homage to American authors in his fiction in the way he does to Shakespeare, Chateaubriand, Pushkin, Flaubert, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Proust or Joyce, clearly admired Herman Melville. He echoes Moby-Dick in Bend Sinister, he at least alludes to Pierre, and probably echoes it, in Lolita, and he echoes Melville again in Ada (see Suellen Stringer-Hye, “The Weed Exiles the Flower (Melville and Nabokov),” Nabokov Studies 5 [1998-99], 117-27).

The allusion in Lolita seems likely to be not merely a play on Pierre’s title, but proof that Nabokov knew its contents. Humbert recovers from a breakdown by joining an expedition into arctic Canada whose aim remains obscure:

Judging by the number of meteorologists upon it, we may have been tracking to its lair (somewhere on Prince of Wales’ Island, I understand) the wandering and wobbly north magnetic pole. One group, jointly with the Canadians, established a weather station on Pierre Point in Melville Sound. (Vintage Annotated Lolita 1.9, 33)

Stringer-Hye claims that there is a Pierre Point on Melville Sound, but this seems unlikely. (There are many “Pierres” and “St. Pierres” among Canadian place-names, but not in Viscount Melville Sound, which lies between Prince of Wales Island and Melville Island, although it seems that there was a name “Point au Pierre” briefly given to Becher Point, to the south of Victoria Island rather than the north, where Viscount Melville Sound lies.) By 1944, when Humbert’s expedition appears to have taken place, the North Magnetic Pole was creeping northward toward the northern tip of Prince of Wales Island, and by 1952,


when Humbert and Nabokov were writing this, it was in the middle of Viscount Melville Sound. But Nabokov surely pays homage here to the following passage in Pierre:

But the example of many minds forever lost, like undiscoverable Arctic explorers, amid those treacherous regions [“those Hyperborean regions, to which enthusiastic Truth, and Earnestness, and Independence, will invariably lead a mind fitted by nature for profound and fearless thought”], warns us entirely away from them; and we learn that it is not for man to follow the trail of truth too far, since by so doing he entirely loses the directing compass of his mind; for arrived at the Pole, to whose barrenness only it points, there, the needle indifferently respects all points of the horizon alike.

(1851; Pierre, Israel Potter, The Piazza Tales, The Confidence-Man, Uncollected Prose, Billy Budd, Sailor, ed. Harrison Hayford, New York: Library of America, 1984, IX. i, 196)

Did Nabokov also recall and pay homage to Pierre, or the Ambiguities when he subsequently wrote Ada, or Ardor? If Pierre is described as a novel about brother-sister incest, whose main character is a nineteenth-century American aristocrat, and whose plot moves from an idyllic first love in the summer countryside to a much darker New York, where the hero immediately writes his unsuccessful first novel, and his half-sister, already on edge because of his inclining to his other love, Lucy, commits suicide, then its relation to Ada might seem certain. All the more so if we note that Melville wrote the novel in the study of his newly-acquired farm, Arrowhead, near Pittsfield, Massachusetts, since Ardis’s name means “point of an arrow” in Greek (Ada 225), and Van just before heading to New York to write Letters from Terra refers back to the scene of his love for Ada as “Arrowhead Manor” (318).

But the case is not so clearcut. The one unequivocal allusion to Melville in Ada is to his poem “The Ravaged Villa,” and not


to Pierre. In Ada, as elsewhere, Nabokov may distort or disguise allusions, but he also repeats and even insists on his key allusions (Genesis, Bosch, Shakespeare, Marvell, Chateaubriand, Pushkin, Tolstoy, Rimbaud, Proust, for instance), and he makes each of them count. Despite paying close note to Pierre for any sound or overtone echoed in Ada, I am not positive I could hear anything.

Yet, some readers will feel sure, the summary above itself surely establishes the connection beyond doubt. How many novels about brother-sister incest among nineteenth-century American aristocrats can there be, especially where the hero leaves his summer love to live with someone else in New York and there think up a novel? Many postulated connections between work A and work В have involved far fewer and less singular correspondences. But that is the danger of summaries. From two long works with thousands of features, it is easy to single out those that sound strikingly similar.

Nabokov once famously wondered whether it was worth a critic’s time “to exhibit erotic bits picked out of Lolita and Ada—a process rather like looking for allusions to aquatic mammals in Moby Dick” (SO 304). Yet I cannot help exhibiting incestuous and other bits picked out of Ada and the novel Melville wrote after Moby-Dick, which may be connected, but to me remain tantalizingly inconclusive.

Whether incest actually occurs in Pierre is itself ambiguous, as it is not in Ada, but that Melville has made the possibility of incest permeate his novel is beyond doubt. Pierre lives at home with his strikingly youthful and attractive mother, who “still eclipsed far younger charms, and had she chosen to encourage them, would have been followed by a train of infatuated suitors, little less young than her own son Pierre” (I. ii, 8). But, we read, “a reverential and devoted son seemed lover enough for this widow” (I. ii, 9). Bizarrely, Mrs Glendinning and her son call each other not “Pierre” and “Mother” but “brother Pierre” and “sister Mary”; yet despite this playing at brother and sister,


Mary Glendinning revives miraculously “in the courteous loverlike adoration of Pierre” (I. v, 22).

Pierre and his childhood playmate Lucy Tartan are exaltedly in love, but just as his mother consents to his marrying Lucy, Pierre receives a letter signed “THY SISTER, ISABEL” (III. v, 79). Guessing correctly it comes from the beautiful young woman who recently shrieked out at the announcement of his name, he agrees to her invitation to meet, and is convinced by her story she is an unacknowledged daughter his father has had by a Frenchwoman. Immediately he wants to do justice to this outcast, to acknowledge and protect her as a Glendinning, but he discovers his mother’s and his minister’s attitude to children born out of wedlock, and decides he cannot embarrass his mother or damage his father’s reputation by trying to have Isabel openly admitted as his sister. His solution, which he thinks high-minded, but which Melville makes clear he would not have arrived at had she not been so attractive, is to take her with him to New York, and live with her, letting the world imagine that they are Mr and Mrs Glendinning.

His blunt announcement that he is already “married” nearly destroys Lucy, and kills his mother, although not before she has had time to disinherit him. In New York, he had hoped for support from his cousin and childhood friend Glendinning Stanly, who however spurns him. Without other income, he sets to writing a novel in the garret apartment he now shares with Isabel and their servant.

He hears that Glen, who seemed to have fled to Europe to allay his grief after realizing Pierre and Lucy were in love (like Dan Veen, who takes “a triple trip around the globe” “to air his feelings” [5] after Marina rejects him because of her feelings for his cousin Demon), has apparently now begun to pay suit to Lucy. Pierre is livid with jealousy, but months pass, when he suddenly receives a letter from Lucy, who makes no mention of Glen, still loves Pierre, and somehow seems to know that his “marriage” to Isabel is a pretense he maintains for some


inscrutable but noble and self-sacrificing motive. She writes that she will come and live with them, but make no claim on him, especially as against his “wife,” and will pass herself off as his nun-like cousin. As she arrives, Glen and Lucy’s brother try in vain to prevent her reaching Pierre’s apartment.

By their mutual wariness and yet selfless devotion to Pierre, Lucy, the still-loved ex-fiancée and Isabel, the secret sister and ostensible wife, intensify the hell of Pierre’s doomed attempt to write his way out of poverty. When Glen insults Pierre to provoke a duel, Pierre searches out two pistols but, further provoked, discharges one straight at his cousin. Visiting Pierre in his prison cell, Lucy collapses and dies from the shock when she hears Isabel admit she is his sister; Pierre seizes a vial Isabel keeps around her throat and drinks down its poison, but leaves enough to kill her too; all three end the novel lifeless on the cell floor.

In this more detailed plot summary, there now seems much less overlap between Pierre and Ada than in the selected similarities first noted. Yet there are many strange congruences.

Pierre’s love for Lucy unfolds in “the green and golden world” (I. i, 7) of his family manor and lush lands. Like Nabokov doubling Europe across the Atlantic in New Cheshire or Kaluga, Mayne, Melville stresses that “our America will make out a good general case with England in this short little matter of large estates, and long pedigrees. ... In general terms we have been thus decided in asserting the great genealogical and real-estate dignity of some families in America, because in so doing we poetically establish the richly aristocratic condition of Master Pierre Glendinning” (I. iii-iv, 17). Part of the genealogy Melville, like Nabokov, takes care to establish early in the novel includes his grandfather, General Glendinning, who “in the Revolutionary War... had for several months defended a rude but all-important fort, against the repeated combined assaults of Indians, Tories, and Regulars” (I. ii, 10) (an echo of Melville’s own maternal grandfather, Peter Gansevoort, 1749-1812, who


would become a brigadier general and the “hero of Fort Stanwix” after his 1775 defense of this fort). Ada’s opening genealogy introduces us to Van’s maternal grandfather “General Ivan Durmanov, Commander of Yukon Fortress and peaceful country gentleman, with lands in the Severn Tories (Severnïyaya Territorii)” somewhere “under our Stars and Stripes.” (3). A fort, Tories, a general as the grandfather of an American aristocrat virtually married to his sister: can this be coincidence?

From the start of Pierre’s and Isabel’s relationship there is a frisson of sexual attraction. In fact the incestuous note sounds even before Pierre discovers he has a sister, first in his “loverlike adoration” of the mother he calls sister, and then in a curious comment on his being raised an only child: “He who is sisterless, is as a bachelor before his time. For much that goes to make up the deliciousness of a wife, already lies in the sister” (I. ii, 12). Like Van and Ada, Pierre and Isabel have been brought up not knowing they are related, but by the time Isabel deduces Pierre is her brother, and writes proposing a meeting, he has been struck by her beauty, and Melville wryly observes: “Thus, already, and ere the proposed encounter, he was assured that, in a transcendent degree, womanly beauty, and not womanly ugliness, invited him to champion the truth” (V. vii, 130). The remoteness of brother and sister in childhood, as in Van and Ada’s case, allows room for desire to grow: “Fate had separated the brother and sister, till to each other they somehow seemed so not at all. Sisters shrink not from their brother’s kisses. And Pierre felt that never, never would he be able to embrace Isabel with the mere brotherly embrace; while the thought of any other caress, which took hold of any domesticness, was entirely vacant from his uncontaminated soul, for it had never consciously intruded there” (VII. viii, 170). Never consciously, Melville carefully notes.

For all the coyness of mid-nineteenth-century novelistic decorum, Melville encourages rather than suppresses the incestuous implications of Pierre’s strange plan to announce to


the world that he and Isabel (whose origins no one else knows) are husband and wife: “the latent germ of Pierre’s proposed extraordinary mode of executing his proposed extraordinary resolve—namely, the nominal conversion of a sister into a wife—might have been found in the previous conversational conversion of a mother into a sister” (X. i, 209). Melville cannot go so far as to detail sexual relations between them, however, and in any case he seems to prefer ambiguous possibility to flagrant actuality. But he is not reticent about their desire:

The girl moved not; was done with all her tremblings; leaned closer to him, with an inexpressible strangeness of an intense love, new and inexplicable. Over the face of Pierre there shot a terrible self-revelation; he imprinted repeated burning kisses upon her; pressed hard her hand; would not let go her sweet and awful passiveness.
        Then they changed; they coiled together, and entangledly stood mute. (Xll. i, 228)

When desire becomes strongest, Pierre asks Isabel, “How knowst thou I am thy brother?” (XlX. ii, 318), as if in the hope of removing the one obstacle to acting on his desire—yet he knows there is no real reason to doubt she is his father’s daughter.

Ada plays with incest in such a way that Van and Ada are not only siblings, but ostensible first cousins, second cousins and third cousins. Melville too compounds the incest theme, not only by the “brother-sister-lover” relationship between Pierre and his mother, but by having Lucy, when she writes announcing that she is determined to join Pierre and his “wife” in New York, search for a pretext for her arrival in family relationship: “Is there not some connection between our families, Pierre? I have heard my mother sometimes trace such a thing out,—some indirect cousinship. If thou approvest, then, thou shalt say to [Isabel], I am thy cousin, Pierre;—thy resolved and immovable


nun-like cousin; vowed to dwell with thee forever.” (XXIII. ii, 361) But scrutinizing them intently, Isabel is not quite convinced: “Sometimes, to the covertly watchful eye of Isabel, he would seem to look upon Lucy with an expression illy befitting their singular and so-supposed merely cousinly relation” (XXV. iii, 391).

Melville sounds the incestuous note in other ways, in, for instance, a painting of the Cenci (“incest and parricide,” he makes explicit [XXVI. i, 407], in case anyone does not know their story) that holds Lucy ’ s attention near the end of the novel, and especially in the troubled Pierre’s hallucinatory revisitation of the landscape around his parents’ estate, where a rocky outcrop seems to represent “Enceladus the Titan, the most potent of all the giants, writhing from out the imprisoning earth ... that deathless son of Terra” (XXV. iv, 400). Recalling the old fables, Pierre broods on the story of incest compounded upon incest: “Old Titan’s self was the son of incestuous Coelus and Terra, the son of incestuous Heaven and Earth. And Titan married his mother Terra, another and accumulatively incestuous match. And thereof Enceladus was one issue. So Enceladus was both the son and grandson of an incest; and even thus, there had been born from the organic blended heavenliness and earthiness of Pierre, another mixed, uncertain, heaven-aspiring, but still not wholly earth-emancipated mood; which again, by its terrestrial taint held down to its terrestrial mother, generated there the present doubly incestuous Enceladus within him; so that the present mood of Pierre—that reckless sky-assaulting mood of his, was nevertheless on one side the grandson of the sky.” (XXV. v, 402) The Terra and Antiterra theme in Ada surely owes something to this myth, and as D. Barton Johnson and Suellen Stringer-Hye note, the “Zemski” and “Temnosiniy” (from the Russian root for “earth” and the traditional epithet for “sky”) ancestors of the incestuous Veens alluded to in Ada’s opening chapter evoke versions of this myth (Johnson, Worlds


in Regression [Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1985], 129; Stringer-Hye, 123).

One other theme running through Pierre also matches a central theme in Ada: the interpenetration of heaven and hell, or in the case of Pierre, rather, the illusion of heaven or paradise giving way to the reality of hell. Reflecting on his first glimpse of the hauntingly sorrowful face of Isabel, before he knows she is his sister, Pierre thinks of her as “One of those faces . . . . ever hovering between Tartarean misery and Paradisiac beauty; such faces, compounded so of hell and heaven, overthrow in us all foregone persuasions, and make us wondering children in this world again” (Ill. i, 54). By the time he is installed in New York, “with him it is Hell-day and an eaten liver forever. . . . This recalling of innocence and joy in the hour of remorsefulness and woe; this is as heating red-hot the pincers that tear us” (XXI. ii, 333). As the tragedy closes in, Pierre stands in his prison-cell looking back over his fateful decision to make Isabel somehow or other a Glendinning: “Had I been heartless now, disowned, and spurningly portioned off the girl at Saddle Meadows, then had I been happy through a long life on earth, and perchance through a long eternity in heaven! Now, ’tis merely hell in both worlds. Well, be it hell.” (XXVI. vi, 418) Van’s world is never so hellish, but the ad (hell) in “Ada,” the Demonia in Antiterra, the collapse of the Villa Venuses’ “parodies of paradise” towards the hellish, the Boschean overtones of Dan’s death and much, much more, complicate the Edenic and idyllic of Ardis’s paradise.

Nevertheless, even despite the “General” and “Tories” and “fort” in both genealogies, I am not quite sure there is anything so far specific enough to say Nabokov was deliberately evoking Pierre in Ada. He has other sources for the incest theme, which derives more from Chateaubriand and the probable suicide of the writer’s sister Lucile, who seems to have loved him too much, and the intermixture of heaven and hell is a Nabokovian theme already in Lolita (1.31: “I am trying to describe these


things... to sort out the portion of hell and the portion of heaven in that strange, awful, maddening world—nymphet love”) and in Ada derives above all from Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights. But Van’s breaking away from Ada and Ardis and living with Cordula in Manhattan, where he conceives the idea for his first book, perhaps does owe something to Pierre that Ada even acknowledges. Van sees himself as expelled from paradise, and although unlike Pierre his arrival in New York is not into a hell on earth, Ada’s letters to Van, imploring him to write to her, talk to her, respond to her, are to her howls “iz ada (out of Hades)” (332), and for all Van’s attempts not to think about her, it is her letters that become the focus of Letters from Terra.

Van’s novel fails to create much impression on readers, and the satirical account of its reception in New York limns a publishing, bookselling and reviewing world more often motivated by personal association than by impersonal recognition of merit. The novel that Pierre sits down to write in his high New York room after leaving the love of his youth and the home of his favorite memories is even less promising, and provokes an even more hostile reception from the publisher who had paid him an advance and furiously rejects what he has produced. Melville’s extended satire on publishers and readers seems to skew Pierre’s original scheme, but it raises the novel’s imaginative temperature.

Van’s Letters from Terra receives only two reviews, one at the instigation of “Gwen, a fat little fille de joie (by inclination if not by profession),” who “squealed on one of her new admirers, confessing she had begged him to write” a review of Letters from Terra—which concludes “If Mr. Voltemand ... is a psychiatrist, as I think he might be, then I pity his patients, while admiring his talent”—

because she could not bear to see Van’s “crooked little
smile” at finding his beautifully bound and boxed book so


badly neglected. She also swore that Max not only did m know who Voltemand really was, but had not read Van novel. Van toyed with the idea of challenging Mr. Medk (who, he hoped, would choose swords) to a duel at dawn i a secluded corner of the Park whose central green he could see from the penthouse terrace where he fenced with a French coach twice a week, the only exercise, save riding, that he still indulged in; but to his surprise—and relief (for he was a little ashamed to defend his “novelette” and only wished to forget it, just as another, unrelated, Veen might have denounced—if allowed a longer life—his pubescent dream of ideal bordels) Max Mushmula (Russian for “medlar”) answered Van’s tentative cartel with the warmhearted promise of sending him his next article, “The Weed Exiles the Flower” (Melville & Marvell). (344-45)

The main allusion here, anticipating the decay of the Villa Venus chain, another collapse from paradise into hell, is to Melville’s poem “The Ravaged Villa,” first published in 1891:

In shards the sylvan vases lie.
Their links of dance undone,
And brambles wither by thy brim,
Choked fountain of the sun!
The spider in the laurel spins,
The weed exiles the flower:
And, flung to kiln, Apollo’s bust
Makes lime for Mammon’s tower.

The poem reflects Melville’s experience of readers’ indifference or hostility to his determined pursuit of his own difficult artistic path, an experience (at that stage, the uncomprehending response of the early reviewers of Moby-Dick) that also underlies the bitter satire surrounding Pierre’s attempts to survive in New York as a writer. Indeed “The Ravaged Villa” could almost be the kind of poem Pierre might himself have written to express


his plight, had his writerly gift not been so meager and so quick to wilt under pressure.

In Ada, of course, the critical and commercial failure of Letters from Terra is much more comic than the nightmare of Pierre’s novel, even if Van’s work does arise from his bitter flight to New York from the paradise of his love for Ada. Max Mispel’s (or Medlar’s or Mushmula’s) “The Weed Exiles the Flower” seems a comically inept appeasement for a disgruntled author, since it could be taken to imply that Van’s novel is one of the weeds that overruns the literary garden. But the poem seems to suggest a congruity in Melville’s reception as author, and Pierre’s, and Van’s, and to confirm that Nabokov may indeed have had Pierre in mind when he wrote his own story of incest, American aristocracy, and a flight from the heaven of first love to the hell of first bitter disappointment.

But in comparison with the distorted but unmistakable echo of Anna Karenin in the opening of Ada or in Van’s near-suicidal despair on a railway platform as he waits for a train to take him forever from Ardis, the signs of Pierre's presence in Ada, and its implications for the novel, still remain all too ambiguous. Unless we see in Pierre, living in New York, tormented by the conflicting claims of two women’s adoration— one his first love, the other his half-sister—a prefiguration of Van in his Manhattan apartment, with both Ada and Lucette pressing for his attention, or listening years later to Ada’s response to translating Shade’s “He meets his wives; both loved, both loving, both / Jealous of one another “Oh, Van, oh Van …. That’s whom you should have married” (586).


by Suellen Stringer-Hye

While it may be true that there is not currently a Pierre Point in the Viscount Melville Sound, when Sir John Franklin and his


Arctic Expedition reached a series of tiny islands south of the Kent Peninsula in 1822 as documented in Franklin’s First Arctic Land Expedition 1819-1822 p. 233 and Franklin’s own narrative of the expedition, a Point au Pierre did exist nearby a different smaller Melville Sound. Did Nabokov encounter this obscure fact while researching Arctic Exploration? Did this in turn spark his imagination resulting in the creation of an imaginary Pierre Point on Melville Sound in Lolita? Or is it merely a curious coincidence, a false scent for the literary detective, one’s own reflection rather than a step through?

As Brian Boyd points out, allusions to Melville’s Pierre in Nabokov’s Ada are subtle. It is impossible, however, to imagine that an author, with a stated affection for Melville, a proven knowledge of Pierre, an adopted identity as an American author, a refined concept of intertextual allusion and a book that can be read as a sophisticated interpretation of the often misunderstood Pierre, did not intend it. Boyd states, “Unless we see in Pierre... a prefiguration of Van... with both Ada and Lucette pressing for his attention....” Considering the multiple interstices between the two novels, how is it conceivable that we could NOT see a “prefiguration”? In addition to those correspondences noted in my original paper and those now supplied by Brian Boyd, several more, some with examples, are outlined below:

1) The “Good-son theme” or “paternal repetitiousness.” Relates to Boyd’s note about Tories but also involves Wellingtons turning into Washingtons. Also links up with the heredity theme.

2) Tartary used geographically and metaphorically in both texts.


“... .pursued them forth again into the wide Tartarean realm from which they had emerged” p. 138



“....of course Tartary, an independent inferno” p. 20

3)         Color similarities and thematic consistencies. Association of black/white with Ada/Isabel, green/blue (aquamarine) with Lucette/Lucy.

4)         Hair color and quality of Ada and Isabel used identically


“But truly Isabel, thy all-abounding hair falls upon me with some spell which dismisses all ordinary considerations from me, and leaves me only sensible to the Nubian power in thine eyes” p. 145

“Every downward undulating wave and billow of Isabel’s tossed tresses gleamed here and there” p. 150

“Her dark tent of hair” p. 150

“She tossed her ebon tresses over her” p. 314

‘ ‘Her long hair ran over him and and arbored him with ebon vines” p. 362

“The long, dark locks of mournful hair would fall upon his soul ...” p. 53


“Her black hair cascaded over one clavicle ...her pallor shone her blackness blazed” p. 58

“The first time she had bent over him and he had possessed her hair” p. 141

“Her mournful Magdalene hair hanging down”


“Ada flooded us both with her Raven silks” p. 378

5)         Portraits as part of the resemblance, heredity themes

6)         Mirrors

7)         Terra

8)         Art of Florence

9)         Crayon drawing associated with Lucette and Ada

“Lucy expressed her intention to practice her crayon art professionally” p. 330


“Find the box of Dutch crayons Lucette wanted her to bring if she came” p. 386 A

“Her Cranach crayons” p. 393

(as an added touch, meadows, associated in Pierre with Lucy, are Dutch)

10)       Lucy/Lucette as martyr virgins 


“Tied Lucy to the same stake” p. 178 “Her terrified and virgin aspect” p. 183


“Are you still half -a-martyr I mean half-a-virgin” p. 464

11)       Little Lucy



“The little Lucy” p. 57, p .59


“little lucile”p. 192

12)       Coincidence and patterning

13)       Enthusiasm and Ardor

14)       Vines and Serpents

15)       Other Worlds


“...in the cold and nether spheres, preachers preach of earth as we of Paradise above” p. 32


. . . Now the purpose of the novel was to suggest that Terra cheated, that all was not paradise there, ...” p. 341

16)       Character named Dorothy


“Aunt Dorothea” p. 73


“Sister in-Law Dorothy” p. 513

17)       Breakfast representing youthful vigor

18)       Kant


19)       Parallel phrases


“....The countless tribes of common novels laboriously spin vails of mystery, only to complacently clear them up at last...” p. 141


“Empty formulas befitting the solemn novelists of former days who thought they could explain everything” p. 475

20)       Hotel name


“Black Swan” p. 187


“Trois Cygnes”

21)       Rainbows


“the lamentations of the rain are but to make us our rainbows” p. 277


“..adoration sorrow rainbows” p. 508

22)       Miscellany

Geographical inversion of “Russia” and “America” on Demonia/Terra in ADA
Direct mention of Melville’s farm in ADA

the poison point of Ardis, Arrowhead Manor


Pierre and Van are both “only sons”

As Nabokov says in ADA

“some law of logic should fix the number of coincidences in a given domain, after which they cease to be coincidences, and form, instead, the living organism of a new truth”

Or Melville in PIERRE

“With little power to touch with awe the souls of less susceptible, reflective, and poetic beings, such coincidences, however frequently they may recur, ever fill the finer organization with sensations which transcend all verbal renderings. They take hold of life’s subtlest problem.” p. 111

“No it can not be, it is not” replied Pierre; “one of the wonderful coincidences, nothing more.
“Oh by that word , Pierre, we but vainly seek to explain the inexplicable... ”p. 352

Perhaps Nabokov meant these books to be “sibling planets” for some reason? Or will we forever debate, as those who debated the existence of Terra, whether the “false overlappings” and “discrepancies” between worlds “taint with trite fancy the theory of essential sameness”.


by Margarit Tadevosyan, Maxim D. Shrayer


First There Was a Name

“I am not I: thou art not he or she: they are not they. E. W.” This briefest of disclaimers appears in the early editions of Evelyn Waugh’s famous novel Brideshead Revisited: The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder (1945). On the surface of it, Waugh’s disclaimer aims to protect its author from charges of libel by claiming the sheer fictionality of the novel’s characters and events. Might Waugh’s disclaimer also play a different, obfuscatory role by both concealing and revealing the more (or less?) than fictional debt that Brideshead Revisited owes Nabokov’s The Real Life and Sebastian Knight (1939; pub. 1941)? Recall the mysterious final sentence of Nabokov’s novel: “I am Sebastian, or Sebastian is I, or perhaps we both are someone whom neither of us know” (RLSK 203). Consider also that in Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (hereafter BR), a principal character is called “Sebastian Flyte.” Phonetically, the likeness of the names “Sebastian Flyte” [Flight] and “Sebastian Knight” is even more suggestive than graphically. The bedeviling resemblance of the names of the two principal characters prompted this inquiry and continues to intrigue us even after we have completed the initial investigation.

These two novels share more than the two characters called “Sebastian.” To list just a few similarities and parallels: both are structured as memoirs; both employ first-person narrators who enjoy a special connection with the characters whom they attempt to reconstruct in the course of their respective narratives; both characters share a strong link to St. Sebastian; in both novels heart disease plays a central role for


the Sebastian characters and their families. In addition, the novels share a minor but endearing detail: both Nabokov and Waugh use their alma maters as a setting. (Nabokov attended Cambridge University in 1919-22, shortly before Waugh attended Oxford. Nabokov’s Sebastian Knight attends Cambridge; both Sebastian Flyte and Waugh’s narrator, Charles Ryder, attend Oxford.)

By highlighting the links between the two works and their authors, we propose in this essay that BR borrows a number of narrative devices, themes and cultural motifs from RLSK. We propose that at the time of writing BR, Waugh may not onlу have been familiar with Nabokov’s first English-language novel, but also leaned upon RLSK in order to develop the principal thematic and structural nexuses of his own novel.

The Real Life of Sebastian Knight and Brideshead Revisited: History and Structure

Close contemporaries, Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977) and Evelyn Waugh (1903-1966) were sufficiently familiar with each other’s writings. Thirteen years after the publication of BR, in a postcard to John Donaldson dated November 18,1958, Waugh wrote: "Lolita. I only remember the smut. The Yankee edition is full of very high-brow allusions” (Mark Amory, ed., The Letters of Evelyn Waugh, New Haven, 1980, 516). More than half a year later, still unchanged in his opinion, he wrote to Nancy Mitford on June 29,1959, “No, I didn’t think Lolita any good except as smut. As that it was highly exciting to me” (Amory 523). Three years later, Pale Fire did not escape Waugh’s criticism either, and he described it as follows: “New Nabokov a stunt—but a clever one” (Amory 586). Nabokov was equally critical of Waugh. In a letter to Edmund Wilson dated March 8,1946, Nabokov commented: “At the same time I have been reading some J. Latimer [...] and Brideshead Revisited which is very amusing and charming here and there, but is, on the whole, trash (and terribly voulu [contrived] at the


end). Your criticism of it was extremely to the point (and your prediction correct)” (Simon Karlinsky, ed., Dear Bunny, Dear Volodya: The Nabokov-Wilson Letters, 1940-1971, Berkeley,

2001,   188). Even prior to the publication of BR, Waugh and Wilson had had a strained relationship, their paths having crossed on a number of occasions. In his letter, Nabokov refers to Wilson’s review of BR published in The New Yorker on January 5, 1946, in which Wilson found the book an artistic failure, and predicted that it would be a bestseller (see Karlinsky 189, n. 11; thirteen years later Wilson discussed Waugh in a letter to Nabokov of March 11, 1959, see Karlinsky 362).

Nabokov’s letter to Wilson postdates the British publication of BR by about ten months.

Published in Great Britain by Chapman & Hall in May 1945, and released in the USA by Little, Brown & Co. later the same year, BR immediately became a popular and commercial success. RLSK, which Nabokov finished in Paris in December 1939, was not a success at the time of its original publication by James Laughlin’s New Directions in December 1941 (four years later, in December 1945, Editions Poetry released it in Great Britain).

Brian Boyd indicates that Nabokov submitted the manuscript of RSLK to a literary competition in London (Boyd, VNRY 496). When we presented an early version of this essay at the Vladimir Nabokov Symposium in St. Petersburg, on July 15, 2002, Boyd voiced skepticism regarding the likelihood of Waugh’s familiarity with RLSK during World War 2 and prior to its British publication. At the same time, Boyd suggested that Waugh may have become acquainted with RLSK as a judge of the literary competition to which Nabokov sent RLSK. Our main source of information about the competition is a letter from Nabokov to his New York agent, Altagracia de Janelli, dated January 25,1939 (see Boyd, VNRY 580; now at the Berg Collection of NYPL). There is very strong evidence that Waugh could not have judged the 1939 British competition to which Nabokov sent RLSK. In


a letter to A.D. Peters, coincidentally dated January 25, 1939, Waugh speaks of his wife Laura’s appendectomy, which allowed him a welcome break from work and compelled him to move to Bristol for a week to attend to her needs (see Amory 119-120). Martin Stannard’s detailed biography of Evelyn Waugh describes the first half of 1939 as a stagnant point in Waugh’s career, spent in his Piers Court residence at Gloucestershire working on Robbery Under Law, and interrupted briefly by his wife’s surgery and his visit to Bristol in the last week of January (Martin Stannard, Evelyn Waugh, The Early Years: 1903-1939, London, 1976, 485). The other biographies of Evelyn Waugh, such as Selina Hastings’ Evelyn Waugh, A Biography (Boston, 1994) and John Wilson’s Evelyn Waugh: A Literary Biography (Madison, NJ, 1996), also contain no information about any literary contests Waugh judged in 1939.

At the same time, we know that while Waugh was at the European war theater, he received regular updates from home about new books. In March 1942 the writer Nancy Mitford, Waugh’s close friend and principal wartime correspondent, stalled working at a bookshop owned by her friend G. Hey wood Hall and located in London’s Curzon Street (see Selina Hastings, Nancy Mitford: A Biography, New York, 1985; see also Amory 162). Mitford’s contemporaries praised the unusual quality of the books sold at G. Heywood Hill Books and described it as “a shop with a relaxed individual flavour” (Harold Acton, Nancy Mitford: A Memoir, New York, 1975). The bookshop was well known at the time for its good selection of literary books published outside of Great Britain. Throughout the war Waugh continued to receive packages of new books from Mitford.

We know enough about Waugh’s life in the 1940s to conjecture about his knowledge of RLSK—or at least awareness of its existence, title and main themes—at the time of BR's composition, in 1944-45. Waugh commenced his work on BR


in January 1944. He recorded this in his diary of January 31, 1944: “Today, Monday, I came to Chagford with the intention of starting on an ambitious novel tomorrow morning. I still have a cold and am low in spirits, but I feel full of literary power...

(The Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, ed. Michael Davie, Boston, 1976,557-558). Waugh’s letters attest to the enthusiasm with which he had turned from military service to literature, creating what was to become his most celebrated work. In a letter of March 23, 1944, he writes to Lady Dorothy Lygon, “At the moment I am in Chagford having a little rest between military duties and in consequence working harder than I have done for nearly five years. I am writing a very beautiful book, to bring tears, about very rich, beautiful, high born people” (Emory, 180). Waugh finished working on the novel while serving as a liaison officer in Dubrovnik, then Yugoslavia, and it came out in London on May 28, 1945, practically coinciding with his demobilization from the army (see Mark Stannard, Evelyn Waugh, No Abiding City, 1939-1966, London, 1986, chrs. 4-5). The same year, he also wrote a short story entitled “Charles Ryder’s Schooldays” about the childhood of BR’s protagonist A satellite of the novel, Waugh’s story was not published until 1982,16 years after his death (see John Wilson 127). While the sources of Waugh’s autobiographical narrator Charles Ryder clearly lie in the writer’s own Oxford days and therefore predate the 1940s and the composition of BR, it is quite likely that Waugh’s Sebastian Flyte owes his appearance to Nabokov’s Sebastian Knight.

Both RLSK and BR are fictional (auto)biographies. Both novels reconstruct biographies of a character named “Sebastian” through the eyes of a first-person narrator. At a first glance, the plot of RLSK unfolds as a mystery story, where V. tries to reconstruct facts from Sebastian’s life by tracing down and questioning his friends and associates. Because of this likeness to a mystery novel, the reconstruction of Sebastian’s life and character unfolds slowly, in pieces that are finally (if at all)


brought together at the end. A similarly slow unmasking of the character also occurs in BR. At the beginning of the novel we meet Sebastian as a whimsical and extravagant college student with a bottle of wine, a basket of strawberries, and a teddy bear in the front seat of his car. (BR 18; here and hereafter we quote from Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited, intr. Frank Kermode, New York, 1993). As the novel develops, so does the drama of Sebastian’s double life as unveiled by the first-person narrator, Charles Ryder.

“I” Am Sebastian: First-Person Narrators and Sebastian

The structural and narrative similarities in the novels invite a detailed look at the first-person narrators through whose medium the two Sebastians are (re)constructed. In RLSK, the fictional author-cum-narrator is V, Sebastian Knight’s half brother. In BR, the connection between the narrator and Sebastian Flyte is not familial but also very intimate, an all-absorbing college friendship turning into an implicit love affair. Both relationships exhibit a powerful male-to-male bond.

From the very beginning of V’s story the readers learn of his revered love of his half-brother; at one point, V states: “and this I do not because I want to annoy him, but merely as a wistful and vain attempt to make him notice my existence”(RLSK 14). He frequently speaks of his love for Sebastian, using phrases such as, “although I loved him dearly...” (RLSK 14). In the concluding scene of the novel, by Sebastian’s deathbed, V confesses of the “...waves of love [he] felt” for Sebastian. (RLSK 200). V not only loves Sebastian but wants to be him, first as a child, later as an adult (and an artist).

Charles Ryder’s relationship with Sebastian Flyte is of a homoerotic nature. Trying to conceal his college love affair, the forty-something Ryder transmits his recollected youthful feelings for Sebastian through a prism of the vaguely homoerotic, euphemizing language. Charles describes Sebastian as “entrancing, with that epicene beauty which in extreme youth


sings aloud for love...” (BR 26). Waugh scholar David Higdon has stressed the fact that Cara (the mistress and companion of Sebastian’s father) regards Charles’s relationship with Sebastian as a “romantic friendship” (BR 89), and at one point Charles himself admits that he “had no mind then for anything except Sebastian...” (BR 113; see David Leon Higdon, “Gay Sebastian and Cheerful Charles: Homoeroticism in Waugh’s ‘Brideshead Revisited,”’ ARIEL 25:4 [October 1994], 76-89). Evelyn Waugh’s biographers discuss Waugh’s own homosexual relationships while at Oxford and claim that the relationship between Charles and Sebastian is based on Waugh’s long-term affair with Alastair Graham, that lasted all the way through Waugh’s marriage to his first wife, Evelyn Gardner (see Douglas L. Patey, The Life of Evelyn Waugh: A Critical Biography, Oxford, 1998, 13).

V’s adoration of his half-brother Sebastian Knight echoes in Charles Ryder’s ardent admiration for Sebastian Flyte; in the course of their narrative journeys, both V and Charles travel in the direction of becoming “the other”—their respective Sebastian. V longs to know his dead half-brother and searches for a meaningful connection with him and his literary work. At the end of the novel he may have completed the transformation. It is noteworthy that Nabokov’s narrator V becomes Sebastian or merges with him by adopting Sebastian’s vocation of a writer. The final, mysterious sentence of RLSK invites the reader to ponder the limits of fictional identity transformation, and this Nabokovian mystery rings alarmingly familiar in Waugh’s disclaimer and reverberates throughout the text of BR.

The ponderous transformation of Waugh’s narrator Charles Ryder is nowhere as explicit as in his adoption of Sebastian’s faith system in the latter part of the novel (Sebastian Flyte comes from a prominent family of Anglo-Catholic aristocrats): “So through a world of piety I made my way to Sebastian” (BR 26). As Waugh’s biographer Douglas Lane Patey point out, the process is twofold—through piety to Sebastian and later, as it


turns out, through Sebastian to piety (Patey 227). The reader discerns from the prologue that at the time of composing his memoir (during World War Two) Charles Ryder has formally converted from Protestantism to Catholicism; one of the minor characters remarks about the Brideshead chapel, located on the grounds of Flyte’s ancestral estate: “More in your line than mine” (BR 75). Still an Anglican in the earlier part of the novel, prior to his transformation under Sebastian’s impact, Charles Ryder refers to Catholicism as “Sebastian’s faith” (BR 75). While V in Nabokov’s novel becomes Sebastian by adopting his profession, Charles in Waugh’s novel becomes Sebastian by adopting his faith.

Of Saints and Novels

The question of Catholicism brings forth the major thematic, religious, and cultural nexus which the two novels share, the legend of St. Sebastian. Probably a native of Milan and a Roman officer, Sebastian had been a favorite of Diocletian, the Roman emperor famous for his fierce persecution of the early Christians. A convert to Christianity, the would-be martyr was charged and tortured. Tied to a tree and shot with arrows, he was left for dead but, according to the legend, survived. Once recovered, he returned to Rome to preach Christianity to Diocletian, was arrested again and beaten to death by the emperor’s soldiers (see E. Hoade, “Sebastian, St.,” New Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 13, 1967,18-19). The Passion of St. Sebastian, a romance, was created c. 450 CE by a monk of a monastery that Pope Sixtus III had erected in the catacombs in order to expand the cult of St. Sebastian) In Renaissance iconography, St. Sebastian is frequently portrayed as an androgynous young handsome man pierced with arrows.

There is no evidence in RLSK that would directly connect V’s knowledge of Sebastian Knight’s life with the life and legend of the early Christian martyr. Both Knight and the Christian saint descended from aristocratic families, but that


alone can hardly provide grounds for claiming a connection between them. Furthermore, only two direct references to religion, both brief, occur in Nabokov’s novel. The first reference is Sebastian’s remark, “I have finished building a world, and this is my Sabbath rest” (RLSK 88). The second is V’s: “As it happens with many people who do not trouble about religion in the ordinary trend of life, I hastily invented a soft, warm, tear-misty God, and whispered an informal prayer” (RLSK 191). Most likely, Nabokov was interested in St. Sebastian not as a religious figure but rather as a modernist icon.

That St. Sebastian was a cultural icon in Europe at the turn of the 19th century becomes apparent from the interest many modernist authors took in his character. For instance, Rainer Maria Rilke dedicated a sonnet entitled “Sankt Sebastian” to the martyr. Written in 1905-1906, Rilke’s sonnet does not discuss St. Sebastian as a religious figure, but rather represents him as a young handsome man untouched by suffering and physical pain, immersed in himself and his inner world. Nabokov describes Sebastian Knight as “equally amused and unhappy, joyful and apprehensive”(RLSK 64), echoing Rilke’s Sebastian who stands smiling and unwounded despite the momentous appearance of pain in his eyes (On Rilke and Nabokov, see Thomas Seifrid, “A Salad of Racial Genes: Rilke as a Possible Target of Lolita,” a paper delivered at the Nabokov Centenary Festival, Cornell University, September 11, 1998). A number of modernist authors paid tribute to St. Sebastian in their works. In “Death in Venice”(1912) Thomas Mann alluded to St. Sebastian as an epitome of male beauty. T. S. Eliot in 1911 composed a poem called “The Love Song of St. Sebastian.” Anything but religious, T. S. Eliot’s poem is an intensely erotic sadomasochistic representation of St. Sebastian and a female lover he dreams of strangling so as to express his passion:

I should for a moment linger
And follow the curve with my finger


And your head between my knees —
I think that at last you would understand.
There would be nothing more to say.
You should love me because I should have strangled you
And because of my infamy;
And I should love you the more because I had mangled you
And because you were no longer beautiful
To anyone but me

(T. S. Eliot, “The Love Song of St. Sebastian,” Invention of the March Hare: Poems, 1909-1917. New York, 1996).

Other prominent examples include Akutagave Ryunosuke’s story “St. Sebastian”(1927) and Gabriele D’Annunzio’s mystery play “Le martyre de Saint Sébastien” (1911). Claude Debussy’s ballet of the same title was based on D’Annunzio’s play, and Léon Bakst’s well-known sketch preserves the image of Ida Rubinstein who danced the part of St. Sebastian in the first production.

St. Sebastian captured the interest of many writers of the first part of the 20th century. Nabokov’s solid grounding in religious history aside, his interests in RLSK stemmed from the early modernist cult of St. Sebastian. This is not to say, however, that no echoes of the early Christian legend of the martyrdom of St. Sebastian are found in the text of RLSK. For instance, when Claire Bishop meets V, she tells him of her first encounter with Sebastian, “When I first met him he looked a doomed man” (RLSK 71). In the legend, after St. Sebastian is tied to a tree and shot with arrows, he is rescued by St. Irene, the widow of a Christian soldier who nurses his wounds and brings him back to life. Sebastian’s relationship with Clare develops in the same way; Clare quietly enters Sebastian’s world, rescues him from solitude and watches over him and his career as a writer.

For Evelyn Waugh of BR, St. Sebastian is a complex amalgam of the early Christian legend of the martyr, the


prominent turn of the 19th century (homoerotic) cult of St. Sebastian, and the fruit of the cult’s subsequent modernist iconization. Distinct textual references point to Sebastian Flyte’s connection with St. Sebastian. In a description of Sebastian’s famous lunch parties, Anthony Blanche (a stereotypically, periodically rendered flamboyant homosexual character in Waugh’s novel) says to Sebastian, “My dear, I should like to stick you full of barbed arrow's like a pin-cushion” (BR 28). The allusion to the saint is especially poignant here because of his iconographic representations as a young man struck through with arrows (see, for instance, the characteristic Renaissance pictorial depictions of “San Sebastiano” by Vincenzo Foppa, Andrea Mantegna, and Liberale de Verona; see also “Death of St. Sebastian,” attributed to Josse Lieferinxe). As Patey points out, Sebastian at the end of BR resembles “Christlike renunciation and self-abasement” (Patey 233). Sebastian’s relationship with Kurt, a young German with a “wound that wouldn’t heal” echoes again in the legend of St. Sebastian who tried to heal the wounds of imprisoned Christians when he was captain of the Roman guard. In examining the connection of Sebastian Flyte with the historical figure, legend and modernist cult of St. Sebastian, one should not overlook an curious detail that Patey highlights. At the beginning of Charles’s memoiristic recollection of his time at Christ Church, Oxford, Sebastian is never seen without his teddy bear Aloysius. St. Aloysius is a patron of Catholic youth (Patey 392, n. 14).

The cult of St. Sebastian in BR is further reinforced by the fact that all through the late 19th and early into the 20th centuries, St. Sebastian was a popular “gay icon,” to borrow a term from Richard Kaye (Kaye, “’A Splendid Readiness for Death’: T. S. Eliot, the Homosexual Cult of St. Sebastian, and World War I,” Modernism/Modernity 6.2, 1999, 107-134; 113). Kaye provides a compelling analysis of T. S. Eliot’s poem and its fashioning of the “homosexual cult” of St. Sebastian at the time of World War (Kaye 126). He argues that St. Sebastian’s homosexual cult


was squarely rooted in his Renaissance depictions, in painting and plastic arts, as a voluptuously beautiful young man. On most paintings, Sebastian is practically nude, exposing a perfect male form, and while his body is pierced with arrows, his face expresses a calm romantic melancholy. One is reminded of a line from Anatole France’s Les Lys Rouge (The Red Lily, 1894): “... [A]nd that St. Sebastian, brilliant in his youthfulness, like the suffering Bacchus of Christianity.” (Kaye 114).

That Sebastian Flyte is a homosexual leaves little doubt in the reader’s mind. He has had two major relationships in his life: a covert one with Charles Ryder, and an open one with his German friend Kurt. As a matter of fact, in the very beginning of the book Charles’s cousin Jasper advises Charles to “beware of the Anglo-Catholics—they’re all sodomites with unpleasant accents” (BR 22). Waugh also charges Sebastian with just the kind of erotic beauty St. Sebastian frequently possesses in Renaissance art. Charles describes Sebastian as “the most conspicuous man of his year by reason of his beauty, which was arresting...” (BR 23).

Nabokov’s interest in the figure of St. Sebastian, as already discussed, goes well beyond the early Christian legend of the martyr. Like many writers before him, Nabokov sees St. Sebastian as a 20th-century modernist icon, while at the same time introducing in his character of Sebastian Knight elements of a writer’s martyrdom.

Sebastian and Narcissus

Both Nabokov and Waugh used the myth of Narcissus in constructing their characters. As Priscilla Meyer observed, the portrait of Sebastian Knight by Roy Carswell evokes the image of Narcissus (Priscilla Meyer, “Black and Violet Words,” Nabokov Studies 4, 1997, 37-60). Meyer quotes this passage: “These eyes and the face itself are painted in such a manner as to convey the impression that they are mirrored Narcissus-like in clear water... Thus Sebastian peers into a pool at himself’


(RLSK 117). Meyer insists that Sebastian Knight’s narcissism is of a unique kind—he is not looking at his own reflection but the “infinite unknown” (Meyer 44) of the clear water. While this suggestion provides important insight for metaphysical readings of the novel, our concern here is the reference to Narcissus that V himself makes as he resists the simile: “But the face is only a chance reflection. Any man can look into water” (RLSK 118). To this, the painter who created this image of Sebastian, retorts, “But don’t you think that he did it particularly well?” (RLSK 118). Nabokov’s Sebastian has a special gift of behaving like Narcissus in a way that is apparently creative, for not only has he written works of art himself, but he also inspires other works of art, V’s novel and Roy’s painting.

Sebastian Flyte’s narcissism and self-indulgence are frequently emphasized features of his character analysis, and we will not belabor them further in this essay. We will point out, however, that a direct reference to the myth of Narcissus occurs in Waugh’s novel. Anthony Blanche, subsequently Sebastian’s slanderer, says this: “Or did he have one [spot], rather a stubborn one at the back of his neck? I think, now, that he did. Narcissus, with one pustule” (BR 44). Blanche’s comparison of Sebastian FIyte with Narcissus signals a perfection which is slightly marred by a blemish on his neck. This is finally very poignant, as in both Nabokov’s and Waugh’s novels, Narcissus serves as a model of beauty and perfection slightly blemished by the romantic and aesthetic excesses of the two fictional Sebastians.

Heart Disease

The prevalence and significance of heart disease and aching hearts in RLSK and BR further augments the link between these two works. Heart disease serves as a marker of privileged characters in a number of Nabokov’s works, including “Lik” and Pnin. Heart disease first appears in RLSK with the character of Virginia Knight, Sebastian’s mother. (Incidentally,


the family histories of Sebastian Knight and Sebastian Flyte possess a measure of congruency: Sebastian Knight’s mother abandoned him and her husband when Sebastian was only four; Sebastian Flyte’s parents are separated, and his father, Lord Marchmain, is living in Venice with another woman.) Knight’s mother “died of heart-failure (Lehman’s disease) at the little town of Roquebrune, in the summer of 1909" (RLSK 9). Years later, Sebastian Knight learns that he is also suffering from the heart disease that had killed his mother. Says V: “I suppose Sebastian already knew from what exact heart-disease he was suffering. His mother had died of the same complaint, a rather rare variety of angina pectoris, called by some doctors ‘Lehman’s disease’” (RLSK 87). The significance of Sebastian’s heart ailment is not merely that it connects him to his mother whom he never knew, but that it also indicates the double meaning of an aching heart as both a physical ailment and profound melancholy.

A very similar, double meaning of heart disease develops throughout BR. The heart problems of Sebastian Flyte’s mother, Lady Marchmain, underscore her spiritual suffering. While the exact name of her condition is never mentioned, it is implicitly heart-related. At one point, Charles Ryder remarks that, “it seemed her heart was transfixed with the swords of her dolour, a living heart to match the plaster and paint” (BR 171). Not only Sebastian Flyte’s mother, but also his father, Lord Marchmain, suffers and eventually dies of a heart disease. His companion, Cara, confides in Charles while visiting Brideshead: “The doctors in Rome gave him less than a year.... His heart; some long word at the heart. He is dying of a long word” (BR 288). The expression “some long word at the heart” suggests both the physical source of Lord Marchmain’s suffering and the emotional tumult surrounding his death (and his deathbed return to Catholicism).

Sebastian Flyte carries in him the constant sadness, inexplicable only at a first glance. “[Sebastian] was sick at heart


somewhere, I did not know how, and I grieved for him, unable to help,” Charles Ryder reminisces about the sadness that Sebastian constantly bore inside him (BR 114). The motif of heart disease in BR functions in a way that closely resembles Nabokov’s handling of it in RLSK. This motif augments not only a connection between child and parent through heart-related conditions, but also the notion of a family pattern and destiny that one inherits and carries into the grave.

Towards a Conclusion

We have briefly considered Nabokov’s and Waugh’s use of the genre of fictional (auto)biography; the similarities in the relationship between the narrators and the respective Sebastians; the writers’ reliance on the early modernist cult of St. Sebastian and the myth of Narcissus; and the place of heart disease as both a physical and spiritual condition in the families of Sebastian Knight and Sebastian Flyte. Tо varying degrees, all of the above points to textual and atmospheric connections between BR and RLSK. The possibility of Waugh’s familiarity with Nabokov’s work as early as the end 1942, and by the time of the composition of BR in 1944-45, gives us reason to believe that he may have obtained from RLSK several of its structural themes and cultural motifs and transformed them in accordance with his own background, aesthetics, and religious sensibility. While the onus of proving, beyond all reasonable doubt, the direct influence of RLSK on BR remains fairly high, it is our view that the trace of RLSK in BR is too significant to be dismissed as coincidental. A broader reexamination of the genesis of BR is currently on the way. Regardless of the final reckoning—and despite Nabokov’s negative opinion of Brideshead Revisited— Waugh’s novel will remain a masterwork in its own right.

Authors’ Note

The initial impulse for this study came in 1994 from Emily Artinian, and we thank her for her splendid insight. We would


also like to express our gratitude to Brian Boyd who kindly responded to our query concerning the British contest to which Nabokov submitted RLSK in 1939.

Copyright © 2003 by Margarit Tadevosyan and Maxim D. Shrayer. All rights reserved worldwide, including electronic.


by Priscilla Meyer

[Submissions should be forwarded to Priscilla Meyer at pmeyer@wesleyan.edu. E-mail submission preferred. If using a PC, please send attachments in .doc format; if by fax send to (860) 685-3465; if by mail, to Russian Department, 215 Fisk Hall, Wesleyan University, Middletown, CT 06459. Deadlines are April 1 and October 1 respectively for the Spring and Fall issues. Most notes will be sent, anonymously, to at least one reader for review. If accepted for publication, the piece may undergo some slight editorial alterations. Kindly refrain from footnotes; all citations should be put within the text. References to Nabokov’s English or Englished works should be made either to the first American (or British) edition or to the Vintage collected series. All Russian quotations must be transliterated and translated.]



Recovering in a Kalugano hospital from the wound he has received in a duel with a complete stranger, Van evokes Ardis Hall in his memory and mentally translates its name (which literally means “Arrowhead Manor”) into French as Le Chateau de la Flèche (not quite “Flesh Hall,” if translated back, as he suggests with a bitter irony). A little later, having escaped from the hospital, he learns that Percy de Prey, one of Ada’s lovers, has been killed in the Crimea (earlier he meets Philip Rack, another lover of hers, who, poisoned by his jealous wife, is dying in the same hospital). He muses: “Either Ada’s lethal shafts


were at work, or he, Van, had somehow managed to dispatch her two wretched lovers in a duel with a dummy” (1.42).

Thus, the amorous shafts of Ada, the young chatelaine of Ardis, seem to be poisoned and lethal for everybody except Van, her brother, who is “strengthened by a strain of his father’s demon blood.” Now, “poisoned arrows that found their way into Cupid’s quiver” are mentioned by the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) in his Aphorismen zur Lebensweisheit (1851, Third Edition: Berlin, 1924). He metaphorically refers thus to venereal disease, which he regards as one of the two main things that distinguish unfavorably modem society from the ancient, coloring it in serious, grave and sinister tones (S. 94: “einen ernsten, finstern und sinistern Anstich gegeben haben” — note the wonderful alliteration) that were not known to antiquity. The second thing is the principle of chivalrous honor, extant from the middle ages and still in effect at the time, underlying the institution of duels, which the governments of most European countries vainly tried to prohibit. Schopenhauer links together both things and calls them par nobile fratrum (“a noble pair of brothers”), a saying that goes back to Horace.

Nabokov seems to have taken up that link provided by Schopenhauer and introduced it artistically in Ada: two real duels, and one imagined, that are fought in the novel (another two or three duels are just mentioned in passing) are subtly, but inseparably connected with the motif of venereal disease. The chapter (1.2), in which Demon fights his duel with d’Onski, ends with his farewell letter to Marina ending with his casual remark about her runaway maid, who is found (presumably, by Demon, see Brian Boyd’s informative note in his Annotations to Ada, The Nabokovian #31, p. 38) in a brothel and is infected with syphilis. And Van fights his duel after he has left Ardis (1.41) together with Blanche, who is also, in a sense, a “runaway” maid (see Boyd); she too turns out to have venereal disease


(and moreover, has once attracted attention and aroused the sexual appetite of both Van and Demon).

It is thus maidservants, i. e. the lower-class characters, who suffer from venereal disease in Ada. Because of her disease, Blanche later gives birth to a blind child, just as Cupid is usually portrayed with a blindfold on his eyes; “Amor’s poisoned arrows” serve as a low-key parallel to Ada’s amorous shafts that also turn out to be poisoned and, though indirectly, cause the death of those whom they hit (including Lucette and the incidental character John Starling, both of whom commit suicide). Note also that Dashen’ka Vinelander, Ada’s sister-in-law, warns Ada against possible “infections,” such as “labial lesbianitis,” when she learns about Ada’s romance with Lucette (3.8). And although such an infection doesn’t exist, except in Dorothy’s hypocritical mind, and although we don’t know if Brigitte, Lucette’s chambermaid, was also a lesbian and risked catching it, if only hypothetically, we see her once avidly witnessing the two sisters’ sexual play (2.5). And last, but not least: exactly as “labial lesbianitis” turns out to be a figment of Dorothy’s mind, the duel between Van and Andrey Vinelander, Ada’s husband, is fought only in the imagination of the former man.

It seems evident that, by the very fact of connection, those “poisoned arrows in Amor’s quiver” stress the farcical nature of duels fought by noble characters (Demon and Van, in the present case) with such pedantic zeal. I think that, in spite of Nabokov’s high esteem for personal honor, which as applied to himself he valued more than life, his view on duels was not altogether unlike that of Schopenhauer, whose book (in English it is known as two separate books: The Wisdom of Life and Counsels and Maxims, London, 1890) is useful to every Nabokov scholar (of some help to the most inquisitive may also be History of Duelling [ 1841 ] by J. G. Mellingen recommended by Schopenhauer).



In 1901 (Ada, Part Three, Chapter 2), after they haven’t seen each other for thirteen years. Van Veen meets Greg Erminin in Paris (as the city is straightforwardly called this time), in a sidewalk café on the Avenue “Guillaume Pitt.” They exchange greetings in Russian, and the latter character, who is the first to recognize his not so radically changed old friend, asks: “Wonder what you do to look so boyish, Van?” “Diet of champagne, not beer,” answers Van, “Hardly stops one adding weight, but keeps the scrotum crisp.”

First of all, I suspect that the whole dialogue between Van and Greg is held in Russian and what we have is the slightly paraphrased English translation of it (with several Russian phrases appearing, as it were, undisguised). For example, the rhymed part of their dialogue, a parody of the four lines in Eugene Onegin (Eight: XVIII: l—4) that begins with Onegin’s classical question put by Van in Russian, can be easily translated back into the language of Pushkin’s original. So easily, in fact, that it makes me believe that the Russian pastiche below right was also provided, as a secret proof that this dialogue is conducted in Russian, by Nabokov:

“So you are married?                                                           “Таk ty zhena?
Didn’t know it.                                                                         Ne znal pro eto.
How long?” “About two years.”                                        Davno li?” “Goda dva.”
“To whom?”                                                                               “Na kom?”
“Maude Sween.” “The daughter of the poet?”            “Mod Svin.” “Na docheri poeta?”
“No, no, her mother is a Brougham.”                              “Net, net, eio mat’ zvali Brom.”

Note that the first in the series of Van’s would-be English questions (“So you are married?”) is indicated as a translation


from Russian. I suggest that the rest of them were also put and answered in Russian (which would be only natural, after all).

If this is right, Van’s original phrase about the scrotum would almost certainly be as follows: “Edva li perestaiesh’ nabirat’ ves, no po-prezhnemu skripish’ (or “prodolzhaesh’ skripet’”) moshonkoi.” And the unexpected reference is here to Aleksey Pisemski’s (1821-1881) novel Meshchane (“The Philistines”), 1878. In Part Three, Chapter V, of this novel (A. F. Pisemski, Sobranie sochinenii, 9 vols., M., 1959; vol. 7, p. 262), its main hero, Begushev, meets his cousin, general Trakhov, in Moscow. The last time they saw each other was in Paris, where they met by chance near the Grand Opera, and dined in a restaurant together. On that same evening Begushev happened to see the general on a boulevard in a landau, in the company of another acquaintance and two young cocottes. Back in Moscow, the bon vivant Trakhov says, patting his abdomen: “My nynche vse skripim koe-kak!”(“We all just keep going somehow,” but literally “We all creak—or, in a rendering that would take care of the sound of the Russian verb, “crisp”— nowadays somehow!”). I pri etom parizhskie bul’vary pripomnilis ’ emu vo vsey svoey prelesti (And here he recalled the Parisian boulevards in all their charm). Then Begushev treats Trakhov and another colorful character, the impoverished count Khvostikov, Begushev’s dependant, to some champagne. Count Khvostikov amuses his friends with obscene society anecdotes and, after finishing the second bottle (in Ada, Van and Greg would also have drunk two bottles, if Van hadn’t made up an appointment suddenly), they part laughing. It is hinted that afterwards the count takes the tipsy (and married) general to “some evil place” (v kakoe-nibud’ nedobroe mesto).

Immediately after having parted (laughing) with Greg, Van actually happened to meet his old girlfriend, Cordula de Prey (now Mrs. Tobak), at the moment, when she is petting two sad little poodles tied up at the entrance of a sausage shop. He


greets her with opportunely remembered lines (with which his schoolmates used to annoy him):

The Veens speak only to Tobaks
But Tobaks speak only to dogs.

Like Van’s conversation with Greg a moment ago, these verses are also a translation from Russian, in which language they actually rhyme:

Viny govoriat lish’ s Tobakami,
A Tobaki govoriat lish’ s sobakami.

Van quickly talks Cordula into making love with him again, for which purpose he takes her to a drab hotel just opposite the sausage shop. Though not strictly a brothel, this place can hardly be called a “dobroe mesto;” and, as Cordula later remarks, Van has treated her not like a lady, but like a little whore. Let me note two more things. First, in Pisemski’s novel, count Khvostikov (a comedy name: from “khvostik,” a little tail) is said to have a black dog in his coat of arms (although the dog’s breed is not specified, a poodle, with its short tail, would suite this noble, but light-minded character perfectly). And, second, the two “unhappy poodlets,” whom sweet Cordula consoles, seem to be related somehow to Mile. Larivière’s “tiny, tremulous poodlet who had glistening eyes like sad black olives.” It is mentioned in one of the early chapters (1.5), in which Van’s first arrival in Ardis is described and in which Mile. Larivière also appears in person for the first time in the novel. And for the last time in Ada she is mentioned in Van’s conversation with Greg, just before they part; it is perhaps not by chance that she is referred to in Russian on this occasion: guvernantka belletristka ( governess-novelist; the Russian of the dialogue comes to light here). Both the first appearance and the last mention of Mile. Larivière in the book are thus connected with poodlets. Note too that Mile.


Larivière thinks of herself that she was a boulevardier in Paris in one of her former incarnations (1.8).

The allusion to Pisemski’s novel is used here evidently to introduce the theme of a philistine milieu, which Ada has entered by her marriage—the theme that will be handled in a Chekhovian key in a later chapter (3.8). And as far as other writings of Pisemski are concerned, there is a faint but distinct echo in the very beginning of Ada of a long passage in the beginning of another, the last and largest, novel by Pisemski, Masony (“The Freemasons”), 1880.

Cf., Ada: Dolly had inherited her mother’s beauty and temper but also an older ancestral strain of whimsical, and often deplorable, taste, well reflected, for instance, in the names she gave her daughters: Aqua and Marina (“Why not Tofana?” wondered the good and sur-royally antlered general with a controlled belly-laugh, followed by a small closing cough of feigned detachment - he dreaded his wife’s flares). (Penguin 1971, pp.9-10)

and Masony.

Ее sentimental’nyi kharakter otchasti vyrazilsia i v imenakh, kotorye ona dala docheriam svoim—i—strannaia sluchainost’ !—instinkt materi kаk by zaranee podskazal ei glavnye svoistva kazhdoi devushki: starshuiu zvali Liudmiloiu, i deistvitel’no ona byla mechtatel’noe sushchestvo; vtoraia—Susanna—otlichalas’ neobyknovennoiu stydlivost’iu; a mladshaia—Muza—obnaruzhivala bol’shuiu naklonnost’ i sposobnost’ k muzyke. ( Sobranie sochinenii; volume 8, pp. 16-17)

“Her [Mrs. Ryzhov, the admiral’s widow] sentimental character manifested itself partly in the names she gave her daughters—and—a strange thing!—the instinct of a mother seems to have suggested to her beforehand the main qualities of every girl: the


name of the eldest daughter was Liudmila, and she was really a dreamy creature; the second—Susanna—distinguished herself by an uncommon bashfulness; and the youngest—Muza—displayed a strong inclination and great talent for music.”

Nabokov said that, even in his old age, he could always remember when a sentence he had written resembled that of another author whom he might have read in his boyhood. The reader also remembers that, in Ada, the twins Aqua and Marina had an elder brother, a gifted musician, who died young and famous, just as the eldest sister Liudmila—not the musical Muza—is to die young in Pisemski’s novel.

But, besides that quaint echo, are there any other references to Masony in Ada that would connect it to the allusions to Meshchane discussed earlier? Toward the end of this overlong (nearly 800 pages) novel, there appears in it the rastrepannaia fizionomiia (“the disheveled face”) of one of its Masonic characters. Doctor Sverstov, reminding one of the snout of a “good and sad poodle, who is exhausted by worrying about others’ sorrows” (Masony, Part Five, XII, vol. 9, p. 134). The final choice of the sad little dogs’ breed in Ada might be influenced by this simile (sad poodles are rare in literature). Another, more significant, link might be established by the fact that businessmen in a philistine town (Pisemski’s favorite setting) are said to belong to “lodges” in Ada (1.3), and much later in the novel we learn that Ada’s husband, Andrey Vinelander, belongs to one of them, too (3.8), as probably does his friend Tobak, Cordula’s husband, and the word in quotes is explained by Van as a meeting place of brotherly moneymakers. In our world, it was, of course, the Masons, who used to belong to lodges. On the other hand, it is exactly the rich businessmen and greedy moneymakers who are the main villains and enemies of good idealistic Freemasons in Pisemski’s novel. And the secret signs that resemble those traditionally accepted by the chaste Masons (described in detail by Pisemski) seem to be


used on Antiterra by the members of the Villa Venus erotic Club to recognize each other (at one moment, Van wonders if he shouldn’t show his father such a sign, 1.38).

I am probably not the first to assert that Nabokov’s Antiterra is opposed not so much to Earth, the planet on which we live, but to “Terra”—the subject of realistic literature (of which Pisemski is known to be a representative). If it is a mirror, then it reflects, or, rather, distorts (because it is a false mirror), not earth, but its standard image in a realistic novel. (It is amusing that the boom of Antiterran science fiction, which coincides with the flourishing of the realistic, and even naturalistic, school in the second half of the nineteenth century in our world, should fall into the category of “terre-à-terre literature” 2.2). But in the works of such writer-realists as Pisemski (and he can be compared in this respect to Maupassant, whose case is more closely investigated in Ada and with whom he is linked in the novel through Mile. Larivière) the realism often revenges itself within its own terms when, for example, implausible characters and situations pop up. By wittily alluding to those writers and sometimes ridiculing them, Nabokov seems to say that his fantastical and fanciful Antiterra is, in a sense, not more unreal than the rather stereotypical worlds of many a dedicated realist. At least, its reality is much more interesting!



In Part Three, Chapter 4, of Ada Van mentions the new president of the United Americas, a Mr. Alexander Screepatch, a plethoric Russian, who, in the company of King Victor, is reveling in the best English “floramor”—a kind of palatial brothel.

This incidental character who was elected both Americas’ president instead of the old Gamaliel seems to be an Antiterran


incarnation of Sashka the Fiddler, the main hero of Alexander Kuprin’s (1870-1938) short story Gambrinus (1907). Sashka is a colloquial diminutive form of “Alexander” and skripach means “fiddler” in Russian. Kuprin’s hero is a virtuoso who plays the fiddle in a tavern known as “Gambrinus” (called so after the name of a mythical Flemish king, the reputed inventor of beer) in a big seaside town in southern Russia (presumably Odessa). He is described as a sanguineous person who is always ruddy because of constant drinking, being often treated to a beer by visitors of the tavern, mostly sailors, both Russian and foreign, with whom he enjoys great popularity. This popularity is so great that “if not his name [he is known as Sashka, his surname is not given in the story], then his lively simian face and his fiddle were remembered from time to time in Sidney and in Plymouth, as well as in New York...” It is probably on account of his worldwide fame as a musician that he is made the President of half of the world on Antiterra “where artists are the only Gods” and where they seem to enjoy universal respect. He gets thus in Ada, from its generous author, all the fabulous material wealth he rightfully deserves (and even far more), all that he can’t even dream of “on Terra,” or, at least, in Kuprin’s more “realistic” world.

King Victor and President Screepatch pay their joint visit to that Villa Venus in 1901 (by the Antiterran calendar). And four years later, in 1905, the obese old King Victor (he probably owes his obesity to a character of that name in the beginning of Paul Alexis’ story La Fin du Lucie Pelegrin, 1880) visits, for the last time, his favorite floramor near Bath (presumably, the same house with the most efficient staff in Europe that was visited by him in 1901), looking “as ruddy as a proverbial fiddle” (2.3). Though he may be as ruddy as a fiddler in Kuprin’s story, but he happens to not be as fit as that proverbial fiddle should be. In spite of efforts of all the floramor’s staff he remains impotent and departs, weeping, in the morning.


In that connection (a character’s physical incapacity), there is another interesting parallel to Gambrinus and its Jewish hero whose left arm was seriously wounded during a pogrom arranged in the city by the “chernosotentsy.” One evening, after three months or so spent in some lock-up, he comes back to the tavern, but though he can’t hold his fiddle properly (he had seriously injured “a sinew or something”) and play it any more, he produces with his healthy hand some little instrument (a mouth organ, evidently) from his pocket and plays a gay and fiery motif with his usual virtuosity. The story ends very optimistically: “the man can be ruined, but art will endure and defeat everything.”

Art’s victory, as masterly maintained by Nabokov in Ada, manifests itself not only in the fact—nay, not so much in the fact—that the poor, physically ruined king is capable after all of remembering an appropriate line by Seneca so as to write it into the Pink Shell Book of the floramor guests’ impressions, but in the author’s sly hint (through Kuprin’s story) that not everything is lost for his character after all and he can still change the instrument of his debauchery (to a “mouth organ,” so to say) and remain a more or less passable performer. I think, this was the secret irony that Nabokov wanted to induce in Hesperus which “rose in a milkman’s humdrum sky” reminiscent of Baudelaire. Hesperus (in the terrestrial poetical cosmography, it usually denotes the planet Venus) means literally “an evening star.” And, as we remember, it is in the evening that the disabled, but undepressed Sashka returns to “Gambrinus.” And last, but not least, Kuprin is the author of a larger novel (by far his longest prose work), Yama (literally “The Pit,” but it can be translated as “The Vile Place”), 1909-1915, the action in which takes place in a brothel (one in a whole chain of brothels, in fact, on a suburban red light street). There seems to be no special allusion to it in Ada, but it serves as a kind of amusing debased parallel (with its cheap houses) to the floramor theme of exquisite hired love in palaces—the parallel that should bring to


the reader’s mind (especially, the Russian reader’s) the name “Kuprin,” one of whose best and most memorable stories is Gambrinus.

Some details mentioned in this note, such as the surname of the United Americas’ president, who pays a visit to a floramor— the surname that contains the Russian root skrip common to both skripach and skripet’, the predilection for beer of both Greg and Kuprin’s hero, as well as their shared nationality (“a Russian Jew”), seem to confirm my suggestion that Van’s original phrase about the scrotum in the beginning of 3.2 goes literally as follows: “Edva li perestaiesh’ nabirat’ ves, no prodolzhaesh’ skripet’ (or “po-prezhnemu skripish’”) moshonkoi,” and probably the whole of Van-and-Greg dialogue in this chapter is conducted in Russian (see my previous note).

I thank Michael Johnson, of the University of Kansas, for improving the English of this note. And I’m enormously grateful to Priscilla Meyer for editing all three notes and thus helping me to express myself more or less in English.

—Alexey Sklyarenko, St. Petersburg



Queer are the ways of a man I know 
He comes and stands In a careworn craze,
And looks at the sands 
And the seaward haze 
With moveless hands
And face and gaze,
Then turns to go...


And what does he see when he gazes so?

Thomas Hardy, “The Phantom Horsewoman.”

In his foreword to “Lolita, or the Confession of a White Widowed Male” its learned editor John Ray, Jr., Ph. D., informs the readers that he altered all the names in the manuscript except Lolita’s first name because it “is too closely interwound with the inmost fiber of the book.” As for “Haze,” he specifies that it “only rhymes with the heroine’s real surname” (Vladimir Nabokov, The Annotated Lolita. Ed. by Alfred Appel, Jr. New York: 1991, 3—4. Subsequently all the references to this edition will be given in parentheses and designated by E.).

Though Humbert Humbert’s poem in Part II, Chapter 25 conveniently provides some suitable rhymes for “Haze” (daze, maze, craze, gaze, etc.) partly borrowed from Thomas Hardy ’ s poem about a man haunted by “a phantom of his own figuring”— ”a ghost-girl-rider” on the Atlantic shore, it would be unwise to make conjectures about the “real surname” of Lolita. In fact, the family name of Mr. Harold Haze is interwoven into the narrative no less closely than Dolores or Lolita. It seems to derive from Humbert Humbert’s vision of his seashore ghost-girl Annabel: “the haze of stars, the tingle, the flame, the honey-dew, and the ache remained with me... until at last, twenty-four years later, I broke her spell by incarnating her in another” (E. 15). When H.H. describes his Paris flat he mentions a “hazy view in one window” (E.26)—a detail that later will be echoed by another “hazy blue view” on a mountain path where H.H. and Lolita meet the McCrystal family (E.157). The narrator himself (who presumably can not know of John Ray ’ s alterations) makes two puns upon Lolita’s surname. Discussing a list of her class, he calls Lolita his “dolorous and hazy darling” (E.53) and in the famous davenport scene coins the antanaclasis: “I lost myself in the pungent but healthy heat which like summer haze hung about little Haze. Let her stay, let her stay” (E. 59).


The motif of haze is also important in H.H.’s eulogy of “the delicate beauty ever present in the margin” of their first American journey—in “mirage- like” views seen through the “hot haze” and mimicking Miss Haze’s charms: “Beyond the tilled plain, beyond the toy roofs, there would be a slow suffusion of inutile loveliness, a low sun in a platinum haze with a warm, peeled-peach tinge pervading the upper edge of a two-dimensional, dove-gray cloud fusing with the distant amorous mist” (E.152-153).

Since Russian language precludes any semantization of Lolita’s surname (transliterated as Geiz and associated only with geysers), in his translation of the novel Nabokov did not render the very words “haze” and “hazy” in any consistent way. He used “dymka,” the best Russian equivalent for “haze,” and its derivatives in a position and meaning corresponding to those of the original only twice—first, when translating the phrase “my dolorous and hazy darling” (cf. “moei dymchato-rozovoi, dolorozovoi golubki”) and then portraying Lolita in Part II, Chapter 8: “the most auburn and russet, the most mythopoetic nymphet in October’s orchard-haze” (cf.: “basnoslovnoi, rusoi, rozovato-ryzhei nimfetkoi v zolotoi dymke oktiabr’ skogo vertograda”—Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita. Perevel s angliiskogo avtor. Ann Arbor, 1976,42,168 , All the subsequent references to this edition of Lolita in Russian will be given in parenthesis and designated by R.).

In all the other occurrences Nabokov selected different, semantically proximate but phonetically diverse words for “haze” or “hazy.” For example, in place of the “haze of stars” (E. 15) there is “tuman zvezd” (R.7. Lit. the “fog/mist of stars”), in place of a “hazy view” (E.26)—’’dymnyi vid” (R. 17. Lit. a “smoky view”), in place of Hazy Hills (E.l 10)—’’Tumannye gory” (R. 96. Lit. “Misty Mountains”), in place of the “hot haze” (E.153)—’’mertsanie znoia” (R.136. Lit. “a gleamer of heat”), and so forth. As a result the Russian version of Lolita is lacking an elaborate interplay between the heroine’s surname and the


motif of haze, which the English original emphasizes by repetitions and paronomasia.

It should be noted, however, that Nabokov finds some ways to compensate for this loss, using “dymka” and “dymchatyi” in many phrases that in English contain neither “haze” nor “hazy.” They serve as equivalents not only for such synonyms of the latter as “mist” (cf. E.152: “amorous mist” and R.135: “romanticheskaia dymka”), or “dimness,” “dim” and “blurred” (cf. E.131 “her dimpled dimness” and R. 117 “eta dymka s iamochkoi;” E.284 “dim and adorable regions” and R.264 “dymchataia obvorozhitel’ naia oblast’ ;”E.270 “blurred beauty” and R.252 “dymchataia prelest”’) but even for non-synonymous “veil” (E.60/R.49), “smoky” (E. 120/R. 106), “nebulous” (A. 130/ R.115, 116), “vaporous” (E.203/R.185) and even, in H.H.’s verses, “dream-gray” (E.257/R.237). Instead of a surname associated with haze, Russian Lolita acquires a hazy body, hazy eyes and gaze, a hazy beauty and inner life; the haziness becomes her constant physical and spiritual attribute, a marker of her dreamlike enchantments. Moreover, unlike the surname, it connects Lolita not to her biological parents, Mr. and Mrs. Haze, but to her pursuer-abductor whose gray car in the Russian translation becomes hazy-gray (dymchato-seryi) and eventually disappears like dymka/haze (R.216).

After its introduction in the davenport scene, the “dymka” motif resurfaces in the Enchanted Hunters chapters and then runs through the most important episodes of Part II—the American journey (chapters 1 and 2), H.H.’s confrontation with Lolita in Beardsley when he realizes that she has changed and is slipping out of his power (Chapter 14), the appearance of H.H.’s en-Trapp-er at the tennis game (Chapter 20), Lolita’s sickness in Elphinstone (Chapter 22), H.H.’s visit to pregnant Dolly Schiller (Chapter 29) and his belated recognition of her pain and his guilt (Chapter 32). Like Lolita’s surname in the English original, it refers not solely to her charms but also to the narrator’s state of mind, his “mental daze,” and hence to the


“hazy”—that is, surreal, phantasmal—nature of the text itself, especially in Part II.

Metafictional implications of the haze/dymka motif in Lolita nod at a specific literary subtext—Alexander Blok’s lecture on Maurice Maeterlinck’s play Blue Bird (L’Oiseau blue). In this lecture Blok remarked that Maeterlinck’s fairy play, like any other fairy tale speaking about the unattainable, is enveloped by a blue haze (“...dymka, v kotoruiu zakutana vsia meterlinkovskaia skazka i vsiakaia skazka, govoriashchaia о nedostizhimom, —golubaia...” Aleksandr Blok, Sobranie sochinenii v vos’mi tomakh, tom 6. Moscow—Leningrad: 1962,413). Discussing a scene in which the children enter “the Land of Memory” where they meet their dead grandparents and siblings, В Iok used the same metaphor again: the dead, says he, differ from the living only as far as they are hidden behind an airy haze, a blue haze of a fairy tale (“Pokoinye ... otlichaiutsia ot zhivykh... tol’ko tem, chto skryty za vozdushnoi dymkoi, za goluboi dymkoi skazki...” Ibid. 417).

These observations of Blok seem to be a missing link (or, as G. A. Levinton punned, a “Meta-link”) between the motif of haze and several allusions to Maeterlinck and his fairy play found in Lolita. It is important that H.H. notices some echoes from Maeterlinck in The Enchanted Hunters (E.201/R.183), a play written by Clare Quilty together with Vivian Darkbloom alias Vladimir Nabokov (who anagrammatized his name in the Russian Lolita as Vivian Damor-BIok). Actually the only scene in the play that H.H. likes—a pageant of “seven bemused pubescent girls in colored gauze that ... were supposed to represent a living rainbow ... and rather teasingly faded behind a series of multiplied veils” (E.220—221/R.202)—has a parallel not only in James Joyce as the narrator suspects but also in Act III, Scene 1 of The Blue Bird (cf.: “The Stars, in the shape of beautiful young girls veiled in many-colored radiancy, escape from their prison, disperse over the hall and form graceful groups ... bathed in a sort of luminous penumbra.” Maurice


Maeterlinck, The Blue Bird: A Fairy Play in Six Acts. Translated by Alexander Tiexiera de Mattos. New York: 1925, 112). Among “assumed names” retrieved in his “cryptogrammic paper chase,” H.H. cites “Morris Schmetterling” and tries to have his laugh, transposing the titles of Rimbaud’s poem Le Bâteau ivre and Maeterlinck’s L’Oiseau bleu (E.250/R.231). Finally, when Clare Quilty says that he had been called the American Maeterlinck, H.H. taunts him with a pseudo-Yiddish sneer “Maeterlinck-Schmetterling” (E.301/R.280).

Besides the overt references to Maeterlinck and his best play there are quite a few oblique ones concentrated, for the most part, in the Elphinstone chapter that abounds with fairy tale motifs and parallels. Lolita’s flight is associated with the celestial color of Maeterlinck’s bird as she is treated by Dr. Blue and helped by a young nurse whom H.H. derisively calls a visionary capable of imagining “une belle dame toute en bleu” (E.244/R.225). Of course, the blue motif might be connected to Charles Perrault’s tale Bluebeard mentioned in the chapter (E.243/R.224) but Nabokov’s punning play on “Beardsley” and “Birdsley” implies a paronomastic double entendre: if, for Lolita’s abductors, H.H.’s Beardsley (([Blue] beard’s lay?] is Birdsley ([Blue] Bird slay?], it means that his self-pitiful analogy with “poor Bluebeard” must be readdressed to Lolita as a “poor Blue Bird.” In any case, this dual reference is connected to Maeterlinck because he wrote a play about Bluebeard (Ariane et Barbe-Bleue) and mentioned his palace in The Blue Bird— there lives the Fairy Berylune, “a little old woman dressed in green” who gives two children a silver cage and a magic hat adorned with a magic diamond, sending them on a search for the Blue Bird.

Arriving at “Silver Spur Court, Elphinstone,” H.H. finds himself in a hostile fairy realm run by blue-eyed Mrs. Hays (a homophone of “haze”) and feels “the anguish of knowing Lolita to be so tantalizingly, so miserably unattainable” (E.239). His guide in the magic town is a replica of Maeterlinck’s Fairy


Berylune—”a little old woman, a portable witch, perhaps [Erlkonig’s] daughter” (E.240); an indecent tattoo reminds him of “some sly fairy” (E.245); in the waiting room of the hospital he notices “’’the idiotic green love birds in a cage” and thinks that they “were in the plot” (E.243); another bird—a sparrow— perches on the saddle of Mrs. Hays’s bike which H.H. in his drunken delirium takes for “Dolly’s beautiful young bicycle” (E.245); a twisted address that H.H. “telestically” makes up— ’’Bird School, Bird, New Bird” (E.246)—once more evokes the “[Blue] beard/bird” paronomasia. Seemingly unconnected and irrelevant, all these images form a coordinated pattern if related to the fairy tale symbolism of The Blue Bird in Blok’s interpretation. The hazy fairyland dupes and rejects H.H. but accepts Dolores Haze as she is “endued unto that element.” Her fate in the novel seems to mimic that of Maeterlinck’s minor blue birds—when caught, they either change color or die hanging their heads. Yet, behind many layers of mimetic deception Lolita, like the ultimate Blue Bird soaring high in a ray of the moonlight, keeps her “durable pigments” intact and remains forever untrammeled and untamed in the otherworldly “Diana’s Dell.”

In a conversation with Alfred Appel, Jr. Nabokov said that H.H.’s “Maeterlinck-Schmetterling” jibe directed at Clare Quilty was “the most important phrase in the chapter.” Since Schmetterling means butterfly in German, Appel suggested that using the word, “Quilty [in fact, it is H.H.] has superimposed the author’s watermark on the scene” (E.448), which explains why the reference had so much importance for Nabokov. This explanation is, no doubt, correct (all the more so as the Blue Bird can be easily supplanted by Nabokov’s Blue) but not exhaustive. A cluster of interrelated motifs echoing Maeterlinck’s fairy play and Blok’s lecture indicates that Nabokov deliberately chose The Blue Bird as a prototype for his novel that ironically displaces its subtext, transposing the childish fairy play about the unattainable into a story of sexual obsession with a child. Such


a transposition had been foreshadowed by Blok who wrote in his lecture that adults rarely dream of Blue Birds and if they do, their dreams are clumsy and ungainly. “Besides, the Birds whom the adults chase in their dreams are in essence not Birds at all; usually they make their appearance in such an improper form that it would be better to wake up from this dream” (Aleksandr Blok, op. cit., 414). This reads as a blue[bird]print of Lolita whose protagonist didn’t wake up in time and got lost in the haze of his improper, insane daydreaming.

—Alexander Dolinin, University of Wisconsin-Madison



The commentary to The Defense in the five-volume Symposium collection of Nabokov’s Russian works gives only one example of Russian art of the late nineteenth—early twentieth centuries in the novel. The commentary identifies “the reproduction of Phryne Taking Her Bath” (Def 38) at the Luzhins’ St. Petersburg residence as that of Prazdnik Poseidona, ili Frina (Poseidon’s Festival, or Phryne, 1889; the State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg) by G. I. Semiradsky (1843-1902) (see 2: 709-10). More precisely, however, the painting’s title is Frina na prazdnike Poseidona v Elevsine (Phryne at Poseidon’s Festival in Eulesis), and the name of its artist, of Polish descent, is Henryk Hector Siemiradzki. The novel, in fact, includes many more references to Russian art. Here, I attempt to examine and identify them.

Thus, the interior of Luzhin’s in-laws’ Berlin apartment contains several paintings: “And there were lots of pictures on the walls—more country girls in flowered kerchiefs, a golden bogatyr on a white draft horse, log cabins beneath blue featherbeds of snow...” (Def 119-20).


“Country girls in flowered kerchiefs” suggest the art of Filipp Maliavin (1869-1940) who frequently depicted peasant females in gaily-colored, frequently red, attire. Immediately prior to this mention, there is a reference to Maliavin’s other work from the same series, displayed over the door in the entrance hall of the apartment: “[A] village girl in a red kerchief coming down to her eyebrows was eating an apple, and her black shadow was eating a slightly larger apple” (Def 119). Commonly, Luzhin was imperceptive of anything other than chess and was rather unsophisticated with regard to art. (We are mindful that later in the novel his wife takes him to Berlin’s Kaiser Friedrich Museum, and there is a feeling from the childlike tonality of her explanations that Luzhin had never been to an art museum before ([see Def 190-91]). Why, then, did this painting fascinate Luzhin? It is described as “a large, vivid oil painting that caught the eye. (In Russian, it sounds rather gaudy and obtrusive—”bila v glaza,” that is literally, “was striking in the eyes” [2: 375].) Luzhin, who normally did not notice such things, gave his attention to it because it was greasily glossed with electric light and the colors dazed him, like a sunstroke” (Def 119). Nabokov further conveys Luzhin’s reaction to this painting: ‘“A Russian baba,’ said Luzhin with relish and laughed” (ibid.). Luzhin’s joyous response to Maliavin’s paintings by no means reflects Nabokov’s own perception of the painter’s art. It appears that the writer’s opinion of Maliavin’s work is expressed much later in the novel through the eyes of Luzhin’s art-savvy wife who, as we may recall, attended art history classes (Def 128 j, and whom Nabokov, in all likelihood, endowed with some of his own pictorial tastes and sensibilities. It is through the eyes of Luzhin’s wife that the narrator most likely expressed Nabokov’s own attitude toward the garish art of Maliavin when he dubs his baby “the falsely swaggering peasant women in the pictures” (Def 241). Curiously, the tenth issue (1923) of the Berlin émigré periodical Zhar-ptitsa (Firebird), in which Nabokov occasionally published his


poetry, contains several examples of Maliavin’s art, including his Baby (Peasant Women, 1914), along with Sergei Makovsky’s article about the painter. It appears that Nabokov was familiar with Makovsky’s piece, as some textual parallels between the article and the novel suggest. Makovsky’s description of Maliavin’s early baba whose “sarafan—kumachevyi ogon’” and whose “rezkaia, issine-chernaia ten’ na lbu, pochti nepravdopodobnaia—k nei nado privyknut’” (“the sarafan is like red fire” and “a sharp, bluish-black shadow on her forehead, almost improbable—one has to get used to it”) (Sergei Makovsky, “Maliavin,” Zhar-ptitsa 10 [1923]: 2) turn in the novel into “Baba v kumachovom platke do brovei ela iabloko” and “ее Chernaia ten’ na zabore ela iabloko pobol’she” (“A village girl in a red kerchief coming down to her eyebrows was eating an apple” and “her black shadow on a fence was eating a slightly larger apple”) (2:375 and Def 119). Furthermore, Makovsky’s observation that the girl stood “ukhmyliaias’ i zhmurias’ ot znoinogo sveta” (“grinning and narrowing her eyes from the sultry light”) (ibid.) transforms into Luzhin’s similar reaction to the painting itself—’’the colors dazed him, like a sunstroke” (Def 119).

“A golden bogatyr on a white draft horse” alludes to Vitiaz ’ na rasput’e (A Knight at the Crossroads, 1882; the State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg) by Viktor Vasnetsov (1848-1926). To this attests the color resolution of the painting: it depicts the glistening (golden) armor, and especially helmet of the horseman, and his white horse, suffused in the light of the setting sun. The word bogatyr brings to mind Bogatyri (The Bogatyrs, 1898; the State Tret’iakov Gallery, Moscow), another painting by Vasnetsov, in which one of the three horses is white. Both paintings have been extremely popular with the Russians, widely reproduced, and it is quite conceivable that Luzhin’s inlaws’ might use them in their apartment’s decor. (I rule out Mikhail Vrubel’s Bogatyr, as the colors of his decorative panel do not correspond to the novel’s description.) By the way, it


was Viktor Vasnetsov’s painting Sirin i Alknost, skazochnye ptitsy radosti i pechali (Sirin and Alkonost, the Fairytale Birds of Joy and Sorrow, 1896; the State Tret’iakov Gallery, Moscow) that inspired the eponymous poem by Aleksandr Blok and was apparently partly responsible for Nabokov’s selection of his pen name.

“[L]og cabins beneath blue featherbeds of snow” sounds quite generic and may point to a number of paintings, such as Zimniaia doroga (A Winter Road, 1866; the State Tret’iakov Gallery, Moscow) by Lev Kamenev (1833-86), a founding member of the Wanderers. In its background, there are snow-covered log cabins upon which the darkish sky casts bluish shadows (see F.S. Mal’tseva, Mastera russkogo peizazha, 1870-e gody [Masters of Russian Landscape, 1870s], Moscow: “Iskusstvo,” 1999, ill. 38). If my supposition is correct, Nabokov added a touch of humor by alluding to this painting: the painter’s namesake, although by way of the pseudonym. Lev Kamenev (1883-1936), a Bolshevik leader, was of Jewish origin (his real name was Lev Borisovich Rosenfeld). Luzhin’s in-laws were blatant anti-Semites who suspected Luzhin of being a Jew and a Bolshevik (Def 107-8). They also evidently lacked any knowledge about art. And it is easy to imagine them going to great lengths to ascertain that the painter had nothing to do “with people of dubious origin” (Def 104) before they hung his painting in their apartment. Another possible candidate is Zimoi (In Winter) by Aleksei Stepanov (1858-1923) who came to be known as one of the so-called Young Wanderers. Similarly to Kamenev’s, Stepanov’s piece depicts log cabins in the background, with the bluish snow covering their roofs and the surrounding space. Nabokov was undoubtedly familiar with the painting, as it was reproduced in the fourth-fifth issue of Zhar-ptitsa (1921) that also included his poem “Pero” (“A Feather”). Altogether, the paintings in Luzhin’s in-laws’ residence may be seen as Nabokov’s


contemptuous comment on their jingoistic love for “the daubed, artificial Russia” (Def 104).

Finally, in his “chess” novel, Nabokov pays an elegant tribute to Natalia Goncharova (1881-1962), a gifted painter, graphic artist and ballet designer. Among the Luzhins’ guests, the narrator describes “smuGLaia, iarkO NAkrAshennaia baRyshnia, CHudesNo rlsOVAvshalA zhAr-pTits” [“a swarthy, brightly made-up girl who drew remarkable firebirds”] (2: 449; Def 231)—an anagram of Natalia Goncharova. In mentioning firebirds, Nabokov alludes to Goncharova’s stage and costume designs in the Diaghilev’s production of Igor Stravinsky’s Zhar-ptitsa (Firebird) (London, 1926). This allusion, however, as it is often the case with Nabokov, is self-referential since, as I mentioned earlier, the writer occasionally published his poetry in the Berlin émigré periodical so titled. Furthermore, on page two of this magazine’s seventh issue (1922) there is Nabokov’s poem “Vesna” (“Spring”), signed Vlad. Sirin, side by side with a resplendent ornament, containing exotic birds, by Natalia Goncharova. The opposite page displays a similar ornament by this artist. And between pages four and five of that issue, there is a reproduction of Goncharova’s decorative canvas with Sirin birds. Incidentally, the creative paths of Nabokov and Goncharova intersected once again in the twelfth issue of the magazine (1924): Nabokov, being represented by his poem “Shekspir” (“Shakespeare”) (32), Goncharova, by her extensive artwork that included multicolored birds (6 -7). Finally, in paying tribute to Goncharova, Nabokov apparently recalled her costume designs of Sirin birds for the Diaghiliev production of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Zolotoi petushok (The Golden Cockerel, better known in the West under its French title Le Coq d’Or) (Paris, 1914). Nabokov was undoubtedly familiar with Goncharova’s work for the ballet, as her stage and costume designs for this production met with enormous success and made her world-famous.

—Gavriel Shapiro, Cornell University



The story of Siegfried exists across Northern European cultures, and is told and retold in varied incarnations such as the thirteenth-century sagas The Elder Edda, The Völsunga Saga, The Nibelungenlied, and Wagner’s nineteenth-century Ring cycle. Just as the Narrator chooses and arranges the stories about Pnin for his tale, he borrows from all the incarnations of the Siegfried myth to embroider his telling, and in so doing Nabokov’s Pnin reads like a fairy tale; reading it through the lens of the Siegfried legends, though, adds a mythic dimension and reveals one of the Narrator’s nearly invisible devices in his construction of Pnin’s story. That unheroic Pnin is a poor parallel to Siegfried reveals the narrator’s motivations: Pnin is unable to defend himself against the dragon, his colleague Dr. Falternfels, when Hagen leaves Waindell. But the lack of correspondence also means that Pnin does not die Siegfried’s tragic death. Hagen, Pnin’s Department head and protector, doubles the backstabbing Hagen of The Nibelungenlied. The tragedy of Pnin’s two loves, Liza and Mira, parallels Siegfried’s own tragic history with his consorts Gudrun and Brunhild. Furthermore, not only the characters but also the structures of the two texts are paralleled.

Pnin’s tale is told as a patchwork of stories and anecdotes assembled by the Narrator, just as the telling distracts attention from his own misdeeds in Pnin’s past by casting others as the betrayers.

Dr. Hagen is head of the German department and Pnin’s “staunch protector” (Pnin, 11). But the name Hagen is also the name of Siegfried’s murderer in the Nibelungenlied, in Wagner’s opera, and is the German equivalent of the Elder Edda’ s Hogni. When Dr. Hagen decides to leave Waindell, this causes “Assistant Professor Pnin [to] be left in a lurch” (Pnin, 139). The reader’s fears for Pnin are heightened when we


recall that Pnin cannot stay in his old department, under the “claws of the treacherous Falternfels,” and that he will not be accepted in any other of the school’s departments (Pnin, 139).

Bodo von Falternfels, with whom Hagen is reluctantly leaving the German department, is called a dragon: “I have nursed this Falternfels, this dragon, in my bosom, and he has now worked himself into a key position” (Pnin, 168). The professor’s name in English seems rather ominous. The first letter “f ’ evokes the name of the Old Norse monster from The Elder Edda, Fafnir, while the rest seems to refer to Drachenfels, the Dragon’s Rock, a place of hills and caves along the Rhine near Köningswinter, Germany where the dreaded Fafnir was said to make his home. The actual word Falternfels, though, when translated from the German, is not nearly as frightening: falter, butterfly, lepidoptera and fels, rocks. Falternfels actually suggests Butterfly’s Rock, which is far less ominous than the name’s other connotations. In this way Falternfels’ name suggests that perhaps he is less of a dragon than Hagen thinks him to be. Fafnir, the dragon from the Poetic Edda and the Wagner opera, is slain by the hero Siegfried (The Elder Edda, trans. Carolyne Larrington, Oxford University Press, 1996, 157-165). Unlike Siegfried, however, Pnin does not have such prowess.

Pnin flirts with Betty Bliss, but “his heart belonged to another woman” (Pnin, 43). The reader at first assumes that this is Liza, whose visit Pnin greets with excitement. But as Pnin reviles her in his mind, a squirrel interrupts him and requests a drink from the fountain (Pnin, 58). Interestingly, in the “Lay of Fafnir,” Siegfried, through accidental consumption of dragon’s blood, is able to understand the language of birds. These birds tell Siegfried where he can find the great sleeping beauty, Brunhild (The Elder Edda, 163). Pnin, in parallel, seems to have a strange rapport with squirrels. From this point on Liza moves to the background, and Mira Belochkin—Belochkin from the Russian belochka, diminutive of belka, squirrel—to whom


Pnin’s heart actually belongs, comes to the forefront. Mira first appears as an anonymous figure in a hall full of Pnin’s dead friends and family, at the speech he gives at Cremona: “shyly smiling, sleek dark head inclined, gentle brown gaze shining up at Pnin from under velvet eyebrows, sat a dead sweetheart” (Pnin, 27). This hall of the dead parallels Valhalla in Norse mythology, the hall of fallen heroes escorted, after death, by the Valkyrie. In the myth, Siegfried’s first and true love is Brunhild, a Valkyrie. Having Mira’s reentrance into the novel preceded by a sociable animal like Siegfried’s talking birds, and placing her, Pnin’s first and true love, in the hall of the Valkyrie, maps Mira with Brunhild. This then maps Liza with Gudrun—called Krienhild in The Nibelungenlied—whom Siegfried is tricked into marrying.

In The Elder Edda, Siegfried, after he declares an oath to Brunhild, is given a potion of forgetfulness so that he will fall in love with Gudrun. Pnin’s story, as a partial mirror of the myth, picks up after the potion has taken effect. After the encounter with the squirrel at the fountain, the stupor of forgetfulness subsides. But Pnin is not an exact mimic of Siegfried. Instead of being affected by a potion, Pnin must make an effort to forget his Brunhild: “In order to exist rationally, Pnin had taught himself, during the last ten years, never to remember Mira Belochkin” (Pnin, 134). Like the Valkyrie Mira is “immortal,” living on in Pnin’s memories (Pnin, 134). But because she is immortal, she can “[keep] dying a great number of deaths in [Pnin’s] mind, and undergo [...] a great number of resurrections, only to die again and again” (Pnin, 135). One of the ways Mira dies in Pnin’s memory further evokes Brunhild: “burned alive in a pit on a gasoline-soaked pile of beechwood” (Pnin, 135). In the Elder Edda, Brunhild is also burned alive: on a pyre alongside her one true love Siegfried (The Elder Edda, 192). She willingly joins him so that she may follow him into the afterlife, where they can be together forever. The relationship between Pnin and Mira is a revelation for the reader. While


Mira is forgotten in the hall of the dead in the first part of the book, Pnin seems clownish, always on the wrong train. He is a figure to be at least laughed at, if not also pitied. But with the revelation of the burden of these memories of Mira at the Pines among his Russian friends, Pnin becomes tragic. This sorrow has left a mark that at first the reader cannot see, which hides a wounded but more human Pnin.

In the Nibelungenlied, Siegfried’s only weakness is a small leaf-shaped spot on his back, just parallel to his heart. This spot is where Hagen stabs him through the back, into the heart (Nibelungenlied, trans. Margaret Armour, E. P. Dutton & Co., 1923,87,94). Pnin has a similar spot behind his heart: “what they termed ‘a shadow behind the heart’” (Pnin, 126). This detail is made explicit in chapter five, where Pnin’s love and suffering over Mira is revealed. The shadow is connected to Pnin’s visions of the past, which are triggered by a “certain extremely unpleasant and frightening cardiac sensation” (Pnin, 131). The shadow is also connected to Mira Belochkin through the etymology of her last name, and through “Gray Squirrel,” or “shadow tail” in Greek, a picture of which Pnin sends to Victor on a postcard (Pnin, 88). The ghost of Mira shadows Pnin’s heart like a squirrel’s tail. The reader wonders if this pain will eventually be too much for him. Pnin’s mark, like Siegfried’s, leaves him open to possible destruction, ultimate submission to his sadness, but one that, unlike Siegfried’s, continually pains Pnin, a pain that he must live with daily.

While Pnin is working in the library he finds the description of an old Russian game “on the margins of Christian ritual,” and he imagines young women swimming in a river on Whitsuntide, weaving links of woven flowers (Pnin, 77). These women evoke the Swan Maidens from the Elder Edda, spinning linen on the bank of a lake (The Elder Edda, 102), and the Rhine Maidens from Wagner’s Ring cycle, who play among the waves of the river Rhine (They figure prominently in Wagner’s Das Rheingold as well as Götterdämmerung Act III). The


Swan and Rhine Maidens were both said to be able to prophesy a man’s fate. Both of these fantastic beings, the Swan Maiden and the Rhine Maiden, seem to be aspects of the Norns, women who live near Yggdrasill, the world tree, and spin the fate of the world, a myth that spanned Northern Europe. In Act III of the Götterdämmerung, the Rhine Maidens tell Siegfried, as he stands before the Rhine, that his doom is at hand, and he is then stabbed in the back on the banks of the river. After Pnin has his vision of the river, these pagan maids leave him with “a curious verbal association,” with words he cannot recall, that resolve themselves as a verse from a Russian translation of Hamlet, describing Ophelia’s death (Pnin, 77, 79). This “verbal association” brings the reader forward in the text to Pnin’s “cardiac sensation,” the shadow behind his heart and Mira: the last time that Pnin saw his love she walked out of his life, but “the pang of tenderness remained, akin to the vibrating outline of verses you know you know but cannot recall” (Pnin, 134). This connection between Pnin’s heart shadow and the free-association-with-Hamlet prophesy of the Pninian Rhine Maidens seems to foretell certain doom for Pnin. But at the end of chapter five such a finish for Pnin is put off, or maybe averted entirely. As the chapter closes and the sun is setting, the image of two lovers appears: “They stood there closely, facing each other. One could not make out from the road whether it was the Poroshin girl and her beau.. .or merely an emblematic couple placed with easy art on the last page of Pnin’s fading day” (Pnin, 136). This final image is one of tranquility. Unlike Brunhild and Siegfried, for whom there is no reunion in the afterlife in the Siegfried myth, Pnin and Mira can find each other once again. After facing his pain in this chapter, Pnin’s vision of the happy young couple (whether real or imagined) has begun to put Mira to rest, and Pnin with her. Unlike Siegfried, Pnin has managed to slip fate’s net. In the memories of Timofey Pnin, the two lovers can eventually be at peace.


In the Siegfried myths there is no consensus on what the Treasure of the Nibelungs is. The magical qualities of it are explained differently in different stories. In some versions it is cursed. But always the treasure lies at the heart of the myth’s tragedy. In The Völsunga Saga one of the prime pieces in the collection is the “Helm of Awe,” which allows Siegfried to change shape (Völsunga Saga, trans. Eirikr Magnusson and William Morris, Walter Scott, LTD., 67). In the Song of the Nibelungs, the formidable magic artifact is the Tarnkappe, which allows Siegfried to become invisible (Nibelungenlied, 41). In the Poetic Edda, Fafnir wears “the helm of terror,” which allows him to remain in his terrific dragon form as he guards his hoard (The Elder Edda, 160). And in the Götterdämmerung, Siegfried uses a magic helmet to change shape and transport himself, while the ring from the Treasure contains a curse that brings down Siegfried and has the power to bring about the twilight of the gods. In the end of the Nibelungenlied, the Treasure of the Nibelungs is sunk into the depths of the river Rhine, forever lost (The Nibelungenlied, 110). Pnin has in his possession his own mysterious, “perfectly divine” artifact:

“A large bowl of brilliant aquamarine glass with a decorative design of swirled ribbing and lily pads...By some tender coincidence the bowl had come on the very day Pnin had counted the chairs and started to plan this party. The bowl... was one of those gifts whose first impact produces in the recipient’s mind a colored image...reflecting with such emblematic force the sweet nature of the donor” (Pnin, 157, 153).

Like the Treasure of the Nibelungs, the bowl has a magic and elusive quality about it. It brings to mind the river of Pnin’s library vision, with its water flora and Russian water spirits. And this furthermore recalls the Rhine, with its Rhine Maidens,


where the gold of the Treasure in Wagner’s opera originates, where Siegfried finds his death, and where the Treasure finally is lost.

Though Pnin’s end of the year party seems to be going well, the fatal mistake of the twinned professors Tristram W. Thomas and Thomas Wynn looms ominously and invokes the tragedy that seems to be approaching Pnin (Pnin, 150). This case of mistaken identity in the microcosm of the party scene is a microscope mirroring of the tragedy of mistaken identity that is key to the Siegfried subtext in the novel ’ s larger structure. Like Hagen putting his spear through Siegfried’s back, Hermann Hagen has “quenched his messy cigar in an uneaten bunchlet of grapes,” and revealed to Pnin the betrayal of his imminent departure (Pnin, 171). It appears that the hero Pnin will perish like the tragic Siegfried after all. As his final fall, Pnin, standing before his sink, almost breaks his bowl: “his fingers actually came into contact with [the nutcracker].. .but this only helped to propel it into the treasure-concealing foam...where an excruciating crack of broken glass followed upon the plunge.” Pnin reaches his hand in and is “stung” by broken glass (Pnin, 172). The nutcracker that Timofey drops can be associated with squirrels and the tragedies of Pnin’s past with Mira. Pnin has perhaps forever lost his Treasure in the foamy Rhine of his kitchen sink. But he retrieves the bowl fully intact. The symbol of his connection with Victor is saved. Unlike Siegfried, who perishes along the Rhine, Pnin, who cannot defeat the dragon and is a hero only in Victor’s dreams, is merely scathed after Hagen’s backstabbing. Pnin is able to retrieve his Treasure safely from the foam, again skirting what the Norns have spun for him.

As some critics have noted, the story’s structure seems to be comprised of unrelated fragments strung together. But, as Gennadi Barabtarlo insists, the structure is precise (Gennadi Barabtarlo, Phantom of Fact, Ann Arbor, Ardis, 1989,18).The book’s stmcture has an oral feeling to it: at times it retains Pnin’s


broken English and accent, or the echoing convulsions of a narrator’s laugh as he spins Pnin’s tale (Pnin, 11). The voices of Liza and Eric Wind, Victor, Vladimir Vladimirovich, Pnin himself and others can be distinctly heard in the narrative. By the end, with Cockerell retelling various professors’ anecdotes about poor Pnin. it seems as though the Narrator has constructed his tale from the various bits and pieces of story he has collected, supplemented by his own. The final anecdote of the book, introducing the Narrator, now a character in the text, to a Pnin who has “brought the wrong lecture,” reveals to the reader that the sources for this book are contradictory (Pnin, 191). The first story of “the bungling Pnin” features a wrong train, not a wrong lecture. In a similar fashion the Siegfried myth is drawn from many sources. These sources span Northern Europe from Norway, Iceland, and Germany, all the way to Russia. And they are drawn from across time, from The Elder Edda before the twelfth century, to Wagner’s Ring Cycle in the nineteenth. And all the sources that are drawn on for the Siegfried story, like those about Pnin, contradict one another. No two are exactly alike, and some, like the Elder Edda, which is itself a collection of disparate parts pieced together to tell one story, vary in plot details and names from section to section (the Eddas also play a role in Pale Fire; see Priscilla Meyer, Find What the Sailor Has Hidden, chapter 1,41-52). It is only the organization of oral traditions, myths, and poems stemming from different locations and intents by later redactors that gives a coherent whole. The Narrator constructs his Pnin in this same way, but the reader can identify the pieces, their sources and—by unraveling the tales—discover the motivations for why the Narrator tells the story the ways he does.

Only towards the end of the text does the reader meet the Narrator face to face. As the final chapter unfolds, the greatest treacheries are exposed—those executed behind the scenes and outside of the novel’s time, by the Narrator, the prominent Anglo-Russian writer. The Narrator is responsible for both


Liza’s attempted suicide and Pnin’s pain from his marriage to his Gudrun, Liza. The culpability of the Narrator helps to clarify why Pnin holds him in contempt. While the real Dr. Hagen certainly leaves Pnin in the lurch, he is not a villain on a scale with Hagen of Trony, as his name—coupled with the other Siegfried allusion—suggests. With the Narrator in control of what the reader sees and hears it is possible that Hagen is not even the German Professor’s real name, but is a red herring inserted by the Narrator to divert attention from his own guile and all that he has done to Pnin.

Furthermore, the Narrator is associated with butterflies; he is seen pinning them on boards in his youth, and Pnin questions the sincerity of his entomology at the summer retreat (Pnin, 177, 128). This leads the reader—by association of lepidoptery—to the terrible Faltemfels, who is actually just a butterfly among the rocks. While Falternfels moves into Pnin’s office and will take over the department, it is really the Narrator who is taking Pnin’s place at Waindell. The name of “dragon” given by Hagen in chapter six focuses the reader’s suspicion on Falternfels, but the translation of Falternfels’ name seems to point a finger at the lepidopterist Vladimir Vladimirovich, who plays the role of the real dragon hiding among the rocks. The subtext of Siegfried in the novel is deliberately manipulated by the Narrator to divert blame from himself, and project it onto whoever else can be implicated as the cause of Pnin’s hardships. In the end, the Narrator attempts a more flattering portrait of Timofey Pnin, which is even unconvincing to Pnin himself (Pnin, 180). Despite this last gesture, the novel still makes Pnin out to be more fool than man, the butt of faculty jokes. This is, in some ways, the deadliest blow of all. But while the Siegfried subtext helps to distribute blame, Pnin’s role as Siegfried does not fit him well. Pnin, unlike Siegfried, can finally escape his fate, leaving the noisy streets, drafty windows, and depressing kidney and fish, to the Narrator. While the Narrator must stay at Waindell in Pnin’s place, Pnin is free to go where he will, perhaps to be


with Victor, or to become the formidable head of a Russian department, or anything the reader might concoct for him. While Siegfried must live out the life the fates have spun for him, Pnin is free to scoop up his Treasure and drive off, into all the future’s possibilities.

—-Alex Rocklin, Wesleyan University



Nabokov’s keen interest in, and attention to, the geographical layout of the works he taught (and created) is quite well known. Among the numerous examples of the topographical exactitude he sought in teaching literature are the opening pages of his Lectures on Don Quixote, the two chapters on the “Where” and “When” of the book, in which Cervantes takes the rap for “the wobbly backdrop of Don Quixote, ...fiction, and rather unsatisfactory fiction at that.” Nabokov presents his students with his own map of Quixote’s Spain, complete with arrows outlining the course of the knight’s travels and travails (the sketch of the map is reproduced in the HB J edition of Lectures), and coupled with the following annotation: “Spain as you will see spreads in terms of platitudes (sorry, latitudes), degrees 43 to 36, from Massachusetts to North Carolina.” Such detailed familiarity with Spanish geography, and particularly with its projection onto the North American continent, may cast some reflected light onto Pnin, a novel that Nabokov conceived within the year following the creation of Lectures on Don Quixote.

In Chapter 5 of Pnin, Russian émigrés, among them Timofey Pnin, gather at “The Pines,” the summer house of Alexandr Petrovich Kukolnikov, situated near the town of Onkwedo. One of the guests, Varvara Bolotov, is said to mistakenly place “Lake Onkwedo, not on the parallel of, say. Lake Ohrida in the Balkans, where it belonged, but on that of


Lake Onega in northern Russia, where she had spent her first fifteen summers.” Andrew Field (Nabokov: His Life in Part) points out the apparent link between The Pines and M. Karpovich’s dacha in Southern Vermont, which is approximately at 43’ North. Lake Ohrid (sometimes spelled as Ohrida or Ochrida) can be found on the same parallel, roughly (42’ North), and if one were to continue westward within this bracket of latitudes, one would cross through the heartland of Spain and into the region of Asturias; its capital, Oviedo, is near the Bay of Biscay, at 43' North. There is a conspicuous visual and phonetic similarity between Oviedo and Nabokov’s Onkwedo; in fact, putting Oviedo into the context of Madame Bolotov’s geographic misconception, one could interpret the name “Onkwedo” as a portmanteau, an allusive confluence of the elliptical triad of Onega, Ochrida, and Oviedo. Historically, the city of Oviedo held sway over Asturias and the Portuguese province of Miranda, which borders Asturias from the southwest; there, the Asturian dialect is known as Mirandês. Both Miranda and Oviedo seem to have a direct relationship to Pnin’s fifth chapter, as the former is mentioned in the opening sentence (“...the adventurous summer tourist (Miranda or Mary, Tom or Jim, whose pencilled names were almost obliterated on the balustrade) might observe a vast sea of greenery...”) and is particularly important for its implicit connection to Mira Belochkin, Pnin’s dead sweetheart, whose aura permeates the chapter.

Apart from the audible and the latitudinal similarity between Oviedo and Onkwedo, it is also possible to draw a thematic parallel between the two through history. During the ninth century, Oviedo and Asturias in general served as a safe haven for Spanish nobility fleeing the Moorish conquest; according to the Columbia encyclopedia, the city developed during this period as the capital of the Asturian kings, primarily during the reign of Alphonso III (whose name, incidentally, alliterates with that of The Pines’ owner). In Al Cook’s Onkwedo, Russian émigrés, “liberals and intellectuals who had left Russia around


1920,” congregate on the even summers to discuss literature, a just form of government for their homeland, or the intricacies of Russian history; many of them — the Count and Countess Poroshin, for example, or the narrator himself, who admits to having visited The Pines — are clearly of noble stock. Thus, the two locales appear to be thematically linked by their common role as a refuge of exiled aristocracy, a sanctuary for a migrant society in a foreign land, a residence of an expelled, yet enduring culture.

—Mikhail Avrekh, UC Berkeley.