Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0027208, Fri, 28 Oct 2016 15:32:51 +0300

Vladimir Christian of Denmark & Dr Sig Heiler in Ada
As he speaks to Lucette, Van mentions a portrait of Vladimir Christian of

'My notion of propriety may not be the same as yours. And what about Cordula
de Prey? She won't mind?'

'The apartment is mine,' said Van, 'and besides, Cordula is now Mrs Ivan G.
Tobak. They are making follies in Florence. Here's her last postcard.
Portrait of Vladimir Christian of Denmark, who, she claims, is the dead spit
of her Ivan Giovanovich. Have a look.'

'Who cares for Sustermans,' observed Lucette, with something of her uterine
sister's knight move of specious response, or a Latin footballer's

No, it's an elm. Half a millennium ago.

'His ancestor,' Van pattered on, 'was the famous or fameux Russian admiral
who had an épée duel with Jean Nicot and after whom the Tobago Islands, or
the Tobakoff Islands, are named, I forget which, it was so long ago, half a
millennium.' (2.5)

In his essay on Herzen in “The Silhouettes of Russian Writers” Ayhenvald
calls Herzen Aleksandr Velikolepnyi (“Alexander the Magnificent”):

Жил он, жив был, думал о былом, уходил в про
шлое, когда не было настоящего, вспоминал,
когда нечего было воспринимать, замыкалс
я вовнутрь, когда не было внешнего (в ссыл
ке, например), отдавался внешнему, освещая
его изнутри, не имел мёртвых точек, не ост
анавливался, горел, жёг, волновался, расто
чал, - всегда блистательный и духовно-роск
ошный, князь эмиграции, властелин, которо
му недоставало только престола, Александ
р Великолепный, король в изгнании.

The allusion is to Lorenzo the Magnificent, the ruler of Florence who was
one of the most powerful and enthusiastic patrons of the Renaissance.
Lorenzo de’ Medici (1449-92) lived half a millennium ago. An elm that pops
up in Van’s stream of consciousness brings to mind Ada’s remark in Ardis
the First:

‘Well,’ he [Greg Erminin] said, getting up, ‘I must be going. Good-bye,
everybody. Good-bye, Ada. I guess it’s your father under that oak, isn’t

‘No, it’s an elm,’ said Ada. (1.14)

The name Ayhenvald (Eichenwald) means in German “oak wood.” Van, Ada and
Lucette are the descendants of Prince Peter Zemski, whose name hints Prince
Peter Vyazemski (a friend of Pushkin). Vyaz is Russian for “elm.” In mad
Aqua’s delirium there is the guide in Florence who mentions the ‘elmo’
that broke into leaf:

Soon, however, the rhythmically perfect, but verbally rather blurred
volubility of faucets began to acquire too much pertinent sense. The purity
of the running water’s enunciation grew in proportion to the nuisance it
made of itself. It spoke soon after she had listened, or been exposed, to
somebody talking ― not necessarily to her ― forcibly and expressively, a
person with a rapid characteristic voice, and very individual or very
foreign phrasal intonations, some compulsive narrator’s patter at a
horrible party, or a liquid soliloquy in a tedious play, or Van’s lovely
voice, or a bit of poetry heard at a lecture, my lad, my pretty, my love,
take pity, but especially the more fluid and flou Italian verse, for
instance that ditty recited between knee-knocking and palpebra-lifting, by a
half-Russian, half-dotty old doctor, doc, toc, ditty, dotty, ballatetta,
deboletta… tu, voce sbigottita… spigotty e diavoletta… de lo cor
dolente… con ballatetta va… va… della strutta, destruttamente… mente…
mente… stop that record, or the guide will go on demonstrating as he did
this very morning in Florence a silly pillar commemorating, he said, the
‘elmo’ that broke into leaf when they carried stone-heavy-dead St Zeus by
it through the gradual, gradual shade; or the Arlington harridan talking
incessantly to her silent husband as the vineyards sped by, and even in the
tunnel (they can’t do this to you, you tell them, Jack Black, you just tell
them…). (1.3)

“The gradual, gradual shade” hints at Gradus and Shade, two of the three
main characters in VN’s novel Pale Fire (1962). Shade, Kinbote (who
imagines that he is Charles the Beloved, the last self-exiled king of
Zembla) and Gradus seem to represent three different aspects of Botkin’s
personality (an American scholar of Russian descent, Professor Vsevolod
Botkin went mad and became Shade, Kinbote and Gradus after the suicide of
his daughter Nadezhda). In his essay on Herzen Ayhenvald calls Herzen “a
potentate who only lacks the throne, king in exile” (see the quote above).

Aqua’s doctor recites a poem by Guido Cavalcanti (1259-1300), the
Florentine poet, a friend of Dante (the author of The Divine Comedy). In his
essay on Dostoevski in “The Silhouettes of Russian Writers” Ayhenvald says
that Dostoevski was like olitsetvoryonnaya bol’ (the personified pain),
chyornoe solntse stradaniya (the black sun of suffering) and zhivaya
Bozhestvennaya komediya (“the live Divine Comedy”):

И гнетущей загадкой встаёт он перед нами,
как олицетворенная боль, как чёрное солнц
е страдания. Были доступны ему глубокие м
истерии человеческого, и не случайность о
н, не просто эпизод психологический, одна
из возможных встреч на дороге или на безд
орожьях русской жизни, не пугающий мираж
чеховского монаха или бредовое приключен
ие ночной души: нет, он - трагическая необх
одимость духа, так что каждый должен пере
болеть Достоевским и, если можно, его прео
долеть. Трудна эта моральная задача, пото
му что сам он был точно живая Божественна
я комедия; в ней же нет сильнее и страшнее
- Ада.

According to Ayhenvald, v ney zhe net sil’nee i strashnee Ada (in The
Divine Comedy the most powerful and terrible part is Inferno). Aqua’s last
note is signed “My sister’s sister who teper’ iz ada (now is out of
hell)” (1.3). In her last note Aqua mentions Nurse Joan the Terrible. In
his essay on Dostoevski Ayhenvald calls Dostoevski “Ivan the Terrible of
Russian literature.” If Ayhenvald read Dar (“The Gift,” 1937), Lolita
(1955), Pale Fire and Ada (1969), he would have called VN Vladimir Krasnoe
Solnyshko (Vladimir the Fair Sun) of Russian (and American) literature.
Vladimir the Fair Sun was the ruler of Kiev who baptized Russia in 988, a
millennium ago. On Ada’s sixteenth birthday Greg Erminin gives her a little
camel of yellow ivory carved in Kiev, five centuries ago, in the days of
Timur and Nabok:

Ada had declined to invite anybody except the Erminin twins to her picnic;
but she had had no intention of inviting the brother without the sister. The
latter, it turned out, could not come, having gone to New Cranton to see a
young drummer, her first boy friend, sail off into the sunrise with his
regiment. But Greg had to be asked to come after all on the previous day he
had called on her bringing a ‘talisman’ from his very sick father, who
wanted Ada to treasure as much as his grandam had a little camel of yellow
ivory carved in Kiev, five centuries ago, in the days of Timur and Nabok.

During a conversion in Ardis the First Van mentions “deserts with bleached
camel ribs:”

Now Lucette demanded her mother’s attention.

‘What are Jews?’ she asked.

‘Dissident Christians,’ answered Marina.

‘Why is Greg a Jew?’ asked Lucette.

‘Why-why!’ said Marina; ‘because his parents are Jews.’

‘And his grandparents? His arrière grandparents?’

‘I really wouldn’t know, my dear. Were your ancestors Jews, Greg?’

‘Well, I’m not sure,’ said Greg. ‘Hebrews, yes ― but not Jews in quotes
― I mean, not comic characters or Christian businessmen. They came from
Tartary to England five centuries ago. My mother’s grandfather, though, was
a French marquis who, I know, belonged to the Roman faith and was crazy
about banks and stocks and jewels, so I imagine people may have called him
un juif.’

‘It’s not a very old religion, anyway, as religions go, is it?’ said
Marina (turning to Van and vaguely planning to steer the chat to India where
she had been a dancing girl long before Moses or anybody was born in the
lotus swamp).

‘Who cares ―’ said Van.

‘And Belle’ (Lucette’s name for her governess), ‘is she also a dizzy

‘Who cares,’ cried Van, ‘who cares about all those stale myths, what does
it matter ― Jove or Jehovah, spire or cupola, mosques in Moscow, or bronzes
and bonzes, and clerics, and relics, and deserts with bleached camel ribs?
They are merely the dust and mirages of the communal mind.’

‘How did this idiotic conversation start in the first place?’ Ada wished
to be told, cocking her head at the partly ornamented dackel or taksik.

‘Mea culpa,’ Mlle Larivière explained with offended dignity. ‘All I
said, at the picnic, was that Greg might not care for ham sandwiches,
because Jews and Tartars do not eat pork.’

‘The Romans,’ said Greg, ‘the Roman colonists, who crucified Christian
Jews and Barabbits, and other unfortunate people in the old days, did not
touch pork either, but I certainly do and so did my grandparents.’

Lucette was puzzled by a verb Greg had used. To illustrate it for her, Van
joined his ankles, spread both his arms horizontally, and rolled up his
eyes. (1.14)

In his essay on Herzen Ayhenvald says the imposing building of Herzen’s
writings was not crowned with the cupola that religion gives to it:

Пышное здание Герцена не было увенчано те
м куполом, который даёт религия.

Ayhenvald points out that Herzen (who was born in Moscow a few months before
it was invaded by Napoleon’s army) is the author of articles about Buddhism
and dilettantism in science:

Энциклопедизм Герцена раскрывал перед ни
м двери и в область научно-философского з
нания. В своих статьях о буддизме и дилета
нтизме в науке он дал удивительную характ
еристику и такого отношения к науке, кото
рое проникнуто платоновским эросом, и так
ого, которое является уделом гётевских Ва

Like Greg Erminin (and VN’s wife Vera), Ayhenvald was Jewish. “The partly
ornamented dackel or taksik” brings to mind the Nabokov’s dachshunds.
Besides, in his autobiography Speak, Memory (1967) VN mentions a Great Dane
that accompanied him and his brother Sergey in their escape from the country
house of their parents. That Great Dane brings to mind the three dogs in
Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale “The Tinderbox” (1835). The Russian
title of VN’s memoirs, Drugie berega (“Other Shores”), hints at inye
berega, inye volny (“other shores, other waves”), a line in Pushkin’s
poem Vnov’ ya posetil… (“I revisited again…” 1835), but also evokes the
title of Herzen’s book S togo berega (“From the Other Shore,” 1851).

VN’s brother Sergey died in a German concentration camp. In her last note
Aqua mentions Herr Doctor Sig (Dr Sig Heiler):

Aujourd'hui (heute-toity!) I, this eye-rolling toy, have earned the
psykitsch right to enjoy a landparty with Herr Doktor Sig, Nurse Joan the
Terrible, and several 'patients,' in the neighboring bor (piney wood) where
I noticed exactly the same skunk-like squirrels, Van, that your Darkblue
ancestor imported to Ardis Park, where you will ramble one day, no doubt.

According to Dr Sig Heiler (a play on Sieg heil!, the Nazi salute), Aqua’s
dead body lay in a fetus-in-utero position:

She was discovered much sooner, but had also died much faster than expected,
and the observant Siggy, still in his baggy khaki shorts, reported that
Sister Aqua (as for some reason they all called her) lay, as if buried
prehistorically, in a fetus-in-utero position, a comment that seemed
relevant to his students, as it may be to mine. (ibid.)

Lucette is Van’s and Ada’s “uterine” sister. The fetus-in-utero position
of Aqua’s dead body brings to mind the closing lines of Khodasevich’s poem
Iz dnevnika (“From the Diary,” 1925):

Должно быть, жизнь и хороша,

Да что поймёшь ты в ней, спеша

Между купелию и моргом,

Когда мытарится душа

То отвращеньем, то восторгом?

Непостижимостей свинец

Всё толще, над мечтой понурой -

Вот и дуреешь наконец,

Как любознательный кузнец

Над просветительной брошюрой.

Пора не быть, а пребывать,

Пора не бодрствовать, а спать,

Как спит зародыш крутолобый,

И мягкой вечностью опять

Обволокнуться, как утробой.

Like VN’s brother, Khodasevich’s widow Olga Margolin (who was Jewish) died
in a concentration camp.

Alexey Sklyarenko

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