Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0027222, Mon, 14 Nov 2016 00:03:41 +0300

Monsieur de Pastrouil, Colonel St Alin, Skonky & Gavronsky in Ada
The challenge was accepted; two native seconds were chosen; the Baron
plumped for swords; and after a certain amount of good blood (Polish and
Irish - a kind of American 'Gory Mary' in barroom parlance) had bespattered
two hairy torsoes, the whitewashed terrace, the flight of steps leading
backward to the walled garden in an amusing Douglas d'Artagnan arrangement,
the apron of a quite accidental milkmaid, and the shirtsleeves of both
seconds, charming Monsieur de Pastrouil and Colonel St Alin, a scoundrel,
the latter gentlemen separated the panting combatants, and Skonky died, not
'of his wounds' (as it was viciously rumored) but of a gangrenous
afterthought on the part of the least of them, possibly self-inflicted, a
sting in the groin, which caused circulatory trouble, notwithstanding quite
a few surgical interventions during two or three years of protracted stays
at the Aardvark Hospital in Boston - a city where, incidentally, he married
in 1869 our friend the Bohemian lady, now keeper of Glass Biota at the local
museum. (1.2)

Charming Monsieur de Pastrouil seems to blend Louis Pasteur (1822-95), a
French chemist and bacteriologist, with Uncle Struy, a character in Undina.
Starinnaya povest’ (1831-36), Zhukovski’s rendering in hexameter of a
prose novella (Undine, 1811) by the German author Friedrich de La Motte

In Chekhov's story Palata № 6 (“Ward No. 6,” 1892) the discoveries of
Pasteur and of Koch are mentioned:

Радикально излечивается сифилис. А теори
я наследственности, гипнотизм, открытия П
астера и Коха, гигиена со статистикой, а н
аша русская земская медицина? Психиатрия
с её теперешнею классификацией болезней,
методами распознавания и лечения ― это в
сравнении с тем, что было, целый Эльборус.

A radical cure for syphilis had been discovered. And the theory of heredity,
hypnotism, the discoveries of Pasteur and of Koch, hygiene based on
statistics, and the work of Zemstvo doctors! Psychiatry with its modern
classification of mental diseases, methods of diagnosis, and treatment, was
a perfect Elborus in comparison with what had been in the past. (chapter

“Elborus” is an old spelling of Elbrus, a mountain in the Caucasus range
(the highest peak in Europe). In her essay Poet-alpinist (“The Alpinist
Poet,” 1935) Marina Tsvetaev tells about Nikolay Gronsky (1909-34), a young
poet who died in an accident at Pasteur, a metro station in Paris:

Двадцать первого ноября прошлого года, пр
иблизительно после восьми вечера, началь
ник станции парижского метро ?Pasteur? примет
ил среди пассажиров шедшего по перрону мо
лодого человека…

Одна моя знакомая, случайно оказавшаяся т
огда на станции метро ?Pasteur?, рассказывала,
что на линии ещё долго оставался его шарф
― ?такой весёлой расцветки?.

Лицо его было спокойно, без следов страха
или страдания. Вот мнение одного простого
женского сердца: ― Я никогда не видела так
ого мёртвого. Он лежал совсем пустой ― как

Погибшему только исполнилось двадцать пя
ть лет. Звали его Николай Павлович Гронск
ий. Был это большой русский поэт.

Marina Tsvetaev points out that Gronsky died at the age of twenty-five.
Van’s and Ada’s half-sister Lucette is twenty-five when she commits
suicide by jumping into the Atlantic from the Admiral Tobakoff.

Gronsky is the author of Bella Donna, a long poem that appeared in Poslednie
novosti (a Russian-language newspaper that came out in Paris) after the
author’s death. In her essay Marina Tsvetaev explains that Bella Donna in
Gronsky’s poem is a mountain range in Savoy, not a poisonous plant:

― Нет, в данном случае, Белла Донна ― это г
орная цепь в Савойе, названная так из-за с
амой высокой, самой неприступной и потому
самой прекрасной вершины. ?Белла Донна? Гр
онского ― поэма о горах, и написал её альп
инист. А растение белладонна здесь не при
чём. Это нужно знать для верного направле
ния нашего воображения.

Onboard the Admiral Tobakoff Lucette mentions Belladonna, the movie

'Your father,' added Lucette, 'paid a man from Belladonna to take pictures -
but of course, real fame begins only when one's name appears in that
cine-magazine's crossword puzzle. We all know it will never happen, never!
Do you hate me now?' (3.5)

On the eve of Lucette’s suicide Van and Lucette watch in the Tobakoff
cinema hall Don Juan’s Last Fling, a movie in which Ada played the

According to Marina Tsvetaev, among the things that were found after
Gronsky’s death were sea binoculars and a manuscript about Don Juan:

У него нашли морской бинокль и рукопись о

Describing his last day with Lucette onboard the Tobakoff, Van mentions

The level of the water slanted and swayed in his bath imitating the slow
seesaw of the bright-blue, white-flecked sea in the porthole of his bedroom.
He rang up Miss Lucinda Veen, whose suite was on the Main Deck amidships
exactly above his, but she was absent. Wearing a white polo-neck sweater and
tinted glasses, he went to look for her. She was not on the Games Deck from
where he looked down at some other red-head, in a canvas chair on the Sun
Deck: the girl sat writing a letter at passionate speed and he thought that
if ever he switched from ponderous factitude to light fiction he would have
a jealous husband use binoculars to decipher from where he stood that
outpour of illicit affection. (3.5)

In a letter to Anna Teskov written soon after Gronsky’s death Marina
Tsvetaev (whose husband was a double agent) says that she was Gronsky’s
first lover. In her poem Ya seychas lezhu nichkom… (“I am now lying
prone…” 1913) Marina Tsvetaev addresses her uchenik (pupil) and compares
herself to Salamandra i Undina (Salamander and Undine):

Я бы стала в тот же миг
― Слышите, мой ученик? ―

В золоте и в серебре
Саламандра и Ундина.
Мы бы сели на ковре
У горящего камина.

The legendary salamander is usually ascribed an affinity with fire,
sometimes specifically elemental fire. Marina (Van’s, Ada’s and Lucette’s
mother) is destroyed by fire:

Three elements, fire, water, and air, destroyed, in that sequence, Marina,
Lucette, and Demon. Terra waited. (3.1)

“Colonel St. Alin, a scoundrel,” clearly hints at Stalin. In her memoir
essay on Marina Tsvetaev (Novyi Zhurnal, 1967) Zinaida Shakhovskoy says that
Marina Tsvetaev's pride protected her from duplex lingua and that even under
the knife she would not have said a word of praise to Stalin:

Гордость защищала её от двуязычья и даже
под ножом не сказала бы она похвального с
лова Сталину.

The name Gronsky rhymes with d’Onsky (the “real” name of Demon’s
adversary) and with “Gavronsky” (as Ada calls G. A. Vronsky, the movie man
and one of Marina’s lovers):

As Van Veen himself was to find out, at the time of his passionate research
in terrology (then a branch of psychiatry) even the deepest thinkers, the
purest philosophers, Paar of Chose and Zapater of Aardvark, were emotionally
divided in their attitude toward the possibility that there existed ‘a
distortive glass of our distorted glebe’ as a scholar who desires to remain
unnamed has put it with such euphonic wit. (Hm! Kveree-kveree, as poor Mlle
L. used to say to Gavronsky. In Ada’s hand.) (1.3)

Describing Gronski’s death, Marina Tsvetaev mentions elektrichestvo

Машинист затормозил, начальник станции в
ыключил электричество, но служащие, по ка
кой-то рутинности, обнаруживающей себя в
момент метрополитеновских катастроф, нич
его не предпринимали в течение трёх четве
ртей часа, во время которых юноша, по увер
ению врачей, и потерял всю кровь. Двухкрат
ное перекачивание чужой крови не помогло,
и в десять часов вечера пострадавший уме
р, не придя в сознание.

On Demonia (aka Antiterra, Earth’s twin planet on which Ada is set)
electricity was banned after the L disaster in the middle of the 19th

The details of the L disaster (and I do not mean Elevated) in the beau
milieu of last century, which had the singular effect of both causing and
cursing the notion of ‘Terra,’ are too well-known historically, and too
obscene spiritually, to be treated at length in a book addressed to young
laymen and lemans ― and not to grave men or gravemen.

Of course, today, after great anti-L years of reactionary delusion have gone
by (more or less!) and our sleek little machines, Faragod bless them, hum
again after a fashion, as they did in the first half of the nineteenth
century, the mere geographic aspect of the affair possesses its redeeming
comic side, like those patterns of brass marquetry, and bric-à-Braques, and
the ormolu horrors that meant ‘art’ to our humorless forefathers. For,
indeed, none can deny the presence of something highly ludicrous in the very
configurations that were solemnly purported to represent a varicolored map
of Terra. Ved’ (‘it is, isn’t it’) sidesplitting to imagine that
‘Russia,’ instead of being a quaint synonym of Estoty, the American
province extending from the Arctic no longer vicious Circle to the United
States proper, was on Terra the name of a country, transferred as if by some
sleight of land across the ha-ha of a doubled ocean to the opposite
hemisphere where it sprawled over all of today’s Tartary, from Kurland to
the Kuriles! (1.3)

Elborus + Gavronsky + eccentricity + Skonky + Struy + Ai = electricity +
Gronsky + Nabokov + Russia + sky + century

Describing one hundred memorial floramors (palatial brothels) built by David
van Veen (a wealthy architect of Flemish extraction) all over the world
(except Tartary) after the death of his grandson Eric (the author of an
essay entitled “Villa Venus: an Organized Dream”), Van mentions

Eccentricity is the greatest grief's greatest remedy. The boy's grandfather
set at once to render in brick and stone, concrete and marble, flesh and
fun, Eric's fantasy. He resolved to be the first sampler of the first houri
he would hire for his last house, and to live until then in laborious
abstinence. (2.3)

According to Van, Eric’s project “derived from reading too many erotic
works found in a furnished house his grandfather had bought near Vence from
Count Tolstoy, a Russian or Pole.” Vronski is the name of Anna’s lover in
Tolstoy’s Anna Karenin (1877).

Skonky (Baron d’Onsky’s one-way nickname) means “girl who is a complete

Ai is the champagne that Van, Ada and Lucette drink at Ursus (the best
Franco-Estotian restaurant in Manhattan Major):

The uha, the shashlik, the Ai were facile and familiar successes; but the
old songs had a peculiar poignancy owing to the participation of a Lyaskan
contralto and a Banff bass, renowned performers of Russian ‘romances,’
with a touch of heart-wringing tsiganshchina vibrating through Grigoriev and
Glinka. And there was Flora, a slender, hardly nubile, half-naked music-hall
dancer of uncertain origin (Rumanian? Romany? Ramseyan?) whose ravishing
services Van had availed himself of several times in the fall of that year.

Ursus is a character in Victor Hugo's L'Homme qui Rit ("The Laughing Man,"
1869). In her memoir essay on Voloshin, Zhivoe o zhivom ("A Living Word
about a Living Man," 1932), Marina Tsvetaev uses the phrase au beau milieu
(right in the middle) as applied to Victor Hugo's poem Napoléon II (1832):

И внезапно \xa8C au beau milieu Victor Hugo Наполеону II \xa8C
уже не вкрадчиво, а срочно: \xa8C А нельзя ли б
удет пойти куда-нибудь в другое место? \xa8C М
ожно, конечно, вниз тогда, но там семь град
усов и больше не бывает.

According to Marina Tsvetaev, she invited Voloshin to a room downstairs
where the temperature is never above sem’ gradusov (seven degrees). In VN’
s novel Pale Fire (1962) Gradus is the name of Shade’s murderer.

In her essay about Gronsky Marina Tsvetaev attempts to prove that a great
poet can appear in emigration, after all:

Вот уже двенадцать лет, и с каждым годом в
сё болезненней и предрешённей, идёт в эми
грации спор: может ли в эмиграции возникн
уть поэт, или не может, и почему не может, а
― если может ― почему его нет? ― спор, посл
е двух-трёх на наших глазах разлетевшихся
поэтических мыльных пузырей, постепенно
сведшийся к единогласному врачебному при
говору: ― Поэта в эмиграции быть не может,
ибо нет почвы, среды и языка. Нет ― корней.

Опуская свое уже двенадцатилетнее коренн
ое возражение, ныне покажу на деле, какие
почва, среда, язык ― корни оказались у тол
ько что скончавшегося поэта Николая Грон

Alexey Sklyarenko

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