Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0027229, Sat, 19 Nov 2016 21:32:56 +0300

circles, silhouette, Latin, Lithuanian,
vibrational vibgyors & black rainbow in Ada
Ada to Van: ‘Well, perhaps, I ought not to try to divert you ― after you
trampled upon those circles of mine; but I’m going to relent and show you
the real marvel of Ardis Manor; my larvarium, it’s in the room next to
mine’ (which he never saw, never ― how odd, come to think of it!). (1.8)

By “those circles of mine” Ada means the roundlets of live light in her
sun-and-shade games (“the most boring and stupid games anybody has ever
invented, anywhere, any time, a.m. or p.m.”, according to Van). Ada makes a
reference to Noli turbare circulos meos (“do not disturb my circles”), the
phrase attributed to Archimedes (the Greek mathematician who was killed by a
Roman soldier). In his essay on Baltrushaitis in “The Silhouettes of
Russian Writers” Ayhenvald quotes Baltrushaitis’ poem Noli tangere
circulos meos (1906) and says that in the poet’s lips the famous words of
Archimedes acquire a more profound meaning:

Углублённый смысл получают в устах нашег
о поэта знаменитые Архимеда - Noli tangere circulos
meos! Эти circuli, эти круги земные и есть наше ж
изненное дело: надо их дочертить, надо дос
лушать вещий звон колоколов, оберечь своё
душевное достояние от всяких нападений и

According to Ayhenvald, we have to protect the riches of our soul from all
the attacks and falls (napadeniy i padeniy). When they climb the
glossy-limbed shattal tree (the Tree of Knowledge that grows in Ardis Park),
Van and Ada nearly fall down:

One afternoon they were climbing the glossy-limbed shattal tree at the
bottom of the garden. Mlle Larivière and little Lucette, screened by a
caprice of the coppice but just within earshot, were playing grace hoops.
One glimpsed now and then, above or through the foliage, the skimming hoop
passing from one unseen sending stick to another. The first cicada of the
season kept trying out its instrument. A silver-and-sable skybab squirrel
sat sampling a cone on the back of a bench.

Van, in blue gym suit, having worked his way up to a fork just under his
agile playmate (who naturally was better acquainted with the tree’s
intricate map) but not being able to see her face, betokened mute
communication by taking her ankle between finger and thumb as she would have
a closed butterfly. Her bare foot slipped, and the two panting youngsters
tangled ignominiously among the branches, in a shower of drupes and leaves,
clutching at each other, and the next moment, as they regained a semblance
of balance, his expressionless face and cropped head were between her legs
and a last fruit fell with a thud ― the dropped dot of an inverted
exclamation point. She was wearing his wristwatch and a cotton frock.


‘Yes, of course, I remember: you kissed me here, on the inside ―’

‘And you started to strangle me with those devilish knees of yours ―’

‘I was seeking some sort of support.’) (1.15)

Describing his first physical contact with Ada, Van says that “we touch in

After the first contact, so light, so mute, between his soft lips and her
softer skin had been established ― high up in that dappled tree, with only
that stray ardilla daintily leavesdropping ― nothing seemed changed in one
sense, all was lost in another. Such contacts evolve their own texture; a
tactile sensation is a blind spot; we touch in silhouette. (1.16)

At the end of the chapter Ada mentions Kim Beauharnais, the kitchen boy and
photographer at Ardis whom Marina (Van’s, Ada’s and Lucette’s mother)
wants to take a picture of Van and Ada:

But nature is motion and growth. One afternoon he came up behind her in the
music room more noiselessly than ever before because he happened to be
barefooted ― and, turning her head, little Ada shut her eyes and pressed
her lips to his in a fresh-rose kiss that entranced and baffled Van.

‘Now run along,’ she said, ‘quick, quick, I’m busy,’ and as he lagged
like an idiot, she anointed his flushed forehead with her paintbrush in the
semblance of an ancient Estotian ‘sign of the cross.’ ‘I have to finish
this,’ she added, pointing with her violet-purple-soaked thin brush at a
blend of Ophrys scolopax and Ophrys veenae, ‘and in a minute we must dress
up because Marina wants Kim to take our picture ― holding hands and
grinning’ (grinning, and then turning back to her hideous flower). (ibid.)

Seven and a half years later Van and Ada look up this photograph in Kim
Beauharnais’ album:

A formal photograph, on a separate page: Adochka, pretty and impure in her
flimsy, and Vanichka in gray-flannel suit, with slant-striped school tie,
facing the kimera (chimera, camera) side by side, at attention, he with the
shadow of a forced grin, she, expressionless. Both recalled the time
(between the first tiny cross and a whole graveyard of kisses) and the
occasion: it was ordered by Marina, who had it framed and set up in her
bedroom next to a picture of her brother at twelve or fourteen clad in a
bayronka (open shirt) and cupping a guinea pig in his gowpen (hollowed
hands); the three looked like siblings, with the dead boy providing a
vivisectional alibi. (2.7)

A guinea pig in Uncle Ivan’s gowpen brings to mind Cheepy, in VN's novel
Kamera Obskura (1932) the guinea pig drawn by Robert Horn (a gifted but
unprincipled artist). One of Horn’s drawings of Cheepy is accompanied by
the brief Latin phrase Noli me tangere:

В начале 1928 года в Берлине знатоку живопи
си Бруно Кречмару, человеку очень, кажетс
я, сведущему, но отнюдь не блестящему, при
шлось быть экспертом в пустячном, прямо д
аже глупом деле. Модный художник Кок напи
сал портрет фильмовой артистки Дорианны
Карениной. Фирма личных кремов приобрела
у неё право помещать на плакатах репродук
цию с портрета в виде рекламы своей губно
й помады. На портрете Дорианна держала, пр
ижатой к голому своему плечу, большущую п
люшевую Чипи. Горн из Нью-Йорка тотчас пре
дъявил фирме иск.

Всем прикосновенным к этому делу было в к
онце концов важно только одно \xa8C побольше
пошуметь: о картине и об актрисе писали, п
омаду покупали, а Чипи, уже теперь тоже \xa8C у
вы! \xa8C нуждавшаяся в рекламе, дабы оживить
хладевшую любовь, \xa8C появилась на новом ри
сунке Горна cо скромно опущенными глазам
и, с цветком в лапке и с лаконической надп
исью ?Noli me tangere?. (Chapter I)

Dorianna Karenin (who was portrayed pressing the big plushy Cheepy to her
bare shoulder) is a movie actress. One of the photographs in Kim’s album
shows Sumerechnikov, the “American precursor of the Lumière brothers” (1.
6) whose name comes from sumerki (dusk):

A photograph of an oval painting, considerably diminished, portrayed
Princess Sophia Zemski as she was at twenty, in 1775, with her two children
(Marina’s grandfather born in 1772, and Demon’s grandmother, born in

‘I don’t seem to remember it,’ said Van, ‘where did it hang?’

‘In Marina’s boudoir. And do you know who this bum in the frock coat is?’

‘Looks to me like a poor print cut out of a magazine. Who’s he?’

‘Sumerechnikov! He took sumerographs of Uncle Vanya years ago.’

‘The Twilight before the Lumières. Hey, and here’s Alonso, the
swimming-pool expert. I met his sweet sad daughter at a Cyprian party ― she
felt and smelt and melted like you. The strong charm of coincidence.’

‘I’m not interested. Now comes a little boy.’

‘Zdraste, Ivan Dementievich,’ said Van, greeting his fourteen-year-old
self, shirtless, in shorts, aiming a conical missile at the marble
fore-image of a Crimean girl doomed to offer an everlasting draught of
marble water to a dying marine from her bullet-chipped jar. (2.7)

A colloquial form of zdravstvuyte (“how do you do”), Van’s zdraste brings
to mind Ada’s phrase zdravstvuyte, apofeoz (“lo and behold: the

‘I remember the cards,’ she said, ‘and the light and the noise of the
rain, and your blue cashmere pullover ― but nothing else, nothing odd or
improper, that came later. Besides, only in French love stories les
messieurs hument young ladies.’

‘Well, I did while you went on with your delicate work. Tactile magic.
Infinite patience. Fingertips stalking gravity. Badly bitten nails, my
sweet. Forgive these notes, I cannot really express the discomfort of bulky,
sticky desire. You see I was hoping that when your castle toppled you would
make a Russian splash gesture of surrender and sit down on my hand.’

‘It was not a castle. It was a Pompeian Villa with mosaics and paintings
inside, because I used only court cards from Grandpa’s old gambling packs.
Did I sit down on your hot hard hand?’

‘On my open palm, darling. A pucker of paradise. You remained still for a
moment, fitting my cup. Then you rearranged your limbs and reknelt.’

‘Quick, quick, quick, collecting the flat shining cards again to build
again, again slowly? We were abominably depraved, weren’t we?’

‘All bright kids are depraved. I see you do recollect ―’

‘Not that particular occasion, but the apple tree, and when you kissed my
neck, et tout le reste. And then ― zdravstvuyte: apofeoz, the Night of the
Burning Barn!’ (1.18)

Describing the Night of the Burning Barn when he and Ada make love for the
first time, Van mentions electricity (banned on Antiterra after the L
disaster in the middle of the 19th century):

‘I want to ask you,’ she said quite distinctly, but also quite beside
herself because his ramping palm had now worked its way through at the
armpit, and his thumb on a nipplet made her palate tingle: ringing for the
maid in Georgian novels ― inconceivable without the presence of elettricit
à ―

(I protest. You cannot. It is banned even in Lithuanian and Latin. Ada’s

Jurgis Baltrushaitis (1873-1944) was a Lithuanian poet who wrote in Russian
(and who was the head of Lithuanian diplomatic mission in Moscow after Lenin
came to power in October of 1917).

The Antiterran L disaster seems to correspond to the mock execution of
Dostoevski and the Petrashevskians that happened in our world on January 3,
1850 (NS). In his essay on Dostoevski (“the only author who wrote after he
had seen the world and had heard his soul from the height of a scaffold”)
in “The Silhouettes of Russian Writers” Ayhenvald calls Dostoevski “Ivan
the Terrible of Russian literature:”

Мучитель и мученик, Иван Грозный русской
литературы, он казнит нас лютой казнью св
оего слова и потом, как Иван Грозный, живо
й человеческий анчар, ропщет и молится, и
зовет Христа, и Христос приходит к этому б
езумцу и мудрецу, к этому юродивому, и тог
да он плачет кровавыми слезами и упоённо
терзает себя своими веригами, своими като
ржными цепями, которые наложили на него л
юди и которых он уже и сам не мог сбросить
со своей измученной души.

In Pushkin’s drama Boris Godunov (1825) Grigoriy Otrepiev (the impostor who
impersonates Prince Dmitri, the youngest son of Ivan the Terrible) flees to
Lithuania. As he speaks to Shuyski (a character in Boris Godunov), Pushkin
(the poet’s ancestor) mentions Latinskie popy (the Catholic priests):

П у ш к и н
Да слышно, он умён, приветлив, ловок,
По нраву всем. Московских беглецов
Обворожил. Латинские попы
С ним заодно. Король его ласкает
И, говорят, помогу обещал.

PUSHKIN. 'Tis said that he is wise,
Affable, cunning, popular with all men.
He has bewitched the fugitives from Moscow,
The Catholic priests see eye to eye with him.
The King caresses him, and, it is said,
Has promised help.

In Pushkin’s drama the Pretender mentions latinskie stikhi (Latin verses)
and latinskaya muza (Latin Muse):

Что вижу я? Латинские стихи!

Стократ священ союз меча и лиры,

Единый лавр их дружно обвивает.

Родился я под небом полунощным,

Но мне знаком латинской Музы голос,

И я люблю парнасские цветы.

Я верую в пророчества пиитов.

Нет, не вотще в их пламенной груди

Кипит восторг: благословится подвиг,

Его ж они прославили заране!

Приближься, друг. В моё воспоминанье

Прими сей дар.

(Даёт ему перстень)

Когда со мной свершится

Судьбы завет, когда корону предков

Надену я; надеюсь вновь услышать

Твой сладкий глас, твой вдохновенный гимн

Musa gloriam coronat, gloriaque musam.

Итак, друзья, до завтра, до свиданья.

P r e t e n d e r

What do I see? Verses in Latin!

Blessed is the holy unity of sword and plough,

One laurel friendly twines them round.

Under the midnight heaven I was born,

The voice of Latin Muse, however,

Is familiar to me.

I love the flowers of Parnassus

And I believe in prophecy of poets.

It's not in vain, delight boils in their flaming chests:

Blessed is the feat: they've glorified it in advance!

Come here, my friend. Accept this gift

and you'll remember me.

(Gives him a ring)

When covenant of my fate is done for me

When I put on the crown of my fathers,

I hope to hear your sweet voice and your inspired hymn again.

Musa gloriam coronat, gloriaque musam.

And so, friends, till tomorrow, goodbye.

(transl. A. Vagapov)

Parnasskie tsvety (the flowers of Parnassus) mentioned by the Pretender
bring to mind Mlle Larivière’s penname:

Yes! Wasn’t that a scream? Larivière blossoming forth, bosoming forth as a
great writer! A sensational Canadian bestselling author! Her story ‘The
Necklace’ (La rivière de diamants) had become a classic in girls’ schools
and her gorgeous pseudonym ‘Guillaume de Monparnasse’ (the leaving out of
the ‘t’ made it more intime) was well-known from Quebec to Kaluga. (1.31)

For the first time Mlle Larivière’s reads her story at the picnic on Ada’
s twelfth birthday. At the same picnic Marina shows Van and Lucette “the
exact pine and the exact spot on its rugged red trunk where in old, very old
days a magnetic telephone nested, communicating with Ardis Hall:”

Marina’s contribution was more modest, but it too had its charm. She showed
Van and Lucette (the others knew all about it) the exact pine and the exact
spot on its rugged red trunk where in old, very old days a magnetic
telephone nested, communicating with Ardis Hall. After the banning of
‘currents and circuits,’ she said (rapidly but freely, with an actress’s
désinvolture pronouncing those not quite proper words ― while puzzled
Lucette tugged at the sleeve of Van, of Vanichka, who could explain
everything), her husband’s grandmother, an engineer of great genius,
‘tubed’ the Redmount rill (running just below the glade from a hill above
Ardis). She made it carry vibrational vibgyors (prismatic pulsations)
through a system of platinum segments. These produced, of course, only
one-way messages, and the installation and upkeep of the ‘drums’
(cylinders) cost, she said, a Jew’s eye, so that the idea was dropped,
however tempting the possibility of informing a picnicking Veen that his
house was on fire. (1.13)

Vibrational vibgyors bring to mind volny i vibratsii (waves and vibrations)
that, according to Ayhenvald, the world is sending to Dostoevski:

Мир посылает ему все свои волны и вибраци
и, мучит его обнаженные нервы, мир раздраж
ает его. Порог раздражения лежит для него
очень низко.

Darkbloom (‘Notes to Ada’): vibgyor:

Seven colors of the rainbow bring to mind “our black rainbow” (as Ada
calls the period of her first separation with Van):

For their correspondence in the first period of separation, Van and Ada had
invented a code which they kept perfecting during the next fifteen months
after Van left Ardis. The entire period of that separation was to span
almost four years (‘our black rainbow,’ Ada termed it), from September,
1884 to June, 1888, with two brief interludes of intolerable bliss (in
August, 1885 and June, 1886) and a couple of chance meetings (‘through a
grille of rain’). (1.26)

In its turn, Ada’s black rainbow brings to mind Baltrushaitis’ poem
Chyornoe solntse (“The Black Sun”). On the other hand, in his essay on
Dostoevski Ayhenvald compares the author of “Crime and Punishment” to
chyornoe solntse stradaniya (“the black sun of suffering”):

И гнетущей загадкой встаёт он перед нами,
как олицетворенная боль, как чёрное солнц
е страдания.

“The black sun” and Ada’s sun-and-shade games remind one of Kuprin’s
story Zhidkoe solntse (“The Liquid Sun,” 1912) whose hero attempts “to
catch the sun.” In Kuprin’s story Leonhard Euler (the Swiss mathematician,
1707-83) is mentioned:

- Знaчит, Гук, и Эйлер, и Юнг?..

- Дa, - прервaл меня лорд Чaльсбери, - и они, и
Френель, и Коши, и Мaлюс, и Гюйгенс, и дaже в
еликий Арaго - все они ошибaлись, рaссмaтрив
aя явление светa кaк одно из состояний миро
вого эфирa.

According to Van, at the age of ten he could solve an Euler-type problem in
less than twenty minutes:

The year 1880 (Aqua was still alive ― somehow, somewhere!) was to prove to
be the most retentive and talented one in his long, too long, never too long
life. He was ten. His father had lingered in the West where the many-colored
mountains acted upon Van as they had on all young Russians of genius. He
could solve an Euler-type problem or learn by heart Pushkin’s ‘Headless
Horseman’ poem in less than twenty minutes. (1.28)

In our world The Headless Horseman is a novel by Captain Mayne Reid. Its
main character, the mustanger Maurice Gerald, is Irish. In his memoir essay
Belyi koridor (“The White Corridor,” 1937) Khodasevich mentions
Baltrushaitis and dve irlandskie p’esy (two Irish plays) that he brought
for discussion in the repertoire section of TEO (Theatre Committee):

Однажды мы в Театральном отделе просидел
и часов до пяти. Я сидел далеко от Каменев
ой. Вдруг получаю от неё записку. Пишет, чт
о заседание затянулось, а между тем у Балт
рушайтиса есть две ирландские пьесы, кото
рые необходимо экстренно прочесть и обсу
дить в репертуарной секции.

Меж тем собирались "наши". Пришёл Балтруша
йтис с папкой в руках (вот они где, ирландс
кие пьесы!), за ним - Чулков, Иван Новиков, В

In Khodasevich’s essay the white corridor is in Kremlin. In the last game
of Flavita (the Russian Scrabble) that Van, Ada and Lucette ever played
together Lucette’s letters formed the word “Kremlin” (that does not exist
in Russian):

‘Je ne peux rien faire,’ wailed Lucette, ‘mais rien ― with my idiotic
Buchstaben, REMNILK, LINKREM…’

‘Look,’ whispered Van, ‘c’est tout simple, shift those two syllables and
you get a fortress in ancient Muscovy.’

‘Oh, no,’ said Ada, wagging her finger at the height of her temple in a
way she had. ‘Oh, no. That pretty word does not exist in Russian. A
Frenchman invented it. There is no second syllable.’

‘Ruth for a little child?’ interposed Van.

‘Ruthless!’ cried Ada.

‘Well,’ said Van, ‘you can always make a little cream, KREM or KREME ―
or even better ― there’s KREMLI, which means Yukon prisons. Go through her

‘Through her silly orchid,’ said Lucette. (1.36)

Pushkin is, of course, the author of Mednyi vsadnik (“The Bronze
Horseman,” 1833). The Bronze Horseman is Falconet’s equestrian monument of
Peter I. In his poem Rossiya (“Russia,” 1924) Voloshin describes the
execution of the last Russian tsar’s family and says that Peter’s circle
is closed (petrovskiy zamknut krug):

И где-то на Урале средь лесов

Латышские солдаты и мадьяры

Расстреливают царскую семью

В сумятице поспешных отступлений:

Царевич на руках царя, одна

Царевна мечется, подушкой прикрываясь,

Царица выпрямилась у стены...

Потом их жгут и зарывают пепел.

Всё кончено. Петровский замкнут круг.

Describing the difference between the geography of Terra and Antiterra (aka
Demonia, Earth’s twin planet on which Ada is set), Van mentions the Arctic
no longer vicious Circle:

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)

Alexey Sklyarenko

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