Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0027368, Tue, 25 Apr 2017 20:59:51 +0300

Captain Cowley, Durak Walter, Klass vodka & Ophelia in Ada
Describing the day that he spent with Lucette onboard Admiral Tobakoff, Van Veen (the narrator and main character in VN’s novel Ada, 1969) mentions Captain Cowley:

In his bedroom he found a somewhat belated invitation to the Captain’s table for dinner. It was addressed to Dr and Mrs Ivan Veen. He had been on the ship once before, in between the Queens, and remembered Captain Cowley as a bore and an ignoramus.

He called the steward and bade him carry the note back, with the penciled scrawl: ‘no such couple.’ (3.5)

The name Cowley seems to blend Cowslip, a flower mentioned by Ada at a meal in “Ardis the First,” with Fowlie who, as Ada points out in the same conversation, turned souci d’eau (marsh marigold) into "care of the water" in his version of Rimbaud’s poem Mémoire (1872):

Van: ‘That yellow thingum’ (pointing at a floweret prettily depicted on an Eckercrown plate) ‘— is it a buttercup?’

Ada: ‘No. That yellow flower is the common Marsh Marigold, Caltha palustris. In this country, peasants miscall it "Cowslip," though of course the true Cowslip, Primula veris, is a different plant altogether.’

‘I see,’ said Van.

‘Yes, indeed,’ began Marina, ‘when I was playing Ophelia, the fact that I had once collected flowers —’

‘Helped, no doubt,’ said Ada. ‘Now the Russian word for marsh marigold is Kuroslep (which muzhiks in Tartary misapply, poor slaves, to the buttercup) or else Kaluzhnitsa, as used quite properly in Kaluga, U.S.A.’

‘Ah,’ said Van.

‘As in the case of many flowers,’ Ada went on, with a mad scholar’s quiet smile, ‘the unfortunate French name of our plant, souci d’eau, has been traduced or shall we say transfigured —’

‘Flowers into bloomers,’ punned Van Veen.

‘Je vous en prie, mes enfants!’ put in Marina, who had been following the conversation with difficulty and now, through a secondary misunderstanding, thought the reference was to the undergarment.

‘By chance, this very morning,’ said Ada, not deigning to enlighten her mother, ‘our learned governess, who was also yours, Van, and who —’

(First time she pronounced it — at that botanical lesson!)

‘— is pretty hard on English-speaking transmongrelizers — monkeys called "ursine howlers" — though I suspect her reasons are more chauvinistic than artistic and moral — drew my attention — my wavering attention — to some really gorgeous bloomers, as you call them, Van, in a Mr Fowlie’s soi-disant literal version — called "sensitive" in a recent Elsian rave — sensitive! — of Mémoire, a poem by Rimbaud (which she fortunately — and farsightedly — made me learn by heart, though I suspect she prefers Musset and Coppée)’ —

‘…les robes vertes et déteintes des fillettes…’ quoted Van triumphantly.

‘Egg-zactly’ (mimicking Dan). ‘Well, Larivière allows me to read him only in the Feuilletin anthology, the same you have apparently, but I shall obtain his oeuvres complètes very soon, oh very soon, much sooner than anybody thinks. Incidentally, she will come down after tucking in Lucette, our darling copperhead who by now should be in her green nightgown —’

‘Angel moy,’ pleaded Marina, ‘I’m sure Van cannot be interested in Lucette’s nightdress!’

‘— the nuance of willows, and counting the little sheep on her ciel de lit which Fowlie turns into "the sky’s bed" instead of "bed ceiler." But, to go back to our poor flower. The forged louis d’or in that collection of fouled French is the transformation of souci d’eau (our marsh marigold) into the asinine "care of the water" — although he had at his disposal dozens of synonyms, such as mollyblob, marybud, maybubble, and many other nick-names associated with fertility feasts, whatever those are.’ (1.10)

Rimbaud is the author of Le Bateau ivre (“The Drunken Boat,” 1871), a poem that was translated into Russian by VN. According to Van, one of Ada’s letters was handed to him in the Louvre right in front of Bosch’s Bateau Ivre:

He did not answer her letter, and a fortnight later John James, now got up as a German tourist, all pseudo-tweed checks, handed Van a second message, in the Louvre right in front of Bosch’s Bateau Ivre, the one with a jester drinking in the riggings (poor old Dan thought it had something to do with Brant’s satirical poem!). There would be no answer — though answers were included, with the return ticket, in the price, as the honest messenger pointed out. (2.1)

Hieronymus Bosch is Daniel Veen’s favorite painter. In our world (the action in Ada takes place on Earth’s twin planet Demonia, aka Antiterra) Bosch’s painting (and Brant’s satirical poem) is known as Ship of Fools. Its Russian name, Korabl’ durakov, brings to mind Rimbaud’s P’yanyi korabl’ and Durak Walter (as Daniel Veen is known in society):

On April 23, 1869, in drizzly and warm, gauzy and green Kaluga, Aqua, aged twenty-five and afflicted with her usual vernal migraine, married Walter D. Veen, a Manhattan banker of ancient Anglo-Irish ancestry who had long conducted, and was soon to resume intermittently, a passionate affair with Marina. The latter, some time in 1871, married her first lover’s first cousin, also Walter D. Veen, a quite as opulent, but much duller, chap.

The ‘D’ in the name of Aqua’s husband stood for Demon (a form of Demian or Dementius), and thus was he called by his kin. In society he was generally known as Raven Veen or simply Dark Walter to distinguish him from Marina’s husband, Durak Walter or simply Red Veen. Demon’s twofold hobby was collecting old masters and young mistresses. He also liked middle-aged puns. (1.1)

Before jumping to her death in the Atlantic, Lucette drinks three ‘Cossack ponies’ of Klass vodka:

She drank a 'Cossack pony' of Klass vodka - hateful, vulgar, but potent stuff; had another; and was hardly able to down a third because her head had started to swim like hell. Swim like hell from sharks, Tobakovich! (3.5)

In his poem Sergeyu Eseninu (“To Sergey Esenin,” 1926), written on Esenin’s suicide, Mayakovski says that to die of vodka is better than to die of skuka (boredom), mentions klass (i. e., the working class) and remarks that klass – on tozhe vypit’ ne durak (also loves to drink):

Лучше уж
от водки умереть,
чем от скуки!..

Ну, а класс-то
заливает квасом?
Класс - он тоже
выпить не дурак.

In his poem Kakim by polotnom batal’nym ni yavlyalas’… (“No matter how the Soviet tinsel glitters…” 1943) VN mentions skuka nemogo rabstva (the boredom of silent servitude). In his poem O pravitelyakh (“On Rulers,” 1945) VN says: umiraet so skuki istorik: za Mamaem vsyo tot zhe Mamay (a historian dies of sheer boredom: on the heels of Mamay comes another Mamay). “A particularly evil Tartar prince of the fourteenth century,” Mamay brings to mind Khan Sosso (the current ruler of Tartary, a country that on Antiterra occupies the territory of the Soviet Russia). In the poem’s last lines VN mentions his “late namesake” (i. e. Mayakovski) “who used to write verse, in rank and in files, at the very dawn of the Soviet Small-Bourgeois order.” According to VN, if Mayakovski (who committed suicide in 1930) “had lived till its noon, he would be now finding taut rhymes such as "praline" or "air chill", and others of the same kind.”

VN's footnote: "praline"... "air chill." In the original, monumentalen, meaning "[he is] monumental" rhymes pretty closely with Stalin; and pereperchil, meaning "[he] put in too much pepper" offers an ingenuous correspondence with the name of the British politician in slovenly Russian pronunciation ("chair-chill").

On Antiterra Sir Winston Churchill (who enthusiastically applied the phrase “great good man” to Stalin) is known as Richard Leonard Churchill:

It almost awed one to see the pleasure with which she [Ada] and Demon distorted their shiny-lipped mouths in exactly the same way to introduce orally from some heavenly height the voluptuous ally of the prim lily of the valley, holding the shaft with an identical bunching of the fingers, not unlike the reformed ‘sign of the cross’ for protesting against which (a ridiculous little schism measuring an inch or so from thumb to index) so many Russians had been burnt by other Russians only two centuries earlier on the banks of the Great Lake of Slaves. Van remembered that his tutor’s great friend, the learned but prudish Semyon Afanasievich Vengerov, then a young associate professor but already a celebrated Pushkinist (1855-1954), used to say that the only vulgar passage in his author’s work was the cannibal joy of young gourmets tearing ‘plump and live’ oysters out of their ‘cloisters’ in an unfinished canto of Eugene Onegin. But then 'everyone has his own taste,' as the British writer Richard Leonard Churchill mistranslates a trite French phrase (chacun à son gout) twice in the course of his novel about a certain Crimean Khan once popular with reporters and politicians, 'A Great Good Man' - according, of course, to the cattish and prejudiced Guillaume Monparnasse about whose new celebrity Ada, while dipping the reversed corolla of one hand in a bowl, was now telling Demon, who was performing the same rite in the same graceful fashion. (1.38)

At the beginning of Eugene Onegin (One: I: 6) Pushkin mentions skuka (a bore):

«Мой дядя самых честных правил,
Когда не в шутку занемог,
Он уважать себя заставил
И лучше выдумать не мог.
Его пример другим наука;
Но, боже мой, какая скука
С больным сидеть и день и ночь,
Не отходя ни шагу прочь!
Какое низкое коварство
Полуживого забавлять,
Ему подушки поправлять,
Печально подносить лекарство,
Вздыхать и думать про себя:
Когда же чёрт возьмет тебя!»

“My uncle has most honest principles:

when taken ill in earnest,

he has made one respect him

and nothing better could invent.

To others his example is a lesson;

but, good God, what a bore

to sit by a sick man both day and night,

without moving a step away!

What base perfidiousness

the half-alive one to amuse,

adjust for him the pillows,

sadly present the medicine,

sigh — and think inwardly

when will the devil take you?”

The stanza’s last line, “when will the devil take you,” brings to mind a Boschean devil that took Uncle Dan:

According to Bess (which is 'fiend' in Russian), Dan's buxom but otherwise disgusting nurse, whom he preferred to all others and had taken to Ardis because she managed to extract orally a few last drops of 'play-zero' (as the old whore called it) out of his poor body, he had been complaining for some time, even before Ada's sudden departure, that a devil combining the characteristics of a frog and a rodent desired to straddle him and ride him to the torture house of eternity. To Dr Nikulin Dan described his rider as black, pale-bellied, with a black dorsal buckler shining like a dung beetle’s back and with a knife in his raised forelimb. On a very cold morning in late January Dan had somehow escaped, through a basement maze and a toolroom, into the brown shrubbery of Ardis; he was naked except for a red bath towel which trailed from his rump like a kind of caparison, and, despite the rough going, had crawled on all fours, like a crippled steed under an invisible rider, deep into the wooded landscape. (2.10)

At the end of the chapter Van mentions Dan’s death again and (for the third time in Ada) uses the phrase k chertyam sobach'im (to the devils):

‘Or better — come at once, both of you, because I’ll cancel my appointment and go home right now.’ He [Demon] spoke, or thought he spoke, with the self-control and the clarity of enunciation which so frightened and mesmerized blunderers, blusterers, a voluble broker, a guilty schoolboy. Especially so now - when everything had gone to the hell curs, k chertyam sobach'im, of Jeroen Anthniszoon van Äken and the molti aspetti affascinati of his enigmatica arte, as Dan explained with a last sigh to Dr Nikulin and to nurse Bellabestia ('Bess') to whom he bequeathed a trunkful of museum catalogues and his second-best catheter. (ibid.)

The adjective sobachiy means “pertaining to dogs” and comes from sobaka (dog). When Van meets Cordula (now married to Tobak) in Lute (as Paris is also known on Antiterra), she is caressing two unhappy poodlets:

With a surge of delight he saw Cordula in a tight scarlet skirt bending with baby words of comfort over two unhappy poodlets attached to the waiting-post of a sausage shop. Van stroked her with his fingertips, and as she straightened up indignantly and turned around (indignation instantly replaced by gay recognition), he quoted the stale but appropriate lines he had known since the days his schoolmates annoyed him with them:

The Veens speak only to Tobaks

But Tobaks speak only to dogs. (3.2)

As I pointed out before, the stale but appropriate lines quoted by Van must be Russian:

Viny govoryat lish’ s Tobakami,

a Tobaki govoryat lish’ s sobakami.

It was Cordula who helped Lucette to obtain a suite on the Tobakoff:

Quite kindly he [Van] asked where she [Lucette] thought she was going.

To Ardis, with him — came the prompt reply — for ever and ever. Robinson’s grandfather had died in Araby at the age of one hundred and thirty-one, so Van had still a whole century before him, she would build for him, in the park, several pavilions to house his successive harems, they would gradually turn, one after the other, into homes for aged ladies, and then into mausoleums. There hung, she said, a steeplechase picture of ‘Pale Fire with Tom Cox Up’ above dear Cordula’s and Tobak’s bed, in the suite ‘wangled in one minute flat’ from them, and she wondered how it affected the Tobaks’ love life during sea voyages. Van interrupted Lucette’s nervous patter by asking her if her bath taps bore the same inscriptions as his: Hot Domestic, Cold Salt. Yes, she cried, Old Salt, Old Salzman, Ardent Chambermaid, Comatose Captain! (3.5)

“Hot Domestic” and “Ardent Chambermaid” may hint at Genet’s play Les Bonnes (“The Maids,” 1947). Genet is the author of Notre Dame des Fleurs (“Our Lady of the Flowers,” 1943) and Les Nègres (“The Blacks,” 1958). After Van’s suicide attempt, Ada mentions Rose (Van’s black mistress, a maid at Monaco) and quotes the words of his other, white, bonne:

‘I would have killed myself too, had I found Rose wailing over your corpse. "Secondes pensées sont les bonnes," as your other, white, bonne used to say in her pretty patois. (2.11)

In the spring of 1967 Jean Genet attempted suicide in his hotel room in Domodossola. In the ship’s newspaper Van reads about a Domodossola farmer who unearthed the bones and trappings of one of Hannibal’s elephants and about the suicide of an American psychiatrist:

The steward brought him a Continental breakfast, the ship’s newspaper, and the list of first-class passengers. Under ‘Tourism in Italy,’ the little newspaper informed him that a Domodossola farmer had unearthed the bones and trappings of one of Hannibal’s elephants, and that two American psychiatrists (names not given) had died an odd death in the Bocaletto range: the older fellow from heart failure and his boy friend by suicide. After pondering the Admiral’s morbid interest in Italian mountains, Van clipped the item and picked up the passenger list (pleasingly surmounted by the same crest that adorned Cordula’s notepaper) in order to see if there was anybody to be avoided during the next days. The list yielded the Robinson couple, Robert and Rachel, old bores of the family (Bob had retired after directing for many years one of Uncle Dan’s offices). His gaze, traveling on, tripped over Dr Ivan Veen and pulled up at the next name. What constricted his heart? Why did he pass his tongue over his thick lips? Empty formulas befitting the solemn novelists of former days who thought they could explain everything. (3.5)

“Old bores of the family, ” the Robinsons “saved” Lucette’s life by giving her a tubeful of Quietus Pills. In his famous monologue (translated into Russian by VN) Hamlet mentions quietus and a bare bodkin:

For who would bear the Whips and Scorns of time,
The Oppressor's wrong, the proud man's Contumely,
The pangs of despised Love, the Law’s delay,
The insolence of Office, and the Spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his Quietus make
With a bare Bodkin?

In VN’s novel Pale Fire (1962) the “real” name of the three main characters seems to be Botkin. An American scholar of Russian descent, Professor Vsevolod Botkin went mad and became Shade, Kinbote and Gradus after the suicide of his daughter Nadezhda (Hazel Shade of Kinbote’s Commentary). There is a hope that, when Kinbote completes his work on Shade’s poem and commits suicide, Botkin will be “full” again.

According to Lucette, Robinson’s grandfather had died in Araby at the age of one hundred and thirty-one. In PF Line 131 of Shade’s poem is identical to Line 1 (and to Line 1000): “I was the shadow of the waxwing slain.” It seems that, to be completed, Shade’s almost finished poem also needs a coda, Line 1001: “By its own double in the windowpane.”

In Paris Van meets Cordula immediately after parting with Greg Erminin. According to Van, Greg is his “babbling shadow, burlesque double:”

‘Somebody told me she’s a movie actress.’

‘I’ve no idea, I’ve never seen her [Ada] on the screen.’

'Oh, that would be terrible, I declare - to switch on the dorotelly, and suddenly see her. Like a drowning man seeing his whole past, and the trees, and the flowers, and the wreathed dachshund. She must have been terribly affected by her mother's terrible death.'

Likes the word 'terrible,' I declare. A terrible suit of clothes, a terrible tumor. Why must I stand it? Revolting - and yet fascinating in a weird way: my babbling shadow, my burlesque double. (3.2)

Before committing suicide, Lucette in the company of the Robinsons (Van leaves the ship’s cinema hall soon after the movie’s beginning) watches Don Juan’s Last Fling, a film in which Ada played the gitanilla.

In his letter to Ada written after Lucette’s suicide Van compares his and Ada’s half-sister to Ophelia:

As a psychologist, I know the unsoundness of speculations as to whether Ophelia would not have drowned herself after all, without the help of a treacherous sliver, even if she had married her Voltemand. (3.6)

According to Ada, when her mother was playing Ophelia, the fact that she had once collected flowers helped, no doubt.

Van’s novel Letters from Terra was signed Voltemand (after a courtier in Hamlet). The characters of Van’s novel include Sig Leymanski and Antilia Glems:

This Theresa maddened with her messages a scientist on our easily maddened planet; his anagram-looking name, Sig Leymanski, had been partly derived by Van from that of Aqua's last doctor. When Leymanski's obsession turned into love, and one's sympathy got focused on his enchanting, melancholy, betrayed wife (née Antilia Glems), our author found himself confronted with the distressful task of now stamping out in Antilia, a born brunette, all traces of Ada, thus reducing yet another character to a dummy with bleached hair. (2.2)

Sig Leymanski = Kingsley Amis

Antilia Glems + Gerald + Ada + vesna = gitanilla Esmeralda + navsegda

Kingsley Amis (1922-95) – “a waggish British novelist keenly interested in physics fiction” (Darkbloom, ‘Notes to Ada’)

Gerald - Maurice Gerald, the main character in Captain Mayn Reid's Headless Horseman (on Antiterra, Headless Horseman is a poem by Pushkin, 1.28); Gerald Emerald, a character in Pale Fire

vesna - spring

Esmeralda - a character in V. Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris (1831); Van calls Lucette “our Esmeralda and mermaid” (2.8)

navsegda - forever

Alexey Sklyarenko

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