Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0027369, Fri, 28 Apr 2017 12:43:41 +0300

Hannibal's elephant, Oceanus Nox & Hippopotamians in Ada
On his first morning on the Tobakoff Van reads in the ship’s newspaper about a Domodossola farmer who had unearthed the bones and trappings of one of Hannibal’s elephants:

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)

In the last stanza of his poem Slonyonok (“A Baby Elephant,” 1920) Gumilyov mentions Velikolepnyi (the Magnificent), the elephant that bore Hannibal to Rome:

Моя любовь к тебе сейчас — слонёнок,
Родившийся в Берлине иль Париже
И топающий ватными ступнями
По комнатам хозяина зверинца.

Не предлагай ему французских булок,
Не предлагай ему кочней капустных,
Он может съесть лишь дольку мандарина,
Кусочек сахару или конфету.

Не плачь, о нежная, что в тесной клетке
Он сделается посмеяньем черни,
Чтоб в нос ему пускали дым сигары
Приказчики под хохот мидинеток.

Не думай, милая, что день настанет,
Когда, взбесившись, разорвет он цепи
И побежит по улицам и будет,
Как автобус, давить людей вопящих.

Нет, пусть тебе приснится он под утро
В парче и меди, в страусовых перьях,
Как тот, Великолепный, что когда-то
Нёс к трепетному Риму Ганнибала.

Right now my love for you is a baby elephant
Born in Berlin or in Paris,
And treading with its cushioned feet
Around the zoo director's house.

Do not offer it French pastries,
Do not offer it cabbage heads,
It can eat only a segment of a tangerine,
a lump of sugar or a candy.

Don't cry, my sweet, because it will be put
Into a narrow cage, become a joke for mobs,
When salesman blow cigar smoke into its trunk
To the cackles of their girl friends.

Don't imagine, my dear, that the day will come
When, infuriated, it will snap its chains
And rush along the streets,
Crushing howling people like a bus.

No, may you dream of it at dawn,
Clad in bronze and brocade and ostrich feathers,
Like that one, the Magnificent, that once
Bore Hannibal to trembling Rome.

(transl. by Carl Proffer)

At the end of his essay on Herzen in “The Silhouettes of Russian Writers” Ayhenvald calls Herzen (“the Prince of emigration, potentate who only lacks a throne, king in exile”) Aleksandr Velikolepnyi (“Alexander the Magnificent”):

Жил он, жив был, думал о былом, уходил в прошлое, когда не было настоящего, вспоминал, когда нечего было воспринимать, замыкался вовнутрь, когда не было внешнего (в ссылке, например), отдавался внешнему, освещая его изнутри, не имел мёртвых точек, не останавливался, горел, жёг, волновался, расточал, - всегда блистательный и духовно-роскошный, князь эмиграции, властелин, которому недоставало только престола, Александр Великолепный, король в изгнании.

The name Herzen comes from Herz (Germ., “heart”). When he sees Lucette’s name in the list of the passengers, Van wonders what constricted his heart. On the other hand, the name Veen brings to mind Herzen’s novel Kto vinovat? (“Who is to Blame?” 1846), Tolstoy’s last story Net v mire vinovatykh (“There are no Guilty People in the World") and, spades being sometimes called vini, Pushkin’s story Pikovaya dama (“The Queen of Spades,” 1833).

According to Ayhenvald, Herzen was right that in his memoirs Byloe i dumy ("Bygones and Meditations") he combined the personal with the general and made the story of his private life a part of the history of Russia:

Литература помогла ему вынести на всенародный суд и зрелище свои интимные, свои семейные дела, и так он был прав, что сочетал личное с общим, он соединил их в одну эпопею, он заинтересовал своим чужих, и рассказ о его личной жизни неизбежной страницей входит в объективную историю России.

The heartrending chapter of Byloe i dumy in which Herzen tells about the death of his mother and son in a ship-wreck is entitled Oceano Nox. Describing Lucette's suicide, Van mentions Oceanus Nox:

The sky was also heartless and dark, and her body, her head, and particularly those damned thirsty trousers, felt clogged with Oceanus Nox, n,o,x. (3.5)

Herzen’s first wife (to whom “Who is to Blame?” is dedicated) was his first cousin Natalya Zakharyin. Officially, Ada (Van’s sister) and Lucette (Van’s and Ada’s half-sister) are Van’s first cousins. In a letter to Van, written after Lucette’s suicide, Cordula says that Lucette seemed so joyful to spend a few days on the upper deck with her dear cousin:

J’étais si heureuse de faire mon possible, car quelqu’un m’avait dit que vous aussi y seriez; d’ailleurs, elle m’en a parlé elle-même: elle semblait tellement joyeuse de passer quelques jours sur le ‘pont des gaillards’ avec son cher cousin! (3.6)

I had been so happy to do all I could, as somebody had told me that you would be there too. Actually, she said so herself; she seemed so joyful to spend a few days on the upper deck with her dear cousin!

It was Cordula who told Van about Percy de Prey’s death (one of Ada’s lovers, Percy de Prey went to the Crimean war and perished on the second day of the invasion, 1.42). In his poem Time (1821) Percy Bysshe Shelley speaks of Ocean of Time “sick of prey, yet howling on for more:”

Unfathomable Sea! whose waves are years,

Ocean of Time, whose waters of deep woe

Are brackish with the salt of human tears!

Thou shoreless flood, which in thy ebb and flow

Claspest the limits of mortality!

And sick of prey, yet howling on for more,

Vomitest thy wrecks on its inhospitable shore;

Treacherous in calm, and terrible in storm,

Who shall put forth on thee,

Unfathomable Sea?

In Paris Van tells Greg Erminin: “it was a great pleasure to make your chum [i. e. Percy] howl” (3.2). In Van’s imaginary duel with Andrey Vinelander (Ada’s husband) the two seconds are Monsieur de Tobak (Cordula’s husband) and Lord Erminin:

Monsieur de Tobak (an earlier cuckold) and Lord Erminin (a second-time second) witnessed the duel in the company of a few tall yuccas and short cactuses. (3.8)

In his essay on Chekhov, Tvorchestvo iz nichego (“Creation from Nothing,” 1905), Lev Shestov speaks of Chekhov’s story Duel’ (“The Duel, 1891) and mentions tselyi okean vody (a whole ocean of water), a phrase that occurs in Chekhov’s story:

Неизвестно зачем, без любви, даже без влечения она отдаётся первому встречному пошляку. Потом ей кажется, что её с ног до головы облили грязью, и эта грязь так пристала к ней, что не смоешь даже целым океаном воды.

Nox is Latin for “night.” The preface to Shestov’s book Potestas clavium. Vlast’ klyuchey (“Power of the Keys,” 1923) is entitled Tysyacha i odna noch’ (“A Thousand and One Nights”). According to Shestov, mankind is plunged into a perpetual night – even in a thousand and one nights:

Человечество живёт не в свете, а во тьме, окутанное одною непрерывною ночью. Нет, не одной, и не двумя, и не десятью - а тысячью и одной ночью!

Mankind does not live in the light but in the bosom of darkness; it is plunged into a perpetual night. No! Not in one or two or ten but in a thousand and one nights! (4)

One of the chapters in Shestov’s book is entitled Vyacheslav Velikolepnyi (Vyacheslav the Magnificent) and is mainly devoted to Vyacheslav Ivanov’s collection of essays Borozdy i mezhi (“Furrows and Boundaries, 1916). The title of V. Ivanov’s book brings to mind little Lucette (whom Van is teaching to hand-walk) acting the sullow and Van in the part of the “ploughboy:”

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 Christian?’

‘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.

'When I was a little girl,' said Marina crossly, 'Mesopotamian history was taught practically in the nursery.'

'Not all little girls can learn what they are taught,' observed Ada.

'Are we Mesopotamians?' asked Lucette.

'We are Hippopotamians,' said Van. 'Come,' he added, 'we have not yet ploughed today.'

A day or two before, Lucette had demanded that she be taught to hand-walk. Van gripped her by her ankles while she slowly progressed on her little red palms, sometimes falling with a grunt on her face or pausing to nibble a daisy. Dack barked in strident protest.

‘Et pourtant,’ said the sound-sensitive governess, wincing, ‘I read to her twice Ségur’s adaptation in fable form of Shakespeare’s play about the wicked usurer.’

‘She also knows my revised monologue of his mad king,’ said Ada:

Ce beau jardin fleurit en mai,

Mais en hiver

Jamais, jamais, jamais, jamais, jamais

N’est vert, n’est vert, n’est vert, n’est vert,

n’est vert.

‘Oh, that’s good,’ exclaimed Greg with a veritable sob of admiration.

‘Not so energichno, children!’ cried Marina in Van-and-Lucette’s direction.

‘Elle devient pourpre, she is getting crimson,’ commented the governess. ‘I sustain that these indecent gymnastics are no good for her.’

Van, his eyes smiling, his angel-strong hands holding the child’s cold-carrot-soup legs just above the insteps, was ‘ploughing around’ with Lucette acting the sullow. Her bright hair hung over her face, her panties showed from under the hem of her skirt, yet she still urged the ploughboy on.

‘Budet, budet, that’ll do,’ said Marina to the plough team.

Van gently let her legs down and straightened her dress. She lay for a moment, panting. (1.14)

The philosopher Lev Shestov and the critic Yuli Ayhenvald were Jewish. 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 тем куполом, который даёт религия.

“Hippopotamians” mentioned by Van bring to mind Gippopotam (Hippopotamus,” 1912), Gumilyov’s translation of Theophile Gautier’s poem L’Hippopotame:

Гиппопотам с огромным брюхом

живёт в яванских тростниках,

Где в каждой яме стонут глухо

Чудовища, как в страшных снах.

Свистит боа, скользя над кручей,

Тигр угрожающе рычит,

И буйвол фыркает могучий,

А он пасётся или спит.

Ни стрел, ни острых ассагаев, -

Он не боится ничего,

И пули меткие сипаев

Скользят по панцирю его.

И я в родне гиппопотама:

Одет в броню моих святынь,

Иду торжественно и прямо

Без страха посреди пустынь.

Cordula’s letter to Van is signed: Cordula de Prey-Tobak (3.6). After the dinner with Van and Lucette in ‘Ursus’ and the debauch à trois in Van’s Manhattan apartment (that once belonged to Cordula) Ada mentions “Cordula Tobacco:”

'I may not be as bright as I used to be,' sadly said Ada, 'but I know somebody who is not simply a cat, but a polecat, and that's Cordula Tobacco alias Madame Perwitsky. I read in this morning's paper that in France ninety percent of cats die of cancer. I don't know what the situation is in Poland.' (2.8)

In Beppo (1818) Byron mentions a fine polacca (sailing vessel) laden with tobacco:

But he grew rich, and with his riches grew so
Keen the desire to see his home again,
He thought himself in duty bound to do so,
And not be always thieving on the Main;
Lonely he felt at times as Robin Crusoe,
And so he hired a vessel come from Spain,
Bound for Corfu: she was a fine polacca,
Mann'd with twelve hands, and laden with tobacco. (XCV)

It is Marina (Van’s, Ada’s and Lucette’s mother) who dies of cancer (3.1). Marina’s (and Aqua’s) elder brother Ivan had died of lung cancer. At a meal in “Ardis the First” Marina remembers him (and her poor twin sister Aqua) and blows her nose with the sound of an elephant:

The reference was to Ivan Durmanov: he had died of lung cancer years ago in a sanatorium (not far from Ex, somewhere in Switzerland, where Van was born eight years later). Marina often mentioned Ivan who had been a famous violinist at eighteen, but without any special show of emotion, so that Ada now noted with surprise that her mother’s heavy make-up had started to thaw under a sudden flood of tears (maybe some allergy to flat dry old flowers, an attack of hay fever, or gentianitis, as a slightly later diagnosis might have shown retrospectively). She blew her nose, with the sound of an elephant, as she said herself — and here Mlle Larivière came down for coffee and recollections of Van as a bambin angélique who adored à neuf ans — the precious dear! — Gilberte Swann et la Lesbie de Catulle (and who had learned, all by himself, to release the adoration as soon as the kerosene lamp had left the mobile bedroom in his black nurse’s fist). (2.10)

Alexey Sklyarenko

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