Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0027389, Wed, 17 May 2017 16:17:35 +0300

Vatican, Roman spa, swords & Skonky in Ada
Upon being questioned in Demon's dungeon, Marina, laughing trillingly, wove a picturesque tissue of lies; then broke down, and confessed. She swore that all was over; that the Baron, a physical wreck and a spiritual Samurai, had gone to Japan forever. From a more reliable source Demon learned that the Samurai's real destination was smart little Vatican, a Roman spa, whence he was to return to Aardvark, Massa, in a week or so. Since prudent Veen preferred killing his man in Europe (decrepit but indestructible Gamaliel was said to be doing his best to forbid duels in the Western Hemisphere — a canard or an idealistic President’s instant-coffee caprice, for nothing was to come of it after all), Demon rented the fastest petroloplane available, overtook the Baron (looking very fit) in Nice, saw him enter Gunter’s Bookshop, went in after him, and in the presence of the imperturbable and rather bored English shopkeeper, back-slapped the astonished Baron across the face with a lavender glove. 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)

Roman spa, swords and Skonky (Baron d’Onsky’s one-way nickname) bring to mind spadassiny (Russo-Italian, “swordsmen”), as in his memoir essay on Loris-Melikov, Diktator na pokoe (“The Retired Dictator”), included in his book Na kladbishchakh (“At Cemeteries,” 1921) Vasiliy Nemirovich-Danchenko calls the people who killed General Mikhail Skobelev:

Там же ведь ждут во блаженном успении архангельской трубы многочисленные письма и записки М. Д. Скобелева. По повелению Александра III их отбирали у всех друзей и знакомых гениального полководца, может быть, для того, чтобы окутать непроницаемой тайной все обстоятельства его убийства спадассинами "священной дружины", убийства, совершенного по приговору, подписанному без ведома царя, -- на это бы Ананас не пошёл -- одним из великих князей и "Боби" Шуваловым, считавшими этого будущего Суворова опасным для всероссийского самодержавия.

After his retirement, Count Loris-Melikov (a colleague of VN’s grandfather Dmitri Nikolaevich Nabokov, State Minister of Justice in 1878-85) lived in Nice. According to Loris-Melikov, on her way to sotsialisticheskiy ray (the socialistic paradise) the Orthodox Russia will have to go through katolicheskoe chistilishche (the Catholic purgatory):

И, разумеется, к вашему социалистическому раю, -- насмешливо подчеркнул он, -- России, хоть она и православная, придётся пройти через католическое чистилище.

The Baron who “plumped for swords” brings to mind VN’s grandfather, who plumped for the more solid reward than the title of count and who also lived in Nice after his retirement:

At his retirement, Alexander the Third offered him to choose between the title of count and a sum of money, presumably large—I do not know what exactly an earldom was worth in Russia, but contrary to the thrifty Tsar’s hopes my grandfather (as also his uncle Ivan, who had been offered a similar choice by Nicholas the First) plumped for the more solid reward. (“Encore un comte raté,” dryly comments Sergey Sergeevich.) After that he lived mostly abroad. In the first years of this century his mind became clouded but he clung to the belief that as long as he remained in the Mediterranean region everything would be all right. Doctors took the opposite view and thought he might live longer in the climate of some mountain resort or in Northern Russia. There is an extraordinary story, which I have not been able to piece together adequately, of his escaping from his attendants somewhere in Italy. There he wandered about, denouncing, with King Lear-like vehemence, his children to grinning strangers, until he was captured in a wild rocky place by some matter-of-fact carabinieri. During the winter of 1903, my mother, the only person whose presence, in his moments of madness, the old man could bear, was constantly at his side in Nice… He kept mistaking the attendant who rolled him along the Promenade des Anglais for Count Loris-Melikov, a (long-deceased) colleague of his in the ministerial cabinet of the eighties. (Speak, Memory, Three, 1)

Loris-Melikov came from an Armenian noble family. Demon’s reconciliation with Marina took place in Demon’s villa Armina:

Marina arrived in Nice a few days after the duel, and tracked Demon down in his villa Armina, and in the ecstasy of reconciliation neither remembered to dupe procreation, whereupon started the extremely interesnoe polozhenie (‘interesting condition’) without which, in fact, these anguished notes could not have been strung. (1.2)

The son of Demon and Marina, Van Veen (the narrator and main character in Ada) was born in Ex (Ex-en-Valais), Switzerland. According to a jovial ‘protestant’ priest, “all cemeteries are ex:”

It was now all over. The lorry had gone or had drowned, and Eric was a skeleton in the most expensive corner of the Ex cemetery (‘But then, all cemeteries are ex,’ remarked a jovial ‘protestant’ priest), between an anonymous alpinist and my stillborn double. (2.3)

Eric Veen is a grandson of David van Veen, a wealthy architect of Flemish extraction who built one hundred floramors (palatial brothels) in memory of Eric (the author of an essay entitled “Villa Venus: an Organized Dream”). Skobelev died (under strange circumstances) in the hotel room of a notorious Moscow cocotte.

Ananas (Pineapple), as Nemirovich mockingly calls Alexander III, the tsar who in the Manifesto issued two months after the assassination of his father used the phrase a na nas lezhit otvetstvennost’ (“and on us lies the responsibility”), brings to mind ananasy (pineapples) and ryabchiki (hazel-hen) in Mayakovski’s famous jingles quoted by Khodasevich in his essay on Mayakovski, Dekol’tirovannaya loshad’ (“The Horse in a Décolleté Dress,” 1927):

Маяковский же предложил практический, общепонятный лозунг:

Ешь ананасы,

Рябчиков жуй,-

День твой последний приходит, буржуй!

Не спорю, для этого и для многого "тому подобного" Маяковский нашел ряд выразительнейших, отлично составленных формул. И в награду за крылатое слово он теперь жуёт рябчиков, отнятых у буржуев. Новый буржуй, декольтированная лошадь взгромоздилась за стол, точь-в-точь как тогда, в цирке. Если не в дамской шляпке, то в колпаке якобинца. И то и другое одинаково ей пристало.

At the family dinner in “Ardis the Second” Ada asks for another helping of hazel-hen:

‘Might I have another helping of Peterson’s Grouse, Tetrastes bonasia windriverensis?’ asked Ada loftily.

Marina jangled a diminutive cowbell of bronze. Demon placed his palm on the back of Ada’s hand and asked her to pass him the oddly evocative object. She did so in a staccato arc. Demon inserted his monocle and, muffling the tongue of memory, examined the bell; but it was not the one that had once stood on a bed-tray in a dim room of Dr Lapiner’s chalet; was not even of Swiss make; was merely one of those sweet-sounding translations which reveal a paraphrast’s crass counterfeit as soon as you look up the original. (1.38)

Describing the family dinner, Van mentions his father’s sword duel with d’Onsky:

The alcohol his vigorous system had already imbibed was instrumental, as usual, in reopening what he gallicistically called condemned doors, and now as he gaped involuntarily as all men do while spreading a napkin, he considered Marina’s pretentious ciel-étoilé hairdress and tried to realize (in the rare full sense of the word), tried to possess the reality of a fact by forcing it into the sensuous center, that here was a woman whom he had intolerably loved, who had loved him hysterically and skittishly, who insisted they make love on rugs and cushions laid on the floor (‘as respectable people do in the Tigris-Euphrates valley’), who would woosh down fluffy slopes on a bobsleigh a fortnight after parturition, or arrive by the Orient Express with five trunks, Dack’s grandsire, and a maid, to Dr Stella Ospenko’s ospedale where he was recovering from a scratch received in a sword duel (and still visible as a white weal under his eighth rib after a lapse of nearly seventeen years). (ibid.)

In his essay on Mayakovski Khodasevich mentions the Skobelev monument (replaced by the October monument after the Revolution) and Lermontov (the author of The Demon whom Mayakovski proposed “to throw off from the steamer of contemporaneous life”):

"Маяковский -- поэт рабочего класса". Вздор. Был и остался поэтом подонков, бездельников, босяков просто и "босяков духовных". Был таким перед войной, когда восхищал и "пужал" подонки интеллигенции и буржуазии, выкрикивая брань и похабщину с эстрады Политехнического музея. И когда, в начале войны, сочинял подписи к немцеедским лубкам, вроде знаменитого:

С криком: "Дейчланд юбер аллес!" -

Немцы с поля убирались.

И когда, бия себя в грудь, патриотически ораторствовал у памятника Скобелеву, перед генерал-губернаторским домом, там, где теперь памятник Октябрю и московский совдеп! И когда читал кровожадные стихи:

О панталоны венских кокоток

Вытрем наши штыки! --

эту позорную нечаянную пародию на Лермонтова:

Не смеют, что ли, командиры

Чужие изорвать мундиры

О русские штыки?

In his essay Khodasevich compares Mayakovski to a circus horse. The name d’Onsky seems to hint at donskoy zherebets (Onegin’s Don stallion) mentioned by Pushkin in Canto Two (V: 4) of Eugene Onegin:

Сначала все к нему езжали;
Но так как с заднего крыльца
Обыкновенно подавали
Ему донского жеребца,
Лишь только вдоль большой дороги
Заслышит их домашни дроги, -
Поступком оскорбясь таким,
Все дружбу прекратили с ним.

At first they all would call on him,

but since to the back porch

there was habitually brought

a Don stallion for him

the moment that along the highway

one heard their homely shandrydans -

outraged by such behavior,

they all ceased to be friends with him.

At the end of Pushkin’s little tragedy Mozart and Salieri (1830) Salieri mentions sozdatel’ Vatikana (the Vatican's creator):

Сальери. Ты заснёшь
Надолго, Моцарт! Но ужель он прав,
И я не гений? Гений и злодейство
Две вещи несовместные. Неправда:
А Бонаротти? Или это сказка
Тупой, бессмысленной толпы — и не был
Убийцею создатель Ватикана?

Salieri. You will sleep
For long, Mozart! But what if he is right?
I am no genius? "Genius and evildoing
Are incompatibles." That is not true:
And Buonarotti?.. Or is it a legend
Of the dull-witted, senseless crowd -- while really
The Vatican's creator was no murderer?

After slipping poison into Mozart's glass, Salieri listens to Mozart's Requiem and mentions a suffering member that the healing knife had chopped off:

Эти слёзы
Впервые лью: и больно и приятно,
Как будто тяжкий совершил я долг,
Как будто нож целебный мне отсек
Страдавший член!

Such tears as these
I shed for the first time. It hurts, yet soothes,
As if I had fulfilled a heavy duty,
As if at last the healing knife had chopped
A suffering member off.

In Kuprin's story Shtabs-kapitan Rybnikov (“Staff-Captain Rybnikov,” 1906) the reporter Shchavinski, as he speaks to Rybnikov (a courageous Japanese spy), praises the samurai who chopped off the forefingers of their left hands in order to sign with blood their request to participate in the night assault upon Port Arthur:

Но что всего изумительнее - это подписи самураев. Вы, конечно, не слыхали об этом, господин штабс-капитан Рыбников? - спросил Щавинский с язвительным подчёркиванием. - Ну да, понятно, не слыхали... Генерал Ноги, видите ли, вызвал охотников идти в первой колонне на ночной штурм порт-артурских укреплений. Почти весь отряд вызвался на это дело, на эту почётную смерть. И так как их оказалось слишком много и так как они торопились друг перед другом попасть на смерть, то они просили об этом письменно, и некоторые из них, по древнему обычаю, отрубали себе указательный палец левой руки и прикладывали его к подписи в виде кровавой печати. Это делали самураи!
- Самураи! - повторил Рыбников глухо. (chapter 3)

The main character in Kuprin’s story Odnorukiy komendant ("The One-Armed Commander," 1923) is General Ivan Skobelev, Commander of the Peter-and-Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg, grandfather of Mikhail Skobelev (who was born in the Peter-and-Paul Fortress). The elder brother of VN's great-grandfather, General Ivan Nabokov was Skobelev's successor as the Commander of the Peter-and-Paul Fortress:

I know nothing about his [Nikolay Nabokov's] military career; whatever it was he could not have competed with his brother, Ivan Aleksandrovich Nabokov (1787-1852), one of the heroes of the anti-Napoleon wars and, in his old age, commander of the Peter-and-Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg where (in 1849) one of his prisoners was the writer Dostoevski, author of The Double, etc., to whom the kind general lent books. Considerably more interesting, however, is the fact that he was married to Ekaterina Pushchin, sister of Ivan Pushchin, Pushkin's schoolmate and close friend. (Speak, Memory, Three, 1)

Aqua and her twin sister Marina (Van’s, Ada’s and Lucette’s mother) are the daughters of General Ivan Durmanov, the Commander of Yukon Fortress:

Van's maternal grandmother Daria ('Dolly') Durmanov was the daughter of Prince Peter Zemski, Governor of Bras d'Or, an American province in the Northeast of our great and variegated country, who had married, in 1824, Mary O'Reilly, an Irish woman of fashion. Dolly, an only child, born in Bras, married in 1840, at the tender and wayward age of fifteen, General Ivan Durmanov, Commander of Yukon Fortress and peaceful country gentleman, with lands in the Severn Tories (Severnïya Territorii), that tesselated protectorate still lovingly called 'Russian' Estoty, which commingles, granoblastically and organically, with 'Russian' Canady, otherwise 'French' Estoty, where not only French, but Macedonian and Bavarian settlers enjoy a halcyon climate under our Stars and Stripes. (1.1)

According to Ada, at Marina’s funeral (that took place in Nice) d’Onsky’s son, a person with only one arm, threw his remaining one around Demon and both wept comme des fontaines. (3.8)

Kuprin is the author of Poedinok (“The Single Combat,” 1905) and Bolshoy Fontan (1927).

Alexey Sklyarenko

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