Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0027453, Thu, 10 Aug 2017 13:45:03 +0300

belwif & compass rose in Pale Fire; Dawn en robe rose et verte &
Miss Vertograd in Ada; Ember & Krug in Bend Sinister
In VN’s novel Pale Fire (1962) Kinbote (Shade’s mad commentator who imagines that he is Charles Xavier Vseslav, surnamed the Beloved, the last self-exiled king of Zembla) quotes a Zemblan saying in which a beautiful woman is compared to a compass rose:

In Zembla, where most females are freckled blondes, we have the saying: belwif ivukurmpf wid snew ebanumf, "A beautiful woman should be like a compass rose of ivory with four parts of ebony." And this was the trim scheme nature had followed in Disa’s case. (note to Lines 433-434)

Zemblan for “beautiful woman,” belwif brings to mind sovershennaya bel-fam (a perfect belle femme) mentioned by Sofia Ivanovna (“the simply agreeable lady”), a character in Gogol’s Myortvye dushi (“Dead Souls,” 1842):

- Мило, Анна Григорьевна, до невероятности; шьётся в два рубчика: широкие проймы и сверху... Но вот, вот когда вы изумитесь, вот уж когда скажете, что... Ну, изумляйтесь: вообразите, лифчики пошли ещё длиннее, впереди мыском, и передняя косточка совсем выходит из границ; юбка вся собирается вокруг, как, бывало, в старину фижмы, даже сзади немножко подкладывают ваты, чтобы была совершенная бель-фам.

"It's sweet, Anna Grigorievna, unbelievably sweet. It's made with double seams: wide armholes and above . . . But here, here is something amazing for you, now you're going to say . . . Well, be amazed: imagine, the bodices are even longer now, vee-shaped in front, and the front busk goes beyond all bounds; the skirt is gathered around as it used to be with the old-fashioned farthingale, and they even pad it out a little behind with cotton batting, so as to make for a perfect belle-femme." (Chapter Nine)

The “real” name of Shade’s wife Sybil seems to be Sofia Botkin (born Lastochkin). Lastochka is Russian for “swallow.” In the first stanza of his poem “Gogol” (1853) Prince Vyazemski calls Gogol peresmeshnik nash zabavnyi (our amusing mockingbird):

Ты, загадкой своенравной
Промелькнувший на земле,
Пересмешник наш забавный
С думой скорби на челе.

In Canto One of his poem Shade mentions the naive, the gauzy mockingbird:

TV's huge paperclip now shines instead
Of the stiff vane so often visited
By the naive, the gauzy mockingbird
Retelling all the programs that she had heard;
Switching from chippo-chippo to a clear
To-wee, to-wee; then rasping out: come here,
Come here, come herrr'; flitting her tail aloft,
Or gracefully indulging in a soft
Upward hop-flop, and instantly (to-wee)
Returning to her perch--the new TV. (ll. 61-70)

In a letter of August 24, 1831, to Pushkin Vyazemski says that he allows Pushkin to kiss his bel’-syorka (belle-sœur, sister-in-law):

Знаешь ли, слухи носятся, что ты очень ревнив? Я, если жена твоя не ревнива, позволяю тебе поцаловать мою сокурносую бель-сёрку. Она отказаться не может, ибо знает мои права над нею. — Читал ли ты le noir et le rouge? Замечательное творение.

Vyazemski asks Pushkin if he has read Stendhal’s novel Le Rouge et le Noir (“The Red and the Black,” 1830). Stendhal is the author Le Rose et le Vert (“The Pink and the Green,” 1837), a novel that remained unfinished. In his Commentary Kinbote mentions Pink (a professor of physics) and Gerald Emerald (a young instructor who wears a green jacket):

A professor of physics now joined in. He was a so-called Pink, who believed in what so-called Pinks believe in (Progressive Education, the Integrity of anyone spying for Russia, Fall-outs occasioned solely by US-made bombs, the existence in the near past of a McCarthy Era, Soviet achievements including Dr. Zhivago, and so forth): "Your regrets are groundless" [said he]. "That sorry ruler is known to have escaped disguised as a nun; but whatever happens, or has happened to him, cannot interest the Zemblan people. History has denounced him, and that is his epitaph."

Shade: "True, sir. In due time history will have denounced everybody. The King may be dead, or he may be as much alive as you and Kinbote, but let us respect facts. I have it from him [pointing to me] that the widely circulated stuff about the nun is a vulgar pro-Extremist fabrication. The Extremists and their friends invented a lot of nonsense to conceal their discomfiture; but the truth is that the King walked out of the palace, and crossed the mountains, and left the country, not in the black garb of a pale spinster but dressed as an athlete in scarlet wool."

"Strange, strange," said the German visitor, who by some quirk of alderwood ancestry had been alone to catch the eerie note that had throbbed by and was gone.

Shade [smiling and massaging my knee]: "Kings do not die--they only disappear, eh, Charles?"

"Who said that?" asked sharply, as if coming out of a trance, the ignorant, and always suspicious, Head of the English Department.

"Take my own case," continued my dear friend ignoring Mr. H. "I have been said to resemble at least four people: Samuel Johnson; the lovingly reconstructed ancestor of man in the Exton Museum; and two local characters, one being the slapdash disheveled hag who ladles out the mash in the Levin Hall cafeteria."

"The third in the witch row," I precised quaintly, and everybody laughed.

"I would rather say," remarked Mr. Pardon--Americna History--"that she looks like Judge Goldsworth" ("One of us," interposed Shade inclining his head), "especially when he is real mad at the whole world after a good dinner."

"I heard," hastily began Netochka, "that the Goldsworths are having a wonderful time--"

"What a pity I cannot prove my point," muttered the tenacious German visitor. "If only there was a picture here. Couldn't there be somewhere--"

"Sure," said young Emerald and left his seat.

Professor Pardon now spoke to me: "I was under the impression that you were born in Russia, and that your name was a kind of anagram of Botkin or Botkine?"

Kinbote: "You are confusing me with some refugee from Nova Zembla [sarcastically stressing the "Nova"].

"Didn't you tell me, Charles, that kinbote means regicide in your language?" asked my dear Shade.

"Yes, a king's destroyer," I said (longing to explain that a king who sinks his identity in the mirror of exile is in a sense just that).

Shade [addressing the German visitor]: "Professor Kinbote is the author of a remarkable book on surnames. I believe [to me] there exists an English translation?"

"Oxford, 1956," I replied.

"You do know Russian, though?" said Pardon. "I think I heard you, the other day, talking to--what's his name--oh, my goodness" [laboriously composing his lips].

Shade: "Sir, we all find it difficult to attack that name" [laughing].

Professor Hurley: "Think of the French word for 'tire': punoo."

Shade: "Why, sir, I am afraid you have only punctured the difficulty" [laughing uproariously].

"Flatman," quipped I. "Yes," I went on, turning to Pardon, "I certainly do speak Russian. You see, it was the fashionable language par excellence, much more so than French, among the nobles of Zembla at least, and at its court. Today, of course, all this has changed. It is now the lower clases who are forcibly taught to speak Russian."

"Aren't we, too trying to teach Russian in our schools?" said Pink.

In the meantime, at the other end of the room, young Emerald had been communing with the bookshelves. At this point he returned with the T-Z volume of an illustrated encyclopedia.

"Well," said he, "here he is, that king. But look, he is young and handsome" ("Oh, that won't do," wailed the German visitor.) "Young, handsome, and wearing a fancy uniform," continued Emerald. "Quite the fancy pansy, in fact."

"And you," I said quietly, "are a foul-minded pup in a cheap green jacket."

"But what have I said?" the young instructor inquired of the company, spreading out his palms like a disciple in Leonardo's Last Supper.

"Now, now," said Shade. "I'm sure, Charles, are young friend never intended to insult your sovereign and namesake."

"He could not, even if he had wished," I observed placidly, turning it all into a joke.

Gerald Emerald extended his hand--which at the moment of writing still remains in that position. (note to Line 894)

Duchess of Payn, of Great Payn and Mone, Queen Disa seems to blend Leonardo’s Mona Lisa with Desdemona (Othello’s wife in Shakespeare’s tragedy Othello). In his Table Talk (1835) Pushkin mentions Othello:

Отелло от природы не ревнив — напротив: он доверчив. Вольтер это понял и, развивая в своём подражании создание Шекспира, вложил в уста своего Орозмана следующий стих:

Je ne suis point jaloux... Si je l'étais jamais!..

According to Pushkin, Othello by nature is not jealous – on the contrary, he is credulous. In the same letter of August 24, 1831, to Pushkin (see the quote above) Vyazemski mentions the rumors that Pushkin (who in February, 1831, married Natalia Goncharov) is ochen’ revniv (very jealous).

In VN’s novel Ada (1969) Van and Ada discuss Ada’s dramatic career and Van (who is also very jealous) mentions Dawn en robe rose et verte (in a pink and green dress):

Van glanced through the list of players and D.P.’s and noticed two amusing details: the role of Fedotik, an artillery officer (whose comedy organ consists of a constantly clicking camera)’, had been assigned to a ‘Kim (short for Yakim) Eskimossoff’ and somebody called ‘John Starling’ had been cast as Skvortsov (a sekundant in the rather amateurish duel of the last act) whose name comes from skvorets, starling. When he communicated the latter observation to Ada, she blushed as was her Old World wont.

‘Yes,’ she said, ‘he was quite a lovely lad and I sort of flirted with him, but the strain and the split were too much for him — he had been, since pubescence, the puerulus of a fat ballet master, Dangleleaf, and he finally committed suicide. You see ("the blush now replaced by a matovaya pallor") I’m not hiding one stain of what rhymes with Perm.’

‘I see. And Yakim —’

‘Oh, he was nothing.’

‘No, I mean, Yakim, at least, did not, as his rhymesake did, take a picture of your brother embracing his girl. Played by Dawn de Laire.’

‘I’m not sure. I seem to recall that our director did not mind some comic relief.’

‘Dawn en robe rose et verte, at the end of Act One.’

‘I think there was a click in the wings and some healthy mirth in the house. All poor Starling had to do in the play was to hollo off stage from a rowboat on the Kama River to give the signal for my fiancé to come to the dueling ground.’ (2.9)

Van and Ada are not only lovers, but also brother and sister. Ada’s favorite ancestor is Prince Vseslav Zemski, a friend of Linnaeus (a Swedish botanist, 1707-78):

Of the many ancestors along the wall, she pointed out her favorite, old Prince Vseslav Zemski (1699-1797), friend of Linnaeus and author of Flora Ladorica, who was portrayed in rich oil holding his barely pubescent bride and her blond doll in his satin lap. An enlarged photograph, soberly framed, hung (rather incongruously, Van thought) next to the rose-bud-lover in his embroidered coat. (1.6)

In the same letter of August 24, 1831, to Pushkin Prince Vyazemski mentions old botanists who attributed the rose to masculine gender:

При человеке известного вкуса хвалили одну девушку и говорили: она хороша как роза. Что Вы говорите, как роза, она даже хороша как розан, отвечал человек известного вкуса. Чтобы ты не подумал, что повторяю тебе анекдот, спешу заявить, что это моего сочинения. Не написать ли трактат и о греческом исповедании наших старинных граматеев или ботаников, которые отнесли розу к мужескому роду?

In the presence of a man of certain tastes a girl was praised: “she is as beautiful as roza (a rose).” The man of certain tastes replied: “she is even as beautiful as rozan.”

A masculine form of roza, rozan (accented on the second syllable) brings to mind Rozanov, the author of Lyudi lunnogo sveta (“People of the Moonlight,” 1912). By “people of the moonlight” Rozanov means homosexuals. Shade’s alter ego, Kinbote is gay. In Vyazemski’s cycle Zimnie karikatury (“The Winter Caricatures,” 1828) the first poem is Russkaya luna (“The Russian Moon”). In the cycle’s third poem, Metel’ (“The Snow-Storm”), kompas (a compass) is mentioned:

Штурм сухопутный: тьма и страх!
Компас не в помощь, ни кормило:
Чутьё заглохло и застыло
И в ямщике и в лошадях.

Vyazemski’s cycle consists of four poems. Zemblan word for “four,” snew (according to Kinbote, wid snew ebanumf means “with four parts of ebony”), brings to mind Vyazemski’s poem Pervyi sneg (“The First Snow,” 1822). I zhit’ toropitsya, i chuvstvovat’ speshit (“To live it hurries and to feel it hastes”), the epigraph to Chapter One of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, is a line in “The First Snow.” Goryachnost’ molodaya (young ardor) that glides o’er life and hurries to live in Vyazemski’s poem brings to mind Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle, the full title of VN’s novel. In the first stanza of his poem K mnimoy schastlivitse (“To a Would-Be Happy Girl,” 1825) Vyazemski mentions rozy (roses) and zarya (dawn):

Мне грустно, на тебя смотря;
Твоя не верится мне радость,
И розами твоя увенчанная младость
Есть дня холодного блестящая заря.

I’m sad looking at you.

I don’t believe your joy.

Your youth crowned by roses

Is a cold day’s bright dawn.

In a letter of the second half of May (not later than May 24), 1826, to Vyazemski Pushkin says:

Твои стихи к Мнимой Красавице (ах, извини: Счастливице) слишком умны.-- А поэзия, прости господи, должна быть глуповата.

Your verses To a Would-Be Beautiful (ah, sorry, Happy) Girl are too clever. And poetry, may God forgive me, should be glupovata (silly).

Van’s and Ada’s half-sister Lucette is a student of Queenston College for Glamorous and Glupovatïh (‘dumb’) Girls:

He had not seen her since 1888. In the fall of 1891 she had sent him from California a rambling, indecent, crazy, almost savage declaration of love in a ten-page letter, which shall not be discussed in this memoir [See, however, a little farther. Ed.]. At present, she was studying the History of Art (‘the second-rater’s last refuge,’ she said) in nearby Queenston College for Glamorous and Glupovatïh (‘dumb’) Girls. (2.5)

In the conversation with Van Lucette calls Ada “a dream of white and black beauty touched with fraise in four places:”

‘— I took my pillow to Ada’s bedroom where a similar night-light transparency thing showed a blond-bearded faddist in a toweling robe embracing the found lamb. The night was oven-hot and we were stark naked except for a bit of sticking plaster where a doctor had stroked and pricked my arm, and she was a dream of white and black beauty, pour cogner une fraise, touched with fraise in four places, a symmetrical queen of hearts.’ (ibid.)

“A symmetrical queen of hearts” brings to mind Pushkin’s story Pikovaya dama (“The Queen of Spades,” 1833). Unlike Van and Ada, Lucette is red-haired. Van is secretly aroused by the image of Lucette’s “four embers:”

Wincing and rearranging his legs, our young Vandemonian cursed under his breath the condition in which the image of the four embers of a vixen’s cross had now solidly put him. (ibid.)

The characters of VN’s novel Bend Sinister (1947) include Ember, a translator of Shakespeare. The novel’s main character is the philosopher Adam Krug. There is ad (hell) within Ada, Ada within Adam and a compass rose within a compass. A compass is round. Krug is Russian for “circle.” “Vandemonian” (as Lucette calls Van) hints at Pandemonium, Hell’s capital in Milton’s Paradise Lost.

Van and Ada call Lucette “our Esmeralda and mermaid” (2.8). Esmeralda is a gypsy girl in Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris (1831). In a letter of the second half of May (May 18-25) to Eliza Khitrovo (Kutuzov’s daughter) Pushkin mentions Le Rouge and le Noir and asks his Erminia (Eliza’s nickname) if he can obtain a copy of Notre Dame de Paris:

Voici vos livres, Madame, je vous supplie de m’envoyer le second volume de Rouge et noir. J’en suis enchanté. Plock et Plick est misérable. C’est un tas de contresens, d’absurdités qui n’ont pas même le mérite de l’originalité. Notre Dame est-elle déjà lisible? Au revoir, Madame.

Onboard Admiral Tobakoff Van compares Lucette to Aurora (the Roman goddess of dawn):

‘She gave you a big jungle smile,’ said Lucette, readjusting her green helmet, with touchingly graceful movements of her raised wings, and touchingly flashing the russet feathering of her armpits.

‘Come with me, hm?’ she suggested, rising from the mat.

He shook his head, looking up at her: ‘You rise,’ he said, ‘like Aurora,’

‘His first compliment,’ observed Lucette with a little cock of her head as if speaking to an invisible confidant. (3.5)

Avrore Shernval’ (“To Aurora Chernval,” 1824) is a poem by Baratynski. In the same letter of the second half of May, 1826, Pushkin asks Vyazemski if it is true that Baratynski is going to marry and adds that he fears for Baratynski’s intellect:

Правда ли, что Баратынский женится? боюсь за его ум.

In the same letter Pushkin thanks Vyazemski for his verses (“To O. S. Pushkin,” 1825) to his sister Olga:

Я не благодарил тебя за стансы Ольге.

Pushkin’s own poem to his sister begins: Vertograd moey sestry… (“My sister’s garden…” 1825). In Ada Van mentions Miss Vertograd, Demon’s librarian:

Soon upon his arrival at Ardis, Van warned his former governess (who had reasons to believe in his threats) that if he were not permitted to remove from the library at any time, for any length of time, and without any trace of ‘en lecture,’ any volume, collected works, boxed pamphlets or incunabulum that he might fancy, he would have Miss Vertograd, his father’s librarian, a completely servile and infinitely accommodative spinster of Verger’s format and presumable date of publication, post to Ardis Hall trunkfuls of eighteenth century libertines, German sexologists, and a whole circus of Shastras and Nefsawis in literal translation with apocryphal addenda. (1.21)

Vertograd rhymes with vinograd (grape) and Leningrad. In his Commentary Kinbote mockingly calls Gradus (Shade’s murderer) Vinogradus and Leningradus:

All this is as it should be; the world needs Gradus. But Gradus should not kill things. Vinogradus should never, never provoke God. Leningradus should not aim his peashooter at people even in dreams, because if he does, a pair of colossally thick, abnormally hairy arms will hug him from behind and squeeze, squeeze, squeeze. (note to Line 171)

Vertograd + usta = Vera + Ott + Gradus

Ott + Gradus = Gott + ad/da + rus

usta – lips; cf. Usta k ustam (“Lips to Lips,” 1931), a story by VN

Vera – the name of VN’s wife that means “faith”

Ott – Frau Ott, the devil’s name in VN’s story Skazka (“A Nursery Tale,” 1926)

Gott – Germ., god

ad – hell

da – yes

rus – Lat., country; cf. O rus! Horace, the epigraph to Chapter Two of Pushkin’s EO

In Chapter Five of EO Pushkin calls Buyanov, the main character in Vasiliy Pushkin’s poem Opasnyi sosed (“A Dangerous Neighbor,” 1811), moy brat dvoyurodnyi (my first cousin). I suggest that Professor Vsevolod Botkin (an American scholar of Russian descent who went mad and became Shade, Kinbote and Gradus after the suicide of his daughter Nadezhda) is VN’s first cousin.

Alexey Sklyarenko

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