Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0027544, Tue, 3 Oct 2017 13:35:58 +0300

Beirut, Amphitheatricus,
Prof. Pnin & Prof. Botkin in Pale Fire; Valentina in Ada
In Canto Four of his poem Shade (the poet in VN’s novel Pale Fire, 1962) describes shaving and mentions Beirut:

And while the safety blade with scrap and screak
Travels across the country of my cheek,
Cars on the highway pass, and up the steep
Incline big trucks around my jawbone creep,
And now a silent liner docks, and now
Sunglassers tour Beirut, and now I plough
Old Zembla's fields where my gray stubble grows,
And slaves make hay between my mouth and nose. (ll. 931-938)

In his poem Zabludivshiysya tramvay (“The Lost Tram,” 1921) Gumilyov mentions the poor old man who had died in Beirut a year ago:

И, промелькнув у оконной рамы,

Бросил нам вслед пытливый взгляд

Нищий старик, - конечно, тот самый,

Что умер в Бейруте год назад.

And slipping by the window frame,

A poor old man threw us an inquisitive glance-

The very same old man, of course,

Who had died in Beirut a year ago.

In another stanza of his poem Gumilyov mentions people and shades who stand at the entrance to a zoological park of planets:

Понял теперь я: наша свобода

Только оттуда бьющий свет,

Люди и тени стоят у входа

В зоологический сад планет.

Now I understand: our freedom

Is only a light from the other world,

People and shades stand at the entrance

To a zoological park of planets.

Zoologicheskiy sad planet (a zoological park of planets) brings to mind Shklovsky’s Zoo ili Pis’ma ne o lyubvi (“Zoo, or Letters not about Love,” 1923). In his memoir essay Dom iskusstv (“The House of Arts,” 1925) G. Ivanov describes a banquet in Petrograd in honor of H. G. Wells and says that, addressing Amfiteatrov, H. G. Wells called him “Mr. Shklovski:”

Банкет был позорный. Уэллс с видимым усилием ел «роскошный завтрак», плохо слушал ораторов и изредка невпопад им отвечал. Ораторы... некоторые из них выказали большое гражданское мужество — например Амфитеатров, предложивший присутствующим, чтобы показать высокому гостю, «что они с нами сделали»,— расстегнуться и продемонстрировать ему свой «дессу».

Это смелое предложение принято не было. Но Амфитеатров был наказан: Уэллс, обратившись к нему, назвал его мистером Шкловским.

In his Commentary to Shade’s poem Kinbote (who imagines that he is Charles the Beloved, the last self-exiled king of Zembla) mentions Amphitheatricus, a not unkindly writer of fugitive poetry:

Alfin the Vague (1873-1918; regnal dates 1900-1918, but 1900-1919 in most biographical dictionaries, a fumble due to the coincident calendar change from Old Style to New) was given his cognomen by Amphitheatricus, a not unkindly writer of fugitive poetry in the liberal gazettes (who was also responsible for dubbing my capital Uranograd!). (note to Line 71)

Uranograd brings to mind Zhorzhik Uranski, an influential but not incorruptible literary critic in VN’s novel Pnin (1957):

One of her admirers, a banker, and straightforward patron of the arts, selected among the Parisian Russians an influential literary critic, Zhorzhik Uranski, and for a champagne dinner at the Ougolok had the old boy devote his next feuilleton in one of the Russian--language newspapers to an appreciation of Liza's muse on whose chestnut curls Zhorzhik calmly placed Anna Akhmatov's coronet, whereupon Liza burst into happy tears--for all the world like little Miss Michigan or the Oregon Rose Queen. Pnin, who was not in the know, carried about a folded clipping of that shameless rave in his honest pocket-book, naively reading out passages to this or that amused friend until it got quite frayed and smudgy. Nor was he in the know concerning graver matters, and in fact was actually pasting the remnants of' the review in an album when, on a December day in 1938, Liza telephoned from Meudon, saying that she was going to Montpellier with a man who understood her 'organic ego', a Dr Eric Wind, and would never see Timofey again. An unknown French woman with red hair called for Liza's things and said, well, you cellar rat, there is no more any poor lass to taper dessus--and a month or two later there dribbled in from Dr Wind a German letter of sympathy and apology assuring lieber Herr Pnin that he, Dr Wind, was eager to marry 'the woman who has come out of your life into mine.' (Chapter Two, 5)

Zhorzhik Uranski blends Georgiy Ivanov (the author of an offensive article on VN in the Paris émigré review “Numbers”) with Georgiy Adamovich (a hostile literary critic). Adamovich is the author of Odinochestvo i svoboda (“Loneliness and Freedom,” 1955), a collection of essays. In “The Lost Tram” Gumilyov says that nasha svoboda (our freedom) is only ottuda b’yushchiy svet (a light from the other world). Like Martin’s and Sonya’s Zoorland in VN’s novel Podvig (“Glory,” 1932), Kinbote’s Zembla combines the features of a totalitarian country with those of the other world. In his Commentary Kinbote quotes a discarded variant in which Shade mentions Strange Other World:

A beautiful variant, with one curious gap, branches off at this point in the draft (dated July 6):

Strange Other World where all our still-born dwell,
And pets, revived, and invalids, grown well,
And minds that died before arriving there:
Poor old man Swift, poor —, poor Baudelaire

What might that dash stand for? Unless Shade gave prosodic value to the mute e in “Baudelaire,” which I am quite certain he would never have done in English verse (cp. “Rabelais,” line 501), the name required here must scan as a trochee. Among the names of celebrated poets, painters, philosophers, etc., known to have become insane or to have sunk into senile imbecility, we find many suitable ones. Was Shade confronted by too much variety with nothing to help logic choose and so left a blank, relying upon the mysterious organic force that rescues poets to fill it in at its own convenience? Or was there something else—some obscure intuition, some prophetic scruple that prevented him from spelling out the name of an eminent man who happened to be an intimate friend of his? Was he perhaps playing safe because a reader in his household might have objected to that particular name being mentioned? And if it comes to that, why mention it at all in this tragical context? Dark, disturbing thoughts. (note to Line 231)

Kinbote is afraid that this dash stands for his name. Actually, it stands for Botkin (Shade’s, Kinbote’s and Gradus’ “real” name). 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). Kinbote mentions Prof. Pnin, the Head of the bloated Russian Department at Wordsmith University, and Prof. Botkin in the same note of his commentary:

Speaking of the Head of the bloated Russian Department, Prof. Pnin, a regular martinet in regard to his underlings (happily, Prof. Botkin, who taught in another department, was not subordinated to that grotesque "perfectionist"): "How odd that Russian intellectuals should lack all sense of humor when they have such marvelous humorists as Gogol, Dostoevski, Chekhov, Zoshchenko, and those joint authors of genius Ilf and Petrov." (note to Line 172: books and people)

The heading subject of Kinbote’s note, “books and people,” brings to mind lyudi i teni (people and shades) who stand at the entrance to a zoological park of planets in Gumilyov’s poem “The Lost Tram.”

In his poem Vsyo neizmenno, i vsyo izmenilos’ (“Everything is immutable, and everything has changed…” 1951) G. Ivanov mentions svoboda (freedom) and nadezhda (hope):

Всё неизменно, и всё изменилось
В утреннем холоде странной свободы.
Долгие годы мне многое снилось,
Вот я проснулся — и где эти годы!

Вот я иду по осеннему полю,
Всё, как всегда, и другое, чем прежде:
Точно меня отпустили на волю
И отказали в последней надежде.

Everything is immutable, and everything has changed

In the morning cold of strange freedom.

For many years I’ve been dreaming a lot,

Now I awoke – and where are those years!

Now I walk along the autumnal field,

Everything is as always, and different than before:

As if I was set free

And was refused the last hope.

In his poem Kak v Gretsiyu Bayron – o, bez sozhalen’ya… (“Like Byron to Greece, oh without regret…” 1927) G. Ivanov mentions blednyi ogon’ (pale fire). A major theme in G. Ivanov’s poetry is suicide. There is a hope that, when Kinbote completes his work on Shade’s poem and commits suicide (on October 19, 1959, the anniversary of Pushkin’s Lyceum), Botkin will be full again.

In my previous post, “Baron Bland, Charles the Beloved & crown jewels in Pale Fire; Dr Krolik & Aqua Durmanov in Ada,” I forgot to point out that in a letter of June 5, 1903, to Veresaev Chekhov mentions his story Nevesta (“The Bride,” 1903):

Кое-что поделываю. Рассказ «Невесту» искромсал и переделал в корректуре.

The characters of Chekhov’s story include Andrey Andreich, Nadya’s bridegroom. He has the same name and patronymic as Ada’s husband, Andrey Andreevich Vinelander and Andrey Andreevich Aksakov (‘AAA’), Van’s angelic Russian tutor. In the same letter to Veresaev Chekhov mentions Aksakov’s children chronicle (see my previous post) and Gusev, the writer who has a drunken d’yakon (deacon) in almost all of his stories:

Я читал на днях книжки Юшкевича и Гусева-Оренбургского. По-моему, Юшкевич и умён и талантлив, из него может выйти большой толк, только местами и очень часто он производит впечатление точно перевод с иностранного; таких писателей, как он, у нас ещё не было. Гусев будет пожиже, но тоже талантлив, хотя и наскучает скоро своим пьяным дьяконом. У него почти в каждом рассказе по пьяному дьякону.

According to Lucette, at Ada’s wedding the dyakon was drunk:

Demon, she said, had told her, last year at the funeral, that he was buying an island in the Gavailles (‘incorrigible dreamer,’ drawled Van). He had ‘wept like a fountain’ in Nice, but had cried with even more abandon in Valentina, at an earlier ceremony, which poor Marina did not attend either. The wedding — in the Greek-faith style, if you please — looked like a badly faked episode in an ‘old movie, the priest was gaga and the dyakon drunk, and — perhaps, fortunately — Ada’s thick white veil was as impervious to light as a widow’s weeds. Van said he would not listen to that. (3.5)

In his poem Vdvoyom (“The Two Together,” 1908) Blok calls his mistress Valentina, zvezda, mechtan’ye (Valentina, a star, a reverie):

Чёрный ворон в сумраке снежном,

Чёрный бархат на смуглых плечах.

Томный голос пением нежным

Мне поёт о южных ночах.

В лёгком сердце - страсть и беспечность,

Словно с моря мне подан знак.

Над бездонным провалом в вечность,

Задыхаясь, летит рысак.

Снежный ветер, твоё дыханье,

Опьянённые губы мои...

Валентина, звезда, мечтанье!

Как поют твои соловьи...

Страшный мир! Он для сердца тесен!

В нём - твоих поцелуев бред,

Тёмный морок цыганских песен,

Торопливый полёт комет!

Valentina Shulgin (“Tamara” of VN’s autobiography Speak, Memory) called herself “Lyusya,” a name that sounds like a quaint Russian diminutive of Lucette.

Ada’s thick veil brings to mind tyomnaya vual’ (the dark veil) mentioned by Blok in his poem Neznakomka (“Incognita,” 1906):

И странной близостью закованный,

Смотрю за тёмную вуаль,

И вижу берег очарованный

И очарованную даль.

And entranced by this strange nearness,

I look through her dark veil,

And see an enchanted shore

And a horizon enchanted.

Shlyapa s traurnymi per’yami (the hat with its funeral plumes) of Blok’s Incognita reminds one of Lucette’s picture hat:

From under the wavy wide brim of her floppy hat of black faille, with a great black bow surmounting it, a spiral of intentionally disarranged, expertly curled bright copper descends her flaming cheek, and the light of the bar’s ‘gem bulbs’ plays on her bouffant front hair, which, as seen laterally, convexes from beneath the extravagant brim of the picture hat right down to her long thin eyebrow. (3.3)

Alexey Sklyarenko

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