Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0026415, Fri, 4 Sep 2015 19:15:23 +0300

keys in The Gift; door in Lik; skeleton key in Postscript to L o
l i ta
In VN’s novel Dar (“The Gift,” 1937) the keys play an important role. At midday Fyodor (still in his bed) hears the peck of Marianna Nikolaevna’s key, and the lock reacts in character, clacking (Chapter Three). In “The Life of Chernyshevski” Fyodor mentions the episode when Chernyshevski’s elder son Aleksandr, entrusted to accompany a bargeload along the Volga, threw the keys into the rainbow water (Chapter Four). In his letter to Mother Fyodor says that he took with him into exile the keys to Russia:

Мне-то, конечно, легче, чем другому, жить вне России, потому что я наверняка знаю, что вернусь, – во-первых, потому что увёз с собой от неё ключи, а во-вторых, потому что все равно когда, через сто, через двести лет, – буду жить там в своих книгах, или хотя бы в подстрочном примечании исследователя.

It's easier for me, of course, than for another to live outside Russia, because I know for certain that I shall return – first because I took away the keys to her, and secondly because, no matter when, in a hundred, two hundred years – I shall live there in my books-or at least in some researcher's footnote. (Chapter Five)

At the end of the novel both Fyodor and Zina have lost the key to their apartment (but each of them thinks that the other has the key).

In VN’s story Lik (1939) dver’ (the door) that the hero had failed to open is mentioned:

Трудно, впрочем, решить, обладал ли он подлинным театральным талантом, или же был человек многих невнятных призваний, из которых выбрал первое попавшееся, но мог бы с таким же успехом быть живописцем, ювелиром, крысоловом... Такого рода существа напоминают помещение со множеством разных дверей, среди которых, быть может, находится одна, которая, действительно, ведет прямо в сад, в лунную глубь чудной человеческой ночи, где душа добывает ей одной предназначенные сокровища. Но как бы то ни было, этой двери Александр Лик не отворил, а попал на актёрский путь, по которому шёл без увлечения, с рассеянным видом человека, ищущего каких-то путевых примет, которых нет, но которые, пожалуй, снились или, быть может, принадлежат другой, как бы не проявленной, местности, где ему не бывать никогда, никогда. В условном же плане земного быта, ему было за тридцать, но всё же на несколько лет меньше, чем веку, а потому память о России, которая у людей пожилых, застрявших за границей собственной жизни, превращается либо в необыкновенно сильно развитый орган, работающий постоянно и своей секрецией возмещающий все исторические убытки, либо в раковую опухоль души, мешающую дышать, спать, общаться с беспечными иностранцами,-- у него эта память оставалась в зачаточном виде, исчерпываясь туманными впечатлениями детства, вроде соснового запашка дачного новоселья или асимметричной снежинки на башлыке.

It was hard to say, though, if Lik (the word means “countenance” in Russian and Middle English) possessed genuine theatrical talent or was a man of many indistinct callings who had chosen one of them at random but could just as well have been a painter, jeweler, or ratcatcher. Such a person resembles a room with a number of different doors, among which there is perhaps one that does lead straight into some great garden, into the moonlit depths of a marvelous human night, where the soul discovers the treasure intended for it alone. But, be that as it may, Lik had failed to open that door, taking instead the Thespian path, which he followed without enthusiasm, with the absent manner of a man looking for signposts that do not exist but that perhaps have appeared to him in a dream, or can be distinguished in the undeveloped photograph of some other locality that he will never, never visit. On the conventional plane of earthly habitus, he was in his thirties, and so was the century. In elderly people stranded not only outside the border of their country but outside that of their own lives, nostalgia evolves into an extraordinarily complex organ, which functions continuously, and its secretion compensates for all that has been lost; or else it becomes a fatal tumor on the soul that makes it painful to breathe, sleep, and associate with carefree foreigners. In Lik, this memory of Russia remained in the embryonic state, confined to misty childhood recollections, such as the resinous fragrance of the first spring day in the country, or the special shape of the snowflake on the wool of his hood.

It seems to me that Lik is the story that provides the key both to “The Gift” and to VN’s hexaptych (a work that includes two plays and four stories written after “The Gift;” or should we consider Lik as a part of VN’s heptaptych?). Just as Fyodor did in “The Gift,” the author of Lik managed to find and open the door that leads “straight into some great garden, into the moonlit depths of a marvelous human night, where the soul discovers the treasure intended for it alone.”

Incidentally, in the Postscript to his Russian translation of L o l i t a (1967) VN mentions klyuch (the key) that he had held in safekeeping for so many years and that had proved more like otmychka (a skeleton key):

Увы, тот “дивный русский язык”, который, сдавалось мне, всё ждёт меня где-то, цветёт, как верная весна за наглухо запертыми воротами, от которых столько лет хранился у меня ключ, оказался несуществующим, и за воротами нет ничего, кроме обугленных пней и осенней безнадёжной дали, а ключ в руке скорее похож на отмычку.

A postscript to my previous post: the name Baumgarten (in “The Event” the wine merchant whose portrait was painted by Troshcheykin) brings to mind Traum, Baum and Käsebier (“a complete German idyll, with little tables amid the greenery and a wonderful view”), Zina Mertz’s employers in “The Gift.” In Goncharov’s novel Oblomov (1859) Andrey Stolz (Oblomov’s best friend) is a German.

Speaking of fishing: the name Linyov (in “The Gift” the author of the first review of Fyodor’s book on Chernyshevski) comes from lin’ (tench). In his entertaining review Valentin Linyov fluffs the author’s name calling Fyodor Konstantinovich Godunov-Cherdyntsev “Boris Cherdyntsev.” Boris is the first name of Zina Merts’s step-father. On the other hand, in Chekhov’s play Chayka (“The Seagull,” 1896) the writer Boris Trigorin (whom the critics used to compare to Turgenev) is a great fisherman. “The Life of Chernyshevski” is Fyodor’s first book. After the appearance of Mashen’ka (“Mary,” 1926), VN’s first novel, the critic Yuli Ayhenvald compared the author to Turgenev.

Alexey Sklyarenko

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