Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0026870, Wed, 17 Feb 2016 13:41:19 +0300

Chose, Mascodagama, Zemski,
Temnosiniy & skunk-like squirrels in Ada
In 1885, having completed his prep-school education, he went up to Chose University in England, where his fathers had gone, and traveled from time to time to London or Lute (as prosperous but not overrefined British colonials called that lovely pearl-gray sad city on the other side of the Channel). (1.28)

The name of Van’s University and the French word for “thing” are homonyms. In a letter of Jan. 17, 1831, to Pushkin Prince Vyazemski (who wanted to publish his translation of Constant’s novel Adolphe) asks Pushkin if he should ignore Polevoy’s translation of Adolphe, comme une chose non avenue (as a thing that does not exist):

Надобно ли в замечании задрать киселем в <- - - -> Адольфа Полевого, или пропустить его без внимания, comme une chose non avenue?

In the same letter Vyazemski says that he does not want poddat’ bokov kritike (“to provoke an attack of critics”):

Мне хочется, по крайней мере в предисловии, не поддать боков критике.

There are bokov (Gen. pl. of bok, “side”) in Nabokov. After the critics (e. g., Edmund Wilson) had attacked VN’s translation (1964) of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin (1823-31), VN wrote Reply to my Critics (1966). Wilson and Edmundson are mentioned in the “Flavita [the Russian Scrabble] chapter” of Ada:

Van, a first-rate chess player - he was to win in 1887 a match at Chose when he beat the Minsk-born Pat Rishin (champion of Underhill and Wilson, N.C.) - had been puzzled by Ada's inability of raising the standard of her, so to speak, damsel-errant game above that of a young lady in an old novel or in one of those anti-dandruff color-photo ads that show a beautiful model (made for other games than chess) staring at the shoulder of her otherwise impeccably groomed antagonist across a preposterous traffic jam of white and scarlet, elaborately and unrecognizably carved, Lalla Rookh chessmen, which not even cretins would want to play with - even if royally paid for the degradation of the simplest thought under the itchiest scalp. (1.36)

The rivalry between moronic Ozhegov (a big, blue, badly bound volume, containing 52,872 words) and a small but chippy Edmundson in Dr Gerschizhevsky's reverent version, the taciturnity of abridged brutes and the unconventional magnanimity of a four-volume Dahl ('My darling dahlia,' moaned Ada as she obtained an obsolete cant word from the gentle long-bearded ethnographer) - all this would have been insupportably boring to Van had he not been stung as a scientist by the curious affinity between certain aspects of Scrabble and those of the planchette. (ibid.)

At Chose Van studies psychiatry and begins to perform in a variety show under the stage name Mascodagama:

On February 5,* 1887, an unsigned editorial in The Ranter (the usually so sarcastic and captious Chose weekly) described Mascodagama's performance as 'the most imaginative and singular stunt ever offered to a jaded music-hall public.' It was repeated at the Rantariver Club several times, but nothing in the programme or in publicity notices beyond the definition 'Foreign eccentric' gave any indication either of the exact nature of the 'stunt' or of the performer's identity. (1.30)

In a letter of Jan. 14, 1831, to Pushkin Vyazemski substitutes ‘d’ for ‘t’ in literaturochka (little literature), which makes it literadurochka (literary fool). In the same letter Vyazemski mentions Bulgarin and his friends who insisted that all magazine articles should be signed with an author’s or translator’s real name, in the hope that Pushkin and Vyazemski would be ashamed to walk from time to time among them bez maski (without a mask):

Что это за новое дополнение к цензуре, что все статьи в журналах должны быть за подписью автора, или переводчика? Не смешно ли видеть русское самодержавие, которое возится с нашею литтерат(или д)урочкою. Уж и та её пугает. Как не чувствовать им, что есть цензура, есть и всё. Уж и это не штука ли Булгарина против Литтературной Газеты, чтобы заставить нас демаскироваться? Иначе растолковать не умею. Булгарину с братьею огласки бояться нечего, а между тем надеются они, что нам иногда стыдно будет без маски пройти между ими.

On Jan. 14, 1831, Pushkin’s school-mate and best friend Anton Delvig died in St. Petersburg (Pushkin in Moscow and Vyazemski in Ostafievo did not yet know it). Another Lyceum friend, the Decembrist Wilhelm Küchelbecker, was imprisoned in the Dinaburg fortress (in Kurland). In a letter of Oct. 20, 1830, to Pushkin Küchelbecker calls himself “a new Camoens” and says that he continues to write (even though not “The Lusiads”) in prison:

Между тем я, новый Камоэнс, творю, творю — хоть не Лузиады — а ангельщины и дьявольщины, которым конца нет.

Van’s stage name blends maska (Russian for “mask”) with Vasco da Gama (c1460-1524), the Portuguese navigator who discovered the sea route from Portugal around the continent of Africa to India. The main narrator in Camoens’ The Lusiads (1572) is Vasco da Gama.

In his Sonet (“The Sonnet,” 1830) Pushkin mentions, among other sonneteers, Camoens and Delvig:

Scorn not the sonnet, critic.


Суровый Дант не презирал сонета;
В нём жар любви Петрарка изливал;
Игру его любил творец Макбета;
Им скорбну мысль Камоэнс облекал.

И в наши дни пленяет он поэта:
Вордсворт его орудием избрал,
Когда вдали от суетного света
Природы он рисует идеал.

Под сенью гор Тавриды отдаленной
Певец Литвы в размер его стесненный
Свои мечты мгновенно заключал.

У нас еще его не знали девы,
Как для него уж Дельвиг забывал
Гекзаметра священные напевы.

The so-called “Onegin stanza” devised by Pushkin and used by him in EO is “patterned on a sonnet.” VN is also the author of Universitetskaya poema (“The University Poem,” 1927) written in the reversed Onegin stanza. (In The University Poem Pushkin’s rhyme scheme ababeecciddiff becomes oodiideeccabab, because VN had to change the order of masculine and feminine rhymes.)

Van’s body is reversed when, as Mascodagama, he dances on his hands:

A Karakul cap surmounted his top. A black mask covered the upper part of his heavily bearded face. The unpleasant colossus kept strutting up and down the stage for a while, then the strut changed to the restless walk of a caged madman, then he whirled, and to a clash of cymbals in the orchestra and a cry of terror (perhaps faked) in the gallery, Mascodagama turned over in the air and stood on his head.

In this weird position, with his cap acting as a pseudopodal pad, he jumped up and down, pogo-stick fashion - and suddenly came apart. Van's face, shining with sweat, grinned between the legs of the boots that still shod his rigidly raised arms. Simultaneously his real feet kicked off and away the false head with its crumpled cap and bearded mask. The magical reversal 'made the house gasp.' Frantic ('deafening,' 'delirious,' 'a veritable tempest of') applause followed the gasp. He bounded offstage - and next moment was back, now sheathed in black tights, dancing a jig on his hands. (1.30)

The University Poem (signed with VN’s Russian nom de plume, V. Sirin) was dismissed by the reviewers (and severely criticized by G. Ivanov, a rival poet and VN’s faithful Zoilus) none of whom noticed the poem’s noble source.

In a letter of Dec. 9, 1830, to Pletnyov (to whom EO is dedicated) Pushkin says that in Boldino he wrote two last chapters of EO and that he wants to publish Povesti Belkina (“The Belkin Tales,” 1830) anonymously, because otherwise Bulgarin would scold them:

Скажу тебе (за тайну), что я в Болдине писал, как давно уже не писал. Вот что я привёз сюда: 2 последние главы «Онегина», 8-ю и 9-ю, совсем готовые в печать. Повесть, писанную октавами (стихов 400), которую выдадим Anonyme. Несколько драматических сцен, или маленьких трагедий, именно: «Скупой рыцарь», «Моцарт и Сальери», «Пир во время чумы» и «Дон Жуан». Сверх того, написал около 30 мелких стихотворений. Хорошо? Еще не всё (весьма секретное). Написал я прозою 5 повестей, от которых Баратынский ржёт и бьётся — и которые напечатаем также Anonyme. Под моим именем нельзя будет, ибо Булгарин заругает.

The name Belkin comes from belka (squirrel). In her last note Aqua (Marina’s mad twin sister who was made to believe that Van was her beloved son) mentions the skunk-like squirrels that Van’s ancestor imported to Ardis Park:

Aujourd'hui (heute-toity!) I, this eye-rolling toy, have earned the psykitsch right to enjoy a landparty with Herr Doktor Sig, Nurse Joan the Terrible, and several 'patients,' in the neighboring bor (piney wood) where I noticed exactly the same skunk-like squirrels, Van, that your Darkblue ancestor imported to Ardis Park, where you will ramble one day, no doubt. (1.3)

Van’s “Darkblue ancestor” is Prince Ivan Temnosiniy, the father of Van’s, Ada’s and Lucette’s great-great-grandmother, whose millennium-old name means in Russian ‘dark blue.’ In 1770 Princess Sofia Temnosiniy (1755-1809) married Prince Vseslav Zemski (1699-1797). In 1772 their son Peter was born. In 1824 Prince Peter Zemski (who died in 1832) married Mary O’Reilly, an Irish woman of fashion. In 1825 their only child Daria (‘Dolly’) was born (1.1). 1825 is the year of the Decembrists uprising. The mother of one of Pushkin’s staunchest friends, Prince Pyotr Vyazemski (1792-1878), was Irish, born O’Reilly.

Temnosiniy is a historical name. The Princely Temnosiniy family is mentioned in Barkhatnaya kniga (“The Velvet Book”) of Russian nobility.

“While happening to be immune to the sumptuous thrills of genealogic awareness, and indifferent to the fact that oafs attribute both the aloofness and the fervor to snobbishness, Van could not help feeling esthetically moved by the velvet background he was always able to distinguish as a comforting, omnipresent summer sky through the black foliage of the family tree.” (1.1)

In Dostoevski’s novel Brothers Karamazov (1880) Liza Khokhlakov (a hysterical girl who calls herself bol’naya durochka, “a sick little fool”) wants Alyosha Karamazov (a lay brother who is about to leave the monastery) to wear temnosiniy barkhatnyi pidzhak (a dark-blue velvet jacket):

– Я хочу, чтоб у вас был темно-синий бархатный пиджак, белый пикейный жилет и пуховая серая мягкая шляпа… (Book Five “Pro et Contra,” chapter I)

The skunk-like squirrels in Aqua’s last note bring to mind dear Aunt Beloskunski-Belokonski (“a vulgar old skunk,” according to Ada) whom Dolly Vinelander (Ada’s sister-in-law) mentions at the dinner in Bellevue Hotel in Mont Roux:

‘Tomorrow dear Aunt Beloskunski-Belokonski is coming to dinner, a delightful old spinster, who lives in a villa above Valvey. Terriblement grande dame et tout ça. Elle aime taquiner Andryusha en disant qu'un simple cultivateur comme lui n'aurait pas dû épouser la fille d'une actrice et d'un marchand de tableaux. Would you care to join us – Jean?’ (3.8)

Starukha Belokonskaya (old dame Belokonski) is a character in Dostoevski’s novel Idiot (1869). At the end of the novel Rogozhin stabs to death Nastasia Filippovna (a kept woman with whom Prince Myshkin is in love) and the Prince goes mad and has to return to a Swiss sanatorium.

According to Van, his supervisor of studies at Chose, Prof. P. O. Tyomkin, was saved from the dagger of Prince Potyomkin:

Dear Mr 'Vascodagama' received an invitation to Windsor Castle from its owner, a bilateral descendant of Van's own ancestors, but he declined it, suspecting (incorrectly, as it later transpired) the misprint to suggest that his incognito had been divulged by one of the special detectives at Chose - the same, perhaps, who had recently saved the psychiatrist P.O. Tyomkin from the dagger of Prince Potyomkin, a mixed-up kid from Sebastopol, Id. (1.30)

The name Potyomkin comes from potyomki (darkness). According to a Russian saying (quoted by Chekhov in a letter to Mme Avilov), chuzhaya dusha – potyomki (“you cannot read in another’s heart”). In VN’s Russian translation of Lolita (1967) one of Quilty’s aliases, “P. O. Tyomkin, Odessa, Texas,” hints at the Eyzenshteyn movie:

Я замечал, что, как только ему начинало казаться, что его плутни становятся чересчур заумными, даже для такого зксперта, как я, он меня приманивал опять загадкой полегче. "Арсен Люпэн" был очевиден полуфранцузу, помнившему детективные рассказы, которыми он увлекался в детстве; и едва ли следовало быть знатоком кинематографа, чтобы раскусить пошлую подковырку в адресе: "П. О. Тёмкин, Одесса, Техас". (2.23)

In a farewell letter to Marina Demon (Van’s and Ada’s father) mentions his aunt’s ranch near Lolita, Texas:

You had gone to Boston to see an old aunt - a cliché, but the truth for the nonce - and I had gone to my aunt's ranch near Lolita, Texas. (1.2)

Demon and Marina made love for the first time during a performance of Eugene and Lara (a trashy American ephemeron based by some pretentious hack on a famous Russian romance). The name of the heroine (who was played by Marina) blends Tatiana Larin (a character in Pushkin’s EO) with Lara Antipov (a character in Pasternak’s Doktor Zhivago, 1957, known on Antiterra as Les Amours du Docteur Mertvago and Mertvago Forever). In Pasternak’s novel Yuri Zhivago is the father of Lara’s daughter Tatiana (who was born in Belomongolia).

According to Van, Marina’s impresario brought the Russian dancers who participated in the performance from Belokonsk (the Russian twin of ‘Whitehorse,’ city in NW Canada):

She [Marina] had ample time, too, to change for the next scene, which started with a longish intermezzo staged by a ballet company whose services Scotty had engaged, bringing the Russians all the way in two sleeping cars from Belokonsk, Western Estoty. In a splendid orchard several merry young gardeners wearing for some reason the garb of Georgian tribesmen were popping raspberries into their mouths, while several equally implausible servant girls in sharovars (somebody had goofed - the word 'samovars' may have got garbled in the agent's aerocable) were busy plucking marshmallows and peanuts from the branches of fruit trees. At an invisible sign of Dionysian origin, they all plunged into the violent dance called kurva or 'ribbon boule' in the hilarious program whose howlers almost caused Veen (tingling, and light-loined, and with Prince N.'s rose-red banknote in his pocket) to fall from his seat. (1.2)

The name of Marina’s impresario hints at Skotoprigonyevsk, a fictitious city in which the action of Brothers Karamazov takes place. “A longish intermezzo” brings to mind Lyrisches Intermezzo, a part of Heinrich Heine’s Buch der Lieder (1827). Heine is the author of Die Lorelei (1822). Mandelshtam’s poem Dekabrist (“The Decembrist,” 1917) ends in the line: Rossiya, Leta, Loreleya (“Russia, Lethe, Lorelei”).

The dance called kurva or ‘ribbon boul’ is une chose non avenue. In his poem Net, ne spryatat’sya mne ot velikoy mury… (“No, I can’t hide from the great nonsense…” 1931) Mandelshtam mentions kurva-Moskva (“Moscow the whore”). Kurva and ‘ribbon boul’ hint at ludicrous blunders in Lowell’s versions of Mandelshtam’s poems. Besides, ‘ribbon boul’ brings to mind Maupassant’s story Boul de suif (“Dumpling,” 1880). According to Vivian Darkbloom (‘Notes to Ada’), Maupassant does not exist on Antiterra (Earth’s twin planet on which Ada is set).

Nabokov + Zemski + yav’ = Bova + Vyazemski + kon’

yavlenie + Zemski + nrav/vran = Lenin + Vyazemski + vera/Vera

yav’ – waking life (as opposed to son, “dream”)

Bova – Bova-korolevich (Prince Bova), a character in Russian fairy tales

kon’ – horse; knight (chessman)

yavlenie - phenomenon; thing

nrav - disposition, temper; (pl.) manners, customs, ways

vran - obs., raven

vera – faith

Btw., Vera was also the name of Vyazemski’s wife (born Princess Gagarin, 1790-1886)

*Feb. 5, 1812, is George d’Anthès’ birthday.

Alexey Sklyarenko

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