Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0026872, Fri, 19 Feb 2016 23:30:29 +0300

Dionysian origin, un petit topinambour & Nuremberg Old Maid in Ada
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)

Darkbloom (‘Notes to Ada’): Raspberries; ribbon: allusions to ludicrous blunders in Lowell's versions of Mandelshtam's poems (in the N.Y. Review, 23 December 1965).

In his Oda Betkhovenu (“Ode to Beethoven,” 1914) Mandelshtam compares Beethoven to Dionysus (the god of fertility, wine and drama):

О Дионис, как муж, наивный

И благодарный, как дитя!

Ты перенёс свой жребий дивный

То негодуя, то шутя!

С каким глухим негодованьем

Ты собирал с князей оброк

Или с рассеянным вниманьем

На фортепьянный шёл урок!

Oh Dionysus, naïve, like a man

and grateful, like a child!

You endured your marvelous lot,

now indignant, now joking!

With what deaf anger

you took quit-rent from Princes

or walked absent-mindedly

to a piano lesson!

After learning that Ada was unfaithful to him, Van leaves Ardis (1.41). One of Ada’s lovers is Philip Rack, a young German composer. In a train that he boarded in Ladoga Van meets Cordula de Prey (Ada’s school-mate) and asks her if she knows Rack’s address in Kalugano:

'Man. Do you know Kalugano? Dentist? Best hotel? Concert hall? My cousin's music teacher?'

She shook her short curls. No - she went there very seldom. Twice to a concert, in a pine forest. She had not been aware that Ada took music lessons. How was Ada?

'Lucette,' he said, 'Lucette takes or took piano lessons. Okay. Let's dismiss Kalugano. These crumpets are very poor relatives of the Chose ones. You're right, j'ai des ennuis. But you can make me forget them. Tell me something to distract me, though you distract me as it is, un petit topinambour as the Teuton said in the story. Tell me about your affairs of the heart.' (1.42)

Darkbloom (‘Notes to Ada’): topinambour: tuber of the girasole; pun on 'pun' ('calembour').

Topinambour, or the Jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus), is also called “earth apple” and “earth pear” (Germ., Erdbirne). In his poem Royal’ (“The Grand Piano,” 1931) Mandelshtam mentions koren’ sladkovatoy grushi zemnoy (a tuber of the sweet earth pear) and Nyurenbergskaya pruzhina, vypryamlyayushchaya mertvetsov (the Nuremberg spring that can straighten the dead):

…Чтобы в мире стало просторней,
Ради сложности мировой,
Не втирайте в клавиши корень
Сладковатой груши земной.

Чтоб смолою соната джина
Проступила из позвонков,
Нюренбергская есть пружина,
Выпрямляющая мертвецов.

…To make the world more spacious,
for the sake of global complexity,
do not rub into the piano keys
a tuber of sweet earthly pear.

To make a jinn’s sonata appear

like resin from the vertebrae
there exists the Nuremberg spring
that can straighten the dead.

Poisoned by his jealous wife, Philip Rack dies in the Kalugano hospital (1.42). Another lover of Ada, Percy de Prey, goes to the war and is killed in the Crimea (1.42). As he listens to Demon (Van’s and Ada’s father who just found out about his children’s romance), Van recalls the destiny of Ada’s lovers and thinks of the Nuremberg Old Maid’s iron sting:

The first thing Demon said was:

'I insist that you face me when I'm speaking to you.'

'However, before I advise you of those two facts, I would like to know how long this - how long this has been...' ('going on,' one presumes, or something equally banal, but then all ends are banal - hangings, the Nuremberg Old Maid's iron sting, shooting oneself, last words in the brand-new Ladore hospital, mistaking a drop of thirty thousand feet for the airplane's washroom, being poisoned by one's wife, expecting a bit of Crimean hospitality, congratulating Mr and Mrs Vinelander -) (2.11)

In 1905, when Ada is married to Andrey Vinelander, Demon Veen perishes in a mysterious airplane disaster above the Pacific (3.7). The Demon (1829-40) is long poem by Lermontov. As a boy of ten, Van tried to puzzle out the allusions to his father’s life in Lermontov’s poem:

With white-bloused, enthusiastically sweating Andrey Andreevich, he lolled for hours in the violet shade of pink cliffs, studying major and minor Russian writers - and puzzling out the exaggerated but, on the whole, complimentary allusions to his father's volitations and loves in another life in Lermontov's diamond-faceted tetrameters. (1.28)

In his Stikhi o neizvestnom soldate (“Verses about the Unknown Soldier,” 1937) Mandelshtam mentions Lermontov, vozdushnaya yama (air pocket) and plays on the saying gorbatogo mogila ispravit (old habits die hard; literally: “a grave will cure the hunchback”):

И за Лермонтова Михаила

Я отдам тебе строгий отчёт,

Как сутулого учит могила

И воздушная яма влечёт.

Yama (in the phrase vozdushnaya yama used by Mandelshtam) means “pit.” Poor mad Aqua (Demon’s wife who thought that Van was her beloved son) was tormented by yamy, yamishchi (soft black pits) in her mind:

It was now the forming of soft black pits (yamï, yamishchi) in her mind, between the dimming sculptures of thought and recollection, that tormented her phenomenally; mental panic and physical pain joined black-ruby hands, one making her pray for sanity, the other, plead for death. (1.3)

Aqua’s twin sister Marina (Van’s, Ada’s and Lucette’s mother) married Demon’s cousin Daniel Veen (Lucette’s father). Demon learnt of Dan’s death in the brand-new Ladore Hospital in Tent (the Antiterran name of Palatka):

Van's father had just left one Santiago to view the results of an earthquake in another, when Ladore Hospital cabled that Dan was dying. He set off at once for Manhattan, eyes blazing, wings whistling. He had not many interests in life.

At the airport of the moonlit white town we call Tent, and Tobakov's sailors, who built it, called Palatka, in northern Florida, where owing to engine trouble he had to change planes, Demon made a long-distance call and received a full account of Dan's death from the inordinately circumstantial Dr Nikulin (grandson of the great rodentiologist Kunikulinov - we can't get rid of the lettuce). (2.10)

Russian for “tent,” palatka is related to palata (chamber; ward). Palata No. 6 (“Ward Six,” 1892) is a story by Chekhov. In a letter of Dec. 19, 1888, to Suvorin Chekhov describes his visit to Nadezhda Nikulin, the actress of the Moscow Malyi Theater who played Kokoshkin in Suvorin’s play Tatiana Repin (1888). The characters of Suvorin’s play include Adashev (who was played by Lenski). Kokoshkin was the name of Irina Guadanini’s step-father (in 1937 in Paris VN had a love affair with Irina, whose ancestor was a famous Italian luthier, one of the finest craftsmen of string instruments in history). Nadezhda was the name of Mandelshtam’s wife. Mandelshtam’s poem Kuda kak strashno nam s toboy… (“How terribly frightened we are…” 1930) in which tabak (tobacco) is mentioned is addressed to his wife:

Куда как страшно нам с тобой,
Товарищ большеротый мой!

Ох, как крошится наш табак,
Щелкунчик, дружок, дурак!

А мог бы жизнь просвистать скворцом,
Заесть ореховым пирогом,

Да, видно, нельзя никак...

Skvortsom (“like a starling”) in Mandelshtam’s poem brings to mind Skvortsov, a character in Chekhov’s play Tri sestry (“The Three Sisters,” 1901). Both Marina (a professional actress) and Ada appeared in Four Sisters (as Chekhov’s play is known on Antiterra):

Ada played Irina on the modest stage of the Yakima Academy of Drama in a somewhat abridged version which, for example, kept only the references to Sister Varvara, the garrulous originalka ('odd female' - as Marsha calls her) but eliminated her actual scenes, so that the title of the play might have been The Three Sisters, as indeed it appeared in the wittier of the local notices. It was the (somewhat expanded) part of the nun that Marina acted in an elaborate film version of the play; and the picture and she received a goodly amount of undeserved praise. (2.9)

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.' (ibid.)

After Van left her, Cordula de Prey marries Ivan G. Tobak, a ship-owner, descendant of Admiral Tobakov:

'I beg you, sir,' said Van, 'go down, and I'll join you in the bar as soon as I'm dressed. I'm in a delicate situation.'

'Come, come,' retorted Demon, dropping and replacing his monocle. 'Cordula won't mind.'

'It's another, much more impressionable girl' - (yet another awful fumble!). 'Damn Cordula! Cordula is now Mrs Tobak.'

'Oh, of course!' cried Demon. 'How stupid of me! I remember Ada's fiancé telling me - he and young Tobak worked for a while in the same Phoenix bank. Of course. Splendid broad-shouldered, blue-eyed, blond chap. Backbay Tobakovich!'

'I don't care,' said clenched Van, 'if he looks like a crippled, crucified, albino toad. Please, Dad, I really must -' (2.10)

Santiago and earthquake bring to mind Heinrich von Kleist’s novella “The Earthquake in Chile” (1807). In Speak, Memory (1967) VN mentions Heinrich von Kleist (1777-1811), the writer who at thirty-three had passionately fallen in love with the twelve-year-old daughter of Elizabeth von Stägemann (a celebrated beauty whose first husband was a son of the composer Carl Heinrich Graun, VN’s ancestor) and committed suicide. According to VN, Kleist was carrying out an enthusiastic suicide pact with a sick lady (Chapter Three, 1). One cannot help recalling the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact signed in Moscow, on Aug. 23, 1939. Mandelshtam (who in “Verses about the Unknown Soldier” mentions his birthday, Jan. 3, 1891, OS) died half a year earlier, on Dec. 27, 1938, in Vladivostok (in a hard labor camp). In October of 1890, on his way back from Sakhalin (formerly, the place of penal servitude), Chekhov visited Vladivostok. In a letter of Dec. 10, 1890, to Leontiev-Shcheglov Chekhov compares Sakhalin to ad (Hell) and Ceylon to ray (Paradise):

Я был и в аду, каким представляется Сахалин, и в раю, т. е. на острове Цейлоне. Какие бабочки, букашки, какие мушки, таракашки!

Chekhov quotes Krylov’s fable Lyubopytnyi (“A Curious Man”) and mentions babochki (butterflies) that he saw in Ceylon.

The name Shcheglov (of Chekhov’s friend and correspondent) comes from shchegol (goldfinch). In Mandelshtam’s poem Moy shchegol, ya golovu zakinu… (“My goldfinch, I’ll throw back my head…” 1936) the bird nizhe klyuva v krasku vlit (is red up to its bill):

Мой щегол, я голову закину, -

Поглядим на мир вдвоём.

Зимний день, колючий, как мякина,

Так ли жёстк в зрачке твоём?

Хвостик лодкой, - перья черно-жёлты,

Ниже клюва в краску влит,

Сознаёшь ли, до чего щегол ты,

До чего ты щегловит?

Что за воздух у него в надлобье -

Чёрн и красен, жёлт и бел!

В обе стороны он в оба смотрит - в обе! -

Не посмотрит - улетел!

The idiom vognat’s v krasku (played upon by Mandelshtam) means “to make somebody blush.” When Van mentions John Starling (the actor who played Skvortsov in the YAD stage version of Chekhov’s play), he makes Ada blush. Btw., YAD (the Yakima Academy of Drama) is Russian for “poison.”

Heinrich von Kleist should not be confused with the poet Ewald Christian von Kleist (1715-59). Khristian Kleyst (“Christian Kleist,” 1932) is a poem by Mandelshtam.

Alexey Sklyarenko

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