Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0026913, Mon, 21 Mar 2016 18:46:39 +0300

L disaster, Terra, old Paar of Chose & rosy aurora in Ada
The details of the L disaster (and I do not mean Elevated) in the beau
milieu of last century, which had the singular effect of both causing and
cursing the notion of 'Terra,' are too well-known historically, and too
obscene spiritually, to be treated at length in a book addressed to young
laymen and lemans - and not to grave men or gravemen.

Of course, today, after anti-L years of reactionary delusion have gone by
(more or less!) and our sleek little machines, Faragod bless them, hum again
after a fashion, as they did in the first half of the nineteenth century,
the mere geographic aspect of the affair possesses its redeeming comic side,
like those patterns of brass marquetry, and bric-à-Braques, and the ormolu
horrors that meant 'art' to our humorless forefathers. For, indeed, none can
deny the presence of something highly ludicrous in the very configurations
that were solemnly purported to represent a varicolored map of Terra. (1.3)

The Antiterran L disaster seems to correspond to the mock execution of
Dostoevski and the Petrashevskians that in our world happened on Jan. 3,
1850 (NS), right in the middle of the 19th century. L is Lucette’s initial,
and Lucette (Van’s and Ada’s half-sister) was born on Jan. 3, 1876. On the
other hand, L in the mysterious disaster’s name seems to hint at
electricity (which was banned on Antiterra, aka Demonia, after the L

In Vlast’ idey (“The Power of Ideas,” 1905), a review of the second
volume of Merezhkovski’s “Tolstoy and Dostoevski” (1902), Lev Shestov
quotes in full Zinaida Hippius’ poem Elektrichestvo (“Electricity”):

А теперь спросим, наконец, в чём же послед
ний синтез г. Мережковского? У него на это
т вопрос есть очень определённый ответ: в
чём другом, а в неясности его упрекнуть не
льзя. Уже с начала 5-й главы он приводит ст
ихотворение З.Н. Гиппиус - "Электричество",
стихотворение, которое ему кажется до так
ой степени полно и удачно выражающим его
основную мысль, что он заключительные его
строки цитирует до десяти раз. Стихотворе
ние небольшое, и я его приведу целиком вви
ду той значительной роли, которую оно игр
ает в книге г. Мережковского.

Две нити вместе свиты,
Концы обнажены.
То "да" и "нет" не слиты,
Не слиты - сплетены.
Их тёмное сплетенье
И тесно и мертво;
Но ждёт их воскресенье,
И ждут они его:
Концы соприкоснутся,
Проснутся "да" и "нет".
И "да", и "нет" сольются,
И смерть их будет свет. (chapter VI)

As pointed out by Shestov (the philosopher whose penname comes from shest’,
“six”), in his book Merezhkovski (Hippius’ husband) quotes up to ten
times the poem’s closing lines: “and ‘yes’ and ‘no’ will merge, / and
their death will be a light”. The title of Shestov’s essay hints at
Tolstoy’s play Vlast’ t’my (“The Power of Darkness,” 1887) \xa8C but also
brings to mind Vlast’ zemli (“The Power of the Land,” 1882), a collection
of sketches by Gleb Uspenski (1843-1902), the writer who, like poor Garshin
(the author of “Four Days” and “The Red Flower”), went mad. Terra is
Latin for “land.” Aqua (Marina’s poor mad twin sister) passionately
believed in the existence of Terra (Demonia’s twin planet):

Actually, Aqua was less pretty, and far more dotty, than Marina. During her
fourteen years of miserable marriage she spent a broken series of steadily
increasing sojourns in sanatoriums. A small map of the European part of the
British Commonwealth - say, from Scoto-Scandinavia to the Riviera, Altar and
Palermontovia - as well as most of the U.S.A., from Estoty and Canady to
Argentina, might be quite thickly prickled with enameled red-cross-flag
pins, marking, in her War of the Worlds, Aqua's bivouacs. She had plans at
one time to seek a modicum of health ('just a little grayishness, please,
instead of the solid black') in such Anglo-American protectorates as the
Balkans and Indias, and might even have tried the two Southern Continents
that thrive under our joint dominion. Of course, Tartary, an independent
inferno, which at the time spread from the Baltic and Black seas to the
Pacific Ocean, was touristically unavailable, though Yalta and Altyn Tagh
sounded strangely attractive... But her real destination was Terra the Fair
and thither she trusted she would fly on libellula long wings when she died.

Shestov’s essay has for epigraph the opening and closing lines of Paul
Verlaine’s poem Art Poétique (1885):

De la musique avant toute chose...
Et tout le reste est littérature.

Of music before everything…

And all the rest is literature.

Chose (Fr., “thing”) is Van’s English University (1.28, et passim). One
of Van’s Professors there is old Paar of Chose:

As Van Veen himself was to find out, at the time of his passionate research
in terrology (then a branch of psychiatry) even the deepest thinkers, the
purest philosophers, Paar of Chose and Zapater of Aardvark, were emotionally
divided in their attitude toward the possibility that there existed ‘a
distortive glass of our distorted glebe’ as a scholar who desires to remain
unnamed has put it with such euphonic wit. (Hm! Kveree-kveree, as poor Mlle
L. used to say to Gavronsky. In Ada's hand.) (1.3)

“Paar of Chose” and “old Paar” (as he is referred to elsewhere) hint at
the phrase “old pair of shoes” that brings to mind Bashmachkin, the main
character in Gogol’s story Shinel’ (“The Overcoat,” 1841) whose surname
comes from bashmak (shoe). According to a phrase attributed to Dostoevski ,
“we all [the Russian novelists] came out from Gogol’s Overcoat.”

Tolstoy’s and Uspenki’s first names, Lev (Leo) and Gleb, bring to mind Lev
Glebovich Ganin, the main character in VN’s first novel Mashen’ka
(“Mary,” 1926). Van’s juvenile novel Letters from Terra (2.2) looks like
a parody of Dostoevski’s first novel (written in an epistolary form) Bednye
Lyudi (“Poor Folk,” 1846) and of VN’s own Mashen’ka. Van’s penname,
Voltemand, hints at the courtier in Shakespeare’s Hamlet \xa8C but also
suggests volte-face (a turnabout, reversal of opinion or policy; at Chose
Van begins to perform in variety shows dancing on his hands), a term that
brings to mind salto mortale and “leaps of thought” mentioned by Shestov
in the same chapter (practically in the same paragraph) of his review of
Merezhkovski’s book:

И заглушив в себе природную эстетическую
чуткость, г. Мережковский бесконечно повт
оряет "Электричество", не соображая, что п
ри многократном чтении даже неопытный чи
татель может догадаться, что "Электричест
во" - слабая вещь. По содержанию "Электриче
ства" уже видно, каких "выводов" добиваетс
я г. Мережковский. Подобно всем идеалиста
м, и он убеждён, что звание писателя обязы
вает его сделать знаменитое salto mortale, - пер
ескочить через всю жизнь к светлой идее. Н
о salto mortale поражает только у акробатов. Зде
сь на самом деле отчаянный прыжок заставл
яет биться человеческие сердца. Мы боимся
за смелого гимнаста и с стеснённым дыхани
ем следим за его движениями. В области же
мысли прыжки - самый безопасный, а потому
мало на кого действующий приём. И даже обе
щание света, кажется, никого уже не прельщ
ает. Боже, сколько раз нам уже говорили об
этом свете, и как бы нам хотелось, чтоб хот
ь на время прекратились светлые разговор

Voltemand’s novel is negatively reviewed by the First Clown in Elsinore (a
distinguished London weekly). VN’s novels Mashen’ka, Korol’, dama, valet
(“King, Queen, Knave,” 1928) and Zashchita Luzhina (“The Luzhin
Defense,” 1930) were criticized by G. Ivanov (a good poet who wrote bad
prose, including Raspad atoma, “Disintegration of an Atom,” 1938, a little
book highly praised by Merezhkovski) in an offensive article. As a poet
Ivanov was especially influenced by Blok and Hippius. One of his poems, Ni
svetlym imenem bogov… (“Neither in the Bright Name of Gods…” 1931), is
an elaboration of Hippius’ “Electricity:”

Ни светлым именем богов,

Ни тёмным именем природы!

...Ещё у этих берегов

Шумят деревья, плещут воды..

Мир оплывает, как свеча,

И пламя пальцы обжигает.

Бессмертной музыкой звуча,

Он ширится и погибает.

И тьма ― уже не тьма, а свет.

И да ― уже не да, а нет.

...И не восстанут из гробов

И не вернут былой свободы ―

Ни светлым именем богов,

Ни тёмным именем природы!

Она прекрасна, эта мгла.

Она похожа на сиянье.

Добра и зла, добра и зла

В ней неразрывное слиянье.

Добра и зла, добра и зла

Смысл, раскаленный добела.

“And darkness isn’t darkness anymore, but light.

And yes is not anymore yes, but no.”

In his poem Ivanov compares the world to a candle and mentions its immortal
music. In another poem Ivanov (whom VN used to call shuler, “a cardsharp”)
stole Grigoriy Landau’s aphorism primer tavtologii: “bednye lyudi” (an
example of tautology: “poor people”). Bednye lyudi is the title of
Dostoevski’s first novel. On the other hand, in the old Russian alphabet
the letter L was called lyudi. Thus, in a draft of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin
Tatiana Larin signs her letter to Onegin (written in French) with her
initials: Tvyordo, Lyudi.

At Chose Van plays poker with a shuler:

'Same here, Dick,' said Van. 'Pity you had to rely on your crystal balls. I
have often wondered why the Russian for it - I think we have a Russian
ancestor in common - is the same as the German for "schoolboy," minus the
umlaut' - and while prattling thus, Van refunded with a rapidly written
check the ecstatically astonished Frenchmen. Then he collected a handful of
cards and chips and hurled them into Dick's face. The missiles were still in
flight when he regretted that cruel and commonplace bewgest, for the
wretched fellow could not respond in any conceivable fashion, and just sat
there covering one eye and examining his damaged spectacles with the other -
it was also bleeding a little - while the French twins were pressing upon
him two handkerchiefs which he kept good-naturedly pushing away. Rosy aurora
was shivering in green Serenity Court. Laborious old Chose. (1.28)

Avrora (“Aurora,” 1934) is a story by G. Ivanov. At the end of his poem
Vzdokhni, vzdokhni eshchyo, chtob dushu vzvolnovat’… (“Sigh, sigh again
so as to agitate the soul…”) Ivanov mentions roses that cold aurora sheds
from the darkness:

Нам гибель суждена, и погибаем мы

За губы лживые, за солнце взора,

За этот свет, и лёд, и розы, что из тьмы

Струит холодная Аврора...

“Green Serenity Court” brings to mind Sirin, VN’s Russian nom de plume.

Alexey Sklyarenko

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