Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0026999, Sun, 15 May 2016 19:07:10 +0300

point of insanity, music, conscience & Gamlet in Ada
She walked swiftly toward him across the iridescently glistening lawn. 'Van,' she said, 'I must tell you my dream before I forget. You and I were high up in the Alps - Why on earth are you wearing townclothes?'

'Well, I'll tell you,' drawled dreamy Van. 'I'll tell you why. From a humble but reliable sauce, I mean source, excuse my accent, I have just learned qu'on vous culbute behind every hedge. Where can I find your tumbler?'

'Nowhere,' she answered quite calmly, ignoring or not even perceiving his rudeness, for she had always known that disaster would come today or tomorrow, a question of time or rather timing on the part of fate.

'But he exists, he exists,' muttered Van, looking down at a rainbow web on the turf.

'I suppose so,' said the haughty child, 'however, he left yesterday for some Greek or Turkish port. Moreover, he was going to do everything to get killed, if that information helps. Now listen, listen! Those walks in the woods meant nothing. Wait, Van! I was weak only twice when you had hurt him so hideously, or perhaps three times in all. Please! I can't explain in one gush, but eventually you will understand. Not everybody is as happy as we are. He's a poor, lost, clumsy boy. We are all doomed, but some are more doomed than others. He is nothing to me. I shall never see him again. He is nothing, I swear. He adores me to the point of insanity.'

'I think,' said Van, 'we've got hold of the wrong lover. I was asking about Herr Rack, who has such delectable gums and also adores you to the point of insanity.' (1.41)

One of Ada’s lovers who adores her to the point of insanity, Philip Rack is Lucette’s teacher of music. In his poem Mozhet byt’, eto tochka bezumiya… (“May be, it is the point of insanity…” 1937) Mandelshtam mentions napolnennyi muzykoy dom (the house filled with music):

Может быть, это точка безумия,
Может быть, это совесть твоя —
Узел жизни, в котором мы узнаны
И развязаны для бытия.

Так соборы кристаллов сверхжизненных
Добросовестный луч-паучок,
Распуская на рёбра, их сызнова
Собирает в единый пучок.

Чистых линий пучки благодарные,
Направляемы тихим лучом,
Соберутся, сойдутся когда-нибудь,
Словно гости с открытым челом, —

Только здесь, на земле, а не на небе,
Как в наполненный музыкой дом, —
Только их не спугнуть, не изранить бы —
Хорошо, если мы доживём...

То, что я говорю, мне прости...
Тихо-тихо его мне прочти...

This may well be the point of insanity,
Or your conscience, the life-knot wherein,
Understood with remarkable clarity,
We’re untied for the purpose of being.

With a similar patient precision
Are cathedrals of crystalline life,
First unraveled to ribs, spun back up again
By the diligent spider of light.

Grateful bundles of linear purity,
Guided on by a delicate ray,
At some point will regain perfect unity,
Friendly guests on a generous day –

But right here on this earth – not in heaven –
In a home filled with music and bliss.
Let’s take pains not to frighten or maim them.
It’d be lovely to live to see this...

Do not blame me for what I’ve said,
Read it softly to me instead.

(transl. Ph. Nikolayev)

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!..

Describing the performance in which Marina (Van’s, Ada’s and Lucette’s mother) played the heroine, Van mentions “an invisible sign of Dionysian origin:”

Even before the old Eskimo had shuffled off with the message, Demon Veen had left his pink velvet chair and proceeded to win the wager, the success of his enterprise being assured by the fact that Marina, a kissing virgin, had been in love with him since their last dance on New Year’s Eve. Moreover, the tropical moonlight she had just bathed in, the penetrative sense of her own beauty, the ardent pulses of the imagined maiden, and the gallant applause of an almost full house made her especially vulnerable to the tickle of Demon’s moustache. She 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)

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 her memoir essay on Marina Tsvetaev (Novyi Zhurnal, 1967) Zinaida Shakhovskoy mentions Dionysus:

Для неё — Поэт «никогда не атеист, всегда многобожец, с той только разницей, что высшие знают старшего… Большинство же и этого не знает и слепо чередуют Христа с Дионисом, не понимая, что уже сопоставление этих имён — кощунство и святотатство».

According to Shakhovskoy, for Marina Tsvetaev the Poet is always a polytheist (but the majority blindly alternates Christ with Dionysus not realizing that a mere confrontation of these names is blasphemous and sacrilegious).

Zinaida Shakhovskoy quotes Marina Tsvetaev’s essay Iskusstvo pri svete sovesti ("Art in the Light of Conscience," 1932) in which svyatost' (holiness) is defined as a state opposite of grekh (sin):

Что такое святость? Святость есть состояние, обратное греху, греха современность не знает, понятие грех современность замещает понятием вред. Стало быть, о святости искусства у атеиста речи быть не может, он будет говорить либо о пользе искусства, либо о красоте искусства. Посему, настаиваю, речь моя обращена исключительно к тем, для кого — Бог — грех — святость — есть.

In her memoir essay Mat’ i muzyka (“Mother and Music,” 1934) Marina Tsvetaev compares the grand piano in her Moscow house to a hippopotamus:

И ещё — сама фигура рояля, в детстве мнившаяся мне окаменелым звериным чудовищем, гиппопотамом, помнится, не из-за вида, — я их никогда не видала! — а из-за звука, гиппопо (само тулово), а хвост — там.

To Lucette’s question “are we Mesopotamians?” Van replies that we are Hippopotamians:

'The Romans,' said Greg, 'the Roman colonists, who crucified Christian Jews and Barabbits, and other unfortunate people in the old days, did not touch pork either, but I certainly do and so did my grandparents.'

Lucette was puzzled by a verb Greg had used. To illustrate it for her, Van joined his ankles, spread both his arms horizontally, and rolled up his eyes.

'When I was a little girl,' said Marina crossly, 'Mesopotamian history was taught practically in the nursery.'

'Not all little girls can learn what they are taught,' observed Ada.

'Are we Mesopotamians?' asked Lucette.

'We are Hippopotamians,' said Van. 'Come,' he added, 'we have not yet ploughed today.' (1.14)

In the scripture examination at school Anfim Baryba, the main character in Zamyatin's tale Uezdnoe ("In the Backwoods," 1912), mentions mesopotamy ("the Mesopotamuses") and other antediluvian animals that lived in paradise, a huge garden between Tigris and Euphrates:

На первых партах подсказчики зашептали:

-- Тигр и Ефрат... Сад, в котором жили... Месопотамия. Ме-со-по-та... Чёрт глухой!

Барыба заговорил -- одно за другим стал откалывать, как камни, слова -- тяжкие, редкие.

-- Адам и Ева. Между Тигром и... этим... Ефратом. Рай был огромный сад. В котором водились месопотамы. И другие животные...

Поп кивнул, как будто очень ласково. Барыба приободрился.

-- Это кто же-с месопотамы-то? А, Анфим? Объясни-ка нам Анфимушка.

-- Месопотамы... Это такие. Допотопные звери. Очень хищные. И вот в раю они. Жили рядом...

Поп хрюкал от смеха и прикрывался отогнутой кверху бородой, ребята полегли на парты. (Chapter 1: "Quadrangular")

In a letter (published by Simon Karlinsky in Novyi Zhurnal, 1967, #89) of March 13, 1937, to Khodasevich and his wife Olga Margolin Marina Tsvetaev describes Zamyatin's funeral at a cemetery near Paris:

С горечью и благодарностью думала об этом вчера на свежей могиле Замятина, с этими (мысленными) словами бросила ему щепотку глины на гроб. – Почему не были?? Из писателей была только я – да и то писательница. Ещё другая писательница была Даманская. Было ужасно, растравительно бедно – и людьми и цветами, – богато только глиной и ветрами – четырьмя встречными.

In the same letter of March 13 Marina Tsvetaev says that Monday, March 15, is the day of her daughter’s departure for the USSR:

Не дивитесь моему молчанию – Аля уезжает в понедельник, т. е. послезавтра, весь дом и весь день сведён с ума – завалы вещей – последние закупки и поручения, – неописуемо. Как только уедет – я ваша.

The decision to leave France proved fatal for Marina Tsvetaev (who did not know that her husband was a double agent).

In VN’s poem Slava (“Fame,” 1942) the author’s visitor mentions emigrantskoe kladbishche (émigré churchyard):

Повторяй же за мной, дабы в сладостной язве

до конца, до небес доскрестись: никогда,

никогда не мелькнёт моё имя -- иль разве

(как в трагических тучах мелькает звезда)

в специальном труде, в примечанье к названью

эмигрантского кладбища, и наравне

с именами собратьев по правописанью,

обстоятельством места навязанных мне.

“So repeat after me (as one rakes a delicious

sore to get to the end, to its heaven): Not once,

not once will my name come up briefly, save maybe

– as a star briefly passing in tragic clouds –

in a specialist’s work, in a note to the title

of some émigré churchyard and on a par

with the names of my co-orthographical brethren

which a matter of locus had forced upon me.”

In Slava VN mentions his sovest’ (Conscience):

Я счастлив, что совесть моя,

сонных мыслей и умыслов сводня,

не затронула самого тайного.

I’m happy that Conscience, the pimp

of my sleepy reflections and projects

did not get at the critical secret.

When Dick C. offered him an introduction to the Venus Villa Club, Van tussles with his slightly overweight conscience and accepts Dick’s offer:

Van fumed and fretted the rest of the morning, and after a long soak in a hot bath (the best adviser, and prompter and inspirer in the world, except, of course, the W.C. seat) decided to pen - pen is the word - a note of apology to the cheated cheater. As he was dressing, a messenger brought him a note from Lord C. (he was a cousin of one of Van's Riverlane schoolmates), in which generous Dick proposed to substitute for his debt an introduction to the Venus Villa Club to which his whole clan belonged. Such a bounty no boy of eighteen could hope to obtain. It was a ticket to paradise. Van tussled with his slightly overweight conscience (both grinning like old pals in their old gymnasium) - and accepted Dick's offer. (1.28)

At the end of Slava VN says that he prefers “to stay godless, with fetterless soul / in a world that is swarming with godheads:”

Не доверясь соблазнам дороги большой

или снам, освящённым веками,

остаюсь я безбожником с вольной душой

в этом мире, кишащем богами.

In his poem VN mentions Akakiy Akakievich, the pathetic main character in Gogol’s story Shinel’ (“The Overcoat,” 1842):

Есть вещи, вещи,

которые... даже... (Акакий Акакиевич

любил, если помните, "плевелы речи",

и он как Наречье, мой гость восковой),

и сердце просится, и сердце мечется,

и я не могу.

There are matters, matters

which, so to speak, even… (Akakiy Akakievich

had a weakness, if you remember, for “weed words,”

and he’s like an Adverb, my waxy guest),

and my heart keeps pressing, my heart keeps tossing,

and I can’t any more…

Another lover of Ada who adores her to the point of insanity, Percy de Prey is linked to Gogol’s Akakiy Akakievich and to ‘Malbrook.’ In her drafts (Svodnye tetradi, 1928-31) Marina Tsvetaev quotes the song about Malbrook:

Мальбрук в поход собрался

— Mironton — mironton — mirontaine —

Мальбрук в поход собрался —


Malbrook prepared to fight a campaign

- Mironton-mironton-mirontaine -

Malbrook prepared to fight a campaign -


Van regrets that he refused to fight a duel with Percy de Prey:

Maidenhair. Idiot! Percy boy might have been buried by now! (1.41)

In Gogol’s Myortvye dushi ( Dead Souls, 1842) Nozdryov’s barrel organ plays the song “Malbrough Went Off to War.” The name Nozdryov comes from nozdrya (nostril). In VN’s Slava the author’s mysterious visitor has soot-stuffed red nostrils:

И вот, как на колёсиках, вкатывается ко мне некто

восковой, поджарый, с копотью в красных ноздрях,

и сижу, и решить не могу: человек это

или просто так -- разговорчивый прах.

And now there rolls in, as on casters, a character

waxlike, lean-loined, with red nostrils soot-stuffed

and I sit and cannot decide: is it human

or nothing special - just garrulous dust?

In Slava the author’s visitor attempts to seduce his host with dacha v Alushte (a villa near Yalta):

И виденье: на родине. Мастер. Надменность.

Непреклонность. Но тронуть не смеют. Порой

перевод иль отрывок. Поклонники. Ценность

европейская. Дача в Алуште. Герой".

“And a vision: you are in your country. Great writer.

Proud. Unyielding. But no one dares touch you. At times,

a translation or fragment. Admirers. All Europe

esteems you. A villa near Yalta. A hero.”

After Van’s scuffle with Percy de Prey, Ada calls Van “my hero:”

Ada strolled up. 'My hero,' she said, hardly looking at him, with that inscrutable air she had that let one guess whether she expressed sarcasm or ecstasy, or a parody of one or the other. (1.39)

Percy de Prey goes to the war with Tartars and perishes in the Crimea. Van learns about Percy’s death from Cordula de Prey (Percy’s second cousin):

'My mother rang me up from Malorukino' (their country estate at Malbrook, Mayne): 'the local papers said you had fought a duel. You look a tower of health, I'm so glad. I knew something nasty must have happened because little Russel, Dr Platonov's grandson - remember? - saw you from his side of the train beating up an officer on the station platform. But, first of all, Van, net, pozhaluysta, on nas vidit (no, please, he sees us), I have some very bad news for you. Young Fraser, who has just been flown back from Yalta, saw Percy killed on the second day of the invasion, less than a week after they had left Goodson airport. He will tell you the whole story himself, it accumulates more and more dreadful details with every telling, Fraser does not seem to have shined in the confusion, that's why, I suppose, he keeps straightening things out.' (1.42)

Van compares Percy’s death to a suite for flute and mentions the Roman deity whom Bill Fraser prayed:

One wonders, one always wonders, what had been the executed individual's brief, rapid series of impressions, as preserved somewhere, somehow, in some vast library of microfilmed last thoughts, between two moments: between, in the present case, our friend's becoming aware of those nice, quasi-Red Indian little wrinkles beaming at him out of a serene sky not much different from Ladore's, and then feeling the mouth of steel violently push through tender skin and exploding bone. One supposes it might have been a kind of suite for flute, a series of 'movements' such as, say: I'm alive - who's that? - civilian - sympathy - thirsty - daughter with pitcher - that's my damned gun - don't... et cetera or rather no cetera... while Broken-Arm Bill prayed his Roman deity in a frenzy of fear for the Tartar to finish his job and go. But, of course, an invaluable detail in that strip of thought would have been - perhaps, next to the pitcher peri - a glint, a shadow, a stab of Ardis. (ibid.)

In 1901, when Van meets Greg Erminin in Paris (also known on Antiterra as Lute), Greg confesses that he, too, was madly in love with Ada and recalls her dead lovers:

'I last saw you thirteen years ago, riding a black pony - no, a black Silentium. Bozhe moy!'

'Yes - Bozhe moy, you can well say that. Those lovely, lovely agonies in lovely Ardis! Oh, I was absolyutno bezumno (madly) in love with your cousin!'

'You mean Miss Veen? I did not know it. How long -'

'Neither did she. I was terribly -'

'How long are you staying -'

'- terribly shy, because, of course, I realized that I could not compete with her numerous boy friends.'

Numerous? Two? Three? Is it possible he never heard about the main one? All the rose hedges knew, all the maids knew, in all three manors. The noble reticence of our bed makers.

'How long will you be staying in Lute? No, Greg, I ordered it. You pay for the next bottle. Tell me -'

'So odd to recall! It was frenzy, it was fantasy, it was reality in the x degree. I'd have consented to be beheaded by a Tartar, I declare, if in exchange I could have kissed her instep. You were her cousin, almost a brother, you can't understand that obsession. Ah, those picnics! And Percy de Prey who boasted to me about her, and drove me crazy with envy and pity, and Dr Krolik, who, they said, also loved her, and Phil Rack, a composer of genius - dead, dead, all dead!'

'I really know very little about music but it was a great pleasure to make your chum howl. I have an appointment in a few minutes, alas. Za tvoyo zdorovie, Grigoriy Akimovich.'

'Arkadievich,' said Greg, who had let it pass once but now mechanically corrected Van. (3.2)

In “Ardis the Second” Van refused to visit Dr Krolik’s grave:

And perhaps, worst of all, that time when she [Ada] stood fiddling with a bunch of wild flowers, a gentle half-smile hanging back quite neutrally in her eyes, her lips pursed, her head making imprecise little movements as if punctuating with self-directed nods secret decisions and silent clauses in some sort of contract with herself, with him, with unknown parties hereinafter called Comfortless, Inutile, Unjust - while he indulged in a brutal outburst triggered by her suggesting - quite sweetly and casually (as she might suggest walking a little way on the edge of a bog to see if a certain orchid was out) - that they visit the late Krolik's grave in a churchyard by which they were passing - and he had suddenly started to shout ('You know I abhor churchyards, I despise, I denounce death, dead bodies are burlesque, I refuse to stare at a stone under which a roly-poly old Pole is rotting, let him feed his maggots in peace, the entomologies of death leave me cold, I detest, I despise -'); he went on ranting that way for a couple of minutes and then literally fell at her feet, kissing her feet, imploring her pardon, and for a little while longer she kept gazing at him pensively. (1.41)

A roly-poly old Pole who feeds his maggots in peace hints at Polonius, in Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1601) Ophelia’s and Laertes’ father whom Hamlet kills by mistake. In Shakespeare’s play Hamlet (whose father was killed by Claudius, Hamlet’s uncle) imitates madness and Ophelia goes mad after her father’s death. Hamlet compares himself to a recorder that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern want to play upon:


I do not well understand that. Will you play upon this pipe?


My lord, I cannot.


I pray you.

Believe me, I cannot.

I do beseech you.

I know no touch of it, my lord.

'Tis as easy as lying: govern these ventages with your lingers and thumb, give it breath with your mouth, and it will discourse most eloquent music. Look you, these are the stops.

But these cannot I command to any utterance of harmony; I have not the skill.

Why, look you now, how unworthy a thing you make of me! You would play upon me; you would seem to know my stops; you would pluck out the heart of my mystery; you would sound me from my lowest note to the top of my compass: and there is much music, excellent voice, in this little organ; yet cannot you make it speak. 'Sblood, do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe? Call me what instrument you will, though you can fret me, yet you cannot play upon me. (Act Three, scene 2)

Philip Rack is a flutist. Van compares Ada (and later Lucette) to mad Ophelia and Pedro (Marina’s lover whom Van suspects of courting Ada), to Claudius:

Was she really beautiful? Was she at least what they call attractive? She was exasperation, she was torture. The silly girl had heaped her hair under a rubber cap, and this gave an unfamiliar, vaguely clinical look to her neck, with its odd dark wisps and strags, as if she had obtained a nurse's job and would never dance again. Her faded, bluish-gray, one-piece swimsuit had a spot of grease and a hole above one hip - nibbled through, one might conjecture, by a tallow-starved larva - and seemed much too short for careless comfort. She smelled of damp cotton, axillary tufts, and nenuphars, like mad Ophelia. None of those minor matters would have annoyed Van, had she and he been alone together; but the presence of the all-male actor made everything obscene, drab and insupportable. We move back to the lip of the pool. (1.32)

In the meantime, Herr Rack swam up again and joined Ada on the edge of the pool, almost losing his baggy trunks in the process of an amphibious heave.

'Permit me, Ivan, to get you also a nice cold Russian kok?' said Pedro - really a very gentle and amiable youth at heart. 'Get yourself a cocoanut,' replied nasty Van, testing the poor faun, who did not get it, in any sense, and, giggling pleasantly, went back to his mat. Claudius, at least, did not court Ophelia. (ibid.)

Marina Tsvetaev is the author of Dialog Gamleta s sovest’yu (“Hamlet’s Dialogue with his Conscience,” 1923):

— На дне она, где ил
И водоросли… Спать в них
Ушла, — но сна и там нет!
— Но я её любил,
Как сорок тысяч братьев
Любить не могут!
‎— Гамлет!

На дне она, где ил:
Ил!.. И последний венчик
Всплыл на приречных брёвнах…
— Но я её любил
Как сорок тысяч…
‎— Меньше,
Всё ж, чем один любовник.

На дне она, где ил.
— Но я её —
‎— любил??

Gamlet is a half-Russian village near Ardis Hall:

They bounced on the cobblestones of Gamlet, a half-Russian village, and the chauffeur waved again, this time to a boy in a cherry tree. (1.5)

Poor Van shifted Ada's bottom to his right knee, blunting what used to be termed in the jargon of the torture house 'the angle of agony.' In the mournful dullness of unconsummated desire he watched a row of izbas straggle by as the calèche drove through Gamlet, a hamlet. (1.13)

Anfim = nimfa

Barabbits + Baryba = baba + rabbits + ryba

Nabokov + slava + plot = bank + slovo/volos + Poltava

nimfa – nymph

baba – married peasant woman; old woman; in the last sentence of Zamyatin’s Uezdnoe Baryba is compared to kamennaya baba (a ridiculous stone image): Будто и не человек шёл, а старая воскресшая курганная баба, нелепая русская каменная баба

ryba – fish

plot – raft

slovo – word

volos – a hair

Poltava – a poem (1829) by Pushkin

Alexey Sklyarenko

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