Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0025053, Fri, 7 Feb 2014 19:19:43 +0300

Blanche, Philip Rack, Grace Erminin & Percy de Prey in Ada
Van learns about Ada's romance with Lucette's teacher of music, the German composer Philip Rack, from Blanche:

Was it she who had placed that note in his jacket?
It was. She had been unable to face departure if he was to remain fooled, deceived, betrayed. She added, in naive brackets, that she had been sure he always desired her, they could talk afterwards. Je suis a toi, c'est bientot l'aube, your dream has come true.
'Parlez pour vous,' answered Van. 'I am in no mood for love-making. And I will strangle you, I assure you, if you do not tell me the whole story in every detail, at once.'
She nodded, fear and adoration in her veiled eyes. When and how had it started? Last August, she said. Votre demoiselle picking flowers, he squiring her through the tall grass, a flute in his hand. Who he? What flute? Mais le musicien allemand, Monsieur Rack. The eager informer had her own swain lying upon her on the other side of the hedge. How anybody could do it with l'immonde Monsieur Rack, who once forgot his waistcoat in a haystack, was beyond the informer's comprehension. (1.41)

The name Philip Rack seems to hint at the Spanish Inquisition. And the name Blanche probably refers to Alba, as Chekhov called his friend and fellow writer Ivan Leontiev-Shcheglov (who dubbed Chekhov "Egmont," after the title character of a tragedy by Goethe; Duke of Alba is a character in Egmont) because of his "inquisitorial" hand-writing:

Милый Альба! Называю Вас так, потому что Ваш трагический почерк — последнее слово инквизиции. Он, пока я прочёл Ваше письмо, вывихнул мне глаза.
(a letter of January 1, 1888, to Leontiev-Shcheglov)

Egmont, Op. 84, by Ludwig van Beethoven, is a set of incidental music pieces for the 1787 play by J. W. von Goethe. It was composed during the period of the Napoleonic Wars, at a time when the French Empire had extended its domination over most of Europe, and was premiered on 15 June 1810.

Poisoned by his jealous wife, Rack dies in Ward Five ("where hopeless cases were kept") of the Kalugano hospital (1.42). Chekhov is the author of Ward No. 6 (1892). 5 + 6 = 11. Russian loto players call the arabic number eleven barabannye palochki ("the drumsticks"). One of Klarchen’s songs in Beethoven's Egmont is “Die Trommel geruhret” (“The drum is a-stirring”).

Grace Erminin's first boyfriend is a young drummer:

Ada had declined to invite anybody except the Erminin twins to her picnic; but she had had no intention of inviting the brother without the sister. The latter, it turned out, could not come, having gone to New Cranton to see a young drummer, her first boy friend, sail off into the sunrise with his regiment. (1.39)

Eventually Greg's twin sister marries a Wellington: So little did the world realize the real state of affairs that even Cordula Tobak, born de Prey, and Grace Wellington, born Erminin, spoke of Demon Veen, with his fashionable goatee and frilled shirtfront, as 'Van's successor.' (2.6)

Wellington defeated Napoleon in the battle of Waterloo. (Btw., in a letter of 2 December 1898 to his sister Chekhov jokingly calls the watercloset in his house "waterloo.")

Another lover of Ada, Count Percy de Prey, goes, like Grace's boyfriend, to the Crimean War and perishes on the second day of the invasion:

(Bill Fraser, the son of Judge Fraser, of Wellington, witnessed Lieutenant de Prey's end from a blessed ditch overgrown with cornel and medlar, but, of course, could do nothing to help the leader of his platoon and this for a number of reasons which he conscientiously listed in his report but which it would be much too tedious and embarrassing to itemize here. Percy had been shot in the thigh during a skirmish with Khazar guerillas in a ravine near Chew-Foot-Calais, as the American troops pronounced 'Chufutkale,' the name of a fortified rock. He had, immediately assured himself, with the odd relief of the doomed, that he had got away with a flesh wound. Loss of blood caused him to faint, as we fainted, too, as soon as he started to crawl or rather squirm toward the shelter of the oak scrub and spiny bushes, where another casualty was resting comfortably. When a couple of minutes later, Percy - still Count Percy de Prey - regained consciousness he was no longer alone on his rough bed of gravel and grass. A smiling old Tartar, incongruously but somehow assuagingly wearing American blue-jeans with his beshmet, was squatting by his side. 'Bedniy, bedniy' (you poor, poor fellow), muttered the good soul, shaking his shaven head and clucking: 'Bol'no (it hurts)?' Percy answered in his equally primitive Russian that he did not feel too badly wounded: 'Karasho, karasho ne bol'no (good, good),' said the kindly old man and, picking up the automatic pistol which Percy had dropped, he examined it with naive pleasure and then shot him in the temple. (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.) (1.42)

When Van visits poor dying Rack in his Ward Five, the latter tells him:

'Because I sent my last flute melody, and a letter for all the family, and no answer has come. I must vomit now. I ring myself.' (ibid.)

In German ringen means "to struggle." Goethe said (in a poem in West ostlicher Divan): Ein Mensch sein hei?t ein Kampfer sein ("To be a man means be a fighter"). Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 is also known as the Eroica.

Alexey Sklyarenko

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