Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0025147, Mon, 3 Mar 2014 00:26:36 +0300

Letters from Terra & L disaster 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.
...It was owing, among other things, to this ‘scientifically ungraspable’ concourse of divergences that minds bien ranges (not apt to unhobble hobgoblins) rejected Terra as a fad or a fantom, and deranged minds (ready to plunge into any abyss) accepted it in support and token of their own irrationality.
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.)
...But her [Aqua's] real destination was Terra the Fair and thither she trusted she would fly on libellula long wings when she died. Her poor little letters from the homes of madness to her husband were sometimes signed: Madame Shchemyashchikh-Zvukov (‘Heart rending-Sounds’). (1.3)

Ada is set on Demonia (or Antiterra), the twin planet of Earth (or Terra). Letters from Terra is Van Veen's first novel:

Ada's letters breathed, writhed, lived; Van's Letters from Terra, ‘a philosophical novel,' showed no sign of life whatsoever.
(I disagree, it's a nice, nice little book! Ada's note.)
He had written it involuntarily, so to speak, not caring a dry fig for literary fame. Neither did pseudonymity tickle him in reverse - as it did when he danced on his hands.
...Poor Van! In his struggle to keep the writer of the letters from Terra strictly separate from the image of Ada, he gilt and carmined Theresa until she became a paragon of banality. This Theresa maddened with her messages a scientist on our easily maddened planet; his anagram-looking name, Sig Leymanksi, had been partly derived by Van from that of Aqua's last doctor. When Leymanski's obsession turned into love, and one's sympathy got focused on his enchanting, melancholy, betrayed wife (nee Antilia Glems), our author found himself confronted with the distressful task of now stamping out in Antilia, a born brunette, all traces of Ada, thus reducing yet another character to a dummy with bleached hair. (2.2)

The writer of the letters from Terra is a namesake of "Tereza" (a Finnish woman whose real name we never learn), a character in Dostoevski's first novel (written in the epistolary form) Bednye lyudi ("Poor Folk," 1846). "Tereza"* is the old servant woman who acts as a postman bringing Makar Devushkin's letters to Varen'ka Dobrosyolov and Varen'ka's letters to Makar. In the old Russian alphabet the letter L was called lyudi. The Antiterran L disaster in the beau milieu of last century seems to correspond to the mock execution of Dostoevski (the author of The Double, 1848) and the Petrashevskians on 3 January 1850 (NS) in St. Petersburg. January 3, 1876, is Lucette's birthday.

Letters from Terra, by Voltemand, came out in 1891 on Van's twenty-first birthday, under the imprint of two bogus houses, ‘Abencerage' in Manhattan, and ‘Zegris' in London.
(Had I happened to see a copy I would have recognized Chateaubriand's lapochka and hence your little paw, at once.) (ibid.)

The Abencerages and Zegris are the famalies of Granada Moors whose feud inspired Chateaubriand (Darkbloom, "Notes to Ada"). In Don Juan's Last Fling, the movie Van and Lucette watch - just before Lucette's suicide - in Tobakoff's cinema hall, Ada appears under the name 'Theresa Zegris:'

Because of a sort of pudeur she [Lucette] did not inform them [the Robinsons] that the actress (obscurely and fleetingly billed as ‘Theresa Zegris’ in the ‘going-up’ lift-list at the end of the picture) who had managed to obtain the small but not unimportant part of the fatal gipsy was none other than the pallid schoolgirl they might have seen in Ladore. (3.5)

According to Dostoevski, мы все вышли из гоголевской "Шинели" ("we all came out from Gogol's Overcoat"). In his book on Gogol VN compares Akakiy Akakievich's shinel' (overcoat) to chenille (Fr., caterpillar). Zegris is also a butterfly (sooty orange tip, Zegris eupheme). In his (never posted) letter to Ada Van calls her "my Zegris butterfly:"

Artistically, and ardisiacally, the best moment is one of the last — when you follow barefoot the Don who walks down a marble gallery to his doom, to the scaffold of Dona Anna’s black-curtained bed, around which you flutter, my Zegris butterfly, straightening a comically drooping candle, whispering delightful but futile instructions into the frowning lady’s ear, and then peering over that mauresque screen and suddenly dissolving in such natural laughter, helpless and lovely, that one wonders if any art could do without that erotic gasp of schoolgirl mirth. And to think, Spanish orange-tip, that all in all your magic gambol lasted but eleven minutes of stopwatch time in patches of two- or three-minute scenes! (3.6)

Aardvark + Massa = maskarad + svara = Samsara + kvadrat - t
Sig Leymanski = Kingsley Amis
Antilia Glems + Gerald + Ada + Sevan = Gitanilla + Esmeralda + navsegda

*In his "Letters of a Russian Traveller" (1790-99) Karamzin mentions Teresa and Faldoni, the passionate young lovers who committed suicide in Lyon. "Faldoni" is another character in Dostoevski's "Poor Folk." The first readers of Dostoevski's first novel, Nekrasov and Grigirovich, compared the young author to Gogol. Belinski ("furious Vissarion" whose surname comes from belyi, "white") praised "Poor Folk." In one of his letters Gogol criticizes "Poor Folk" for verbosity. Dostoevski was arrested for reading in public Belinski's famous letter to Gogol.

Aardvark, Massa - She [Marina] swore that all was over; that the Baron [d'Onsky], a physical wreck and a spiritual Samurai, had gone to Japan forever. From a more reliable source Demon learned that the Samurai’s real destination was smart little Vatican, a Roman spa, whence he was to return to Aardvark, Massa, in a week or so. (1.2)
maskarad - masked ball; a play in verse by Lermontov (1835); cf. Mascodagama, Van's stage name
svara - quarrel; fight
Samsara - in Buddhism, the process of coming into existence as a differentiated, mortal creature; in Hinduism, the endless series of births, deaths and rebirths to which all beings are subject; cf. Lucette's words to Van: "Mamma dwells in her private Samsara." (3.5)
kvadrat - math., square
Kingsley Amis - a waggish British novelist (1922-95) keenly interested in physics fiction (Darkbloom)
Gerald - Moris Gerald, the hero of Captain Mayne Reid's The Headless Horseman
Sevan - a lake in Armenia
Gitanilla - La Gitanilla, a novel by Cervantes; on Antiterra, a novel by Osberg; Ada plays the gitanilla in Don Juan's Last Fling, Yuzlik's film loosely based on Cervantes's crude romance (3.5)
Esmeralda - a character in Victor Hugo's Notre Dame de Paris (1831); Van and Ada call Lucette "our Esmeralda and mermaid" (2.8); the butterfly in VN's poem "Lines Written in Oregon" (1953)
navsegda - Russ., for ever, for good; the closing line of VN's "Lines Written in Oregon" is "Esmeralda, immer, immer"

Alexey Sklyarenko

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