Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0027645, Sat, 13 Jan 2018 03:05:45 +0300

Mason & hand-kissing in LATH; silent love,
Grib & Baron d'Onsky in Ada
A character in VN’s novel Look at the Harlequins! (1974), Count Starov
(Vadim’s benefactor) is a grave old-fashioned Mason:

On the gray eve of poverty, the author, then a self-exiled youth (I
transcribe from an old diary), discovered an unexpected patron in the person
of Count Starov, a grave old-fashioned Mason who had graced several great
Embassies during a spacious span of international intercourse, and who since
1913 had resided in London. (1.2)

“Grave,” “graced” and “great” seem to hint at Griboedov, the author of
Gore ot uma (“Woe from Wit,” 1824) who was Russian envoy in Teheran. A
Mason since 1816, Griboedov founded a lodge in St. Petersburg and called it
Blago (“Good”). It brings to mind Annette Blagovo (Vadim’s second wife)
and Wladimir Blagidze, alias Starov (the murderer of Iris Black, Vadim’s
first wife). Describing his and Iris’s visit to Count Starov’s villa,
Vadim mentions a resplendent portrait by Serov of the notorious beauty, Mme.
de Blagidze:

Sometime in October my benefactor, now in the last stage of majestic
senility, came for his annual visit to Mentone, and, without warning, Iris
and I dropped in to see him. His villa was incomparably grander than ours.
He staggered to his feet to take between his wax-pale palms Iris's hand and
stare at her with blue bleary eyes for at least five seconds (a little
eternity, socially) in a kind of ritual silence, after which he embraced me
with a slow triple cross-kiss in the awful Russian tradition.

"Your bride," he said, using, I knew, the word in the sense of fiancée
(and speaking an English which Iris said later was exactly like mine in
Ivor's unforgettable version) "is as beautiful as your wife will be!"

I quickly told him--in Russian--that the maire of Cannice had married us a
month ago in a brisk ceremony. Nikifor Nikodimovich gave Iris another stare
and finally kissed her hand, which I was glad to see she raised in the
proper fashion (coached, no doubt, by Ivor who used to take every
opportunity to paw his sister).

"I misunderstood the rumors," he said, "but all the same I am happy to make
the acquaintance of such a charming young lady. And where, pray, in what
church, will the vow be sanctified?"

"In the temple we shall build, Sir," said Iris--a trifle insolently, I

Count Starov "chewed his lips," as old men are wont to do in Russian novels.
Miss Vrode-Vorodin, the elderly cousin who kept house for him, made a timely
entrance and led Iris to an adjacent alcove (illuminated by a resplendent
portrait by Serov, 1896, of the notorious beauty, Mme. De Blagidze, in
Caucasian costume) for a nice cup of tea. The Count wished to talk business
with me and had only ten minutes "before his injection."

What was my wife's maiden name?

I told him. He thought it over and shook his head. What was her mother's

I told him that, too. Same reaction. What about the financial aspect of the
marriage? (1.10)

In 1828, a few months before his death, Griboedov married in Tiflis (the
former name of Tbilisi, the city where Griboedov and his widow were buried)
Princess Nina Chavchavadze.

In “Woe from Wit” Famusov calculates the pregnancy of a lady friend. It
seems that Count Starov is the real father of Vadim and his three successive
wives (Iris Black, Annette Blagovo and Louise Adamson). In VN’s novel Ada
(1969) Demon Veen (Van’s and Ada’s father) quotes Famosov’s words po
raschyotu po moemu:

‘By the way, Demon,’ interrupted Marina, ‘where and how can I obtain the
kind of old roomy limousine with an old professional chauffeur that
Praskovia, for instance, has had for years?’

‘Impossible, my dear, they are all in heaven or on Terra. But what would
Ada like, what would my silent love like for her birthday? It’s next
Saturday, po razschyotu po moemu (by my reckoning), isn’t it? Une rivière
de diamants?’

‘Protestuyu!’ cried Marina. ‘Yes, I’m speaking seriozno. I object to
your giving her kvaka sesva (quoi que ce soit), Dan and I will take care of
all that.’

‘Besides you’ll forget,’ said Ada laughing, and very deftly showed the
tip of her tongue to Van who had been on the lookout for her conditional
reaction to ‘diamonds.’ (1.38)

“Silent love” seems to hint at Molchalin, Famusov’s secretary whose name
comes from molchat’ (to be silent). Marina and G. A. Vronsky (the movie
man) had dubbed Price (an old retainer at Ardis) ‘Grib’ (Mushroom):

Another Price, a typical, too typical, old retainer whom Marina (and G. A.
Vronsky, during their brief romance) had dubbed, for unknown reasons,
‘Grib,’ placed an onyx ashtray at the head of the table for Demon, who
liked to smoke between courses ― a puff of Russian ancestry. (ibid.)

In “Woe from Wit” Chatski quotes (slightly changing it) the last line of
Derzhavin’s poem Arfa (“The Harp,” 1798): i dym otechestva nam sladok i
priyaten (even the smoke of fatherland is to us sweet and pleasant).

In 1869 Demon had a sword duel in Nice with Baron d’Onsky (Marina’s
lover). D’Onsky’s name and nickname Skonky (anagram of konskiy, “of a
horse”) seem to hint at donskoy zherebets (a Don stallion) mentioned by
Pushkin in Eugene Onegin (Two: V: 4):

Сначала все к нему езжали;
Но так как с заднего крыльца
Обыкновенно подавали
Ему донского жеребца,
Лишь только вдоль большой дороги
Заслышат их домашни дроги, ―
Поступком оскорбясь таким,
Все дружбу прекратили с ним.
?Сосед наш неуч; сумасбродит;
Он фармазон; он пьёт одно
Стаканом красное вино;
Он дамам к ручке не подходит;
Все да да нет; не скажет да-с
Иль нет-с?. Таков был общий глас.

At first they all would call on him,

but since to the back porch

habitually a Don stallion

for him was brought

as soon as one made out along the highway

the sound of their domestic runabouts ―

outraged by such behavior,

they all ceased to be friends with him.

“Our neighbor is a boor; acts like a crackbrain;

he's a Freemason; he

drinks only red wine, by the tumbler;

he won't go up to kiss a lady's hand;

'tis all ‘yes,’ ‘no’ ― he'll not say ‘yes, sir,’

or ‘no, sir.’ ” This was the general voice.

Unlike Onegin, Count Starov would go up to kiss a lady’s hand. In his note
to the stanza’s line 10 VN points out that “eighteenth-century liberal
thought had sought refuge in Masonic organizations. A provincial squire
would regard a Freemason as a revolutionary. Masonic lodges were forbidden
in Russia in the spring of 1822” (EO Commentary, vol. II, p. 226). In “The
Genesis of EO” (EO Commentary, vol. I, p. 61) VN mentions the fact that
Pushkin was a Mason since May 4, 1821. Pushkin was a member of the Kishinev
lodge ‘Ovid.’ Pushkin’s poem K Ovidiyu (“To Ovid,” 1821) begins as

Овидий, я живу близ тихих берегов…

Ovid, I live near the silent shores…

In his poem Vnov’ ya posetil… (“I revisited again…” 1835) Pushkin
mentions inye berega, inye volny (other shores, other waves). In Drugie
berega (“Other Shores,” 1954), the Russian version of his autobiography
Speak, Memory (1951), VN describes the veranda of their Vyra country house
and mentions prozrachnaya arlekinada (the transparent harlequinade):

Постояннейшим же источником очарования в
часы чтения на вырской веранде были эти ц
ветные стёкла, эта прозрачная арлекинада!
Сад и опушка парка, пропущенные сквозь их
волшебную призму, исполнялись какой-то ти
шины и отрешенности. Посмотришь сквозь си
ний прямоугольник -- и песок становится пе
плом, траурные деревья плавали в тропичес
ком небе. Сквозь зелёный параллелепипед з
елень ёлок была зеленее лип. В жёлтом ромб
е тени были как крепкий чай, а солнце как ж
идкий. В красном треугольнике тёмно-рубин
овая листва густела над розовым мелом ал
леи. Когда же после всех этих роскошеств о
братишься, бывало, к одному из немногих кв
адратиков обыкновенного пресного стекла,
с одиноким комаром или хромой карамарой в
углу, это было так, будто берёшь глоток во
ды, когда не хочется пить, и трезво белела
скамья под знакомой хвоей; но из всех окон
ец, в него-то мои герои-изгнанники мучител
ьно жаждали посмотреть.

But the most constant source of enchantment during those readings came from
the harlequin pattern of colored panes inset in a whitewashed framework on
either side of the veranda. The garden when viewed through these magic
glasses grew strangely still and aloof. If one looked through blue glass,
the sand turned to cinders while inky trees swam in a tropical sky. The
yellow created an amber world infused with an extra strong brew of sunshine.
The red made the foliage drip ruby dark upon a coral-tinted footpath. The
green soaked greenery in a greener green. And when, after such richness, one
turned to a small square of normal, savorless glass, with its lone mosquito
or lame daddy longlegs, it was like taking a draft of water when one is not
thirsty, and one saw a matter-of-fact white bench under familiar trees. But
of all the windows this is the pane through which in later years parched
nostalgia longed to peer. (Chapter Five, 5)

At the end of the chapter VN mentions lzheklassicheskiy bred
(pseudo-classical rubbish):

Нам с братом, увы, были даны как раз обрат
ные откровения: то, чего не могли видеть в
зрослые, наблюдавшие лишь облаченную в не
проницаемые доспехи, дневную Mademoiselle, виде
ли мы, всезнающие дети, когда, бывало, тому
или другому из нас приснится дурной сон, и
разбуженная звериным воплем, она появлял
ась из соседней комнаты, босая, простовол
осая, подняв перед собою свечу, миганьем с
воим обращавшую в чешую золотые блестки
на ее кроваво-красном капоте, который не
прикрывал её чудовищных колыханий; в эту
минуту она казалась сущим воплощением Ие
завели из "Athalie", дурацкой трагедии Расина,
куски которой мы, конечно, должны были зна
ть наизусть вместе со всяким другим лжекл
ассическим бредом.

Such discoveries as my awed brother and I did make merely increased the
difficulties of that task; and the grown-ups who during the day beheld a
densely clothed Mademoiselle never saw what we children saw when, roused
from her sleep by one of us shrieking himself out of a bad dream,
disheveled, candle in hand, a gleam of gilt lace on the blood-red dressing
gown that could not quite wrap her quaking mass, the ghastly Jézabel of
Racine’s absurd play stomped barefooted into our bedroom. (ibid.)

Arlekinada (harlequinade) = arlekin (harlequin) + Ada. In a little poem that
she added under her photograph in the graduation album Ada mentions veranda:

It’s a gruesome girl!’ she cried after the melodious adieux. ‘Her name is
Vanda Broom, and I learned only recently what I never suspected at school ―
she’s a regular tribadka ― poor Grace Erminin tells me Vanda used to make
constant passes at her and at ― at another girl. ‘There’s her picture
here,’ continued Cordula with a quick change of tone, producing a daintily
bound and prettily printed graduation album of Spring, 1887, which Van had
seen at Ardis, but in which he had not noticed the somber beetle-browed
unhappy face of that particular girl, and now it did not matter any more,
and Cordula quickly popped the book back into a drawer; but he remembered
very well that among the various more or less coy contributions it contained
a clever pastiche by Ada Veen mimicking Tolstoy’s paragraph rhythm and
chapter closings; he saw clearly in mind her prim photo under which she had
added one of her characteristic jingles:

In the old manor, I’ve parodied

Every veranda and room,

And jacarandas at Arrowhead

In supernatural bloom. (1.43)

The last chapter (1.43) of Ada’s Part One ends as follows:

When in early September Van Veen left Manhattan for Lute, he was pregnant.

The Antiterran name of Paris, Lute hints at Lutèce (the city’s ancient
name). In his epistle “To Vasiliy Pushkin on his Stay in Kostroma” (1805)
Count Khvostov mentions chudesnaya Lyutetsa (wondrous Lutèce) and Sekvana
(Sequana, the goddess of the river Seine). There is Van in Sekvana, a name
that brings to mind kvaka sesva (quoi que ce soit in Marina’s
mispronunciation), and in Vanda Broom, a lesbian whose name is secretly
present in Ada’s poem.

VN’s Ada corresponds to Vadim’s novel Ardis (1970). According to Vadim,
the society nickname of his father (who died in a pistol duel) was Demon. As
a boy, Vadim flirted with Ada Bredow, a girl who was portrayed by Serov:

I am reduced--a sad confession!--to something I have also used before, and
even in this book--the well-known method of degrading one species of art by
appealing to another. I am thinking of Serov's Five-petaled Lilac, oil,
which depicts a tawny-haired girl of twelve or so sitting at a sun-flecked
table and manipulating a raceme of lilac in search of that lucky token. The
girl is no other than Ada Bredow, a first cousin of mine whom I flirted with
disgracefully that very summer, the sun of which ocellates the garden table
and her bare arms. (4.3)

It was Ada’s grandmother, Baroness Bredow, born Tolstoy, who summoned Vadim
to look at the harlequins:

I saw my parents infrequently. They divorced and remarried and redivorced at
such a rapid rate that had the custodians of my fortune been less alert, I
might have been auctioned out finally to a pair of strangers of Swedish or
Scottish descent, with sad bags under hungry eyes. An extraordinary
grand-aunt, Baroness Bredow, born Tolstoy, amply replaced closer blood. As a
child of seven or eight, already harboring the secrets of a confirmed
madman, I seemed even to her (who also was far from normal) unduly sulky and
indolent; actually, of course, I kept daydreaming in a most outrageous

"Stop moping!" she would cry: "Look at the harlequins!

"What harlequins? Where?"

"Oh, everywhere. All around you. Trees are harlequins, words are harlequins.
So are situations and sums. Put two things together--jokes, images--and you
get a triple harlequin. Come on! Play! Invent the world! Invent reality!"

I did. By Jove, I did. I invented my grand-aunt in honor of my first
daydreams, and now, down the marble steps of memory's front porch, here she
slowly comes, sideways, sideways, the poor lame lady, touching each step
edge with the rubber tip of her black cane. (1.2)

In my previous post (“Baroness Bredow, Nikifor Nikodimovich Starov & Ada
Bredow in LATH; Mr Brod or Bred in Ada”) I forgot to mention Aldanov’s
novel Bred (“Delirium,” 1955). Its hero, a professional spy, in a delirium
visits Moscow and meets in Kremlin Stalin (Colonel St Alin, a scoundrel, is
a second in Demon’s duel with d’Onsky, 1.2). Also, in his “Memoirs”
(1953) Felix Yusupov (a descendant of Mohammad’s son-in-law Ali) mentions
his famous portrait by Serov (according to Yusupov, Serov was the greatest
artist whom he ever met).

Alexey Sklyarenko

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