Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0027658, Tue, 30 Jan 2018 18:28:39 +0300

Baroness Bredow & harlequins in LATH
In VN’s novel Look at the Harlequins! (1974) Vadim Vadimovich (the narrator
and main character) mentions his extraordinary grand-aunt, Baroness Bredow,
born Tolstoy, who summoned him 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)

Vesenniy bred (“Vernal Delirium,” 1853) and Arlekin (“The Harlequin,”
1854) are poems by Apollon Maykov. In his autobiography Speak, Memory (1951)
VN pairs Maykov with Mayakovski:

After 1923, when she moved to Prague, and I lived in Germany and France, I
was unable to visit her frequently; nor was I with her at her death, which
occurred on the eve of World War Two. Whenever I did manage to go to Prague,
there was always that initial pang one feels just before time, caught
unawares, again dons its familiar mask. In the pitiable lodgings she shared
with her dearest companion, Evgeniya Konstantinovna Hofeld (1884-1957), who
had replaced, in 1914, Miss Greenwood (who, in her turn, had replaced Miss
Lavington) as governess of my two sisters (Olga, born January 5, 1903, and
Elena, born March 31, 1906), albums, in which, during the last years, she
had copied out her favorite poems, from Maykov to Mayakovski, lay around her
on odds and ends of decrepit, secondhand furniture. (Chapter Two, 4)

In his poem Eshchyo Peterburg (“Even More St. Petersburg,” 1914)
Mayakovski compares a cloud to Leo Tolstoy:

В ушах обрывки тёплого бала,

а с севера - снега седей -

туман, с кровожадным лицом каннибала,

жевал невкусных людей.

Часы нависали, как грубая брань,

за пятым навис шестой.

А с неба смотрела какая-то дрянь

величественно, как Лев Толстой.

…The hours hanged over, like coarse abuse,

after the fifth the sixth hour hanged over.

And from the sky some trash looked

majestically, like Leo Tolstoy.

In his poem Oblako v shtanakh (“A Cloud in Trousers,” 1915) Mayakovski
asks the reader:

Vy dumaete, eto bredit malyariya?

You think malaria makes me delirious?

In the poem’s Introduction Mayakovski says that he is twenty-two:

У меня в душе ни одного седого волоса,
и старческой нежности нет в ней!
Мир огромив мощью голоса,
иду ― красивый,

In my soul there is not a single gray hair,

and there is no senile tenderness in it!

Having made the world huge with my voice’s power,

I walk \xa8C handsome,


The action in LATH begins when Vadim (who seems to share with VN his
birthday: April 23, 1899) is twenty-two or twenty-three:

Some time during the Easter Term of my last Cambridge year (1922) I happened
to be consulted, "as a Russian," on certain niceties of make-up in an
English version of Gogol's Inspector which the Glowworm Group, directed by
Ivor Black, a fine amateur actor, intended to stage. He and I had the same
tutor at Trinity, and he drove me to distraction with his tedious miming of
the old man's mincing ways--a performance he kept up throughout most of our
lunch at the Pitt. The brief business part turned out to be even less
pleasant. Ivor Black wanted Gogol's Town Mayor to wear a dressing gown
because "wasn't it merely the old rascal's nightmare and didn't Revizor, its
Russian title, actually come from the French for ‘dream,' rêve?" I said I
thought it a ghastly idea. (1.1)

Oblako (cloud) differs from yabloko (apple) only in the first letter. At the
beginning of “Vernal Delirium” Maykov mentions v pochkakh yabloni (in buds
the apple trees) and Egoriev den’ (St. George’s Day, April 23):

Здорово, милый друг! Я прямо из деревни!
Был три дня на коне, две ночи спал в харчев
Устал, измучился, но как я счастлив был,
И как на счёт костей я душу освежил!
Уж в почках яблони; жужжат и вьются пчёлы;
Уж свежей травкою подёрнулась земля...

Вчера Егорьев день \xa8C какой гурьбой весёло
Деревня выгнала стада свои в поля!

In his poem Ne zhaleyu, ne zovu, ne plachu… (“I don’t regret, I don’t
call, I don’t weep…” 1921) Esenin (Mayakovski’s main rival) says that
everything will pass away, kak s belykh yablon’ dym (like smoke off the
white apple-trees) and that he will never be young again. Vadim’s surname
(never mentioned in LATH) seems to be Yablonski. As Vadim himself points
out, his name and patronymic, Vadim Vadimovich, sounds like Vladimir
Vladimirovich (VN’s name and patronymic) in a rapid and slurry Russian
mispronunciation. At the end of his poem O pravitelyakh (“On Rulers,”
1944) VN mentions his “late namesake:”

Покойный мой тёзка,

писавший стихи и в полоску,

и в клетку, на самом восходе

всесоюзно-мещанского класса,

кабы дожил до полдня,

нынче бы рифмы натягивал

на "монументален",

на "переперчил"

и так далее.

If my late namesake,

who used to write verse, in rank

and in file, at the very dawn

of the Soviet Small-Bourgeois order,

had lived till its noon

he would be now finding taut rhymes

such as “praline”

or “air chill,”

and others of the same kind.

VN’s footnotes: Line 52/my late namesake. An allusion to the Christian name
and patronymic of Vladimir Vladimirovich Mayakovski (1893\xa8C1930), minor
Soviet poet, endowed with a certain brilliance and bite, but fatally
corrupted by the regime he faithfully served. Lines 58\xa8C59/“praline” …
“air chill.” In the original, monumentalen, meaning “[he is] monumental”
rhymes pretty closely with Stalin; and pereperchil, meaning “[he] put in
too much pepper,” offers an ingenuous correspondence with the name of the
British politician in a slovenly Russian pronunciation (“chair-chill”).

At the beginning of his essay on Mayakovski, Dekol’tirovannaya loshad’
(“The Horse in a Décolletté Dress,” 1927), Hodasevich mentions a horse
that was dressed to imitate an old Englishwoman and that he saw in a circus
in the fall of 1912:

Представьте себе лошадь, изображающую ст
арую англичанку. В дамской шляпке, с цвета
ми и перьями, в розовом платье, с коротким
и рукавами и с розовым рюшем вокруг гиган
тского вороного декольтэ, она ходит на за
дних ногах, нелепо вытягивая бесконечную
шею и скаля жёлтые зубы.

Такую лошадь я видел в цирке осенью 1912 год
а. Вероятно, я вскоре забыл бы её, если бы н
есколько дней спустя, придя в Общество св
ободной эстетики, не увидел там огромного
юношу с лошадиными челюстями, в чёрной ру
бахе, расстёгнутой чуть ли не до пояса и о
бнажавшей гигантское лошадиное декольтэ.
Каюсь: прозвище "декольтированная лошадь"
надолго с того вечера утвердилось за юнош
ей... А юноша этот был Владимир Маяковский.
Это было его первое появление в литератур
ной среде, или одно из первых. С тех пор ло
шадиной поступью прошел он по русской лит
ературе -- и ныне, сдаётся мне, стоит уже пр
и конце своего пути. Пятнадцать лет -- лоша
диный век.

Describing his trip to Leningrad in the late nineteen-sixties, Vadim
mentions an Iranian circus company:

In order to draw out my neighbor before he and his riddle vanished, I asked
him, in French, if he knew anything about a picturesque group that had
boarded our aircraft in Moscow. He replied, with a Parisian grasseyement,
that they were, he believed, Iranian circus people touring Europe. The men
looked like harlequins in mufti, the women like birds of paradise, the
children like golden medallions, and there was one dark-haired pale beauty
in black bolero and yellow sharovars who reminded me of Iris or a prototype
of Iris.

"I hope," I said, "we'll see them perform in Leningrad."

"Pouf!" he rejoined. "They can't compete with our Soviet circus."

I noted the automatic "our." (5.2)

Esenin is the author of Persidskie motivy (“Persian Motifs,” 1925), a
cycle of fifteen poems. The first of Vadim’s three or four successive
wives, Iris Black is English. Vadim visits Leningrad in the hope to find his
daughter Bel. Isabel (Bel’s full name) and her friend Dora (a lame lady
whom Vadim meets in Leningrad) bring to mind Isadora Duncan (one of Esenin’
s wives). According to Dora, as a girl she dreamt of becoming a female
clown, Madame Byron or Trek Trek. In his poem Vozvrashchenie na rodinu
(“Coming Back to my Native Land,” 1924) Esenin mentions a little dog that
greeted him po-bayronovski (à la Byron) with barks at the gate:

По-байроновски наша собачонка
Меня встречала с лаем у ворот.

In one of her poems Vadim’s daughter Bel mentions “Médor, a dead dog:”

There is a hollow of dimness again in the sequence, but it must have been
soon after that, in the same motor court, or in the next, on the way home,
that she slipped into my room at dawn, and sat down on my bed―move your
legs―in her pyjama top to read me another poem:

In the dark basement, I stroked

the silky head of a wolf.

When the light returned

and all cried: "Ah!,"

it turned out to be only

Médor, a dead dog.

I again praised her talent, and kissed her more warmly, perhaps, than the
poem deserved; for, actually, I found it rather obscure, but did not say so,
and presently she yawned and fell asleep on my bed, a practice I usually did
not tolerate. Today, however, on rereading those strange lines, I see
through their starry crystal the tremendous commentary I could write about
them, with galaxies of reference marks and footnotes like the reflections of
brightly lit bridges spanning black water. But my daughter's soul is hers,
and my soul is mine, and may Hamlet Godman rot in peace. (4.3)

Hamlet Godman is a charlatan critic in Vadim’s novel See under Real (1939)
that corresponds to VN’s novel The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941).
The characters of TRLSK include Mr. Goodman, the author of The Tragedy of
Sebastian Knight. According to Vadim, Baroness Bredow wanted him to invent

The dog in Bel’s poem brings to mind a tombstone inscription mentioned by
Vadim in his conversation with Iris:

"Splendid. We continue to walk toward the garden gate. Intervals of
landscape can be made out between the plane trees on both sides. On your
right―please, close your eyes, you will see better―on your right there's a
vineyard; on your left, a churchyard―you can distinguish its long, low,
very low, wall―"

"You make it sound rather creepy. And I want to add something. Among the
blackberries, Ivor and I discovered a crooked old tombstone with the
inscription Dors, Médor! and only the date of death, 1889; a found dog, no
doubt. It's just before the last tree on the left side." (1.8)

In Chapter Five of Eugene Onegin Pushkin describes Tatiana’s name-day party
and mentions an air to children known: “Réveillez-vous, belle endormie”
(XXVII: 7-8). In Chapter Two (XXXVII) of EO Lenski visits the grave of
Dmitri Larin (Tatiana’s and Olga’s father) and mournfully utters: “Poor
Yorick!” (Pushkin’s note: “Hamlet’s exclamation over the skull of the
fool, see Shakespeare and Sterne”).

Mayakovski is the author Vot tak ya sdelalsya sobakoy (“This is How I
Became a Dog,” 1915), Esenin is the author Sobake Kachalova (“To
Kachalov’s Dog,” 1925). Both Mayakovski in his “Cloud in Trousers” and
Esenin in his “Coming Back to my Native Land” mention their sisters. The
three of Vadim’s three or four successive wives (Iris Black, Annette
Blagovo and Louise Adamson) seem to be his half-sisters. Btw., one of
Esenin’s wives, Sofia Tolstoy, was Leo Tolstoy’s grand-daughter.

oblako + Neva/vena/Vena + krin = Nabokov + arlekin

oblako + Yablonski = yabloko + Oblonski

vena \xa8C vein

Vena \xa8C Russian name of Vienna

krin \xa8C obs., lily; in Shengeli’s sonnet Pustynnik (“The Hermit”)
nezrimyi rayskiy krin (the invisible paradise lily) ronyaet yabloki (sheds

Oblonski \xa8C Stiva Oblonski, a character in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenin (1877),
Anna Arkadievna’s brother

Alexey Sklyarenko

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