Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0025152, Tue, 4 Mar 2014 01:02:13 +0300

Dr Henry's oil of Atlantic prose in Ada
He [Van] understood her [Lucette's] condition or at least believed, in despair, that he had understood it, retrospectively, by the time no remedy except Dr Henry's oil of Atlantic prose could be found in the medicine chest of the past with its banging door and toppling toothbrush. (3.5)

"Dr Henry's oil of Atlantic prose" seems to hint at Henry James (1843-1916), the American novelist and critic in England. As to "the medicine chest of the past with its banging door and toppling toothbrush," it brings to mind a scene in "Ardis the First:"

The two elder children [Van and Ada], having locked the door of the L-shaped bathroom from the inside, now retired to the seclusion of its lateral part, in a corner between a chest of drawers and an old unused mangle, which the sea-green eye of the bathroom looking-glass could not reach; but barely had they finished their violent and uncomfortable exertions in that hidden nook, with an empty medicine bottle idiotically beating time on a shelf, when Lucette was already calling resonantly from the tub and the maid knocking on the door: Mlle Lariviere wanted some hot water too. (1.23)

In her last note to Van (quoted by him at the end of this chapter of Ada) Lucette mentions an empty little bottle tinkling on its shelf:

Van hastened to join Ada in the attic. At that moment he felt quite proud of his stratagem. He was to recall it with a fatidic shiver seventeen years later when Lucette, in her last note to him, mailed from Paris to his Kingston address on June 2, 1901, 'just in case,' wrote:
'I kept for years - it must be in my Ardis nursery - the anthology you once gave me; and the little poem you wanted me to learn by heart is still word-perfect in a safe place of my jumbled mind, with the packers trampling on my things, and upsetting crates, and voices calling, time to go, time to go. Find it in Brown and praise me again for my eight-year-old intelligence as you and happy Ada did that distant day, that day somewhere tinkling on its shelf like an empty little bottle. Now read on:

'Here, said the guide, was the field,
There, he said, was the wood.
This is where Peter kneeled,
That's where the Princess stood.

No, the visitor said,
You are the ghost, old guide.
Oats and oaks may be dead,
But she is by my side.' (ibid.)

That very day, after Van joined Ada in the attic, they find Marina's old herbarium and discover that Marina, not her poor mad twin sister Aqua, is Van's mother (1.1). In her erratic student years Aqua, with Milton Abraham's invaluable help, organized in Belokonsk a Phree Pharmacy (1.3). According to Poprishchin (the hero of Gogol's Notes of a Madman), pis'ma pishut aptekari ("letters are written by apothecaries"). The name Poprishichin comes from poprishche ("field; walk of life, profession"). In The Gift VN quotes the words Uvarov (the Minister of Education) said after Pushkin's death: "To write verses does not mean prokhodit' velikoe poprishche (to be a great man)." Pushkin and Uvarov are both mentioned by Belinsky in his famous letter to Gogol (written on 3 July 1847). In his letter Belinsky fiercely criticizes Gogol's latest book The Selected Passages from the Correspondence with Friends:

Некоторые остановились было на мысли, что Ваша книга есть плод умственного расстройства, близкого к положительному сумасшествию.
Some people have been inclined to regard your book as the result of mental derangement verging on sheer madness.

According to a Russian saying, zhizn' prozhit' - ne pole pereyti (to live a life is not to cross a field). It is the closing line of Gamlet ("Hamlet"), the opening poem of Yuri Zhivago's Stikhotvoreniya (Poems). On Antiterra Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago (1957) is known as Les Amours du Docteur Mertvago, a mystical romance by a pastor (1.8), and Mertvago Forever (2.5). In Russian zhiv means "alive" and mertv, "dead" (Darkbloom). Gamlet is the half-Russian village (hamlet) near Ardis Hall (1.5, et passim). In Pushkin's Eugene Onegin Lenski is Onegin's (and the Larins') "half-Russian neighbor:"

all for their daughters planned a match
with the half-Russian neighbor. (Two: XII: 4-5)

Two great highlights of EO are Tatiana's letter of Onegin (attacked by Pisarev, a radical critic whom Chekhov, the author of Aptekarsha,* called "the belligerent Spanish monk") and Onegin's letter to Tatiana. Pushkin's novel in verse ends in Onegin kneeling before Princess N:

She does not bid him rise
and, not taking her eyes off him,
does not withdraw from his avid lips
her insensible hand.... (Eight: XLII: 1-4)

Van's and Ada's half-sister Lucette is associated with poor mad Ophelia:

Little Lucette no doubt had told him about a later escapade? Punning in an Ophelian frenzy on the feminine glans? Raving about the delectations of clitorism? (2.6)

In a letter to Ada and her husband written after Lucette's suicide Van compares Lucette to Ophelia and himself to Voltemand (an ambassador to Norway in Hamlet):

As a psychologist, I know the unsoundness of speculations as to whether Ophelia would not have drowned herself after all, without the help of a treacherous sliver, even if she had married her Voltemand. Impersonally I believe she would have died in her bed, gray and serene, had V. loved her; but since he did not really love the wretched little virgin, and since no amount of carnal tenderness could or can pass for true love, and since, above all, the fatal Andalusian wench who had come, I repeat, into the picture, was unforgettable, I am bound to arrive, dear Ada and dear Andrey, at the conclusion that whatever the miserable man could have thought up, she would have pokonchila s soboy ('put an end to herself') all the same. In other more deeply moral worlds than this pellet of muck, there might exist restraints, principles, transcendental consolations, and even a certain pride in making happy someone one does not really love; but on this planet Lucettes are doomed. (3.6)

Voltemand is Van's penname under which he published his first novel Letters from Terra (2.2). In Kingston (Van's American University where he is visited by Lucette) Van lives in Voltemand Hall:

'I also know,' said Lucette as if continuing their recent exchange, 'who he is.'
She pointed to the inscription 'Voltemand Hall' on the brow of the building from which they now emerged.
Van gave her a quick glance - but she simply meant the courtier in Hamlet. (2.5)

In Ilf and Petrov's "The Twelve Chairs" (chapter XXX "In the Columbus Theater") Ostap Bender says that he once played Hamlet: "How talented I was in my time in the role of Hamlet!" In the Columbus Theater Bender and Vorob'yaninov watch Nik. Sestrin's avantgarde stage version of Gogol's play Zhenit'ba ("The Marriage," 1835). The furniture in the performance is "by the Fortinbras woodwork shops attached to the Balthazar Umslopogas." The actor who plays the role of Stepan (Podkolyosin's valet) gives some of his cues standing on his hands:

There was a general feeling that Stepan would oust Podkolyosin and become the chief character in this modernized version of the play.
"Well, is the tailor making a coat?"
A leap. A blow on the Esmarch douches. Stepan stood on his hands with an effort and, still in that position, answered:
"Yes, he is."

This brings to mind Van's performance in a variety show as Mascodagama. Van's partner in a tango (that Van dances on his hands) is fragile, red-haired 'Rita' (who bears an odd resemblance to Lucette as she was to look ten years later), "a pretty Karaite from Chufut Kale, where, she nostalgically said, the Crimean cornel, kizil', bloomed yellow among the arid rocks" (1.30). The warm berries of kizil', Chufutkale and voskovaya mushmula (the waxen blossom of medlar) are mentioned by VN in his poem Krym ("The Crimea," 1921).

Letters from Terra by Voltemand are reviewed by two critics: the First Clown in Elsinore (Elsie de Nord, a literary demimondaine despised by Ada) and the poet Max Mispel (whose botanical name means 'medlar' in English and mushmula in Russian), member of the German Department at Goluba University. Golub' being Russian for "dove, pigeon," Goluba hints at Columbia University in the City of New York. The beautiful floral name of Van's new lawyer, Mr Gromwell (Lithospermum gen., in Russian vorobeynik), brings to mind Vorob'yaninov (whose name comes from vorobey, sparrow). Gromwell rhymes with Cromwell (Oliver Cromwell whose secretary was John Milton), vorobeynik rhymes with korobeynik (obs., pedlar) and "pedlar" rhymes with "medlar" (in fact, only the first letters are different in these three pairs).

Max Mispel's critique ends as follows: 'If Mr Voltemand (or Voltimand or Mandalatov) is a psychiatrist, as I think he might be, then I pity his patients, while admiring his talent.'

...Van toyed with the idea of challenging Mr Medlar (who, he hoped, would choose swords) to a duel at dawn in a secluded corner of the Park whose central green he could see from the penthouse terrace where he fenced with a French coach twice a week, the only exercise, save riding, that he still indulged in; but to his surprise - and relief (for he was a little ashamed to defend his 'novelette' and only wished to forget it, just as another, unrelated, Veen might have denounced - if allowed a longer life - his pubescent dream of ideal bordels) Max Mushmula (Russian for 'medlar') answered Van's tentative cartel with the warm-hearted promise of sending him his next article, 'The Weed Exiles the Flower' (Melville & Marvell). (2.2)

The name of Van's fencing master, Pierre Legrand (2.8), hints at the tsar Peter I ("Peter the Great"). And so does Peter de Rast ("tsar" backwards), the author of a century-old lithograph of Ardis:

She [Lucette] would advance up to the center of the weedy playground in front of the forbidden pavilion, and there, with an air of dreamy innocence, start to jiggle the board of an old swing that hung from the long and lofty limb of Baldy, a partly leafless but still healthy old oak (which appeared - oh, I remember, Van! - in a century-old lithograph of Ardis, by Peter de Rast, as a young colossus protecting four cows and a lad in rags, one shoulder bare). (1.34)

The tsar Peter I was a bully but not a pederast. It is "Dr Henry" who was homosexual, I believe.

*"A Chemist's Wife"

Alexey Sklyarenko

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