Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0027684, Mon, 5 Mar 2018 12:43:55 +0300

piano, elephant & Madhatters in Ada
In VN’s novel Ada (1969) Demon Veen (Van’s and Ada’s father) quotes a poem by Coppée and rhymes enfant with éléphant:

‘The last time I enjoyed you,’ said Demon ‘was in April when you wore a raincoat with a white and black scarf and simply reeked of some arsenic stuff after seeing your dentist. Dr Pearlman has married his receptionist, you’ll be glad to know. Now to business, my darling. I accept your dress’ (the sleeveless black sheath), ‘I tolerate your romantic hairdo, I don’t care much for your pumps na bosu nogu (on bare feet), your Beau Masque perfume — passe encore, but, my precious, I abhor and reject your livid lipstick. It may be the fashion in good old Ladore. It is not done in Man or London.’

‘Ladno (Okay),’ said Ada and, baring her big teeth, rubbed fiercely her lips with a tiny handkerchief produced from her bosom.

‘That’s also provincial. You should carry a black silk purse. And now I’ll show what a diviner I am: your dream is to be a concert pianist!’

‘It is not,’ said Van indignantly. ‘What perfect nonsense. She can’t play a note!’

‘Well, no matter,’ said Demon. ‘Observation is not always the mother of deduction. However, there is nothing improper about a hanky dumped on a Bechstein. You don’t have, my love, to blush so warmly. Let me quote for comic relief

‘Lorsque son fi-ancé fut parti pour la guerre

Irène de Grandfief, la pauvre et noble enfant

Ferma son pi-ano... vendit son éléphant’

‘The gobble enfant is genuine, but the elephant is mine.’ (1.38)

On Demonia (aka Antiterra, Earth’s twin planet on which Ada is set) Manhattan (the Antiterran name of New York) is also known as Man. Describing Flavita (the Russian Scrabble), Van mentions ‘Madhatters’ (as the inhabitants of New Amsterdam were once called):

That was why she [Ada] admitted ‘Flavita.’ The name came from alfavit, an old Russian game of chance and skill, based on the scrambling and unscrambling of alphabetic letters. It was fashionable throughout Estoty and Canady around 1790, was revived by the ‘Madhatters’ (as the inhabitants of New Amsterdam were once called) in the beginning of the nineteenth century, made a great comeback, after a brief slump, around 1860, and now a century later seems to be again in vogue, so I am told, under the name of ‘Scrabble,’ invented by some genius quite independently from its original form or forms. (1.36)

The Hatter is a character in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. At a Mad Tea-Party the Hatter asks “why is a raven like a writing-desk:”

The Hatter opened his eyes very wide on hearing this; but all he said was, 'Why is a raven like a writing-desk?'

'Come, we shall have some fun now!' thought Alice. 'I'm glad they've begun asking riddles. — I believe I can guess that,' she added aloud. (chapter 7 “A Mad Tea-Party”)

In his Russian version of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Anya v strane chudes (1923), VN turns a raven into slon (an elephant) and a writing-desk, into royal’ (a piano):

У Шляпника расширились глаза, но всё, что он сказал, было: "Какое сходство между роялем и слоном?"

"Вот это лучше, - подумала Аня. - Я люблю такого рода загадки. Повеселимся".

- Мне кажется, я могу разгадать это, - добавила она громко.

Demon Veen (who is known in society as Raven Veen) and Baron d’Onsky (Marina’s lover, an art expert nicknamed Skonky) have the same London hatter:

Both men were a little drunk, and Demon secretly wondered if the rather banal resemblance of that Edenic girl to a young actress, whom his visitor had no doubt seen on the stage in ‘Eugene and Lara’ or ‘Lenore Raven’ (both painfully panned by a ‘disgustingly incorruptible’ young critic), should be, or would be, commented upon. It was not: such nymphs were really very much alike because of their elemental limpidity since the similarities of young bodies of water are but murmurs of natural innocence and double-talk mirrors, that’s my hat, his is older, but we have the same London hatter. (1.2)

Lenore (1843) and Raven (1845) are poems by E. A. Poe. In Alexander Blok’s poem Osenniy vecher byl… (“It was an autumn evening…” 1912) the poet’s visitor mentions Linor bezumnogo Edgara (mad Edgar’s Lenore):

Но в старости — возврат и юности, и жара...» -

Так начал я... но он настойчиво прервал:

«Она — всё та ж: Линор безумного Эдгара.

Возврата нет. — Ещё? Теперь я всё сказал».

"But in the old age - there's a return of youth and ardor..."-
So I began... But he interrupted persistently:
"She is the same: Lenore of mad Edgar.
There's no way back. - Once more? Now I've said all."

The poet’s visitor addresses his host “sir:”

На кресло у огня уселся гость устало,

И пёс у ног его разлёгся на ковёр.

Гость вежливо сказал: «Ужель ещё вам мало?

Пред Гением Судьбы пора смириться, сöр».

He sat into the armchair beside the fire, tiredly,
And his dog lied at his feet on the carpet.
The guest said politely: "Isn't it enough already?
Before the Genius of Fate it's time to resign yourself, sir."

Van addresses his father “sir” and tells him that he had enough brandy:

‘I think, sir, you’ve had enough brandy.’

‘Sure, sure,’ said Demon, wrestling with a subtle question which only the ineptitude of a kindred conjecture had crowded out of Marina’s mind, granted it could have entered by some back door; for ineptitude is always synonymous with multitude, and nothing is fuller than an empty mind.

‘Naturally,’ continued Demon, ‘there is a good deal to be said for a restful summer in the country...’

‘Open-air life and all that,’ said Van.

‘It is incredible that a young boy should control his father’s liquor intake,’ remarked Demon, pouring himself a fourth shallow. (1.38)

In his poem Neznakomka (“Incognita,” 1906) Blok mentions p’yanitsy s glazami krolikov (the drunks with the eyes of rabbits) who cry out “In vino veritas!” At the family dinner in Ardis the Second Demon uses the phrase s glazami (with the eyes) and mentions Dr Krolik (the local entomologist and Ada’s beloved teacher of natural history):

‘Marina,’ murmured Demon at the close of the first course. ‘Marina,’ he repeated louder. ‘Far from me’ (a locution he favored) ‘to criticize Dan’s taste in white wines or the manners de vos domestiques. You know me, I’m above all that rot, I’m...’ (gesture); ‘but, my dear,’ he continued, switching to Russian, ‘the chelovek who brought me the pirozhki — the new man, the plumpish one with the eyes (s glazami) —’

‘Everybody has eyes,’ remarked Marina drily.

‘Well, his look as if they were about to octopus the food he serves. But that’s not the point. He pants, Marina! He suffers from some kind of odïshka (shortness of breath). He should see Dr Krolik. It’s depressing. It’s a rhythmic pumping pant. It made my soup ripple.’

‘Look, Dad,’ said Van, ‘Dr Krolik can’t do much, because, as you know quite well, he’s dead, and Marina can’t tell her servants not to breathe, because, as you also know, they’re alive.’

‘The Veen wit, the Veen wit,’ murmured Demon. (1.28)

The characters of Anya v strane chudes include Krolik (the Rabbit). At a Mad Tea-Party the Dormouse tells a story about three little sisters who lived at the bottom of a well and drew everything that begins with an M:

'They were learning to draw,' the Dormouse went on, yawning and rubbing its eyes, for it was getting very sleepy; 'and they drew all manner of things — everything that begins with an M — '

'Why with an M?' said Alice.

'Why not?' said the March Hare.

Alice was silent.

The Dormouse had closed its eyes by this time, and was going off into a doze; but, on being pinched by the Hatter, it woke up again with a little shriek, and went on: ' — that begins with an M, such as mouse-traps, and the moon, and memory, and muchness — you know you say things are "much of a muchness" — did you ever see such a thing as a drawing of a muchness?'

“Much of a muchness” brings to mind the last words of Ada, “and much, much more:”

Not the least adornment of the chronicle is the delicacy of pictorial detail: a latticed gallery; a painted ceiling; a pretty plaything stranded among the forget-me-nots of a brook; butterflies and butterfly orchids in the margin of the romance; a misty view descried from marble steps; a doe at gaze in the ancestral park; and much, much more. (5.6)

On the other hand, it reminds one of sad nothings fingerpainted on wet stone by Lucette’s music teacher, Philip Rack:

The melancholy young German was in a philosophical mood shading into the suicidal. He had to return to Kalugano with his Elsie, who Doc Ecksreher thought ‘would present him with driplets in dry weeks.’ He hated Kalugano, his and her home town, where in a moment of ‘mutual aberration’ stupid Elsie had given him her all on a park bench after a wonderful office party at Muzakovski’s Organs where the oversexed pitiful oaf had a good job.

‘When are you leaving?’ asked Ada.

‘Forestday — after tomorrow.’

‘Fine. That’s fine. Adieu, Mr Rack.’

Poor Philip drooped, fingerpainting sad nothings on wet stone, shaking his heavy head, gulping visibly.

‘One feels… One feels,’ he said, ‘that one is merely playing a role and has forgotten the next speech.’

‘I’m told many feel that,’ said Ada; ‘it must be a furchtbar feeling.’

‘Cannot be helped? No hope any more at all? I am dying, yes?’

‘You are dead, Mr Rack,’ said Ada. (1.32)

The name of one of the three sisters in the Dormouse’s story was Elsie:

'Once upon a time there were three little sisters,' the Dormouse began in a great hurry; 'and their names were Elsie, Lacie, and Tillie; and they lived at the bottom of a well — '

In the old Russian alphabet the letter M was called myslete. Pisat’ myslete (to write M) means “to walk like a drunk.” Demon points out to Van (who is certainly no T-totaler) the abnormality of Daniel Veen’s walk:

‘I must warn Marina,’ said Demon after a gum-rinse and a slow swallow, ‘that her husband should stop swilling tittery, and stick to French and Califrench wines — after that little stroke he had. I met him in town recently, near Mad Avenue, saw him walking toward me quite normally, but then as he caught sight of me, a block away, the clockwork began slowing down and he stopped — oh, helplessly! — before he reached me. That’s hardly normal. Okay. Let our sweethearts never meet, as we used to say, up at Chose. Only Yukonians think cognac is bad for the liver, because they have nothing but vodka. Well, I’m glad you get along so well with Ada. That’s fine. A moment ago, in that gallery, I ran into a remarkably pretty soubrette. She never once raised her lashes and answered in French when I — Please, my boy, move that screen a little, that’s right, the stab of a sunset, especially from under a thunderhead, is not for my poor eyes. Or poor ventricles. Do you like the type, Van — the bowed little head, the bare neck, the high heels, the trot, the wiggle, you do, don’t you?’

‘Well, sir —’

(Tell him I’m the youngest Venutian? Does he belong, too? Show the sign? Better not. Invent.)

‘— Well, I’m resting after my torrid affair, in London, with my tango-partner whom you saw me dance with when you flew over for that last show — remember?’

‘Indeed, I do. Curious, you calling it that.’ (1.38)

“Mad Avenue” hints at Madison Avenue in New York. At the family dinner Demon gives a slightly different version of his meeting with Dan:

‘I was telling Van a moment ago,’ he continued, raising his voice (he labored under the delusion that Marina had grown rather deaf), ‘about your husband. My dear, he overdoes the juniper vodka stuff, he’s getting, in fact, a mite fuzzy and odd. The other day I chanced to walk through Pat Lane on the Fourth Avenue side, and there he was coming, at quite a spin, in his horrid town car, that primordial petrol two-seater he’s got, with the tiller. Well, he saw me, from quite a distance, and waved, and the whole contraption began to shake down, and finally stopped half a block away, and there he sat trying to budge it with little jerks of his haunches, you know, like a child who can’t get his tricycle unstuck, and as I walked up to him I had the definite impression that it was his mechanism that had stalled, not the Hardpan’s.’ But what Demon, in the goodness of his crooked heart, omitted to tell Marina was that the imbecile, in secret from his art adviser, Mr Aix, had acquired for a few thousand dollars from a gaming friend of Demon’s, and with Demon’s blessings, a couple of fake Correggios — only to resell them by some unforgivable fluke to an equally imbecile collector, for half a million which Demon considered henceforth as a loan his cousin should certainly refund him if sanity counted for something on this gemel planet. And, conversely, Marina refrained from telling Demon about the young hospital nurse Dan had been monkeying with ever since his last illness (it was, by the way, she, busybody Bess, whom Dan had asked on a memorable occasion to help him get ‘something nice for a half-Russian child interested in biology’). (ibid.)

The name of Dan’s nurse hints at Dostoevski’s novel Besy (“The Possessed,” 1873). At Van’s first tea-party in Ardis Marina mentions Dostoevski:

They now had tea in a prettily furnished corner of the otherwise very austere central hall from which rose the grand staircase. They sat on chairs upholstered in silk around a pretty table. Ada’s black jacket and a pink-yellow-blue nosegay she had composed of anemones, celandines and columbines lay on a stool of oak. The dog got more bits of cake than it did ordinarily. Price, the mournful old footman who brought the cream for the strawberries, resembled Van’s teacher of history, ‘Jeejee’ Jones.

‘He resembles my teacher of history,’ said Van when the man had gone.

‘I used to love history,’ said Marina, ‘I loved to identify myself with famous women. There’s a ladybird on your plate, Ivan. Especially with famous beauties — Lincoln’s second wife or Queen Josephine.’

‘Yes, I’ve noticed — it’s beautifully done. We’ve got a similar set at home.’

‘Slivok (some cream)? I hope you speak Russian?’ Marina asked Van, as she poured him a cup of tea.

‘Neohotno no sovershenno svobodno (reluctantly but quite fluently),’ replied Van, slegka ulïbnuvshis’ (with a slight smile). ‘Yes, lots of cream and three lumps of sugar.’

‘Ada and I share your extravagant tastes. Dostoevski liked it with raspberry syrup.’

‘Pah,’ uttered Ada. (1.5)

The Antiterran L disaster in the beau milieu of the 19th century seems to correspond to the mock execution of Dostoevski and the Petrashevskians on Jan. 3, 1850, in our world. In the old Russian alphabet the letter L was called lyudi. In his poem Borodino (1837) Lermontov mentions koni, lyudi (horses, men):

Изведал враг в тот день немало,

Что значит русский бой удалый,

Наш рукопашный бой!..

Земля тряслась - как наши груди,

Смешались в кучу кони, люди,

И залпы тысячи орудий

Слились в протяжный вой...

The foe that day had many ways
To feel what daring combat weighs,
Our Russian hand-to-hand!..
As did our chests – earth's hollows trembled;
The steeds, the men all disassembled,
And cannon volleys' sound resembled
A moaning o'er the land...

The name of Demon’s rival, d’Onsky, seems to hint at Onegin’s donskoy zherebets (Don stallion) in Chapter Two (V: 4) of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. Russian for “horse,” kon’ also means “knight” (chessman). Russian for “elephant,” slon also means “bishop” (chessman). The characters of Ada include Dr Fitzbishop, the Kalugano surgeon from whom Van learns about Philip Rack’s illness and death:

Dr Fitzbishop congratulated him on having escaped with a superficial muscle wound, the bullet having lightly grooved or, if he might say so, grazed the greater serratus. Doc Fitz commented on Van’s wonderful recuperational power which was already in evidence, and promised to have him out of disinfectants and bandages in ten days or so if for the first three he remained as motionless as a felled tree-trunk. Did Van like music? Sportsmen usually did, didn’t they? Would he care to have a Sonorola by his bed? No, he disliked music, but did the doctor, being a concert-goer, know perhaps where a musician called Rack could be found? ‘Ward Five,’ answered the doctor promptly. Van misunderstood this as the title of some piece of music and repeated his question. Would he find Rack’s address at Harper’s music shop? Well, they used to rent a cottage way down Dorofey Road, near the forest, but now some other people had moved in. Ward Five was where hopeless cases were kept. The poor guy had always had a bad liver and a very indifferent heart, but on top of that a poison had seeped into his system; the local ‘lab’ could not identify it and they were now waiting for a report, on those curiously frog-green faeces, from the Luga people. If Rack had administered it to himself by his own hand, he kept ‘mum’; it was more likely the work of his wife who dabbled in Hindu-Andean voodoo stuff and had just had a complicated miscarriage in the maternity ward. Yes, triplets — how did he guess? Anyway, if Van was so eager to visit his old pal it would have to be as soon as he could be rolled to Ward Five in a wheelchair by Dorofey, so he’d better apply a bit of voodoo, ha-ha, on his own flesh and blood. (1.42)

On Monday around noon he was allowed to sit in a deckchair, on the lawn, which he had avidly gazed at for some days from his window. Dr Fitzbishop had said, rubbing his hands, that the Luga laboratory said it was the not always lethal ‘arethusoides’ but it had no practical importance now, because the unfortunate music teacher, and composer, was not expected to spend another night on Demonia, and would be on Terra, ha-ha, in time for evensong. Doc Fitz was what Russians call a poshlyak (‘pretentious vulgarian’) and in some obscure counter-fashion Van was relieved not to be able to gloat over the wretched Rack’s martyrdom. (ibid.)

Dr Fitzbishop calls poor Rack (who at a party in Ardis fingerpainted sad nothings) “a hopeless case.” In his essay on Chekhov, Tvorchestvo iz nichego (“Creation from Nothing,” 1905), Lev Shestov (the philosopher whose penname comes from shest’, “six”) calls Chekhov (the author of “Ward No. Six,” 1892) pevets beznadyozhnosti (a poet of hopelessness). Shestov’s essay has for epigraph a line from Baudelaire’s poem Le Goût du néant (“The Desire for Annihilation”): Résigne-toi, mon cœur, dors ton sommeil de brute (Resign yourself, my heart; sleep your brutish sleep). Describing the family dinner at Ardis, Van mentions the British writer Richard Leonard Churchill who mistranslates a trite French phrase (chacun à son goût) twice in the course of his novel about a certain Crimean Khan:

Van remembered that his tutor’s great friend, the learned but prudish Semyon Afanasievich Vengerov, then a young associate professor but already a celebrated Pushkinist (1855–1954), used to say that the only vulgar passage in his author’s work was the cannibal joy of young gourmets tearing ‘plump and live’ oysters out of their ‘cloisters’ in an unfinished canto of Eugene Onegin. But then ‘everyone has his own taste,’ as the British writer Richard Leonard Churchill mistranslates a trite French phrase (chacun à son gout) twice in the course of his novel about a certain Crimean Khan once popular with reporters and politicians, ‘A Great Good Man’ — according, of course, to the cattish and prejudiced Guillaume Monparnasse about whose new celebrity Ada, while dipping the reversed corolla of one hand in a bowl, was now telling Demon, who was performing the same rite in the same graceful fashion. (1.38)

Darkbloom (‘Notes to Ada’): Great good man: a phrase that Winston Churchill, the British politician, enthusiastically applied to Stalin.

One of the seconds in Demon’s sword duel with d’Onsky was Colonel St Alin, a scoundrel:

The challenge was accepted; two native seconds were chosen; the Baron plumped for swords; and after a certain amount of good blood (Polish and Irish — a kind of American ‘Gory Mary’ in barroom parlance) had bespattered two hairy torsoes, the whitewashed terrace, the flight of steps leading backward to the walled garden in an amusing Douglas d’Artagnan arrangement, the apron of a quite accidental milkmaid, and the shirtsleeves of both seconds, charming Monsieur de Pastrouil and Colonel St Alin, a scoundrel, the latter gentlemen separated the panting combatants, and Skonky died, not ‘of his wounds’ (as it was viciously rumored) but of a gangrenous afterthought on the part of the least of them, possibly self-inflicted, a sting in the groin, which caused circulatory trouble, notwithstanding quite a few surgical interventions during two or three years of protracted stays at the Aardvark Hospital in Boston — a city where, incidentally, he married in 1869 our friend the Bohemian lady, now keeper of Glass Biota at the local museum. (1.2)

Alexey Sklyarenko

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