Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0027690, Tue, 13 Mar 2018 13:51:55 +0300

Cyraniana, Mr Nekto,
execrable romanchiks & chameleonizations in Ada
Describing his novel Letters from Terra, Van Veen (the narrator and main character in VN’s novel Ada, 1969) mentions chameleonizations:

There were good reasons to disregard the technological details involved in delineating intercommunication between Terra the Fair and our terrible Antiterra. His knowledge of physics, mechanicalism and that sort of stuff had remained limited to the scratch of a prep-school blackboard. He consoled himself with the thought that no censor in America or Great Britain would pass the slightest reference to ‘magnetic’ gewgaws. Quietly, he borrowed what his greatest forerunners (Counterstone, for example) had imagined in the way of a manned capsule’s propulsion, including the clever idea of an initial speed of a few thousand miles per hour increasing, under the influence of a Counterstonian type of intermediate environment between sibling galaxies, to several trillions of light-years per second, before dwindling harmlessly to a parachute’s indolent descent. Elaborating anew, in irrational fabrications, all that Cyraniana and ‘physics fiction’ would have been not only a bore but an absurdity, for nobody knew how far Terra, or other innumerable planets with cottages and cows, might be situated in outer or inner space: ‘inner,’ because why not assume their microcosmic presence in the golden globules ascending quick-quick in this flute of Moët or in the corpuscles of my, Van Veen’s —

(or my, Ada Veen’s)

— bloodstream, or in the pus of a Mr Nekto’s ripe boil newly lanced in Nektor or Neckton. Moreover, although reference works existed on library shelves in available, and redundant, profusion, no direct access could be obtained to the banned, or burned, books of the three cosmologists, Xertigny, Yates and Zotov (pen names), who had recklessly started the whole business half a century earlier, causing, and endorsing, panic, demency and execrable romanchiks. All three scientists had vanished now: X had committed suicide; Y had been kidnapped by a laundryman and transported to Tartary; and Z, a ruddy, white-whiskered old sport, was driving his Yakima jailers crazy by means of incomprehensible crepitations, ceaseless invention of invisible inks, chameleonizations, nerve signals, spirals of out-going lights and feats of ventriloquism that imitated pistol shots and sirens. (2.2)

Darkbloom (‘Notes to Ada’): Cyraniana: allusion to Cyrano de Bergerac’s Histoire comique des Etats de la Lune.

Nekto: Russ., quidam.

romanchik: Russ., novelette.

“Chameleonizations” bring to mind Chekhov’s story Khameleon (“The Chameleon,” 1884). In Moscow Chekhov and his family lived at first in the Bolshaya Yakimanka street. In Chekhov’s play Tri sestry (“The Three Sisters,” 1901), known on Antiterra as Four Sisters (2.1, et passim), the three sisters dream of returning to Moscow and Dr. Chebutykin mentions Natasha’s romanchink (love affair) with Protopopov:

Чебутыкин (роняет часы, которые разбиваются). Вдребезги!
Пауза; все огорчены и сконфужены.
Кулыгин (подбирает осколки). Разбить такую дорогую вещь - ах, Иван Романыч, Иван Романыч! Ноль с минусом вам за поведение!
Ирина. Это часы покойной мамы.
Чебутыкин. Может быть... Мамы так мамы. Может, я не разбивал, а только кажется, что разбил. Может быть, нам только кажется, что мы существуем, а на самом деле нас нет. Ничего я не знаю, никто ничего не знает. (У двери.) Что смотрите? У Наташи романчик с Протопоповым, а вы не видите... Вы вот сидите тут и ничего не видите, а у Наташи романчик с Протопоповым... (Поет.) Не угодно ль этот финик вам принять... (Уходит.)

Вершинин. Да... (Смеётся.) Как всё это в сущности странно!

Chebutykin. [Drops the clock which breaks to pieces] To smithereens!

[A pause; everybody is pained and confused.]

Kulygin. [Gathering up the pieces] To smash such a valuable object — oh, Ivan Romanovich, Ivan Romanovich! A very bad mark for your misbehaviour!

Irina. That clock used to belong to our mother.

Chebutykin. Perhaps. . . . To your mother, your mother. Perhaps I didn’t break it; it only looks as if I broke it. Perhaps we only think that we exist, when really we don’t. I don’t know anything, nobody knows anything. [At the door] What are you looking at? Natasha has a little romance with Protopopov, and you don’t see it. . . . There you sit and see nothing, and Natasha has a little romance with Protopovov. . . . [Sings] Won’t you please accept this date. . . . [Exit.]

Vershinin. Yes. [Laughs] How strange everything really is! (Act Three)

The essays in I. Annenski’s Kniga otrazheniy (“The Book of Reflections,” 1906) include Drama nastroeniya. Tri sestry (“A Drama of Moods. The Three Sisters”). At the end of his essay Annenski points out that Chebutykin did not read Shakespeare and did not know that Voltaire was called “the Hermit of Ferney” and that he was an atheist:

А он глядел, любовался и молчал. И зачем он, глупый, молчал? Нет, о нет же, мы-то не будем такими. Что за ужас... Оставьте... Конечно, он и жалкий, и милый, и честный... Но ведь он пьёт... Что же из того, что пьёт? Это кому как бог даст. Но посмотрите ж, однако, ведь он даже не читал Шекспира. Он знает Добролюбова из газет... Понимаете, даже не из "Мира божия", а из газет. Он не знает, что Вольтера называли фернейским отшельником и что он... что он был... атеистом, что ли? Или нет, постойте... Как это? La pucelle... La pucelle...

Van’s penname, Voltemand, hints at a courtier in Hamlet, but it also brings to mind Voltaire. In his essay O sovremennom lirizme (“On Modern Lyricism,” 1909) Annenski mentions Cyrano de Bergerac:

И вот один отщеп его стал страшен и трагичен. Те прежние -- романтики -- умели только верить и гибнуть, они пожертвовали своему богу даже последними цветами молодости -- красотой мечты. Но уже вовсе не таковы современные поэты, да и вообще наши молодые художники слова. И если это -- богема, то буржуазная богема. Новые писатели символизируют собою в обществе инстинкт самосохранения, традиций и медленного культурного преуспеяния. Их оправдание в искусстве, и ни в чём более. Если над тем, первым романтизмом, всё тот же -- единственный Иегова, то у этих последних в огороде понасажены целые сонмы богов. И вот легенды-то, пожалуй, у поэтов и клеятся, но ни одной легенды не возникнет вокруг современных поэтических имён. Это можно сказать почти с уверенностью. Сирано де Бержерак или хотя бы Жерар де Нерваль? Пушкин? Шевченко?

Annenski published his “Book of Reflections” under the penname Nik. T-o (“Mr. Nobody”). In his essay Ob Annenskom (“On Annenski,” 1921) Hodasevich compares Annenski to Ivan Ilyich Golovin, the main character in Tolstoy’s story Smert’ Ivana Ilyicha (“The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” 1886), mentions Annenski’s penname Nik. T-o (a translation of Greek Outis, the pseudonym under which Odysseus concealed his identity from the Cyclops Polyphemus) and contrasts it with nekto (somebody):

Чего не додумал Иван Ильич, то знал Анненский. Знал, что никаким директорством, никаким бытом и даже никакой филологией от смерти по-настоящему не загородиться. Она уничтожит и директора, и барина, и филолога. Только над истинным его "я", над тем, чтo отображается в "чувствах и мыслях", над личностью -- у неё как будто нет власти. И он находил реальное, осязаемое отражение и утверждение личности -- в поэзии. Тот, чьё лицо он видел, подходя к зеркалу, был директор гимназии, смертный никто. Тот, чьё лицо отражалось в поэзии, был бессмертный некто. Ник. Т-о -- никто -- есть безличный действительный статский советник, которым, как видимой оболочкой, прикрыт невидимый некто. Этот свой псевдоним, под которым он печатал стихи, Анненский рассматривал как перевод греческого "outis", никто, -- того самого псевдонима, под которым Одиссей скрыл от циклопа Полифема своё истинное имя, свою подлинную личность, своего некто. Поэзия была для него заклятием страшного Полифема -- смерти. Но психологически это не только не мешало, а даже способствовало тому, чтобы его вдохновительницей, его Музой была смерть.

According to Hodasevich, the person whose face Annenski saw in a mirror was smertnyi nikto (a mortal nobody) and the person whose face was reflected in Annenski’s poetry was bessmertnyi nekto (the immortal somebody). On the other hand, Nekto v serom (Someone in Gray) is a character in Leonid Andreev’s play Zhizn’ cheloveka (“The Life of a Man,” 1907). One of Annenski’s essays is entitled Teatr Leonida Andreeva (“The Theater of Leonid Andreev,” 1909). At the Goodson airport in Man (the Antiterran name of Manhattan) Demon Veen (Van’s and Ada’s father) asks Van why he is clad in gray:

Demon, flaunting his flair, desired to be told if Van or his poule had got into trouble with the police (nodding toward Jim or John who having some other delivery to make sat glancing through Crime Copulate Bessarmenia).

‘Poule,’ replied Van with the evasive taciturnity of the Roman rabbi shielding Barabbas.

‘Why gray?’ asked Demon, alluding to Van’s overcoat. ‘Why that military cut? It’s too late to enlist.’

‘I couldn’t — my draft board would turn me down anyway.’

‘How’s the wound?’

‘Komsi-komsa. It now appears that the Kalugano surgeon messed up his job. The rip seam has grown red and raw, without any reason, and there’s a lump in my armpit. I’m in for another spell of surgery — this time in London, where butchers carve so much better. Where’s the mestechko here? Oh, I see it. Cute (a gentian painted on one door, a lady fern on the other: have to go to the herbarium).’ (2.1)

In Kalugano Van was wounded in a pistol with Captain Tapper, of Wild Violet Lodge. Duel’ (“The Duel,” 1891) is a story by Chekhov. At the end of “The Three Sisters” Solyony kills Tuzenbakh (Irina’s fiancé) in a pistol duel. The name of Van’s adversary seems to hint at Chekhov’s story Tapyor (“The Ballroom Pianist,” 1885). Slepoy tapyor (“The Blind Pianist,” 1876) is a poem by Polonski (who dedicated to Chekhov his poem U dveri, “At the Door,” 1888). There are three blind characters in Ada. One of them, Kim Beauharnais (the kitchen boy and photographer at Ardis), was blinded by Van for spying on him and Ada and attempting to blackmail Ada (2.11). In a letter to Van Ada mentions a ‘Home for Blind Blacks’ and pretty ‘Miss’ Kim Blackrent (3.7). Kim Beauharnais seems to be a son of Arkadiy Dolgorukiy, the main character in Dostoevski’s novel Podrostok (“The Adolescent,” 1875), and Alphonsine (a French girl in the same novel). He probably was stolen by the Gypsies who somehow managed to smuggle him to Antiterra. The characters in Dostoevski’s novel Bednye lyudi (“Poor Folk,” 1846) written in an epistolary form include Theresa, an old servant woman who brings Makar Devushkin’s letters to Varenka Dobrosyolov and Varenka’s letters to Makar. In the old Russian alphabet the letter L was called lyudi. The phenomenon of Terra appeared on Demonia (aka Antiterra, Earth’s twin planet on which Ada is set) after the L disaster in the beau milieu of the 19th century (1.3). The Antiterran L disaster seems to correspond to the mock execution of Dostoevski and the Petrashevskians on Jan. 3, 1850 (NS), in our world. One of the essays in Annenski’s “Book of Reflections” is entitled Dostoevskiy do katastrofy (“Dostoevski before the Disaster”). In Dostoevski’s story Son smeshnogo cheloveka (“The Dream of a Ridiculous Man,” 1976) the narrator visits Earth’s twin planet after committing suicide in his dream.

Alexey Sklyarenko

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