Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0027692, Fri, 16 Mar 2018 22:11:09 +0300

Neckton, Cyraniana & Max Medlar in Ada
Describing his novel Letters from Terra, Van Veen (the narrator and main character in VN’s novel Ada, 1969) mentions Mr Nekto’s ripe boil newly lanced in Nektor or Neckton:

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. (2.2)

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

Nekto: Russ., quidam.

Neckton brings to mind Mlle Larivière’s story “The Necklace:”

Yes! Wasn’t that a scream? Larivière blossoming forth, bosoming forth as a great writer! A sensational Canadian bestselling author! Her story ‘The Necklace’ (La rivière de diamants) had become a classic in girls’ schools and her gorgeous pseudonym ‘Guillaume de Monparnasse’ (the leaving out of the ‘t’ made it more intime) was well-known from Quebec to Kaluga. As she put it in her exotic English: ‘Fame struck and the roubles rolled, and the dollars poured’ (both currencies being used at the time in East Estotiland); but good Ida, far from abandoning Marina, with whom she had been platonically and irrevocably in love ever since she had seen her in ‘Bilitis,’ accused herself of neglecting Lucette by overindulging in Literature; consequently she now gave the child, in spurts of vacational zeal, considerably more attention than poor little Ada (said Ada) had received at twelve, after her first (miserable) term at school. (1.31)

Lucette’s governess, Mlle Larivière sent her story (that she reads at the picnic on Ada’s twelfth birthday) to The Quebec Quarterly:

Finally Mlle Larivière read her La Rivière de Diamants, a story she had just typed out for The Quebec Quarterly. (1.13)

In Cyrano de Bergerac’s L’autre Monde ou les Histoire comique des Etats de la Lune (1657) the narrator’s journey to the moon begins in Quebec:

Je la cherchai longtemps, mais enfin je la trouvai au milieu de la place de Québec, comme on y mettait le feu. La douleur de rencontrer l’ouvrage de mes mains en un si grand péril me transporta tellement que je courus saisir le bras du soldat qui allumait le feu. Je lui arrachai sa mèche, et me jetai tout furieux dans ma machine pour briser l’artifice dont elle était environnée; mais j’arrivai trop tard, car à peine y eus-je les deux pieds que me voilà enlevé dans la nue.

In the mean time I was long in search of it, but found it at length in the Market-place of Kebeck (Quebec), just as they were setting Fire to it. I was so transported with Grief, to find the Work of my Hands in so great Peril, that I ran to the Souldier that was giving Fire to it, caught hold of his Arm, pluckt the Match out of his Hand, and in great rage threw my self into my Machine, that I might undo the Fire–Works that they had stuck about it; but I came too late, for hardly were both my Feet within, when whip, away went I up in a Cloud. (chapter IV)

In Cyrano de Bergerac’s novel the narrator mentions nèfles (medlars) and choux (cabbages):

Ajoutez à cela l’orgueil insupportable des humains, qui leur persuade que la nature n’a été faite que pour eux; comme s’il était vraisemblable que le soleil, un grand corps, quatre cent trente-quatre fois plus vaste que la terre, n’eût été allumé que pour mûrir ses nèfles, et pommer ses choux.

To this may be added the unsupportable Pride of Mankind, who perswade themselves that Nature hath only been made for them; as if it were likely that the Sun, a vast Body Four hundred and thirty four times bigger than the Earth, had only been kindled to ripen their Medlars and plumpen their Cabbages. (chapter III)

Van’s novel Letters from Terra was reviewed by the poet Max Mispel whose name means in German “medlar:”

The only other compliment was paid to poor Voltemand in a little Manhattan magazine (The Village Eyebrow) by the poet Max Mispel (another botanical name — ‘medlar’ in English), member of the German Department at Goluba University. Herr Mispel, who liked to air his authors, discerned in Letters from Terra the influence of Osberg (Spanish writer of pretentious fairy tales and mystico-allegoric anecdotes, highly esteemed by short-shift thesialists) as well as that of an obscene ancient Arab, expounder of anagrammatic dreams, Ben Sirine, thus transliterated by Captain de Roux, according to Burton in his adaptation of Nefzawi’s treatise on the best method of mating with obese or hunchbacked females (The Perfumed Garden, Panther edition, p.187, a copy given to ninety-three-year-old Baron Van Veen by his ribald physician Professor Lagosse). His critique ended 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.’

Upon being cornered, Gwen, a fat little fille de joie (by inclination if not by profession), squealed on one of her new admirers, confessing she had begged him to write that article because she could not bear to see Van’s ‘crooked little smile’ at finding his beautifully bound and boxed book so badly neglected. She also swore that Max not only did not know who Voltemand really was, but had not read Van’s novel. 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)

Van’s tentative cartel brings to mind a brief challenge or cartel sent by Lenski to Onegin in Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin (Six: IX):

То был приятный, благородный,
Короткий вызов, иль картель:
Учтиво, с ясностью холодной
Звал друга Ленский на дуэль.
Онегин с первого движенья,
К послу такого порученья
Оборотясь, без лишних слов
Сказал, что он всегда готов.
Зарецкий встал без объяснений;
Остаться доле не хотел,
Имея дома много дел,
И тотчас вышел; но Евгений
Наедине с своей душой
Был недоволен сам собой.

It was a pleasant, gentlemanly,

brief challenge or cartel:

politely, with cold clearness, to a duel

Lenski called out his friend.

Onegin, on a first impulsion

to the envoy of such an errand

turning, without superfluous words

said he was “always ready.”

Zaretski got up without explanations —

did not want to stay longer,

having at home a lot of things to do —

and forthwith left; but Eugene,

alone remaining with his soul,

felt ill-contented with himself.

Lenski’s second, Zaretski plants cabbages like Horace:

Как я сказал, Зарецкий мой,
Под сень черемух и акаций
От бурь укрывшись наконец,
Живёт, как истинный мудрец,
Капусту садит, как Гораций,
Разводит уток и гусей
И учит азбуке детей.

As I've said, my Zarétski,

beneath the racemosas and the pea trees

having at last found shelter

from tempests, lives like a true sage,

plants cabbages like Horace,

breeds ducks and geese,

and teaches his children the A B C. (Six: VII: 8-14)

“Max Mushmula” (as Van calls Max Mispel) seems to hint at voskovaya mushmula (the waxen fruit of medlar) mentioned by VN in his poem Krym (“The Crimea,” 1921):

О заколдованный, о дальний

воспоминаний уголок!

Внизу, над морем, цвет миндальный,

как нежно-розовый дымок,

и за поляною поляна,

и кедры мощные Ливана --

аллей пленительная мгла

(любовь любви моей туманной!),

и кипарис благоуханный,

и восковая мушмула...

Voskovaya mushmula in VN’s poem brings to mind apel’siny voskovye (the oranges filled with wax and used as candles at Christmas parties) mentioned by Gumilyov in his poem V etot moy blagoslovennyi vecher… (“On this my Blessed Evening…” 1917):

И светились звёзды золотые,
Приглашённые на торжество,
Словно апельсины восковые,
Те, что подают на Рождество.

The characters in Ada include Mr. Ronald Oranger, old Van’s secretary and editor of Van’s memoirs. His name seems to hint at the waxen oranges in Gumilyov’s poem and at Donald Duck, a cartoon character that has a yellow-orange bill, legs, and feet. Lenski’s second, Zaretski breeds ducks and geese.

According to Van, his knowledge of physics had remained limited to the scratch of a prep-school blackboard. Describing his years at Riverlane (Van’s prep-school), Van mentions Lucky Louse magazines:

The aging woman who sold barley sugar and Lucky Louse magazines in the corner shop, which by tradition was not strictly out of bounds, happened to hire a young helper, and Cheshire, the son of a thrifty lord, quickly ascertained that this fat little wench could be had for a Russian green dollar. Van was one of the first to avail himself of her favors. These were granted in semi-darkness, among crates and sacks at the back of the shop after hours. The fact of his having told her he was sixteen and a libertine instead of fourteen and a virgin proved a source of embarrassment to our hell-raker when he tried to bluster his inexperience into quick action but only succeeded in spilling on the welcome mat what she would have gladly helped him to take indoors. Things went better six minutes later, after Cheshire and Zographos were through; but only at the next mating party did Van really begin to enjoy her gentleness, her soft sweet grip and hearty joggle. He knew she was nothing but a fubsy pig-pink whore let and would elbow her face away when she attempted to kiss him after he had finished and was checking with one quick hand, as he had seen Cheshire do, if his wallet was still in his hip pocket; but somehow or other, when the last of some forty convulsions had come and gone in the ordinary course of collapsing time, and his train was bowling past black and green fields to Ardis, he found himself endowing with unsuspected poetry her poor image, the kitchen odor of her arms, the humid eyelashes in the sudden gleam of Cheshire’s lighter and even the creaky steps of old deaf Mrs Gimber in her bedroom upstairs. (1.4)

Lucky Louse magazines seem to blend Mickey Mouse (another cartoon character, a friend of Donald Duck) with Lucky Jim (1954), a novel by Kingsley Amis. Sig Leymanski (the name of the main character in Van’s Letters from Terra) is an anagram of Kingsley Amis (“a waggish British novelist keenly interested in physics fiction”).

Zographos brings to mind Zograf-Plaksin’s music school mentioned by Marina Tsvetaev (who spent the summers in Tarusa, a town in the Province of Kaluga) in her memoir essay Moy Pushkin (“My Pushkin,” 1937):

Немножко позже — мне было шесть лет, и это был мой первый музыкальный год — в музыкальной школе Зограф-Плаксиной, в Мерзляковском переулке, был, как это тогда называлось, публичный вечер — рождественский. Давали сцену из «Русалки», потом «Рогнеду» — и:

Теперь мы в сад перелетим,
Где встретилась Татьяна с ним.

Скамейка. На скамейке — Татьяна. Потом приходит Онегин, но не садится, а она встаёт. Оба стоят. И говорит только он, всё время, долго, а она не говорит ни слова. И тут я понимаю, что рыжий кот, Августа Ивановна, куклы не любовь, что это — любовь: когда скамейка, на скамейке — она, потом приходит он и всё время говорит, а она не говорит ни слова.

In her poem V Parizhe (“In Paris,” 1909) Marina Tsvetaev mentions Rostand (the author of Cyrano de Bergerac, a play in verse, 1897) and grust’ fialok (the sadness of violets):

Дома до звёзд, а небо ниже,

Земля в чаду ему близка.

В большом и радостном Париже

Все та же тайная тоска.

Шумны вечерние бульвары,

Последний луч зари угас,

Везде, везде всё пары, пары,

Дрожанье губ и дерзость глаз.

Я здесь одна. К стволу каштана

Прильнуть так сладко голове!

И в сердце плачет стих Ростана

Как там, в покинутой Москве.

Париж в ночи мне чужд и жалок,

Дороже сердцу прежний бред!

Иду домой, там грусть фиалок

И чей-то ласковый портрет.

Там чей-то взор печально-братский.

Там нежный профиль на стене.

Rostand и мученик Рейхштадтский

И Сара — все придут во сне!

В большом и радостном Париже

Мне снятся травы, облака,

И дальше смех, и тени ближе,

И боль как прежде глубока.

The buildings reach the stars, the sky is lower,
The land in smoke to it is near.
Inside the big and happy Paris
Remains the secretive despair.

The evening boulevards are noisy,
Gone are the sundown's final rays,
And there are couples everywhere
Trembling of lips, daring of eyes.

I'm here alone. To trunk of chestnut
It is so nice one's head to lean!
And like in the abandoned Moscow
In heart weep verses of Rostand.

Paris at night is sad and alien,
Dear to the heart is madness gone!
I'm going home, there's vial of sorrow
And tender portrait of someone.

There's someone's glance, sad and fraternal.
There's tender profile on the wall.
Rostand and the Reichstadtian martyr
And Sara - in sleep come they all!

Within the big and happy Paris
I dream of grass, of clouds and rain
And laughter far, and shadow near,
And deep just like before is pain.

Ronald Oranger marries Violet Knox, old Van’s typist whom Ada calls Fialochka (“little Violet,” 5.4). While Kingsley Amis brings to mind Van’s driver Kingsley, Edmond Rostand brings to mind Cordula’s driver Edmond:

Cordula told Edmond: ‘Arrêtez près de what’s-it-called, yes, Albion, le store pour messieurs, in Luga’; and as peeved Van remonstrated: ‘You can’t go back to civilization in pajamas,’ she said firmly. ‘I shall buy you some clothes, while Edmond has a mug of coffee.’

She bought him a pair of trousers, and a raincoat. He had been waiting impatiently in the parked car and now under the pretext of changing into his new clothes asked her to drive him to some secluded spot, while Edmond, wherever he was, had another mug. (1.42)

Marina Tsvetaev’s poem “In Paris” begins: Doma do zvyozd, a nebo nizhe (The buildings reach the stars, the sky is lower). Van begins to work on Letters from Terra living with Cordula in her Manhattan penthouse apartment:

His main industry consisted of research at the great granite-pillared Public Library, that admirable and formidable palace a few blocks from Cordula’s cosy flat. One is irresistibly tempted to compare the strange longings and nauseous qualms that enter into the complicated ecstasies accompanying the making of a young writer’s first book with childbearing. Van had only reached the bridal stage; then, to develop the metaphor, would come the sleeping car of messy defloration; then the first balcony of honeymoon breakfasts, with the first wasp. In no sense could Cordula be compared to a writer’s muse but the evening stroll back to her apartment was pleasantly saturated with the afterglow and afterthought of the accomplished task and the expectation of her caresses; he especially looked forward to those nights when they had an elaborate repast sent up from ‘Monaco,’ a good restaurant in the entresol of the tall building crowned by her penthouse and its spacious terrace. The sweet banality of their little ménage sustained him much more securely than the company of his constantly agitated and fiery father did at their rare meetings in town or was to do during a fortnight in Paris before the next term at Chose. Except gossip — gossamer gossip — Cordula had no conversation and that also helped. She had instinctively realized very soon that she should never mention Ada or Ardis. He, on his part, accepted the evident fact that she did not really love him. Her small, clear, soft, well-padded and rounded body was delicious to stroke, and her frank amazement at the variety and vigor of his love-making anointed what still remained of poor Van’s crude virile pride. She would doze off between two kisses. When he could not sleep, as now often happened, he retired to the sitting room and sat there annotating his authors or else he would walk up and down the open terrace, under a haze of stars, in severely restricted meditation, till the first tramcar jangled and screeched in the dawning abyss of the city.

When in early September Van Veen left Manhattan for Lute, he was pregnant. (1.43)

Lute is the Antiterran name of Paris (Cyrano de Bergerac’s home city).

Alexey Sklyarenko

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