Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0027708, Sat, 7 Apr 2018 21:09:50 +0300

La duree & orgiastic soda in Ada
Describing his dialogue over the dorophone (hydraulic telephone) with his
secretary, Van Veen (the narrator and main character in VN’s novel Ada,
1969) mentions la durée:

At this point, as in a well-constructed play larded with comic relief, the
brass campophone buzzed and not only did the radiators start to cluck but
the uncapped soda water fizzed in sympathy.

Van (crossly): ‘I don’t understand the first word... What’s that? L’ador
ée? Wait a second’ (to Lucette). ‘Please, stay where you are.’ (Lucette
whispers a French child-word with two ‘p’s.). ‘Okay’ (pointing toward
the corridor). ‘Sorry, Polly. Well, is it l’adorée? No? Give me the
context. Ah ― la durée. La durée is not... sin on what? Synonymous with
duration. Aha. Sorry again, I must stopper that orgiastic soda. Hold the
line.’ (Yells down the ‘cory door,’ as they called the long second-floor
passage at Ardis.) ‘Lucette, let it run over, who cares!’

He poured himself another glass of brandy and for a ridiculous moment could
not remember what the hell he had been ― yes, the polliphone.

It had died, but buzzed as soon as he recradled the receiver, and Lucette
knocked discreetly at the same time.

‘La durée... For goodness sake, come in without knocking... No, Polly,
knocking does not concern you ― it’s my little cousin. All right. La duré
e is not synonymous with duration, being saturated ― yes, as in Saturday ―
with that particular philosopher’s thought. What’s wrong now? You don’t
know if it’s dorée or durée? D, U, R. I thought you knew French. Oh, I
see. So long.

‘My typist, a trivial but always available blonde, could not make out duré
e in my quite legible hand because, she says, she knows French, but not
scientific French.’

‘Actually,’ observed Lucette, wiping the long envelope which a drop of
soda had stained, ‘Bergson is only for very young people or very unhappy
people, such as this available rousse.’

‘Spotting Bergson,’ said the assistant lecher, ‘rates a B minus dans ton
petit cas, hardly more. Or shall I reward you with a kiss on your krestik ―
whatever that is?’

Wincing and rearranging his legs, our young Vandemonian cursed under his
breath the condition in which the image of the four embers of a vixen’s
cross had now solidly put him. One of the synonyms of ‘condition’ is
‘state,’ and the adjective ‘human’ may be construed as ‘manly’ (since
L’Humanité means ‘Mankind’!), and that’s how, my dears, Lowden recently
translated the title of the malheureux Pompier’s cheap novel La Condition
Humaine, wherein, incidentally, the term ‘Vandemonian’ is hilariously
glossed as ‘Koulak tasmanien d’origine hollandaise.’ Kick her out before
it is too late.

‘If you are serious,’ said Lucette, passing her tongue over her lips and
slitting her darkening eyes, ‘then, my darling, you can do it now. But if
you are making fun of me, then you’re an abominably cruel Vandemonian.’

‘Come, come, Lucette, it means "little cross" in Russian, that’s all, what
else? Is it some amulet? You mentioned just now a little red stud or pawn.
Is it something you wear, or used to wear, on a chainlet round your neck? a
small acorn of coral, the glandulella of vestals in ancient Rome? What’s
the matter, my dear?’ (2.5)

In Opravdanie svobody (“Justification of Freedom,” 1924), a review of
Berdyaev’s book Filosofiya neravenstva (“The Philosophy of Inequality,”
1924), Zinaida Hippius mentions Bergson’s la durée and renders it as

Революция не имеет дленья (la durée, по Бергс
ону), и когда мы говорим о ?революции? \xa8C мы
говорим, в сущности, о временах, окружающи
х этот миг; о времени ?послереволюционно
м?, о революционных ?эпохах?… Отсюда и спор
ы, когда именно, какая революция кончилас
ь. Споры неразрешимые, ибо революция есть
реальное, но неуследимое мгновенье.

According to Hippius, Revolution has no dlenye. Describing the difference
between Terra and Antiterra (aka Demonia, Earth’s twin planet on which Ada
is set), Van mentions Revolution:

Revelation can be more perilous than Revolution. Sick minds identified the
notion of a Terra planet with that of another world and this ‘Other World’
got confused not only with the ‘Next World’ but with the Real World in us
and beyond us. Our enchanters, our demons, are noble iridescent creatures
with translucent talons and mightily beating wings; but in the
eighteen-sixties the New Believers urged one to imagine a sphere where our
splendid friends had been utterly degraded, had become nothing but vicious
monsters, disgusting devils, with the black scrota of carnivora and the
fangs of serpents, revilers and tormentors of female souls; while on the
opposite side of the cosmic lane a rainbow mist of angelic spirits,
inhabitants of sweet Terra, restored all the stalest but still potent myths
of old creeds, with rearrangement for melodeon of all the cacophonies of all
the divinities and divines ever spawned in the marshes of this our
sufficient world.

Sufficient for your purpose, Van, entendons-nous. (Note in the margin.)

The phenomenon of Terra appeared on Demonia after the L disaster in the
middle of the 19th century:

The details of the L disaster (and I do not mean Elevated) in the beau
milieu of last century, which had the singular effect of both causing and
cursing the notion of ‘Terra,’ are too well-known historically, and too
obscene spiritually, to be treated at length in a book addressed to young
laymen and lemans ― and not to grave men or gravemen.

Of course, today, after great anti-L years of reactionary delusion have gone
by (more or less!) and our sleek little machines, Faragod bless them, hum
again after a fashion, as they did in the first half of the nineteenth
century, the mere geographic aspect of the affair possesses its redeeming
comic side, like those patterns of brass marquetry, and bric-à-Braques, and
the ormolu horrors that meant ‘art’ to our humorless forefathers. (ibid.)

Darkbloom (‘Notes to Ada’): Faragod: apparently, the god of electricity.

After the L disaster electricity (“the unmentionable magnetic power”) was
banned on Antiterra. Elektrichestvo (“Electricity,” 1901) is a poem
(quoted by Merezhkovski in “Tolstoy and Dostoevski,” 1902) by Zinaida

Две нити вместе свиты,

Концы обнажены.

То ?да? и ?нет?, ― не слиты,

Не слиты ― сплетены.

Их тёмное сплетенье

И тесно, и мертво.

Но ждет их воскресенье,

И ждут они его.

Концов концы коснутся ―

Другие ?да? и ?нет?,

И ?да? и ?нет? проснутся,

Сплетённые сольются,

И смерть их будет ― Свет.

Two wires are wrapped together,

The loose ends naked, exposed

A yes and no, not united,

Not united, but juxtaposed.

A dark, dark juxtaposition --

So close together, dead.

But resurrection awaits them;

And they await what waits ahead.

End will meet end in touching

Yes -- no, left and right,

The yes and no awakening,

Inseparably uniting

And their death will be - Light.

The Antiterran L disaster seems to correspond to the mock execution of
Dostoevski and the Petrashevskians on Jan. 3, 1850 (NS), in our world. In
her poem Otdykh (“Rest,” 1914) Zinaida Hippius compares words to pena
(foam) and twice repeats the word dlenye (duration):

Слова ― как пена,
Невозвратимы и ничтожны.
Слова ― измена,
Когда молитвы невозможны.

Пусть длится дленье.
Не я безмолвие нарушу.
Но исцеленье
Сойдёт ли в замкнутую душу?

Я знаю, надо
Сейчас молчанью покориться.
Но в том отрада,
Что дление не вечно длится.

Words are like foam,

irrevocable and insignificant.

Words are a treason,

When prayers are impossible.

Let the duration last.

Not I will break the silence.

But will the healing come

unto the locked soul?

I know I should now

submit to silence.

But there is a comfort in the fact

that the duration won’t last forever.

Pen pan (“Master of Foams,” 1912) is a poem by Velimir Khlebnikov. In VN’
s novel The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941) Sebastian’s half-brother
V. (the narrator and main character) mentions the futurist poet Alexis Pan
and his wife Larissa (whom young Sebastian accompanied in their tour to the
East). In Manhattan (aka Man, the Antiterran name of New York) Van lives in
Cordula’s former apartment on Alexis Avenue. According to Van, he was about
to move to Manhattan when he received an unexpected dorophone call from his
half-sister Lucette:

Van Veen [as also, in his small way, the editor of Ada] liked to change his
abode at the end of a section or chapter or even paragraph, and he had
almost finished a difficult bit dealing with the divorce between time and
the contents of time (such as action on matter, in space, and the nature of
space itself) and was contemplating moving to Manhattan (that kind of switch
being a reflection of mental rubrication rather than a concession to some
farcical ‘influence of environment’ endorsed by Marx père, the popular
author of ‘historical’ plays), when he received an unexpected dorophone
call which for a moment affected violently his entire pulmonary and systemic

Nobody, not even his father, knew that Van had recently bought Cordula’s
penthouse apartment between Manhattan’s Library and Park. Besides its being
the perfect place to work in, with that terrace of scholarly seclusion
suspended in a celestial void, and that noisy but convenient city lapping
below at the base of his mind’s invulnerable rock, it was, in fashionable
parlance, a ‘bachelor’s folly’ where he could secretly entertain any girl
or girls he pleased. (One of them dubbed it ‘your wing à terre’). But he
was still in his rather dingy Chose-like rooms at Kingston when he consented
to Lucette’s visiting him on that bright November afternoon. (2.5)

At the beginning of Leo Tolstoy’s story Posle bala (“After the Ball,”
1903) the narrator mentions sreda (environment) and says that its influence
is not as important as that of sluchay (chance):

― Вот вы говорите, что человек не может са
м по себе понять, что хорошо, что дурно, чт
о всё дело в среде, что среда заедает. А я д
умаю, что всё дело в случае. Я вот про себя

“And you say that a man cannot, of himself, understand what is good and
evil; that it is all environment, that the environment swamps the man. But I
believe it is all chance. Take my own case . . . ”

In his MS poem O skol’ko nam otkrytiy chudnykh… (“O how many wondrous
discoveries…” 1829) Pushkin mentions Opyt, syn oshibok trudnykh
(Experience, the son of difficult errors), Geniy, Paradoksov drug (Genius, a
friend of Paradox) and Sluchay, bog izobretatel’ (Chance, the inventor

О сколько нам открытий чудных
Готовят просвещенья дух
И Опыт, [сын] ошибок трудных,
И Гений, [Парадоксов] друг,
[И Случай, бог изобретатель]

O how many wondrous discoveries

the spirit of Enlightenment prepares for us

and Experience, [the son] of difficult errors,

and Genius, a friend of [Paradox],

[and Chance, the inventor god]

Berdyaev is the author of Opyt paradoksal’noy etiki (“An Attempt of
Paradoxical Ethics,” 1931) and Opyt eskhatologicheskoy metafiziki (“An
Attempt of Eschatological Metaphysics,” 1947). In the epilogue of Ada Van
mentions the crowning paradox of our boxed brain’s eschatologies:

I had a schoolmate called Vanda. And I knew a girl called Adora, little
thing in my last floramor. What makes me see that bit as the purest sanglot
in the book? What is the worst part of dying?

For you realize there are three facets to it (roughly corresponding to the
popular tripartition of Time). There is, first, the wrench of relinquishing
forever all one’s memories ― that’s a commonplace, but what courage man
must have had to go through that commonplace again and again and not give up
the rigmarole of accumulating again and again the riches of consciousness
that will be snatched away! Then we have the second facet ― the hideous
physical pain ― for obvious reasons let us not dwell upon that. And
finally, there is the featureless pseudo-future, blank and black, an
everlasting nonlastingness, the crowning paradox of our boxed brain’s
eschatologies! (5.6)

Van arrives at the site of his duel with Captain Tapper in Paradox, his
second’s cheap ‘semi-racer:’

He shaved, disposed of two blood-stained safety blades by leaving them in a
massive bronze ashtray, had a structurally perfect stool, took a quick bath,
briskly dressed, left his bag with the concierge, paid his bill and at six
punctually squeezed himself next to blue-chinned and malodorous Johnny into
the latter’s Paradox, a cheap “semi-racer.” For two or three miles they
skirted the dismal bank of the lake―coal piles, shacks, boat-houses, a long
strip of black pebbly mud and, in the distance, over the curving bank of
autumnally misted water, the tawny fumes of tremendous factories.

“Where are we now, Johnny dear?” asked Van as they swung out of the lake’
s orbit and sped along a suburban avenue with clapboard cottages among
laundry-linked pines.

“Dorofey Road,” cried the driver above the din of the motor. “It abuts at
the forest.”

It abutted. Van felt a faint twinge in his knee where he had hit it against
a stone when attacked from behind a week ago, in another wood. At the moment
his foot touched the pine-needle strewn earth of the forest road, a
transparent white butterfly floated past, and with utter certainty Van knew
that he had only a few minutes to live. (1.42)

In the Kalugano hospital (where he recovers after his duel with Tapper) Van
meets Tatiana, a remarkably pretty and proud young nurse, and Dorofey, a
beefy-handed male nurse. At the beginning of his fable Vorchun Dorofey
(“The Grumbler Dorofey,” 1860) Kurochkin mentions kapital (the capital):

Наживая грехом
Иногда я тайком
?Всё бы ладно: житьё!
Гладкий путь...
Только совесть... её
Как надуть??

Das Kapital (“Capital,” 1867-83) is the main work of Karl Marx (cf. Marx p
ère). In VN’s story Soglyadatay (“The Eye,” 1930) Smurov (the narrator
and main character) says: “everything is vacillating, everything is due to
chance, and vain have been the efforts of that ramshackle and grumbling
bourgeois in Victorian check trousers, who wrote the obscure work called
'Capital' ― a fruit of insomnia and megrim.”

In Kurochkin’s fable Dorofey is the name of the author’s conscience. At
Chose (Van’s English University) Van wrestles with his conscience before
accepting a cardsharp’s offer:

Van fumed and fretted the rest of the morning, and after a long soak in a
hot bath (the best adviser, and prompter and inspirer in the world, except,
of course, the W.C. seat) decided to pen ― pen is the word ― a note of
apology to the cheated cheater. As he was dressing, a messenger brought him
a note from Lord C. (he was a cousin of one of Van’s Riverlane
schoolmates), in which generous Dick proposed to substitute for his debt an
introduction to the Venus Villa Club to which his whole clan belonged. Such
a bounty no boy of eighteen could hope to obtain. It was a ticket to
paradise. Van tussled with his slightly overweight conscience (both grinning
like old pals in their old gymnasium) ― and accepted Dick’s offer. (1.28)

“Pen is the word” brings to mind Byron’s pun at the end of Beppo (1818),
“my pen is at the bottom of a page.” Sovest’ (conscience) rhymes with
povest’ (tale). In a letter of March 7 (?), 1826, to Pletnyov Pushkin calls
his poem Graf Nulin (“Count Null,” 1825) povest’ v rode Beppo (“a tale
in the genre of Beppo”):

Знаешь ли? уж если печатать что, так возьм
емся за Цыганов. Надеюсь, что брат по край
ней мере их перепишет ― а ты пришли рукопи
сь ко мне ― я доставлю предисловие и м. б. п
римечания ― и с рук долой. А то всякой раз,
как я об них подумаю или прочту слово в жу
рн., у меня кровь портится ― в собрании же
моих поэм для новинки поместим мы другую
повесть в роде Верро, которая у меня в зап

According to Pushkin, he wrote “Count Nulin” in two mornings, on Dec.
13-14, 1825:

В конце 1825 года находился я в деревне. Пер
ечитывая ?Лукрецию?, довольно слабую поэм
у Шекспира, я подумал: что если б Лукреции
пришла в голову мысль дать пощечину Таркв
инию? быть может, это охладило б его предп
риимчивость и он со стыдом принужден был
отступить? Лукреция б не зарезалась. Публ
икола не взбесился бы, Брут не изгнал бы ц
арей, и мир и история мира были бы не те.

Итак, республикою, консулами, диктаторам
и, Катонами, Кесарем мы обязаны соблазнит
ельному происшествию, подобному тому, кот
орое случилось недавно в моем соседстве,
в Новоржевском уезде.

Мысль пародировать историю и Шекспира мн
е представилась. Я не мог воспротивиться
двойному искушению и в два утра написал э
ту повесть.

Я имею привычку на моих бумагах выставлят
ь год и число. ?Граф Нулин? писан 13 и 14 дека
бря. Бывают странные сближения.

The Decembrist insurrection took place on Dec. 14, 1825. One of the five
hanged Decembrists was Mikhail Bestuzhev-Ryumin (1801-26). Zinaida Hippius’
s cousin Vladimir (VN’s Russian literature teacher at the Tenishev school)
wrote under the penname Bestuzhev. In the Russian version of his
autobiography, Drugie berega (“Other Shores,” 1954), VN describes his
romance with Tamara and mentions Vladimir Vasilievich Hippius who often rang
up from school to learn the truth about his pupil’s failing health:

Мы пропускали школу: не помню, как устраив
алась Тамара; я же подкупал нашего швейца
ра Устина, заведовавшего нижним телефоно
м (24--43), и Владимир Васильевич Гиппиус, час
то звонивший из школы, чтобы справиться о
моём пошатнувшемся здоровье, не видал мен
я в классе, скажем, с понедельника до пятн
ицы, а во вторник я опять начинал болеть.
(Chapter Eleven, 1)

According to VN, Vladimir Hippius, a first-rate though somewhat esoteric
poet, surpassed in talent his much better-known cousin Zinaida Hippius,
woman poet and critic. (Speak, Memory, Chapter Twelve, 2)

The name Kurochkin comes from kurochka (little hen, pullet) and brings to
mind poule, as Demon Veen (Van’s and Ada’s father) calls Cordula de Prey:

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)

When Van visits Philip Rack (Lucette’s music teacher who was poisoned by
his jealous wife) in Ward Five of the Kalugano hospital, Dorofey reads the
Russian-language newspaper Golos (Logos):

That day came soon enough. After a long journey down corridors where pretty
little things tripped by, shaking thermometers, and first an ascent and then
a descent in two different lifts, the second of which was very capacious
with a metal-handled black lid propped against its wall and bits of holly or
laurel here and there on the soap-smelling floor, Dorofey, like Onegin’s
coachman, said priehali (‘we have arrived’) and gently propelled Van, past
two screened beds, toward a third one near the window. There he left Van,
while he seated himself at a small table in the door corner and leisurely
unfolded the Russian-language newspaper Golos (Logos)…

…Van drew in his useless weapon. Controlling himself, he thumped it against
the footboard of his wheelchair. Dorofey glanced up from his paper, then
went back to the article that engrossed him ― ‘A Clever Piggy (from the
memoirs of an animal trainer),’ or else ‘The Crimean War: Tartar Guerillas
Help Chinese Troops.’ A diminutive nurse simultaneously stepped out from
behind the farther screen and disappeared again. (1.42)

In his essay V zashchitu A. Bloka (“In Defense of A. Blok,” 1931) Berdyaev
points out that poetry’s greatest and most painful problem is that it is
only in a very small degree connected with Logos:

Это есть самая большая и мучительная проб
лема поэзии: она лишь в очень малой степен
и причастна Логосу, она причастна Космос

According to Berdyaev, poetry is connected with Cosmos. To Dick’s question
“what on earth is an artist” Van replies “an underground observatory:”

According to Van’s definition, an artist is “an underground observatory:”

‘I say, Dick, ever met a gambler in the States called Plunkett? Bald gray
chap when I knew him.’

‘Plunkett? Plunkett? Must have been before my time. Was he the one who
turned priest or something? Why?’

‘One of my father’s pals. Great artist.’


‘Yes, artist. I’m an artist. I suppose you think you’re an artist. Many
people do.’

‘What on earth is an artist?’

‘An underground observatory,’ replied Van promptly.

‘That’s out of some modem novel,’ said Dick, discarding his cigarette
after a few avid inhales.

‘That’s out of Van Veen,’ said Van Veen. (1.28)

When Andrey Vinelander (Ada’s husband) falls ill, his sister Dorothy reads
to him old issues of Golos Feniksa (“The Phoenix Voice,” a
Russian-language newspaper in Arizona, 3.8). Golos iz khora (“A Voice from
Choir,” 1910-14) is a poem by Alexander Blok, the author of Sirin i
Alkonost, ptitsy radosti i pechali (“Sirin and Alkonost, the Birds of Joy
and Sorrow,” 1899). Sirin was VN’s Russian nom de plume. Like Sirin,
Feniks (Russ., Phoenix) is a fairy-tale bird. In her essay Nabokov i ego
Lolita (“Nabokov and his Lolita,” 1959) and in her memoirs The Italics are
Mine (1969) Nina Berberova compares VN to Phoenix.

Alexey Sklyarenko

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