testibulus, Victor Vitry & Lenore Colline in Ada

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Wed, 08/15/2018 - 19:07

Describing his novel Letters from Terra, Van Veen (the narrator and main character in VN’s novel Ada, 1969) mentions the testibulus (test tube):


After beaming to Sig a dozen communications from her planet, Theresa flies over to him, and he, in his laboratory, has to place her on a slide under a powerful microscope in order to make out the tiny, though otherwise perfect, shape of his minikin sweetheart, a graceful microorganism extending transparent appendages toward his huge humid eye. Alas, the testibulus (test tube – never to be confused with testiculus, orchid), with Theresa swimming inside like a micromermaid, is 'accidentally' thrown away by Professor Leyman's (he had trimmed his name by that time) assistant, Flora, initially an ivory-pale, dark-haired funest beauty, whom the author transformed just in time into a third bromidic dummy with a dun bun. (2.2)


Van’s novel was made into a film by Victor Vitry:


Ada, who resented the insufficiency of her brother’s fame, felt soothed and elated by the success of The Texture of Time (1924). That work, she said, always reminded her, in some odd, delicate way, of the sun-and-shade games she used to play as a child in the secluded avenues of Ardis Park. She said she had been somehow responsible for the metamorphoses of the lovely larvae that had woven the silk of ‘Veen’s Time’ (as the concept was now termed in one breath, one breeze, with ‘Bergson’s Duration,’ or ‘Whitehead’s Bright Fringe’). But a considerably earlier and weaker work, the poor little Letters from Terra, of which only half a dozen copies existed — two in Villa Armina and the rest in the stacks of university libraries — was even closer to her heart because of its nonliterary associations with their 1892-93 sojourn in Manhattan. Sixty-year-old Van crustily and contemptuously dismissed her meek suggestion to the effect that it should be republished, together with the Sidra reflections and a very amusing anti-Signy pamphlet on Time in Dreams. Seventy-year-old Van regretted his disdain when Victor Vitry, a brilliant French director, based a completely unauthorized picture on Letters from Terra written by ‘Voltemand’ half a century before.

Vitry dated Theresa’s visit to Antiterra as taking place in 1940, but 1940 by the Terranean calendar, and about 1890 by ours. The conceit allowed certain pleasing dips into the modes and manners of our past (did you remember that horses wore hats — yes, hats — when heat waves swept Manhattan?) and gave the impression — which physics-fiction literature had much exploited — of the capsulist traveling backward in terms of time. Philosophers asked nasty questions, but were ignored by the wishing-to-be-gulled moviegoers. (5.5)


The director’s name seems to hint at in vitro (Lat., in the glass), a phrase used by scientists. In vitro studies are conducted using components of an organism that have been isolated from their usual biological surroundings, such as microorganisms, cells, or biological molecules. Colloquially called "test-tube experiments", these studies in biology, medicine, and their subdisciplines are traditionally done in test tubes, flasks, Petri dishes, etc. In contrast, studies conducted in living beings (microorganisms, animals, humans, or whole plants) are called in vivo.


According to Ada, Dr Krolik (the local entomologist, Ada’s beloved teacher of natural history) lay in his open coffin as plump and pink as in vivo:


Her florimania endured, alas; but after Dr Krolik died (in 1886) of a heart attack in his garden, she had placed all her live pupae in his open coffin where he lay, she said, as plump and pink as in vivo. (1.35)


Krolik is Russian for “rabbit.” Za grobom ("After the Coffin," 1909) is a poem by Alexander Blok (whose grandfather Beketov was a celebrated botanist). 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!” (in wine is truth):


А рядом у соседних столиков

Лакеи сонные торчат, 

И пьяницы с глазами кроликов

In vino veritas кричат.


And drowsy lackeys lounge about

Beside the adjacent tables

While drunks with rabbit eyes

cry out: "In vino veritas!"


In VN’s novel Zashchita Luzhina (“The Luzhin Defense,” 1930) Veritas is a film company for which Valentinov (Luzhin’s tutor and impressario) works:


На письменном столе зазвонил телефон, это, очевидно, мать спрашивала, будут ли они сегодня у нее обедать. "Алло?" - сказала Лужина, присев на край стола. "Алле, алле",- взволнованно и сердито закричал в телефон неизвестный голос. "Да-да, я слушаю",- сказала Лужина и пересела в кресло. "Кто там?" - по-немецки, но с русской растяжкой, спросил недовольный голос. "А кто говорит?" - понаведалась Лужина. "Господин Лужин дома?" - спросил голос по-русски. "Кто говорит?" - с улыбкой повторила Лужина. Молчание. Голос как будто решал про себя вопрос, открыться или нет. "Я хочу говорить с господином Лужиным,- начал он опять, вернувшись к немецкому языку.- Очень спешное и важное дело". "Минуточку",- сказала Лужина и прошлась раза два по комнате. Нет, Лужина будить не стоило. Она вернулась к телефону. "Ещё спит,- сказала она.- Но если хотите ему что-нибудь передать..." "Ах, это очень досадно,- заговорил голос, окончательно усвоив русскую речь.- Я звоню уже второй раз. Я прошлый раз оставил свой телефон. Дело для него крайне важное и не терпящее отлагательств". "Я- его жена,- сказала Лужина.- Если что нужно..." "Очень рад познакомиться,- деловито перебил голос.- Моя фамилия- Валентинов. Ваш супруг, конечно, рассказывал вам обо мне. Так вот: скажите ему, как только он проснется, чтобы он садился в автомобиль и ехал бы ко мне. Кино-концерн "Веритас", Рабенштрассе 82. Дело очень спешное и для него очень важное!"- продолжал голос, опять перейдя на немецкий язык, потому ли, что этого требовала важность дела, или потому просто, что немецкий адрес увлек его в соответствующую речь,- неизвестно. Лужина сделала вид, что записывает адрес, и потом сказала: "Может быть, вы мне все-таки скажете сперва, в чем дело". Голос неприятно взволновался: "Я старый друг вашего мужа. Каждая секунда дорога. Я его жду сегодня ровно в двенадцать. Пожалуйста, передайте ему. Каждая секунда".- "Хорошо,- сказала Лужина.- Я ему передам, но только не знаю,- может быть, ему сегодня неудобно". "Шепните ему одно: Валентинов тебя ждет",- засмеялся голос и, пропев немецкое "до свидания", провалился в щелкнувший люк.

The telephone rang on the desk, that was evidently her mother wanting to know if they would be dining at her place. 'Hello?' said Mrs. Luzhin, perching on the edge of a chair. 'Hello, hello,' shouted an unfamiliar voice into the telephone excitedly and crossly. 'Yes, yes, I'm here,' said Mrs. Luzhin and moved to an armchair. 'Who's there?' asked a displeased voice in German with a Russian accent. 'And who's speaking?' inquired Mrs. Luzhin. 'Is Mr. Luzhin at home?' asked the voice in Russian. 'Kto govorit, who's speaking?' repeated Mrs. Luzhin with a smile. Silence. The voice seemed to be debating with itself the question of whether to come out into the open or not. 'I want to talk to Mr. Luzhin,' he began again, reverting to German. 'A very urgent and important matter.' 'One moment,' said Mrs. Luzhin and walked up and down the room a time or two. No, it was not worth waking Luzhin. She returned to the telephone. 'He's still sleeping,' she said. 'But if you want to leave a message...' 'Oh, this is very annoying,' said the voice, adopting Russian finally. 'This is the second time I've called. I left my telephone number last time. The matter is extremely important to him and permits of no delay.' 'I am his wife,' said Mrs. Luzhin, 'If you need anything...' 'Very glad to make you acquaintance,' interrupted the voice briskly. 'My name is Valentinov. Your husband of course has told you about me. So this is what: tell him as soon as he wakes up to get straight into a taxi and come over to me. Kinokonzern "Veritas," Rabenstrasse 82. It's a very urgent matter and very important to him,' continued the voice, switching to German again, either because of the importance of the matter or simply because the German address had drawn him into the corresponding language. Mrs. Luzhin pretended to be writing down the address and then said: 'Perhaps you will still tell me first what the matter is about.' The voice grew unpleasantly agitated: 'I'm an old friend of your husband. Every second is precious. I'll expect him today at exactly twelve o'clock. Please tell him. Every second...' 'All right,' said Mrs. Luzhin. 'I'll tell him, only I don't know — perhaps today will be inconvenient for him.' 'Just whisper in his ear: "Valentinov's expecting you",' said the voice with a laugh, sang out a German 'good-bye' and vanished behind the click of its trapdoor. (Chapter 14)


In his poem Vdvoyom (“The Two Together”) Blok calls his mistress “Valentina, the star, the dream:”


Чёрный ворон в сумраке снежном,

Чёрный бархат на смуглых плечах.

Томный голос пением нежным

Мне поёт о южных ночах.


В лёгком сердце — страсть и беспечность,

Словно с моря мне подан знак.

Над бездонным провалом в вечность,

Задыхаясь, летит рысак.


Снежный ветер, твоё дыханье,

Опьянённые губы мои...

Валентина, звезда, мечтанье!

Как поют твои соловьи...


Страшный мир! Он для сердца тесен!

В нём — твоих поцелуев бред,

Тёмный морок цыганских песен,

Торопливый полёт комет!


Blok’s poem begins: Chyornyi voron v sumrake snezhnom… (“The black raven in snowy dusk…”). Rabe (cf. Rabenstrasse mentioned by Valentinov) is German for “raven.” In Ada Van often mentions Ada’s “black raven.” In Don Juan’s Last Fling, the movie that Van and Lucette (Van’s and Ada’s half-sister) watch in the Tobakoff cinema hall (3.5), Ada played the gitanilla and Howard Hoole played Juan. In Spanish gitanilla means “gypsy girl” (La gitanilla is a novella by Cervantes). In the penultimate line of Vdvoyom Blok mentions “the dark swoon of Gypsy songs.” Describing the dinner with the Vinelanders and Yuzlik (the director of Don Juan’s Last Fling), Van mentions Hoole’s hooliganism:


Beside him, ignored by him, unknown by name to Ada, and now long dead of dreary anonymous ailments, stood in servile attitudes the two agents of Lemorio, the flamboyant comedian (a bearded boor of exceptional, and now also forgotten, genius, whom Yuzlik passionately wanted for his next picture). Lemorio had stood him up twice before, in Rome and San Remo, each time sending him for ‘preliminary contact’ those two seedy, incompetent, virtually insane, people with whom by now Yuzlik had nothing more to discuss, having exhausted everything, topical gossip, Lemorio’s sex life, Hoole’s hooliganism, as well as the hobbies of his, Yuzlik’s, three sons and those of their, the agents’, adopted child, a lovely Eurasian lad, who had recently been slain in a night-club fracas — which closed that subject. Ada had welcomed Yuzlik’s unexpected reality in the lounge of the Bellevue not only as a counterpoise to the embarrassment and the deceit, but also because she hoped to sidle into What Daisy Knew; however, besides having no spells left in the turmoil of her spirit for business blandishments, she soon understood that if Lemorio were finally engaged, he would want her part for one of his mistresses. (3.8)


Baryshnya i huligan (“The Young Lady and the Hooligan,” 1918) is a silent film in which Mayakovski (the author of the script) played the hooligan. In his essay on Mayakovski, Dekol’tirovannaya loshad’ ("The Horse in a Décolleté Dress," 1927), Hodasevich compares VN’s “late namesake” to a circus horse wearing a hat and mentions vitrina nemetskogo magazina (the shop window of a German window):


Представьте себе лошадь, изображающую старую англичанку. В дамской шляпке, с цветами и перьями, в розовом платье, с короткими рукавами и с розовым рюшем вокруг гигантского вороного декольтэ, она ходит на задних ногах, нелепо вытягивая бесконечную шею и скаля желтые зубы.

Такую лошадь я видел в цирке осенью 1912 года. Вероятно, я вскоре забыл бы её, если бы несколько дней спустя, придя в Общество свободной эстетики, не увидел там огромного юношу с лошадиными челюстями, в чёрной рубахе, расстёгнутой чуть ли не до пояса и обнажавшей гигантское лошадиное декольтэ. Каюсь: прозвище "декольтированная лошадь" надолго с того вечера утвердилось за юношей... А юноша этот был Владимир Маяковский. Это было его первое появление в литературной среде, или одно из первых. С тех пор лошадиной поступью прошел он по русской литературе -- и ныне, сдается мне, стоит уже при конце своего пути. Пятнадцать лет -- лошадиный век.


Пафос погрома и мордобоя -- вот истинный пафос Маяковского. А на что обрушивается погром, ему было и есть всё равно: венская ли кокотка, витрина ли немецкого магазина в Москве, схваченный ли за горло буржуй -- только бы тот, кого надо громить.


In VN’s novel Podvig (“Glory,” 1932) Archibald Moon (Martin’s Professor of Russian at Cambridge) explains that the Russian “huligan” came from the name of a gang of Irish robbers:


"А вот скажите, как называются тамошние телеги, в которых развозят виноград"? - спрашивал он, дергая головой, и, выяснив, что Мартын не знает: "Можары, можары, сэр",- говорил он со смаком, - и неизвестно, что доставляло ему больше удовольствия, то ли, что он знает Крым лучше Мартына, или то, что ему удается произнести с русским экающим выговором словечко сэр. Он радостно сообщал, что "хулиган" происходит от названия шайки ирландских разбойников, а что остров "Голодай" не от голода, а от имени англичанина Холидея, построившего там завод.

“By the way, do you know what a grape-transporting cart is called there?” he asked with a toss of his head, and, having ascertained that Martin did not, went on with gusto: “Mozhara, mozhara, sir,” and it was not clear which gave him greater pleasure: that he knew the Crimea better than did Martin, or that he could pronounce the word “sir” according to its Russian pronunciation which rhymes it with “air.” He joyfully informed Martin that the Russian “huligan” came from the name of a gang of Irish robbers, and that Golodai Island was named not after “golod” (hunger) but for an Englishman named Holliday who built a factory there. (Chapter 16)


Describing Ada’s dramatic career, Van mentions the Irish actress Lenore Colline:


Van had seen the picture and had liked it. An Irish girl, the infinitely graceful and melancholy Lenore Colline —


Oh! qui me rendra ma colline

Et le grand chêne and my colleen!


— harrowingly resembled Ada Ardis as photographed with her mother in Belladonna, a movie magazine which Greg Erminin had sent him, thinking it would delight him to see aunt and cousin, together, on a California patio just before the film was released. (2.9)


Lenore (1843) is a poem by E. A. Poe, the author of Raven (1845). Marina Durmanov (Van’s, Ada’s and Lucette’s mother) played Lara in “Eugene and Lara” and Lenore in “Lenore Raven:”


In mid-March, at a business meal with an art expert, an easy-going, lanky, likeable fellow in an old-fashioned dress-coat, Demon screwed in his monocle, unclicked out of its special flat case a small pen-and-wash and said he thought (did not doubt, in fact, but wished his certitude to be admired) that it was an unknown product of Parmigianino’s tender art. It showed a naked girl with a peach-like apple cupped in her half-raised hand sitting sideways on a convolvulus-garlanded support, and had for its discoverer the additional appeal of recalling Marina when, rung out of a hotel bathroom by the phone, and perched on the arm of a chair, she muffled the receiver while asking her lover something that he could not make out because the bath’s voice drowned her whisper. Baron d’Onsky had only to cast one glance at that raised shoulder and at certain vermiculated effects of delicate vegetation to confirm Demon’s guess. D’Onsky had the reputation of not showing one sign of esthetic emotion in the presence of the loveliest masterpiece; this time, nonetheless, he laid his magnifier aside as he would a mask, and allowed his undisguised gaze to caress the velvety apple and the nude’s dimpled and mossed parts with a smile of bemused pleasure. Would Mr Veen consider selling it to him there and then, Mr Veen, please? Mr Veen would not. Skonky (a oneway nickname) must content himself with the proud thought that, as of today, he and the lucky owner were the sole people to have ever admired it en connaissance de cause. Back it went into its special integument; but after finishing his fourth cup of cognac, d’O. pleaded for one last peep. 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)


The name d’Onsky seems to hint at Onegin’s donskoy zherebets (Don stallion) in Pushkin's Eugene Onegin (Two: V: 4):


Сначала все к нему езжали;

Но так как с заднего крыльца

Обыкновенно подавали

Ему донского жеребца,

Лишь только вдоль большой дороги

Заслышат их домашни дроги, —

Поступком оскорбясь таким,

Все дружбу прекратили с ним.

«Сосед наш неуч; сумасбродит;

Он фармазон; он пьет одно

Стаканом красное вино;

Он дамам к ручке не подходит;

Все да да нет; не скажет да-с

Иль нет-с». Таков был общий глас.


At first they all would call on him,

but since to the back porch

habitually a Don stallion

for him was brought

as soon as one made out along the highway

the sound of their domestic runabouts —

outraged by such behavior,

they all ceased to be friends with him.

“Our neighbor is a boor; acts like a crackbrain;

he's a Freemason; he

drinks only red wine, by the tumbler;

he won't go up to kiss a lady's hand;

'tis all ‘yes,’ ‘no’ — he'll not say ‘yes, sir,’

or ‘no, sir.’ ” This was the general voice.


According to Demon, in a sword duel with d’Onsky he wanted to castrate his rival:


Early one February morning (around noon chez vous) I rang you up at your hotel from a roadside booth of pure crystal still tear-stained after a tremendous thunderstorm to ask you to fly over at once, because I, Demon, rattling my crumpled wings and cursing the automatic dorophone, could not live without you and because I wished you to see, with me holding you, the daze of desert flowers that the rain had brought out. Your voice was remote but sweet; you said you were in Eve’s state, hold the line, let me put on a penyuar. Instead, blocking my ear, you spoke, I suppose, to the man with whom you had spent the night (and whom I would have dispatched, had I not been overeager to castrate him). (1.2)


“Testibulus” is a play on testiculus (Lat., testicle).


In his poem Osenniy vecher byl. Pod zvuk dozhdya steklyannyi... (“It was an autumnal evening. To the glass sound of rain…” 1912), in which sör (“sir”) rhymes with kovyor (carpet) and vzor (glance), Blok mentions Linor bezumnogo Edgara (Lenore of mad Edgar):


Ночь без той, зовут кого

Светлым именем: Ленора.

                               Эдгар По


Осенний вечер был. Под звук дождя стеклянный

Решал всё тот же я — мучительный вопрос,

Когда в мой кабинет, огромный и туманный,

Вошёл тот джентльмен. За ним — лохматый пёс.


На кресло у огня уселся гость устало,

И пёс у ног его разлегся на ковёр.

Гость вежливо сказал: «Ужель ещё вам мало?

Пред Гением Судьбы пора смириться, со:р».


«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».


И странно: жизнь была — восторгом, бурей, адом,

А здесь — в вечерний час — с чужим наедине -

Под этим деловым, давно спокойным взглядом,

Представилась она гораздо проще мне...


Тот джентльмен ушёл. Но пёс со мной бессменно.

В час горький на меня уставит добрый взор,

И лапу жёсткую положит на колено,

Как будто говорит: Пора смириться, со:р.


Blok's poem is alluded to in Chapter Three of VN's novel Dar ("The Gift," 1937):


Мой отец мало интересовался стихами, делая исключение только для Пушкина: он знал его, как иные знают церковную службу, и, гуляя, любил декламировать. Мне иногда думается, что эхо "Пророка" ещё до сих пор дрожит в каком-нибудь гулко-переимчивом азиатском ущелье. Ещё он цитировал, помнится, несравненную "Бабочку" Фета и тютчевские "Тени сизые"; но то, что так нравилось нашей родне, жиденькая, удобозапоминаемая лирика конца прошлого века, жадно ждущая переложения на музыку, как избавления от бледной немочи слов, проходило совершенно мимо него. Поэзию же новейшую он считал вздором, -- и я при нем не очень распространялся о моих увлечениях в этой области. Когда он однажды перелистал, с готовой уже усмешкой, книжки поэтов, рассыпанные у меня на столе, и как раз попал на самое скверное у самого лучшего из них (там, где появляется невозможный, невыносимый "джентльмен" и рифмуется "ковер" и "сöр"), мне стало до того досадно, что я ему быстро подсунул "Громокипящий Кубок", чтобы уж лучше на нем он отвел душу. Вообще же мне казалось, что если бы он на время забыл то, что я, по глупости, называл "классицизмом", и без предубеждения вник бы в то, что я так любил, он понял бы новое очарование, появившееся в чертах русской поэзии, очарование, чуемое мной даже в самых нелепых ее проявлениях. Но когда я подсчитываю, что теперь для меня уцелело из этой новой поэзии, то вижу, что уцелело очень мало, а именно только то, что естественно продолжает Пушкина, между тем, как пёстрая шелуха, дрянная фальшь, маски бездарности и ходули таланта -- все то, что когда-то моя любовь прощала и освещала по-своему, а что отцу моему казалось истинным лицом новизны, -- "мордой модернизма", как он выражался, -- теперь так устарело, так забыто, как даже не забыты стихи Карамзина; и когда мне попадается на чужой полке иной сборник стихов, когда-то живший у меня как брат, то я чувствую в них лишь то, что тогда, вчуже, чувствовал мой отец. Его ошибка заключалась не в том, что он свально охаял всю "поэзию модерн", а в том, что он в ней не захотел высмотреть длинный животворный луч любимого своего поэта.


My father took little interest in poetry, making an exception only for Pushkin: he knew him as some people know the liturgy, and liked to declaim him while out walking. I sometimes think that an echo of Pushkin’s “The Prophet” still vibrates to this day in some resonantly receptive Asian gully. He also quoted, I remember, the incomparable “Butterfly” by Fet, and Tyutchev’s “Now the dim-blue shadows mingle”; but that which our kinsfolk liked, the watery, easily memorized poesy of the end of the last century, avidly waiting to be set to music as a cure for verbal anemia, he ignored utterly. As to avant-garde verse, he considered it rubbish—and in his presence I did not publicize my own enthusiasms in this sphere. Once when with a smile of irony already prepared he leafed through the books of poets scattered on my desk and as luck would have it happened on the worst item by the best of them (that famous poem by Blok where there appears an impossible, unbearable dzhentelmen representing Edgar Poe, and where kovyor, carpet, is made to rhyme with the English “Sir” transliterated as syor), I was so annoyed that I quickly pushed Severyanin’s The Thunder-Bubbling Cup into his hand so that he could better unburden his soul upon it. In general I considered that if he would forget for the nonce the kind of poetry I was silly enough to call “classicism” and tried without prejudice to grasp what it was I loved so much, he would have understood the new charm that had appeared in the features of Russian poetry, a charm that I sensed even in its most absurd manifestations. But when today I tote up what has remained to me of this new poetry I see that very little has survived, and what has is precisely a natural continuation of Pushkin, while the motley husk, the wretched sham, the masks of mediocrity and the stilts of talent—everything that my love once forgave or saw in a special light (and that seemed to my father to be the true face of innovation—“the mug of modernism” as he expressed it), is now so old-fashioned, so forgotten as even Karamzin’s verses are not forgotten; and when on someone else’s shelf I come across this or that collection of poems which had once lived with me as brother, I feel in them only what my father then felt without actually knowing them. His mistake was not that he ran down all “modern poetry” indiscriminately, but that he refused to detect in it the long, life-giving ray of his favorite poet.


One can detect in all Nabokov's novels (including Ada) the long, life-giving ray of Pushkin.