klok of chelovek, Don Juan's Last Fling & Les Enfants Maudits in Ada

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Mon, 10/15/2018 - 08:12

In her last note Aqua (in VN’s novel Ada, 1969, Marina’s poor mad twin sister) mentioned a klok (piece) of a chelovek (human being):


The hands of a clock, even when out of order, must know and let the dumbest little watch know where they stand, otherwise neither is a dial but only a white face with a trick mustache. Similarly, chelovek (human being) must know where he stands and let others know, otherwise he is not even a klok (piece) of a chelovek, neither a he, nor she, but ‘a tit of it’ as poor Ruby, my little Van, used to say of her scanty right breast. (1.3)


In his memoir essay A. A. Blok kak chelovek (“A. A. Blok as a Person,” 1921) Korney Chukovski quotes Sergey Gorodetski who tells in his “Reminiscences of Blok” that Blok in jest called his book of verse Nechayannaya radost’ (“Inadvertent Joy,” 1907) Otchayannaya gadost’ (“Desperate Filth”) and himself, “Alexander Klok:”


Сергей Городецкий рассказывает в «Воспоминаниях о Блоке», что Блок в шутку назвал свою «Нечаянную Радость» – «Отчаянной Гадостью», а себя – Александром Клоком. Его тянуло смеяться над тем, что было пережито им, как святыня. Ему действительно нравилась пародия В. П. Буренина, в которой тот втаптывал в грязь его высокое стихотворение «Шаги Командора». Показывая «Новое Время», где была напечатана эта пародия, он сказал:

– Посмотрите, не правда ли, очень смешно:

В спальне свет.
Готова ванна.
Ночь, как тетерев, глуха.
Спит, раскинув руки, донна Анна,
И по Анне прыгает блоха.


Мне показалось, что такое откровенное хрюкание было ему милее, чем похвалы и приветы многих презираемых им тонких эстетов.


According to Chukovski, Blok liked Burenin’s parody of his poem Shagi Komandora (“The Commander’s Footsteps,” 1912):


Light in the bedroom.

The bath is ready.

The night is as deaf, as a capercailzie.

Having stretched her arms, Donna Anna is asleep.

And a flea leaps on Anna.


In his poem Blok mentions the hoarse tolling of the midnight clock:


Настежь дверь. Из непомерной стужи,

Словно хриплый бой ночных часов -

Бой часов: "Ты звал меня на ужин.

Я пришёл. А ты готов?.."


На вопрос жестокий нет ответа,

Нет ответа - тишина.

В пышной спальне страшно в час рассвета,

Слуги спят, и ночь бледна.


В час рассвета холодно и странно,

В час рассвета - ночь мутна.

Дева Света! Где ты, донна Анна?

Анна! Анна! - Тишина.


Только в грозном утреннем тумане

Бьют часы в последний раз:

Донна Анна в смертный час твой встанет.

Анна встанет в смертный час.


The door gapes. Through the excessive frost

Hoarsely like the tolling of the midnightclocks - 

The hour tolls: "You called me here to supper.

I have come. Are you prepared?.."


To this brutal question there's no answer,

There's no answer  -  only silence.

Frightening at daybreak is the lavish bedroom,

Servants sleep in the pale night.


Cold and strange is break of day

Night is dim at break of day.

Bride of Light! O, Donna Anna where are you?

Anna! Anna!  -  only silence.


In the horrifying morning mist

The hour tolls one final time:

In your dying hour Donna Anna will arise.

Anna will arise in the hour of your death.


Donna Anna will arise in Don Juan’s dying hour. On the eve of Lucette’s suicide Van and Lucette watch Don Juan’s Last Fling, a film in which Ada played the gitanilla, in the Tobakoff cinema hall. According to Lucette, in her Tobakoff suit there hangs a steeplechase picture of “Pale Fire with Tom Cox Up:”


Quite kindly he asked where she thought she was going.

To Ardis, with him — came the prompt reply — for ever and ever. Robinson’s grandfather had died in Araby at the age of one hundred and thirty-one, so Van had still a whole century before him, she would build for him, in the park, several pavilions to house his successive harems, they would gradually turn, one after the other, into homes for aged ladies, and then into mausoleums. There hung, she said, a steeplechase picture of ‘Pale Fire with Tom Cox Up’ above dear Cordula’s and Tobak’s bed, in the suite ‘wangled in one minute flat’ from them, and she wondered how it affected the Tobaks’ love life during sea voyages. Van interrupted Lucette’s nervous patter by asking her if her bath taps bore the same inscriptions as his: Hot Domestic, Cold Salt. Yes, she cried, Old Salt, Old Salzman, Ardent Chambermaid, Comatose Captain! (3.5)


When Van meets Cordula in Paris, he quotes the stale but appropriate lines:


A moment later, as happens so often in farces and foreign cities, Van ran into another friend. With a surge of delight he saw Cordula in a tight scarlet skirt bending with baby words of comfort over two unhappy poodlets attached to the waiting-post of a sausage shop. Van stroked her with his fingertips, and as she straightened up indignantly and turned around (indignation instantly replaced by gay recognition), he quoted the stale but appropriate lines he had known since the days his schoolmates annoyed him with them:


The Veens speak only to Tobaks

But Tobaks speak only to dogs. (3.2)


In his memoir essay on Blok Chukovski quotes Blok’s impromptu poem on a session in Vsemirnaya literatura (“The World Literature,” a publishing house founded by Gorki):


Немало здесь различных спецьялистов,
Но каждый мыслит только о своём:
Лозинский только с богом говорит,
Волынский – о любви лишь; Гумилёв –
Лишь с королями. С лошадьми в конюшне
Привык один Чуковский говорить.*



There are a lot of different specialists here,

But everybody minds only his own business:

Lozinski speaks only with God,

Volynski speaks only about love, Gumilyov

Speaks only with Kings. With horses in the stable

Chukovski alone is accustomed to speak.* (XIV)


In a footnote Chukovski explains that these lines are based on the well-known saying that in Italian one can speak with women, in French with kings, in Spanish with God, and in English with horses. Btw., Van greets Cordula in Russian:


Viny govoryat lish' s Tobakami,

a Tobaki govoryat lish' s sobakami.


Describing his meeting with Lucette in Paris, Van compares her to Blok’s Neznakomka (Incognita):


Upon entering, he stopped for a moment to surrender his coat; but he kept his black fedora and stick-slim umbrella as he had seen his father do in that sort of bawdy, albeit smart, place which decent women did not frequent — at least, unescorted. He headed for the bar, and as he was in the act of wiping the lenses of his black-framed spectacles, made out, through the optical mist (Space’s recent revenge!), the girl whose silhouette he recalled having seen now and then (much more distinctly!) ever since his pubescence, passing alone, drinking alone, always alone, like Blok’s Incognita. (3.3)


In a letter to Ada written after Lucette’s suicide Van says that on this planet (Earth’s twin planet Demonia, aka Antiterra, on which Ada is set) Lucettes are doomed:


As a psychologist, I know the unsoundness of speculations as to whether Ophelia would not hove drowned herself after all, without the help of a treacherous sliver, even if she had married her Voltemand. Impersonally I believe she would have died in her bed, gray and serene, had V. loved her; but since he did not really love the wretched little virgin, and since no amount of carnal tenderness could or can pass for true love, and since, above all, the fatal Andalusian wench who had come, I repeat, into the picture, was unforgettable, I am bound to arrive, dear Ada and dear Andrey, at the conclusion that whatever the miserable man could have thought up, she would have pokonchila s soboy (‘put an end to herself’) all the same. In other more deeply moral worlds than this pellet of muck, there might exist restraints, principles, transcendental consolations, and even a certain pride in making happy someone one does not really love; but on this planet Lucettes are doomed. (3.6)


Mlle Larivière’s novel Les Enfants Maudits was made into movie by G. A. Vronsky as The Young and the Doomed:


After some exploration, they tracked down a rerun of The Young and the Doomed (1890) to a tiny theater that specialized in Painted Westerns (as those deserts of nonart used to be called). Thus had Mlle Larivière’s Enfants Maudits (1887) finally degenerated! She had had two adolescents, in a French castle, poison their widowed mother who had seduced a young neighbor, the lover of one of her twins. The author had made many concessions to the freedom of the times, and the foul fancy of scriptwriters; but both she and the leading lady disavowed the final result of multiple tamperings with the plot that had now become the story of a murder in Arizona, the victim being a widower about to marry an alcoholic prostitute, whom Marina, quite sensibly, refused to impersonate. But poor little Ada had clung to her bit part, a two-minute scene in a traktir (roadside tavern). During the rehearsals she felt she was doing not badly as a serpentine barmaid — until the director blamed her for moving like an angular ‘backfish.’ She had not deigned to see the final product and was not overeager to have Van see it now, but he reminded her that the same director, G.A. Vronsky, had told her she was always pretty enough to serve one day as a stand-in for Lenore Colline, who at twenty had been as attractively gauche as she, raising and tensing forward her shoulders in the same way, when crossing a room. Having sat through a preliminary P.W. short, they finally got to The Young and the Doomed only to discover that the barmaid scene of the barroom sequence had been cut out — except for a perfectly distinct shadow of Ada’s elbow, as Van kindly maintained. (2.9)


Les Enfants Maudits means “The Accursed Children.” In his essay on Blok Chukovski says that Blok loved people like Apollon Grigoriev, Gogol, Vrubel and Catiline, because they were “accursed:”


Никакого благополучия его душа не вмещала и отзывалась только на трагическое: недаром его Вечными Спутниками были такие неблагополучные, гибельные, лишенные уюта скитальцы, как Аполлон Григорьев, Гоголь, Врубель, Катилина. Этих людей Блок полюбил за то, что они были «проклятые», за то, что их фигуры «грозили кораблекрушением», за то, что все они могли бы сказать: «наше дело пропащее». (II)


The title of Mlle Larivière’s novel blends un enfant terrible with les poètes maudits. In his autobiography Speak, Memory (1951) VN describes his father’s visit to England in February 1916, with five other prominent representatives of the Russian press, and calls Korney Chukovski “the enfant terrible of the group:”


My father had visited London before—the last time in February 1916, when, with five other prominent representatives of the Russian press, he had been invited by the British Government to take a look at England’s war effort (which, it was hinted, did not meet with sufficient appreciation on the part of Russia’s public opinion). On the way there, being challenged by my father and Korney Chukovski to rhyme on Afrika, the poet and novelist Aleksey Tolstoy (no relation to Count Lyov Nikolaevich) had supplied, though seasick, the charming couplet


Vizhu pal’mu i Kafrika.
(I see a palm and a little Kaffir. That’s Afrika.)


In England the visitors had been shown the Fleet. Dinners and speeches had followed in noble succession. The timely capture of Erzerum by the Russians and the pending introduction of conscription in England (“Will you march too or wait till March 2?” as the punning posters put it) had provided the speakers with easy topics. There had been an official banquet presided over by Sir Edward Grey, and a funny interview with George V whom Chukovski, the enfant terrible of the group, insisted on asking if he liked the works of Oscar Wilde—“dze ooarks of OOald.” The king, who was baffled by his interrogator’s accent and who, anyway, had never been a voracious reader, neatly countered by inquiring how his guests liked the London fog (later Chukovski used to cite this triumphantly as an example of British cant—tabooing a writer because of his morals). (Chapter Thirteen, 1)


Chapter III of Chukovski’s book “Oscar Wilde” (1922) has the epigraph Modo vir modo femina (now a man, now a woman). In “Ardis the Second” Van asks a messenger from Percy de Prey (one of Ada’s lovers) if he is a stable boy or a kennel girl:


Van was lying in his netted nest under the liriodendrons, reading Antiterrenus on Rattner. His knee had troubled him all night; now, after lunch, it seemed a bit better. Ada had gone on horseback to Ladore, where he hoped she would forget to buy the messy turpentine oil Marina had told her to bring him.

His valet advanced toward him across the lawn, followed by a messenger, a slender youth clad in black leather from neck to ankle, chestnut curls escaping from under a vizored cap. The strange child glanced around with an amateur thespian’s exaggeration of attitude, and handed a letter, marked ‘confidential,’ to Van.


Dear Veen,


In a couple of days I must leave for a spell of military service abroad. If you desire to see me before I go I shall be glad to entertain you (and any other gentleman you might wish to bring along) at dawn tomorrow where the Maidenhair road crosses Tourbière Lane. If not, I beg you to confirm in a brief note that you bear me no grudge, just as no grudge is cherished in regard to you, sir, by your obedient servant


Percy de Prey


No, Van did not desire to see the Count. He said so to the pretty messenger, who stood with one hand on the hip and one knee turned out like an extra, waiting for the signal to join the gambaders in the country dance after Calabro’s aria.

‘Un moment,’ added Van. ‘I would be interested to know — this could be decided in a jiffy behind that tree — what you are, stable boy or kennel girl?’

The messenger did not reply and was led away by the chuckling Bout. A little squeal suggestive of an improper pinch came from behind the laurels screening their exit. (1.40)


As she speaks to Van, Ada says that we are all doomed, but some are more doomed than others:


She walked swiftly toward him across the iridescently glistening lawn. ‘Van,’ she said, ‘I must tell you my dream before I forget. You and I were high up in the Alps — Why on earth are you wearing townclothes?’

‘Well, I’ll tell you,’ drawled dreamy Van. ‘I’ll tell you why. From a humble but reliable sauce, I mean source, excuse my accent, I have just learned qu’on vous culbute behind every hedge. Where can I find your tumbler?’

‘Nowhere,’ she answered quite calmly, ignoring or not even perceiving his rudeness, for she had always known that disaster would come today or tomorrow, a question of time or rather timing on the part of fate.

‘But he exists, he exists,’ muttered Van, looking down at a rainbow web on the turf.

‘I suppose so,’ said the haughty child, ‘however, he left yesterday for some Greek or Turkish port. Moreover, he was going to do everything to get killed, if that information helps. Now listen, listen! Those walks in the woods meant nothing. Wait, Van! I was weak only twice when you had hurt him so hideously, or perhaps three times in all. Please! I can’t explain in one gush, but eventually you will understand. Not everybody is as happy as we are. He’s a poor, lost, clumsy boy. We are all doomed, but some are more doomed than others. He is nothing to me. I shall never see him again. He is nothing, I swear. He adores me to the point of insanity.’

‘I think,’ said Van, ‘we’ve got hold of the wrong lover. I was asking about Herr Rack, who has such delectable gums and also adores you to the point of insanity.’

He turned, as they say, on his heel, and walked toward the house. (1.41)

Describing his last meeting with Blok in May 1921, Chukovski mentions a frightening metamorphosis that he witnessed:


А на следующий день произошло нечто, ещё больше испугавшее меня. Мы сидели с ним вечером за чайным столом и беседовали. Я что-то говорил, не глядя на него, и вдруг, нечаянно подняв глаза, чуть не крикнул: предо мною сидел не Блок, а какой-то другой человек, совсем другой, даже отдалённо не похожий на Блока. Жёсткий, обглоданный, с пустыми глазами, как будто паутиной покрытый. Даже волосы, даже уши стали другие. И главное: он был явно отрезан от всех, слеп и глух ко всему человеческому.

–   Вы ли это, Александр Александрович? – крикнул я, но он даже не посмотрел на меня.

Я и теперь, как ни напрягаюсь, не могу представить себе, что это был тот самый человек, которого я знал двенадцать лет.

Я взял шляпу и тихо ушел. Это было моё последнее свидание с ним. (XII)


According to Chukovski, when he raised his eyes and looked at Blok, a different person, who even remotely did not resemble the poet, was sitting before him. “Is it you, Aleksandr Aleksandrovich?” Chukovski shouted, but Blok did not even look at him. Chukovski took his hat and left the room (and never saw Blok again). An odd change in Blok brings to mind Dr. Jekyll who turns into Hyde in R. L. Stevenson’s “Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (1888), but also Shade, in VN’s novel Pale Fire (1962) the poet who is killed by Gradus but continues to exist as Kinbote (Shade’s mad commentator who imagines that he is Charles the Beloved, the last self-exiled king of Zembla). Kinbote believes that, to be completed, Shade’s almost finished poem needs only Line 1000 (identical to Line 1: “I was the shadow of the waxwing slain”). But it seems that Shade’s poem also needs a coda (Line 1001: “By its own double in the windowpane”). Dvoynik (The Double) is a short novel (1846) by Dostoevski and a poem (1909) by Blok.


The total number of lines in Shade’s poem brings to mind the Arabic collection of fairy tales “A Thousand and One Nights.” In his book on Wilde Chukovski calls Wilde “the Scheherazade of salons:”


Даже незадолго до его смерти, в тюрьме, когда его, больного, поместили в госпитале, он сел на кровати и своей тонкой беседой превратил на минуту острожную палату в салон, очаровав этих убийц и воров, как прежде очаровывал великосветских господ и художников3. Он был как бы Шехеразадой салонов и в этом видел свое главное призвание. (chapter II)


Scheherazade is the storyteller in “A Thousand and One Nights.” Describing his and Ada’s visits to their little Caliph Island, Van makes a pun on Scheherazade:


One day he brought his shaving kit along and helped her to get rid of all three patches of body hair:

‘Now I’m Scheher,’ he said, ‘and you are his Ada, and that’s your green prayer carpet. (1.35)


Scherer (sic) is German for “barber.”  Describing poor mad Aqua’s torments, Van mentions Bob Bean, the hospital barber:


Then the anguish increased to unendurable massivity and nightmare dimensions, making her scream and vomit. She wanted (and was allowed, bless the hospital barber, Bob Bean) to have her dark curls shaved to an aquamarine prickle, because they grew into her porous skull and curled inside. Jigsaw pieces of sky or wall came apart, no matter how delicately put together, but a careless jolt or a nurse’s elbow can disturb so easily those lightweight fragments which became incomprehensible blancs of anonymous objects, or the blank backs of ‘Scrabble’ counters, which she could not turn over sunny side up, because her hands had been tied by a male nurse with Demon’s black eyes. But presently panic and pain, like a pair of children in a boisterous game, emitted one last shriek of laughter and ran away to manipulate each other behind a bush as in Count Tolstoy’s Anna Karenin, a novel, and again, for a while, a little while, all was quiet in the house, and their mother had the same first name as hers had. (1.3)


The Literary Life of Thingum Bob, Esq. (1850) is a story by E. A. Poe, the author of The Thousand-and-Second Tale of Scheherazade (1845). The tale depicts the eighth and final voyage of Sinbad the Sailor, along with the various mysteries Sinbad and his crew encounter; the anomalies are then described as footnotes to the story. While the king is uncertain — except in the case of the elephants carrying the world on the back of the turtle — that these mysteries are real, they are actual modern events that occurred in various places during, or before, Poe's lifetime. The story ends with the king in such disgust at the outlandish tales Scheherazade has just woven, that he has her executed the next day.


In the epilogue of Ada Van mentions the Film Festival in Sindbad:


How horribly and gratuitously it might hurt her, he foreglimpsed one day in 1926 or ‘27 when he caught the look of proud despair she cast on nothing in particular before walking away to the car that was to take her on a trip in which, at the last moment, he had declined to join her. He had declined — and had simulated the grimace and the limp of podagra — because he had just realized, what she, too, had realized — that the beautiful native girl smoking on the back porch would offer her mangoes to Master as soon as Master’s housekeeper had left for the Film Festival in Sindbad. The chauffeur had already opened the car door, when, with a great bellow, Van overtook Ada and they rode off together, tearful, voluble, joking about his foolishness. (5.3)


According to Chukovski, Blok thought that he had podagra:


Что сказать о его последней, предсмертной поездке в Москву? Как-то, в разговоре, он сказал мне с печальной усмешкой, что стены его дома отравлены ядом, и я подумал, что, может быть, поездка в Москву отвлечет его от домашних печалей. Ехать ему очень не хотелось, но я настаивал, надеясь, что московские триумфы подействуют на него благотворно. В вагоне, когда мы ехали туда, он был весел, разговорчив, читал свои и чужие стихи, угощал куличом и только иногда вставал с места, расправлял больную ногу и, улыбаясь, говорил: болит! (Он думал, что у него подагра.) (XII)