In Canto Two of his poem John Shade (the poet in VN’s novel Pale Fire, 1962) calls the little scissors with which he pares his fingernails “a dazzling synthesis of sun and star:”
The little scissors I am holding are
A dazzling synthesis of sun and star.
I stand before the window and I pare
My fingernails and vaguely am aware
Of certain flinching likenesses: the thumb,
Our grocer's son; the index, lean and glum
College astronomer Starover Blue;
The middle fellow, a tall priest I knew;
The feminine fourth finger, an old flirt;
And little pinky clinging to her skirt.
And I make mouths as I snip off the thin
Strips of what Aunt Maud used to call "scarf-skin." (ll. 183-194)
In a letter of Oct. 30, 1903, to his wife Chekhov (who lived alone in Yalta) says that paring his fingernails on the right hand is a torture:
Что за мучение обрезать ногти на правой руке. Без жены мне вообще плохо.
As pointed out by Carolyn Kunin, Mary Ross and Marilyn Goldhaber, “a synthesis of sun and star” seems to hint at Saturn (a planet that rose in the sky on July 5, 1959, the day Shade began Canto Two of his poem). In his Filologicheskie zametki (“Philological Notes,” 1885), O marte (“On March”), Chekhov points out that March is named after Mars (the Roman god of war) and mentions Sun, Saturn, Jupiter, Venus, the Pulkovo observatory and Dr Tarnovski:
Месяц март получил своё название от Марса, который, если верить учебнику Иловайского, был богом войны. Формулярный список этого душки-военного затерян, а посему о личности его почти ничего не известно. Судя по характеру его амурных предприятий и кредиту, которым пользовался он у Бахуса, следует думать, что он, занимая должность бога войны, был причислен к армейской пехоте и имел чин не ниже штабс-капитана. Визитная карточка его была, вероятно, такова: «Штабс-капитан Марс, бог войны». Стало быть, март есть месяц военных и всех тех, кои к военному ведомству прикосновенность имеют: интендантов, военных врачей, батальных художников, институток и проч. Числится в штате о рангах третьим месяцем в году и имеет с дозволения начальства 31 день. Римляне в этом месяце праздновали так называемые Гилярии — торжество в честь Никиты Гилярова-Платонова и богини Цибеллы. Цибеллой называлась богиня земли. Из её метрической выписки явствует, что она была дочкой Солнца, женою Сатурна, матерью Юпитера, — одним словом, особой астрономической, имеющей право на казенную квартиру в Пулковской обсерватории. Изобрела тамбур, тромбон, свирель и ветеринарное искусство. Была, стало быть, и музыкантшей и коновалом — комбинация, современным музыкантшам неизвестная. В этом же месяце римляне праздновали и именины Венеры, богини любви, брака (законного и незаконного), красоты, турнюров и ртутных мазей. Родилась эта Венера из пены морской таким же образом, как наши барышни родятся из кисеи. Была женою хромого Вулкана, чеканившего для богов фальшивую монету и делавшего тонкие сети для ловли храбрых любовников. Состояла на содержании у всех богов и бескорыстно любила одного только Марса. Когда ей надоедали боги, она сходила на землю и заводила здесь интрижки с чиновниками гражданского ведомства: Энеем, Адонисом и другими. Покровительствует дамским парикмахерам, учителям словесности и доктору Тарновскому. В мартовский праздник ей приносили в жертву котов и гимназистов, начинающих влюбляться обыкновенно с марта. У наших предков март назывался Березозолом. Карамзин думал, что наши предки жгли в марте березовый уголь, откуда, по его мнению, и произошло прозвище Березозол. Люди же, которых много секли, знают, что это слово происходит от слова «береза» и «зла», ибо никогда береза не работает так зло и энергично, как перед экзаменами. У нашего Нестора март был первым месяцем в году. У римлян тоже.
Hazel Shade (the poet’s daughter) drowned in Lake Omega in March, 1957. In his poem ...A nebo budushchim beremenno ("...And the sky is pregnant with the future," 1923) Mandelshtam calls the sky al'fa i omega buri (the alpha and omega of a tempest). In Canto Three of his poem Shade calls 1958 “a year of Tempests” and mentions Mars:
It was a year of Tempests: Hurricane
Lolita swept from Florida to Maine.
Mars glowed. Shahs married. Gloomy Russians spied.
Lang made your portrait. And one night I died. (ll. 679-82)
Describing IPH (a lay Institute of the Preparation for Hereafter), Shade mentions the great Starover Blue who reviewed the role planets had played as landfalls of the soul (ll. 627-628).
In his autobiography Speak, Memory (1951) VN says that in August, 1888, his mother’s aunt Praskovia, the wife of the celebrated syphilologist V. M. Tarnovski, met Chekhov at dinner in Ayvazovski’s villa near Feodosia:
One of my mother’s happier girlhood recollections was having traveled one summer with her aunt Praskovia to the Crimea, where her paternal grandfather had an estate near Feodosia. Her aunt and she went for a walk with him and another old gentleman, the well-known seascape painter Ayvazovski. She remembered the painter saying (as he had said no doubt many times) that in 1836, at an exhibition of pictures in St. Petersburg, he had seen Pushkin, “an ugly little fellow with a tall handsome wife.” That was more than half a century before, when Ayvazovski was an art student, and less than a year before Pushkin’s death. She also remembered the touch nature added from its own palette—the white mark a bird left on the painter’s gray top hat. The aunt Praskovia, walking beside her, was her mother’s sister, who had married the celebrated syphilologist V. M. Tarnovski (1839–1906) and who herself was a doctor, the author of works on psychiatry, anthropology and social welfare. One evening at Ayvazovski’s villa near Feodosia, Aunt Praskovia met at dinner the twenty-eight-year-old Dr. Anton Chekhov whom she somehow offended in the course of a medical conversation. She was a very learned, very kind, very elegant lady, and it is hard to imagine how exactly she could have provoked the incredibly coarse outburst Chekhov permits himself in a published letter of August 3, 1888, to his sister. Aunt Praskovia, or Aunt Pasha, as we called her, often visited us at Vyra. She had an enchanting way of greeting us, as she swept into the nursery with a sonorous “Bonjour, les enfants!” She died in 1910. My mother was at her bedside, and Aunt Pasha’s last words were: “That’s interesting. Now I understand. Everything is water, vsyo—voda.” (Chapter Three, 3)
In a letter of July 22 (August 3 by the New Style), 1888, to his sister Chekhov says that after talking to Mme Tarnovski he mentally scratched her off the list of women doctors:
Вчера я ездил в Шах-мамай, именье Айвазовского, за 25 верст от Феодосии. Именье роскошное, несколько сказочное; такие имения, вероятно, можно видеть в Персии. Сам Айвазовский, бодрый старик лет 75, представляет из себя помесь добродушного армяшки с заевшимся архиереем; полон собственного достоинства, руки имеет мягкие и подает их по-генеральски. Недалек, но натура сложная и достойная внимания. В себе одном он совмещает и генерала, и архиерея, и художника и армянина, и наивного деда, и Отелло. Женат на молодой и очень красивой женщине, которую держит в ежах. Знаком с султанами, шахами и эмирами. Писал вместе с Глинкой «Руслана и Людмилу». Был приятелем Пушкина, но Пушкина не читал. В своей жизни он не прочел ни одной книги. Когда ему предлагают читать, он говорит: «Зачем мне читать, если у меня есть свои мнения?» Я у него пробыл целый день и обедал. Обед длинный, тягучий, с бесконечными тостами. Между прочим, на обеде познакомился я с женщиной-врачом Тарновской, женою известного профессора. Это толстый, ожиревший комок мяса. Если ее раздеть голой и выкрасить в зелёную краску, то получится болотная лягушка. Поговоривши с ней, я мысленно вычеркнул её из списка врачей...
. . . Yesterday we went to Shah-Mamai Aivazovsky’s estate, twenty-five versts from Feodosia. It is a magnificent estate, rather like fairyland; such estates may probably be seen in Persia. Aivazovsky himself, a vigorous old man of seventy-five, is a mixture of a good-natured Armenian and an overfed bishop; he is full of dignity, has soft hands, and offers them like a general. He is not very intelligent, but is a complex nature worthy of attention. He combines in himself a general, a bishop, an artist, an Armenian, a naive old peasant, and an Othello. He is married to a young and very beautiful woman whom he rules with a rod of iron. He is friendly with Sultans, Shahs, and Amirs. He collaborated with Glinka in writing “Ruslan and Lyudmila.” He was a friend of Pushkin, but has never read him. He has not read a single book in his life. When it is suggested to him that he should read something he answers, “Why should I read when I have opinions of my own?” I spent a whole day in his house and had dinner there. The dinner was fearfully long, with endless toasts. By the way, at that dinner I was introduced to the lady doctor, wife of the well-known professor. She is a fat, bulky piece of flesh. If she were undressed and painted green she would look just like a frog. After talking to her I mentally scratched her off the list of women doctors. . . .
In his “Philological Notes,” Ob iyune i iyule (“On June and July”), Chekhov says that for writers July is an unhappy month: with its inexorable red pencil Death scratched off in July six Russian poets and one Pamva Berynda (a lexicographer of the 17th century):
Для писателей июль несчастный месяц. Смерть своим неумолимым красным карандашом зачеркнула в июле шестерых русских поэтов и одного Памву Берынду.
At the end of his poem Shade says that he is reasonably sure that he will wake at six tomorrow, on July the twenty-second, nineteen fifty-nine:
I'm reasonably sure that we survive
And that my darling somewhere is alive,
As I am reasonably sure that I
Shall wake at six tomorrow, on July
The twenty-second, nineteen fifty-nine,
And that the day will probably be fine;
So this alarm clock let me set myself,
Yawn, and put back Shade's "Poems" on their shelf. (ll. 977-984)
Shade’s poem is almost finished when on July 21, 1959, the author is killed by Gradus. Kinbote (Shade’s mad commentator who imagines that he is Charles the Beloved, the last self-exiled king of Zembla) believes that, to be completed, Shade’s poem needs but one line (Line 1000, identical to Line 1: “I was the shadow of the waxwing slain”). But it seems that, like some sonnets, Shade’s poem also needs a coda ( Line 1001: “By its own double in the windowpane”). The poem’s last line is its dazzling synthesis.
In Speak, Memory VN compares his life (that he sees as a colored spiral in a small ball of glass) to Hegel’s triadic series and calls the years spent in America a synthesis:
The spiral is a spiritualized circle. In the spiral form, the circle, uncoiled, unwound, has ceased to be vicious; it has been set free. I thought this up when I was a schoolboy, and I also discovered that Hegel’s triadic series (so popular in old Russia) expressed merely the essential spirality of all things in their relation to time. Twirl follows twirl, and every synthesis is the thesis of the next series. If we consider the simplest spiral, three stages may be distinguished in it, corresponding to those of the triad: We can call “thetic” the small curve or arc that initiates the convolution centrally; “antithetic” the larger arc that faces the first in the process of continuing it; and “synthetic” the still ampler arc that continues the second while following the first along the outer side. And so on.
A colored spiral in a small ball of glass, this is how I see my own life. The twenty years I spent in my native Russia (1899–1919) take care of the thetic arc. Twenty-one years of voluntary exile in England, Germany and France (1919–1940) supply the obvious antithesis. The period spent in my adopted country (1940–1960) forms a synthesis—and a new thesis. For the moment I am concerned with my antithetic stage, and more particularly with my life in Continental Europe after I had graduated from Cambridge in 1922. (Chapter Fourteen, 1)
In VN’s novel Ada (1969) July 21 (the day of Shade’s death) is Ada’s birthday. Describing his first tea party at Ardis, Van mentions Ada’s badly bitten fingernails and Tarn, otherwise the New Reservoir:
They now had tea in a prettily furnished corner of the otherwise very austere central hall from which rose the grand staircase. They sat on chairs upholstered in silk around a pretty table. Ada’s black jacket and a pink-yellow-blue nosegay she had composed of anemones, celandines and columbines lay on a stool of oak. The dog got more bits of cake than it did ordinarily. Price, the mournful old footman who brought the cream for the strawberries, resembled Van’s teacher of history, ‘Jeejee’ Jones.
‘He resembles my teacher of history,’ said Van when the man had gone.
‘I used to love history,’ said Marina, ‘I loved to identify myself with famous women. There’s a ladybird on your plate, Ivan. Especially with famous beauties — Lincoln’s second wife or Queen Josephine.’
‘Yes, I’ve noticed — it’s beautifully done. We’ve got a similar set at home.’
‘Slivok (some cream)? I hope you speak Russian?’ Marina asked Van, as she poured him a cup of tea.
‘Neohotno no sovershenno svobodno (reluctantly but quite fluently),’ replied Van, slegka ulïbnuvshis’ (with a slight smile). ‘Yes, lots of cream and three lumps of sugar.’
‘Ada and I share your extravagant tastes. Dostoevski liked it with raspberry syrup.’
‘Pah,’ uttered Ada.
Marina’s portrait, a rather good oil by Tresham, hanging above her on the wall, showed her wearing the picture hat she had used for the rehearsal of a Hunting Scene ten years ago, romantically brimmed, with a rainbow wing and a great drooping plume of black-banded silver; and Van, as he recalled the cage in the park and his mother somewhere in a cage of her own, experienced an odd sense of mystery as if the commentators of his destiny had gone into a huddle. Marina’s face was now made up to imitate her former looks, but fashions had changed, her cotton dress was a rustic print, her auburn locks were bleached and no longer tumbled down her temples, and nothing in her attire or adornments echoed the dash of her riding crop in the picture and the regular pattern of her brilliant plumage which Tresham had rendered with ornithological skill.
There was not much to remember about that first tea. He noticed Ada’s trick of hiding her fingernails by fisting her hand or stretching it with the palm turned upward when helping herself to a biscuit. She was bored and embarrassed by everything her mother said and when the latter started to talk about the Tarn, otherwise the New Reservoir, he noted that Ada was no longer sitting next to him but standing a little way off with her back to the tea table at an open casement with the slim-waisted dog on a chair peering over splayed front paws out into the garden too, and she was asking it in a private whisper what it was it had sniffed.
‘You can see the Tarn from the library window,’ said Marina. ‘Presently Ada will show you all the rooms in the house. Ada?’ (She pronounced it the Russian way with two deep, dark ‘a’s, making it sound rather like ‘ardor.’)
‘You can catch a glint of it from here too,’ said Ada, turning her head and, pollice verso, introducing the view to Van who put his cup down, wiped his mouth with a tiny embroidered napkin, and stuffing it into his trouser pocket, went up to the dark-haired, pale-armed girl. As he bent toward her (he was three inches taller and the double of that when she married a Greek Catholic, and his shadow held the bridal crown over her from behind), she moved her head to make him move his to the required angle and her hair touched his neck. In his first dreams of her this re-enacted contact, so light, so brief, invariably proved to be beyond the dreamer’s endurance and like a lifted sword signaled fire and violent release. (1.5)
Dostoevski’s favorite word, podnogotnaya (the whole truth) comes from nogot’ (fingernail, toenail). Dostoevski is the author of Dvoynik (“The Double,” 1846), Netochka Nezvanov (1849), a novel that remained unfinished because the author was arrested, and Brat’ya Karamazovy (“The Brothers Karamazov,” 1880). Netochka is the nickname of Professor Oscar Nattochdag, a Zemblan scholar at Wordsmith whose name means in Swedish “night and day.” Describing IPH, Shade mentions Fra Karamazov mumbling his inept all is allowed.
Describing the Night of the Burning Barn (when he and Ada make love for the first time), Van mentions the AB bank of Tarn:
That multiple departure really presented a marvelous sight against the pale star-dusted firmament of practically subtropical Ardis, tinted between the black trees with a distant flamingo flush at the spot where the Barn was Burning. To reach it one had to drive round a large reservoir which I could make out breaking into scaly light here and there every time some adventurous hostler or pantry boy crossed it on water skis or in a Rob Roy or by means of a raft — typical raft ripples like fire snakes in Japan; and one could now follow with an artist’s eye the motorcar’s lamps, fore and aft, progressing east along the AB bank of that rectangular lake, then turning sharply upon reaching its B corner, trailing away up the short side and creeping back west, in a dim and diminished aspect, to a middle point on the far margin where they swung north and disappeared. (1.19)
In Canto Four of his poem Shade says that there are two methods of composing, A and B:
I'm puzzled by the difference between
Two methods of composing: A, the kind
Which goes on solely in the poet's mind,
A testing of performing words, while he
Is soaping a third time one leg, and B,
The other kind, much more decorous, when
He's in his study writing with a pen. (ll. 840-846)
In October 1956 Hazel Shade witnessed 'certain phenomena' that occurred in the old barn and tried to decipher a message from the ghost of Aunt Maud. Describing the barn, Kinbote mentions Saturday (a day of the week dedicated to Saturn):
That barn had stood on the weedy spot Shade was poking at with Aunt Maud's favorite cane. One Saturday evening a young student employee from the campus hotel and a local hoyden went into it for some purpose or other and were chatting or dozing there when they were frightened out of their wits by rattling sounds and flying lights causing them to flee in disorder. Nobody really cared what had routed them - whether it was an outraged ghost or a rejected swain. But the Wordsmith Gazette ("The oldest student newspaper in the USA") picked up the incident and started to worry the stuffing out of it like a mischievous pup. Several self-styled psychic researchers visited the place and the whole business was so blatantly turning into a rag, with the participation of the most notorious college pranksters, that Shade complained to the authorities with the result that the useless barn was demolished as constituting a fire hazard. (note to Line 347)
As he speaks over the 'phone to his secretary, Van mentions Saturday:
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’adorée? 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 durée 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 durée 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?’ (2.5)
"Orgiastic soda" in Ada brings to mind "Soda pop" in VN's novel Lolita (1955):
We had breakfast in the township of Soda, pop. 1001.
“Judging by the terminal figure,” I remarked, “Fatface is already here.”
“Your humor,” said Lo, “is sidesplitting, deah fahther.” (2.18)
A little earlier Lolita draws Humbert Humbert’s attention to the three nines changing into the next thousand in the odometer:
“If he’s really a cop,” she said shrilly but not illogically, “the worst thing we could do, would be to show him we are scared. Ignore him, Dad.”
“Did he ask where we were going?”
“Oh, he knows that” (mocking me).
“Anyway,” I said, giving up, “I have seen his face now. He is not pretty. He looks exactly like a relative of mine called Trapp.”
“Perhaps he is Trapp. If I were you - Oh, look, all the nines are changing into the next thousand. When I was a little kid,” she continued unexpectedly, “I used to think they’d stop and go back to nines, if only my mother agreed to put the car in reverse.”
It was the first time, I think, she spoke spontaneously of her pre-Humbertian childhood; perhaps, the theatre had taught her that trick; and silently we traveled on, unpursued. (ibid.)
In its unfinished form Shade's poem has 999 lines. “Soda” rhymes with “coda.”
Tolstomordik (Fatface) mentioned by Gumbert Gumbert (Humbert Humbert in Russian spelling) in the Russian version (1967) of Lolita seems to blend Tolstoy with Chernomordik, the chemist in Chekhov’s story Aptekarsha (“A Chemist’s Wife,” 1886). In a letter of February 14, 1900, to Olga Knipper (a leading actress of the Moscow Art Theater whom Chekhov married in 1901) Chekhov says that he will go to Sevastopol incognito and put himself down in the hotel-book graf Chernomordik (Count Blackphiz):
Я решил не писать Вам, но так как Вы прислали фотографии, то я снимаю с Вас опалу и вот, как видите, пишу. Даже в Севастополь приеду, только, повторяю, никому об этом не говорите, особенно Вишневскому. Я буду там incognito, запишусь в гостинице так: граф Черномордик.
I had made up my mind not to write to you, but since you have sent the photographs I have taken off the ban, and here you see I am writing. I will even come to Sevastopol, only I repeat, don’t tell that to anyone, especially not to Vishnevsky. I shall be there incognito, I shall put myself down in the hotel-book Count Blackphiz.
In the same letter Chekhov thanks Knipper for her photographs that she sent to him:
Милая актриса, фотографии очень, очень хороши, особенно та, где Вы пригорюнились, поставив локти на спинку стула, и где передано Ваше выражение — скромно-грустное, тихое выражение, за которым прячется чёртик. И другая тоже удачна, но тут Вы немножко похожи на евреечку, очень музыкальную особу, которая ходит в консерваторию и в то же время изучает на всякий случай тайно зубоврачебное искусство и имеет жениха в Могилёве; и жених такой, как Манасевич. Вы сердитесь? Правда, правда, сердитесь? Это я мщу Вам за то, что Вы не подписались.
The photographs are very, very good, especially the one in which you are leaning in dejection with your elbows on the back of a chair, which gives you a discreetly mournful, gentle expression under which there lies hid a little demon. The other is good too, but it looks a little like a Jewess, a very musical person who attends a conservatoire, but at the same time is studying dentistry on the sly as a second string, and is engaged to be married to a young man in Mogilev, and whose fiancé is a person like Manasevich. Are you angry? Really, really angry? It’s my revenge for your not signing them.
According to Humbert Humbert (the narrator and main character in Lolita), his very photogenic mother was killed by lightning:
My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning) when I was three, and save for a pocket of warmth in the darkest past, nothing of her subsists within the hollows and dells of memory, over which, if you can still stand my style (I am writing under observation), the sun of my infancy had set: surely, you all know those redolent remnants of day suspended, with the midges, about some hedge in bloom or suddenly entered and traversed by the rambler, at the bottom of a hill, in the summer dusk; a furry warmth, golden midges. (1.2)
In a letter of July 6, 1898, to Sumbatov-Yuzhin (an actor and playwright) Chekhov predicts to Yuzhin that a lightning in Monte-Carlo will kill him:
Будь здоров и благополучен и не бойся нефрита, которого у тебя нет и не будет. Ты умрёшь через 67 лет, и не от нефрита; тебя убьёт молния в Монте-Карло.
Don’t be afraid of nephritis. You’ll die in sixty-seven years and not of nephritis; a lightning in Monte-Carlo will kill you.
The Lady who Loved Lightning is a play by Clare Quilty written in collaboration with Vivian Darkbloom. Before the breakfast in Soda, Lolita tells Humbert Humbert that she is not a lady and does not like lightning:
We spent a grim night in a very foul cabin, under a sonorous amplitude of rain, and with a kind of prehistorically loud thunder incessantly rolling above us.
“I am not a lady and do not like lightning,” said Lo, whose dread of electric storms gave me some pathetic solace. (2.18)
According to Humbert Humbert, he and Lolita saw Vivian Darkbloom in Soda pop:
“You’ve again hurt my wrist, you brute,” said Lolita in a small voice as she slipped into her car seat.
“I am dreadfully sorry, my darling, my own ultraviolet darling,” I said, unsuccessfully trying to catch her elbow, and I added, to change the conversationto change the direction of fate, oh God, oh God: “Vivian is quite a woman. I am sure we saw her yesterday in that restaurant, in Soda pop.” (ibid.)
In the Russian Lolita "Vivian Darkbloom" (anagram of Vladimir Nabokov) becomes Vivian Damor-Blok. Dvoynik ("The Double," 1909) is a poem by Alexander Blok.
In a letter of October 17 (29), 1897, to Suvorin Chekhov (who stayed in Nice in the Pension Russe where one of his neighbors at table d'hôte, a young man from Warsaw, turned out to be a spy) asks Suvorin to bring from Paris Le Rire, zhurnal s portretom Gumberta (the magazine issue with King Umberto’s portrait):
Привезите журнал «Le rire» с портретом Гумберта, если попадётся на глаза.
Bring the issue of Le Rire with Umberto’s portrait, if you catch sight of it.
The philosopher who posited a theory of time and consciousness, Henri Bergson is the author of Le Rire (“Laughter,” 1900). Le Rire was a successful French humor magazine. Umberto’s portrait mentioned by Chekhov is a cartoon. Describing his performance in variety shows as Mascodagama (when he dances tango on his hands), Van mentions cartoonists:
Mascodagama’s spectacular success in a theatrical club that habitually limited itself to Elizabethan plays, with queens and fairies played by pretty boys, made first of all a great impact on cartoonists. Deans, local politicians, national statesmen, and of course the current ruler of the Golden Horde were pictured as mascodagamas by topical humorists. (1.30)
Van’s stage name blends maska (Russ., mask) with Vasco da Gama. “The Mask” (1884) is a story by Chekhov highly praised by Tolstoy. In his memoir essay "On Chekhov," the first one in his book Na kladbishchakh ("At Cemeteries," 1921), Vasiliy Nemirovich-Danchenko quotes the words of Chekhov who in jest compared himself to Vasco da Gama (the Portuguese navigator who discovered the sea route from Portugal around the continent of Africa to India):
-- А то ещё куда меня гонят? В Африку. Что я Васко да Гама, что ли? Ведь это, слушайте же, в опере хорошо... Ни за что не поеду. Тоже нашли Стенли. Пусть Василий Иванович едет. Его мамка в детстве ушибла. Ему чем дальше, тем лучше... А я ни за что. Мало я черномази видал! Даже если мне ещё тарелку гречневой каши дадут, не поеду!
At the end of his memoir essay on Chekhov, written soon after the writer’s death, Korolenko mentions Russian humorists (Gogol, Uspenski, Shchedrin, Chekhov) and wonders if russkiy smekh (the Russian laughter) has really something fatal about it:
И опять невольно приходит в голову сопоставление: Гоголь, Успенский, Щедрин, теперь - Чехов. Этими именами почти исчерпывается ряд выдающихся русских писателей с сильно выраженным юмористическим темпераментом. Двое из них кончили прямо острой меланхолией, двое других - беспросветной тоской. Пушкин называл Гоголя "весёлым меланхоликом", и это меткое определение относится одинаково ко всем перечисленным писателям... Гоголь, Успенский, Щедрин и Чехов...
Неужели в русском смехе есть в самом деле что-то роковое? Неужели реакция прирожденного юмора на русскую действительность, - употребляя терминологию химиков, - неизбежно даёт ядовитый осадок, разрушающий всего сильнее тот сосуд, в котором она совершается, то есть душу писателя?.. (VI)
Is there really something fatal in the Russian laughter? Is it true that a reaction of the innate humor to the Russian reality - to use the terminology of the chemists - inevitably produces a poisonous sediment that destroys most powerfully the vessel in which it takes place, that is the writer's soul?
The terminology of the chemists used by Korolenko brings to mind Professor Chem, Humbert Humbert's and Lolita's landlord at Beardsley.
In a letter of November 25, 1892, to Suvorin Chekhov complains of the lack of alcohol that would intoxicate the reader (viewer) in the works of contemporary artists and asks Suvorin if Korolenko and Nadson (a minor poet) are not lemonade:
Скажите по совести, кто из моих сверстников, т. е. людей в возрасте 30--45 лет, дал миру хотя одну каплю алкоголя? Разве Короленко, Надсон и все нынешние драматурги не лимонад?
Tell me honestly, who of my contemporaries—that is, men between thirty and forty-five—have given the world one single drop of alcohol? Are not Korolenko, Nadson, and all the playwrights of to-day, lemonade?
According to Kinbote, in a conversation with him Shade deplored the total absence of sense of humor in Russian intellectuals:
Speaking of the Head of the bloated Russian Department, Prof. Pnin, a regular martinet in regard to his underlings (happily, Prof. Botkin, who taught in another department, was not subordinated to that grotesque "perfectionist"): How odd that Russian intellectuals should lack all sense of humor when they have such marvelous humorists as Gogol, Dostoevski, Chekhov, Zoshchenko, and those joint authors of genius Ilf and Petrov. (note to Line 172)
Ilf and Petrov are the authors of Odnoetazhnaya Amerika (“Single-Storied America,” 1937), a book written after the authors took a road trip across the USA. Pnin is the funny and touching title character of a novel (1957) by VN. Pnin, who speaks English with Russian accent, pronounces soda as “sawdust:”
She put her bag and parcels down on the sideboard in the kitchen and asked in the direction of the pantry: 'What are you looking for, Timofey?'
He came out of there, darkly flushed, wild-eyed, and she was shocked to see that his face was a mess of unwiped tears.
'I search, John, for the viscous and sawdust,' he said tragically.
'I am afraid there is no soda,' she answered with her lucid Anglo-Saxon restraint. 'But there is plenty of whisky in the dining-room cabinet. However, I suggest we both have some nice hot tea instead.' (Chapter Two, 7)
Pnin is bald and brings to mind Judge Bald in Ada:
In those times, in this country’ incestuous’ meant not only ‘unchaste’ — the point regarded linguistics rather than legalistics — but also implied (in the phrase ‘incestuous cohabitation,’ and so forth) interference with the continuity of human evolution. History had long replaced appeals to ‘divine law’ by common sense and popular science. With those considerations in mind, ‘incest’ could be termed a crime only inasmuch as inbreeding might be criminal. But as Judge Bald pointed out already during the Albino Riots of 1835, practically all North American and Tartar agriculturists and animal farmers used inbreeding as a method of propagation that tended to preserve, and stimulate, stabilize and even create anew favorable characters in a race or strain unless practiced too rigidly. If practiced rigidly incest led to various forms of decline, to the production of cripples, weaklings, ‘muted mutates’ and, finally, to hopeless sterility. Now that smacked of ‘crime,’ and since nobody could be supposed to control judiciously orgies of indiscriminate inbreeding (somewhere in Tartary fifty generations of ever woolier and woolier sheep had recently ended abruptly in one hairless, five-legged, impotent little lamb — and the beheading of a number of farmers failed to resurrect the fat strain), it was perhaps better to ban ‘incestuous cohabitation’ altogether. Judge Bald and his followers disagreed, perceiving in ‘the deliberate suppression of a possible benefit for the sake of avoiding a probable evil’ the infringement of one of humanity’s main rights — that of enjoying the liberty of its evolution, a liberty no other creature had ever known. Unfortunately after the rumored misadventure of the Volga herds and herdsmen a much better documented fait divers happened in the U.S.A. at the height of the controversy. An American, a certain Ivan Ivanov of Yukonsk, described as an ‘habitually intoxicated laborer’ (‘a good definition,’ said Ada lightly, ‘of the true artist’), managed somehow to impregnate — in his sleep, it was claimed by him and his huge family — his five-year-old great-granddaughter, Maria Ivanov, and, then, five years later, also got Maria’s daughter, Daria, with child, in another fit of somnolence. Photographs of Maria, a ten-year old granny with little Daria and baby Varia crawling around her, appeared in all the newspapers, and all kinds of amusing puzzles were provided by the genealogical farce that the relationships between the numerous living — and not always clean-living — members of the Ivanov clan had become in angry Yukonsk. Before the sixty-year-old somnambulist could go on procreating, he was clapped into a monastery for fifteen years as required by an ancient Russian law. Upon his release he proposed to make honorable amends by marrying Daria, now a buxom lass with problems of her own. Journalists made a lot of the wedding, and the shower of gifts from well-wishers (old ladies in New England, a progressive poet in residence at Tennesee Waltz College, an entire Mexican high school, et cetera), and on the same day Gamaliel (then a stout young senator) thumped a conference table with such force that he hurt his fist and demanded a retrial and capital punishment. It was, of course, only a temperamental gesture; but the Ivanov affair cast a long shadow upon the little matter of ‘favourable inbreeding.’ By mid-century not only first cousins but uncles and grandnieces were forbidden to intermarry; and in some fertile parts of Estoty the izba windows of large peasant families in which up to a dozen people of different size and sex slept on one blin-like mattress were ordered to be kept uncurtained at night for the convenience of petrol-torch-flashing patrols — ‘Peeping Pats,’ as the anti-Irish tabloids called them. (1.21)
Judge Bald reminds one of Lysevich, in Chekhov's story Bab'ye tsarstvo ("A Woman's Kingdom," 1894) Anna Akimovna's lawyer whose name comes from lysyi (bald). In a canceled variant of Four: XLIII: 1-4 of Eugene Onegin Pushkin mentions lysoe Saturna temya (the bald pate of Saturn):
В глуши что делать в это время
Гулять? — Но голы все места
Как лысое Сатурна темя
Иль крепостная нищета.
In his EO Commentary (vol. II, p. 476) VN writes:
1-4 The fair copy reads:
What do then in the backwoods at that time?
Promenade? But all places are bare
as the bald pate of Saturn
or serfdom's destitution.
The draft (2370, f. 77v) is marked "2 genv. 1826."
Brodski, of course, makes a lot of this allusion to rural conditions before Lenin and Stalin.
There is a wonderful alliterative play on g and l:
V glushi chto delat' v eto vremya?
Gulyat'? No goly vse mesta,
Kak lysoe Saturna temya
Il' krepostnaya nishcheta.
Saturn is the ancient god of time or of seasons, and is usually represented as a grey-bearded old man with a bald pate and a scythe. He eats up his own children, "as revolutions eat up the liberties they engender" (as Vergniaud, the Girondist, said).
In Chapter One (XXV: 1-2) of EO Pushkin says that one can be an efficient man and mind the beauty of one's nails:
Быть можно дельным человеком
И думать о красе ногтей:
К чему бесплодно спорить с веком?
Обычай деспот меж людей.
Второй Чадаев, мой Евгений,
Боясь ревнивых осуждений,
В своей одежде был педант
И то, что мы назвали франт.
Он три часа по крайней мере
Пред зеркалами проводил
И из уборной выходил
Подобный ветреной Венере,
Когда, надев мужской наряд,
Богиня едет в маскарад.
One can be an efficient man —
and mind the beauty of one's nails:
why vainly argue with the age?
Custom is despot among men.
My Eugene, a second [Chadáev],
being afraid of jealous censures,
was in his dress a pedant
and what we've called a fop.
Three hours, at least,
he spent in front of glasses,
and from his dressing room came forth
akin to giddy Venus
when, having donned a masculine attire,
the goddess drives to a masqued ball.
In the preceding stanza of EO (One: XXIV: 6) Pushkin mentions pryamye nozhnitsy, krivye (straight scissors, curvate ones) with which Onegin pares his fingernails. In the “Fragments of Onegin’s Journey” ([XVII]: 13-14) Pushkin confesses that he has admixed a lot water unto his poetic goblet (cf. "everything is water," the last words of Aunt Pasha). In Vivian Calmbrood’s poem “The Night Journey” (1931) Chenston mentions his neighbor, young Wordsworth, a nice person to whose verses water is harmful, though. The name of Kinbote’s landlord, Judge Goldsworth (who is linked to Saturn), blends Goldsmith with Wordsworth. A lake poet, Wordsworth asked the critic scorn not the sonnet. The author of “A Sonnet” (with the epigraph from Wordsworth), Pushkin attributed the authorship of his little tragedy Skupoy rytsar’ (“The Covetous Knight,” 1830) to Chenston. Nikto b (none would), a phrase used by Mozart in Pushkin’s little tragedy “Mozart and Salieri” (1830), is Botkin (Shade’s, Kinbote’s and Gradus’ “real” name) in reverse. Vivian Calmbrood is VN’s penname.
Like John Shade, Chekhov and Nabokov died in July.