Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0025348, Mon, 28 Apr 2014 17:00:28 +0300

last straw of champagne in Ada
Knowing how fond his sisters were of Russian fare and Russian floor shows, Van took them Saturday night to 'Ursus,' the best Franco-Estotian restaurant in Manhattan Major. (2.8)

Ursus is a character in Victor Hugo's L'Homme qui Rit ("The Laughing Man," 1869). A wandering artist who performs at fairs with his tame wolf Homo, Ursus tells Gwynplaine (Ursus's adopted son whose mouth was surgically disfigured to make the face look like a grinning mask): Masca eris, et ridebis semper (you will be a mask and you will always laugh). Ridebis Semper was once Nabokov’s mask. Zud, a little self-parody that appeared in 1940 in Novoe Russkoe Slovo, a Russian-language newspaper in New York, was signed "Ridebis Semper."

He too had had just about his 'last straw' of champagne, namely four out of half a dozen bottles minus a rizzom (as we said at old Chose) and now, as he followed their bluish furs, he inhaled like a fool his right hand before gloving it. (ibid.)

According to Webster's dictionary, rizzom means "straw; a tiny bit, particle." It sounds almost like risum (Acc. of risus, Lat. "laughter"). In Saltykov-Shchedrin's fairy tale Medved' na voevodstve ("The Bear on Office of Voevode," 1884) the Mosquito quotes Horace (Ars Poetica) to make fun of the Bear:

Комар из-за тридевять земель прилетел:
"Risum teneatis, amici! Чижика съел!"
("One can not help laughing, friends! He swallowed the Siskin!")

Chizhik (siskin, the bird Fringillidae fam., swallowed by the Bear) brings to mind the famous song:

Чижик-пыжик, где ты был?
На Фонтанке водку пил...

Siskin-shishkin, where have you been?
"I've been at the Fontanka Canal drinking vodka ... "

The Fontanka Canal in St. Petersburg is mentioned in Shchedrin's fairy tale Kak odin muzhik dvukh generalov prokormil ("Two Generals and a Peasant," 1869):

Soon after this the general came to a stream, which was as full of fish as the fish-shop on the Fontanka Canal.

In a letter of Febr. 2, 1900, to Leontiev-Shcheglov Chekhov asks his friend and colleague not to moor his ship in the Fontanka Canal:

Милый Жан, отнеситесь к себе, к своему дарованию справедливо, пустите Ваш большой корабль плавать по широкому морю, не держите его в Фонтанке. Простите всем, кто обидел Вас, махните рукой и, повторяю, садитесь писать.
Простите, что я заговорил певучим тоном богомолки.

"Steer your ship into the open seas; do not moor it in the Fontanka." Chekhov then apologizes for pevuchiy ton bogomolki (the singsongy devotional tone):

Простите, что я заговорил певучим тоном богомолки.

According to Ada, Marina (Van's, Ada's and Lucette's mother who played sister Varvara in the Holliwood film version of Four Sisters, as Chekhov's play is known on Antiterra) rendered beautifully the nun's singsongy devotional tone:

"Ten years and one have gone by-abye since I left Moscow" - (Ada, now playing Varvara, copied the nun's 'singsongy devotional tone' (pevuchiy ton bogomolki, as indicated by Chekhov and as rendered so irritatingly well by Marina). (2.9)

Fontanka comes from fontan (fountain). At Marina's funeral 'D'Onsky's son, a person with only one arm, threw his remaining one around Demon [Van's and Ada's father] and both wept comme des fontaines.' (3.8) Actually, Demon's grief was not too deep:

‘Your new car sounds wonderful,' said Van.
‘Doesn't it? Yes.' (Ask Van about that gornishon - Franco-Russian slang of the meanest grade for a cute kameristochka*). ‘And how is everything, my dear boy? I saw you last the day you returned from Chose. We waste life in separations! We are the fools of fate! Oh let's spend a month together in Paris or London before the Michaelmas term!'
Demon shed his monocle and wiped his eyes with the modish lace-frilled handkerchief that lodged in the heart pocket of his dinner jacket. His tear glands were facile in action when no real sorrow made him control himself. (1.38)

The Michaelmas term brings to mind the Michaelmas Day (Sept. 29), Mikhailo Ivanovich Toptygin's nameday in Shchedrin's fairy tale about the Bear:

Прибежал он на воеводство ранним утром, в самый Михайлов день, и сейчас же решил: "Быть назавтра кровопролитию". Что заставило его принять такое решение - неизвестно: ибо он, собственно говоря, не был зол, а так, скотина. И непременно бы он свой план выполнил, если бы лукавый его не попутал.
Дело в том, что, в ожидании кровопролития, задумал Топтыгин именины свои отпраздновать. Купил ведро водки и напился в одиночку пьян.
He came running on office of voevode early in the morning, on the Mikhailov day, and decided at once: "The next day will be bloodshed." What made him to take that decision is not known: for, in fact, he was not malicious, merely a brute. And he certainly would have executed his plan, if the devil had not played a joke on him.
In expectation of bloodshed Toptygin decided to celebrate his nameday. He bought a bucket of vodka and got tight solo.

The Bear swallowed the Siskin accidentally, because he had got tight on the eve.
In the debauche a trois scene (on the morning following the dinner in Ursus), Van finds Lucette in his and Ada's bed (Loddigesia Hummingbirds on the wall-paper remind one of Shchedrin's unfortunate bird, while the comparison of the bed to an island brings to mind the island in the fairy tale about Two Generals and a Peasant):

The scarred male nude on the island's east coast is half-shaded, and, on the whole, less interesting, though considerably more aroused than is good for him or a certain type of tourist. The recently repapered wall immediately west of the now louder-murmuring (et pour cause) dorocene lamp is ornamented in the central girl's honor with Peruvian 'honeysuckle' being visited (not only for its nectar, I'm afraid, but for the animalcules stuck in it) by marvelous Loddigesia Hummingbirds, while the bedtable on that side bears a lowly box of matches, a karavanchik of cigarettes, a Monaco ashtray, a copy of Voltemand's poor thriller, and a Lurid Oncidium Orchid in an amethystine vaselet.
The companion piece on Van's side supports a similar superstrong but unlit lamp, a dorophone, a box of Wipex, a reading loupe, the returned Ardis album, and a separatum 'Soft music as cause of brain tumors,' by Dr Anbury (young Rattner's waggish pen-name). (2.8)

The uha, the shashlyk, the Ai were facile and familiar successes; but the old songs had a peculiar poignancy owing to the participation of a Lyaskan contralto and a Banff bass, renowned performers of Russian 'romances,' with a touch of heart-wringing tsiganshchina vibrating through Grigoriev and Glinka. (ibid.)

Ai (the champagne sung by Pushkin in Eugene Onegin) is ia (an ass's cry) backwards. In Shchedrin's fairy tale about the Bear the Ass is a sage at the Lion's court:

Даже до Льва об его уме слух дошёл, и не раз он Ослу говаривал (Осёл в ту пору у него в советах за мудреца слыл): "Хоть одним бы ухом послушал, как Чижик у меня в когтях петь будет!"
Even the Lion heard rumors about his wit, and he told the Ass more than once (the Ass at that time was a sage in his councils): "I would like to listen very much how the Siskin will sing in my claws!"

The opening line of Pushkin's EO, "My uncle has most honest principles," is a parody of a line in Krylov's fable Osyol i muzhik ("The Ass and the Boor," 1819), "The donkey had most honest principles" (EO Commentary, II, p. 30). In a letter from the Kalugano hospital to Bernard Rattner Van writes:

A third letter he addressed to Bernard Rattner, his closest friend at Chose, the great Rattner's nephew. 'Your uncle has most honest standards,' he wrote, in part, 'but I am going to demolish him soon.' (1.42)

Shchedrin's fairy tale about the Bear is prefaced with the following argument:

Злодейства крупные и серьёзные нередко именуются блестящими и, в качестве таковых, заносятся на скрижали Истории. Злодейства же малые и шуточные именуются срамными, и не только Историю в заблуждение не вводят, но и от современников не получают похвалы.
Large and serious misdeeds quite often are called brilliant and, as those, are brought on tablets of History. Small and comic misdeeds are called shameful, and not only do not mislead History, but also do not receive the praises of the contemporaries.

Shchedrin is also the author of Bednyi volk ("The Poor Wolf," 1883), Samootverzhennyi zayats ("The Selfless Hare," 1883) and Zdravomyslennyi zayats ("The Sensible Hare," 1885). In his poem O pravitelyakh ("On Rulers," 1944) VN compares Hitler (known on Antiterra as "Athaulf the Future," 2.2, and "Athaulf Hindler, also known as Mittler - from 'to mittle,' mutilate," 5.5) to

волк в макинтоше,
в фуражке с немецким крутым козырьком,
охрипший и весь перекошенный,
в остановившемся автомобиле
the trench-coated wolf
in his army cap with a German steep peak,
hoarse-voiced, his face all distorted,
speaking from immobile convertible.

In the Russian original the wolf wears a mackintosh. As she goes to Kaluga to consult the gynecologist Seitz, Ada wears an unmodish macintosh:

Ada, wearing an unfashionable belted macintosh that he disliked, with her handbag on a strap over one shoulder, had gone to Kaluga for the whole day - officially to try on some clothes, unofficially to consult Dr Krolik's cousin, the gynecologist Seitz (or 'Zayats,' as she transliterated him mentally since it also belonged, as Dr 'Rabbit' did, to the leporine group in Russian pronunciation). (1.37)

Cordula de Prey, when Van meets her in a bookshop, also wears a belted mackintosh ('garbotosh'):

He looked her over more closely than he had done before. He had read somewhere (we might recall the precise title if we tried, not Tiltil, that's in Blue Beard...) that a man can recognize a Lesbian, young and alone (because a tailored old pair can fool no one), by a combination of three characteristics: slightly trembling hands, a cold-in-the-head voice, and that skidding-in-panic of the eyes if you happen to scan with obvious appraisal such charms as the occasion might force her to show (lovely shoulders, for instance). Nothing whatever of all that (yes - Mytilene, petite isle,** by Louis Pierre) seemed to apply to Cordula, who wore a 'garbotosh' (belted mackintosh) over her terribly unsmart turtle and held both hands deep in her pockets as she challenged his stare. (1.27)

In that bookshop Van asks Cordula, if she is a virgin: 'How could I get in touch with you?' he asked. 'Would you come to Riverlane? Are you a virgin?' (ibid.)

In Kingston (where Van teaches philosophy and where Lucette visits him) Lucette mentions the famous Van question:

'Van,' said Lucette, 'it will make you smile' (it did not: that prediction is seldom fulfilled), 'but if you posed the famous Van Question, I would answer in the affirmative.'
What he had asked little Cordula. In that bookshop behind the revolving paperbacks' stand, The Gitanilla, Our Laddies, Clichy Cliches, Six Pricks, The Bible Unabridged, Mertvago Forever, The Gitanilla... He was known in the beau monde for asking that question the very first time he met a young lady. (2.5)

Eight and a half years later, when he meets her in Paris, Van asks Lucette if she is still half-a-virgin:

I have a fabulous Japanese divan and lots of orchids just supplied by one of my beaux. Ach, Bozhe moy - it has just occurred to me - I shall have to look into this - maybe they are meant for Brigitte, who is marrying after tomorrow, at three-thirty, a head waiter at the Alphonse Trois, in Auteuil. Anyway they are greenish, with orange and purple blotches, some kind of delicate Oncidium, "cypress frogs," one of those silly commercial names. I'll stretch out upon the divan like a martyr, remember?'
'Are you still half-a-martyr - I mean half-a-virgin?' inquired Van.
'A quarter,' answered Lucette. 'Oh, try me, Van! My divan is black with yellow cushions.' (3.3)

Van's and Ada's half-sister, poor Lucette dies an Ophelian death: despaired to become Van's mistress she jumps from Tobakoff into the Atlantic (3.5).
When Van visits Ada in Brownhill, he wears a chic trench coat and Ada sports a shiny black raincoat and a down-brimmed oilcloth hat as if somebody was to be salvaged from the perils of life or sea:

The sweet cousin sported a shiny black raincoat and a down-brimmed oilcloth hat as if somebody was to be salvaged from the perils of life or sea. A tiny round patch did not quite hide a pimple on one side of her chin. Her breath smelled of ether. Her mood was even blacker than his. He cheerily guessed it would rain. It did - hard. Cordula remarked that his trench coat was chic. She did not think it worth while to go back for umbrellas - their delicious goal was just round the corner. Van said corners were never round, a tolerable quip. Cordula laughed. Ada did not: there were no survivors, apparently. (1.27)

According to a Russian saying, utopayushchiy khvataetsya za solominku (a drowning person clutches at a straw). In the Vasyuki Club where he lectures on chess and plays simultaneous games Ostap Bender (the main character in Ilf and Petrov's "The 12 Chairs" and "The Golden Calf") sees a cynical slogan:

Spasenie utopayushchikh – delo ruk samikh utopayushchikh
Assistance to drowning persons is in the hands of those persons themselves.

In "The Golden Calf" golovotyapstvo (bungling) is mentioned at least thrice (see my Russian article "Van Veen or Ivan Golovin: What is the Real Name of Ada's Main Character?" available in Topos http://www.topos.ru/article/7076). In Shchedrin's "The History of One City" (1870) the inhabitants of Glupov are the descentants of golovotyapy ("a hyperborean tribe"). Lucette studies the History of Art ('the second-rater's last refuge') in the Queenston College for Glamorous and Glupovatyh ('dumb') Girls (2.5).

Chekhov's last words were "It's a long time since I drank champagne." Saltykov-Shchedrin greeted death with the words: "Eto ty, dura?" ("Is it you, fool?")

As Ada reached for the cream, he caught and inspected her dead-shamming hand. We remember the Camberwell Beauty that lay tightly closed for an instant upon our palm, and suddenly our hand was empty. He saw, with satisfaction, that her fingernails were now long and sharp.
'Not too sharp, are they, my dear,' he asked for the benefit of dura Cordula, who should have gone to the 'powder room' - a forlorn hope.
'Why, no,' said Ada. (1.27)

'Sladko! (Sweet!)' Pushkin used to exclaim in relation to a different species [of mosquitoes] in Yukon. During the week following her birthday, Ada's unfortunate fingernails used to stay garnet-stained and after a particularly ecstatic, lost-to-the-world session of scratching, blood literally streamed down her shins - a pity to see, mused her distressed admirer, but at the same time disgracefully fascinating - for we are visitors and investigators in a strange universe, indeed, indeed. (1.17)

*Darkbloom ('Notes to Ada'): kameristochka: Russ., young chambermaid.
**St. Helena, a Small Island (1921) is a novel by Mark Aldanov

Alexey Sklyarenko

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