Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0025351, Tue, 29 Apr 2014 05:58:22 +0300

one-armed d'Onsky, Lady Erminin, Kim Beauharnais, Vekchelo in Ada
His reversed body gracefully curved, his brown legs hoisted like a Tarentine sail, his joined ankles tacking, Van gripped with splayed hands the brow of gravity, and moved to and fro, veering and sidestepping, opening his mouth the wrong way, and blinking in the odd bilboquet fashion peculiar to eyelids in his abnormal position. Even more extraordinary than the variety and velocity of the movements he made in imitation of animal hind legs was the effortlessness of his stance; King Wing warned him that Vekchelo, a Yukon professional, lost it by the time he was twenty-two; but that summer afternoon, on the silky ground of the pineglade, in the magical heart of Ardis, under Lady Erminin's blue eye, fourteen-year-old Van treated us to the greatest performance we have ever seen a brachiambulant give. (1.13)

In Kuprin's story Odnorukiy komendant ("The One-Armed Commander," 1923) the narrator compares the globe to a ball in the garden game called bilboquet:

Впрочем, и то сказать, какие времена тогда были! Времена железных людей, орлов, великанов! Земной шар служил у них шариком в садовой игре, именуемой бильбоке...

In Eugene Onegin (Ten: IX: 3-4) Pushkin mentions the one-armed Prince (Alexander Ypsilanti, 1792-1828, a Phanariot who served in the Russian army and lost his right arm in the Battle of Dresden, 1813) who "winked" to the friends of Morea (i. e. Peloponnesus) from Kishinev:

Безрукий князь друзьям Мореи
Из Кишинёва уж мигал

the one-armed prince to the friends of Morea
from Kishinev already winked.

The hero of Kuprin's story, General Ivan Skobelev (the grandfather of Mikhail Skobelev, "the White General," hero of the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78), lost his left arm in the Patriotic War of 1812, in the battle of Smolensk:

Под Смоленском он командовал полком, и там ему ядро оторвало левую руку.*

Ivan Skobelev was an adjutant of the field-marshal Kutuzov, the Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Army. After Napoleon's exodus from Russia, Kutuzov received the Princely title and became Prince Kutuzov of Smolensk. Kutuzov's daughter Eliza Khitrovo was in love with Pushkin and was nicknamed Erminia (after a character in Tasso's "Jerusalem Delivered"). Lady Erminin (under whose blue eye, as imagined by Marina, Van walks on his hands) is the late wife of Colonel Erminin, mother of the twins Greg and Grace (with whom Ada plays anagrams at the same picnic in "Ardis the First"). She must have committed suicide when she learnt of her husband's affair with her sister Ruth (who is pregnant when she comes to the picnic in Ardis the First and who presumably dies in childbirth).

The tsar Nicholas I made Ivan Skobelev (1778-1849) the Commander of the Peter-and-Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg:

И правда упрятал: на другое же утро получил Иван Никитич личное назначение от государя: быть ему комендантом Петропавловской крепости.

The brother of VN's great-grandfather, General Ivan Nabokov was Skobelev's successor as the Commander of the Peter-and-Paul Fortress:

I know nothing about his [Nikolay Nabokov's] military career; whatever it was he could not have competed with his brother, Ivan Aleksandrovich Nabokov (1787-1852), one of the heroes of the anti-Napoleon wars and, in his old age, commander of the Peter-and-Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg where (in 1849) one of his prisoners was the writer Dostoevski, author of The Double, etc., to whom the kind general lent books. Considerably more interesting, however, is the fact that he was married to Ekaterina Pushchin, sister of Ivan Pushchin, Pushkin's schoolmate and close friend. (Speak, Memory, Chapter Three, 1)

The father of the twins Aqua and Marina, General Ivan Durmanov was the Commander of Yukon Fortress:

Van's maternal grandmother Daria ('Dolly') Durmanov was the daughter of Prince Peter Zemski, Governor of Bras d'Or, an American province in the Northeast of our great and variegated country, who had married, in 1824, Mary O'Reilly, an Irish woman of fashion. Dolly, an only child, born in Bras, married in 1840, at the tender and wayward age of fifteen, General Ivan Durmanov, Commander of Yukon Fortress and peaceful country gentleman, with lands in the Severn Tories (Severniya Territorii), that tesselated protectorate still lovingly called 'Russian' Estoty, which commingles, granoblastically and organically, with 'Russian' Canady, otherwise 'French' Estoty, where not only French, but Macedonian and Bavarian settlers enjoy a halcyon climate under our Stars and Stripes. (1.1)
Van loses the ability to walk on his hands after his pistol duel with Captain Tapper whose bullet injures Van in his left forearm (1.42). Van's duel with Tapper brings to mind Demon's sword duel with Baron d'Onsky, who dies of a gangrenous afterthought on the part of the least of his wounds, "possibly self-inflicted, a sting in the groin, which caused circulatory trouble, notwithstanding quite a few surgical interventions during two or three years of protracted stays at the Aardvark Hospital in Boston - a city where, incidentally, he married in 1869 our friend the Bohemian lady, now keeper of Glass Biota at the local museum." (1.2). At Marina's funeral d'Onsky's son, a person with only one arm, threw his remaining one around Demon and both wept comme des fontaines. (3.8) The author of Tsygany ("The Gypsies," 1824), Pushkin wrote Bakhchisarayskiy fontan ("The Fountain of Bakhchisaray," 1821-23) in Kishinev where he met Alexander Ypsilanti (the one-armed Prince).

The narrator in Kuprin's story is the former steward in the estates of Mikhail Skobelev and his father Dmitri (also a General, son of Ivan Skobelev) and of Messrs. Beauharnais (apparently, the descendants of Maximilian Beauharnais, 3d Duke of Leuchtenberg, a grandson of Napoleon's first wife, Josephine Beauharnais, who married Maria Nikolaevna Romanov, the daughter of Nicholas I):

Я всю семью Скобелевых хорошо знал. Управлял имениями Михаила Дмитриевича и Дмитрия Ивановича и господ Богарне.

Kim Beauharnais is a kitchen boy and photographer at Ardis who spies on Van and Ada. It is Kim Beauharnais who in the night of the Burning Barn sets the barn on fire (cf. the great Moscow fire of 1812). Napoleon accused Rostopchin, the Moscow governor, of setting the city on fire. Rostopchin's daughter, Mme de Segur, is the "author of Les Malheurs de Sophie (nomenclatorially occupied on Antiterra by Les Malheurs de Swann)" (Darkbloom).

A sort of hoary riddle (Les Sophismes de Sophie by Mlle Stopchin in the Bibliotheque Vieux Rose series): did the Burning Barn come before the Cockloft or the Cockloft come first. Oh, first! We had long been kissing cousins when the fire started. In fact, I was getting some Chateau Baignet cold cream from Ladore for my poor chapped lips. And we both were roused in our separate rooms by her crying au feu! July 28? August 4?
Who cried? Stopchin cried? Lariviere cried? Lariviere? Answer! Crying that the barn flambait? (1.19)

Ivan Skobelev's name was initially Kobelev. S (or slovo, as the letter S was called in the old alphabet and as the narrator in Kuprin's story calls it) was added to his mean name (kobel' means "male dog") when he married his second wife, a St. Petersburg Countess:

Тогда, по распоряжению высших властей, повелено было его первый брак с непутёвой женой расторгнуть, а ему было разрешено вступить в новый брак с графиней. И к фамилии его, с высочайшего соизволения, была приписана вначале литера "слово", то есть стали - он и его будущие потомки - именоваться для благозвучия не Кобелевыми, а Скобелевыми.

One is reminded of Baron Klim Avidov who gave Marina's children a set of Flavita (Russian Scrabble) and who, according to Walter C. Keyway, Esq. ("an unfortunate English tourist"), dropped the first letter of his name in order to use it as a nobility particle:

It was, incidentally, the same kindly but touchy Avidov (mentioned in many racy memoirs of the time) who once catapulted with an uppercut an unfortunate English tourist into the porter's lodge for his jokingly remarking how clever it was to drop the first letter of one's name in order to use it as a particule, at the Gritz, in Venezia Rossa. (1.36)

The letter allegedly dropped by Avidov is D. In the old Russian alphabet D was called dobro ("good," a noun opposed to zlo, "evil"). According to Kunyaev (a Kaluga-born Soviet poet), dobro dolzhno byt' s kulakami (good should have fists). In Kunyaev's poem kulakami (Instr. pl. of kulak, "fist") rhymes with klokami (Instr. pl. of klok, "flock"). In her last note poor mad Aqua mentions klok of a chelovek:

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 Shakespeare's Hamlet (1.1) Horatio answers to Barnardo's question if Horatio is there: "A piece of him." Admiral Horatio Nelson who opposed Napoleon in the sea was one-armed. Moreover, he was, like Kutuzov, one-eyed. With the help of Jones (a footman in "Ardis the Second" who becomes a policeman in Ladore) Van blinds Kim Beauharnais - burning his files and most of Kalugano's pine forest - for spying on him and Ada and blackmailing Ada (2.11). Another Jones was Van's teacher of history in Riverlane:

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.' (1.5)

Josephine Beauharnais was, of course, the Empress of France (before Napoleon divorced her).

Blanche, a French handmaid at Ardis, is the cook's niece: ...the cook's niece Blanche jumped out of a pumpkin-hued police van in her stockinged feet (long, long after midnight, alas)... (1.19). In Eugene Onegin (Ten: II: 2-4) Pushkin mentions "not our cooks who plucked the two-headed eagle near Bonaparte's tent."

Vekchelo (a Yukon professional) is an anagram of chelovek, Baron Klim Avidov is an anagram of Vladimir Nabokov.

*Actually, Skobelev (whose life was thoroughly fictionalized by Kuprin) lost his left arm in 1831, in the battle of Minsk (during the Polish revolt).

Alexey Sklyarenko

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