Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0025353, Tue, 29 Apr 2014 19:07:20 +0300

King Wing in Ada
Pedantic Ada once said that the looking up of words in a lexicon for any other needs than those of expression - be it instruction or art - lay somewhere between the ornamental assortment of flowers (which could be, she conceded, mildly romantic in a maidenly headcocking way) and making collage-pictures of disparate butterfly wings (which was always vulgar and often criminal). Per contra, she suggested to Van that verbal circuses, 'performing words,' 'poodle-doodles,' and so forth, might be redeemable by the quality of the brain work required for the creation of a great logogriph or inspired pun and should not preclude the help of a dictionary, gruff or complacent. (1.36)

Kuprin is the author of V tsirke ("In the Circus," 1901) and Belyi pudel' ("The White Poodle," 1904). The hero of the former story is the circus wrestler Arbuzov, a colleage of King Wing (Demon's wrestling master who taught Van "to walk on his hands by means of a special play of the shoulder muscles, a trick that necessitated for its acquirement and improvement nothing short of a dislocation of the caryatics," 1.13). King Wing is obviously Chinese. At the beginning of "The White Poodle" Lanner's opera "A Journey to China" is mentioned:

They were strolling players making their way along narrow mountain paths from one summer resort to another, on the south coast of the Crimea. Usually they were preceded by Arto—a white poodle with a lion cut— who trotted along with his long pink tongue lolling out on one side. When he came to a cross-road he would stop and look back questioningly, wagging his tail. By certain signs that he alone knew, he would unerringly pick the right way and go on at a run, his ears flapping gaily. Behind the dog came Sergei, a boy of twelve, who carried under his left arm a rolled-up rug for acrobatics, and in his right hand a dirty little cage with a goldfinch, trained to pull out of a box coloured slips of paper telling the future. Old Martin Lodyzhkin shamblingly brought up the rear, a hurdy-gurdy on his crooked back.
The hurdy-gurdy was an old one; it gave out croaking, coughing sounds, having undergone innumerable repairs during its long life. It played two tunes: a dreary German waltz by Lanner and a gallop from "A Journey to China," both of which had been in vogue some thirty or forty years ago and were now completely forgotten.

As a Chose student Van performs in variety shows as Mascodagama:

On February 5, 1887, an unsigned editorial in The Ranter (the usually so sarcastic and captious Chose weekly) described Mascodagama's performance as 'the most imaginative and singular stunt ever offered to a jaded music-hall public.' It was repeated at the Rantariver Club several times, but nothing in the programme or in publicity notices beyond the definition 'Foreign eccentric' gave any indication either of the exact nature of the 'stunt' or of the performer's identity. Rumors, carefully and cleverly circulated by Mascodagama's friends, diverted speculations toward his being a mysterious visitor from beyond the Golden Curtain, particularly since at least half-a-dozen members of a large Good-will Circus Company that had come from Tartary just then (i.e., on the eve of the Crimean War) - three dancing girls, a sick old clown with his old speaking goat, and one of the dancers' husbands, a make-up man (no doubt, a multiple agent) - had already defected between France and England, somewhere in the newly constructed 'Chunnel.' (1.30)

For the tango that he dances on his hands Van is given a partner, a Crimean girl from Chufut Kale:

For the tango, which completed his number on his last tour, he was given a partner, a Crimean cabaret dancer in a very short scintillating frock cut very low on the back. She sang the tango tune in Russian:

Pod znoynim nebom Argentini,
Pod strastniy govor mandolini

'Neath sultry sky of Argentina,
To the hot hum of mandolina.

Fragile, red-haired 'Rita' (he never learned her real name), a pretty Karaite from Chufut Kale, where, she nostalgically said, the Crimean cornel, kizil', bloomed yellow among the arid rocks, bore an odd resemblance to Lucette as she was to look ten years later. During their dance, all Van saw of her were her silver slippers turning and marching nimbly in rhythm with the soles of his hands. He recouped himself at rehearsals, and one night asked her for an assignation. She indignantly refused, saying she adored her husband (the make-up fellow) and loathed England. (ibid.)

Rita's husband is a multiple agent. Kuprin is the author of "Staff-Captain Rybnikov" (1906), a story about a courageous Japanese spy in St. Petersburg. According to Van, uncle Dan once had a Japanese valet:

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.
As two last retainers, the cook and the night watchman, scurried across the lawn toward a horseless trap or break, that stood beckoning them with erected thills (or was it a rickshaw? Uncle Dan once had a Japanese valet), Van was delighted and shocked to distinguish, right there in the inky shrubbery, Ada in her long nightgown passing by with a lighted candle in one hand and a shoe in the other as if stealing after the belated ignicolists. It was only her reflection in the glass. She dropped the found shoe in a wastepaper basket and joined Van on the divan. (1.19)

Kim Beauharnais, the kitchen boy and photographer at Ardis whom Ada bribed to set the barn on fire, spies on Van and Ada and later blackmails Ada. He is a namesake of the hero of Kipling's novel Kim (1901) and brings to mind Kim Philby (1912-88), a double agent who was nicknamed after Kipling's hero.

Kim = Mik = mikado - ado (Mik - the eponymous hero of a poem by Gumilyov; mikado - title of the emperor of Japan)

In Kuprin's story, the prostitute in a brothel tells Rybnikov that he resembles the mikado:

"А знаешь, ей богу, ты похож на япончика. И знаешь, на кого? На микаду. У нас есть портрет. Жаль, теперь поздно, а то я бы тебе показала. Ну, вот прямо как две капли воды." (chapter V)

In Ilf and Petrov's novel "The Golden Calf" Ostap Bender dreams of the mikado's funeral and of the anniversary of a fire brigade in Moscow:

"Позавчера мне, например, снились похороны микадо, а вчера - юбилей Сущёвской пожарной части." (chapter VIII "Crisis of the Genre")

In the same novel Ostap dances tango to the tune "Pod znoynim nebom Argentini" and, "to the sweet murmer of a mandolin," the priests Kushakovski and Moroshek try to revert to Roman faith their compatriot Adam Kozlevich (the driver of the Antelope Gnu car).

Ada stood with her back against the trunk of a tree, like a beautiful spy who has just rejected the blindfold. (1.39)

The hero of Kuprin's novella Poedinok ("The Single Combat," 1905), Romashov, imagines how he would reject the blindfold when the Germans will execute him as a spy:

Вот ему сострадательно предлагают завязать глаза косынкой, но он с гордостью швыряет её на землю. "Разве вы думаете, что настоящий офицер боится поглядеть в глаза смерти?" (chapter II)

Arbuzov (the name of the wrestler in Kuprin's story) comes from arbuz (water-melon).

Stumbling on melons, fiercely beheading the tall arrogant fennels with his riding crop, Van returned to the Forest Fork. Morio, his favorite black horse, stood waiting for him, held by young Moore. He thanked the groom with a handful of stellas and galloped off, his gloves wet with tears. (1.25)

Years later, when Van meets Greg Erminin in Lute (Paris), Greg tells him:

'So odd to recall! It was frenzy, it was fantasy, it was reality in the x degree. I'd have consented to be beheaded by a Tartar, I declare, if in exchange I could have kissed her [Ada's] instep.' (3.2)

VN met Kuprin (and many other emigre Russian authors) in Paris:

I met wise, prim, charming Aldanov; decrepit Kuprin, carefully carrying a bottle of vin ordinaire through rainy streets; Ayhenvald-a Russian version of Walter Pater-later killed by a trolleycar; Marina Tsvetaev, wife of a double agent, and poet of genius, who, in the late thirties, returned to Russia and perished there. (Speak, Memory, Chapter Fourteen, 2)

Van remembered that Mr Alexander Screepatch, the new president of the United Americas, a plethoric Russian, had flown over to see King Victor; and he correctly concluded that both were now sunk in mollitude. The comic side of the detectives' display (befitting, perhaps, their dated notion of an American sidewalk, but hardly suiting a weirdly illuminated maze of English hedges) tempered his disappointment as he shuddered squeamishly at the thought of sharing the frolics of historical personages or contenting himself with the brave-faced girlies they had started to use and rejected. (3.4)

Mr Alexander Screepatch and Sashka the Fiddler (skripach), the hero of Kuprin's story "Gambrinus" (1907), seem to be one and the same man. Btw., Kuprin is the author of Yama ("The Pit," 1909-15), a novel about brothels.

King Victor seems to be the Antiterran counterpart of Queen Victoria, but he also brings to mind Victor Hugo, the author of L'Homme qui Rit (a novel about travelling artists), and King Wing, Demon's wrestling master.

Alexey Sklyarenko

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