Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0025832, Fri, 21 Nov 2014 13:35:53 +0300

Dr Lapiner's mute gentiarium in Ada
From Marina's old herbarium:

Petal of orchid, one of 99 orchids, if you please, mailed to me yesterday, Special Delivery, c’est bien le cas de le dire, from Villa Armina, Alpes Maritimes. Have laid aside ten for Aqua to be taken to her at her Home. Ex en Valais, Switzerland. ‘Snowing in Fate’s crystal ball,’ as he used to say. (Date erased.)
Gentiane de Koch, rare, brought by lapochka [darling] Lapiner from his ‘mute gentiarium’ 5.I.1870.
[blue-ink blot shaped accidentally like a flower, or improved felt-pen deletion] Compliquaria compliquata var. aquamarina. Ex, 15.I.70.
Fancy flower of paper, found in Aqua’s purse. Ex, 16.II.1870, made by a fellow patient, at the Home, which is no longer hers.
Gentiana verna (printaniere). Ex, 28.III.1870, on the lawn of my nurse’s cottage. Last day here. (1.1)

Marina gave birth to Van in Dr Lapiner's alpine chalet on January 1, 1870. January 5 is Marina's and Aqua's birthday (1.2). For her birthday Dr Lapiner gave Marina a flower of gentian. The root of a gentian is used for interrupting pregnancy. A fortnight after parturition Marina wooshed down fluffy slopes on a bobsleigh (1.38). On January 15, 1870, Marina's twin sister Aqua (Demon Veen's wife who was also pregnant) had a miscarriage after skiing at full pulver into a larch stump:

At one time Aqua believed that a stillborn male infant half a year old, a surprised little fetus, a fish of rubber that she had produced in her bath, in a lieu de naissance plainly marked X in her dreams, after skiing at full pulver into a larch stump, had somehow been saved and brought to her at the Nusshaus, with her sister's compliments, wrapped up in blood-soaked cotton wool, but perfectly alive and healthy, to be registered as her son Ivan Veen. At other moments she felt convinced that the child was her sister's, born out of wedlock, during an exhausting, yet highly romantic blizzard, in a mountain refuge on Sex Rouge, where a Dr Alpiner, general practitioner and gentian-lover, sat providentially waiting near a rude red stove for his boots to dry. (1.3)

Poor mad Aqua was made to believe that Van is her, Aqua's, beloved son. 'Mute gentiarium' suggests that Dr Lapiner promised Marina to keep the secret of Van's birth. Nevertheless, he gave it away to his wife (who shared it with her lover):

Dr Lapiner’s wife, born Countess Alp, not only left him, in 1871, to live with Norbert von Miller, amateur poet, Russian translator at the Italian Consulate in Geneva, and professional smuggler of neonegrine — found only in the Valais — but had imparted to her lover the melodramatic details of the subterfuge which the kindhearted physician had considered would prove a boon to one lady and a blessing to the other. Versatile Norbert spoke English with an extravagant accent, hugely admired wealthy people and, when name-dropping, always qualified such a person as ‘enawmously rich’ with awed amorous gusto, throwing himself back in his chair and spreading tensely curved arms to enfold an invisible fortune. He had a round head as bare as a knee, a corpse’s button nose, and very white, very limp, very damp hands adorned with rutilant gems. His mistress soon left him. (2.11)

A rude red stove in Dr Lapiner's chalet brings to mind the big stove of Norbert von Miller's pregnant wife:

Dr Lapiner died in 1872. About the same time, the Baron married an innkeeper’s innocent daughter and began to blackmail Demon Veen; this went on for almost twenty years, when aging Miller was shot dead by an Italian policeman on a little-known border trail, which had seemed to get steeper and muddier every year. Out of sheer kindness, or habit, Demon bade his lawyer continue to send Miller’s widow — who mistook it naively for insurance money — the trimestrial sum which had been swelling with each pregnancy of the robust Swissess. Demon used to say that he would publish one day’ Black Miller’s’ quatrains which adorned his letters with the jingle of verselets on calendarial leaves:

My spouse is thicker, I am leaner.
Again it comes, a new bambino.
You must be good like I am good.
Her stove is big and wants more wood. (ibid.)

In Pushkin's poem Zimnee utro ("Winter Morning," 1829) firewood in the stove crackles gaily:

Вся комната янтарным блеском
Озарена. Весёлым треском
Трещит затопленная печь.

The entire room is lit with amber light.
And bursting, popping in delight
Hot stove crackles merrily.

"Black Miller" was a professional smuggler of neonegrine (whatever that were). A great-grandson of Abram Gannibal ("the Blackamoor of Peter the Great"), Pushkin had Negro blood:

In 1880, Van, aged ten, had traveled in silver trains with showerbaths, accompanied by his father, his father’s beautiful secretary, the secretary’s eighteen-year-old white-gloved sister (with a bit part as Van’s English governess and milkmaid), and his chaste, angelic Russian tutor, Andrey Andreevich Aksakov (‘AAA’), to gay resorts in Louisiana and Nevada. AAA explained, he remembered, to a Negro lad with whom Van had scrapped, that Pushkin and Dumas had African blood, upon which the lad showed AAA his tongue, a new interesting trick which Van emulated at the earliest occasion and was slapped by the younger of the Misses Fortune, put it back in your face, sir, she said. (1.24)

"The Misses Fortune" bring to mind an invisible fortune that Norbert von Miller tried to enfold with his arms. Nevada (Ada's rhyme-name town where she gamed with Demon, 2.1) and Geneva (the city where Norbert von Miller was a Russian translator at the Italian Consulate) both have Neva ("the legendary river of Old Rus," 2.1) in them. Pushkin's Onegin was born upon the Neva's banks (Eugene Onegin: One: II: 10). "Snowing in Fate's crystal ball," Demon's words quoted by Marina in her herbarium, bring to mind "a magic crystal" mentioned by Pushkin at the end of EO:

И даль свободного романа
Я сквозь магический кристалл
Ещё не ясно различал.

and the far stretch of a free novel
I through a magic crystal
still did not make out clearly. (Eight: L: 12-14)

and Vyazemski's poem Pervyi sneg ("The First Snow," 1822). The epigraph to Chapter One of EO, I zhit' toropitsya i chuvstvovat' speshit ("To live it hurries and to feel it hastes"), is line 76 of The First Snow (see EO Commentary, vol. II, pp. 27-28, where VN mentions Pushkin's Winter Morning). It is goryachnost' molodaya (young ardor) that, in Vyazemski's poem, hurries to live and hastes to feel:

O'er life thus glides young ardor:
to live it hurries and to feel it hastes...

Prince Pyotr Vyazemski "was an Irishman on his mother's side (O'Reilly)."

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 had inherited her mother’s beauty and temper but also an older ancestral strain of whimsical, and not seldom deplorable, taste, well reflected, for instance, in the names she gave her daughters: Aqua and Marina (‘Why not Tofana?’ wondered the good and sur-royally antlered general with a controlled belly laugh, followed by a small closing cough of feigned detachment — he dreaded his wife’s flares). (1.1)

Aqua tofana is a poison. The name Durmanov comes from durman (thorn apple; drug, intoxicant). Poor Aqua's mental illness and her miscarriage can be a result of poisoning.

Alexey Sklyarenko

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