Vladimir Nabokov

Addenda to the latest instalment of Annotations

By Shakeeb_Arzoo, 10 June, 2020

A couple of points from Brian Boyd's latest Annotations to Ada (Part 2, Chapter 2) which I thought is worth following up.

338.17-18: to disregard the technological details: In Lance, the narrator launches a similar invective: “Not for me is the rocket racket. Not for me are the artificial little satellites that the earth is promised; landing starstrips for spaceships (“spacers”)—one, two, three, four, and then thousands of strong castles in the air each complete with cookhouse and keep, set up by terrestrial nations in a frenzy of competitive confusion, phony gravitation, and savagely flapping flags.” Another thing I have not the slightest use for is the special-equipment business—the airtight suit, the oxygen apparatus—suchlike contraptions. (SoVN 632)

338.20-339.01: mechanicalism and that sort of stuff had remained limited to the scratch of a prep-school blackboard: Here, apparently a contemptuous equivalent of “mechanics” (BB); or in my opinion, the introductory Physics courses taught in such “prep-schools” that are divided into realms of say Classical Mechanics (Newtonian), Electrodynamics (Maxwell), Thermodynamics (Boltzmann et. al), Wave Mechanics and Optics (Young, Fermat, et. al), etc.

339.04-09: what his greatest forerunners (Counterstone, for example) had imagined in the way of a manned capsule’s propulsion, . . . increasing, under the influence of a Counterstonian type of intermediate environment between sibling galaxies, to several trillions of light-years per second: VN plays on “Einstein” as ein Stein, “one stone,” evoking a kind of counting stone or abacus, ironically, to allude to a physicist whose work required the deployment of complex mathematics; or a stone counterweight to Einstein (BB). However, the ‘whole manned capsule propulsion’, and the ‘influence of environment between sibling galaxies’ seems a precise reference, a source which I have not been able to locate yet. It seems to me, within the scope of SF and Good Physics, the action of “gravitational assist”, but that too is tentative. Also, the whole business of 'Therasa-the-minikin-sweetheart' after her intergalactic voyage, brings to mind the length contraction phenomena from Special Relativity, which Van Veen will gleefully parody in Pt. 4 (543.07-28), The Texture of Time.

339.23-24: the three cosmologists, Xertigny, Yates and Zotov: Apart from BB’s succinct elucidation, see the use of X, Y, Z publishers from the Lolita afterword, On a Book entitled Lolita. In a different context, it is to be noted that while drawing a common triangle, we usually use ABC or XYZ as the vertices, which when corresponding to the places enumerated by BB*, almost makes a transatlantic triangle on the flat map of our Terra.

343.10: similar blurbs boosting The Possessed by Miss Love and The Puffer by Mr Dukes: BB’s note on Saul Bellow can be further supplemented by something from that VN remarks on another occasion. He writes: “Finally, and privately, the blurb from Saul Bellow, should never have appeared on the jacket of a book about me. Is it too late to eliminate that exhaust puff?” (SL 434). He would later show much chagrin when this private comment was published, writing curtly: “My remarks …. and Bellow were not for print” (SL 510).

345.13-15: As a boy of fifteen. . . he had studied with a poet’s passion the time-tables of three great American transcontinental trains: Apart from the previous mentions in VN’s works that BB notes, this “passion” is referenced most lyrically in one of my favourite short stories, Time and Ebb (in some ways a satellite to Ada): “I am also old enough to remember the coach trains: as a babe I worshipped them; as a boy I turned away to improved editions of speed. With their haggard windows and dim lights, they still lumber sometimes through my dreams. Their hue might have passed for the ripeness of distance, for a blending succession of conquered miles, had it not surrendered its plum-bloom to the action of coal dust so as to match the walls of workshops and slums which preceded a city as inevitably as a rule of grammar and a blot precede the acquisition of conventional knowledge. . . Old men resembling the hoary ferryman of still more ancient fairy tales chanted out their intermittent “nextations” and checked the tickets of the travellers, among whom there were sure to be, if the journey was reasonably long, a great number of sprawling, dead-tired soldiers and one live, drunken soldier, tremendously peripatetic and with only his pallor to connect him with death.”


*In brief, BB annotates them as: 1) Xertigny is a small village in the Vosges Department of NE France 2) Yates County in upper New York State and 3) Zotov is a modest mountain peak in Rostov Oblast’, Russia.

Alain Champlain

3 years 8 months ago

I've just paused my reading of Boyd's wonderful The American Years at the chapter on Ada (and have put off reading The Place of Consciousness) so that I can re-read Ada without spoiling too many discoveries.


Because of that, please forgive my ignorance if this has been mentioned elsewhere, or doesn't make sense with the text, but: the quote ("As a boy of fifteen. . . he had studied with a poet’s passion the time-tables of three great American transcontinental trains") brings to mind a scene from In Search of Lost Time, from the end of Swann's Way, in Place-Names: The Name, where Marcel is studying the train's timetables. It's pretty long, but here's an excerpt that seems relevant:


"I should have liked to take, the very next day, the good, the generous train at one twenty-two, of which never without a palpitating heart could I read, in the railway company's bills or in advertisements of circular tours, the hour of departure: it seemed to me to cut, at a precise point in every afternoon, a most fascinating groove, a mysterious mark, from which the diverted hours still led one on, of course, towards evening, towards to-morrow morning, but to an evening and morning which one would behold, not in Paris but in one of those towns through which the train passed and among which it allowed one to choose; for it stopped at Bayeux, at Coutances, at Vitré, at Questambert, at Pontorson, at Balbec, at Lannion, at Lamballe, at Benodet, at Pont-Aven, at Quimperlé, and progressed magnificently surcharged with names which it offered me, so that, among them all, I did not know which to choose, so impossible was it to sacrifice any."


This also seems like a great precursor to the "poem" of a list of classmates in Lolita.


Hopefully I'm not detracting from your post too much, and I look forward to reading it more thoroughly after I've re-read Ada.




3 years 8 months ago

Another piece of diversion too, then from my side (but which would please VN, since it is relevant to his worldview):

"There is always a lack of economy in not knowing the name of something, and being driven to descriptive periphrasis, which ministers to the comic. Names confer intimacy on things". (Hugh Kenner)

Or as Wilbur put it: “the desire to lay claim to as much of the world as possible through the uttering of the names of things.”

Alain Champlain

3 years 8 months ago

I hesitate to continue the tangent and get even further from your initial post, but your Kenner quote reminds me of a passage I just read in The American Years:

To his friend Bertrand Thompson, Nabokov wrote that Russian was "a good 'From' language but a terrible 'Into' one. The main trouble is with technical terms: they are either longwinded and roundabout or facetious. In translating, for example, windshield wipers you can render it by a forty-letter phrase or choose between 'little paws,' 'janitors' and 'twins'—all of them vulgarisms used in the USSR." In this instance, he chose "twins," but his unique command of both English and Russian led him to many precise and felicitous equivalents not listed in any standard English-Russian dictionary—and now assembled in a special English-Russian Dictionary of Nabokov's "Lolita" that will become an invaluable lexicographic tool. Rather more marketable, though, would be another offshoot of the Russian Lolita: Ada, whose ironic vision of technology ("petroloplane," "dorophone") and disconcerting appropriation of American states for its Russian estates owes much to Nabokov's experience of turning Lolita's Americana into Russian.