author of Quercus in Invitation to a Beheading

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Thu, 07/02/2020 - 09:32

In VN’s novel Priglashenie na kazn’ (“Invitation to a Beheading,” 1935) the author of Quercus, a novel that Cincinnatus reads in the fortress, is compared to a man who sits with his camera somewhere among the topmost branches of the tree, spying out and catching his prey:

 

Роман был знаменитый "Quercus", и Цинциннат прочел из него уже добрую треть: около тысячи страниц. Героем романа был дуб. Роман был биографией дуба. Там, где Цинциннат остановился, дубу шел третий век; простой расчет показывал, что к концу книги он достигнет по крайней мере возраста шестисотлетнего.

Идея романа считалась вершиной современного мышления. Пользуясь постепенным развитием дерева (одиноко и мощно росшего у спуска в горный дол, где вечно шумели воды), автор чередой разворачивал все те исторические события, - или тени событий, - коих дуб мог быть свидетелем; то это был диалог между воинами, сошедшими с коней - изабелловой масти и в яблоках, - дабы отдохнуть под свежей сенью благородной листвы; то привил разбойников и песнь простоволосой беглянки; то - под синим зигзагом грозы поспешный проезд вельможи, спасающегося от царского гнева; то на плаще труп, как будто еще трепещущий - от движения лиственной тени; то - мимолетная драма в среде поселян. Был в полторы страницы параграф, в котором все слова начинались на п.
Автор, казалось, сидит со своим аппаратом где-то в вышних ветвях Quercus'a - высматривая и ловя добычу. Приходили и уходили различные образы жизни, на миг задерживаясь среди зеленых бликов. Естественные же промежутки бездействия заполнялись учеными описаниями самого дуба, с точки зрения дендрологии, орнитологии, колеоптерологии, мифологии, - или описаниями популярными, с участием народного юмора. Приводился, между прочим, подробный список всех вензелей на коре с их толкованием. Наконец немало внимания уделялось музыке вод, палитре зорь и поведению погоды.

Цинциннат почитал, отложил. Это произведение было бесспорно лучшее, что создало его время, - однако же он одолевал страницы с тоской, беспрестанно потопляя повесть волной собственной мысли: на что мне это далекое, ложное, мертвое, - мне, готовящемуся умереть? Или же начинал представлять себе, как автор, человек еще молодой, живущий, говорят, на острове в Северном, что ли, море, сам будет умирать, - и это было как-то смешно, - что вот когда-нибудь непременно умрет автор, - а смешно было потому, что единственным тут настоящим, реально несомненным была всего лишь смерть, - неизбежность физической смерти автора.

 

The novel was the famous Quercus, and Cincinnatus had already read a good third of it, or about a thousand pages. Its protagonist was an oak. The novel was a biography of that oak. At the place where Cincinnatus had stopped the oak was just starting on its third century; a simple calculation suggested that by the end of the book it would reach the age of six hundred at least.
The idea of the novel was considered to be the acme of modern thought. Employing the gradual development of the tree (growing lone and mighty at the edge of a canyon at whose bottom the waters never ceased to din), the author unfolded all the historic events--or shadows of events--of which the oak could have been a witness; now it was a dialogue between two warriors dismounted from their steeds--one dappled, the other dun--so as to rest under the cool ceil of its noble foliage; now highwaymen stopping by and the song of a wild-haired fugitive damsel; now, beneath the storm's blue zigzag, the hasty passage of a lord escaping from royal wrath; now, upon a spread cloak a corpse, still quivering with the throb of the leafy shadows; now a brief drama in the life of some villagers. There was a paragraph a page and a half long in which all the words began with "p."
It seemed as though the author were sitting with his camera somewhere among the topmost branches of the Quercus, spying out and catching his prey. Various images of life would come and go, pausing among the green macules of light. The normal periods of inaction were filled with scientific descriptions of the oak itself, from the viewpoints of dendrology, ornithology, coleopterology, mythology--or popular descriptions, with touches of folk humor. Among other things there was a detailed list of all the initials carved in the bark with their interpretations. And, finally, no little attention was devoted to the music of waters, the palette of sunsets, and the behavior of the weather.
Cincinnatus read for a while and laid it aside. This work was unquestionably the best that his age had produced; yet he overcame the pages with a melancholy feeling, plodded through the pages with dull distress, and kept drowning out the tale in the stream of his own meditation: what matters to me all this, distant, deceitful and dead--I, who am preparing to die? Or else he would begin imagining how the author, still a young man, living, so they said, on an island in the North Sea--would be dying himself; and it was somehow funny that eventually the author must needs die--and it was funny because the only real, genuinely unquestionable thing here was only death itself, the inevitability of the author's physical death. (Chapter XI)

 

In his essay on Chekhov, Tvorchestvo iz nichego (“Creation from Nothing,” 1905), Lev Shestov says that Chekhov is constantly, as it were, in ambush, to watch and waylay human hopes:

 

А меж тем, справедливый Аристид и на этот раз был прав, как он был прав, когда предостерегал против Достоевского: теперь Чехова нет, об этом уже можно говорить. Возьмите рассказы Чехова — каждый порознь или, еще лучше, все вместе: посмотрите за его работой. Он постоянно точно в засаде сидит, высматривая и подстерегая человеческие надежды. И будьте спокойны за него: ни одной из них он не просмотрит, ни одна из них не избежит своей участи. Искусство, наука, любовь, вдохновение, идеалы, будущее — переберите все слова, которыми современное и прошлое человечество утешало или развлекало себя — стоит Чехову к ним прикоснуться, и они мгновенно блекнут, вянут и умирают. И сам Чехов на наших глазах блекнул, вянул и умирал — не умирало в нем только его удивительное искусство одним прикосновением, даже дыханием, взглядом убивать все, чем живут и гордятся люди. Более того, в этом искусстве он постоянно совершенствовался и дошел до виртуозности, до которой не доходил никто из его соперников в европейской литературе. Я без колебания ставлю его далеко впереди Мопассана. Мопассану часто приходилось делать напряжения, чтоб справиться со своей жертвой. От Мопассана сплошь и рядом жертва уходила хоть помятой и изломанной, но живой. В руках Чехова всё умирало.

 

Yet the just Aristides [the critic Mikhaylovski] was right this time too, as he was right when he gave his warning against Dostoevsky. Now that Chekhov is no more, we may speak openly. Take Chekhov's stories, each one separately, or better still, all together; look at him at work. He is constantly, as it were, in ambush, to watch and waylay human hopes. He will not miss a single one of them, not one of them will escape its fate. Art, science, love, inspiration, ideals—choose out all the words with which humanity is wont, or has been in the past, to be consoled or to be amused—Chekhov has only to touch them and they instantly wither and die. And Chekhov himself faded, withered and died before our eyes. Only his wonderful art did not die—his art to kill by a mere touch, a breath, a glance, everything whereby men live and wherein they take their pride. And in this art he was constantly perfecting himself, and he attained to a virtuosity beyond the reach of any of his rivals in European literature. Maupassant often had to strain every effort to overcome his victim. The victim often escaped from Maupassant, though crushed and broken, yet with his life. In Chekhov's hands, nothing escaped death. (I)

 

In Maupassant’s story La Question du latin (“The Question of Latin,” 1886) Pere Piquedent tells his pupil that he is like an oak in a desert, 'sicut quercus in solitudine':

 

These private lessons were given in a little room looking out on the street. It so happened that Pere Piquedent, instead of talking Latin to me, as he did when teaching publicly in the institution, kept telling me his troubles in French. Without relations, without friends, the poor man conceived an attachment to me, and poured out his misery to me.

He had never for the last ten or fifteen years chatted confidentially with any one.

"I am like an oak in a desert," he said--"'sicut quercus in solitudine'."

The other ushers disgusted him. He knew nobody in the town, since he had no time to devote to making acquaintances.

"Not even the nights, my friend, and that is the hardest thing on me. The dream of my life is to have a room with my own furniture, my own books, little things that belong to myself and which others may not touch. And I have nothing of my own, nothing except my trousers and my frock-coat, nothing, not even my mattress and my pillow! I have not four walls to shut myself up in, except when I come to give a lesson in this room. Do you see what this means--a man forced to spend his life without ever having the right, without ever finding the time, to shut himself up all alone, no matter where, to think, to reflect, to work, to dream? Ah! my dear boy, a key, the key of a door which one can lock--this is happiness, mark you, the only happiness!”

 

Shestov’s essay on Chekhov has for epigraph a line from Baudelaire’s sonnet with a coda Le Goût du néant (“The Taste for Nothingness”):

 

Résigne-toi, mon cœur, dors ton sommeil de brute.
Resign yourself, my heart; sleep your brutish sleep.

 

The title of VN’s novel brings to mind Baudelaire’s poem L'invitation au voyage (1855).

 

In a letter of Feb. 18, 1889, to Leontiev-Shcheglov (a fellow writer who nicknamed Chekhov Potyomkin) Chekhov says that he is not Potyomkin, but Cincinnatus:

 

Голова моя занята мыслями о лете и даче. Денно и нощно мечтаю о хуторе. Я не Потёмкин, а Цинцинат. Лежанье на сене и пойманный на удочку окунь удовлетворяют моё чувство гораздо осязательнее, чем рецензии и аплодирующая галерея. Я, очевидно, урод и плебей.

 

The name Potyomkin (of a favorite of the Empress Catherine II) comes from potyomki (darkness) and brings to mind Chekhov’s story V potyomkakh (“In the Dark,” 1886) and chuzhaya dusha – potyomki (the soul of another is darkness), a saying quoted by Chekhov in his story Kto vinovat? (“Who is to Blame?” 1886):

 

 Котенок не спал и думал. О чем? Не знакомый с действительной жизнью, не имея никакого запаса впечатлений, он мог мыслить только инстинктивно и рисовать себе жизнь по тем представлениям, которые получил в наследство вместе с плотью и кровью от своих прародителей тигров (зри Дарвина). Мысли его имели характер дремотных грез. Его кошачье воображение рисовало нечто вроде Аравийской пустыни, по которой носились тени, очень похожие на Прасковью, печку, на веник. Среди теней вдруг появлялось блюдечко с молоком; у блюдечка вырастали лапки, оно начинало двигаться и выказывать поползновение к бегству; котенок делал прыжок и, замирая от кровожадного сладострастия, вонзал в него когти… Когда блюдечко исчезало в тумане, появлялся кусок мяса, оброненный Прасковьей; мясо с трусливым писком бежало куда-то в сторону, но котенок делал прыжок и вонзал когти… Всё, что ни мерещилось молодому мечтателю, имело своим исходным пунктом прыжки, когти и зубы… Чужая душа — потемки, а кошачья и подавно, но насколько только что описанные картины близки к истине, видно из следующего факта: предаваясь дремотным грезам, котенок вдруг вскочил, поглядел сверкающими глазами на Прасковью, взъерошил шерсть и, сделав прыжок, вонзил когти в кухаркин подол. Очевидно, он родился мышеловом, вполне достойным своих кровожадных предков. Судьба предназначала его быть грозою подвалов, кладовых и закромов, и если б не воспитание… Впрочем, не будем забегать вперед.

 

The kitten lay awake thinking. Of what? Unacquainted with real life, having no store of accumulated impressions, his mental processes could only be instinctive, and he could but picture life in accordance with the conceptions that he had inherited, together with his flesh and blood, from his ancestors, the tigers (vide Darwin). His thoughts were of the nature of day-dreams. His feline imagination pictured something like the Arabian desert, over which flitted shadows closely resembling Praskovia, the stove, the broom. In the midst of the shadows there suddenly appeared a saucer of milk; the saucer began to grow paws, it began moving and displayed a tendency to run; the kitten made a bound, and with a thrill of blood-thirsty sensuality thrust his claws into it. When the saucer had vanished into obscurity a piece of meat appeared, dropped by Praskovia; the meat ran away with a cowardly squeak, but the kitten made a bound and got his claws into it. . . . Everything that rose before the imagination of the young dreamer had for its starting-point leaps, claws, and teeth. . . The soul of another is darkness, and a cat's soul more than most, but how near the visions just described are to the truth may be seen from the following fact: under the influence of his day-dreams the kitten suddenly leaped up, looked with flashing eyes at Praskovia, ruffled up his coat, and making one bound, thrust his claws into the cook's skirt. Obviously he was born a mouse catcher, a worthy son of his bloodthirsty ancestors. Fate had destined him to be the terror of cellars, store-rooms and cornbins, and had it not been for education . . . we will not anticipate, however.

 

Like Maupassant’s Pere Piquedent, Pyotr Demyanych (the narrator’s uncle in Chekhov’s story) is a teacher of Latin. Chekhov’s story ends as follows:

 

Прошел год. Тощий и хилый котенок обратился в солидного и рассудительного кота. Однажды, пробираясь задворками, он шел на любовное свидание. Будучи уже близко у цели, он вдруг услыхал шорох, а вслед за этим увидел мышь, которая от водопойного корыта бежала к конюшне... Мой герой ощетинился, согнул дугой спину, зашипел и, задрожав всем телом, малодушно пустился в бегство.

Увы! Иногда и я чувствую себя в смешном положении бегущего кота. Подобно котенку, в свое время я имел честь учиться у дядюшки латинскому языку. Теперь, когда мне приходится видеть какое-нибудь произведение классической древности, то вместо того, чтоб жадно восторгаться, я начинаю вспоминать ut consecutivum, неправильные глаголы, желто-серое лицо дядюшки, ablativus absolutus... бледнею, волосы мои становятся дыбом, и, подобно коту, я ударяюсь в постыдное бегство.

 

A year passed, the thin, frail kitten had turned into a solid and sagacious tom-cat. One day he was on his way by the back yards to an amatory interview. He had just reached his destination when he suddenly heard a rustle, and thereupon caught sight of a mouse which ran from a water-trough towards a stable; my hero's hair stood on end, he arched his back, hissed, and trembling all over, took to ignominious flight.

Alas! sometimes I feel myself in the ludicrous position of the flying cat. Like the kitten, I had in my day the honour of being taught Latin by my uncle. Now, whenever I chance to see some work of classical antiquity, instead of being moved to eager enthusiasm, I begin recalling, ut consecutivum, the irregular verbs, the sallow grey face of my uncle, the ablative absolute. . . . I turn pale, my hair stands up on my head, and, like the cat, I take to ignominious flight.

 

The cat in Chekhov’s story brings to mind kot uchyonyi (the learned cat) that day and night walks to and fro along a golden chain around a green oak in the great introductory poem (1828) of Pushkin’s Ruslan and Lyudmila. Describing Kim Beauharnais’s album, Van Veen (the narrator and main character in VN’s novel Ada, 1969) mentions a rare oak, Quercus ruslan Chat.:

 

Then came several preparatory views of the immediate grounds: the colutea circle, an avenue, the grotto's black O, and the hill, and the big chain around the trunk of the rare oak, Quercus ruslan Chat., and a number of other spots meant to be picturesque by the compiler of the illustrated pamphlet but looking a little shabby owing to inexperienced photography. (2.7)

 

Cincinnatus was sentenced to death because others (all of whom are transparent to each other) cannot see through him (cf. chuzhaya dusha – potyomki). Krasnyi tsylindr (the red top hat) in a token phrase (‘with the gracious consent of the audience, you will be made to don the red top hat’) that the judge whispers in Cincinnatus’s ear brings to mind Pyotr Demyanych’s top hat nibbled by mice in Chekhov’s story:

 

Мой дядя Петр Демьяныч, сухой, желчный коллежский советник, очень похожий на несвежего копченого сига, в которого воткнута палка, как-то, собираясь в гимназию, где он преподавал латинский язык, заметил, что переплет его синтаксиса изъеден мышами.

— Послушай, Прасковья, — сказал он, входя в кухню и обращаясь к кухарке. — Откуда это у нас мыши завелись? Помилуй, вчера цилиндр погрызли, сегодня синтаксис обезобразили... Этак, пожалуй, начнут одежу есть!

— А что ж мне делать? Не я их завела! — ответила Прасковья.

— Надо же что-нибудь сделать! Кошку бы ты завела, что ли...

— Кошка есть; да куда она годится?

И Прасковья указала на угол, где около веника, свернувшись калачиком, дремал худой, как щепка, белый котенок.

— Отчего же он не годится? — спросил Петр Демьяныч.

— Молодой еще и глупый. Почитай, ему еще и двух месяцев нет.

— Гм... Так его приучать надо! Чем так лежать, он лучше бы приучался.

 

As my uncle Pyotr Demyanych, a lean, bilious collegiate councilor, exceedingly like a stale smoked fish with a stick through it, was getting ready to go to the high school, where he taught Latin, he noticed that the corner of his grammar was nibbled by mice.

I say, Praskovia," he said, going into the kitchen and addressing the cook, "how is it we have got mice here? Upon my word! yesterday my top hat was nibbled, to-day they have disfigured my Latin grammar. . . . At this rate they will soon begin eating my clothes!

"What can I do? I did not bring them in!" answered Praskovia.

"We must do something! You had better get a cat, hadn't you?"

"I've got a cat, but what good is it?"

And Praskovia pointed to the corner where a white kitten, thin as a match, lay curled up asleep beside a broom.

"Why is it no good?" asked Pyotr Demyanych.

"It's young yet, and foolish. It's not two months old yet."

"Hm. . . . Then it must be trained. It had much better be learning instead of lying there."

 

When Cincinnatus leaves his cell and goes to the city, a wastebasket (into which a mouse must have fallen) rustles and rattles furiously under the table:

 

В коридоре на стене дремала тень Родиона, сгорбившись на теневом табурете, - и лишь мельком, с краю, вспыхнуло несколько рыжих волосков. Далее, у загиба стены, другой стражник, сняв свою форменную маску, утирал рукавом лицо. Цинциннат начал спускаться по лестнице. Каменные ступени был склизки и узки, с неосязаемой спиралью призрачных перил. Дойдя до низу, он пошел опять коридорами. Дверь с надписью на зеркальный выворот: "канцелярия" - была отпахнута; луна сверкала на чернильнице, а какая-то под столом мусорная корзинка неистово шеберстила и клокотала: должно быть, в нее свалилась мышь. Миновав еще много дверей, Цинциннат споткнулся, подпрыгнул и очутился в небольшом дворе, полном разных частей разобранной луны. Пароль в эту ночь был: молчание, - и солдат у ворот отозвался молчанием на молчание Цинцинната, пропуская его, и у всех прочих ворот было то же. Оставив за собой гуманную громаду крепости, он заскользил вниз по крутому, росистому дерну, попал на пепельную тропу между скал, пересек дважды, трижды извивы главной дороги, которая, наконец стряхнув последнюю тень крепости, полилась прямее, вольнее, - и по узорному мосту через высохшую речку Цинциннат вошел в город. Поднявшись на изволок и повернув налево по Садовой, он пронесся вдоль седых цветущих кустов. Где-то мелькнуло освещенное окно; за какой-то оградой собака громыхнула цепью, но не залаяла. Ветерок делал все, что мог, чтобы освежить беглецу голую шею. Изредка наплыв благоухания говорил о близости Тамариных Садов. Как он знал эти сады! Там, когда Марфинька была невестой и боялась лягушек, майских жуков... Там, где бывало, когда всё становилось невтерпёж и можно было одному, с кашей во рту из разжеванной сирени, со слезами... Зелёное, муравчатое. Там, тамошние холмы, томление прудов, тамтатам далекого оркестра... Он повернул по Матюхинской мимо развалин древней фабрики, гордости города, мимо шепчущих лип, мимо празднично настроенных белых дач телеграфных служащих, вечно справляющих чьи-нибудь именины, и вышел на Телеграфную. Оттуда шла в гору узкая улочка, и опять сдержанно зашумели липы. Двое мужчин тихо беседовали во мраке сквера на подразумеваемой скамейке. "А ведь он ошибается", - сказал один. Другой отвечал неразборчиво, и оба вроде как бы вздохнули, естественно смешиваясь с шелестом листвы. Цинциннат выбежал на круглую площадку, где луна сторожила знакомую статую поэта, похожую на снеговую бабу, - голова кубом, слепившиеся ноги, - и, пробежав ещё несколько шагов, оказался на своей улице. Справа, на стенах одинаковых домов, неодинаково играл лунный рисунок веток, так что только по выражению теней, по складке на переносице между окон, Цинциннат и узнал свой дом. В верхнем этаже окно Марфиньки было темно, но открыто. Дети, должно быть, спали на горбоносом балконе: там белелось что-то. Цинциннат вбежал на крыльцо, толкнул дверь и вошёл в свою освещённую камеру. Обернулся, но был уже заперт. Ужасно! На столе блестел карандаш. Паук сидел на жёлтой стене.

 

On the corridor wall dozed the shadow of Rodion, hunched over on the shadow of a stool, with only a fringe of beard outlined in rufous. Further on, at the bend in the wall, the other guard had taken off his uniform mask and was wiping his face with his sleeve. Cincinnatus started down the stairs. The stone steps were narrow and slippery, with the impalpable spiral of a ghostly railing. Upon reaching the bottom he again went along corridors. A door with the sign ‘office’ in mirrorlike inversion was wide open; moonlight glistened on an inkwell and a wastebasket rustled and rattled furiously under the table: a mouse must have fallen into it. Cincinnatus, after passing many other doors, stumbled, hopped, and found himself in a small courtyard, filled with various parts of the dismantled moon. This night the password was silence, and the soldier at the gate responded with silence to Cincinnatus’ silence and let him pass; likewise at all the other gates. Leaving behind the misty mass of the fortress he began to slide down a steep, dewy bank of turf, reached a pale path between cliffs, twice, three times crossed the bends of the main road — which, having finally shaken off the last shadow of the fortress, ran more straight and free — and a filigrane bridge across a dried-up rivulet brought Cincinnatus to the city. He climbed to the top of a steep incline, turned left on Garden Street, and sped past a shrubbery in greyish bloom. A lighted window flashed somewhere; behind some fence a dog shook its chain but did not bark. The breeze was doing all it could to cool the fugitive’s bare neck. Now and then a wave of fragrance would come from the Tamara Gardens. How well he knew that public park! There, where Marthe, when she was a bride, was frightened of the frogs and cockchafers . . . There, where, whenever life seemed unbearable, one could roam, with a meal of chewed lilac bloom in one’s mouth and firefly tears in one’s eyes . . . That green turfy tamarack park, the languor of its ponds, the tum-tum-tum of a distant band ...He turned on Matterfact Street, past the ruins of an ancient factory, the pride of the town, past whispering lindens, past the festive-looking white bungalows of the telegraph employees, perpetually celebrating somebody’s birthdate, and came out on Telegraph Street. From there a narrow lane went uphill, and again the lindens began to murmur discreetly. Two men, supposedly on a bench, were quietly conversing in the obscurity of a public garden. ‘I say he’s wrong,’ said one. The other replied unintelligibly, and both gave a kind of sigh which blended naturally with the sough of the foliage. Cincinnatus ran out into a circular plaza where the moon stood watch over the familiar statue of a poet that looked like a snowman — a cube for a head, legs stuck together — and, after a few more pattering steps, was in his own street. On the right the moon cast dissimilar patterns of branches on the walls of similar houses, so that it was only by the expression of the shadows, by the interciliary bar between two windows, that Cincinnatus recognized his own house. Marthe’s top-floor window was dark but open. The children must be sleeping on the hook-nosed balcony — there was a glimpse of something white there. Cincinnatus ran up the front steps, pushed open the door, and entered his lighted cell. He turned around, but already he was locked in. O horrible! The pencil glistened on the table. The spider sat on the yellow wall. (Chapter I)

 

When Marthe with her entire family visits Cincinnatus in the fortress, her son Diomedon kills a cat:

 

"Mali é trano t'amesti..." - полным голосом пропел Марфинькин брат.

Диомедон, оставь моментально кошку, - сказала Марфинька, - позавчера ты уже одну задушил, нельзя же каждый день. Отнимите, пожалуйста, у него, Виктор, милый.

 

'Mali é trano t’amesti,’ Marthe’s brother sang in full voice; ‘Diomedon, leave the cat alone this instant,’ said Marthe. ‘You already strangled one the other day, one every day is too much.'

 

-Ну-с, не поминай лихом, - сказал тесть и с холодной учтивостью поцеловал Цинциннату руку, как того требовал обычай. Белокурый брат посадил чернявого к себе на плечи, и в таком положении они с Цинциннатом простились и ушли, как живая гора. Дед с бабкой, вздрагивая, кланялись и поддерживали туманный портрет. Служители всё продолжали выносить мебель. Подошли дети: Полина, серьёзная, поднимала лицо, а Диомедон, напротив, смотрел в пол. Их увёл, держа обоих за руки, адвокат. Последней подлетела Эммочка: бледная, заплаканная, с розовым носом и трепещущим мокрым ртом, - она молчала, но вдруг поднялась на слегка хрустнувших носках, обвив горячие руки вокруг его шеи, - неразборчиво зашептала что-то и громко всхлипнула. Родион схватил её за кисть, - судя по его бормотанию, он звал её давно и теперь решительно потащил к выходу. Она же, изогнувшись, отклонив и обернув к Цинциннату голову со струящимися волосами и протянув к нему ладонью кверху очаровательную руку, с видом балетной пленницы, но с тенью настоящего отчаяния, нехотя следовала за влачившим её Родионом, - глаза у неё закатывались, бридочка сползла с плеча, - и вот он размашисто, как из ведра воду, выплеснул её в коридор; всё ещё бормоча, вернулся с совком, чтобы подобрать труп кошки, плоско лежавшей под стулом. Дверь с грохотом захлопнулась. Трудно было теперь поверить, что в этой камере только что...

 

‘Well, let’s let bygones be bygones,’ said the father-in-law and, with cold politeness, kissed Cincinnatus’s hand as custom demanded. The blond brother sat the dark one on his shoulders and in that position they took leave of Cincinnatus and departed, like a live mountain. The grandparents were shivering, bowing and holding up the hazy portrait. The employees kept carrying out the furniture. The children approached: Solemn Pauline raised up her face; Diomedon, on the contrary, gazed down at the floor. The lawyer led them away by their respective hands. The last to fly up to him was Emmie, pale, tear-stained, her nose pink and her mouth wet and quivering; she was silent, but suddenly, with a slight crackle, she rose on her toes, twined her hot arms around his neck, whispered incoherently and uttered a loud sob. Rodion seized her by the wrist — -judging by his grumbling he had been calling her for a long time; now he dragged her firmly toward the exit. Arching back her body, turning toward Cincinnatus her head with its streaming hair and extending to him, palm upturned, her lovely arm (with the appearance of a ballet captive but with the shadow of genuine despair), Emmie unwillingly followed Rodion as he dragged her; her eyes kept rolling back, her shoulder strap slipped off, and now, with a swinging motion, as though he were emptying a water bucket, he splashed her out into the corridor. Then, still muttering, he returned with a dustpan to pick up the corpse of the cat that lay flat under a chair. The door slammed with a crash. It was now hard to believe that in this cell, only a moment ago… (Chapter IX)

 

In his Essays Montaigne (who famously said: “When I play with my cat, how do I know that she is not playing with me rather than I with her?”) mentions Diomedon, a courageous Athenian soldier who was sentenced to death, despite a naval victory he gained over the Spartans (Lacedaemonians):

 

I am ready to conceive an implacable hatred against all popular domination, though I think it the most natural and equitable of all, so oft as I call to mind the inhuman injustice of the people of Athens, who, without remission, or once vouchsafing to hear what they had to say for themselves, put to death their brave captains newly returned triumphant from a naval victory they had obtained over the Lacedaemonians near the Arginusian Isles, the most bloody and obstinate engagement that ever the Greeks fought at sea; because (after the victory) they followed up the blow and pursued the advantages presented to them by the rule of war, rather than stay to gather up and bury their dead. And the execution is yet rendered more odious by the behaviour of Diomedon, who, being one of the condemned, and a man of most eminent virtue, political and military, after having heard the sentence, advancing to speak, no audience till then having been allowed, instead of laying before them his own cause, or the impiety of so cruel a sentence, only expressed a solicitude for his judges’ preservation, beseeching the gods to convert this sentence to their good, and praying that, for neglecting to fulfil the vows which he and his companions had made (with which he also acquainted them) in acknowledgment of so glorious a success, they might not draw down the indignation of the gods upon them; and so without more words went courageously to his death. (Book One, Chapter 3)

 

If a Spartan baby was judged to be unfit for its future duty as a soldier, it was most likely abandoned on a nearby hillside. Left alone, the child would either die of exposure or be rescued and adopted by strangers. Marthe’s son Diomedon is a lame boy:

 

Диомедон, в серой блузе с резинкой на бёдрах, весь искривляясь с ритмическим выкрутом, довольно всё же проворно прошёл расстояние от них до матери. Левая нога была у него здоровая, румяная; правая же походила на ружьё в сложном своём снаряде: ствол, ремни. Круглые карие глаза и редкие брови были материнские, но нижняя часть лица, бульдожьи брыльца - это было, конечно, чужое.

- Садись сюда, - сказала вполголоса Марфинька и быстрым хлопком задержала стекавшее с кушетки ручное зеркало.

 

Diomedon, in a grey blouse with an elastic at the hips, twisting his whole body in a rhythmic distortion, nevertheless quite rapidly covered the distance between them and his mother. His left leg was healthy and rosy; the right one resembled a rifle in its complicated harness: barrel, straps, sling. His round hazel eyes and sparse eyebrows were his mother’s, but the lower half of his face, with its bulldog jowls — this, of course, was someone else’s. ‘Sit here,’ whispered Marthe and, with a quick slap, arrested the hand mirror which was trickling off the couch. (Chapter IX)

 

Mali é trano t'amesti is an anagram of smert' mila; eto taina (death is sweet; it's a secret). How do we know that Сincinnatus is not playing a cat-and-mouse game with Death rather than she with him?

 

According to Shestov, in Chekhov’s hands nothing escaped death. At the end of VN’s novel Cincinnatus manages to escape death. The author of Quercus who sits with his camera somewhere among the topmost branches of the tree, spying out and catching his prey, seems to be Sirin (VN’s Russian nom de plume) himself.

 

On Demonia (aka Antiterra, Earth's twin planet on which Ada is set) Maupassant's story La Parure (1884) is known as La rivière de diamants by Guillame de Monparnasse (the penname of Mlle Larivière, Lucette's governess). Describing the family dinner in "Ardis the Second," Van mentions the cattish and prejudiced Guillaume Monparnasse:

 

Alas, the bird had not survived ‘the honor one had made to it,’ and after a brief consultation with Bouteillan a somewhat incongruous but highly palatable bit of saucisson d’Arles added itself to the young lady’s fare of asperges en branches that everybody was now enjoying. It almost awed one to see the pleasure with which she and Demon distorted their shiny-lipped mouths in exactly the same way to introduce orally from some heavenly height the voluptuous ally of the prim lily of the valley, holding the shaft with an identical bunching of the fingers, not unlike the reformed ‘sign of the cross’ for protesting against which (a ridiculous little schism measuring an inch or so from thumb to index) so many Russians had been burnt by other Russians only two centuries earlier on the banks of the Great Lake of Slaves. Van remembered that his tutor’s great friend, the learned but prudish Semyon Afanasievich Vengerov, then a young associate professor but already a celebrated Pushkinist (1855-1954), used to say that the only vulgar passage in his author’s work was the cannibal joy of young gourmets tearing ‘plump and live’ oysters out of their ‘cloisters’ in an unfinished canto of Eugene Onegin. But then ‘everyone has his own taste,’ as the British writer Richard Leonard Churchill mistranslates a trite French phrase (chacun à son gout) twice in the course of his novel about a certain Crimean Khan once popular with reporters and politicians, ‘A Great Good Man’ — according, of course, to the cattish and prejudiced Guillaume Monparnasse about whose new celebrity Ada, while dipping the reversed corolla of one hand in a bowl, was now telling Demon, who was performing the same rite in the same graceful fashion. (1.38)

 

Darkbloom ('Notes to Ada'): Great good man: a phrase that Winston Churchill, the British politician, enthusiastically applied to Stalin.

 

Chekhov's dead body was brought from Badenweiler (a German spa where the writer died in July, 1904) to Moscow in a carriage for oysters (dlya ustrits). Ustritsy ("Oysters," 1884) is a story by Chekhov. The characters in Chekhov's Pyesa bez nazvaniya ("Play without a Title," 1878, publ. 1923) include Vengerovich père, Vengerovich fils and Platonov. In Cordula's train compartment Van steps on Dr Platonov's foot:

 

As he was pushing his unsteady way through one corridor after another, cursing under his breath the window-gazers who did not draw in their bottoms to let him pass, and hopelessly seeking a comfortable nook in one of the first-class cars consisting of four-seat compartments, he saw Cordula and her mother facing each other on the window side. The two other places were occupied by a stout, elderly gentleman in an old-fashioned brown wig with a middle parting, and a bespectacled boy in a sailor suit sitting next to Cordula, who was in the act of offering him one half of her chocolate bar. Van entered, moved by a sudden very bright thought, but Cordula’s mother did not recognize him at once, and the flurry of reintroductions combined with a lurch of the train caused Van to step on the prunella-shod foot of the elderly passenger, who uttered a sharp cry and said, indistinctly but not impolitely: ‘Spare my gout (or ‘take care’ or ‘look out’), young man!’
‘I do not like being addressed as "young man,"’ Van told the invalid in a completely uncalled-for, brutal burst of voice.
‘Has he hurt you, Grandpa?’ inquired the little boy.
‘He has,’ said Grandpa, ‘but I did not mean to offend anybody by my cry of anguish.’
‘Even anguish should be civil,’ continued Van (while the better Van in him tugged at his sleeve, aghast and ashamed).
‘Cordula,’ said the old actress (with the same apropos with which she once picked up and fondled a fireman’s cat that had strayed into Fast Colors in the middle of her best speech), ‘why don’t you go with this angry young demon to the tea-car? I think I’ll take my thirty-nine winks now.’
‘What’s wrong?’ asked Cordula as they settled down in the very roomy and rococo ‘crumpeter,’ as Kalugano College students used to call it in the ‘Eighties and ‘Nineties.
‘Everything,’ replied Van, ‘but what makes you ask?’
‘Well, we know Dr Platonov slightly, and there was absolutely no reason for you to be so abominably rude to the dear old man.’ (1.42)

 

A fireman whose cat had strayed into Fast Colors in the middle of Cordula's mother's best speech brings to mind the fireman in Chekhov's story V potyomkakh ("In the Dark").

 

July 2, 2020, the forty-third anniversary of VN’s death