Vladimir Nabokov

Hodinski = Houdini?

By MARYROSS, 7 August, 2020

In PF I think “Hodinski,”queen Yaruga’s lover, goliart and poet likely refers to Houdini, and further, to Nabokov himself.

“We may add that Charles the Beloved could boast of some Russian blood. In medieval times two of his ancestors had married Novgorod princesses. Queen Yaruga (reigned 1799-1800) his  great-great-granddam, was half Russian; and most historians believe that Yaruga's only child Igor was not the son of Uran the Last(reigned 1798-1799) but the fruit of her amours with the Russian adventurer Hodinski, her goliart (court jester) and a poet of genius, said to have forged in his spare time a famous old Russian chanson de geste generally attributed to an anonymous bard of the twelfth century.” (Line 681)

Earlier (Line 12: that crystal land) in explaining his need to disguise himself as a teacher, he names the Russian chanson de geste:

“To return to the King: take for instance the question of personal culture. How often is it that kings engage in some special research? Conchologists among them can be counted on the fingers of one maimed hand. The last king of Zembla - partly under the influence of his uncle Conmal, the great translator of Shakespeare (see notes to lines 39 - 40 and 962), had become, despite frequent migraines, passionately addicted to the study of literature. At forty, not long before the collapse of his throne, he had attained such a degree of scholarship that he dared accede to his venerable uncle's raucous dying request: "Teach, Karlik!" Of course, it would have been unseemly for a monarch to appear in the robes of learning at a university lectern and present to rosy youths Finnigans Wake as a monstrous extension of Angus MacDiarmid's "incoherent transactions" and of Southey's Lingo-Grande ("Dear Stumparumper," etc.) or discuss the Zemblan variants, collected in 1798 by Hodinski, of the Kongs-skugg-sio (The Royal Mirror), an anonymous masterpiece of the twelfth century.”

In the index, under Hodinski, he merely calls it a “celebrate pastiche:”

“Hodinski, Russian adventurer, d. 1800, also known as Hodyna, 681; resided in Zembla 1778-1800; author of a celebrated pastiche and lover of Princess (later Queen) Yaruga (q.v.), mother of Igor II, grandmother of Thurgus (q.v.).”


Nabokov, in his youth, had attempted to translate Shakespeare. Later he translated The Song of Igor. I believe both Conmal and Hodinski are Nabokov’s sly self-satires.  “Conmal” (if we ignore the lewd French slang) literally means “with bad.” Conmal attempts translation with bad English, just as Nabokov felt his early attempts at Shakespeare were not successful. 


Nabokov was more successful with his translation of The Song of Igor. This would be why Hodinski’s progeny is named “Igor II” (after the first Igor).  Hodinski’s “Zemblan variants” thus would indicate VN’s translation.


Hodinski, a.k.a. Hodyna - as Dieter Zimmer remarked (NL 00017511), “His name sounds suspiciously like Harry Houdini.” Harry Houdini (1784-1926), the celebrated escape artist and magician. Nabokov was fond of intimating himself as a conjuror-magician. He also literally escaped Russia and Germany.


Harry Houdini was a member of the American Society for Psychical Research (ASPR) which, along with the British SPR, are the templates for the PF’s IPH. Houdini was not a believer in spiritism, but an exposer of fraud.


Compare the descriptions of Hodinski/Hodyna to Nabokov’s typical self-assessments:

“adventurer, jester, celebrated translator, conjuror, exposer of fraud.”