At the beginning of VN’s novel Zashchita Luzhina (The Luzhin Defense, 1930) little Luzhin finds a mysterious sweetness in the fact that a long number, arrived at with difficulty, at the decisive moment, after many adventures, is divided by nineteen without any remainder:
Больше всего его поразило то, что с понедельника он будет Лужиным. Его отец - настоящий Лужин, пожилой Лужин, Лужин, писавший книги,- вышел от него, улыбаясь, потирая руки, уже смазанные на ночь прозрачным английским кремом, и своей вечерней замшевой походкой вернулся к себе в спальню. Жена лежала в постели. Она приподнялась и спросила: "Ну что, как?" Он снял свой серый халат и ответил: "Обошлось. Принял спокойно. Ух... Прямо гора с плеч". "Как хорошо...- сказала жена, медленно натягивая на себя шелковое одеяло.- Слава Богу, слава Богу..."
Это было и впрямь облегчение. Все лето - быстрое дачное лето, состоящее в общем из трех запахов: сирень, сенокос, сухие листья - все лето они обсуждали вопрос, когда и как перед ним открыться, и откладывали, откладывали, дотянули до конца августа. Они ходили вокруг него, с опаской суживая круги, но, только он поднимал голову, отец с напускным интересом уже стучал по стеклу барометра, где стрелка всегда стояла на шторме, а мать уплывала куда-то в глубь дома оставляя все двери открытыми, забывая длинный, неряшливый букет колокольчиков на крышке рояля. Тучная француженка, читавшая ему вслух "Монте-кристо" и прерывавшая чтение, чтобы с чувством воскликнуть "бедный, бедный Дантес!", предлагала его родителям, что сама возьмет быка за рога, хотя быка этого смертельно боялась. Бедный, бедный Дантес не возбуждал в нем участия, и, наблюдая ее воспитательный вздох, он только щурился и терзал резинкой ватманскую бумагу, стараясь поужаснее нарисовать выпуклость ее бюста.
Через много лет, в неожиданный год просветления, очарования, он с обморочным восторгом вспомнил эти часы чтения на веранде, плывущей под шум сада. Воспоминание пропитано было солнцем и сладко-чернильным вкусом тех лакричных палочек, которые она дробила ударами перочинного ножа и убеждала держать под языком. И сборные гвоздики, которые он однажды положил на плетеное сидение кресла, предназначенного принять с рассыпчатым потрескиванием ее грузный круп, были в его воспоминании равноценны и солнцу, и шуму сада, и комару, который, присосавшись к его ободранному колену, поднимал в блаженстве рубиновое брюшко. Хорошо, подробно знает десятилетний мальчик свои коленки,- расчесанный до крови волдырь, белые следы ногтей на загорелой коже, и все те царапины, которыми расписываются песчинки, камушки, острые прутики. Комар улетал, избежав хлопка, француженка просила не егозить; с остервенением, скаля неровные зубы,- которые столичный дантист обхватил платиновой проволокой,- нагнув голову с завитком на макушке, он чесал, скреб всей пятерней укушенное место,- и медленно, с возрастающим ужасом, француженка тянулась к открытой рисовальной тетради, к невероятной карикатуре.
- "Нет, я лучше сам ему скажу,- неуверенно ответил Лужин старший на ее предложение.- Скажу ему погодя, пускай он спокойно пишет у меня диктовки". "Это ложь, что в театре нет лож,- мерно диктовал он, гуляя взад и вперед по классной.- Это ложь, что в театре нет лож". И сын писал, почти лежа на столе, скаля зубы в металлических лесах, и оставлял просто пустые места на словах "ложь" и "лож". Лучше шла арифметика: была таинственная сладость в том, что длинное, с трудом добытое число, в решительный миг, после многих приключений, без остатка делится на девятнадцать.
What struck him most was the fact that from Monday on he would be Luzhin. His father--the real Luzhin, the elderly Luzhin, the writer of books--left the nursery with a smile, rubbing his hands (already smeared for the night with transparent cold cream), and with his suede-slippered evening gait padded back to his bedroom. His wife lay in bed. She half raised herself and said: "Well, how did it go?" He removed his gray dressing gown and replied: "We managed. Took it calmly. Ouf ... that's a real weight off my shoulders." "How nice ..." said his wife, slowly drawing the silk blanket over her. "Thank goodness, thank goodness ..."
It was indeed a relief. The whole summer--a swift country summer consisting in the main of three smells: lilac, new-mown hay, and dry leaves--the whole summer they had debated the question of when and how to tell him, and they had kept putting if off so that it dragged on until the end of August. They had moved around him in apprehensively narrowing circles, but he had only to raise his head and his father would already be rapping with feigned interest on the barometer dial, where the hand always stood at storm, while his mother would sail away somewhere into the depths of the house, leaving all the doors open and forgetting the long, messy bunch of bluebells on the lid of the piano. The stout French governess who used to read The Count of Monte Cristo aloud to him (and interrupt her reading in order to exclaim feelingly "poor, poor Dantes!") proposed to the parents that she herself take the bull by the horns, though this bull inspired mortal fear in her. Poor, poor Dantes did not arouse any sympathy in him, and observing her educational sigh he merely slitted his eyes and rived his drawing paper with an eraser, as he tried to portray her protuberant bust as horribly as possible.
Many years later, in an unexpected year of lucidity and enchantment, it was with swooning delight that he recalled these hours of reading on the veranda, buoyed up by the sough of the garden. The recollection was saturated with sunshine and the sweet, inky taste of the sticks of licorice, bits of which she used to hack off with blows of her penknife and persuade him to hold under his tongue. And the tacks he had once placed on the wickerwork seat destined, with crisp, crackling sounds, to receive her obese croup were in retrospect equivalent with the sunshine and the sounds of the garden, and the mosquito fastening onto his skinned knee and blissfully raising its rubescent abdomen. A ten-year-old boy knows his knees well, in detail--the itchy swelling that had been scrabbled till it bled, the white traces of fingernails on the suntanned skin, and all those scratches which are the appended signatures of sand grains, pebbles and sharp twigs. The mosquito would fly away, evading his slap; the governess would request him not to fidget; in a frenzy of concentration, baring his uneven teeth--which a dentist in St. Petersburg had braced with platinum wire--and bending his head with its heliced crown, he scratched and scraped at the bitten place with all five fingers--and slowly, with growing horror, the governess stretched toward the open drawing book, toward the unbelievable caricature.
"No, I'd better tell him myself," replied Luzhin senior uncertainly to her suggestion. "I'll tell him later, let him write his dictations in peace. 'Being born in this world is hardly to be borne,' " Luzhin senior dictated steadily, strolling back and forth about the schoolroom. "Being born in this world is hardly to be borne." And his son wrote, practically lying on the table and baring his teeth in their metallic scaffolding, and simply left blanks for the words "born" and "borne." Arithmetic went better; there was mysterious sweetness in the fact that a long number, arrived at with difficulty, would at the decisive moment, after many adventures, be divided by nineteen without any remainder. (Chapter 1)
It seems that Luzhin was born on October 19, 1902, and that he gets married on November 19, 1928, a month after his twenty-sixth birthday. Luzhin commits suicide (by falling out of the bathroom window) on February 28, 1929, a hundred and one days after his wedding. 1919 ∶ 19 = 101. VN left Russia forever on April 15, 1919. Six years later, on April 15, 1925, he married Vera Slonim. VN's father Vladimir Dmitrievich was assassinated in Berlin on March 28, 1922, eighteen years, day for day, after the death of his father (VN's grandfather Dmitri Nabokov). In his autobiography Speak, Memory (1951) VN mentions his grandfather's attempt to throw the huissier out of the window:
She contended that the demoiselles de magasin who brought the dresses were “des peronnelles [saucy hussies]” who, in answer to her objecting that the dresses were cut too low for gentlewomen to wear, “se sont permis d’exposer des theories egalitaires du plus mauvais gout [dared to flaunt democratic ideas in the worst of taste]”; she said that it had been too late to have other fancy dresses made and that her daughters had not gone to the ball; she accused the huissier and his acolytes of sprawling on soft chairs while inviting the ladies to take hard ones; she also complained, furiously and bitterly, that the huissier had actually threatened to jail Monsieur Dmitri Nabokoff, “Conseiller d’Etat, homme sage et plein de mesure [a sedate, self-contained man]” only because the said gentleman had attempted to throw the huissier out of the window. It was not much of a case but the dressmaker lost it. She took back her dresses, refunded their cost and in addition paid a thousand francs to the plaintiff; on the other hand, the bill presented in 1791 to Christina by her carriage maker, a matter of five thousand nine hundred forty-four livres, had never been paid at all.
Dmitri Nabokov (the ending in ff was an old Continental fad), State Minister of Justice from 1878 to 1885, did what he could to protect, if not to strengthen, the liberal reforms of the sixties (trial by jury, for instance) against ferocious reactionary attacks. “He acted,” says a biographer (Brockhaus’ Encyclopedia, second Russian edition), “much like the captain of a ship in a storm who would throw overboard part of the cargo in order to save the rest.” The epitaphical simile unwittingly echoes, I note, an epigraphical theme—my grandfather’s earlier attempt to throw the law out of the window.
At his retirement, Alexander the Third offered him to choose between the title of count and a sum of money, presumably large—I do not know what exactly an earldom was worth in Russia, but contrary to the thrifty Tsar’s hopes my grandfather (as also his uncle Ivan, who had been offered a similar choice by Nicholas the First) plumped for the more solid reward. (“Encore un comte rate,” dryly comments Sergey Sergeevich.) After that he lived mostly abroad. In the first years of this century his mind became clouded but he clung to the belief that as long as he remained in the Mediterranean region everything would be all right. Doctors took the opposite view and thought he might live longer in the climate of some mountain resort or in Northern Russia. There is an extraordinary story, which I have not been able to piece together adequately, of his escaping from his attendants somewhere in Italy. There he wandered about, denouncing, with King Lear-like vehemence, his children to grinning strangers, until he was captured in a wild rocky place by some matter-of-fact carabinieri. During the winter of 1903, my mother, the only person whose presence, in his moments of madness, the old man could bear, was constantly at his side in Nice. My brother and I, aged three and four respectively, were also there with our English governess; I remember the windowpanes rattling in the bright breeze and the amazing pain caused by a drop of hot sealing wax on my finger. Using a candle flame (diluted to a deceptive pallor by the sunshine that invaded the stone slabs on which I was kneeling), I had been engaged in transforming dripping sticks of the stuff into gluey, marvelously smelling, scarlet and blue and bronze-colored blobs. The next moment I was bellowing on the floor, and my mother had hurried to the rescue, and somewhere nearby my grandfather in a wheelchair was thumping the resounding flags with his cane. She had a hard time with him. He used improper language. He kept mistaking the attendant who rolled him along the Promenade des Anglais for Count Loris-Melikov, a (long-deceased) colleague of his in the ministerial cabinet of the eighties. “Qui est cette femme—chassez-la!” he would cry to my mother as he pointed a shaky finger at the Queen of Belgium or Holland who had stopped to inquire about his health. Dimly I recall running up to his chair to show him a pretty pebble, which he slowly examined and then slowly put into his mouth. I wish I had had more curiosity when, in later years, my mother used to recollect those times.
He would lapse for ever-increasing periods into an unconscious state; during one such lapse he was transferred to his pied-a-terre on the Palace Quay in St. Petersburg. As he gradually regained consciousness, my mother camouflaged his bedroom into the one he had had in Nice. Some similar pieces of furniture were found and a number of articles rushed from Nice by a special messenger, and all the flowers his hazy senses had been accustomed to were obtained, in their proper variety and profusion, and a bit of house wall that could be just glimpsed from the window was painted a brilliant white, so every time he reverted to a state of comparative lucidity he found himself safe on the illusory Riviera artistically staged by my mother; and there, on March 28, 1904, exactly eighteen years, day for day, before my father, he peacefully died. (Chapter Three, 1)
The father of Alexander the Third, Alexander the Second was assassinated on March 1, 1881. In his poem Vozmezdie ("Retribution," 1910-21) Alexander Blok mentions the date of the murder of Alexander II:
Прошло два года. Грянул взрыв
С Екатеринина канала,
Россию облаком покрыв.
Все издалёка предвещало,
Что час свершится роковой,
Что выпадет такая карта…
И этот века час дневной —
Последний — назван первым марта. (Part I)
In his poem Blok mentions all those who ceased to be a pawn and whom the authorities hasten to transform into rooks or knights (v tur prevrashchat' ili koney):
И власть торопится скорей
Всех тех, кто перестал быть пешкой,
В тур превращать, или в коней… (ibid.)
The name of Blok's family estate in the Province of Moscow, Shakhmatovo comes from shakhmaty (chess). V tur (into rooks) brings to mind Turati (Luzhin's opponent).
Luzhin (whose maternal grandfather was a composer) resembles a musician. In Speak, Memory VN mentions his ancestor Carl Heinrich Graun, the composer at the court of Frederick the Great:
Carl Heinrich Graun, the great-grandfather of Ferdinand von Korff, my great-grandfather, was born in 1701, at Wahrenbruck, Saxony. His father, August Graun (born 1670), an exciseman (“Königlicher Polnischer und Kurfürstlicher Sachsischer Akziseneinnehmer”—the elector in question being his namesake, August II, King of Poland) came from a long line of parsons. His great-great-grandfather, Wolfgang Graun, was, in 1575, organist at Plauen (near Wahrenbruck), where a statue of his descendant, the composer, graces a public garden. Carl Heinrich Graun died at the age of fifty-eight, in 1759, in Berlin, where seventeen years earlier, the new opera house had opened with his Caesar and Cleopatra. He was one of the most eminent composers of his time, and even the greatest, according to local necrologists touched by his royal patron’s grief. Graun is shown (posthumously) standing somewhat aloof, with folded arms, in Menzel’s picture of Frederick the Great playing Graun’s composition on the flute; reproductions of this kept following me through all the German lodgings I stayed in during my years of exile. I am told there is at the Sans-Souci Palace in Potsdam a contemporary painting representing Graun and his wife, Dorothea Rehkopp, sitting at the same clavecin. Musical encyclopedias often reproduce the portrait in the Berlin opera house where he looks very much like the composer Nikolay Dmitrievich Nabokov, my first cousin. An amusing little echo, to the tune of 250 dollars, from all those concerts under the painted ceilings of a guilded past, blandly reached me in heil-hitlering Berlin, in 1936, when the Graun family entail, basically a collection of pretty snuffboxes and other precious knick-knacks, whose value after passing through many avatars in the Prussian state bank had dwindled to 43,000 reichsmarks (about 10,000 dollars), was distributed among the provident composer’s descendants, the von Korff, von Wissmann and Nabokov clans (a fourth line, the Counts Asinari di San Marzano, had died out). (Chapter Three, 1)