In VN’s novel Lolita (1955) Humbert Humbert’s first wife Valeria leaves him to live with Colonel Maximovich, a White Russian who works as a taxi driver in Paris:
We were coming out of some office building one morning, with her papers almost in order, when Valeria, as she waddled by my side, began to shake her poodle head vigorously without saying a word. I let her go on for a while and then asked if she thought she had something inside. She answered (I translate from her French which was, I imagine, a translation in its turn of some Slavic platitude): “There is another man in my life.”
Now, these are ugly words for a husband to hear. They dazed me, I confess. To beat her up in the street, there and then, as an honest vulgarian might have done, was not feasible. Years of secret sufferings had taught me superhuman self-control. So I ushered her into a taxi which had been invitingly creeping along the curb for some time, and in this comparative privacy I quietly suggested she comment her wild talk. A mounting fury was suffocating menot because I had any particular fondness for that figure of fun, Mme Humbert , but because matters of legal and illegal conjunction were for me alone to decide, and here she was, Valeria, the comedy wife, brazenly preparing to dispose in her own way of my comfort and fate. I demanded her lover’s name. I repeated my question; but she kept up a burlesque babble, discoursing on her unhappiness with me and announcing plans for an immediate divorce. “Mais qui est-ce? ” I shouted at last, striking her on the knee with my fist; and she, without even wincing, stared at me as if the answer were too simple for words, then gave a quick shrug and pointed at the thick neck of the taxi driver. He pulled up at a small café and introduced himself. I do not remember his ridiculous name but after all those years I still see him quite clearly – a stocky White Russian ex-colonel with a bushy mustache and a crew cut; there were thousands of them plying that fool’s trade in Paris. We sat down at a table; the Tsarist ordered wine, and Valeria, after applying a wet napkin to her knee, went on talking – into me rather than to me; she poured words into this dignified receptacle with a volubility I had never suspected she had in her. And every now and then she would volley a burst of Slavic at her stolid lover. The situation was preposterous and became even more so when the taxi-colonel, stopping Valeria with a possessive smile, began to unfold his views and plans. With an atrocious accent to his careful French, he delineated the world of love and work into which he proposed to enter hand in hand with his child-wife Valeria. She by now was preening herself, between him and me, rouging her pursed lips, tripling her chin to pick at her blouse-bosom and so forth, and he spoke of her as if she were absent, and also as if she were a kind of little ward that was in the act of being transferred, for her own good, from one wise guardian to another even wiser one; and although my helpless wrath may have exaggerated and disfigured certain impressions, I can swear that he actually consulted me on such things as her diet, her periods, her wardrobe and the books she had read or should read. “I think,”—he said, “She will like Jean Christophe? ” Oh, he was quite a scholar, Mr. Taxovich.
I put an end to this gibberish by suggesting Valeria pack up her few belongings immediately, upon which the platitudinous colonel gallantly offered to carry them into the car. Reverting to his professional state, he drove the Humberts to their residence and all the way Valeria talked, and Humbert the Terrible deliberated with Humbert the Small whether Humbert Humbert should kill her or her lover, or both, or neither. I remember once handling an automatic belonging to a fellow student, in the days (I have not spoken of them, I think, but never mind) when I toyed with the idea of enjoying his little sister, a most diaphanous nymphet with a black hair bow, and then shooting myself. I now wondered if Valechka (as the colonel called her) was really worth shooting, or strangling, or drowning. She had very vulnerable legs, and I decided I would limit myself to hurting her very horribly as soon as we were alone.
But we never were. Valechkaby now shedding torrents of tears tinged with the mess of her rainbow make-up,started to fill anyhow a trunk, and two suitcases, and a bursting carton, and visions of putting on my mountain boots and taking a running kick at her rump were of course impossible to put into execution with the cursed colonel hovering around all the time. I cannot say he behaved insolently or anything like that; on the contrary, he displayed, as a small sideshow in the theatricals I had been inveigled in, a discreet old-world civility, punctuating his movements with all sorts of mispronounced apologies (j’ai demande pardonne excuse meest-ce que j’ai puis may Iand so forth), and turning away tactfully when Valechka took down with a flourish her pink panties from the clothesline above the tub; but he seemed to be all over the place at once, le gredin , agreeing his frame with the anatomy of the flat, reading in my chair my newspaper, untying a knotted string, rolling a cigarette, counting the teaspoons, visiting the bathroom, helping his moll to wrap up the electric fan her father had given her, and carrying streetward her luggage. I sat with arms folded, one hip on the window sill, dying of hate and boredom. At last both were out of the quivering apartmentthe vibration of the door I had slammed after them still rang in my every nerve, a poor substitute for the backhand slap with which I ought to have hit her across the cheekbone according to the rules of the movies. Clumsily playing my part, I stomped to the bathroom to check if they had taken my English toilet water; they had not; but I noticed with a spasm of fierce disgust that the former Counselor of the Tsar, after thoroughly easing his bladder, had not flushed the toilet. That solemn pool of alien urine with a soggy, tawny cigarette butt disintegrating in it struck me as a crowning insult, and I wildly looked around for a weapon. Actually I daresay it was nothing but middle-class Russian courtesy (with an oriental tang, perhaps) that had prompted the good colonel (Maximovich! his name suddenly taxies back to me), a very formal person as they all are, to muffle his private need in decorous silence so as not to underscore the small size of his host’s domicile with the rush of a gross cascade on top of his own hushed trickle. But this did not enter my mind at the moment, as groaning with rage I ransacked the kitchen for something better than a broom. Then, canceling my search, I dashed out of the house with the heroic decision of attacking him barefisted; despite my natural vigor, I am no pugilist, while the short but broad-shouldered Maximovich seemed made of pig iron. The void of the street, revealing nothing of my wife’s departure except a rhinestone button that she had dropped in the mud after preserving it for three unnecessary years in a broken box, may have spared me a bloody nose. But no matter. I had my little revenge in due time. A man from Pasadena told me one day that Mrs. Maximovich neé Zborovski had died in childbirth around 1945; the couple had somehow got over to California and had been used there, for an excellent salary, in a year-long experiment conducted by a distinguished American ethnologist. The experiment dealt with human and racial reactions to a diet of bananas and dates in a constant position on all fours. My informant, a doctor, swore he had seen with his own eyes obese Valechka and her colonel, by then gray-haired and also quite corpulent, diligently crawling about the well-swept floors of a brightly lit set of rooms (fruit in one, water in another, mats in a third and so on) in the company of several other hired quadrupeds, selected from indigent and helpless groups. I tried to find the results of these tests in the Review of Anthropology ; but they appear not to have been published yet. These scientific products take of course some time to fructuate. I hope they will be illustrated with photographs when they do get printed, although it is not very likely that a prison library will harbor such erudite works. The one to which I am restricted these days, despite my lawyer’s favors, is a good example of the inane eclecticism governing the selection of books in prison libraries. They have the Bible, of course, and Dickens (an ancient set, N. Y., G. W. Dillingham, Publisher, MDCCCLXXXVII); and the Children’s Encyclopedia (with some nice photographs of sunshine-haired Girl Scouts in shorts), and A Murder Is Announced by Agatha Christie; but they also have such coruscating trifles as A vagabond in Italy by Percy Elphinstone, author of Venice Revisited , Boston, 1868, and a comparatively recent (1946) Who’s Who in the Limelight actors, producers, playwrights, and shots of static scenes. In looking through the latter volume, I was treated last night to one of those dazzling coincidences that logicians loathe and poets love. I transcribe most of the page:
Pym, Roland. Born in Lundy, Mass., 1922. Received stage training at Elsinore Playhouse, Derby, N. Y. Made debut in Sunburst . Among his many appearances are Two Blocks from Here, The Girl in Green, Scrambled Husbands, The Strange Mushroom, Touch and Go, John Lovely, I Was Dreaming of You.
Quilty, Clare, American dramatist. Born in Ocean City, N. J., 1911. Educated at Columbia University. Started on a commercial career but turned to playwriting. Author of The Little Nymph, The Lady Who Loved Lightning (in collaboration with Vivian Darkbloom), Dark Age, The strange Mushroom, Fatherly Love, and others. His many plays for children are notable. Little Nymph (1940) traveled 14,000 miles and played 280 performances on the road during the winter before ending in New York. Hobbies: fast cars, photography, pets.
Quine, Dolores. Born in 1882, in Dayton, Ohio. Studied for stage at American Academy. First played in Ottawa in 1900. Made New York debut in 1904 in Never Talk to Strangers. Has disappeared since in [a list of some thirty plays follows].
How the look of my dear love’s name even affixed to some old hag of an actress, still makes me rock with helpless pain! Perhaps, she might have been an actress too. Born 1935. Appeared (I notice the slip of my pen in the preceding paragraph, but please do not correct it, Clarence) in The Murdered Playwright. Quine the Swine. Guilty of killing Quilty. Oh, my Lolita, I have only words to play with! (1.8)
Colonel Maximovich thinks that Valeria will like Jean Christophe. Jean Christophe (1904-12) is the novel in ten volumes by Romain Rolland. The novel’s central character, Jean-Christophe Krafft, is a German musician of Belgian extraction, a composer of genius whose life is depicted from cradle to grave. He undergoes great hardships and spiritual struggles, balancing his pride in his own talents with the necessity of earning a living and taking care of those around him. Tormented by injustices against his friends, forced to flee on several occasions as a result of his brushes with authority and his own conscience, he finally finds peace in a remote corner of Switzerland before returning in triumph to Paris a decade later.
Although Rolland first conceived the work in Rome in the spring of 1890, he began in earnest in 1903 after publishing a biography of Beethoven. A letter of Sept. 13, 1902, reveals his plans:
“My novel is the story of a life, from birth to death. My hero is a great German musician who is forced by circumstances to leave when he is 16-18 years old, living outside of Germany in Paris, Switzerland, etc. The setting is today's Europe [...] To spell it out, the hero is Beethoven in the modern world.”
In the final (fourth) movement of his Ninth Symphony (1824) Ludwig van Beethoven uses Friedrich Schiller’s poem An die Freude (“Ode to Joy,” 1785). In VN’s novel Lolita marries Richard F. Schiller:
I have often noticed that we are inclined to endow our friends with the stability of type that literary characters acquire in the reader’s mind. No matter how many times we reopen “King Lear,” never shall we find the good king banging his tankard in high revelry, all woes forgotten, at a jolly reunion with all three daughters and their lapdogs. Never will Emma rally, revived by the sympathetic salts in Flaubert’s father’s timely tear. Whatever evolution this or that popular character has gone through between the book covers, his fate is fixed in our minds, and, similarly, we expect our friends to follow this or that logical and conventional pattern we have fixed for them. Thus X will never compose the immortal music that would clash with the second-rate symphonies he has accustomed us to. Y will never commit murder. Under no circumstances can Z ever betray us. We have it all arranged in our minds, and the less often we see a particular person the more satisfying it is to check how obediently he conforms to our notion of him every time we hear of him. Any deviation in the fates we have ordained would strike us as not only anomalous but unethical. We would prefer not to have known at all our neighbor, the retired hot-dog stand operator, if it turns out he has just produced the greatest book of poetry his age has seen.
I am saying all this in order to explain how bewildered I was by Farlow’s hysterical letter. I knew his wife had died but I certainly expected him to remain, throughout a devout widowhood, the dull, sedate and reliable person he had always been. Now he wrote that after a brief visit to the U. S. he had returned to South America and had decided that whatever affairs he had controlled at Ramsdale he would hand over to Jack Windmuller of that town, a lawyer whom we both knew. He seemed particularly relieved to get rid of the Haze “complications.” He had married a Spanish girl. He had stopped smoking and had gained thirty pounds. She was very young and a ski champion. They were going to India for their honeymoon - soon. Since he was “building a family” as he put it, he would have no time henceforth for my affairs which he termed “very strange and very aggravating.” Busybodies - a whole committee of them, it appeared - had informed him that the whereabouts of little Dolly Haze were unknown, and that I was living with a notorious divorcee in California. His father-in-law was a count, and exceedingly wealthy. The people who had been renting the Haze house for some years now wished to buy it. He suggested that I better produce Dolly quick. he had broken his leg. He enclosed a snapshot of himself and a brunette in white wool beaming at each other among the snows of Chile.
I remember letting myself into my flat and starting to say: Well, at least we shall now track them down - when the other letter began talking to me in a small matter-of-fact voice:
How’s everything? I’m married. I’m going to have a baby. I guess he’s going to be a big one. I guess he’ll come right for Christmas. This is a hard letter to write. I’m going nuts because we don’t have enough to pay our debts and get out of here. Dick is promised a big job in Alaska in his very specialized corner of the mechanical field, that’s all I know about it but it’s really grand. Pardon me for withholding our home address but you may still be mad at me, and Dick must not know. This town is something. You can’t see the morons for the smog. Please do send us a check, Dad. We could manage with three or four hundred or even less, anything is welcome, you might sell my old things, because once we go there the dough will just start rolling in. Writ, please. I have gone through much sadness and hardship.
Dolly (Mrs. Richard F. Schiller) (2.27)
Lolita’s husband, Richard F. Schiller is a namesake of German composers Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss. Colonel Maximovich brings to mind Maxim Gorky (a friend of Romain Rolland) whose real name was Aleksey Maksimovich Peshkov. Peshka means "pawn." Humbert played chess with Valeria's father, a doctor.
When he composed Ninth Symphony, Beethoven was practically deaf. A veteran of a remote war, Lolita's husband is hard of hearing:
At this point, there came brisk homey sounds from the kitchen into which Dick and Bill had lumbered in quest of beer. Through the doorway they noticed the visitor, and Dick entered the parlor.
“Dick, this is my Dad!” cried Dolly in a resounding violent voice that struck me as a totally strange, and new, and cheerful, and old, and sad, because the young fellow, veteran of a remote war, was hard of hearing.
Arctic blue eyes, black hair, ruddy cheeks, unshaven chin. We shook hands. Discreet Bill, who evidently took pride in working wonders with one hand, brought in the beer cans he had opened. Wanted to withdraw. The exquisite courtesy of simple folks. Was made to stay. A beer ad. In point of fact, I preferred it that way, and so did the Schillers. I switched to the jittery rocker. Avidly munching, Dolly plied me with marshmallows and potato chips. The men looked at her fragile, frileux , diminutive, old-world, youngish but sickly, father in velvet coat and beige vest, maybe a viscount. (2.29)
In VN's novel Dar ("The Gift," 1937) the writer Shirin is blind like Milton and deaf like Beethoven:
Фёдор Константинович собрался было восвояси, когда его сзади окликнул шепелявый голос: он принадлежал Ширину, автору романа «Седина» (с эпиграфом из книги Иова), очень сочувственно встреченного эмигрантской критикой. («Господи, отче…? По Бродвею, в лихорадочном шорохе долларов, гетеры и дельцы в гетрах, дерясь, падая, задыхаясь, бежали за золотым тельцом, который, шуршащими боками протискиваясь между небоскрёбами, обращал к электрическому небу изможденный лик свой и выл. В Париже, в низкопробном притоне, старик Лашез, бывший пионер авиации, а ныне дряхлый бродяга, топтал сапогами старуху-проститутку Буль-де-Сюиф. Господи, отчего…? Из московского подвала вышел палач и, присев у конуры, стал тюлюкать мохнатого щенка: Махонький, приговаривал он, махонький… В Лондоне лорды и леди танцевали шимми и распивали коктейль, изредка посматривая на эстраду, где на исходе восемнадцатого ринга огромный негр кнок-аутом уложил на ковёр своего белокурого противника. В арктических снегах, на пустом ящике из-под мыла, сидел путешественник Эриксен и мрачно думал: Полюс или не полюс?.. Иван Червяков бережно обстригал бахрому единственных брюк. Господи, отчего Вы дозволяете все это?»). Сам Ширин был плотный, коренастый человек, с рыжеватым бобриком, всегда плохо выбритый, в больших очках, за которыми, как в двух аквариумах, плавали два маленьких, прозрачных глаза, совершенно равнодушных к зрительным впечатлениям. Он был слеп как Мильтон, глух как Бетховен, и глуп как бетон. Святая ненаблюдательность (а отсюда — полная неосведомлённость об окружающем мире — и полная неспособность что-либо именовать) — свойство, почему-то довольно часто встречающееся у русского литератора-середняка, словно тут действует некий благотворный рок, отказывающий бесталанному в благодати чувственного познания, дабы он зря не изгадил материала. Бывает, конечно, что в таком тёмном человеке играет какой-то собственный фонарик, — не говоря о том, что известны случаи, когда по прихоти находчивой природы, любящей неожиданные приспособления и подмены, такой внутренний свет поразительно ярок — на зависть любому краснощёкому таланту. Но даже Достоевский всегда как-то напоминает комнату, в которой днём горит лампа.
Fyodor was about to walk home when a lisping voice called him from behind: it belonged to Shirin, author of the novel The Hoary Abyss (with an Epigraph from the Book of Job) which had been received very sympathetically by the émigré critics. (“Oh Lord, our Father! Down Broadway in a feverish rustle of dollars, hetaeras and businessmen in spats, shoving, falling and out of breath, were running after the golden calf, which pushed its way, rubbing against walls between the skyscrapers, then turned its emaciated face to the electric sky and howled. In Paris, in a low-class dive, the old man Lachaise, who had once been an aviation pioneer but was now a decrepit vagabond, trampled under his boots an ancient prostitute, Boule de Suif. Oh Lord, why—? Out of a Moscow basement a killer came out, squatted by a kennel and began to coax a shaggy pup: little one, he repeated, little one… In London, lords and ladies danced the Jimmie and imbibed cocktails, glancing from time to time at a platform where at the end of the eighteenth ring a huge Negro had laid his fair-haired opponent on the carpet with a knockout. Amid arctic snows the explorer Ericson sat on an empty soapbox and thought gloomily: The pole or not the pole?… Ivan Chervyakov carefully trimmed the fringe of his only pair of pants. Oh Lord, why dost Thou permit all this?”) Shirin himself was a thickset man with a reddish crew cut, always badly shaved and wearing large spectacles behind which, as in two aquariums, swam two tiny, transparent eyes—which were completely impervious to visual impressions. He was blind like Milton, deaf like Beethoven, and a blockhead to boot. A blissful incapacity for observation (and hence complete unin-formedness about the surrounding world—and a complete inability to put a name to anything) is a quality quite frequently met with among the average Russian literati, as if a beneficent fate were at work refusing the blessing of sensory cognition to the untalented so that they will not wantonly mess up the material. It happens, of course, that such a benighted person has some little lamp of his own glimmering inside him—not to speak of those known instances in which, through the caprice of resourceful nature that loves startling adjustments and substitutions, such an inner light is astonishingly bright—enough to make the envy of the ruddiest talent. But even Dostoevski always brings to mind somehow a room in which a lamp burns during the day. (Chapter Five)
"Blind like Milton" brings to mind Milton Pinski mentioned in Lolita by Eva Rosen (Lolita's schoolmate at Beardsley):
And I have still other smothered memories, now unfolding themselves into limbless monsters of pain. Once, in a sunset-ending street of Beardsley, she turned to little Eva Rosen (I was taking both nymphets to a concert and walking behind them so close as almost to touch them with my person), she turned to Eva, and so very serenely and seriously, in answer to something the other had said about its being better to die than hear Milton Pinski, some local schoolboy she knew, talk about music, my Lolita remarked:
“You know, what’s so dreadful about dying is that you are completely on your own”; and it struck me, as my automaton knees went up and down, that I simply did not know a thing about my darling’s mind and that quite possibly, behind the awful juvenile clichs, there was in her a garden and a twilight, and a palace gatedim and adorable regions which happened to be lucidly and absolutely forbidden to me, in my polluted rags and miserable convulsions; for I often noticed that living as we did, she and I, in a world of total evil, we would become strangely embarrassed whenever I tried to discuss something she and an older friend, she and a parent, she and a real healthy sweetheart, I and Annabel, Lolita and a sublime, purified, analyzed, deified Harold Haze, might have discussedan abstract idea, a painting, stippled Hopkins or shorn Baudelaire, God or Shakespeare, anything of genuine kind. Good will! She would mail her vulnerability in trite brashness and boredom, whereas I, using for my desperately detached comments an artificial tone of voice that set my own last teeth on edge, provoked my audience to such outbursts of rudeness as made any further conversation impossible, oh my poor, bruised child. (2.8)