Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0024367, Thu, 27 Jun 2013 19:43:26 +0000

THOUGHTS: Pnin, St. Bart, Baring-Gould
The following is from Pnin, chapter 4:

Under the cross and immediately over the sonorous-looking but really echoless arc of the entrance was carved a dagger of sorts, an attempt to represent the butcher’s knife so reproachfully held (in the Vienna Missal) by St. Bartholomew, one of the Apostles—the one, namely, who had been flayed alive and exposed to the flies in the summer of 65 A.D. or thereabouts, in Albanopolis, now Derbent, southeastern Russia. His coffin, when cast by a furious king into the Caspian Sea, had blandly sailed all the way to Lipari Island off the coast of Sicily—probably a legend, seeing that the Caspian had been strictly an inland affair ever since the Pleistocene.

Barabtarlo, in Phantom of Fact, traces VN’s source to volume nine of Sabine Baring-Gould’s Lives of the Saints (1914), since it seems to be the only book that reproduces Bart’s picture from the Vienna Missal and contains all of the relevant biographical info as well. I took the liberty of interlibrary loaning Cornell University’s copy of this volume (almost certainly the very one perused by VN in the early 1950s) and have attached the portrait and some of the text. If Baring-Gould’s name sounds familiar, it should. VN drew a good deal from his Family Names & Their Story when he was writing Pale Fire, (see my article in the Nabokovian) and I suspect he also read Baring-Gould’s The Book of Werewolves. VN’s bemusement over the miraculous coffin may have been inspired by Baring-Gould’s equally bemused footnote, which reads:

The Bollandists do not take upon themselves to deny this miracle. . . . Had Father Stilling no atlas? Did he know that the Caspian is an inland sea with no communication whatever with the ocean? The coffin must have voyaged by land across Media and Susiana, floated down the Persian Gulf, swum down the east coast of Africa, doubled the Cape of Good Hope, coasted West Africa, and entered the Mediterranean by Gibralter. But the Greek Menaea gives a different course to the swimming sarcophagus. It floated from the Caspian into the Black Sea, coasted Asia Minor, traversed the Sea of Marmora and the Dardanelles, and swimming vigorously down the Aegean, threading its way among the Isles of Greece, entered the Mediterranean, and doubling Cape Passaro, sighted Palermo, and finally rested in Lipari. The Bollandist fathers learnedly and painfully dispute whether the sarcophagus were of stone or lead.

Matt Roth

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