Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0024529, Thu, 29 Aug 2013 14:19:54 +0300

Quirn in LATH
From Annette's letter to Vadim:

You regarded me from the start as a cute, dutiful, but definitely disappointing little circus animal* which you tried to teach immoral disgusting tricks--condemned as such according to the faithful companion without whom I might not have survived in ghastly "Kvirn"** by the latest scientific stars of our fatherland. (3.4)

From Vadim's commentary to Annette's letter:

*The term in the text is durovskiy zveryok, meaning a small animal trained by the famous Russian clown Durov, a reference less familiar to my wife than to a person of the older generation to which her friend [Ninel Langley] belonged.
**Contemptuous transliteration of "Quirn." (ibid.)

Kvirn brings to mind Dostoevski's story Skvernyi anekdot (A Nasty Anecdote, 1862) whose protagonist, a liberal-minded general in civil cervice, gets drunk at the wedding celebration of one of his subordinates, Pseldonymov. Annette leaves Vadim after his "escapade" at J. B.'s birthday party.

Bulgarin is the author of Anekdot (1830), a piece grossly insulting to Pushkin.

In a word, her [Annette's] appearance in the beau monde of emigre literature echoed amusingly Chapter Eight of Eugene Onegin with Princess N.'s moving coolly through the fawning ballroom throng. (2.9)

Но вот толпа заколебалась,
По зале шёпот пробежал...
К хозяйке дама приближалась,
За нею важный генерал.
Она была нетороплива,
Не холодна, не говорлива,
Без взора наглого для всех,
Без притязаний на успех,
Без этих маленьких ужимок,
Без подражательных затей...
Всё тихо, просто было в ней,
Она казалась верный снимок
Du comme il faut... (Шишков, прости:
Не знаю, как перевести.)

К ней дамы подвигались ближе;
Старушки улыбались ей;
Мужчины кланялися ниже,
Ловили взор её очей;
Девицы проходили тише
Пред ней по зале: и всех выше
И нос и плечи подымал
Вошедший с нею генерал.
Никто б не мог её прекрасной
Назвать; но с головы до ног
Никто бы в ней найти не мог
Того, что модой самовластной
В высоком лондонском кругу
Зовётся vulgar. (Не могу...

Люблю я очень это слово,
Но не могу перевести;
Оно у нас покамест ново,
И вряд ли быть ему в чести.
Оно б годилось в эпиграмме...)
Но обращаюсь к нашей даме.
Беспечной прелестью мила,
Она сидела у стола
С блестящей Ниной Воронскою,
Сей Клеопатрою Невы;
И верно б согласились вы,
Что Нина мраморной красою
Затмить соседку не могла,
Хоть ослепительна была.

But lo! the throng has undulated,
a whisper through the hall has run....
Toward the hostess there advanced a lady,
followed by an imposing general.
She was unhurried,
not cold, not talkative,
without a flouting gaze for everyone,
without pretensions to success,
without those little mannerisms,
without imitational devices....
All about her was quite, simple.
She seemed a faithful reproduction
du comme il faut... ([Shishkov,] forgive me:
I do not know how to translated it).

Closer to her the ladies moved;
old women smiled to her;
the men bowed lower,
sought to catch the gaze of her eyes;
the maidens passed more quietly
before her through the room; and higher than anyone
lifted both nose and shoulders
the general who had come in with her.
None could a beauty
have called her; but from head to foot
none could have found in her
what by the autocratic fashion
in the high London circle
is called "vulgar" (I can't -

- much do I like that word,
but can't translate it;
with us, for the time being, it is new
and hardly bound to be in favor;
it might do nicely in an epigram....
But to our lady let me turn.)
Winsome with carefree charm,
she at a table sat
with glittering Nina Voronskoy,
that Cleopatra of the Neva;
and, surely, you would have agreed
that Nina with her marble beauty
could not eclipse her neighbor,
though she was dazzling. (EO, Eight: XIV, XV, XVI)

In his note to line 5 of stanza XVI (EO Commentary, III, p. 175) VN says:

I have little doubt that the epigram stirring in the poet's mind has to do with a play on "vulgar" in connection with Bulgarin, the loathsome critic. Pushkin might have transformed him into "Vugarin" or he might have given "vulgar" a Russian predicative turn and rhymed Bulgarin - vulgaren, "Bulgarin - is vulgar."
The stanza was written, presumably, in October, 1830, at Boldino. In the Northern Bee, no. 30 (Mar. 12, 1830), Bulgarin's insulting "Anekdot" had appeared (see n. to Eight: XXXV: 9) and, a week later, his adverse critique of Chapter Seven (see above, pp. 125-26).

Annette's friend Ninel Langley is a namesake of Nina Voronskoy. Like Pushkin's Angelo, Ninel (who is secretely in love with Vadim) is a hypocrite, and I can hear her say to Annette what characters in Dostoevski's novels say so often: on mizintsa tvoego ne stoit ("he is not worth your little finger" meaning "you are so much better than he"). Vadim's and Annette's daughter Isabel (Bel) is a namesake of Claudio's sister in Pushkin's Angelo (1833).

Alexey Sklyarenko

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