Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0024638, Tue, 1 Oct 2013 02:24:59 -0300

Tolstoy's tolling bells in ADA's "dom"

Vladimir Nabokov in Lectures on Russian Literature describes two themes: "the Oblonski family disaster" and the "Kitty-Lyovin-Vronski triangle." and the " 'message' Tolstoy has conveyed in his novel" by drawing "a comparison between the Lyovin-Kitty story and the Vronski-Anna story. Lyovin's marriage is based on a metaphysical, not only physical, concept of love, on willingness for self-sacrifice, on mutual respect The Anna-Vronski alliance was founded only in carnal love and therein lay its doom." (p.146-7).
A few pages later he quotes Tolstoy's lines ("Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way") before he proceeds: "All was confusion in the Oblonski house [in the sense of 'home,' both 'house' and 'home' being dom in Russian). At this point.there's a footnote: "Dom-Dom-Dom: the tolling bell of the family theme - house, household, home. Tolstoy deliberately gives us on the very first page the key, the clue,: the home family theme." (p.150). The editor directs the reader to Nabokov's note (p.210) "In the Russian text, the word dom (house, household, home) is repeated eight times in the course of six sentences. This ponderous and solemn repetition, dom, dom, dom, tolling as it does for doomed family life (one of the main themes of the book), is a deliberate device on Tolstoy's part."
Nabokov's novel's complete title runs "Ada or Ardor: a Family Chronicle," and it opens with a genealogical tree, then followed, in its opening paragraph, by::
'All happy families are more or less dissimilar; all unhappy ones are more or less alike,' says a great Russian writer in the beginning of a famous novel (Anna Arkadievitch Karenina, transfigured into English by R.G. Stonelower, Mount Tabor Ltd., 1880). That pronouncement has little if any relation to the story to be unfolded now, a family chronicle, the first part of which is, perhaps, closer to another Tolstoy work, Detstvo i Otrochestvo (Childhood and Fatherland, Pontius Press, 1858).[ ]

Soon after this opening paragraph, Nabokov will present the lineage of his main charaters and introduce the idea of adulterous affairs and genetic confusion. The information concerning Van's biological (Marina) and adoptive (Aqua) mothers is not revealed at this time. What the reader may suppose is that the Durmanov girls may be descendants of Peter Zemski, but not truly Durmanovs (their father was a "sur-royally antlered general"): a matrilineal descendancy prevails, probably unlike the situation with the Veens. But the reader will also learn that there is a special kind of "Demon" blood not shared by another Veen, namely cousin Daniel, and that there is a problem with Daniel Veen's mother, a Trumbell, who maried Ardelion Veen (Demon is the son of Dedalus Veen and Countess Irina Garin).

Van's maternal grandmother Daria ('Dolly') Durmanov was the daughter of Prince Peter Zemski [ ] who had married, in 1824, Mary O'Reilly, an Irish woman of fashion. Dolly, an only child [ ] married General Ivan Durmanov [ ] their three children [ ] a son [ ] and a pair of difficult female twins. Dolly had inherited her mother's beauty and temper but also an older ancestral strain of whimsical, and not seldom deplorable, taste, well reflected, for instance, in the names she gave her daughters: Aqua and Marina ('Why not Tofana?' wondered the good and sur-royally antlered general with a controlled belly laugh...)
Aqua [ ] married Walter D. Veen [ ] who had long conducted[ ]a passionate affair with Marina. The latter [ ] married her first lover's first cousin, also Walter D. Veen [ ] Daniel Veen's mother was a Trumbell, and he was prone to explain at great length - unless sidetracked by a bore-baiter - how in the course of American history an English 'bull' had become a New England 'bell.'

I have no idea if Nabokov's quip concerning Hemmingway (his "bells, balls, bulls") is intentionally alluded to in the case of Mary Trumbell, Ardelion Veen's wife.(the date of her birth is unknown) - but it must be, somehow since we have not only bells, balls and bulls but also the word "tolling.". What strikes me, right now, is the reference to "bells" (not "belles") when we take into account VN's presentation in his lecture on Tolstoy with the reiteration of the word "dom" then transformed into the tolling bell of disaster ( Lucette's?).
How would Nabokov have presented his main themes, in Ada or Ardor, should he have been invited to deliver a lecture on his own book, following the spirit of what he presented when teaching "Anna Karenin"? Any "message" about true love that blends carnality and the metaphysical type of love allied to incest and adultery?

* "Van was still being suckled by a very young wet nurse, almost a child, Ruby Black, born Black, who was to go mad too: for no sooner did all the fond, all the frail, come into close contact with him (as later Lucette did, to give another example) than they were bound to know anguish and calamity, unless strengthened by a strain of his father's demon blood."

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