Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0024790, Mon, 11 Nov 2013 12:32:06 +0300

Pushkin, Vengerov, Chekhov & chess in ADA
Van remembered that his tutor’s great friend, the learned but prudish Semyon Afanasievich Vengerov, then a young associate professor but already a celebrated Pushkinist (1855-1954), used to say that the only vulgar passage in his author’s work was the cannibal joy of young gourmets tearing ‘plump and live’ oysters out of their ‘cloisters’ in an unfinished canto of Eugene Onegin. (1.38)

I suspect it was something about A. P. Chekhov's (not Vengerov's) death that made Nabokov give Vengerov that almost improbably long life.
In a letter of January 20, 1899, to his brother Ivan Pavlovich Chekhov speaks of his negotiations with the publisher Adolf Marx and mentions a telegram he sent Marx promising him to live not more than eighty years:

В дополнение к письму о переговорах с Марксом сообщаю, что я продолжал упорно торговаться до сегодня и только сегодня телеграфировал, что я согласен. За будущие произведения я буду получать (по предварительном напечатании в журналах обычным порядком) 250 р. за лист, потом через 5 лет 450 р., ещё через 5 лет 650 р. за лист и т. д. с надбавками по 200 р. через каждые 5 лет. Обещал в телеграмме, что буду жить не долее 80 лет.

According to Sergeenko, Marx took Chekhov's words in his telegram at face value and the deal nearly collapsed:

Твоя фраза в телеграмме о том, что ты даешь слово не жить более 80-ти лет, была принята Марксом чистоганом и едва не расстроила сделку. Он вскочил из-за стола и, в волнении шагая по комнате, бормотал: funf und zwanzig Jahre — Tausend funf hundert... Drei?ig Jahre — ein Tausend... etc. (Sergeenko's letter of February 15, 1899, to Chekhov)

The year of VN's birth, 1899 is also Pushkin's hundredth anniversary. If Chekhov (who died in 1904, at forty four) had lived till 1940 dying at eighty, he would have seen not only the World War I, the Revolution and the terror of Lenin and Stalin but also the hundredth anniversary of Pushkin's death in 1937 (widely celebrated in the USSR, as well as in the emigration). He could have read all novels of Sirin (except Chapter Four of The Gift, "The Life of Chernyshevski") and the dilogy of Ilf and Petrov (the writers who were born in Odessa, the city where Pushkin's gourmets tear oysters of their 'cloisters'). One of the characters of Ilf and Petrov's "The 12 Chairs" is Ellochka the cannibal, a friend of Fima Sobak (whose name brings to mind Cordula Tobak, born de Prey, Van's mistress). The characters of Ilf and Petrov's "The Golden Calf" include Ivan Osipovich, a cook who gave dinner to Anton Pavlovich, the Prince of Wurtemberg (Chapter XXIX, Gremyashchiy Klyuch). No German Prince of that name existed. Anton Pavlovich is Chekhov's name and patronymic. Chekhov died in Badenweiler, a spa in Baden-Wurtemberg. One night he woke up in his hotel room and said in German: ich sterbe (I'm dying). Chekhov's wife sent for the doctor who brought champagne for his colleague (for medicine could not help anymore). The writer's last words were "it's been a long time since I drank champagne." Like Chekhov, Il'ya Ilf died of tuberculosis (in spring, 1937). A few days before his death Ilf was dining in a Moscow restaurant and said of the wine he was drinking: "champagne named ich sterbe" (Sbornik vospominaniy ob I. Ilfe i E. Petrove, Moscow, 1963).

Like Chekhov and Ilf, Ada's husband Andrey Vinelander dies of tuberculosis. (3.8)
According to old Rattner (Van's colleague at Kingston University, a pessimist of genius), Van will "sturb" with an alliteration on his lips. (2.5)
According to Van, a gap of up to a hundred years exists between Terra and Antiterra (aka Demonia, Earth's twin planet on which Ada is set):

Ved’ (‘it is, isn’t it’) sidesplitting to imagine that ‘Russia,’ instead of being a quaint synonym of Estoty, the American province extending from the Arctic no longer vicious Circle to the United States proper, was on Terra the name of a country, transferred as if by some sleight of land across the ha-ha of a doubled ocean to the opposite hemisphere where it sprawled over all of today’s Tartary, from Kurland to the Kuriles! But (even more absurdly), if, in Terrestrial spatial terms, the Amerussia of Abraham Milton was split into its components, with tangible water and ice separating the political, rather than poetical, notions of ‘America’ and ‘Russia,’ a more complicated and even more preposterous discrepancy arose in regard to time — not only because the history of each part of the amalgam did not quite match the history of each counterpart in its discrete condition, but because a gap of up to a hundred years one way or another existed between the two earths; a gap marked by a bizarre confusion of directional signs at the crossroads of passing time with not all the no-longers of one world corresponding to the not-yets of the other...

There were those who maintained that the discrepancies and ‘false overlappings’ between the two worlds were too numerous, and too deeply woven into the skein of successive events, not to taint with trite fancy the theory of essential sameness; and there were those who retorted that the dissimilarities only confirmed the live organic reality pertaining to the other world; that a perfect likeness would rather suggest a specular, and hence speculatory, phenomenon; and that two chess games with identical openings and identical end moves might ramify in an infinite number of variations, on one board and in two brains, at any middle stage of their irrevocably converging development. (1.3)

In Chapter Four of Eugene Onegin Lenski plays chess with Olga Larin: "and Lenski with a pawn / takes in abstraction his own rook" (XXVI: 13-14). Chekhov's Play without a Title (whose characters include Abram Vengerovich and his son Isak) begins with a game of chess. One of the chapters of The Twelve Chairs is entitled "The Interplanetary Chess Tournament." One of the chapters of The Golden Calf is entitled "Homer, Milton and Panikovski." A character in The Golden Calf, poor geography teacher, went mad because he failed to find on a globe the Bering Strait ("the ha-ha of a doubled ocean").

Next day, February 5, around nine p.m., Manhattan (winter) time, on the way to Dan's lawyer, Demon noted - just as he was about to cross Alexis Avenue, an ancient but insignificant acquaintance, Mrs Arfour, advancing toward him, with her toy terrier, along his side of the street. Unhesitatingly, Demon stepped off the curb, and having no hat to raise (hats were not worn with raincloaks and besides he had just taken a very exotic and potent pill to face the day's ordeal on top of a sleepless journey), contented himself - quite properly - with a wave of his slim umbrella; recalled with a paint dab of delight one of the gargle girls of her late husband; and smoothly passed in front of a slow-clopping horse-drawn vegetable cart, well out of the way of Mrs R4. (2.10)

Vivian Darkbloom ('Notes to Ada'): R4: 'rook four,' a chess indication of position (pun on the woman's name).

On the other hand, Dama s sobachkoy (The Lady with the Dog, 1899) is a story by Chekhov.

Alexey Sklyarenko

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