Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0024792, Wed, 13 Nov 2013 00:54:42 +0300

Milton & Chateaubriand in ADA
"Abraham Milton's Amerussia" brings to mind Milton Abraham who helped Aqua (Marina's poor twin sister) to organize a free pharmacy in Belokonsk:

She organized with Milton Abraham’s invaluable help a Phree Pharmacy in Belokonsk, and fell grievously in love there with a married man, who after one summer of parvenu passion dispensed to her in his Camping Ford garconniere preferred to give her up rather than run the risk of endangering his social situation in a philistine town where businessmen played ‘golf’ on Sundays and belonged to ‘lodges.’ (1.3)

According to Vivian Darkbloom ('Notes to Ada'), Belokonks is the Russian twin of 'Whitehorse' (city in N. W. Canada). Marina's impresario, the great Scott, brought the Russians who participated in Eugene and Lara (a stage version of a famous Russian romance, apparently Pushkin's Eugene Onegin that got confused with Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago):

She [Marina] had ample time, too, to change for the next scene, which started with a longish intermezzo staged by a ballet company whose services Scotty had engaged, bringing the Russians all the way in two sleeping cars from Belokonsk, Western Estoty. (1.2)

In his article "On Milton and Chateaubriand's translation of Paradise Lost" (1836, published next year in Sovremennik No. 5, the first issue of The Contemporary that came out after the poet's death) Pushkin mentions Walter Scott:

Изо всех иноземных великих писателей Мильтон был всех несчастнее во Франции. Не говорим о жалких переводах в прозе, в которых он был безвинно оклеветан, не говорим о переводе в стихах аббата Делиля, который ужасно поправил его грубые недостатки и украсил его без милосердия; но как же выводили его собственное лицо в трагедиях и в романах писатели новейшей романтической школы? Что сделал из него г. Альфред де Виньи, которого французские критики без церемонии поставили на одной доске с В. Скоттом? (French critics compared Alfred de Vigny, the author of Cinq Mars criticised by Pushkin, to Walter Scott)

In 1791 Chateaubriand left Revolutionary France for North America. North America is the setting of Chateaubriand's exotic novels Les Natchez (written in 1793-99, publ. 1826), Atala (1801) and Rene (1802).

In The Contemporary, 1836, vol. III, Pushkin published his review of John Tanner's A Narrative of the Captivity and Adventures of John Tanner during Thirty Years Residence Among the Indians (1830).* Another article written by Pushkin in the last months of his life is <Pesn' o Polku Igoreve> (<The Song of Igor's Campaign>) first published in 1855 by Annenkov.

With glowing cheekbones and that glint of copper showing from under her tight rubber cap on nape and forehead, she [Lucette] evoked the Helmeted Angel of the Yukonsk Ikon whose magic effect was said to change anemic blond maidens into konskie deti, freckled red-haired lads, children of the Sun Horse. (3.5)

While Yukonsk rhymes with (and is probably not too far from) Belokonsk, the Sun Horse seems to hint at Hors, the Slavic sun god mentioned in "The Song of Igor's Campaign."

Pushkin appears in Ada only for a moment and is mentioned soon after Chateaubriand's mosquito:

During the last week of July, there emerged, with diabolical regularity, the female of Chateaubriand’s mosquito. Chateaubriand (Charles), who had not been the first to be bitten by it… but the first to bottle the offender, and with cries of vindictive exultation to carry it to Professor Brown who wrote the rather slap-bang Original Description… 'Sladko! (Sweet!)’ Pushkin used to exclaim in relation to a different species in Yukon. (1.17)

In Memoires d'outre-tombe (Book VIII, Chapter 5) Francois-Rene Chateaubriand compares his amorous rival, an American Indian, to a mosquito:

I felt myself to be all the more humiliated in that the Burnt-Wood, my favoured rival, was a mosquito, lean, dark and ugly, having all the characteristics of those insects which, according to the definition of the Grand Lama’s entomologists, are creatures whose flesh is internal, and bones external.

I notice that the date of Chekhov's death, July 4, is also the day when Chateaubriand died. If Chateaubriand had lived two months longer, he would have turned eighty.

One or two letters of Chekhov to his wife, the actress Olga Knipper, are signed Chernomordik (chyornaya morda means "black muzzle;" because Chekhov lived in Yalta, his face was sun-tanned). Chernomordik is the chemist's name in Chekhov's story Aptekarsha (The Chemist's Wife, 1886). It brings to mind Chernomor, the evil sorcerer in Pushkin's Ruslan and Lyudmila (1820), and Chernomorsk, the city where Koreiko (a secret millionaire) lives in Ilf and Petrov's The Golden Calf. Chernomorsk comes from Chyornoe more (the Black Sea) and hints at Odessa.

In The Chemist's Wife the shop's visitor asks for vinum gallicum rubrum. In a letter of Nov. 25, 1893, to Suvorin Chekhov complains about the absence of alcohol in the works of contemporary artists and modestly compares his story Ward No. Six (1892) to lemonade. In Women from the Point of View of a Drunkard Chekhov compares girls under sixteen to distilled water (Humbert Humbert would disagree!). Aqua distillatae is mentioned in Chekhov's (very amusing) story Pered sudom (Before the Legal Proceedings). Pered Sudom (Before the Day of Judgement, 1915) is a famous poem by Blok. A Jewish chemist sighing in his sleep and a closet marked Venena (Lat., poison) are mentioned by Blok in a poem included in the cycle Plyaski Smerti (Dance Macabre, 1912-14). The best known poem from this cycle is "Noch'. Ulitsa. Fonar'. Apteka..." ("Night, Street, Lamp and Pharmacy..." 1912). One of Blok's earlier poems begins: "Belyi kon' chut' stupaet ustaloy nogoy..." ("The white horse carefully treads with his tired foot..." 1905)

Her [Aqua's] poor little letters from the homes of madness to her husband were sometimes signed: Madame Shchemyashchikh-Zvukov ('Heart rending-Sounds)'. (1.3)
Aqua's fanciful pseudonym reminds one of the funny names that Chekhov bestows on his characters. However, the reference is to Blok, not Chekhov. The phrase shchemyashchiy zvuk (heart-rending sound) occurs at least twice Blok's poetry (see in Zembla my article "Aleksandr Blok's Dreams as Enacted in Ada by Van Veen--and Vice Versa").

In a letter of February 5, 1893, to Suvorin Chekhov proposes Dvenadtsat' (Twelve) as the name of a new literary magazine whose chief editor he would be: Назовём так: Зима. Можно и Лето. Можно Месяц. А не назвать ли просто Двенадцать? Suvorin liked the name Dvenadtsat' (see Chekhov's letter of Febr. 13, 1893, to Suvorin).

Dvenadtsat' (The Twelve, 1918) is a famous poem by Blok. The poem ends with Jesus Christ, a little crown of white roses on his head and a red banner in his hands, marching in front of the twelve Red Army soldiers. Chateaubriand is the author of The Genius of Christianity (1802).

Btw., the name of Blok's estate in the Province of Moscow, Shakhmatovo, comes from shakhmaty (chess).

Incidentally, Milton was the name of Leo Tolstoy's dog during his military service in the Caucasus (see Tolstoy's Azbuka). Unlike most Russian writers, Tolstoy was good at chess (not as good, though, as Turgenev who even participated in international tournaments and who was nicknamed by fellow players chevalier de fou). They say that Lermontov, too, was a fine chess player. But I doubt any of them would beat the author of Ada.

*Pushkin read it in French: Memoires de John Tanner, ou trente annees dans les deserts de l’Amerique du Nord, traduits sur l’edition original, publiee a New York, par M. Ernest de Blosseville, auteur de l’histoire des Colonies penales de l’Angleterre dans l’Australie, vols. I, II. Paris, 1835.

Alexey Sklyarenko

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