Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0024835, Thu, 28 Nov 2013 16:59:22 +0300

contraceptive devices in Ada & in Dead Souls
Ada, wearing an unfashionable belted macintosh that he disliked, with her handbag on a strap over one shoulder, had gone to Kaluga for the whole day — officially to try on some clothes, unofficially to consult Dr Krolik’s cousin, the gynecologist Seitz (or ‘Zayats,’ as she transliterated him mentally since it also belonged, as Dr ‘Rabbit’ did, to the leporine group in Russian pronunciation). Van was positive that not once during a month of love-making had he failed to take all necessary precautions, sometimes rather bizarre, but incontestably trustworthy, and had lately acquired the sheath-like contraceptive device that in Ladore county only barber-shops, for some odd but ancient reason, were allowed to sell. (1.37)

In a letter of February 1, 1833, to Pogodin Gogol says that in the days of Peter I all Russia (Rus) was turned into a barber's shop full of people:

Какая смешная смесь во время Петра, когда Русь превратилась на время в цирюльню, битком набитую народом; один сам подставлял свою бороду, другому насильно брили.

In Dead Souls Gogol famously compares Rus to ptitsa-troika (a bird-like troika):

And you, Rus, are you not also like a brisk, unbeatable troika racing on?... Rus, where are you racing to? Give answer! She gives no answer. (Chapter Eleven)

Poor Gogol! His exclamation (like Pushkin's) 'Rus!' is willingly repeated by the men of the sixties, but now the troika needs paved highways, for even Russia's toska ('yearning') has become utilitarian. (The Gift, Chapter Four)

One of the landowners in Dead Souls, the miser Plyushkin, is nicknamed by local peasants "the patched [contraceptive]:"

'Don't you know the miser Plyushkin who doesn't feed his serfs properly?'
'Oh, the ... in patches!' cried the peasant. He put in a substantive which was very apt but impossible in polite conversation, and so we omit it. (Chapter Five)

In the 1840s Gogol spent a few summers in Kaluga as a guest of A. O. Smirnov (born Rosset) whose husband was a governor of Kaluga (see Veresaev, Gogol in Life).

In a letter of about/not later than June 27, 1834, to his wife (who stayed in Polotnyanyi Zavod, the Goncharov family estate near Kaluga) Pushkin informs Natalia Nikolaevna that Mme Smirnov gave birth to twins and calls Mr Smirnov krasnoglazyi krolik (a red-eyed rabbit):

Смирнова родила благополучно, и вообрази: двоих. Какова бабёнка, и каков красноглазый кролик Смирнов?

In a letter of September 8, 1891, to Suvorin Chekhov says that Tolstoy's Epilogue to The Kreutzer Sonata is stupider and stuffier than Gogol's Letters to a Governor's Wife (i. e. to Mme Smirnov; Gogol's book Chekhov refers to is Selected Passages from Correspondence with Friends, 1847):

Tolstoy denies immortality to mankind, but good God, how much there is that’s personal in his denial! The day before yesterday I read his “Epilogue.” Strike me dead, but this is stupider and stuffier than “Letters to a Governor’s Wife,” which I despise. The hell with the philosophy of the great of this world! All eminent sages are as despotic as generals, as discourteous and lacking in delicacy as generals, because they know they are safe from punishment. Diogenes spat into peoples’ beards, sure that nothing would happen to him; Tolstoy abuses doctors as scoundrels and shows his ignorance in regard to weighty questions because he is another Diogenes, whom you can’t take to the police station or call down in the newspapers. And so, the hell with the philosophy of the great of this world! All of it, with all its beggarly epilogues and letters to governors’ ladies isn’t worth a single filly in his "Story of a Horse."

A doctor himself, Chekhov could not agree with Tolstoy who disliked physicians (particularly, the gynecologists).

In a letter of August 21, 1831, to Pushkin Gogol sends his best wishes to Nadezhda Nikolaevna: "God may keep you and Nadezhda Nikolaevna from everything that is not good and give you good health forever." On August 25 Pushkin replied: "Your Nadezhda Nikolaevna, that is my Natalia Nikolaevna, thanks you for the memory and sends you her cordial greetings."

Nadezhda Nikolaevna (1885) is a story by Garshin. The title heroine is a prostitute who poses for the young artist working on a portrait of Charlotte Corday. In Ada Van mentions Cora Day, an opera singer who shot dead Murat, a French general’s bastard, in his swimming pool:

He [Van] struggled to keep back his tears, while AAA blew his fat red nose, when shown the peasant-bare footprint of Tolstoy preserved in the clay of a motor court in Utah where he had written the tale of Murat, the Navajo chieftain, a French general’s bastard, shot by Cora Day in his swimming pool. What a soprano Cora had been! (1.28)

General Murat was Napoleon's brother-in-law (see Darkbloom's 'Notes to Ada'). The main character in Dead Souls, Chichikov bears a physical resemblance to Napoleon. Napoleon is a character Tolstoy's War and Peace. In a letter of October 25, 1891, to Suvorin Chekhov says that he admires Tolstoy's novel enormously except the episodes with Napoleon:

Only I don't like the passages in which Napoleon appears. As soon as Napoleon comes on the scene there are forced explanations and tricks of all sorts to prove that he was stupider than he really was. Everything that is said and done by Pierre, Prince Andrey, or the absolutely insignificant Nikolay Rostov—all that is good, clever, natural, and touching; everything that is thought and done by Napoleon is not natural, not clever, inflated and worthless.

At the Crimean villa of the marinist Ayvazovski (who, as a young artist, had met Pushkin) Chekhov met VN's grand-aunt Praskovia, the wife of the celebrated syphilologist Tarnovski and a doctor herself. In a medical conversation Aunt Pasha somehow offended the writer. In Speak, Memory (Chapter Three, 3) VN mentions the incredibly coarse outburst Chekhov permits himself in a published letter of 3 August 1888 to his sister. Like Tolstoy, Aunt Pasha died in 1910. Her last words were: "Everything is water, vsyo - voda."

Aqua (Lat., water) is the name of Marina's poor twin sister who married Demon Veen (Van's and Ada's father).

The year 1880 (Aqua was still alive — somehow, somewhere!) was to prove to be the most retentive and talented one in his long, too long, never too long life. He was ten. His father had lingered in the West where the many-colored mountains acted upon Van as they had on all young Russians of genius. He could solve an Euler-type problem or learn by heart Pushkin’s ‘Headless Horseman’ poem in less than twenty minutes. With white-bloused, enthusiastically sweating Andrey Andreevich, he lolled for hours in the violet shade of pink cliffs, studying major and minor Russian writers — and puzzling out the exaggerated but, on the whole, complimentary allusions to his father’s volitations and loves in another life in Lermontov’s diamond-faceted tetrameters. (1.28)

In a letter of August 12, 1888, to Leykin Chekhov writes:

You have seen the Caucasus. I believe you have seen the Georgian Military Road, too. If you have not been there yet, pawn your wives and children and the Oskolki [the paper of which Leykin was editor] and go. I have never in my life seen anything like it. It is not a road, but unbroken poetry, a wonderful, fantastic story written by Demon in love with Tamara.

Demon and Tamara are characters in Lermontov's Demon (1829-39), a poem in iambic tetrameter. Mount Kazbek is compared in it to a diamond's facet. Demon is also an opera by Anton Rubinstein (the pianist and composer who is mentioned in Chapter Four of The Gift). In Ilf and Petrov's The Twelve Chairs Father Fyodor (who bred rabbits when he was a priest in N.) sings from this opera:

Ten days later the Vladikavkaz fire brigade arrived with suitable equipment and brought Father Fyodor down.
As they were lowering him, he clapped his hands and sang in a tuneless voice:
"And you will be queen of all the world,
My lifelo-ong frie-nd!"
And the rugged Caucasus re-echoed Rubinstein's setting of the Lermontov poem many times. (chapter XXXVIII "Under the Clouds")

Btw., Headless Horseman by Captain Mayne Reid was also little Chekhov's favorite book (see the memoirs of Chekhov's brother Alexander).

Alexey Sklyarenko

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