Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0024939, Sat, 28 Dec 2013 15:38:19 +0300

Rita in Ada
Now Lucette demanded her mother's attention.
‘What are Jews?' she asked.
‘Dissident Christians,' answered Marina.
‘Why is Greg a Jew?' asked Lucette.
‘Why-why!' said Marina; ‘because his parents are Jews.'
‘And his grandparents? His arriere grandparents?'
‘I really wouldn't know, my dear. Were your ancestors Jews, Greg?'
‘Well, I'm not sure,' said Greg. ‘Hebrews, yes - but not Jews in quotes - I mean, not comic characters or Christian businessmen. They came from Tartary to England five centuries ago. My mother's grandfather, though, was a French marquis who, I know, belonged to the Roman faith and was crazy about banks and stocks and jewels, so I imagine people may have called him un juif.'
‘It's not a very old religion, anyway, as religions go, is it?' said Marina (turning to Van and vaguely planning to steer the chat to India where she had been a dancing girl long before Moses or anybody was born in the lotus swamp).
‘Who cares -' said Van.
‘And Belle' (Lucette's name for her governess), ‘is she also a dizzy Christian?'
‘Who cares,' cried Van, ‘who cares about all those stale myths, what does it matter - Jove or Jehovah, spire or cupola, mosques in Moscow, or bronzes and bonzes, and clerics, and relics, and deserts with bleached camel ribs? They are merely the dust and mirages of the communal mind.'
‘How did this idiotic conversation start in the first place?' Ada wished to be told, cocking her head at the partly ornamented dackel or taksik.
‘Mea culpa,' Mlle Lariviere explained with offended dignity. ‘All I said, at the picnic, was that Greg might not care for ham sandwiches, because Jews and Tartars do not eat pork.'
‘The Romans,' said Greg, ‘the Roman colonists, who crucified Christian Jews and Barabbits, and other unfortunate people in the old days, did not touch pork either, but I certainly do and so did my grandparents.'
Lucette was puzzled by a verb Greg had used. To illustrate it for her, Van joined his ankles, spread both his arms horizontally, and rolled up his eyes.
‘When I was a little girl,' said Marina crossly, ‘Mesopotamian history was taught practically in the nursery.'
‘Not all little girls can learn what they are taught,' observed Ada.
‘Are we Mesopotamians?' asked Lucette.
‘We are Hippopotamians,' said Van. ‘Come,' he added, ‘we have not yet ploughed today.'
A day or two before, Lucette had demanded that she be taught to hand-walk. Van gripped her by her ankles while she slowly progressed on her little red palms, sometimes falling with a grunt on her face or pausing to nibble a daisy. Dack barked in strident protest. (1.14)

According to Christian tradition, Peter [the apostle] is said to have been crucified in Rome under Emperor Nero Augustus Caesar. It is traditionally held that he was crucified upside down at his own request, since he saw himself unworthy to be crucified in the same way as Jesus Christ.

As Mascodagama Van dances on his hands. For the tango, which completed his number on his last tour, he was given a partner, a Crimean cabaret dancer in a very short scintillating frock cut very low on the back. She sang the tango tune in Russian:

Pod znoynim nebom Argentini,
Pod strastniy govor mandolini

'Neath sultry sky of Argentina,
To the hot hum of mandolina

Fragile, red-haired 'Rita' (he never learned her real name), a pretty Karaite from Chufut Kale, where, she nostalgically said, the Crimean cornel, kizil', bloomed yellow among the arid rocks, bore an odd resemblance to Lucette as she was to look ten years later. (1.30)

Rita is a form of Margarita. Margarita Sabashnikov (1882-1973) was Maximilian Voloshin's first wife. Voloshin (the author of Anno Mundi Ardentis 1915) lived and died (in 1932) in the Crimea (in Koktebel near Feodosia).

Peter and Margaret is a little poem composed in tears by the Poet Laureate Robert Brown. Van has Lucette learn it by heart:

Van hastened to join Ada in the attic. At that moment he felt quite proud of his stratagem. He was to recall it with a fatidic shiver seventeen years later when Lucette, in her last note to him, mailed from Paris to his Kingston address on June 2, 1901, 'just in case,' wrote:
'I kept for years - it must be in my Ardis nursery - the anthology you once gave me; and the little poem you wanted me to learn by heart is still word-perfect in a safe place of my jumbled mind, with the packers trampling on my things, and upsetting crates, and voices calling, time to go, time to go. Find it in Brown and praise me again for my eight-year-old intelligence as you and happy Ada did that distant day, that day somewhere tinkling on its shelf like an empty little bottle. Now read on:

'Here, said the guide, was the field,
There, he said, was the wood.
This is where Peter kneeled,
That's where the Princess stood.

No, the visitor said,
You are the ghost, old guide.
Oats and oaks* may be dead,
But she is by my side.' (1.23)

On the other hand, Rita is a character in Chekhov's story Volodya bol'shoy i Volodya malen'kiy (known in English as The Two Volodyas, 1893):

Besides Big Volodya, Little Volodya, and Sof'ya Lvovna, there was a fourth person in the sledge—Margarita Aleksandrovna, or, as every one called her, Rita, a cousin of Madame Yagich—a very pale girl over thirty, with black eyebrows and a pince-nez, who was for ever smoking cigarettes, even in the bitterest frost, and who always had her knees and the front of her blouse covered with cigarette ash. She spoke through her nose, drawling every word, was of a cold temperament, could drink any amount of wine and liquor without being drunk, and used to tell scandalous anecdotes in a languid and tasteless way. At home she spent her days reading thick magazines, covering them with cigarette ash, or eating frozen apples.

At Ayvazovski's villa near Feodosia Chekhov met VN's grand-aunt Praskovia Tarnovski (born Kozlov).** Tarn is a rectangular lake near Ardis Hall:

She [Ada] was bored and embarrassed by everything her mother said and when the latter started to talk about the Tarn, otherwise the New Reservoir, he [Van] noted that Ada was no longer sitting next to him but standing a little way off with her back to the tea table at an open casement with the slim-waisted dog*** on a chair peering over splayed front paws out into the garden too, and she was asking it in a private whisper what it was it had sniffed.
'You can see the Tarn from the library window,' said Marina. 'Presently Ada will show you all the rooms in the house. Ada?' (She pronounced it the Russian way with two deep, dark 'a's, making it sound rather like 'ardor.') (1.5)

To reach it [the Burning Barn] one had to drive round a large reservoir which I could make out breaking into scaly light here and there every time some adventurous hostler or pantry boy crossed it on water skis or in a Rob Roy or by means of a raft - typical raft ripples like fire snakes in Japan; and one could now follow with an artist's eye the motorcar's lamps, fore and aft, progressing east along the AB bank of that rectangular lake, then turning sharply upon reaching its B corner, trailing away up the short side and creeping back west, in a dim and diminished aspect, to a middle point on the far margin where they swung north and disappeared. (1.19)

*She [Lucette] would advance up to the center of the weedy playground in front of the forbidden pavilion, and there, with an air of dreamy innocence, start to jiggle the board of an old swing that hung from the long and lofty limb of Baldy, a partly leafless but still healthy old oak (which appeared - oh, I remember, Van! - in a century-old lithograph of Ardis, by Peter de Rast, as a young colossus protecting four cows and a lad in rags, one shoulder bare). (1.34) Baldy hints at Boldino and Pushkin, the author of Ruslan and Lyudmila (1820). Rast is Tsar backwards.
**VN's mother was at Aunt Pasha's bedside when she died. Her last words were: "That's interesting. Now I understand. Everything is water, vsyo - voda." (Speak, Memory, p. 55). In Ada poor mad Aqua (who imagines that she can understand the language of her loquacious namesake, water) is the twin sister of Marina Durmanov (Van's, Ada's and Lucette's mother). Ayvazovski (at whose villa Aunt Praskovia met Chekhov) was a celebrated marinist (seascape painter). As a young man Ayvazovski had seen Pushkin, "an ugly little fellow with a tall handsome wife." (ibid.) Robert Browning's Memorabilia (alluded to in Ada, 1.23) begins: "Ah, did you once see Shelley plain..." P. B. Shelley is the author of Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats (1821). Van to Ada: 'But, but, but' - (slapping every time his forehead) - 'to be on the very brink of, of, of - and then have that idiot [Ada's husband Andrey Vinelander] turn Keats!' (3.8)
***The dog in Ardis, Dack is a dachshund. The Nabokovs's dachshund Box II was a grandson of Chekhov's Quina and Brom (Speak, Memory, p. 40).

Alexey Sklyarenko (who protests against the improper use of his subject lines by other List members)

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