Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0023389, Sun, 14 Oct 2012 14:40:45 +0300

ghosts in VN & Turgenev's Phantoms
She [the prostitute] took him [Hugh Person] to one of the better beds in a hideous old roominghouse - to the precise "number," in fact, where ninety-one, ninety-two, nearly ninety-three years ago a Russian novelist had sojourned on his way to Italy. ...He [the novelist] expects his friend Kandidatov, the painter, to join him here any moment for the outing, one of those lighthearted hikes that romantics would undertake even during a drizzly spell in August; his boots are still wet from a ten-mile ramble to the nearest casino. ...and the loose sheets of a rudimentary novel under the provisional title Faust in Moscow. As he sits at that deal table, the very same upon which our Person's whore has plunked her voluminous handbag, there shows through that bag, as it were, the first page the Faust affair with energetic erasures and untidy insertions in purple, black, reptile-green ink. (Transparent Things, 6)

As I pointed out before (see my post of 24 Sept., 2004), we do not know where Ivan Turgenev, the author of Faust (1856), First Love (1860), Fathers and Children (1861), Phantoms (1864), Smoke (1867) and the autobiographical Fire in the Sea (1883), was between August 2 (July 21, OS), 1856, when he left St. Petersburg onboard steamer bound to Stettin, and August 20. Probably in Courtavenel, the estate of Louis and Pauline Viardot; but, theoretically, he could have visited Geneva (the city where ninety-three years later, in 1949, Person Senior dies of a stroke and, on the same night, his twenty-two-year-old son buys himself the services of a prostitute) on his way to Courtavenel (the Russian novelist in TT, "a minor Dostoevski," is travelling to Italy).

In Turgenev's story Prizraki (Phantoms) the narrator is repeatedly visited by Ellis, a female phantom that conducts him on a series of nocturnal flights in space and time allowing him to witness various scenes in the past and present and see historical personages like Julius Caesar or Stenka Razin. Ellis is described as woven of semi-transparent milky haze (the hero can see through her face a gently moving twig of the old lightning-struck oak tree): Она казалась вся как бы соткана из полупрозрачного, молочного тумана -- сквозь её лицо мне виднелась ветка, тихо колеблемая ветром,-- только волосы да глаза чуть-чуть чернели, да на одном из пальцев сложенных рук блистало бледным золотом узкое кольцо. (chapter IV)

A major immigrant inspection station from 1892 until 1954, the Ellis Island is mentioned in Pnin (Chapter One) by the eponymous hero: How Pnin came to the Soedinyonnye Shtaty (the United States). “Examination on ship before landing. Very well! ‘Nothing to declare?’ ‘Nothing.’ Very well! Then political questions. He asks: ‘Are you anarchist?’ I answer” — time out on the part of the narrator for a spell of cozy mute mirth — “‘First what do you understand under “anarchism”? Anarchism practical, metaphysical, theoretical, mystical, abstractical, individual, social? When I was young,’ I say, ‘all this had for me signification.’ So we had a very interesting discussion, in consequence of which I passed two whole weeks on Ellis Island...”

According to Ostap Bender, zagranitsa (foreign countries, with the USA being the destination of most Russian emigres) is the afterlife myth: whoever gets there never comes back: "Мне один доктор всё объяснил, -- продолжал Остап, -- заграница -- это миф о загробной жизни. Кто туда попадает, тот не возвращается." (The Golden Calf, Chapter 32: The Gates of Great Opportunities). In the first novel of the Ilf and Petrov dilogy, The Twelve Chairs (chapter XIV: The Union of Sword and Plough), Ostap Bender promises that zagranitsa nam pomozhet (foreign countries will help us).

Hugh Person dies in the fire in the Ascot Hotel (chapter 26). At least two characters in The Golden Calf, dvornik (yardman) Nikita Pryakhin and no one's grandmother, perish in the fire (chapter XXI: The End of the Crows's Nest). Nikita's "libertarian" last words, kak pozhelaem, tak i sdelaem ("we shall act as we wish"), became proverbial.

Ilf and Petrov were "the Soviet Juvenals." During their flight to St. Petersburg, Ellis shows the hero of Phantoms a young girl reading one of the latest Juvenals: несколько подальше, у раскрытого окна высокого дома, я увидел девицу в измятом шёлковом платье, без рукавчиков, с жемчужной сеткой на волосах и с папироской во рту. Она благоговейно читала книгу: это был том сочинений одного из новейших Ювеналов. (chapter XXII)

When Hugh Person first meets Armande on a Swiss local train (in June, 1959), she reads R.'s novel Figures in a Golden Window (The Burning Window, as she garbles its title: chapter 9). The cover is by the famous Paul Plam (plamya is Russian for "flame; fire"). Btw., in Fathers and Children Princess R. ruins the life of Pavel Petrovich Kirsanov.

The "prophetic" name of Turgenev's female phantom also brings to mind Ellis (the pen-name of Lev Kobylinski*), Baudelaire's Russian translator (when he writes of Armande, his new acquaintance, in his diary, HP prophetically quotes Baudelaire: Ouvre ta robe, Dejanire that I may mount sur mon bucher), and Havelock Ellis, the English psychologist.

HP strangles Armande in his sleep trying to save his bed mate from the fire (chapter 20). From Chapter Four of The Gift: Once at Turgenev's country place the first two [Turgrenev and Grigorovich], together with Botkin and Druzhinin, composed and acted a domestic farce. In a scene where a couch was supposed to catch fire, Turgenev had to come out running with the cry... here the common efforts of his friends had persuaded him to utter the unfortunate words which in his youth he had allegedly addressed to a sailor during a fire on board ship: 'Save me, save me, I am my mother's only son.'

See also my post of 19 Nov 2004 on Turgenev and Pauline anide

*about that person see Andrey Bely's memoir V nachale veka (At the Turn of the Century)

Alexey Sklyarenko

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