Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0023454, Tue, 13 Nov 2012 15:19:19 +0300

King Wing & Vekchelo
Van had resolved to study some striking stunt that would give him an immediate and brilliant ascendancy. Accordingly, after a conference with Demon, King Wing, the latter's wrestling master, taught the strong lad to walk on his hands by means of a special play of the shoulder muscles, a trick that necessitated for its acquirement and improvement nothing short of a dislocation of the caryatics.
What pleasure (thus in the MS.). The pleasure of suddenly discovering the right knack of topsy turvy locomotion was rather like learning to man, after many a painful and ignominious fall, those delightful gliders called Magicarpets (or 'jikkers') that were given a boy on his twelfth birthday in the adventurous days before the Great Reaction - and then what a breathtaking long neural caress when one became airborne for the first time and managed to skim over a haystack, a tree, a burn, a barn, while Grandfather Dedalus Veen, running with upturned face, flourished a flag and fell into the horsepond... Even more extraordinary than the variety and velocity of the movements he made in imitation of animal hind legs was the effortlessness of his stance; King Wing warned him that Vekchelo, a Yukon professional, lost it by the time he was twenty-two; but that summer afternoon, on the silky ground of the pineglade, in the magical heart of Ardis, under Lady Erminin's blue eye, fourteen-year-old Van treated us to the greatest performance we have ever seen a brachiambulant give...
Questions for study and discussion:
1. Did both palms leave the ground when Van, while reversed, seemed actually to 'skip' on his hands?
2. Was Van's adult incapacity to 'shrug' things off only physical or did it 'correspond' to some archetypal character of his 'undersoul'?
3. Why did Ada burst into tears at the height of Van's performance? (Ada, 1.13)

As a Chose student of psychiatry Van begins to perform in variety shows dancing on his hands: On February 5, 1887, an unsigned editorial in The Ranter (the usually so sarcastic and captious Chose weekly) described Mascodagama's performance as 'the most imaginative and singular stunt ever offered to a jaded music-hall public.' It was repeated at the Rantariver Club several times, but nothing in the programme or in publicity notices beyond the definition 'Foreign eccentric' gave any indication either of the exact nature of the 'stunt' or of the performer's identity. Rumors, carefully and cleverly circulated by Mascodagama's friends, diverted speculations toward his being a mysterious visitor from beyond the Golden Curtain, particularly since at least half-a-dozen members of a large Good-will Circus Company that had come from Tartary just then (i.e., on the eve of the Crimean War)...
Sometime in August he was offered a contract for a series of matinees and nights in a famous London theater during the Christmas vacation and on weekends throughout the winter season...
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... 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)

Vekchelo is an anagram of chelovek (Russ., man, person, human being). Chelovek (Man, 1902) is a poem in prose by Maxim Gorky. In his memoir essay V. I. Lenin (1924) Gorky writes that Lenin loved ekstsentrika (eccentricity on stage):

One evening in London when we had nothing particular to do a group of us went to see a show at a small, democratic theatre. Vladimir Ilyich laughed heartily at the clowns and the comic numbers, looked at most of the others with indifference, and keenly watched the scene where a couple of lumberjacks from British Columbia felled a tree. The stage depicted a lumber camp, and these two strapping fellows axed through a treetrunk over a yard thick in a minute.
“That’s only for the public, of course. In real life they can’t work that fast,” commented Vladimir Ilyich. “It’s obvious, though, that they use axes over there too, reducing a lot of good wood to useless chips. That’s the cultured British for you!”
He talked about the anarchy of production under the capitalist system, about the enormous percentage of wasted raw materials, and concluded with an expression of regret that no one had yet thought of writing a book about it. The idea was not entirely clear to me, but before I could ask any questions he was off on the subject of “eccentricity” as a special form of theatrical art.
“It is a satirical or sceptical attitude to the conventional, a desire to turn it inside out, - to twist it a little, and disclose what is illogical in the customary. It’s intricate - and interesting.”

Gorky is the author of the famous aphorism: Rozhdyonnyi polzat' - letat' ne mozhet! (He who was born to creep can not fly!) In the same Pesnya o sokole (Song of the Falcon, 1899) Gorky (or rather Nadyr-Ragim-ogly, the old Crimean Tartar who "tells" him this song) exclaims: Bezumstvu khrabrykh poyom my pesnyu! (We sing a song to the recklessness of the brave!)

One of Ada's lovers, brave Percy de Prey perishes in the Crimean War: Percy had been shot in the thigh during a skirmish with Khazar guerillas in a ravine near Chew-Foot-Calais, as the American troops pronounced 'Chufutkale,' the name of a fortified rock. He had, immediately assured himself, with the odd relief of the doomed, that he had got away with a flesh wound. Loss of blood caused him to faint, as we fainted, too, as soon as he started to crawl or rather squirm toward the shelter of the oak scrub and spiny bushes, where another casualty was resting comfortably. When a couple of minutes later, Percy - still Count Percy de Prey - regained consciousness he was no longer alone on his rough bed of gravel and grass. A smiling old Tartar, incongruously but somehow assuagingly wearing American blue-jeans with his beshmet, was squatting by his side. 'Bedniy, bedniy' (you poor, poor fellow), muttered the good soul, shaking his shaven head and clucking: 'Bol'no (it hurts)?' Percy answered in his equally primitive Russian that he did not feel too badly wounded: 'Karasho, karasho ne bol'no (good, good),' said the kindly old man and, picking up the automatic pistol which Percy had dropped, he examined it with naive pleasure and then shot him in the temple. (1.42)

Another lover of Ada is Philip Rack, the composer (and Lucette's music teacher). Like Rack and Captain Tapper (a member of the Do-Re-La country club with whom Van has a pistol duel in Kalugano: 1.42), Lenin loved music:

...Listening to Beethoven’s sonatas played by Isai Dobrowein at the home of Y. P. Peshkova in Moscow one evening, Lenin remarked:
“I know of nothing better than the Appassionata and could listen to it every day. What astonishing, superhuman music! It always makes me proud, perhaps naively so, to think that people can work such miracles!”
Wrinkling up his eyes, he smiled rather sadly, adding:
“But I can’t listen to music very often, it affects my nerves. I want to say sweet, silly things and pat the heads of people who, living in a filthy hell, can create such beauty. One can’t pat anyone on the head nowadays, they might bite your hand off. They ought to be beaten on the head, beaten mercilessly, although ideally we are against doing any violence to people. Hm - what a hellishly difficult job!”

Rack dies in the Kalugano hospital where Van (who can never walk on his hands again) recovers from the wound he received in his duel with Tapper. According to Dr Fitzbishop, poor Rack was poisoned by his wife (1.42). VN (see Lectures on Russian Literature) seems to have believed that, like Pushkin's Mozart or the hero of Gorky's own story O tarakanakh (On Cockroaches, 1926), Burevestnik Revolyutsii ("the stormy petrel of Revolution," as the author of Song of the Stormy Petrel and Song of the Falcon was called) was poisoned.

While Van sits at Rack's death-bed and talks to him, the male nurse Dorofey (who rolled Van in a wheelchair to Rack's ward) reads the Russian-language newspaper Golos (Logos): Dorofey glanced up from his paper, then went back to the article that engrossed him - 'A Clever Piggy (from the memoirs of an animal trainer),' or else 'The Crimean War: Tartar Guerillas Help Chinese Troops.' (1.42) Demon's wrestling master, King Wing is obviously Chinese.

golos = logos
kolos = sokol
volos = slovo
Lady Erminin = Lenin + myriad
Lady Erminin + p = Lenin + pyramid

(golos - Russ., voice; kolos - Russ., ear, spike; sokol - Russ., falcon; volos - Russ., hair; slovo - Russ., word)

Alexey Sklyarenko

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