Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0023765, Thu, 14 Mar 2013 22:44:00 +0300

'I ask myself who can that be,' murmured Mlle Lariviere from behind the samovar (which expressed fragments of its surroundings in demented fantasies of a primitive genre) as she slitted her eyes at a part of the drive visible between the pilasters of an open-work gallery. Van, lying prone behind Ada, lifted his eyes from his book (Ada's copy of Atala*).
A tall rosy-faced youngster in smart riding breeches dismounted from a black pony.
'It's Greg's beautiful new pony,' said Ada. (Ada, 1.14)

Greg's arrival in Ardis seems to be a parody of Jesus's riding into Jerusalem on a donkey.

Greg, who had left his splendid new black Silentium motorcycle in the forest ride, observed:
'We have company.'
'Indeed we do,' assented Van. 'Kto sii (who are they)? Do you have any idea?'
Nobody had. Raincoated, unpainted, morose, Marina came over and peered through the trees the way Van pointed.
After reverently inspecting the Silentium, a dozen elderly townsmen, in dark clothes, shabby and uncouth, walked into the forest across the road and sat down there to a modest colazione of cheese, buns, salami, sardines and Chianti. (1.39)

According to the Evangelist (Matthew, 10:2), dvenadtsati zhe apostolov imena sut' sii (and the names of the twelve apostles are): Simon Peter, the brothers James and John, Andrew, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James the son of Alpheus, Thaddaeus, Simon the Zealot, Judas Iscariot.

Blok's poem Dvenadtsat' ("The Twelve", 1918) ends in Christ heading the march of twelve Red Army soldiers (the names of the three of them are Andrew, John and Peter) through the streets of revolutionary Petrograd (St. Petersburg's name in 1914-24).

'I last saw you thirteen years ago, riding a black pony - no, a black Silentium. Bozhe moy!' (3.2)

Silentium! (1830) is a poem by Tyutchev. It's openinig lines are quoted by Blok in his poem O kak smeyalis' vy nad nami... ("Oh, how you laughed at us..." 1911):

Но помни Тютчева заветы:
Молчи, скрывайся и таи
И чувства и мечты свои…

But remember the behests of Tyutchev:
Speak not, lie hidden, and conceal
the way you dream, the things you feel...

Blok's poem Proshli goda, no ty - vsyo ta zhe... ("The years have passed but you're the same..." 1906) has an epigraph from Tyutchev:

Я знал её ещё тогда
В те баснословные года

I knew her even then
in those fabulous years.

The author of Neznakomka ("Incognita", 1906), Pesn' Ada ("The Song of Hell", 1909) and Dvoynik ("The Double", 1909), Blok served as a model for Van Veen (see in Zembla and in The Nabokovian #54 my article "Alexander Blok's Dreams as Enacted in Ada by Van Veen and vice versa"). Van sees Greg Erminin as his "babbling shadow, burlesque double". (3.2)

But Greg had to be asked to come [to the picnic party on Ada's sixteenth birthday] after all: on the previous day he had called on her bringing a 'talisman' from his very sick father, who wanted Ada to treasure as much as his grandam had a little camel of yellow ivory carved in Kiev, five centuries ago, in the days of Timur and Nabok. (1.39)

Talisman (1827) is a poem by Pushkin.

'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.' (1.14)

In Pushkin's Gavriiliada (the Gabriel poem) the Satan, as he seduces Mary, mentions Moisey (Moses), the author of Bytie (Genesis):

"С рассказом Моисея
Не соглашу рассказа моего:
Он вымыслом хотел пленить еврея,
Он важно лгал, - и слушали его.
Бог наградил в нём слог и ум покорный,
Стал Моисей известный господин,
Но я, поверь, - историк не придворный,
Не нужен мне пророка важный чин!"

"With the story of Moses
I do not agree my story:
He wanted to capture the Jew with invention
He lied pompously - and they listened to him.
God rewarded in him his style and obedient mind,
He became famous, Mr. Moses,
But, believe me, I am not a court historian,
I do not want the important rank of the Prophet!"

In Pushkin's poem the Satan appears to Mary as a beautiful Snake:

И видит вдруг: прекрасная змия,
Приманчивой блистая чешуею,
В тени ветвей качается над нею

And [Mary] suddenly sees: a beautiful snake,
Shining with alluring scales,
In the shadow of the branches sways above her.

In the night of the Burning Barn, when Van and Ada make love for the first time, the Serpent is surprised and pleased:

Oh, Van, that night, that moment as we knelt side by side in the candlelight like Praying Children in a very bad picture, showing two pairs of soft-wrinkled, once arboreal-animal, soles - not to Grandma who gets the Xmas card but to the surprised and pleased Serpent... (1.19)

In 1884 Van's and Ada's grandparents are dead (see Family Tree). Whose Grandma will get the Xmas card? Prababka Eva (the great-grandmother Eve)? Nich'ya babushka (nobody's grandmother), a character in Ilf and Petrov's "The Golden Calf" (1931) who does not trust electricity and uses a kerosene lamp in her entresol lodgings? In "The Golden Calf" Bender and Koreiko travel on camels through a desert in Soviet Turkestan. Ilf and Petrov are also the authors of "The twelve chairs" (1927).

Re Timur and Nabok: in Domik v Kolomne ("The Little House in Kolmna", 1830) Pushkin compares stikhotvorets (the poet) to Tamerlane or Napoleon:

А стихотворец ... с кем же равен он?
Он Тамерлан, иль сам Наполеон.

And the poet... who could be his peer?
He is Tamerlane or Napoleon himself. (V, 7-8)

Tolstoy's protest against capital punishment is entitled Ne mogu molchat' ("I can not be silent", 1908).

'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. (1.14)

Incidentally, in a letter of December 1, 1823, to A. I. Turgenev Pushkin calls Jesus Christ umerennyi demokrat (a moderate democrat):

я закаялся и написал на днях подражание басне умеренного демократа Иисуса Христа (Изыде сеятель сеяти семена своя):

Свободы сеятель пустынный...
The anchoritic sower of freedom...

'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)

Like his father, a leader of the Constitutional Democrat Pparty, VN was a fierce opponent of the death penalty and of the antisemites.

*The author of Atala, Chateaubriand wrote Genie du christianisme (The Genius of Christianity, 1802) as a defense of the Catholic faith, then under attack during the French Revolution.

Alexey Sklyarenko

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