Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0027022, Wed, 25 May 2016 18:34:19 +0300

Eric's Cyprian dreams & ciel mirror in Ada
What we have now is not so much a Casanovanic situation (that double-wencher
had a definitely monochromatic pencil - in keeping with the memoirs of his
dingy era) as a much earlier canvas, of the Venetian (sensu largo) school,
reproduced (in 'Forbidden Masterpieces') expertly enough to stand the
scrutiny of a borders vue d'oiseau.

Thus seen from above, as if reflected in the ciel mirror that Eric had
naively thought up in his Cyprian dreams (actually all is shadowy up there,
for the blinds are still drawn, shutting out the gray morning), we have the
large island of the bed illumined from our left (Lucette's right) by a lamp
burning with a murmuring incandescence on the west-side bedtable. (2.8)

Eric Veen is the author of an essay entitled ‘Villa Venus: an Organized
Dream.’ Venus being the Roman name of Aphrodite (the ancient Greek goddess
of love and beauty), Eric’s “Cyprian dreams” seem to hint at Cypris (an
epithet of Aphrodite meaning “Lady of Cyprus”). Pushkin’s unfinished
novella Egipetskie nochi (“The Egyptian Nights,” 1835) ends in an abridged
version of Cleopatra, Pushkin’s poem (1828) in which Cleopatra mentions
moshchnaya Kiprida (mighty Cypris), podzemnye tsari, bogi groznogo Aida (the
underworld kings, gods of terrible Hades) and Avrora vechnaya (eternal

Внемли же, мощная Киприда,
И вы, подземные цари,
О боги грозного Аида,
Клянусь ― до утренней зари
Моих властителей желанья
Я сладострастно утомлю
И всеми тайнами лобзанья
И дивной негой утолю.
Но только утренней порфирой
Аврора вечная блеснёт,
Клянусь ― под смертною секирой
Глава счастливцев отпадёт.

As they cross the Atlantic onboard Admiral Tobakoff, Van compares Lucette to

'Come with me, hm?' she suggested, rising from the mat.

He shook his head, looking up at her: 'You rise,' he said, 'like Aurora,'

'His first compliment,' observed Lucette with a little cock of her head as
if speaking to an invisible confidant.

He put on his tinted glasses and watched her stand on the diving board, her
ribs framing the hollow of her intake as she prepared to ardis into the
amber. He wondered, in a mental footnote that might come handy some day, if
sunglasses or any other varieties of vision, which certainly twist our
concept of 'space,' do not also influence our style of speech. The two
well-formed lassies, the nurse, the prurient merman, the natatorium master,
all looked on with Van.

'Second compliment ready,' he said as she returned to his side. 'You're a
divine diver. I go in with a messy plop.' (3.5)

After his first night with Ada in “Ardis the Second” Van tells Ada that he
has paid her eight compliments:

'My love,' said Van, 'my phantom orchid, my lovely bladder-senna! I have not
slept for two nights - one of which I spent imagining the other, and this
other turned out to be more than I had imagined. I've had enough of you for
the time being.'

'Not a very fine compliment,' said Ada, and rang resonantly for more toast.

'I've paid you eight compliments, as a certain Venetian -'

'I'm not interested in vulgar Venetians. You have become so coarse, dear
Van, so strange...'

'Sorry,' he said, getting up. 'I don't know what I'm saying, I'm dead tired,
I'll see you at lunch.'

'There will be no lunch today,' said Ada. 'It will be some messy snack at
the poolside, and sticky drinks all day.' (1.31)

The “vulgar Venetian” is, of course, Casanova (the author of Memoirs
mentioned by Tomski in Pushkin’s “Queen of Spades;” see my previous

One of the three volunteers who in Pushkin’s poem accept Cleopatra’s
challenge, Kriton (Cryto) is an admirer of the Charites, Cypris and Amor:

За ним Критон, младой мудрец,
Рождённый в рощах Эпикура,
Критон, поклонник и певец
Харит, Киприды и Амура...

The name of another volunteer, Flaviy (Flavius), brings to mind Flavita, the
Russian Scrabble that Van, Ada and Lucette play in Ardis:

The name came from alfavit, an old Russian game of chance and skill, based
on the scrambling and unscrambling of alphabetic letters. It was fashionable
throughout Estoty and Canady around 1790, was revived by the 'Madhatters'
(as the inhabitants of New Amsterdam were once called) in the beginning of
the nineteenth century, made a great comeback, after a brief slump, around
1860, and now a century later seems to be again in vogue, so I am told,
under the name of 'Scrabble,' invented by some genius quite independently
from its original form or forms. (1.36)

A set of Flavita was given to Marina’s children by Baron Klim Avidov
(anagram of Vladimir Nabokov):

It was, incidentally, the same kindly but touchy Avidov (mentioned in many
racy memoirs of the time) who once catapulted with an uppercut an
unfortunate English tourist into the porter's lodge for his jokingly
remarking how clever it was to drop the first letter of one's name in order
to use it as a particule, at the Gritz, in Venezia Rossa. (ibid.)

Gritz hints at the Ritz hotels and at Mme Gritsatsuev, “a passionate woman,
a poet’s dream” in Ilf and Petrov’s novel Dvenadtsat’ stuliev (“The
Twelve Chairs,” 1928). Bender and Vorob’yaninov visit Mme Gritsatsuev
after getting the orders for the set of twelve Hambs chairs from Varfolomey
Korobeynikov (a former clerk in the town administration and now an
office-employment official). Alfavit \xa8C zerkalo zhizni (“The Mirror of Life
Alphabet,” the title of the chapter on Korobeynikov and his archive) brings
to mind not only Flavita, but also the ciel mirror naively thought up by
Eric in his Cyprian dreams.

Pushkin’s poem Cleopatra begins: "Chertog siyal..." ("The palace
shone..."). As a little girl, Ada spent the winters in the former Zemski

Most summers she spent at Ardis; most winters in their Kaluga town home -
two upper stories in the former Zemski chertog (palazzo). (1.24)

One of the photographs in Kim Beauharnais’ album depicts a portrait of
Princess Sophia Zemski:

A photograph of an oval painting, considerably diminished, portrayed
Princess Sophia Zemski as she was at twenty, in 1775, with her two children
(Marina's grandfather born in 1772, and Demon's grandmother, born in 1773).

'I don't seem to remember it,' said Van, 'where did it hang?'

'In Marina's boudoir. And do you know who this bum in the frock coat is?'

'Looks to me like a poor print cut out of a magazine. Who's he?'

'Sumerechnikov! He took sumerographs of Uncle Vanya years ago.'

'The Twilight before the Lumières. Hey, and here's Alonso, the
swimming-pool expert. I met his sweet sad daughter at a Cyprian party - she
felt and smelt and melted like you. The strong charm of coincidence.' (2.7)

Van met Alonso’s daughter in his first floramor (Eric Veen’s Villa Venus):

Three Egyptian squaws, dutifully keeping in profile (long ebony eye, lovely
snub, braided black mane, honey-hued faro frock, thin amber arms, Negro
bangles, doughnut earring of gold bisected by a pleat of the mane, Red
Indian hairband, ornamental bib), lovingly borrowed by Eric Veen from a
reproduction of a Theban fresco (no doubt pretty banal in 1420 B.C.),
printed in Germany (Künstlerpostkarte Nr. 6034, says cynical Dr Lagosse),
prepared me by means of what parched Eric called 'exquisite manipulations of
certain nerves whose position and power are known only to a few ancient
sexologists,' accompanied by the no less exquisite application of certain
ointments, not too specifically mentioned in the pornolore of Eric's
Orientalia, for receiving a scared little virgin, the descendant of an Irish
king, as Eric was told in his last dream in Ex, Switzerland, by a master of
funerary rather than fornicatory ceremonies.

Those preparations proceeded in such sustained, unendurably delicious
rhythms that Eric dying in his sleep and Van throbbing with foul life on a
rococo couch (three miles south of Bedford) could not imagine how those
three young ladies, now suddenly divested of their clothes (a well-known
oneirotic device), could manage to draw out a prelude that kept one so long
on the very lip of its resolution. I lay supine and felt twice the size I
had ever been (senescent nonsense, says science!) when finally six gentle
hands attempted to ease la gosse, trembling Adada, upon the terrible tool.
Silly pity - a sentiment I rarely experience - caused my desire to droop,
and I had her carried away to a feast of peach tarts and cream. The Egypsies
looked disconcerted, but very soon perked up. I summoned all the twenty
hirens of the house (including the sweet-lipped, glossy chinned darling)
into my resurrected presence. After considerable examination, after much
flattering of haunches and necks, I chose a golden Gretchen, a pale
Andalusian, and a black belle from New Orleans. The handmaids pounced upon
them like pards and, having empasmed them with not unlesbian zest, turned
the three rather melancholy graces over to me. The towel given me to wipe
off the sweat that filmed my face and stung my eyes could have been cleaner.
I raised my voice, I had the reluctant accursed casement wrenched wide open.
A lorry had got stuck in the mud of a forbidden and unfinished road, and its
groans and exertions dissipated the bizarre gloom. Only one of the girls
stung me right in the soul, but I went through all three of them grimly and
leisurely, 'changing mounts in midstream' (Eric's advice) before ending
every time in the grip of the ardent Ardillusian, who said as we parted,
after one last spasm (although non-erotic chitchat was against the rules),
that her father had constructed the swimming pool on the estate of Demon
Veen's cousin. (2.3)

The dirty towel with which Van wipes off the sweat from his face brings to
mind the handkerchief with which at the end of “The Egyptian Nights” the
improvisatore wipes his lofty forehead:

Но уже импровизатор чувствовал приближен
ие бога... Он дал знак музыкантам играть...
Лицо его страшно побледнело, он затрепета
л как в лихорадке; глаза его засверкали чу
дным огнём; он приподнял рукою чёрные сво
и волосы, отёр платком высокое чело, покры
тое каплями пота... и вдруг шагнул вперёд,
сложил крестом руки на грудь... музыка умо
лкла... Импровизация началась.

But the improvisatore already felt the approach of the god. . . . He gave a
sign to the musicians to play. His face became terribly pale; he trembled as
if in a fever ; his eyes sparkled with a strange fire; he raised with his
hand his dark hair, wiped with his handkerchief his lofty forehead, covered
with beads of perspiration. . . . then suddenly stepped forward and folded
his arms across his breast. . . . the musicians ceased. . . . the
improvisation began:

“The palace shone… etc.”

In an apologetic note to Lucette written after the debauch à trois in Van’
s Manhattan flat Van and Ada call Lucette “BOP” (bird of paradise):

Poor L.

We are sorry you left so soon. We are even sorrier to have inveigled our
Esmeralda and mermaid in a naughty prank. That sort of game will never be
played again with you, darling firebird. We apollo [apologize]. Remembrance,
embers and membranes of beauty make artists and morons lose all
self-control. Pilots of tremendous airships and even coarse, smelly coachmen
are known to have been driven insane by a pair of green eyes and a copper
curl. We wished to admire and amuse you, BOP (bird of paradise). We went too
far. I, Van, went too far. We regret that shameful, though basically
innocent scene. These are times of emotional stress and reconditioning.
Destroy and forget.

Tenderly yours A & V.

(in alphabetic order). (2.8)

In a letter of Sep. 10, 1824, to Pushkin Delvig compares Pushkin's poem
Proserpina (1824) to a bird of paradise's singing that one can hear for a
thousand years without noticing the passage of time:

Прозерпина не стихи, а музыка: это пенье р
айской птички, которое слушая, не увидешь,
как пройдёт тысяча лет. Эти двери давно мн
е знакомы. Сквозь них, ещё в Лицее, меня [ин
огда] часто выталкивали из Элизея. Какая и
скустная щеголиха у тебя истина. Подобных
цветов мороз не тронет!

"What a smart dashing lady is istina (truth) in your poems. Such flowers
will be spared by the frost!"

The wife of Pluto (Hades), Proserpina is a goddess of the underworld (cf.
“the underworld kings, gods of terrible Hades” mentioned by Cleopatra). A
line in Proserpina, Ada gordaya tsaritsa ("the proud queen of Hades"), can
be read as "proud Queen Ada."

The phrase “destroy and forget” at the end of Van’s and Ada’s note to
Lucette seems to hint at oubli ou regret? (“oblivion or regret?”), a
question with which in Pushkin’s “Queen of Spades” three ladies at a ball
approach Tomski (see my post of May 22 “destroy & forget in Ada”).
According to Van, he and Ada “regret that shameful, though basically
innocent scene.”

My previous post (“vue d'oiseau & Eric Veen in Ada”) should have ended as

Ptitsa (the word used by Turgenev’s diarist and by fourteen-year-old
Pushkin) is Russian for “bird;” oiseau is the French word for “bird.”
The phrase chto ya byl za ptitsa (what kind of man I was; literary: “what
kind of bird I was”) brings to mind Sirin, the bird of Russian fairy tales
and VN’s Russian nom de plume.

In another sentence of the same post of mine the pronoun “he” is missing:

In the opening lines of his poem K Natalye (“To Natalia,” 1813) Pushkin
says that he learnt chto za ptitsa Kupidon (what kind of god Cupid was).

Alexey Sklyarenko

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