Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0027040, Mon, 6 Jun 2016 15:15:19 +0300

Armborough, Bessborodko, Tobak & old Robinsons in Ada
'Stocks,' said Demon, 'are on the zoom. Our territorial triumphs, et cetera. An American governor, my friend Bessborodko, is to be installed in Bessarabia, and a British one, Armborough, will rule Armenia. I saw you enlaced with your little Countess near the parking lot. If you marry her I will disinherit you. They're quite a notch below our set.'

'In a couple of years,' said Van, 'I'll slide into my own little millions' (meaning the fortune Aqua had left him). 'But you needn't worry, sir, we have interrupted our affair for the time being - till the next time I return to live in her girlinière' (Canady slang).

Demon, flaunting his flair, desired to be told if Van or his poule had got into trouble with the police (nodding toward Jim or John who having some other delivery to make sat glancing through Crime Copulate Bessarmenia).

'Poule,' replied Van with the evasive taciturnity of the Roman rabbi shielding Barabbas. (2.1)

The names Bessborodko and Armborough seem to hint at Earls of Bessborough (a title in the Peerage of Ireland). Lord Byron’s mistress in 1812, Lady Caroline Lamb (1785-1828) was the only daughter of Frederick Ponsonby, 3rd Earl of Bessborough and Henrietta, Countess of Bessborough. During his stay in Venice in 1816-17 Byron attempted to study the Armenian language. In a letter of Dec. 5, 1816, to Mr. Moore he wrote:

By way of divertisement, I am studying daily, at an Armenian monastery, the Armenian language. I found that my mind wanted something craggy to break upon; and this — as the most difficult thing I could discover here for an amusement — I have chosen, to torture me into attention. It is a rich language, however, and would amply repay any one the trouble of learning it. I try, and shall go on;—but I answer for nothing, least of all for my intentions or my success.

During his second separation with Ada (1892-1905) Van travels extensively and visits Armenia:

He contemplated the pyramids of Ladorah (visited mainly because of its name) under a full moon that silvered the sands inlaid with pointed black shadows. He went shooting with the British Governor of Armenia, and his niece, on Lake Van. (3.1)

After his first night onboard Admiral Tobakoff (the liner on which he crosses the Atlantic) Van recalls his recent visit to Armenia:

A tempest went into convulsions around midnight, but despite the lunging and creaking (Tobakoff was an embittered old vessel) Van managed to sleep soundly, the only reaction on the part of his dormant mind being the dream image of an aquatic peacock, slowly sinking before somersaulting like a diving grebe, near the shore of the lake bearing his name in the ancient kingdom of Arrowroot. Upon reviewing that bright dream he traced its source to his recent visit to Armenia where he had gone fowling with Armborough and that gentleman's extremely compliant and accomplished niece. (3.5)

The first husband of Cordula de Prey (Van’s poule), Ivan G. Tobak is a descendant of Admiral Tobakoff. His name comes from tabak (Russ., tobacco). In his poem Beppo (1818), subtitled “A Venetian Story,” Byron mentions a fine polacca (sailing vessel) laden with tobacco:

But he grew rich, and with his riches grew so
Keen the desire to see his home again,
He thought himself in duty bound to do so,
And not be always thieving on the Main;
Lonely he felt at times as Robin Crusoe,
And so he hired a vessel come from Spain,
Bound for Corfu: she was a fine polacca,
Mann'd with twelve hands, and laden with tobacco. (XCV)

Polacca is feminine of polacco (It., “Polish”). After the debauch à trois in Van’s Manhattan flat Ada mentions “Cordula Tobacco” and Poland:

'I may not be as bright as I used to be,' sadly said Ada, 'but I know somebody who is not simply a cat, but a polecat, and that's Cordula Tobacco alias Madame Perwitsky, I read in this morning's paper that in France ninety percent of cats die of cancer. I don't know what the situation is in Poland.' (2.8)

It is Marina (Van’s, Ada’s and Lucette’s mother) who dies of cancer:

Early in 1900, a few days before he saw Marina, for the last time, at the clinic in Nice (where he learned for the first time the name of her illness), Van had a 'verbal' nightmare, caused, maybe, by the musky smell in the Miramas (Bouches Rouges-du-Rhône) Villa Venus. Two formless fat transparent creatures were engaged in some discussion, one repeating 'I can't!' (meaning 'can't die' - a difficult procedure to carry out voluntarily, without the help of the dagger, the ball, or the bowl), and the other affirming 'You can, sir!' She died a fortnight later, and her body was burnt, according to her instructions. (3.1)

In the above-quoted stanza of his poem Byron compares Beppo to Robinson Crusoe (the main character of Daniel Defoe’s famous novel). Among the passengers of Admiral Tobakoff is the Robinson couple. Before committing suicide Lucette, in the company of old Robinsons, watches in Tobakoff’s cinema hall Don Juan’s Last Fling (Yuzlik’s film in which Ada played the gitanilla):

Van, however, did not understand until much later (when he saw - had to see; and then see again and again - the entire film, with its melancholy and grotesque ending in Donna Anna's castle) that what seemed an incidental embrace constituted the Stone Cuckold's revenge. In fact, being upset beyond measure, he decided to go even before the olive-grove sequence dissolved. Just then three old ladies with stony faces showed their disapproval of the picture by rising from beyond Lucette (who was slim enough to remain seated) and brushing past Van (who stood up) in three jerky shuffles. Simultaneously he noticed two people, the long-lost Robinsons, who apparently had been separated from Lucette by those three women, and were now moving over to her. Beaming and melting in smiles of benevolence and self-effacement, they sidled up and plumped down next to Lucette, who turned to them with her last, last, last free gift of staunch courtesy that was stronger than failure and death. They were craning already across her, with radiant wrinkles and twittery fingers toward Van when he pounced upon their intrusion to murmur a humorous bad-sailor excuse and leave the cinema hall to its dark lurching. (3.5)

Don Juan (1819-24) is a long poem by Byron and the name of P. B. Shelley’s schooner. My vse – Robinzony (“We All are Robinsons,” 1921) is a poem by Bryusov, the author of K Armenii (“To Armenia,” 1916) and K armyanam (To the Armenians,” 1916). In his poem Svoboda i voina (“Freedom and War,” 1917) Bryusov mentions zerkalo Vana (the mirror of Lake Van):

В угрюмых ущельях, за зеркалом Вана,
Чу! лязганье цепи, удар топора!
Там тысячи гибнут по слову султана,
Там пытки — забава, убийство — игра.

In his poem Vstrecha (“The Encounter,” 1907) Bryusov mentions the pyramid and its shadow:

Близ медлительного Нила, там, где озеро Мерида,
в царстве пламенного Ра,

Ты давно меня любила, как Озириса Изида,

друг, царица и сестра!
И клонила пирамида тень на наши вечера.

Near the slow Nile, there, where is Lake Merida

in the kingdom of ardent Ra,

you loved me long ago, as Isis loved Osiris,

my friend, queen and sister!

And the pyramid's shadow fell upon our evenings.

At the beginning of his Letopis’ istoricheskikh sudeb armyanskogo naroda (“The Chronicle of Historical Fates of the Armenian People,” 1916) Bryusov points out that, historically, the Armenian people is even more ancient than the Romans and Hellenes and mentions the name Armina that occurs in an inscription made by Darius Hystaspes in 521 B. C.:

Армянский народ—один из древнейших среди современных культурных народов. Он пришёл в наш мир из такой отдаленной древности, когда не только не существовали ещё современные европейские народы, французы, итальянцы, англичане, русские, но и едва выступали на историческую арену народы древности античной, римляне и эллины. Самое название Armina встречается впервые в надписи Дария Гистаспа 521 г. до н. э., но в вавилонском переводе этому соответствует название Урарту (м. б., родственное названию Арарат), как страна называлась раньше.

According to Van, he was conceived at his father’s Villa Armina:

Marina arrived in Nice a few days after the duel, and tracked Demon down in his villa Armina, and in the ecstasy of reconciliation neither remembered to dupe procreation, whereupon started the extremely interesnoe polozhenie ('interesting condition') without which, in fact, these anguished notes could not have been strung.

(Van, I trust your taste and your talent but are we quite sure we should keep reverting so zestfully to that wicked world which after all may have existed only oneirologically, Van? Marginal jotting in Ada's 1965 hand; crossed out lightly in her latest wavering one.) (1.2)

In Nice Demon had fought a sword duel with Baron d’Onsky. At Marina’s funeral Ada met the son of Demon’s adversary, a person with only one arm (cf. Armborough):

D'Onsky's son, a person with only one arm, threw his remaining one around Demon and both wept comme des fontaines. (3.8)

According to Demon, the villa’s name is an anagram of the sea:

'Marina gives me a glowing account of you and says uzhe chuvstvuetsya osen'. Which is very Russian. Your grandmother would repeat regularly that' already-is-to-be-felt-autumn' remark every year, at the same time, even on the hottest day of the season at Villa Armina: Marina never realized it was an anagram of the sea, not of her. You look splendid, sïnok moy, but I can well imagine how fed up you must be with her two little girls, Therefore, I have a suggestion -' (1.27)

In his poem K moryu (“To the Sea,” 1824) Pushkin speaks of Napoleon’s and Byron’s deaths.

The name Bessborodko hints at Bezborodko (1747-99, the Russian foreign minister in the reign of Catherina II who was promoted to State Chancellor by Paul I), but also brings to mind the saying sedina v borodu, bes v rebro (“one's beard is turning grey, a demon settles in one's rib”) quoted by Ostap Bender in Ilf and Petrov’s novel Dvenadtsat’ stuliev (“The Twelve Chairs,” 1928). The characters of “The Twelve Chairs” include Fima Sobak, a friend of Ellochka the Cannibal. The name Sobak rhymes with Tobak. Ellochka Shchukin’s meksikanskiy tushkan (the fur of a “Mexican jerboa”) brings to mind Der Perwitsky (a variety of the polecat fur). Ada calls Van’s poule “Cordula Tobacco, alias Madame Perwitsky.”

There is Bess (Daniel Veen’s last nurse who managed to extract orally a few last drops of ‘play-zero’ out of his poor body, 2.10) in Bessborough and Bessborodko. According to Demon, after the victory in the Crimean war Bessborodko will rule Bessarabia. In a letter of Apr. 30, 1823, to Alexander Turgenev Vyazemski calls Pushkin bes arabskiy (“the Arabian devil”), a pun on bessarabskiy (“the Bessarabian”). In the closing line of his poem Krasavitse, kotoraya nyukhala tabak ("To the Beauty who Took Snuff," 1814) Pushkin exclaims:

Ах, отчего я не табак!..

Ah, why am I not tobacco!..

The beauty's name, Klimena, brings to mind Baron Klim Avidov, Marina's former lover who gave her children a set of Flavita (Russian Scrabble):

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. (1.36)

The characters of “The Twelve Chairs” include Madame Gritsatsuev, “the passionate woman, a poet’s dream.”

Baron Klim Avidov is an anagram of Vladimir Nabokov. VN’s Russian nom de plume was Sirin. In his review of Van’s novel Letters from Terra the poet Max Mispel mentioned Ben Sirine,* “an obscene ancient Arab, expounder of anagrammatic dreams:”

Herr Mispel, who liked to air his authors, discerned in Letters from Terra the influence of Osberg (Spanish writer of pretentious fairy tales and mystico-allegoric anecdotes, highly esteemed by short-shift thesialists) as well as that of an obscene ancient Arab, expounder of anagrammatic dreams, Ben Sirine, thus transliterated by Captain de Roux, according to Burton in his adaptation of Nefzawi's treatise on the best method of mating with obese or hunchbacked females (The Perfumed Garden, Panther edition, p.187, a copy given to ninety-three-year-old Baron Van Veen by his ribald physician Professor Lagosse). (2.2)

As Van himself points out, the name Mispel means in German “medlar” (Mespilus germanica):

Upon being cornered, Gwen, a fat little fille de joie (by inclination if not by profession), squealed on one of her new admirers, confessing she had begged him to write that article because she could not bear to see Van's 'crooked little smile' at finding his beautifully bound and boxed book so badly neglected. She also swore that Max not only did not know who Voltemand really was, but had not read Van's novel. Van toyed with the idea of challenging Mr Medlar (who, he hoped, would choose swords) to a duel at dawn in a secluded corner of the Park whose central green he could see from the penthouse terrace where he fenced with a French coach twice a week, the only exercise, save riding, that he still indulged in; but to his surprise - and relief (for he was a little ashamed to defend his 'novelette' and only wished to forget it, just as another, unrelated, Veen might have denounced - if allowed a longer life - his pubescent dream of ideal bordels) Max Mushmula (Russian for 'medlar') answered Van's tentative cartel with the warm-hearted promise of sending him his next article, 'The Weed Exiles the Flower' (Melville & Marvell). (2.2)

In his poem Krym (“The Crimea,” 1921) VN mentions the warm berries of kizil' (the Crimean cornel), bezmolvnyi kholm Chufutkale (the mute hill of Chufutkale) and voskovaya mushmula (the waxen blossom of medlar):

В краю неласковом скучая,

всё помню: плавные поля,

пучки густые молочая,

вкус тёплых ягод кизиля.

Я любовался мотыльками

степными -- с красными глазками

на тёмных крылышках... Текла

от тени к тени золотистой,

подобна музыке волнистой,

неизъяснимая Яйла!

О грёза, где мы не бродили!

Дни чередились, как стихи...

Баюкал ветер, а будили,

в цветущих селах, петухи.

Я видел мёртвый город: ямы

былых темниц, глухие храмы,

безмолвный холм Чуфуткалэ...

Небес я видел блеск блаженный,

кремнистый путь, и скит смиренный,

и кельи древние в скале.

О заколдованный, о дальний

воспоминаний уголок!

Внизу, над морем, цвет миндальный,

как нежно-розовый дымок,

и за поляною поляна,

и кедры мощные Ливана --

аллей пленительная мгла

(любовь любви моей туманной!),

и кипарис благоуханный,

и восковая мушмула...

Van’s partner in a tango that he dances on his hands (under the stage-name Mascodagama), Rita is a pretty Karaite from Chufut Kale:

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 znóynïm nébom Argentínï,

Pod strástnïy góvor mandolinï

'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. During their dance, all Van saw of her were her silver slippers turning and marching nimbly in rhythm with the soles of his hands. He recouped himself at rehearsals, and one night asked her for an assignation. She indignantly refused, saying she adored her husband (the make-up fellow) and loathed England. (1.30)

In Ilf and Petrov’s Zolotoy telyonok (“The Golden Calf,” 1931) Ostap Bender dances the same tango solo. Pod sladkiy lepet mandoliny (“to a mandolin’s sweet murmur,” as Bender puts it) the Catholic priests Kushakovski and Moroshek try to revert their compatriot, Adam Kozlevich (the driver of the Antelope Gnu car), to the Roman faith of his fathers.

One of Ada’s lovers, Percy de Prey, goes to the war and perishes in the Crimea, near Chufutkale:

(Bill Fraser, the son of Judge Fraser, of Wellington, witnessed Lieutenant de Prey's end from a blessed ditch overgrown with cornel and medlar, but, of course, could do nothing to help the leader of his platoon and this for a number of reasons which he conscientiously listed in his report but which it would be much too tedious and embarrassing to itemize here. 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. 'Bednïy, bednïy' (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. (One wonders, one always wonders, what had been the executed individual's brief, rapid series of impressions, as preserved somewhere, somehow, in some vast library of microfilmed last thoughts, between two moments: between, in the present case, our friend's becoming aware of those nice, quasi-Red Indian little wrinkles beaming at him out of a serene sky not much different from Ladore's, and then feeling the mouth of steel violently push through tender skin and exploding bone. One supposes it might have been a kind of suite for flute, a series of 'movements' such as, say: I'm alive - who's that? - civilian - sympathy - thirsty - daughter with pitcher - that's my damned gun - don't... et cetera or rather no cetera... while Broken-Arm Bill prayed his Roman deity in a frenzy of fear for the Tartar to finish his job and go. But, of course, an invaluable detail in that strip of thought would have been - perhaps, next to the pitcher peri - a glint, a shadow, a stab of Ardis.) (1.42)

Lord Byron died fighting for the freedom of Greece. In his poem Time (1821) Percy Bysshe Shelley speaks of Ocean of Time “sick of prey, yet howling on for more:”

Unfathomable Sea! whose waves are years,

Ocean of Time, whose waters of deep woe

Are brackish with the salt of human tears!

Thou shoreless flood, which in thy ebb and flow

Claspest the limits of mortality!

And sick of prey, yet howling on for more,

Vomitest thy wrecks on its inhospitable shore;

Treacherous in calm, and terrible in storm,

Who shall put forth on thee,

Unfathomable Sea?

In Shelley’s tragedy The Cenci (1819) Beatrice several times mentions the rack:

Brother, lie down with me upon the rack,

And let us each be silent as a corpse;

It soon will be as soft as any grave.

'Tis but the falsehood it can wring from fear

Makes the rack cruel. (Act Five, scene III)

Another lover of Ada, the composer Philip Rack dies in the Kalugano Hospital. When Van (who recovers from the wound he received in a pistol duel with Captain Tapper) visits poor Rack in his ward, the latter tells him that he must vomit (cf. a line in Shelley’s Time: “Vomitest thy wrecks on its inhospitable shore”):

Van drew in his useless weapon. Controlling himself, he thumped it against the footboard of his wheelchair. 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.' A diminutive nurse simultaneously stepped out from behind the farther screen and disappeared again.

Will he ask me to transmit a message? Shall I refuse? Shall I consent - and not transmit it?

'Have they all gone to Hollywood already? Please, tell me, Baron von Wien.'

'I don't know,' answered Van. 'They probably have. I really -'

'Because I sent my last flute melody, and a letter for all the family, and no answer has come. I must vomit now. I ring myself.' (1.42)

In Lucette’s last stream of consciousness there is a vomiting little bitch:

Six, seven - no, more than that, about ten steps up. Dix marches. Legs and arms. Dimanche. Déjeuner sur l'herbe. Tout le monde pue. Ma belle-mère avale son râtelier. Sa petite chienne, after too much exercise, gulps twice and quietly vomits, a pink pudding onto the picnic nappe. Après quoi she waddles off. These steps are something. (3.5)

According to Van, the last image that flashed in Lucette’s mind was Ada clapping her hands over a dackel in a half-tom wreath:

She did not see her whole life flash before her as we all were afraid she might have done; the red rubber of a favorite doll remained safely decomposed among the myosotes of an unanalyzable brook; but she did see a few odds and ends as she swam like a dilettante Tobakoff in a circle of brief panic and merciful torpor. She saw a pair of new vair-furred bedroom slippers, which Brigitte had forgotten to pack; she saw Van wiping his mouth before answering, and then, still withholding the answer, throwing his napkin on the table as they both got up; and she saw a girl with long black hair quickly bend in passing to clap her hands over a dackel in a half-tom wreath. (ibid.)

*Muhammad Ibn Sirin was a Muslim interpreter of dreams who lived in the 8th century.

Alexey Sklyarenko

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