Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0027065, Sun, 19 Jun 2016 03:42:52 +0300

poshlyak & pastor in Ada
According to Van, Dr Fitzbishop (a surgeon in the Kalugano hospital where Van recovers from the wound received in a pistol duel with Captain Tapper) is a poshlyak:

Dr Fitzbishop had said, rubbing his hands, that the Luga laboratory said it was the not always lethal 'arethusoides' but it had no practical importance now, because the unfortunate music teacher, and composer, was not expected to spend another night on Demonia, and would be on Terra, ha-ha, in time for evensong. Doc Fitz was what Russians call a poshlyak ('pretentious vulgarian') and in some obscure counter-fashion Van was relieved not to be able to gloat over the wretched Rack's martyrdom. (1.42)

In his essay on Chekhov, Tvorchestvo iz nichego (“Creation from Nothing,” 1905), Shestov speaks of Chekhov’s story The Duel (1891) and uses the word poshlyak:

Неизвестно зачем, без любви, даже без влечения она отдаётся первому встречному пошляку. Потом ей кажется, что её с ног до головы облили грязью, и эта грязь так пристала к ней, что не смоешь даже целым океаном воды.

For no reason at all, without love, without even attraction she [Laevski’s mistress] gives herself to the first vulgar person [poshlyak] she met. Then she feels that mud was flung at her and this mud got stuck to her whole body so that even an ocean of water would not wash it off. (VI)

A good example of poshlost’ (vulgarity), Laevski (the main character in The Duel) does not love Nadezhda Fyodorovna (the woman he seduced) anymore. It must be a furchtbar (dreadful) feeling, when one notices that one does not actually love what one always thought to love. Poor Rack hates Kalugano, his and his wife’s home town where “stupid Elsie had given him her all on a park bench after a wonderful office party at Muzakovski's Organs.” Rack asks Ada if there is no hope for him anymore:

Poor Philip drooped, fingerpainting sad nothings on wet stone, shaking his heavy head, gulping visibly.

'One feels... One feels,' he said, 'that one is merely playing a role and has forgotten the next speech.'

'I'm told many feel that,' said Ada; 'it must be a furchtbar feeling.'

'Cannot be helped? No hope any more at all? I am dying, yes?'

'You are dead, Mr Rack,' said Ada. (1.32)

In his essay Shestov calls Chekhov pevets beznadezhnosti (“a poet of hopelessness):

Чтобы в двух словах определить его тенденцию, я скажу: Чехов был певцом безнадежности. Упорно, уныло, однообразно в течение всей своей почти 25-летней литературной деятельности Чехов только одно и делал: теми или иными способами убивал человеческие надежды. В этом, на мой взгляд, сущность его творчества.

According to Shestov, in the course of his almost twenty-five-year-long literary work Chekhov was stubbornly and methodically killing human hopes.

In the Kalugano hospital Van finds Rack in Ward Five where hopeless cases are kept:

Dr Fitzbishop congratulated him on having escaped with a superficial muscle wound, the bullet having lightly grooved or, if he might say so, grazed the greater serratus. Doc Fitz commented on Van's wonderful recuperational power which was already in evidence, and promised to have him out of disinfectants and bandages in ten days or so if for the first three he remained as motionless as a felled tree-trunk. Did Van like music? Sportsmen usually did, didn't they? Would he care to have a Sonorola by his bed? No, he disliked music, but did the doctor, being a concert-goer, know perhaps where a musician called Rack could be found? 'Ward Five,' answered the doctor promptly. Van misunderstood this as the title of some piece of music and repeated his question. Would he find Rack's address at Harper's music shop? Well, they used to rent a cottage way down Dorofey Road, near the forest, but now some other people had moved in. Ward Five was where hopeless cases were kept. (1.42)

In his essay Shestov (whose penname comes from shest’, “six”) speaks of Chekhov’s story Ward Six (1892). Its main character is a Chekhovian doctor (who ends up in Ward Six). As Shestov points out, the doctor dies beautifully: before his death he sees a herd of deer, etc.:

И, кажется, “Палату № 6” в своё время очень сочувственно приняли. Кстати прибавим, что доктор умирает очень красиво: в последние минуты видит стадо оленей и т. п. (VI)

In the last sentence of Ada Van (whom Dr Lagosse made the last merciful injection of morphine and who hastens to finish the book before it is too late) mentions a doe at gaze:

Not the least adornment of the chronicle is the delicacy of pictorial detail: a latticed gallery; a painted ceiling; a pretty plaything stranded among the forget-me-nots of a brook; butterflies and butterfly orchids in the margin of the romance; a misty view descried from marble steps; a doe at gaze in the ancestral park; and much, much more. (5.6)

Van visits Rack in Ward Five and, in his bedside monologue, mentions “the infinite rack of tomorrow:”

‘The little Rack of today is the infinite rack of tomorrow - ich bin ein unverbesserlicher Witzbold.’ (1.42)

In P. B. Shelley’s tragedy The Cenci (1819) Beatrice several times repeats the word “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)

In his poem Time (1821) Shelley speaks of Ocean of Time (cf. “ocean of water” mentioned by Shestov in his essay on Chekhov) 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?

‘Arethusoides’ (the poison that kills Rack) comes from Arethusa, a nymph who fled from her home in Arcadia beneath the sea and came up as a fresh water fountain on the island of Ortygia in Syracuse, Sicily. Arethusa (1820) is a poem by Shelley. Rack’s first name, Philip, seems to hint at Sir Philip Sidney, the author of the Arcadia.

The name of another lover of Ada, Percy de Prey, seems to hint at Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822). Shelley drowned less than a month before his 30th birthday. According to Van, hospital records put Rack’s age at thirty:

'I am Van Veen - in case you are no longer lucid enough to recognize somebody you have seen only twice. Hospital records put your age at thirty; I thought you were younger, but even so that is a very early age for a person to die - whatever he be tvoyu mat' - half-baked genius or full-fledged scoundrel, or both.’ (1.42)

In 1901 in Paris Van tells Greg Erminin that it was a great pleasure to make Percy howl (cf. “sick of prey, yet howling on for more” in Shelley’s Time):

'So odd to recall! It was frenzy, it was fantasy, it was reality in the x degree. I'd have consented to be beheaded by a Tartar, I declare, if in exchange I could have kissed her instep. You were her cousin, almost a brother, you can't understand that obsession. Ah, those picnics! And Percy de Prey who boasted to me about her, and drove me crazy with envy and pity, and Dr Krolik, who, they said, also loved her, and Phil Rack, a composer of genius - dead, dead, all dead!'

'I really know very little about music but it was a great pleasure to make your chum howl. I have an appointment in a few minutes, alas. Za tvoyo zdorovie, Grigoriy Akimovich.'

'Arkadievich,' said Greg, who had let it pass once but now mechanically corrected Van.

'Ach yes! Stupid slip of the slovenly tongue. How is Arkadiy Grigorievich?'

'He died. He died just before your aunt. I thought the papers paid a very handsome tribute to her talent. And where is Adelaida Danilovna? Did she marry Christopher Vinelander or his brother?' (3.2)

According to Van, Greg’s father preferred to pass for a Chekhovian colonel:

Van was about to leave when a smartly uniformed chauffeur came up to inform 'my lord' that his lady was parked at the corner of rue Saïgon and was summoning him to appear.

'Aha,' said Van, 'I see you are using your British title. Your father preferred to pass for a Chekhovian colonel.'

'Maude is Anglo-Scottish and, well, likes it that way. Thinks a title gets one better service abroad. By the way, somebody told me - yes, Tobak! - that Lucette is at the Alphonse Four. I haven't asked you about your father? He's in good health?' (Van bowed,) 'And how is the guvernantka belletristka?'

'Her last novel is called L'ami Luc. She just got the Lebon Academy Prize for her copious rubbish.'

They parted laughing. (ibid.)

Lebon is Nobel backwards. The author Doctor Zhivago (1957), Pasternak received the Nobel Prize in 1958. On Antiterra Pasternak’s novel is known as Les Amours du Docteur Mertvago, a mystical romance by a pastor (1.8), and Mertvago Forever (2.5, et passim). In his essay on Chekhov Shestov compares the critic Mikhaylovski to Gretchen’s mother (a character in Goethe’s Faust) who never accepted rich gifts without consulting her confessor:

Он, правда, по-прежнему, как мать гётевской Гретхен, не принимал попадавшихся ему случайно богатых даров, не посоветовавшись предварительно со своим духовником. Дар Чехова он тоже носил к пастору и, очевидно, он там был заподозрен и отвергнут — но идти против общественного мнения у Михайловского уже не было смелости. Молодое поколение ценило в Чехове талант, огромный талант, и ясно было, что оно от него не отречётся. Что оставалось Михайловскому? Он пробовал, говорю, предостерегать. Но его никто не слушал, и Чехов стал одним из любимейших русских писателей. (I)

According to Shestov, Mikhaylovski carried Chekhov’s dar (gift) to a pastor (who looked at it with suspicion and rejected it).

Shestov’s essay begins as follows:

Чехов умер — теперь можно о нём свободно говорить. Ибо говорить о художнике — значит выявлять, обнаруживать скрывавшуюся в его произведениях “тенденцию”, а проделывать такую операцию над живым человеком далеко не всегда позволительно. Ведь была же какая-нибудь причина, заставлявшая его таиться и, разумеется, причина серьёзная, важная.

Chekhov is dead – now we can talk about him freely… There must have been a reason that made him conceal a secret and, of course, a serious, important reason.

The word tait’sya (to conceal a secret; hold back) used by Shestov comes from tait’ (hide, conceal). Tyutchev’s poem Silentium! (1830) begins:

Molchi, skryvaysya i tai

i chuvstva, i mechty svoi.

Speak not, lie hidden, and conceal
the way you dream, the things you feel.

Silentium is Greg Erminin’s motorcycle mentioned by Van during their meeting in Paris:

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

'Yes - Bozhe moy, you can well say that. Those lovely, lovely agonies in lovely Ardis! Oh, I was absolyutno bezumno (madly) in love with your cousin!'

'You mean Miss Veen? I did not know it. How long -'

'Neither did she. I was terribly -'

'How long are you staying -'

'- terribly shy, because, of course, I realized that I could not compete with her numerous boy friends.'

Numerous? Two? Three? Is it possible he never heard about the main one? All the rose hedges knew, all the maids knew, in all three manors. The noble reticence of our bed makers. (3.2)

In the last line of his poem Chemu molilas’ ty s lyubov’yu (“What you prayed upon with love…” 1851) Tyutchev famously mentions bessmertnaya poshlost’ (the immortal human poshlust):

Чему молилась ты с любовью,

Что, как святыню, берегла,

Судьба людскому суесловью

На поруганье предала.

Толпа вошла, толпа вломилась

В святилище души твоей,

И ты невольно устыдилась

И тайн и жертв, доступных ей.

Ах, если бы живые крылья

Души, парящей над толпой,

Её спасали от насилья

Бессмертной пошлости людской!

What you guarded in your heart

like a tiny, frightened beast,

praying, protecting,

fate has grabbed by the scruff

and thrown into a lions' feast.


The animals stormed

the inner sanctum of your heart,

and you were ashamed,

you could not help yourself,

at the secrets their claws ripped apart.


God, if your soul had wings to leave your body,

to lift you by the nape

from the crudeness of the crowd,

to keep you safe

from man's eternal rape!

(“transl.” F. Jude)

In her poem Popytka revnosti (“An Attempt of Jealousy,” 1924) Marina Tsvetaev mentions poshlina bessmertnoy poshlosti (the duty of immortal poshlust):

Как живётся вам — хлопочется —
Ёжится? Встаётся — как?
С пошлиной бессмертной пошлости
Как справляетесь, бедняк?

and Lilith:

Как живётся вам с товаром
Рыночным? Оброк — крутой?
После мраморов Каррары
Как живётся вам с трухой

Гипсовой? (Из глыбы высечен
Бог — и на́чисто разбит!)
Как живётся вам с сто-тысячной —
Вам, познавшему Лилит!

Lilith (1930) is a poem by VN that ends in the line: i ponyal vdrug, chto ya v adu (and I suddenly realized that I was in hell).

In his poem Kakoe sdelal ya durnoe delo… (“What is the evil deed I have committed?..” 1959) VN parodies Pasternak’s poem Nobelevskaya premiya (“The Nobel Prize,” 1959) and compares his art to yad v polom izumrude (poison in a hollow smaragd).

In my previous post I forgot to mention that Swissair was an airline company. Demon Veen (Van’s and Ada’s father) dies in a mysterious airplane disaster above the Pacific (3.7).

Alexey Sklyarenko

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