Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0027070, Wed, 22 Jun 2016 15:15:42 +0300

picture painted on air in Ada
As she speaks to Van, Lucette compares herself to Dolores who says
(apparently, in Osberg's novel The Gitanilla) that she is only a picture
painted on air:

I'm like Dolores - when she says she's "only a picture painted on air."'

'Never could finish that novel - much too pretentious.'

'Pretentious but true. It's exactly my sense of existing - a fragment, a
wisp of color. Come and travel with me to some distant place, where there
are frescoes and fountains, why can't we travel to some distant place with
ancient fountains? By ship? By sleeping car?'

'It's safer and faster by plane,' said Van. 'And for Log's sake, speak
Russian.' (3.3)

Lucette's (or, rather, Dolores's) words bring to mind the inscription on
Keats' grave stone: "Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water." Here is
Shelley's poem Fragment on Keats:


'Here lieth One whose name was writ on water.'
But, ere the breath that could erase it blew,
Death, in remorse for that fell slaughter,
Death, the immortalizing winter, flew
Athwart the stream, - and time's printless torrent grew
A scroll of crystal, blazoning the name
Of Adonais!

Before Lucette's suicide, Van and Lucette watch in the Tobakoff cinema hall
Don Juan's Last Fling, a film in which Ada played the part of the gitanilla.
Don Juan was the name of Shelley's schooner: on 8 July 1822, less than a
month before his 30th birthday, Shelley drowned in a sudden storm while
sailing back from Livorno to Lerici in his schooner, Don Juan.

In a letter to Ada written after Lucette's death Van calls the film they saw
"Castles in Spain:"

I had sat with her through the greater part of a movie, Castles in Spain (or
some title like that), and its liberal villain was being directed to the
last of them, when I decided to abandon her to the auspices of the
Robinsons, who had joined us in the ship's theater. (3.6)

The Russian idiom corresponding to the English "castles in Spain" is
vozdushnye zamki (castles in the air).

In his reply to Van's letter to him Demon mentions the writer Osberg who
claims that the gitanilla sequence in Yuzlik's film Van saw was stolen from
one of his own concoctions:

The film you saw was, no doubt, Don Juan's Last Fling in which Ada, indeed,
impersonates (very beautifully) a Spanish girl. A jinx has been cast on our
poor girl's career. Howard Hool argued after the release that he had been
made to play an impossible cross between two Dons; that initially Yuzlik
(the director) had meant to base his 'fantasy' on Cervantes's crude romance;
that some scraps of the basic script stuck like dirty wool to the final
theme; and that if you followed closely the sound track you could hear a
fellow reveler in the tavern scene address Hool twice as 'Quicks.' Hool
managed to buy up and destroy a number of copies while others have been
locked up by the lawyer of the writer Osberg, who claims the gitanilla
sequence was stolen from one of his own concoctions. In result it is
impossible to purchase a reel of the picture which will vanish like the
proverbial smoke once it has fizzled out on provincial screens. (3.7)

It is air that kills Van's and Ada's father (who dies in a mysterious
airplane disaster above the Pacific, 3.7):

Numbers and rows and series - the nightmare and malediction harrowing pure
thought and pure time - seemed bent on mechanizing his mind. Three elements,
fire, water, and air, destroyed, in that sequence, Marina, Lucette, and
Demon. Terra waited. (3.1)

The name of Demon's mad wife (Marina's twin sister who committed suicide),
Aqua means "water." Before her death Aqua recalled the little gypsy
enchantress in the Spanish tale:

In less than a week Aqua had accumulated more than two hundred tablets of
different potency. She knew most of them - the jejune sedatives, and the
ones that knocked you out from eight p.m. till midnight, and several
varieties of superior soporifics that left you with limpid limbs and a
leaden head after eight hours of non-being, and a drug which was in itself
delightful but a little lethal if combined with a draught of the cleansing
fluid commercially known as Morona; and a plump purple pill reminding her,
she had to laugh, of those with which the little gypsy enchantress in the
Spanish tale (dear to Ladore schoolgirls) puts to sleep all the sportsmen
and all their bloodhounds at the opening of the hunting season. (1.3)

In our world Osberg's novel The Gitanilla is known as VN's Lolita (1955). In
one of his poems Humbert Humbert (the narrator and main character in VN's
novel) mentions a movie magazine:

Saint, forsooth! While brown Dolores,

On a patch of sunny green

With Sanchicha reading stories

In a movie magazine (2.22).

HH's poem is a parody of the lines in Robert Browning's Soliloquy of the
Spanish Cloister:

Saint, forsooth! While brown Dolores

Squats outside the Convent bank
With Sanchicha, telling stories,
Steeping tresses in the tank.

Browning's poem Memorabilia begins:

Ah, did you once see Shelley plain?..

and ends in the lines:

For there I picked up on the heather

And there I put inside my breast

A moulted feather, an eagle-feather-

Well, I forget the rest.

When Van makes Lucette learn by heart Robert Brown's poem "Peter and
Margaret," Ada suggests that he chooses another poem by Brown (the one about
finding a feather and seeing Peacock plain):

What we have here' (turning the pages reverently) 'is no less than a
collection of the most beautiful and famous short poems in the English
language. This tiny one, for example, was composed in tears forty years ago
by the Poet Laureate Robert Brown, the old gentleman whom my father once
pointed out to me up in the air on a cliff under a cypress, looking down on
the foaming turquoise surf near Nice, an unforgettable sight for all
concerned. It is called "Peter and Margaret." Now you have, say' (turning to
Ada in solemn consultation), 'forty minutes' ('Give her a full hour, she
can't even memorize Mironton, mirontaine') - 'all right, a full hour to
learn these eight lines by heart. You and I' (whispering) 'are going to
prove to your nasty arrogant sister that stupid little Lucette can do
anything. If' (lightly brushing her bobbed hair with his lips), 'if, my
sweet, you can recite it and confound Ada by not making one single slip -
you must be careful about the "here-there" and the "this-that", and every
other detail - if you can do it then I shall give you this valuable book for
keeps.' ('Let her try the one about finding a feather and seeing Peacock
plain,' said Ada drily - 'it's a bit harder.') 'No, no, she and I have
already chosen that little ballad. All right. Now go in here' (opening a
door) 'and don't come out until I call you. Otherwise, you'll forfeit the
reward, and will regret the loss all your life.' (1.23)

T. L. Peacock (1785-1866) was a friend of Shelley. In his first night
onboard the Tobakoff Van dreams of an aquatic peacock:

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. He wanted to
make a note of it - and was amused to find that all three pencils had not
only left his bed table but had neatly aligned themselves head to tail along
the bottom of the outer door of the adjacent room, having covered quite a
stretch of blue carpeting in the course of their stopped escape. (3.5)

One is tempted to assume that the three pencils whose escape was stopped had
wanted to write something (the name Nabokov?) on water.

Alexey Sklyarenko

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