Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0027081, Wed, 29 Jun 2016 11:36:55 +0300

old-fashioned melodrama in Pale Fire; Thousand-and-One Best Plays
in Ada
At the end of his Commentary Kinbote says that he may write a stage play:

I may pander to the simple tastes of theatrical critics and cook up a stage
play, an old-fashioned melodrama with three principles: a lunatic who
intends to kill an imaginary king, another lunatic who imagines himself to
be that king, and a distinguished old poet who stumbles by chance into the
line of fire, and perishes in the clash between the two figments. (Note to
Line 1000)

Kinbote believes that, in its finished form, Shade’s poem Pale Fire has
1000 lines and that Line 1000 is identical to Line 1 (“I was the shadow of
the waxwing slain”). But it seems that Shade’s poem also needs a coda,
Line 1001 (“By its own double in the windowpane”).

In VN’s novel Ada (1969) Marina Durmanov (Van’s, Ada’s and Lucette’s
mother, Daniel Veen’s “stage-struck wife”) has a set of a
Thousand-and-One Best Plays in her boudoir:

Ada showed her shy guest the great library on the second floor, the pride of
Ardis and her favorite ‘browse,’ which her mother never entered (having
her own set of a Thousand-and-One Best Plays in her boudoir), and which Red
Veen, a sentimentalist and a poltroon, shunned, not caring to run into the
ghost of his father who had died there of a stroke, and also because he
found nothing so depressing as the collected works of unrecollected authors,
although he did not mind an occasional visitor’s admiring the place’s tall
bookcases and short cabinets, its dark pictures and pale busts, its ten
chairs of carved walnut, and two noble tables inlaid with ebony. (1.6)

According to Van, Marina wanted to transform the conversation at table into
a lecture on the theater and only waited for an opportunity to trot out her
troika of hobby horses:

At the third or fourth meal Van also realized something. Far from being a
bright lass showing off for the benefit of a newcomer, Ada’s behavior was a
desperate and rather clever attempt to prevent Marina from appropriating the
conversation and transforming it into a lecture on the theater. Marina, on
the other hand, while awaiting a chance to trot out her troika of hobby
horses, took some professional pleasure in playing the hackneyed part of a
fond mother, proud of her daughter’s charm and humor, and herself
charmingly and humorously lenient toward their brash circumstantiality: she
was showing off ― not Ada! (1.10)

On Antiterra (aka Demonia, Earth’s twin planet on which Ada is set) Pale
Fire is a racing horse. As she speaks to Van, Lucette mentions a
steeplechase picture of ‘Pale Fire with Tom Cox Up’ that hangs above
Cordula’s and Tobak’s bed in their Tobakoff suite:

Quite kindly he asked where she thought she was going.

To Ardis, with him ― came the prompt reply ― for ever and ever. Robinson’
s grandfather had died in Araby at the age of one hundred and thirty-one, so
Van had still a whole century before him, she would build for him, in the
park, several pavilions to house his successive harems, they would gradually
turn, one after the other, into homes for aged ladies, and then into
mausoleums. There hung, she said, a steeplechase picture of ‘Pale Fire with
Tom Cox Up’ above dear Cordula’s and Tobak’s bed, in the suite ‘wangled
in one minute flat’ from them, and she wondered how it affected the
Tobaks’ love life during sea voyages. (3.5)

A set of a Thousand-and-One Best Plays in Marina’s boudoir clearly hints at
One Thousand and One Nights (also known as the Arabian Nights). Van compares
Ada to Scheherazade (the storyteller in One Thousand and One Nights):

One day he brought his shaving kit along and helped her to get rid of all
three patches of body hair:

‘Now I’m Scheher,’ he said, ‘and you are his Ada, and that’s your green
prayer carpet.’ (1.35)

and to the pale fatal girl in another well-known melodrama:

Van, whose finger had been gliding endlessly to and fro along the mute but
soothingly smooth edge of the mahogany desk, now heard with horror the sob
that shook Demon’s entire frame, and then saw a deluge of tears flowing
down those hollow tanned cheeks. In an amateur parody, at Van’s birthday
party fifteen years ago, his father had made himself up as Boris Godunov and
shed strange, frightening, jet-black tears before rolling down the steps of
a burlesque throne in death’s total surrender to gravity. Did those dark
streaks, in the present show, come from his blackening his orbits,
eyelashes, eyelids, eyebrows? The funest gamester… the pale fatal girl, in
another well-known melodrama…. In this one. (2.11)

Describing the family dinner in “Ardis the Second,” Van mentions Marina’s
melodramatic make-up:

Her singularly coarsened features, her attire, that sequin-spangled dress,
the glittering net over her strawberry-blond dyed hair, her red sunburnt
chest and melodramatic make-up, with too much ochre and maroon in it, did
not even vaguely remind the man, who had loved her more keenly than any
other woman in his philanderings, of the dash, the glamour, the lyricism of
Marina Durmanov’s beauty. (1.38)

On the other hand, in Pale Fire Queen Disa (the wife of Charles the Beloved,
the last king of Zembla) speaks to her husband and mentions forty Arabian
thieves (an allusion to Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, a story from One
Thousand and One Nights):

"What are your plans?" she inquired. "Why can't you stay here as long as you
want? Please do. I'll be going to Rome soon, you'll have the whole house to
yourself. Imagine, you can bed here as many as forty guests, forty Arabian
thieves." (Influence of the huge terra cotta vases in the garden.)
(Kinbote’s note to Lines 433-434)

Disa, Duchess of Payn, “of Great Payn and Mone” (Index to PF), seems to
blend Leonardo’s Mona Lisa with Shakespeare’s Desdemona. In Ada Van calls
Demonia (aka Antiterra) “Desdemonia:”

That meeting, and the nine that followed, constituted the highest ridge of
their twenty-one-year-old love: its complicated, dangerous, ineffably
radiant coming of age. The somewhat Italianate style of the apartment, its
elaborate wall lamps with ornaments of pale caramel glass, its white
knobbles that produced indiscriminately light or maids, the slat-eyes,
veiled, heavily curtained windows which made the morning as difficult to
disrobe as a crinolined prude, the convex sliding doors of the huge white
'Nuremberg Virgin'-like closet in the hallway of their suite, and even the
tinted engraving by Randon of a rather stark three-mast ship on the zigzag
green waves of Marseilles Harbor - in a word, the alberghian atmosphere of
those new trysts added a novelistic touch (Aleksey and Anna may have
asterisked here!) which Ada welcomed as a frame, as a form, something
supporting and guarding life, otherwise unprovidenced on Desdemonia, where
artists are the only gods. (3.8)

Kinbote completes his work on Shade’s poem and commits suicide on October
19, 1959 (the anniversary of Pushkin’s Lyceum). In the last weeks of his
life Pushkin, to divert his mind from dark thoughts, tried to learn the
Arabic. In the margins of the draft of Pushkin’s letter to Baron Heeckeren
(d’Anthès’ adoptive father) there are characters of the Arabic alphabet.

Pushkin’s letter of Dec. 1, 1826, to Alekseev (the poet’s Kishinev pal)
ends with the following little poem:

Прощай, отшельник бессарабский,
Лукавый друг души моей ―
Порадуй же меня не сказочкой арабской,
Но русской правдою твоей.

Farewell, the Bessarabian recluse,

arch friend of my soul;

do gladden me not with an Arabian fairy tale,

but with your Russian truth.

In a letter to A. I. Turgenev Vyazemski called Pushkin bes arabskiy (“the
Arabian devil,” a play on bessarabskiy, “Bessarabian”). As he speaks to
Van, Demon mentions his friend Bessborodko who is be installed in

‘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.’ (2.1)

“Little Countess” mentioned by Demon is Cordula de Prey (who eventually
marries Ivan G. Tobak, the ship-owner).

Alexey Sklyarenko

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