Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0027168, Mon, 12 Sep 2016 16:09:56 +0300

Adora, ryuen',
purest sanglot in Ada; parachute & Colonel Gusev in Pale Fire
I had a schoolmate called Vanda. And I knew a girl called Adora, little thing in my last floramor. What makes me see that bit as the purest sanglot in the book? What is the worst part of dying? (5.6)

In his poem La nuit de mai (“The May Night,” 1835) that VN translated into Russian (Mayskaya noch’, 1927) Alfred de Musset mentions purs sanglots:

Les plus désespérés sont les chants les plus beaux,
Et j'en sais d'immortels qui sont de purs sanglots.

VN also translated into Russian Musset’s poem La nuit de décembre (“The December Night,” 1835). In his essay O Khodaseviche (“On Khodasevich,” 1939) VN mentions samye purs sanglots (the most pur sanglots):

Говорить о "мастерстве" Ходасевича бессмысленно и даже кощунственно по отношению к поэзии вообще, к его стихам в резкой частности; понятие "мастерство", само собой рожая свои кавычки, обращаясь в придаток, в тень, и требуя логической компенсации в виде любой положительной величины, легко доводит нас до того особого задушевного отношения к поэзии, при котором от неё самой, в конце концов, остается лишь мокрое от слёз место. И не потому это грешно, что самые purs sanglots всё же нуждаются в совершенном знании правил стихосложения, языка, равновесия слов; и смешно это не потому, что поэт, намекающий в стихах неряшливых на ничтожество искусства перед человеческим страданием, занимается жеманным притворством, вроде того, как если бы гробовых дел мастер сетовал на скоротечность земной жизни; размолвка в сознании между выделкой и вещью потому так смешна и грязна, что она подрывает самую сущность того, что, как его ни зови -- "искусство", "поэзия", "прекрасное",-- в действительности неотделимо от всех своих таинственно необходимых свойств.

To speak of his masterstvo, Meisterschaft, «mastery», i.e. «technique», would be meaningless and even blasphemous in relation to poetry in general, and to his own verse in a sharply specific sense, since the notion of «mastery», which automatically supplies its own quotation marks, turns thereby into an appendage, a shadow demanding logical compensation in the guise of any positive quantity, and this easily brings us to that peculiar, soulful attitude toward poetry in result of which nothing remains of squashed art but a damp spot or tear stain. This is condemnable not because even the most purs sanglots require a perfect knowledge of prosody, language, verbal equipoise; and this is also absurd not because the poetaster intimating in slatternly verse that art dwindles to nought in the face of human suffering is indulging in coy deceit (comparable, say, to an undertaker's murmuring against human life because of its brevity); no: the split perceived by the brain between the thing and its fashioning is condemnable and absurd because it vitiates the essence of what actually (whatever you call the thing — «art», «poetry», «beauty») is inseparable from all its mysteriously indispensable properties.

In his poem Na reke Kvor (“On the River Kvor,” 1928), a translation from David Shimanovich, Khodasevich mentions Ador and Nisson (the months of the Hebrew calendar):

То было месяца начало:
В Ниссон переходил Адор.

It was at the month’s beginning:

Ador was turning into Nisson.

David Shimanovich (a Jewish poet, 1886-1946) is a namesake of David van Veen, the architect of Flemish extraction who built one hundred floramors in memory of his grandson Eric, the author of the essay “Villa Venus: an Organized Dream.” As he speaks of floramors built by Eric’s grandfather, Van mentions ryuen’ (the old Russian name of September):

His [David van Veen] nephew and heir, an honest but astoundingly stuffy clothier in Ruinen (somewhere near Zwolle, I’m told), with a large family and a small trade, was not cheated out of the millions of guldens, about the apparent squandering of which he had been consulting mental specialists during the last ten years or so. All the hundred floramors opened simultaneously on September 20, 1875 (and by a delicious coincidence the old Russian word for September, ‘ryuen’,’ which might have spelled ‘ruin,’ also echoed the name of the ecstatic Neverlander’s hometown). (2.3)

On September 20, 1875, Turgenev moved to a new built chalet in his and Viardot's villa Les Frênes in Bougival. In his memoirs Za polveka. Moi vospominaniya (In the Half-Century Time-Span: My Reminiscences, 1929) Boborykin quotes the words of A. Dumas-fils (the author of La Dame aux Camélias) who said that Pauline Viardot (Turgenev’s mistress) always had a reputation of a lover of the female, rather than male, sex. Vanda Broom (Ada’s schoolmate at Brownhill whom Ada mentions in her conversation with Van) is a lesbian. According to Ada, Vanda was in love with Grace Erminin:

And, by the way, Grace – yes, Grace – was Vanda’s real favorite, pas petite moi and my little crest. (2.6)

Grace is the twin sister of Greg Erminin. Bliznetsy (“The Twins,” 1852) is a poem by Tyutchev. According to VN, Khodasevich is “Pushkin's literary descendant in Tyutchev's line of succession:”

Крупнейший поэт нашего времени, литературный потомок Пушкина по тютчевской линии, он останется гордостью русской поэзии, пока жива последняя память о ней.

This poet, the greatest Russian poet of our time, Pushkin's literary descendant in Tyutchev's line of succession, shall remain the pride of Russian poetry as long as its last memory lives.

Another lesbian mentioned in the epilogue of Ada is Violet Knox (old Van’s typist):

By the way, who dies first?

Ada. Van. Ada. Vaniada. Nobody. Each hoped to go first, so as to concede, by implication, a longer life to the other, and each wished to go last, in order to spare the other the anguish or worries, of widowhood. One solution would be for you to marry Violet.

‘Thank you. J’ai tâté de deux tribades dans ma vie, ça suffit. Dear Emile says "terme qu’on évite d’employer." How right he is!’ (5.6)

Violet’s surname seems to hint at Oceano Nox, a chapter in Herzen’s memoirs Byloe i dumy (“Bygone and Meditations”). Latin for “night,” nox brings to mind Evropeyskaya noch’ (European Night, 1927), Khodasevich’s collection mentioned by VN in his obituary essay:

Дешёвая унылость казалась ему скорей пародией, нежели отголоском его "Европейской ночи", где горечь, гнев, ангелы, зияние гласных -- всё настоящее, единственное, ничем не связанное с теми дежурными настроениями, которые замутили стихи многих его полуучеников.

The glum notes of cheap verse struck him more as a parody than as the echo of his collection Evropeyskaya Noch' (European Night), where bitterness, anger, angels, the gulfs of adjacent vowels — everything, in short, was genuine, unique, and quite unrelated to the current moods which clouded the verse of many of those who were more or less his disciples.

Adora rhymes with Ladora (Ladore, the name of Van’s and Ada’s adored river, in Russian spelling) and noch’ (night) rhymes with doch’ (daughter). In VN’s novel Pale Fire (1962) Shade’s daughter Hazel drowned herself on a wild March night. In the Hebrew calendar Ador (Adar, the year’s last month) corresponds to February-March and Nisson (Nisan, the year’s first month) to March-April. Shade is killed by Gradus on July 21, 1959. In Ada July 21 is Ada’s and Adora’s birthday:

He was thirsty, but the champagne he had brought, with the softly rustling roses, remained sealed and he had not the heart to remove the silky dear head from his breast so as to begin working on the explosive bottle. He had fondled and fouled her many times in the course of the last ten days, but was not sure if her name was really Adora, as everybody maintained - she, and the other girl, and a third one (a maidservant, Princess Kachurin), who seemed to have been born in the faded bathing suit she never changed and would die in, no doubt, before reaching majority or the first really cold winter on the beach mattress which she was moaning on now in her drugged daze. And if the child really was called Adora, then what was she? - not Rumanian, not Dalmatian, not Sicilian, not Irish, though an echo of brogue could be discerned in her broken but not too foreign English. Was she eleven or fourteen, almost fifteen perhaps? Was it really her birthday - this twenty-first of July, nineteen-four or eight or even several years later, on a rocky Mediterranean peninsula? (2.3)

According to Kinbote (the mad commentator of Shade’s poem), he arrived in America descending by parachute from a chartered plane:

John Shade's heart attack (Oct. 17, 1958) practically coincided with the disguised king's arrival in America where he descended by parachute from a chartered plane piloted by Colonel Montacute, in a field of hay-feverish, rank-flowering weeds, near Baltimore whose oriole is not an oriole. (note to Line 691)

In VN’s essay on Khodasevich a parachute is mentioned:

Правительственная воля, беспрекословно требующая ласково-литературного внимания к трактору или парашюту, к красноармейцу или полярнику, т. е. некой внешности мира, значительно могущественнее, конечно, наставления здешнего, обращённого к миру внутреннему, едва ощутимого для слабых, презираемого сильными, побуждавшего в двадцатых годах к рифмованной тоске по ростральной колонне, а ныне дошедшего до религиозных забот, не всегда глубоких, не всегда искренних.

The will of the government which implicitly demands a writer's affectionate attention toward a parachute, a farm tractor, a Red Army soldier, or the participant in some polar venture (i.e., toward this or that externality of the world) is naturally considerably more powerful than the injunction of exile, addressed to man's inner world. The latter precept is barely sensed by the weak and is scorned by the strong. In the nineteen twenties it induced nostalgic rhymes about St. Petersburg's rostral columns, and now, in the late thirties, it has evolved rhymed religious concerns, not always deep but always honest.

In his article O Chekhove (“On Chekhov,” 1929) written for the twenty-fifth anniversary of Chekhov’s death Khodasevich contrasts Chekhov with Derzhavin (the poet on whom Khodasevich was writing a book):

Чехов - и Державин! Кажется, труднее даже нарочно выискать двух русских писателей, двух людей, столь несхожих, столь чуждых друг другу, как эти два.

То, что один - поэт, а другой - прозаик, совсем не главное между ними различие, не самое разительное. Все другие гораздо разительнее.

Один - здоровый, кряжистый, долговечный. Другой - слабый, подслеповатый, вечно кашляющий, рано умерший.

Зато в творчестве мускулистого Державина всё - парение, порывание, взлёт:

Необычайным я пареньем
От тленна мира отделюсь,
С душой бессмертною и пеньем,
Как лебедь, в воздух поднимусь.

Хворый Чехов не любит "необычайного"; он весь обычаен, он совсем не хочет парить, а, напротив, любовно и прочно привязан к земле, ко всему простейшему, самому будничному; и в бессмертие души он, по-видимому, не верит. Чеховская чайка не стремится ввысь, как державинский лебедь; она стелется над водой и льнёт к берегу.

Khodasevich quotes the first stanza of Derzhavin’s poem Lebed’ (“The Swan,” 1804) and says that, unlike Derzhavin’s swan, Chekhov’s seagull does not strive skyward but flies lowly above the surface of water and clings to the shore. Chekhov is the author of Gusev (1890), a story whose hero’s name comes from gus’ (goose). In his Commentary Kinbote speaks of his father, King Alfin, and mentions Colonel Gusev, a pioneer parachutist:

King Alfin's absent-mindedness was strangely combined with a passion for mechanical things, especially for flying apparatuses. In 1912, he managed to rise in an umbrella-like Fabre "hydroplane" and almost got drowned at sea between Nitra and Indra. He smashed two Farmans, three Zemblan machines, and a beloved Santos Dumont Demoiselle. A very special monoplane, Blenda IV, was built for him in 1916 by his constant "aerial adjutant," Colonel Peter Gusev (later a pioneer parachutist and, at seventy, one of the greatest jumpers of all time), and this was his bird of doom. (note to Line 71)

Demoiselle is French for “dragonfly.” In his article on Chekhov Khodasevich mentions Strekoza (“The Dragonfly”), the magazine in which young Chekhov published his humorous short stories:

Самые ранние произведения Чехова - рассказики, сценки, диалоги, напечатанные в печальной памяти "Стрекозе". Они приспособлены ко вкусу и пониманию читателя ниже чем среднего.

Strekoza i muravey (“The Dragonfly and the Ant”) is a fable by Krylov, the poet whose name comes from krylo (wing). Krylov’s fable is a Russian version of Lafontaine’s La Cigale et la Fourmi (“The Cicada and the Ant”). In Canto Two of his poem Shade speaks of his daughter’s death and mentions Lafontaine:

Life is a message scribbled in the dark.
Espied on a pine's bark
As we were walking home the day she died,
An empty emerald case, squat and frog-eyed,
Hugging the trunk; and its companion piece,
A gum-logged ant.
That Englishman in Nice
A proud and happy linguist: je nourris
Les pauvres cigales--meaning that he
Fed the poor sea gulls!
Lafontaine was wrong;
Dead is the mandible, alive the song. (ll. 235-244)

Chayka (“The Seagull,” 1896) is a play by Chekhov. In Chekhov’s play Tri sestry (“The Three Sisters,” 1901) Solyony misquotes the two closing lines of Krylov’s fable Gusi (“The Geese”):

Баснь эту можно бы и боле пояснить —
Да чтоб гусей не раздразнить.

This fable could have been elucidated even more,

Had I not been afraid of angering the geese.

Solyony (the bretteur who kills Baron Tuzenbakh in a pistol duel) imagines that he resembles Lermontov, the author of The Demon (1829-40). On Demonia (aka Antiterra, Earth’s twin planet on which Ada is set) Chekhov’s play is known as Four Sisters (2.1 et passim). 4 – 3 = 1. Kinbote believes that, to be completed, Shade’s unfinished poem needs but one line (Line 1000, identical to Line 1: “I was the shadow of the waxwing slain”). But it seems to me that Shade’s poem can be made be even clearer by adding Line 1001 (the poem’s coda): “By its own double in the windowpane.”

Ladora + den’ + noch’ + Eva = Adora + len’ + doch’ + Neva/vena/Vena

den’ – day; Den’ i noch’ (“Day and Night,” 1839) is a poem by Tyutchev; the characters of Pale Fire include Dr Nattochdag whose name means in Swedish “night and day”

Eva – Eve in Russian spelling

len’ – laziness; idleness

vena – vein

Vena – Vienna in Russian spelling

My deepest thanks to Stas Shvabrin who pointed out to me that the phrase purs sanglots occurred in VN’s essay On Khodasevich and in a poem by Musset that VN translated into Russian.

Alexey Sklyarenko

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