Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0027172, Mon, 19 Sep 2016 15:46:37 +0300

diner a quatre & Eve on the Clepsydrophone in Ada
‘I don’t know if you know,’ said Van, resuming his perch on the fat arm of his father’s chair. ‘Uncle Dan will be here with the lawyer and Lucette only after dinner.’

‘Capital,’ said Demon.

‘Marina and Ada should be down in a minute — ce sera un dîner à quatre.’ (1.38)

Un dîner à quatre (a dinner for four) in “Ardis the Second” brings to mind Krylov’s fable Kvartet (“The Quartet,” 1811):




Да косолапый Мишка

Затеяли сыграть Квартет.

Достали нот, баса, альта, две скрипки

И сели на лужок под липки,-

Пленять своим искусством свет.

Ударили в смычки, дерут, а толку нет.

"Стой, братцы, стой! - кричит Мартышка,-


Как музыке идти? Ведь вы не так сидите.

Ты с басом, Мишенька, садись против альта,

Я, прима, сяду против вторы;

Тогда пойдёт уж музыка не та:

У нас запляшут лес и горы!"

Расселись, начали Квартет;

Он всё-таки на лад нейдет.

"Постойте ж, я сыскал секрет! -

Кричит Осёл,- мы, верно, уж поладим,

Коль рядом сядем".

Послушались Осла: уселись чинно в ряд;

А всё-таки Квартет нейдёт на лад.

Вот пуще прежнего пошли у них разбор

И споры,

Кому и как сидеть.

Случилось Соловью на шум их прилететь.

Тут с просьбой все к нему, чтоб их решить сомненье.

"Пожалуй,- говорят,- возьми на час терпенье,

Чтобы Квартет в порядок наш привесть:

И ноты есть у нас, и инструменты есть,

Скажи лишь, как нам сесть!" -

"Чтоб музыкантом быть, так надобно уменье

И уши ваших понежней.-

Им отвечает Соловей,-

А вы, друзья, как ни садитесь,

Всё в музыканты не годитесь".

A Rascal-Monkey,


Billy Goat

And klunky Bear

Set out to play a string Quartet.

They found some scores, viola, bass, two violins

And sat down in a lea beneath a linden tree

To charm the world with art.

They struck their strings, and sawed with all their heart.

No luck. "Arrete, my fellows, stop!" shouts Monkey,


How can the music play when you're not sitting straight?

You, Bearie, opposite viola move your bass,

As primo, I'll sit opposite secundo's face

And then some music will take place.

We'll make the hills and forests dance!"

They took their seats and started the Quartet,

And once again it came to nyet.

"Hold on! I know the secret!"

Shouts Donkey, "It is bound to come out fine

If everyone sits in a line."

They followed Donkey's plan and settled in a row;

But even so, the music would not go.

More fiercely than before they argued then


Who should be sitting where.

A nightingale, in passing, chanced the noise to hear.

At once, they turned to her to solve their problem.

The pleaded, "Please, spare us some time

To make of our quartet a paradigm:

We have our instruments and scores,

Just tell us how to sit!"

"For making music, you must have the knack

And ears more musical than yours,"

The nightingale comes back,

"And you, my friends, no matter your positions,

Will never be musicians!"

Krylov’s fable Lyubopytnyi ("The Sightseer," 1814) ends in the line:

Slona-to ya i ne primetil.

The elephant I did not notice.

As he quotes a poem by Coppée, Demon, for the sake of rhyme, mentions elephant:

‘That’s also provincial. You should carry a black silk purse. And now I’ll show what a diviner I am: your dream is to be a concert pianist!’

‘It is not,’ said Van indignantly. ‘What perfect nonsense. She can’t play a note!’

‘Well, no matter,’ said Demon. ‘Observation is not always the mother of deduction. However, there is nothing improper about a hanky dumped on a Bechstein. You don’t have, my love, to blush so warmly. Let me quote for comic relief

‘Lorsque son fi-ancé fut parti pour la guerre

Irène de Grandfief, la pauvre et noble enfant

Ferma son pi-ano… vendit son éléphant’

‘The gobble enfant is genuine, but the elephant is mine.’

‘You don’t say so,’ laughed Ada. (1.38)

Van’s and Ada’s father, Demon does not notice “the elephant:” namely, that Van and Ada are lovers. On the other hand, Van does not yet know that Lucette’s teacher of music, Philip Rack, is Ada’s lover (that’s why she blushes when Demon mentions a handkerchief on the piano). And, when Demon asks him about Percy de Prey (another lover of Ada), Van (who does not notice two elephants, so to speak) replies that Ada has no beaux except him:

‘At the races, the other day, I was talking to a woman I preyed upon years ago, oh long before Moses de Vere cuckolded her husband in my absence and shot him dead in my presence — an epigram you’ve heard before, no doubt from these very lips —’

(The next thing will be ‘paternal repetitiousness.’)

‘— but a good son should put up with a little paternal repetitiousness — Well, she tells me her boy and Ada see a lot of each other, et cetera. Is that true?’

‘Not really,’ said Van. ‘They meet now and then — at the usual parties. Both like horses, and races, but that’s all. There is no et cetera, that’s out of the question…’

‘It is incredible that a young boy should control his father’s liquor intake,’ remarked Demon, pouring himself a fourth shallow. ‘On the other hand,’ he went on, nursing the thin-stemmed, gold-rimmed cup, ‘open-air life may be pretty bleak without a summer romance, and not many decent girls haunt the neighborhood, I agree. There was that lovely Erminin girl, une petite juive très aristocratique, but I understand she’s engaged. By the way, the de Prey woman tells me her son has enlisted and will soon be taking part in that deplorable business abroad which our country should have ignored. I wonder if he leaves any rivals behind?’

‘Goodness no,’ replied honest Van. ‘Ada is a serious young lady. She has no beaux — except me, ça va seins durs. Now who, who, who, Dad, who said that for "sans dire"?’

‘Oh! King Wing! When I wanted to know how he liked his French wife. Well, that’s fine news about Ada. She likes horses, you say?’

‘She likes,’ said Van, ‘what all our belles like — balls, orchids, and The Cherry Orchard.’ (ibid.)

The name Krylov comes from krylo (wing; cf. King Wing, Demon’s wrestling master). The Cherry Orchard (Vishnyovyi sad, 1904) is a play by Chekhov. In a letter of September 11, 1890, to Suvorin Chekhov, sailing from the north part of Sakhalin (the place of penal servitude in the Tsarist Russia) to the island's south extremity, quotes the punch line of The Sightseer:

Не знаю, что у меня выйдет, но сделано мною немало. Хватило бы на три диссертации. Я вставал каждый день в 5 часов утра, ложился поздно и все дни был в сильном напряжении от мысли, что мною многое ещё не сделано, а теперь, когда уже я покончил с каторгою, у меня такое чувство, как будто я видел всё, но слона-то и не приметил.

Now that I have done with the convict system, I have the feeling that I have seen everything but have missed the elephant.

Slon is Russian for "elephant" and “bishop” (chessman). On the other hand, SLON (Solovetskiy Lager' Osobogo Naznacheniya) was a particularly cruel force labor camp in Solovki (the Solovetsky Islands in the White Sea). In 1929 Chekhov's friend Gorky (whose real name, Peshkov, comes from peshka, “pawn”) visited SLON and wrote a favorable essay, praising the camp's administration and rules. Indeed, he had missed the elephant!

In his memoir essay Zavtrak v Sorrento (“A Breakfast in Sorrento,” 1938) Khodasevich describes a conversation at table at the villa Il Sorito where Gorky lived in the 1920s with his family and friends and compares the interlocutors to musicians of an orchestra who play different instruments:

Консул, бывший рабочий, незадолго до войны эмигрировавший из России в Италию, а ныне назначенный на свой пост потому, что слегка умел калякать по-итальянски, не понимал вопросов, задаваемых по-французски. Баронесса Будберг пыталась быть переводчицей, но он всё равно не мог поддержать столь изящной беседы. X всё же не унимался, а баронессе ничего не оставалось, как передавать ему воображаемые ответы консула. Между тем сам представитель дипломатического мира был занят едой. Вилку и нож он крепко держал в сильных своих кулаках, как вёсла: если бы он вытянул руки, то острия этих непривычных инструментов оказались бы обращены не внутрь, а наружу, в разные стороны. Оттяпав кусок мяса, он клал нож на стол, вилку перекладывал из левого кулака в правый, насаживал на него еду, отправлял её в рот и жевал, могуче работая скулами. Потом опять брал нож и вилку, и трудная операция начиналась сызнова. В общем, он хмурился, почти ничего не говорил, сидел сгорбившись и время от времени щупал себе бока. Если представить себе весь стол как некий оркестр, то пришлось бы сказать, что баронесса Будберг была дирижёром, консул - фаготом, рычавшим редкий аккомпанемент, а X - первой скрипкой, которая неумолчно выводила писклявую фиоритуру на бледном фоне всех остальных инструментов. Горькому вовсе не нашлось партии - он всё время молчал с выражением досады или скуки.

Khodasevich compares Baroness Budberg (Gorky’s secretary) to a conductor, the Soviet Consul in Naples, to a bassoon, and X (a banker’s son and one of the richest people, an amateur French writer who visited Gorky), to the first violin. According to Khodasevich, the Soviet Consul was firmly holding in his strong fists the fork and the knife as if they were oars. At the family dinner in “Ardis the Second” Marina mentions rowing and Demon says that he was a Rowing Blue at Chose:

‘Exactly,’ said Marina. ‘I simply refuse to do anything about it. Besides poor Jones is not at all asthmatic, but only nervously eager to please. He’s as healthy as a bull and has rowed me from Ardisville to Ladore and back, and enjoyed it, many times this summer. You are cruel, Demon. I can’t tell him "ne pïkhtite," as I can’t tell Kim, the kitchen boy, not to take photographs on the sly — he’s a regular snap-shooting fiend, that Kim, though otherwise an adorable, gentle, honest boy; nor can I tell my little French maid to stop getting invitations, as she somehow succeeds in doing, to the most exclusive bals masqués in Ladore.’

‘That’s interesting,’ observed Demon.

‘He’s a dirty old man!’ cried Van cheerfully.

‘Van!’ said Ada.

‘I’m a dirty young man,’ sighed Demon.

‘Tell me, Bouteillan,’ asked Marina, ‘what other good white wine do we have — what can you recommend?’ The butler smiled and whispered a fabulous name.

‘Yes, oh, yes,’ said Demon. ‘Ah, my dear, you should not think up dinners all by yourself. Now about rowing — you mentioned rowing... Do you know that moi, qui vous parle, was a Rowing Blue in 1858? Van prefers football, but he’s only a College Blue, aren’t you Van? I’m also better than he at tennis — not lawn tennis, of course, a game for parsons, but "court tennis" as they say in Manhattan. What else, Van?’

‘You still beat me at fencing, but I’m the better shot. That’s not real sudak, papa, though it’s tops, I assure you.’ (1.38)

During the dinner Van, Ada, Demon and Marina are stealthily photographed by Kim Beauharnais (“the snap-shooting fiend” who spies on Van and Ada and later attempts to blackmail Ada):

‘What was that?’ exclaimed Marina, whom certicle storms terrified even more than they did the Antiamberians of Ladore County.

‘Sheet lightning,’ suggested Van.

‘If you ask me,’ said Demon, turning on his chair to consider the billowing drapery, ‘I’d guess it was a photographer’s flash. After all, we have here a famous actress and a sensational acrobat.’

Ada ran to the window. From under the anxious magnolias a white-faced boy flanked by two gaping handmaids stood aiming a camera at the harmless, gay family group. But it was only a nocturnal mirage, not unusual in July. Nobody was taking pictures except Perun, the unmentionable god of thunder. In expectation of the rumble, Marina started to count under her breath, as if she were praying or checking the pulse of a very sick person. One heartbeat was supposed to span one mile of black night between the living heart and a doomed herdsman, felled somewhere — oh, very far — on the top of a mountain. The rumble came — but sounded rather subdued. A second flash revealed the structure of the French window. (ibid.)

Khodasevich is the author of Sorrentinskie fotografii (“The Sorrento Photographs,” 1926), a poem in which mototsikletka (a motorcycle with a side car) is mentioned:

Мотоциклетка стрекотнула

И сорвалась. Затрепетал

Прожектор по уступам скал,

И отзвук рокота и гула

За нами следом побежал.

In “A Breakfast in Sorrento” Khodasevich says that this mototsikletka belonged to Gorky’s son Maxim:

Тут же стояла Максимова мотоциклетка с прицепной коляской. Рассчитывая доехать домой с Максимом, я присоединился к обществу. Консул на этот раз держался бодрее, говорил, что теперь чувствует себя лучше, а было уже думал, не сломано ли ребро. Наконец он сел с секретаршей в такси и уехал в Неаполь, а мы с Максимом остались еще посидеть. Я спросил у Максима, почему так хмур консул и что случилось с его ребром. Максим, весь день старавшийся делать серьезное лицо, сразу развеселился:

- Да вздули его сегодня, вот он и раскис!

- Как вздули? Кто? Где?

- Солдаты вздули, в Кастелламаре.

- Какие солдаты?

Признаюсь, я уже вообразил себе ужасную расправу озверелых фашистов с представителем пролетарского государства. К изумлению моему, Максим ответил:

- Наши солдаты, русские.

Оказалось, что в Кастелламаре живет целая группа русских солдат. Ещё во время войны они бежали из австрийского плена, пробрались в Италию, были там интернированы - да так и остались. Узнав об их существовании, консул решил разом убить двух зайцев: по дороге в Сорренто заехал к солдатам и стал их "пропагандировать". Вот тут-то они его и избили, и в гости к Горькому он едва доехал, покрытый синяками.

According to Maxim, on his way to Gorky the Soviet Consul was beaten up by the Russian soldiers who had escaped from Austrian captivity during the World War I, had made it to Italy where they had been interned and had remained after the war was over.

At the family dinner Van mentions a Silentium [motorcycle] with a side car:

The roast hazel-hen (or rather its New World representative, locally called ‘mountain grouse’) was accompanied by preserved lingonberries (locally called ‘mountain cranberries’). An especially succulent morsel of one of those brown little fowls yielded a globule of birdshot between Demon’s red tongue and strong canine: ‘La fève de Diane,’ he remarked, placing it carefully on the edge of his plate. ‘How is the car situation, Van?’

‘Vague. I ordered a Roseley like yours but it won’t be delivered before Christmas. I tried to find a Silentium with a side car and could not, because of the war, though what connection exists between wars and motorcycles is a mystery. But we manage, Ada and I, we manage, we ride, we bike, we even jikker.’ (ibid.)

In Krylov’s Quartet one of the musicians is osyol (the donkey). According to Khodasevich, at the evening tea Gorky called the Soviet Consul osyol (an ass):

За вечерним чаем зашел разговор о консуле. Горький сказал, вздыхая:

- Чёрт их дери, наших умников. Назначают вот эдакого осла консулом!

According to Van, the society nickname of his father, Demon, is a form of Demian or Dementius (1.1). Dem’yanova uha (“Demian’s Fish-Soup,” 1815) is a fable by Krylov (a satire on the literary society of archaist writers Beseda lyubiteley russkogo slova whose members included Derzhavin and Krylov; in the 1920s Beseda was a Russian literary magazine that came out in Berlin and was edited by Gorky; the review’s name was proposed by Khodasevich in honor of Derzhavin’s Beseda, which means “conversation”). Uha is the first meal in ‘Ursus,’ the best Franco-Estotian restaurant in Manhattan Major to which Van takes Ada and Lucette:

The uha, the shashlik, the Ai were facile and familiar successes; but the old songs had a peculiar poignancy owing to the participation of a Lyaskan contralto and a Banff bass, renowned performers of Russian 'romances,' with a touch of heart-wringing tsiganshchina vibrating through Grigoriev and Glinka. (2.8)

Van, Ada and Lucette are the descendants of Prince Peter Zemski. In his macaronic poem Slyoznaya komplyanta, ki pe tetr vu fera rir (“A Tearful Complaint that Perhaps will Make you Laugh,” 1865) Prince Pyotr Vyazemski mentions Demian and the uha of verses:

Все женщины в прабабку Еву —
Хитрят во сне и наяву.
Он говорит: «Хочу в Женеву»,
Она в ответ: «Не жене ву».

То есть, пожалуйста, не суйтесь:
К чему женироваться вам?
Сидите дома, повинуйтесь
Своим дряхлеющим годам.

Вас видеть мне была б отрада,
Но если всё в расчет принять,
Быть может, я была бы рада
Вас к чёрту, ангел мой, прогнать.

И так довольна я судьбою:
Ле мьё се ленеми дю бьян.
Боюсь, меня стихов ухою
Замучите вы, как Демьян.

Он плачет, а она... хохочет
И говорит: «Ле гран папа,
Всё о Женеве он хлопочет,
А я своё: "Же не ве па"».

Marina’s French (kvaka sesva, etc.) brings to mind the French phrases written in Cyrillic letters in this poem. Vse zhenshchiny v prababku Evu (“All women resemble the great-grandmother Eve”), the opening line of Vyazemski’s poem, reminds one of “Eve on the Clepsydrophone,” a painting that Demon showed to Baron d’Onsky (Marina’s lover who told about it to a Bohemian lady):

Next day Demon was having tea at his favorite hotel with a Bohemian lady whom he had never seen before and was never to see again (she desired his recommendation for a job in the Glass Fish-and-Flower department in a Boston museum) when she interrupted her voluble self to indicate Marina and Aqua, blankly slinking across the hall in modish sullenness and bluish furs with Dan Veen and a dackel behind, and said:

‘Curious how that appalling actress resembles "Eve on the Clepsydrophone" in Parmigianino’s famous picture.’

‘It is anything but famous,’ said Demon quietly, ‘and you can’t have seen it. I don’t envy you,’ he added; ‘the naive stranger who realizes that he or she has stepped into the mud of an alien life must experience a pretty sickening feeling. Did you get that small-talk information directly from a fellow named d’Onsky or through a friend of a friend of his?’

‘Friend of his,’ replied the hapless Bohemian lady. (1.2)

Describing the family dinner in “Ardis the Second,” Van mentions a scratch that Demon received in a sword duel with d’Onsky:

Demon popped into his mouth a last morsel of black bread with elastic samlet, gulped down a last pony of vodka and took his place at the table with Marina facing him across its oblong length, beyond the great bronze bowl with carved-looking Calville apples and elongated Persty grapes. The alcohol his vigorous system had already imbibed was instrumental, as usual, in reopening what he gallicistically called condemned doors, and now as he gaped involuntarily as all men do while spreading a napkin, he considered Marina’s pretentious ciel-étoilé hairdress and tried to realize (in the rare full sense of the word), tried to possess the reality of a fact by forcing it into the sensuous center, that here was a woman whom he had intolerably loved, who had loved him hysterically and skittishly, who insisted they make love on rugs and cushions laid on the floor (‘as respectable people do in the Tigris-Euphrates valley’), who would woosh down fluffy slopes on a bobsleigh a fortnight after parturition, or arrive by the Orient Express with five trunks, Dack’s grandsire, and a maid, to Dr Stella Ospenko’s ospedale where he was recovering from a scratch received in a sword duel (and still visible as a white weal under his eighth rib after a lapse of nearly seventeen years). How strange that when one met after a long separation a chum or fat aunt whom one had been fond of as a child the unimpaired human warmth of the friendship was rediscovered at once, but with an old mistress this never happened — the human part of one’s affection seemed to be swept away with the dust of the inhuman passion, in a wholesale operation of demolishment. He looked at her and acknowledged the perfection of the potage, but she, this rather thick-set woman, goodhearted, no doubt, but restive and sour-faced, glazed over, nose, forehead and all, with a sort of brownish oil that she considered to be more ‘juvenizing’ than powder, was more of a stranger to him than Bouteillan who had once carried her in his arms, in a feigned faint, out of a Ladore villa and into a cab, after a final, quite final row, on the eve of her wedding. (1.38)

Marina’s ciel-étoilé hairdress and the first name of Dr Stella Ospenko bring to mind Étoile d’amour in Khodasevich’s poem Zvyozdy (“The Stars,” 1925):

…Глядят солдаты и портные

На рассусаленный сумбур,

Играют сгустки жировые

На бёдрах Étoile d'amour,

Несутся звёзды в пляске, в тряске,

Звучит оркестр, поёт дурак,

Летят алмазные подвязки

Из мрака в свет, из света в мрак.

И заходя в дыру всё ту же,

И восходя на небосклон, -

Так вот в какой постыдной луже

Твой День Четвёртый отражён!..

Нелёгкий труд, о Боже правый,

Всю жизнь воссоздавать мечтой

Твой мир, горящий звёздной славой

И первозданною красой.

The poem’s closing lines allude to Tyutchev’s poem Sny (“The Dreams,” 1829) that ends as follows:

Небесный свод, горящий славой звездной,
Таинственно глядит из глубины, –
И мы плывём, пылающею бездной
Со всех сторон окружены.

Heaven's vault's aflame with starry glory.
From every side, as long as we're afloat,
its mystery staring from the deeps,
that fiery chasm engulfs our boat.

(transl. F. Jude)

Tyutchev is the author of Silentium! (1830). In his essay On Khodasevich (1939) VN calls the author of European Night “Pushkin’s literary descendant in Tyutchev’s line of succession.”

The name Bouteillan (of the butler who had once carried Marina in his arms) comes from bouteille (Fr., bottle). In Pushkin’s short novel Kapitanskaya dochka (“The Captain’s Daughter,” 1836) M. Beaupré (Grinyov’s French tutor) used to say that he was not vrag butylki (averse to the bottle):

Бопре в отечестве своём был парикмахером, потом в Пруссии солдатом, потом приехал в Россию pour être outchitel, не очень понимая значение этого слова. Он был добрый малый, но ветрен и беспутен до крайности. Главною его слабостию была страсть к прекрасному полу; нередко за свои нежности получал он толчки, от которых охал по целым суткам. К тому же не был он (по его выражению) и врагом бутылки, т. е. (говоря по-русски) любил хлебнуть лишнее.

Beaupré, in his native country, had been a hairdresser, then a soldier in Prussia, and then had come to Russia to be "outchitel," without very well knowing the meaning of this word. He was a good creature, but wonderfully absent and hare-brained. His greatest weakness was a love of the fair sex [a gap in translation]. Neither, as he said himself, was he averse to the bottle, that is, as we say in Russia, that his passion was drink. (chapter I)

The French phrase used by Beaupré, l’ennemi de la dive bouteille, brings to mind the saying le mieux est l’ennemi du bien (the best thing is the enemy of the good one) used by Vyazemski in Slyoznaya komplyanta, ki pe tetr vu fera rir (in Vyazemski’s poem dyu b’yan, “du bien” in Russian spelling, rhymes with Demian).

In Pushkin’s Kapitanskaya dochka Grinyov fights a sword duel with Shvabrin.

On the other hand, Obedy (“The Dinners,” 1839) is a poem by Baratynski. Obedy rhymes in it with besedy (Gen. sing. and Nom. pl. of beseda):

Я не люблю хвастливые обеды,
Где сто обжор, не ведая беседы,
Жуют и спят. К чему такой содом?
Хотите ли, чтоб ум, воображенье
Привёл обед в счастливое броженье,
Чтоб дух играл с играющим вином,
Как знатоки Эллады завещали?
Старайтеся, чтоб гости за столом,
Не менее Харит своим числом,
Числа Камен у вас не превышали.

In the poem’s closing lines Baratynski says that the number of the guests at table should not be less than the number of the Charitae (Graces) and more than that of the Camenae (Muses). There were three Graces and nine Muses. In the last line of his poem Zvyozdy (“The Stars,” 1839) Baratynski mentions zvyozdy Ai (“the stars of Ai;” Ai is the champagne that Van, Ada and Lucette drink at ‘Ursus’):

Мою звезду я знаю, знаю,
И мой бокал
Я наливаю, наливаю,
Как наливал.

Гоненьям рока, злобе света
Смеюся я:
Живёт не здесь, в звездах Моэта
Душа моя!

Когда ж коснутся уст прелестных
Уста мои, —
Не нужно мне ни звёзд небесных,
Ни звёзд Аи!

In his poem “To Prince Pyotr Andreevich Vyazemski” (1834) Baratynski famously calls Vyazemski zvezda razroznennoy pleyady (“a star of the odd Pleiades”).

Alexey Sklyarenko

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