Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0027189, Sun, 2 Oct 2016 13:23:44 +0300

water & air, bibles & brooms,
red-shirted Yukonets & expected chervonetz in Ada
After the so-called L disaster electricity (“the unmentionable magnetic
power”) was banned on Demonia (aka Antiterra, Earth’s twin planet on
which Ada is set) but, to Van’s surprise, is freely used on Terra:

The unmentionable magnetic power denounced by evil lawmakers in this our
shabby country - oh, everywhere, in Estoty and Canady, in ‘German’ Mark
Kennensie, as well as in ‘Swedish’ Manitobogan, in the workshop of the
red-shirted Yukonets as well as in the kitchen of the red-kerchiefed
Lyaskanka, and in ‘French’ Estoty, from Bras d’Or to Ladore - and very
soon throughout both our Americas, and all over the other stunned
continents - was used on Terra as freely as water and air, as bibles and
brooms. Two or three centuries earlier she [Aqua, Marina’s poor mad twin
sister] might have been just another consumable witch. (1.3)

Elektrichestvo (“Electricity,” 1901) is a poem by Zinaida Hippius quoted
by Merezhkovski (Hippius’ husband) in his book Tolstoy and Dostoevski
(1902). The Antiterran L disaster in the beau milieu of the 19th century
seems to correspond to the mock execution of Dostoevski and the
Petrashevskians on Jan. 3, 1850 (NS), in our world. Van’s and Ada’s half-
sister Lucette was born on January 3, 1876.

In his essay Nuzhny li stikhi? (“Do We Need Verses?” 1903) Anton Krayniy
(Zinaida Hippius’ pseudonym) compares verses to molitva (a prayer) and
quotes Baratynski’s definition of poetry:

Вопреки мнению усталых, злорадно-
равнодушных людей, грустно заявляющих,
что стихи отжили свой век и вообще более
не нужны, - я утверждаю, что стихи
необходимы, естественны и вечны. Я считаю
естественной и необходимейшей
потребностью человеческой природы -
молитву. И каждый человек непременно
молится или стремится к молитве, - всё
равно, сознаёт он это или нет, всё равно в
какую форму выливается у него молитва и к
какому Богу обращена. Форма зависит от
способностей и наклонностей каждого.
Поэзия вообще, стихосложение, словесная
музыка в частности - одна из форм, которую
принимает в человеческой душе молитва.
Поэзия, как определил её Баратынский, -
≪есть полное ощущение данной минуты≫.
Быть может, это определение слишком обще
для молитвы, - но как оно близко к ней!

According to Baratynski, poetry is “the full perception of a given
moment.” In Hippius’s opinion, this definition is perhaps too general for
a prayer but is still very close to it.

In Pushkin’s poem Poet i tolpa (“The Poet and the Crowd,” 1828) the Poet
mentions altar’ (the altar) and metla (the broom) and, in the poem’s
closing lines, says that we were born for inspiration, sweet sounds and

…Во градах ваших с улиц шумных
Сметают сор, - полезный труд! -
Но, позабыв своё служенье,
Алтарь и жертвоприношенье,
Жрецы ль у вас метлу берут?

Не для житейского волненья,
Не для корысти, не для битв,
Мы рождены для вдохновенья,
Для звуков сладких и молитв.

…Since on your sidewalk townfolk walk,
Sweeping it clean is useful work,
Yet do you ask the altar priests
To ply the broom and sweep the streets?

Not for worldly turmoil,

Not for profit, not for battles,

We were born for inspiration,

For sweet sounds and prayers.

On Antiterra Gibraltar is known as Altar:

A small map of the European part of the British Commonwealth - say, from
Scoto-Scandinavia to the Riviera, Altar and Palermontovia - as well as most
of the U.S.A., from Estoty and Canady to Argentina, might be quite thickly
prickled with enameled red-cross-flag pins, marking, in her War of the
Worlds, Aqua's bivouacs. (1.3)

In Baratynski’s poem Eda (1826) set in Finland the heroine is reading
svyataya bibliya (the holy bible):

День после, в комнатке своей
Уже вечернею порою
Одна с привычною тоскою
Сидела Эда. Перед ней
Святая библия лежала.
На длань склонённая челом,
Она рассеянным перстом
Рассеянно перебирала
Её измятые листы
И в дни сердечной чистоты
Невольной думой улетала. (ll. 288-298)

In his poem K Baratynskomu (“To Baratynski,” 1826) Pushkin compares each
verse of Eda to chervonets (a golden ten rouble piece) and says that
Baratynski’s chukhonochka (Finnish girl) is prettier than Byron’s
grechanki (Greek girls):

Стих каждый в повести твоей
Звучит и блещет, как червонец.
Твоя чухоночка, ей-ей,
Гречанок Байрона милей,
А твой зоил прямой чухонец.

In Canto the Tenth of Don Juan Byron (the poet who had an affair with his
half-sister Augusta and whose daughter’s name was Ada) says that a legal
broom is a moral chimney-sweeper:

A legal broom's a moral chimney-sweeper,
And that's the reason he himself's so dirty.

The endless soot bestows a tint far deeper
Than can be hid by altering his shirt; he
Retains the sable stains of the dark creeper,
At least some twenty-nine do out of thirty,
In all their habits; -- not so you, I own;
As Cæsar wore his robe you wear your gown. (XV)

A legal broom’s dirty shirt brings to mind “the red-shirted Yukonets”
mentioned by Van. Yukonets (an inhabitant of Yukon; bitten by the
mosquitoes Pushkin exclaimed Sladko!* in Yukon, 1.17) rhymes with
chervonets (the word that comes from chervonnyi, “red”). The night porter
in the Majestic (a hotel in Kalugano where Van puts up, “a huge old pile,
all grime outside, all leather inside”) expertly palms the expected

Van was roused by the night porter who put a cup of coffee with a local
‘eggbun’ on his bedside table, and expertly palmed the expected
chervonetz. He resembled somewhat Bouteillan as the latter had been ten
years ago and as he had appeared in a dream, which Van now retrostructed as
far as it would go: in it Demon’s former valet explained to Van that the
‘dor’ in the name of an adored river equaled the corruption of hydro in
‘dorophone.’ Van often had word dreams. (1.42)

The hotel’s name brings to mind “the majestic touch” in Canto Three of
Shades’ poem Pale Fire:

She was. I might have persevered. I might
Have made her tell me more about the white
Fountain we both had seen "beyond the veil"
But if (I thought) I mentioned that detail
She'd pounce upon it as upon a fond
Affinity, a sacramental bond,
Uniting mystically her and me,
And in a jiffy our two souls would be
Brother and sister trembling on the brink
Of tender incest. "Well," I said, "I think
It's getting late..."

I also called on Coates.
He was afraid he had mislaid her notes.
He took his article from a steel file:
"It's accurate. I have not changed her style.
There's one misprint--not that it matters much:
Mountain, not fountain. The majestic touch." (ll. 787-782)

Bakhchisarayskiy fontan (“The Fountain of Bakhchisaray,” 1822) is a poem
by Pushkin. The action in it takes place in the Crimea. One of Ada’s
loves, Percy de Prey, goes to the Crimean war and perishes on the second
day of the invasion (1.42). “A stoutish, foppish, baldish young man”
(1.31), Percy de Prey is linked to Akakiy Akakievich Bashmachkin, the
pathetic main character in Gogol’s story Shinel’ (“The Overcoat,”
1842). After leaving Petrovich (the tailor who refused to repair Akakiy
Akakievich’s old overcoat) Akakiy Akakievich meets trubochist (a chimney-

Вышед на улицу, Акакий Акакиевич был как
во сне. "Этаково-то дело этакое, - говорил
он сам себе, - я, право, и не думал, чтобы
оно вышло того...- а потом, после
некоторого молчания, прибавил: - Так вот
как! наконец вот что вышло, а я, право,
совсем и предполагать не мог, чтобы оно
было этак". Засим последовало опять
долгое молчание, после которого он
произнёс: "Так этак-то! вот какое уж,
точно, никак неожиданное, того... этого бы
никак... этакое-то обстоятельство!"
Сказавши это, он, вместо того чтобы идти
домой, пошел совершенно в противную
сторону, сам того не подозревая. Дорогою
задел его всем нечистым своим боком
трубочист и вычернил всё плечо ему; целая
шапка извести высыпалась на него с
верхушки строившегося дома. Он ничего
этого не заметил...

Akakiy Akakievitch went out into the street as if in a dream. "Such an
affair!" he said to himself: "I did not think it had come to --" and then
after a pause, he added, "Well, so it is! see what it has come to at last!
and I never imagined that it was so!" Then followed a long silence, after
which he exclaimed, "Well, so it is! see what already -- nothing unexpected
that -- it would be nothing -- what a strange circumstance!" So saying,
instead of going home, he went in exactly the opposite direction without
himself suspecting it. On the way, a chimney-sweep bumped up against him,
and blackened his shoulder, and a whole hatful of rubbish landed on him
from the top of a house which was building. He did not notice it...

In his fragment Rim (“Rome,” 1842) Gogol mentions sonetto colla coda and
in a footnote explains that in Italian poetry there is a kind of poem known
as “a sonnet with the tail” (con la coda), when the idea did not get into
fourteen lines and entailed an appendix which could be longer than the
sonnet itself:

В италиянской поэзии существует род
стихотворенья, известного под именем
сонета с хвостом (con la coda), когда мысль не
вместилась и ведёт за собою прибавление,
которое часто бывает длиннее самого

In his Sonet (“A Sonnet,” 1830) Pushkin mentions, among other famous
sonneteers, pevets Litvy (“the bard of Lithuania,” Adam Mickiewicz), the
author of Sonety Krymskie (Crimean Sonnets, 1826):

Под сенью гор Тавриды отдаленной
Певец Литвы в размер его стесненный
Свои мечты мгновенно заключал.

Pushkin’s Sonet has the epigraph from Wordsworth: “Scorn not the sonnet,
critic!” In Vivian Calmbrood’s poem “The Night Journey” (1931)
Chenstone (the author’s fellow traveler; Pushkin ascribed his little
tragedy “The Covetous Knight,” 1830, to Chenstone) mentions his neighbor,
the young Wordsworth (“a nice person for whose verses water is harmful,

Вообразите гладь речную,
берёзы, вересковый склон.

Там жил я, драму небольшую
писал из рыцарских времён;
ходил я в сюртучке потёртом,
с соседом, молодым Вордсвортом,
удил форелей иногда
(его стихам вредит вода,
но человек он милый), -- словом,
я счастлив был -- и признаюсь,
что в Лондон с манускриптом новым
без всякой радости тащусь.

In the Fragments of Onegin’s Journey [XVII: 13-14] Pushkin confesses that
he has admixed a lot of water unto his poetic goblet:

И в поэтический бокал

Воды я много подмешал.

There is also a lot of water in Marina Tsvetaev’s Poema Gory (“The Poem
of the Mountain,” 1826) and Poema Vozdukha (“The Poem of the Air,” 1927)
written “in the days of Lindbergh” (note that L is Lindbergh’s initial).
Charles Lindbergh (1902-74) was the first aviator who in May of 1927
crossed the Atlantic in a nonstop flight.

According to Van, “poor Aqua whose fancies were apt to fall for all the
fangles of cranks and Christians, envisaged vividly a minor hymnist’s
paradise, a future America of alabaster buildings one hundred stories high,
resembling a beautiful furniture store crammed with tall white-washed
wardrobes and shorter fridges; she saw giant flying sharks with lateral
eyes taking barely one night to carry pilgrims through black ether across
an entire continent from dark to shining sea, before booming back to
Seattle or Wark” (1.3).

In 1905 Aqua’s husband Demon Veen (Van’s and Ada’s father) perishes in a
mysterious airplane disaster above the Pacific (3.7). In 1901 Lucette
drowns herself in the Atlatic (3.5). In 1900 Van’s, Ada’s and Lucette’s
mother Marina dies of cancer and her body is cremated. As Van puts it:

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)

In Canto Three of his poem Shade (one of the three main characters in VN’s
novel Pale Fire, 1962) mentions “Terra the Fair, an orbicle of jasp:”

Iph borrowed some peripheral debris
From mystic visions; and it offered tips
(The amber spectacles for life's eclipse)--
How not to panic when you're made a ghost:
Sidle and slide, choose a smooth surd, and coast,
Meet solid bodies and glissade right through,
Or let a person circulate through you.
How to locate in blackness, with a gasp,
Terra the Fair, an orbicle of jasp. (ll. 550-558)

According to Van, Aqua’s real destination was Terra the Fair:

But her real destination was Terra the Fair and thither she trusted she
would fly on libellula long wings when she died. (1.3)

Libellula means “dragon-fly.” In her essay Nuzhny li stikhi? Hippius
refuses to quote Voloshin’s hymns to strekozinym krasotam (the libellula

Укажу из многих таких поэтов на одного,
очень мало известного, - но он сейчас под
руками. Это - Макс Волошин. Его ≪молитвы≫
были напечатаны в августовской книжке
≪Нового пути≫. Так как комми-вояжерские
души не редки и у читателей, то молитвы
эти, конечно, нашли отклик в
соответственных местах, несмотря на всю
их ≪последнюю модность≫, которая хочет
притвориться ≪современностью≫ и
запугать. Цитировать его подпрыгивающие
гимны ≪кастаньетам≫ и ≪стрекозиным
красотам≫ не буду; Бог с ними. Может быть,
и они необходимы в строе мироздания.

Incidentally, the title of Hippius’ essay brings to mind Shade’s lecture
“Why Poetry Is Meaningful to Us” that ends in the poet’s heart attack
(which almost coincides with Kinbote’s arrival in America):

The Crashaw Club had paid me to discuss
Why Poetry Is Meaningful To Us.
I gave my sermon, a full thing but short.
As I was leaving in some haste, to thwart
The so-called "question period" at the end,
One of those peevish people who attend
Such talks only to say they disagree
Stood up and pointed his pipe at me. (ll. 683-690)

In his Commentary (note to Line 347) Kinbote (who affirms that he arrived
in America descending by parachute) quotes in full Shade’s poem "The
Nature of Electricity" (that appeared in the New York magazine The Beau and
the Butterfly after the poet’s death):

The dead, the gentle dead--who knows?--
In tungsten filaments abide,
And on my bedside table glows
Another man's departed bride.

And maybe Shakespeare floods a whole
Town with innumerable lights,
And Shelley's incandescent soul
Lures the pale moths of starless nights.

Streetlamps are numbered, and maybe
Number nine-hundred-ninety-nine
(So brightly beaming through a tree
So green) is an old friend of mine.

And when above the livid plain
Forked lightning plays, therein may dwell
The torments of a Tamerlane,
The roar of tyrants torn in hell.

Tamerlane (1336?-1405) is also known as Timur. On Ada’s sixteenth birthday
Greg Erminin gives Ada a little camel of yellow ivory carved in Kiev in the
days of Timur and Nabok:

Ada had declined to invite anybody except the Erminin twins to her picnic;
but she had had no intention of inviting the brother without the sister.
The latter, it turned out, could not come, having gone to New Cranton to
see a young drummer, her first boy friend, sail off into the sunrise with
his regiment. But Greg had to be asked to come after all: on the previous
day he had called on her bringing a 'talisman' from his very sick father,
who wanted Ada to treasure as much as his grandam had a little camel of
yellow ivory carved in Kiev, five centuries ago, in the days of Timur and
Nabok. (1.39)

Khrani menya, moy talisman… (“Protect me, my talisman…” 1825) and
Talisman (1827) are poems by Pushkin. The talisman was given to Pushkfin in
Odessa by Countess Elizaveta Vorontsov, the wife of the Governor General of
New Russia, daughter of Francis-Xavier Branitsky. In his famous epigram on
Vorontsov Pushkin says that there is a hope that one day he will be
“full” at last. There is a hope that after Kinbote (who imagines that he
is Charles Xavier Vseslav, surnamed the Beloved, the last self-exiled king
of Zembla) completes his work on Shade’s poem and commits suicide (on Oct.
19, 1959, the anniversary of Pushkin’s Lyceum) Professor Vsevolod Botkin
(an American scholar of Russian descent who went mad and became Shade,
Kinbote and Gradus after the suicide of his daughter Nadezhda) will be full
again. Shade’s full name is John Francis Shade. In his last poem, On the
Day I Complete my Thirty-Sixth Year (1824), Byron says that he cannot be
beloved. Like Tamerlane, Byron was lame. After his scuffle with Percy de
Prey Van is limping:

As he and his captive drew near the glade Van cursed himself for feeling
rattled by that unexpected additional round; he was secretly out of breath,
his every nerve twanged, he caught himself limping and correcting the limp -
while Percy de Prey, in his magically immaculate white trousers and
casually ruffled shirt, marched, buoyantly exercising his arms and
shoulders, and seemed quite serene and in fact rather cheerful. (1.39)


Alexey Sklyarenko

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