Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0027191, Mon, 3 Oct 2016 12:02:05 +0300

lawyers, critics & surgeons in Ada
His new lawyer, Mr Gromwell, whose really beautiful floral name suited somehow his innocent eyes and fair beard, was a nephew of the Great Grombchevski, who for the last thirty years or so had managed some of Demon’s affairs with good care and acumen. Gromwell nursed Van’s personal fortune no less tenderly; but he had little experience in the intricacies of book-publishing matters, and Van was an absolute ignoramus there, not knowing, for example, that ‘review copies’ were supposed to go to the editors of various periodicals or that advertisements should be purchased and not be expected to appear by spontaneous generation in full-page adulthood between similar blurbs boosting The Possessed by Miss Love and The Puffer by Mr Dukes. (2.2)

In Canto the Tenth (XIV) of Don Juan Byron pairs the lawyer with the critic and compares the lawyer’s brief to the surgeon’s knife:

The lawyer and the critic but behold
The baser sides of literature and life,
And nought remains unseen, but much untold,
By those who scour those double vales of strife.
While common men grow ignorantly old,
The lawyer's brief is like the surgeon's knife,
Dissecting the whole inside of a question,
And with it all the process of digestion.

Van wrote his first novel, Letters from Terra, recovering from the wound received in a pistol duel with Captain Tapper, of Wild Violet Lodge. In the Kalugano hospital Van underwent a surgical operation. According to Van, Doc Fitzbishop “messed up his job:”

‘How’s the wound?’

‘Komsi-komsa. It now appears that the Kalugano surgeon messed up his job. The rip seam has grown red and raw, without any reason, and there’s a lump in my armpit. I’m in for another spell of surgery — this time in London, where butchers carve so much better. Where’s the mestechko here? Oh, I see it. Cute (a gentian painted on one door, a lady fern on the other: have to go to the herbarium).’ (2.1).

The Russian name of “gromwell” (Lithospermum gen.), vorobeynik, rhymes with korobeynik (pedlar). “Pedlar” rhymes with “medlar.” Van calls the poet Max Mispel, the author of a favorable review of Van’s novel, “Mr Medlar:”

The only other compliment was paid to poor Voltemand in a little Manhattan magazine (The Village Eyebrow) by the poet Max Mispel (another botanical name — ‘medlar’ in English), member of the German Department at Goluba University. Herr Mispel, who liked to air his authors, discerned in Letters from Terra the influence of Osberg (Spanish writer of pretentious fairy tales and mystico-allegoric anecdotes, highly esteemed by short-shift thesialists) as well as that of an obscene ancient Arab, expounder of anagrammatic dreams, Ben Sirine, thus transliterated by Captain de Roux, according to Burton in his adaptation of Nefzawi’s treatise on the best method of mating with obese or hunchbacked females (The Perfumed Garden, Panther edition, p.187, a copy given to ninety-three-year-old Baron Van Veen by his ribald physician Professor Lagosse). His critique ended as follows: ‘If Mr Voltemand (or Voltimand or Mandalatov) is a psychiatrist, as I think he might be, then I pity his patients, while admiring his talent.’

Upon being cornered, Gwen, a fat little fille de joie (by inclination if not by profession), squealed on one of her new admirers, confessing she had begged him to write that article because she could not bear to see Van’s ‘crooked little smile’ at finding his beautifully bound and boxed book so badly neglected. She also swore that Max not only did not know who Voltemand really was, but had not read Van’s novel. Van toyed with the idea of challenging Mr Medlar (who, he hoped, would choose swords) to a duel at dawn in a secluded corner of the Park whose central green he could see from the penthouse terrace where he fenced with a French coach twice a week, the only exercise, save riding, that he still indulged in; but to his surprise — and relief (for he was a little ashamed to defend his ‘novelette’ and only wished to forget it, just as another, unrelated, Veen might have denounced — if allowed a longer life — his pubescent dream of ideal bordels) Max Mushmula (Russian for ‘medlar’) answered Van’s tentative cartel with the warm-hearted promise of sending him his next article, ‘The Weed Exiles the Flower’ (Melville & Marvell). (2.2)

Korobeyniki (“The Pedlars,” 1861) is a celebrated poem by Nekrasov. In his poem Sovremenniki (“The Contemporaries,” 1875) Nekrasov describes legal proceedings and quotes the words of a lawyer at court:

И, содрав гонорар неумеренный,
Восклицал мой присяжный поверенный:
"Перед вами стоит гражданин
Чище снега альпийских вершин!.."

“Before you stands the citizen

[Who is] purer than the snow of Alpine summits!”

The son of Demon and Marina, Van was born in Switzerland. Officially, Van is the son of Marina’s twin sister Aqua (Demon Veen’s wife). When she was pregnant with Van, Marina collected flowers on the Alpine slopes. Van and Ada discover that they are brother and sister thanks to Marina’s old herbarium that they found in the attic of Ardis Hall (1.1)

The name of Daniel Veen’s family estate, Ardis, hints at paradise. Gromwell rhymes with Cromwell. In his article O Mil’tone i Shatobrianovom perevode poteryannogo raya (“On Milton and Chateaubriand's translation of Paradise Lost,” 1836) Pushkin criticizes Victor Hugo’s tragedy Cromwell (1827) and mentions Milton’s slavnyi prorocheskiy sonnet (glorious prophetic sonnet) to Cromwell:

Вот каким жалким безумцем, каким ничтожным пустомелей выведен Мильтон человеком, который, вероятно, сам не ведал, что творил, оскорбляя великую тень! В течение всей трагедии, кроме насмешек и ругательства, ничего иного Мильтон не слышит; правда и то, что и сам он, во всё время, ни разу не вымолвит дельного слова. Это старый шут, которого все презирают и на которого никто не обращает никакого внимания.

Нет, г. Юго! Не таков был Джон Мильтон, друг и сподвижник Кромвеля, суровый фанатик, строгий творец «Иконокласта» и книги Defensio populi! Не таким языком изъяснялся бы с Кромвелем тот, который написал ему свой славный пророческий сонет “Cromwel, our chief, etс.”

According to Pushkin, Victor Hugo has offended velikaya ten’ (the great shade) by making of Milton zhalkiy bezumets (a wretched madman) and nichtozhnyi pustomelya (a paltry windbag).

As he speaks of Terra and Antiterra, Van mentions the Amerussia of Abraham Milton:

But (even more absurdly), if, in Terrestrial spatial terms, the Amerussia of Abraham Milton was split into its components, with tangible water and ice separating the political, rather than poetical, notions of ‘America’ and ‘Russia,’ a more complicated and even more preposterous discrepancy arose in regard to time — not only because the history of each part of the amalgam did not quite match the history of each counterpart in its discrete condition, but because a gap of up to a hundred years one way or another existed between the two earths; a gap marked by a bizarre confusion of directional signs at the crossroads of passing time with not all the no-longers of one world corresponding to the not-yets of the other. (1.3)

According to Van, it was Milton Abraham who helped Aqua to organize a Phree Pharmacy in Belokonsk:

In her erratic student years Aqua had left fashionable Brown Hill College, founded by one of her less reputable ancestors, to participate (as was also fashionable) in some Social Improvement project or another in the Severnïya Territorii. She organized with Milton Abraham’s invaluable help a Phree Pharmacy in Belokonsk, and fell grievously in love there with a married man, who after one summer of parvenu passion dispensed to her in his Camping Ford garçonnière preferred to give her up rather than run the risk of endangering his social situation in a philistine town where businessmen played ‘golf’ on Sundays and belonged to ‘lodges.’ (ibid.)

The name of Demon’s lawyer, the Great Grombchevski, blends Mikhail Gromnitski with Nikolay Karabchevski, the author of Chto glaza moi videli (“What my Eyes have Seen,” 1921), the memoirs in which VN’s father is mentioned.

The title of Byron’s last poem is, of course, On this Day I Complete my Thirty-Sixth Year. (In my recent posts I made so many mistakes that it will take me a month to correct them.)

Alexey Sklyarenko

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