'My notion of propriety may not be the same as yours. And what about Cordula de Prey? She won't mind?'

'The apartment is mine,' said Van, 'and besides, Cordula is now Mrs Ivan G. Tobak. They are making follies in Florence. Here's her last postcard. Portrait of Vladimir Christian of Denmark, who, she claims, is the dead spit of her Ivan Giovanovich. Have a look.' 'Who cares for Sustermans,' observed Lucette, with something of her uterine sister's knight move of specious response, or a Latin footballer's rovesciata.

No, it's an elm. Half a millennium ago.

'His ancestor,' Van pattered on, 'was the famous or fameux Russian admiral who had an épée duel with Jean Nicot and after whom the Tobago Islands, or the Tobakoff Islands, are named, I forget which, it was so long ago, half a millennium.' (2.5)


The patronymic of Cordula’s first husband seems to hint at Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-75), the author of The Decameron who was born in Florence. In VN’s essay Chto vsyakiy dolzhen znat’ (“What Everyone Should Know,” 1931) a popularizer of Freudian method affirms that some Roman Emperors (Decameron, for instance) did not see dreams at all. In Ilf and Petrov’s Zolotoy telyonok (“The Golden Calf,” 1931) Ostap Bender promises Khvorobyev (an old monarchist) to cure him of bad Soviet dreams using the Freudian method.


The names Nicot and Tobakoff hint at nicotine and at tabak (Russ., tobacco). The surname of Cordula’s husband rhymes with Sobak (Fima Sobak, in Ilf and Petrov’s “The Twelve Chairs” a friend of Ellochka Shchukin). Van suspects that Cordula is a lesbian (1.27). Fima Sobak is a cultured girl. One of the words in her rich vocabulary (about 180 words) is “homosexuality.” Even in a dream Ellochka the cannibal (whose vocabulary consists of 30 words and short phrases) could not have imagined such a word.


Demon calls Cordula’s husband “Tobakovich:”


'Come, come,' retorted Demon, dropping and replacing his monocle. 'Cordula won't mind.'

'It's another, much more impressionable girl' - (yet another awful fumble!). 'Damn Cordula! Cordula is now Mrs Tobak.'

'Oh, of course!' cried Demon. 'How stupid of me! I remember Ada's fiancé telling me - he and young Tobak worked for a while in the same Phoenix bank. Of course. Splendid broad-shouldered, blue-eyed, blond chap. Backbay Tobakovich!'

'I don't care,' said clenched Van, 'if he looks like a crippled, crucified, albino toad. Please, Dad, I really must -' (2.10)


“Tobakovich” brings to mind Sobakevich, one of the landowners in Gogol’s Dead Souls (1842). Gogol is the author of “The Portrait” (1835) and "The Tale of How Ivan Ivanovich Quarreled with Ivan Nikiforovich" (1834). In Chekhov’s story Kashtanka (1887) Ivan Ivanovich is the name of the goose (a circus animal). Chekhov is the author of “Albion’s Daughter” (1883), “On the Harm of Tobacco” (1886, 1903) and “The Lady with the Little Dog” (1899).


Albion = albino

Boccaccio + trus/rust = tobacco + circus

S + Tobak = T + Sobak/skoba/basok/Boska = St Koba

Sosso + tabak = Tasso + Sobak = sobaka + toss = sosok + basta = soska + boast

ognivo + oval = golova + vino/ovin/voin = viola/Viola + govno

Albion + circus + us = alibi + concursus = res publica + icon + Ursus - purse

res publica + Nabokov = bes + pokrov + Caliban


trus – coward; obs., earthquake

rust – in VN’s Lolita (1955) Humbert Humbert’s poem (written in a Quebec sanatorium) ends in the line: “and the rest is rust and stardust” (2.25)

skoba – cramp-iron

basok – little bass voice; bass-string (e. g., of a violin)

Boska – Pol., of God; cf. Matka Boska, Mother of God

Koba – Stalin’s nickname; Colonel St Alin, a scoundrel, was one of the two seconds in Demon’s sword duel with Baron d’Onsky (1.2)

Sosso – Khan Sosso, on Antiterra the ruler of the ruthless Sovietnamur Khanate (2.2); a play on Soso Dzhugashvili (Stalin’s real name)

Tasso – Torquato Tasso (1544-95), an Italian poet

sobaka – dog; according to Ada, Dack (the dackel at Ardis) is nehoroshaya sobaka (“a bad dog,” 1.11); when Van meets Cordula in Paris, he quotes to her the lines with which his schoolmates annoyed him: “The Veens speak only to Tobaks / But Tobaks speak only to dogs” (3.2)

sosok – nipple

soska – baby's dummy

ognivo – tinderbox; in his poem “Tsar Nikita and his Forty Daughters” (1822) Pushkin mentions lyubovnoe ognivo (the amorous tinderbox) that the Princesses lacked; in Andersen’s fairy tale “The Tinderbox” (1835) there are three powerful dogs

golova – head

vino – wine

ovin – barn

voin – warrior

us – whisker

Viola – a character in Shakespeare’s play The Twelfth Night

govno – vulg., shit

concursus – Lat., concourse

res publica – Lat., public thing/affair

Ursus – the best Franco-Estotian restaurant in Manhattan Major (2.8); the traveling circus artist in Victor Hugo’s novel L’homme qui rit (“The Laughing Man,” 1869)

bes – demon, evil spirit, fiend; Besy is a poem (1830) by Pushkin and a novel (1872) by Dostoevski

pokrov – cover, etc.; protection

Caliban – Prospero’s ugly beastlike slave in Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1611); according to Aqua (Marina’s mad twin sister who thought that she could understand the language of water), bathwater (or shower) was too much of a Caliban to speak distinctly (1.3)


Btw., “a Latin footballer” brings to mind J. L. Borges (the Argentinean writer whom I mentioned in my previous post). 


Alexey Sklyarenko

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