As Van Veen himself was to find out, at the time of his passionate research in terrology (then a branch of psychiatry) even the deepest thinkers, the purest philosophers, Paar of Chose and Zapater of Aardvark, were emotionally divided in their attitude toward the possibility that there existed ‘a distortive glass of our distorted glebe’ as a scholar who desires to remain unnamed has put it with such euphonic wit. (Hm! Kveree-kveree, as poor Mlle L. used to say to Gavronsky. In Ada's hand.) (1.3)
Aardvark (Orycteropus afer) is a medium-sized, burrowing, nocturnal mammal native to Africa, “earth pig.” The animal’s Russian name, trubkozub rhymes with Skalozub, a character in Griboedov’s play Gore ot uma (“Woe from Wit,” 1824). According to Colonel Skalozub, he was in His Highness’ Novozemlyansk regiment of musketeers:
Вы прежде были здесь… в полку… в том… гренадёрском?
В Его Высочества, хотите вы сказать,
Не мастерица я полки-та различать.
А форменные есть отлички:
В мундирах выпушки, погончики, петлички.
Mme K h l y o s t o v (sitting)
You were here... in the regiment of . . . grenadiers?
S k a l o z u b (in a bass voice)
You mean, His Highness’ Novozemlyansk regiment of musketeers?
Mme K h l y o s t o v
I’m not skilled in distinguishing regiments.
S k a l o z u b
There is a difference in uniforms,
The shoulder loops, the tabs and shirts. (Act Three, scene 12)
The regiment’s (fictitious) name comes from Novaya Zemlya (two large islands in the Arctic Ocean). In VN’s novel Pale Fire (1962) Kinbote mentions Nova Zembla:
Professor Pardon now spoke to me: "I was under the impression that you were born in Russia, and that your name was a kind of anagram of Botkin or Botkine?"
Kinbote: "You are confusing me with some refugee from Nova Zembla [sarcastically stressing the "Nova"].
"Didn't you tell me, Charles, that kinbote means regicide in your language?" asked my dear Shade.
"Yes, a king's destroyer," I said (longing to explain that a king who sinks his identity in the mirror of exile is in a sense just that).
Shade [addressing the German visitor]: "Professor Kinbote is the author of a remarkable book on surnames. I believe [to me] there exists an English translation?"
"Oxford, 1956," I replied.
"You do know Russian, though?" said Pardon. "I think I heard you, the other day, talking to--what's his name--oh, my goodness" [laboriously composing his lips].
Shade: "Sir, we all find it difficult to attack that name" [laughing].
Professor Hurley: "Think of the French word for 'tire': punoo."
Shade: "Why, sir, I am afraid you have only punctured the difficulty" [laughing uproariously].
"Flatman," quipped I. "Yes," I went on, turning to Pardon, "I certainly do speak Russian. You see, it was the fashionable language par excellence, much more so than French, among the nobles of Zembla at least, and at its court. Today, of course, all this has changed. It is now the lower classes who are forcibly taught to speak Russian."
"Aren't we, too trying to teach Russian in our schools?" said Pink.
In the meantime, at the other end of the room, young Emerald had been communing with the bookshelves. At this point he returned with the the T-Z volume of an illustrated encyclopedia.
"Well," said he, "here he is, that king. But look, he is young and handsome" ("Oh, that won't do," wailed the German visitor.) "Young, handsome, and wearing a fancy uniform," continued Emerald. "Quite the fancy pansy, in fact."
"And you," I said quietly, "are a foul-minded pup in a cheap green jacket."
"But what have I said?" the young instructor inquired of the company, spreading out his palms like a disciple in Leonardo's Last Supper.
"Now, now," said Shade. "I'm sure, Charles, are young friend never intended to insult your sovereign and namesake."
"He could not, even if he had wished," I observed placidly, turning it all into a joke.
Gerald Emerald extended his hand--which at the moment of writing still remains in that position. (note to Line 894)
The name Skalozub is an anagram of zuboskal (scoffer; mocker).
In his poem The Refrigerator Awakes (1942) VN mentions “Nova Zembla, poor thing, with that B in her bonnet.” “To have a bee in one’s bonnet” means to keep talking about something again and again because one thinks it is very important (Kinbote, who constantly speaks of Zembla in Commentary, definitely has a bee in his bonnet). B is the initial of Bulgarin, a friend of Griboedov and one of the editors of Severnaya pchela (Northern Bee). The composition of Pushkin’s poem Moya Rodoslovnaya (“My Pedigree,” 1830), in which the poet mentions his African ancestor, was provoked by Bulgarin’s coarse article in the Northern Bee (see my post of June 2, 2016).
Zapatero is Spanish for “shoe maker.” Paar of Chose suggests “a pair of shoes.” According to Kinbote (the author of a remarkable book on surnames), Botkin is “the one who makes bottekins, fancy footwear” (note to Line 71).
Like Pushkin, Dumas (the author of “Three Musketeers”) had African blood:
In 1880, Van, aged ten, had traveled in silver trains with showerbaths, accompanied by his father, his father’s beautiful secretary, the secretary’s eighteen-year-old white-gloved sister (with a bit part as Van’s English governess and milkmaid), and his chaste, angelic Russian tutor, Andrey Andreevich Aksakov (‘AAA’), to gay resorts in Louisiana and Nevada. AAA explained, he remembered, to a Negro lad with whom Van had scrapped, that Pushkin and Dumas had African blood, upon which the lad showed AAA his tongue, a new interesting trick which Van emulated at the earliest occasion and was slapped by the younger of the Misses Fortune, put it back in your face, sir, she said. He also recalled hearing a cummerbunded Dutchman in the hotel hall telling another that Van’s father, who had just passed whistling one of his three tunes, was a famous ‘camler’ (camel driver — shamoes having been imported recently? No, ‘gambler’). (1.24)
There are three a’s in Aardvark. In his poem Tsarskoe Selo (1912) Mandelshtam mentions odnodumy-generaly (generals obsessed with one idea) who spend their old age reading Niva (the Cornfield magazine) and Dumas:
Свой коротают век усталый,
Читая «Ниву» и Дюма-
Особняки — а не дома!
Van was born in 1870. VN’s father was born on July 20, 1870, at Tsarskoe Selo (a residence of Russians Emperors and the site of Pushkin’s Lyceum). Kinbote completes his work on Shade’s poem and commits suicide on Oct. 19, 1959 (the Lyceum anniversary). Shade was killed by Gradus on July 21, 1959. July 21 is Ada’s birthday.
In 1880 Andrey Bely and Alexander Blok were born. Mandelstam’s essay on Blok is entitled Barsuch’ya nora (“A Badger’s Hole”). In his Stikhi pamyati Andreya Belogo (“Verses in Memory of Andrey Bely,” 1934) Mandelshtam mentions kavardak (a mess, muddle) and gogolyok (a little golden-eye):
Как снежок на Москве заводил кавардак гоголёк:
Непонятен-понятен, невнятен, запутан, легок...
Andrey Bely is the author of Masterstvo Gogolya (“Gogol’s Craftsmanship,” 1934). According to Vyazemski, Zhukovski called Gogol “Gogolyok.” Gogolyok rhymes with korolyok (kinglet; the name of several birds: goldcrest, firecrest, etc.). Korolyok (1933) is a story by VN translated into English as The Leonardo.
Pnin (the name that Professor Pardon tries to remember) brings to mind Glov, a character in Gogol’s Igroki (“The Gamblers,” 1842).
Aardvark + kot/tok/kto = kavardak + rot = kvadrat + kora = kara/arka + dva + krot
kot – tomcat; according to Kinbote, kot or? means in Zemblan “what’s the time?” (note to Line 149)
tok – current
kto – who; Kto vinovat (“Who is to Blame,” 1846) is a novel by Herzen
rot – mouth; Germ., red
kvadrat – square
kora – cortex; bark, rind; crust
kara – punishment
arka – arch
dva – 2
krot – mole; He [Van] was out, he imagined, na progulke (promenading) in the gloomy firwood with Aksakov, his tutor, and Bagrov’s grandson, a neighbor’s boy, whom he teased and pinched and made horrible fun of, a nice quiet little fellow who quietly massacred moles and anything else with fur on, probably pathological. (1.28)