Vladimir Nabokov

Reference to "(picnic, lightning)" in Ada

By Alain Champlain, 27 June, 2020

From Ada, part 1, chapter 6:

Alonso, a tiny wizened man in a double-breasted tuxedo, spoke only Spanish, while the sum of Spanish words his hosts knew scarcely exceeded half a dozen. Van had canastilla (a little basket), and nubarrones (thunderclouds), which both came from an en regard translation of a lovely Spanish poem in one of his schoolbooks.

The parenthetical '(a little basket)' and '(thunderclouds)' are, to my eye, a reference to the famous '(picnic, lightning)' in Lolita:

My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning) when I was three[...]

Has this been noted anywhere? I couldn't find any mention of it on ADAonline.


Alexey Sklyarenko

4 years ago

‘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. (1.38)


Humbert's mother was very photogenic. On Demonia (aka Antiterra, Earth twin planet on which Ada is set) VN's Lolita is known as The Gitanilla by the Spanish writer Osberg (1.13 et passim). La Gitanilla is a novella by Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote. Don Quixote's personal name is Alonso Quijano.


When my mother, in a livid wet dress, under the tumbling mist (so I vividly imagined her), had run panting ecstatically up that ridge above Moulinet to be felled there by a thunderbolt, I was but an infant, and in retrospect no yearnings of the accepted kind could I ever graft upon any moment of my youth, no matter how savagely psychotherapists heckled me in my later periods of depression. But I admit that a man of my power of imagination cannot plead personal ignorance of universal emotions. I may also have relied too much on the abnormally chill relations between Charlotte and her daughter. But the awful point of the whole argument is this. It had become gradually clear to my conventional Lolita during our singular and bestial cohabitation that even the most miserable of family lives was better than the parody of incest, which, in the long run, was the best I could offer the waif. (Lolita, 2.32)


Van and Ada are brother and sister.


Let me draw your attention to the updated version of my latest post "Botkin's three bodies in Pale Fire." Incidentally, I learnt about the King's two bodies from Brigitte Bardot (whom VN has never seen either on the screen or in life).


Alain Champlain

4 years ago

Yes, thanks, and there are many other great related quotes, some of which were even in the original draft of my post, but I made edits in the hopes of getting a straight answer to my question: "Has this been noted anywhere?"

Searching through this forum, as well as your annotations page, I haven't found any mentions of the "(picnic, lightning)" reference in Ada. Are you saying you noticed without annotating? Or that you hadn't noticed before?

Alexey Sklyarenko

4 years ago

In a letter of Feb. 14, 1900, to Olga Knipper (a leading actress of the Moscow Art Theater whom Chekhov married in 1901) Chekhov thanks Knipper for her photographs that she sent to him:


Милая актриса, фотографии очень, очень хороши, особенно та, где Вы пригорюнились, поставив локти на спинку стула, и где передано Ваше выражение — скромно-грустное, тихое выражение, за которым прячется чёртик. И другая тоже удачна, но тут Вы немножко похожи на евреечку, очень музыкальную особу, которая ходит в консерваторию и в то же время изучает на всякий случай тайно зубоврачебное искусство и имеет жениха в Могилёве; и жених такой, как Манасевич. Вы сердитесь? Правда, правда, сердитесь? Это я мщу Вам за то, что Вы не подписались.


The photographs are very, very good, especially the one in which you are leaning in dejection with your elbows on the back of a chair, which gives you a discreetly mournful, gentle expression under which there lies hid a little demon. The other is good too, but it looks a little like a Jewess, a very musical person who attends a conservatoire, but at the same time is studying dentistry on the sly as a second string, and is engaged to be married to a young man in Mogilev, and whose fiancé is a person like Manasevich. Are you angry? Really, really angry? It’s my revenge for your not signing them.


In a letter of July 6, 1898, to Sumbatov (Yuzhin) Chekhov predicts to Yuzhin that a lightning in Monte-Carlo will kill him:


Будь здоров и благополучен и не бойся нефрита, которого у тебя нет и не будет. Ты умрёшь через 67 лет, и не от нефрита; тебя убьёт молния в Монте-Карло.

Don’t be afraid of nephritis. You’ll die in sixty-seven years and not of nephritis; a lightning in Monte-Carlo will kill you.


The Russian spelling of the cognomen Humbert Humbert is Gumbert Gumbert. In a letter of Oct. 17, 1897, to Suvorin Chekhov (who stayed in Pension Russe in Nice) asks Suvorin to bring from Paris Le Rire, zhurnal s portretom Gumberta (the magazine issue with King Umberto’s portrait):


Привезите журнал «Le rire» с портретом Гумберта, если попадётся на глаза.

Bring the issue of Le Rire with Umberto’s portrait, if you catch sight of it.


Greg Erminin sends to Van a movie magazine with the photographs of Marina and Ada:


Van had seen the picture [the Hollywood version of Four Sisters, as Chekhov's play is known on Antiterra] and had liked it. An Irish girl, the infinitely graceful and melancholy Lenore Colline -

Oh! qui me rendra ma colline
Et le grand chene and my colleen!

- harrowingly resembled Ada Ardis as photographed with her mother in Belladonna, a movie magazine which Greg Erminin had sent him, thinking it would delight him to see aunt and cousin, together, on a California patio just before the film was released. (2.9)


See also the additions in my previous reply to your post. And no, I did not notice anything (the connection, if it exists at all, is too subtle).


Another afterthought: Le Rire (1900) is a book by Henri Bergson. An anagram of Borges, Osberg also brings to mind Bergson. 


4 years ago

I was writing yesterday a short reply but then I forgot: that No, I don't think so it has been noted. It must noted that if it is a reference to Lolita, it must be an Antiterran version of Lolita by Osberg (in Spanish? which would open up issues of translations and transfigurations). But the association of a little basket: that is inevitably carried in picnics and thunderclouds to lightning doesn't convince me right now. Don't want to discourage you but Guillén's poem (just looked them up) referred to seems ok for now. But please write more if you have something else in mind. Even if someone had noted it before, you would be corroborating it (and probably bringing something new to the table) so don't let that deter you. I don't think anybody remembers all that has been said or noted here or there; in the Forum or in the long checklist criticism on VN.

I'm sort of focusing on VN's short stories now, so I'm a bit inactive when it comes to VN's elaborate contraptions.



4 years ago


It seems to me that "canastilla (a little basket), and nubarrones (thunderclouds)" are simply translations from Spanish, whereas the "picnic, lightning" is famous because it was an example of how Nabokov's elaborate style could be so elegantly terse as to summon up a whole scenario in two tossed off words. I forget where I read that - in Annotated Lolita?

Alain Champlain

1 year 6 months ago

Not that this will change any minds, but this quote from Think Write Speak (p.374) seems a good reason for Nabokov to quote Guillén in Ada, in connection with Lolita:

"I remember the pure shock of delight when I heard my old friend the Spanish poet, Jorge Guillén, pronounce: Lolita."

At the picnic on her twelfth birthday Ada wears her lolita:


For the big picnic on Ada’s twelfth birthday and Ida’s forty-second jour de fête, the child was permitted to wear her lolita (thus dubbed after the little Andalusian gipsy of that name in Osberg’s novel and pronounced, incidentally, with a Spanish ‘t,’ not a thick English one), a rather long, but very airy and ample, black skirt, with red poppies or peonies, ‘deficient in botanical reality,’ as she grandly expressed it, not yet knowing that reality and natural science are synonymous in the terms of this, and only this, dream.

(Nor did you, wise Van. Her note.)

She had stepped into it, naked, while her legs were still damp and ‘piney’ after a special rubbing with a washcloth (morning baths being unknown under Mlle Larivière’s regime) and pulled it on with a brisk jiggle of the hips which provoked her governess’s familiar rebuke: mais ne te trémousse pas comme ça quand tu mets ta jupe! Une petite fille de bonne maison, etc. Per contra, the omission of panties was ignored by Ida Larivière, a bosomy woman of great and repulsive beauty (in nothing but corset and gartered stockings at the moment) who was not above making secret concessions to the heat of the dog-days herself; but in tender Ada’s case the practice had deprecable effects. The child tried to assuage the rash in the sort arch, with all its accompaniment of sticky, itchy, not altogether unpleasurable sensations, by tightly straddling the cool limb of a Shattal apple tree, much to Van’s disgust as we shall see more than once. Besides the lolita, she wore a short-sleeved white black-striped jersey, a floppy hat (hanging behind her back from an elastic around her throat), a velvet hairband and a pair of old sandals. Neither hygiene, nor sophistication of taste, were, as Van kept observing, typical of the Ardis household. (1.13)


On Antiterra Lolita is the name of the girl in Osberg's novel The Gitanilla. Canastilla (little basket) rhymes with gitanilla (gipsy girl). Describing the picnic on Ada's sixteenth birthday, Van mentions Gipsy politicians:


Greg, who had left his splendid new black Silentium motorcycle in the forest ride, observed:

‘We have company.’

‘Indeed we do,’ assented Van. ‘Kto sii (who are they)? Do you have any idea?’

Nobody had. Raincoated, unpainted, morose, Marina came over and peered through the trees the way Van pointed.

After reverently inspecting the Silentium, a dozen elderly townsmen, in dark clothes, shabby and uncouth, walked into the forest across the road and sat down there to a modest colazione of cheese, buns, salami, sardines and Chianti. They were quite sufficiently far from our picnickers not to bother them in any way. They had no mechanical music boxes with them. Their voices were subdued, their movements could not have been more discreet. The predominant gesture seemed to be ritually limited to this or that fist crumpling brown paper or coarse gazette paper or baker’s paper (the very lightweight and inefficient sort), and discarding the crumpled bit in quiet, abstract fashion, while other sad apostolic hands unwrapped the victuals or for some reason or other wrapped them up again, in the noble shade of the pines, in the humble shade of the false acacias.

‘How odd,’ said Marina, scratching her sunlit bald patch.

She sent a footman to investigate the situation and tell those Gipsy politicians, or Calabrian laborers, that Squire Veen would be furious if he discovered trespassers camping in his woods.

The footman returned, shaking his head. They did not speak English. Van went over:

‘Please go away, this is private property,’ said Van in Vulgar Latin, French, Canadian French, Russian, Yukonian Russian, very low Latin again: proprieta privata.

He stood looking at them, hardly noticed by them, hardly shade-touched by the foliage. They were ill-shaven, blue-jowled men in old Sunday suits. One or two wore no collar but had kept the thyroid stud. One had a beard and a humid squint. Patent boots, with dust in the cracks, or orange-brown shoes either very square or very pointed had been taken off and pushed under the burdocks or placed on the old tree stumps of the rather drab clearing. How odd indeed! When Van repeated his request, the intruders started to mutter among themselves in a totally incomprehensible jargon, making small flapping motions in his direction as if half-heartedly chasing away a gnat.

He asked Marina — did she want him to use force, but sweet, dear Marina said, patting her hair, one hand on her hip, no, let us ignore them — especially as they were now drawing a little deeper into the trees — look, look — some dragging à reculons the various parts of their repast upon what resembled an old bedspread, which receded like a fishing boat pulled over pebbly sand, while others politely removed the crumpled wrappings to other more distant hiding places in keeping with the general relocation: a most melancholy and meaningful picture — but meaning what, what? (1.39)


In his essay Gryadushchiy Kham ("The Future Ham," 1906) Merezhkovski quotes Flaubert's words la politique est faite pour la canaille:


Когда Флобер утверждает: la politique est faite pour la canaille, - с грустью вспоминаешь салон принцессы Матильды и другие раззолоченные хлевы второй империи, где метал этот Симеон-столпник эстетики жемчуг перед свиньями, проповедуя свою новую олигархию из "ученых мандаринов".


The salon of Princess Mathilde mentioned by Merezhkovski reminds one of Mathilde, a character in Mlle Larivière's story La Rivière de Diamants that she reads at the picnic on Ada's twelfth birthday:


Finally Mlle Larivière read her La Rivière de Diamants, a story she had just typed out for The Quebec Quarterly. The pretty and refined wife of a seedy clerk borrows a necklace from a wealthy woman friend. On the way home from the office party she loses it. For thirty or forty horrible years the unfortunate husband and wife labor and economize to repay the debts they accumulated in the purchase of a half-million-franc necklace which they had secretly substituted for the lost one when returning the jewelbox to Mme F. Oh, how Mathilde’s heart fluttered — would Jeanne open the box? She did not. When decrepit but victorious (he, half-paralyzed by a half-century of copie in their mansarde, she, unrecognizably coarsened by the washing of floors à grand eau), they confess everything to a white-haired but still young looking Mme F. the latter tells them, in the last phrase of the tale: ‘But, my poor Mathilde, the necklace was false: it cost only five hundred francs!’

Marina’s contribution was more modest, but it too had its charm. She showed Van and Lucette (the others knew all about it) the exact pine and the exact spot on its rugged red trunk where in old, very old days a magnetic telephone nested, communicating with Ardis Hall. After the banning of ‘currents and circuits,’ she said (rapidly but freely, with an actress’s désinvolture pronouncing those not quite proper words — while puzzled Lucette tugged at the sleeve of Van, of Vanichka, who could explain everything), her husband’s grandmother, an engineer of great genius, ‘tubed’ the Redmount rill (running just below the glade from a hill above Ardis). She made it carry vibrational vibgyors (prismatic pulsations) through a system of platinum segments. These produced, of course, only one-way messages, and the installation and upkeep of the ‘drums’ (cylinders) cost, she said, a Jew’s eye, so that the idea was dropped, however tempting the possibility of informing a picnicking Veen that his house was on fire.

As if to confirm many people’s discontent with national and international policies (old Gamaliel was by now pretty gaga), the little red car came chugging back from Ardis Hall and the butler jumped out with a message. Monsieur had just arrived with a birthday present for Mademoiselle Ada, but nobody could figure out how the complicated object worked, and Madame must help. The butler had brought a letter which he now placed on a pocket tray and presented to Marina.

We cannot reconstitute the exact wording of the message, but we know it said that this thoughtful and very expensive gift was a huge beautiful doll — unfortunately, and strangely, more or less naked; still more strangely, with a braced right leg and a bandaged left arm, and a boxful of plaster jackets and rubber accessories, instead of the usual frocks and frills. Directions in Russian or Bulgarian made no sense because they were not in the modem Roman, but in the old Cyrillitsa, a nightmare alphabet which Dan had never been able to master. Could Marina come over at once to have suitable doll clothes cut out of some nice silk discards her maid had collected in a drawer he had discovered and wrap the box again in fresh tissue paper?

Ada, who had been reading the note over her mother’s shoulder, shuddered and said:

‘You tell him to take a pair of tongs and carry the whole business to the surgical dump.’

‘Bednyachok! Poor, poor little man,’ exclaimed Marina, her eyes brimming with pity. ‘Of course I’ll come. Your cruelty, Ada, is sometimes, sometimes, I don’t know — satanic!’ (1.13)


Dr. Larivière is a character in Flaubert's novel Madame Bovary (1856). Mlle Larivière (Lucette's governess who writes under the penname Guillaume de Monparnasse) is a sensational Canadian author (cf. canastilla, canaille).


Razzolochennye khlevy vtoroy imperii (the gilded stables of the Second Empire) mentioned by Merezhkovski bring to mind "the ormulu horrors that meant ‘art’ to our humorless forefathers:"


The details of the L disaster (and I do not mean Elevated) in the beau milieu of last century, which had the singular effect of both causing and cursing the notion of ‘Terra,’ are too well-known historically, and too obscene spiritually, to be treated at length in a book addressed to young laymen and lemans — and not to grave men or gravemen.

Of course, today, after great anti-L years of reactionary delusion have gone by (more or less!) and our sleek little machines, Faragod bless them, hum again after a fashion, as they did in the first half of the nineteenth century, the mere geographic aspect of the affair possesses its redeeming comic side, like those patterns of brass marquetry, and bric-à-Braques, and the ormolu horrors that meant ‘art’ to our humorless forefathers. For, indeed, none can deny the presence of something highly ludicrous in the very configurations that were solemnly purported to represent a varicolored map of Terra. Ved’ (‘it is, isn’t it’) sidesplitting to imagine that ‘Russia,’ instead of being a quaint synonym of Estoty, the American province extending from the Arctic no longer vicious Circle to the United States proper, was on Terra the name of a country, transferred as if by some sleight of land across the ha-ha of a doubled ocean to the opposite hemisphere where it sprawled over all of today’s Tartary, from Kurland to the Kuriles! 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. It was owing, among other things, to this ‘scientifically ungraspable’ concourse of divergences that minds bien rangés (not apt to unhobble hobgoblins) rejected Terra as a fad or a fantom, and deranged minds (ready to plunge into any abyss) accepted it in support and token of their own irrationality. (1.3)


After the L disaster electricity was banned on Antiterra. Elektrichestvo ("Electricity," 1901) is a poem by Zinaida Hippius (Merezhkovski's wife).


gitanilla + canaille + Stalin + aroma = canastilla + genitalia + nail + moral


Genitalia makes one think of an anatomical term with a ‘j’ hanging in the middle that Marina knows:


For some odd reason both children were relieved to learn that a stranger was expected to dinner. He was an Andalusian architect whom Uncle Dan wanted to plan an ‘artistic’ swimming pool for Ardis Manor. Uncle Dan had intended to come, too, with an interpreter, but had caught the Russian ‘hrip’ (Spanish flu) instead, and had phoned Marina asking her to be very nice to good old Alonso.

‘You must help me!’ Marina told the children with a worried frown.

‘I could show him a copy, perhaps,’ said Ada, turning to Van, ‘of an absolutely fantastically lovely nature morte by Juan de Labrador of Extremadura — golden grapes and a strange rose against a black background. Dan sold it to Demon, and Demon has promised to give it to me on my fifteenth birthday.’

‘We also have some Zurbarán fruit,’ said Van smugly. ‘Tangerines, I believe, and a fig of sorts, with a wasp upon it. Oh, we’ll dazzle the old boy with shop talk!’

They did not. Alonso, a tiny wizened man in a double-breasted tuxedo, spoke only Spanish, while the sum of Spanish words his hosts knew scarcely exceeded half a dozen. Van had canastilla (a little basket), and nubarrones (thunderclouds), which both came from an en regard translation of a lovely Spanish poem in one of his schoolbooks. Ada remembered, of course, mariposa, butterfly, and the names of two or three birds (listed in ornithological guides) such as paloma, pigeon, or grevol, hazel hen. Marina knew aroma and hombre, and an anatomical term with a ‘j’ hanging in the middle. In consequence, the table-talk consisted of long lumpy Spanish phrases pronounced very loud by the voluble architect who thought he was dealing with very deaf people, and of a smatter of French, intentionally but vainly italianized by his victims. Once the difficult dinner over, Alonso investigated by the light of three torches held by two footmen a possible site for an expensive pool, put the plan of the grounds back into his briefcase, and after kissing by mistake Ada’s hand in the dark, hastened away to catch the last southbound train. (1.6)


Heinrich Heine's poem Die Libelle ("The Dragon Fly," 1854) ends in the line "Die schöne, falsche Kanaille!" Marina's poor mad twin sister Aqua trusted that she would fly to Terra the Fair on libellula long wings when she died.


Van's and Ada's Uncle Dan dies an odd Boschean death. In Gorky's novel Zhizn' Klima Samgina ("The Life of Klim Samgin," 1925-36) Samgin is reading Merezhkovski's new book The Future Ham and recalls the "Boschean" parade of women that he saw in the Bois de Boulogne:


Самгин взял книжку Мережковского "Грядущий хам", прилег на диван, но скоро убедился, что автор, предвосхитив некоторые его мысли, придал им дряблую, уродующую форму. Это было досадно. Бросив книгу на стол, он восстановил в памяти яркую картину парада женщин в Булонском лесу.
"Мирок-то какой картинный", -- прозвучала в памяти фраза Бердникова.(Part Four)


Samgin is impressed by the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch that he saw in a Berlin museum:


Он встал, пошёл дальше, взволнованно повторяя стихи, остановился пред темноватым квадратом, по которому в хаотическом беспорядке разбросаны были странные фигуры фантастически смешанных форм: человеческое соединялось с птичьим и звериным, треугольник, с лицом, вписанным в него, шёл на двух ногах. Произвол художника разорвал, разъединил знакомое существующее на части и комически дерзко связал эти части в невозможное, уродливое. Самгин постоял пред картиной минуты три и вдруг почувствовал, что она внушает желание повторить работу художника, - снова разбить его фигуры на части и снова соединить их, но уже так, как захотел бы он, Самгин. Протестуя против этого желания и недоумевая, он пошел прочь, но тотчас вернулся, чтоб узнать имя автора. "Иероним Босх" - прочитал он на тусклой, медной пластинке и увидел еще две маленьких, но столь же странных. Он сел в кресло и, рассматривая работу, которая как будто не определялась понятием живописи, долго пытался догадаться: что думал художник Босх, создавая из разрозненных кусков реального этот фантастический мир? И чем более он всматривался в соединение несоединимых форм птиц, зверей, геометрических фигур, тем более требовательно возникало желание разрушить все эти фигуры, найти смысл, скрытый в их угрюмой фантастике. Имя - Иероним Босх - ничего не напоминало из истории живописи. Странно, что эта раздражающая картина нашла себе место в лучшем музее столицы немцев. (Part Four)


Describing Uncle Dan's death, Van mentions (for the third time in Adasobach'i cherti (hell curs, canine devils):


‘My gloves! Cloak! Thank you. Can I use your W.C.? No? All right. I’ll find one elsewhere. Come over as soon as you can, and we’ll meet Marina at the airport around four and then whizz to the wake, and —’

And here Ada entered. Not naked — oh no; in a pink peignoir so as not to shock Valerio — comfortably combing her hair, sweet and sleepy. She made the mistake of crying out ‘Bozhe moy!’ and darting back into the dusk of the bedroom. All was lost in that one chink of a second.

‘Or better — come at once, both of you, because I’ll cancel my appointment and go home right now.’ He spoke, or thought he spoke, with the self-control and the clarity of enunciation which so frightened and mesmerized blunderers, blusterers, a voluble broker, a guilty schoolboy. Especially so now — when everything had gone to the hell curs, k chertyam sobach’im, of Jeroen Anthniszoon van Äken and the molti aspetti affascinati of his enigmatica arte, as Dan explained with a last sigh to Dr Nikulin and to nurse Bellabestia (‘Bess’) to whom he bequeathed a trunkful of museum catalogues and his second-best catheter. (2.10)


The French word canaille comes from the Italian canaglia (a pack of dogs). It was busybody Bess whom Dan had asked on a memorable occasion (Ada's twelfth birthday) to help him get ‘something nice for a half-Russian child interested in biology.’

Grevol (hazel hen) brings to mind "Peterson’s Grouse, Tetrastes bonasia windriverensis," mentioned by Ada at the family dinner in "Ardis the Second:"


‘Might I have another helping of Peterson’s Grouse, Tetrastes bonasia windriverensis?’ asked Ada loftily.

Marina jangled a diminutive cowbell of bronze. Demon placed his palm on the back of Ada’s hand and asked her to pass him the oddly evocative object. She did so in a staccato arc. Demon inserted his monocle and, muffling the tongue of memory, examined the bell; but it was not the one that had once stood on a bed-tray in a dim room of Dr Lapiner’s chalet; was not even of Swiss make; was merely one of those sweet-sounding translations which reveal a paraphrast’s crass counterfeit as soon as you look up the original.

Alas, the bird had not survived ‘the honor one had made to it,’ and after a brief consultation with Bouteillan a somewhat incongruous but highly palatable bit of saucisson d’Arles added itself to the young lady’s fare of asperges en branches that everybody was now enjoying. It almost awed one to see the pleasure with which she and Demon distorted their shiny-lipped mouths in exactly the same way to introduce orally from some heavenly height the voluptuous ally of the prim lily of the valley, holding the shaft with an identical bunching of the fingers, not unlike the reformed ‘sign of the cross’ for protesting against which (a ridiculous little schism measuring an inch or so from thumb to index) so many Russians had been burnt by other Russians only two centuries earlier on the banks of the Great Lake of Slaves. Van remembered that his tutor’s great friend, the learned but prudish Semyon Afanasievich Vengerov, then a young associate professor but already a celebrated Pushkinist (1855-1954), used to say that the only vulgar passage in his author’s work was the cannibal joy of young gourmets tearing ‘plump and live’ oysters out of their ‘cloisters’ in an unfinished canto of Eugene Onegin. But then ‘everyone has his own taste,’ as the British writer Richard Leonard Churchill mistranslates a trite French phrase (chacun à son gout) twice in the course of his novel about a certain Crimean Khan once popular with reporters and politicians, ‘A Great Good Man’ — according, of course, to the cattish and prejudiced Guillaume Monparnasse about whose new celebrity Ada, while dipping the reversed corolla of one hand in a bowl, was now telling Demon, who was performing the same rite in the same graceful fashion. (1.38)


Darkbloom ('Notes to Ada'): Tetrastes etc.: Latin name of the imaginary ‘Peterson’s Grouse’ from Wind River Range, Wyo.

Great good man: a phrase that Winston Churchill, the British politician, enthusiastically applied to Stalin.


In “The Life of Klim Samgin” Samgin recalls his friend's aphorism "we all walk on Earth with a bell on the neck, like a Swiss cow:"


Туробоев не плохо сказал: "Каждый из нас ходит по земле с колокольчиком на шее, как швейцарская корова". (Part One, chapter IV)


Grevol and paloma (pigeon) remind one of Gorky's Pesnya o sokole ("The Song of a Falcon") and Pesnya o burevestnike ("The Song of a Petrel"). Aleksey Maksimovich Peshkov's penname, Gorky means "bitter" and brings to mind pereperchil (put in too much pepper), a word used by VN at the end of his poem O pravitelyakh ("On Rulers," 1944):


Покойный мой тёзка,
писавший стихи и в полоску,
и в клетку, на самом восходе
всесоюзно-мещанского класса,
кабы дожил до полдня,
нынче бы рифмы натягивал
на "монументален",
на "переперчил"
и так далее.


If my late namesake,
who used to write verse, in rank
and in file, at the very dawn
of the Soviet Small-Bourgeois order,
had lived till its noon
he would be now finding taut rhymes
such as “praline”
or “air chill,”
and others of the same kind.


VN’s footnotes: Line 52: my late namesake. An allusion to the Christian name and patronymic of Vladimir Vladimirovich Mayakovski (1893-1930), minor Soviet poet, endowed with a certain brilliance and bite, but fatally corrupted by the regime he faithfully served.

Lines 58-59: “praline” … “air chill.” In the original, monumentalen, meaning “[he is] monumental” rhymes pretty closely with Stalin; and pereperchil, meaning “[he] put in too much pepper,” offers an ingenuous correspondence with the name of the British politician in a slovenly Russian pronunciation (“chair-chill”).

Alexey Sklyarenko

1 year 6 months ago

In reply to by Alexey Sklyarenko

Nubarrones (thunderclouds) make one think of earth boy leading raincloud horse, the reproduction of a beloved early Picasso mentioned by Kinbote in his Commentary to Shade's poem in VN's novel Pale Fire (1962):


In the Foreword to this work I have had occasion to say something about the amenities of my habitation. The charming, charmingly vague lady (see note to line 691), who secured it for me, sight unseen, meant well, no doubt, especially since it was widely admired in the neighborhood for its "old-world spaciousness and graciousness." Actually, it was an old, dismal, white-and-black, half-timbered house, of the type termed wodnaggen in my country, with carved gables, drafty bow windows and a so-called "semi-noble" porch, surmounted by a hideous veranda. Judge Goldsworth had a wife, and four daughters. Family photographs met me in the hallway and pursued me from room to room, and although I am sure that Alphina (9), Betty (10), Candida (12), and Dee (14) will soon change from horribly cute little schoolgirls to smart young ladies and superior mothers, I must confess that their pert pictures irritated me to such an extent that finally I gathered them one by one and dumped them all in a closet under the gallows row of their cellophane-shrouded winter clothes. In the study I found a large picture of their parents, with sexes reversed, Mrs. G. resembling Malenkov, and Mr. G. a Medusa-locked hag, and this I replaced by the reproduction of a beloved early Picasso: earth boy leading raincloud horse. I did not bother, though, to do much about the family books which were also all over the house - four sets of different Children's Encyclopedias, and a stolid grown-up one that ascended all the way from shelf to shelf along a flight of stairs to burst an appendix in the attic. Judging by the novels in Mrs. Goldsworth's boudoir, her intellectual interests were fully developed, going as they did from Amber to Zen. The head of this alphabetic family had a library too, but this consisted mainly of legal works and a lot of conspicuously lettered ledgers. All the layman could glean for instruction and entertainment was a morocco-bound album in which the judge had lovingly pasted the life histories and pictures of people he had sent to prison or condemned to death: unforgettable faces of imbecile hoodlums, last smokes and last grins, a strangler's quite ordinary-looking hands, a self-made widow, the close-set merciless eyes of a homicidal maniac (somewhat resembling, I admit, the late Jacques d'Argus), a bright little parricide aged seven ("Now, sonny, we want you to tell us -"), and a sad pudgy old pederast who had blown up his blackmailer. What rather surprised me was that he, my learned landlord, and not his "missus," directed the household. Not only had he left me a detailed inventory of all such articles as cluster around a new tenant like a mob of menacing natives, but he had taken stupendous pains to write out on slips of paper recommendations, explanations, injunctions and supplementary lists. Whatever I touched on the first day of my stay yielded a specimen of Goldsworthiana. I unlocked the medicine chest in the second bathroom, and out fluttered a message advising me that the slit for discarded safety blades was too full to use. I opened the icebox, and it warned me with a bark that "no national specialties with odors hard to get rid of" should be placed therein. I pulled out the middle drawer of the desk in the study - and discovered a catalogue raisonné of its meager contents which included an assortment of ashtrays, a damask paperknife (described as "one ancient dagger brought by Mrs. Goldsworth's father from the Orient"), and an old but unused pocket diary optimistically maturing there until its calendric correspondencies came around again. Among various detailed notices affixed to a special board in the pantry, such as plumbing instructions, dissertations on electricity, discourses on cactuses and so forth, I found the diet of the black cat that came with the house:

Mon, Wed, Fri: Liver

Tue, Thu, Sat: Fish

Sun: Ground meat

(All it got from me was milk and sardines; it was a likable little creature but after a while its movements began to grate on my nerves and I farmed it out to Mrs. Finley, the cleaning woman.) But perhaps the funniest note concerned the manipulations of the window curtains which had to be drawn in different ways at different hours to prevent the sun from getting at the upholstery. A description of the position of the sun, daily and seasonal, was given for the several windows, and if I had heeded all this I would have been kept as busy as a participant in a regatta. A footnote, however, generously suggested that instead of manning the curtains, I might prefer to shift and reshift out of sun range the more precious pieces of furniture (two embroidered armchairs and a heavy "royal console") but should do it carefully lest I scratch the wall moldings. I cannot, alas, reproduce the meticulous schedule of these transposals but seem to recall that I was supposed to castle the long way before going to bed and the short way first thing in the morning. My dear Shade roared with laughter when I led him on a tour of inspection and had him find some of those bunny eggs for himself. Thank God, his robust hilarity dissipated the atmosphere of damnum infectum in which I was supposed to dwell. On his part, he regaled me with a number of anecdotes concerning the judge's dry wit and courtroom mannerisms; most of these anecdotes were doubtless folklore exaggerations, a few were evident inventions, and all were harmless. He did not bring up, my sweet old friend never did, ridiculous stories about the terrifying shadows that Judge Goldsworth's gown threw across the underworld, or about this or that beast lying in prison and positively dying of raghdirst (thirst for revenge) - crass banalities circulated by the scurrilous and the heartless - by all those for whom romance, remoteness, sealskin-lined scarlet skies, the darkening dunes of a fabulous kingdom, simply do not exist. But enough of this. Let us turn to our poet's windows. I have no desire to twist and batter an unambiguous apparatus criticus into the monstrous semblance of a novel. (note to Lines 47-48)


In a canceled variant Shade says that he likes his name, Shade, Ombre, almost "man" in Spanish:


After line 274 there is a false start in the draft:

I like my name: Shade, Ombre, almost "man"
In Spanish...

One regrets that the poet did not pursue this theme--and spare his reader the embarrassing intimacies that follow. (note to Line 275)


nubarrones = nurse + Baron


Van's and Ada's father, Demon Veen is an Irish Baron. The characters in Gorky's play Na dne ("At the Bottom," 1902) include Baron.

Alexey Sklyarenko

1 year 6 months ago

In reply to by Alexey Sklyarenko

Nurse Bellabestia ("Bess") brings to mind dikie bestii (wild creatures), as in a letter of March 5, 1889, to Suvorin Chekhov calls the gipsy singers:


Вчера ночью ездил за город и слушал цыганок. Хорошо поют эти дикие бестии. Их пение похоже на крушение поезда с высокой насыпи во время сильной метели: много вихря, визга и стука...


Last night I drove out of town and listened to the gypsies. They sing well, the wild creatures. Their singing reminds me of a train falling off a high bank in a violent snow-storm: there is a lot of turmoil, screeching and banging.


Chekhov compares the singing of the Gypsies to a train falling off a high bank in a violent snow-storm. In Part Four of VN’s novel Dar (“The Gift,” 1937), Zhizn’ Chernyshevskogo (“The Life of Chernyshevski”), Fyodor Konstantinovich points out that Belinski (a radical critic) compared Pechorin (the main character in Lermontov's “A Hero of Our Time,” 1840) to a steam engine:


Счастливее оказался Лермонтов. Его проза исторгла у Белинского (имевшего слабость к завоеваниям техники) неожиданное и премилое сравнение Печорина с паровозом, сокрушающим неосторожно попадающихся под его колёса.


Lermontov came off luckier. His prose jerked from Belinski (who had a weakness for the conquests of technology) the surprising and most charming comparison of Pechorin to a steam engine, shattering all who were careless enough to get under its wheels.


In Bela, the first novella in “A Hero of Our Time,” Maksim Maksimovich (the title character of the second novella in Lermontov’s novel) calls the natives of the Caucasus uzhasnye bestii (awful good-for-nothings):


Он лукаво улыбнулся и значительно взглянул на меня.
- Вы, верно, недавно на Кавказе?
- С год, - отвечал я.
Он улыбнулся вторично.
- А что ж?
- Да так-с! Ужасные бестии эти азиаты! Вы думаете, они помогают, что кричат? А чёрт их разберет, что они кричат? Быки-то их понимают; запрягите хоть двадцать, так коли они крикнут по-своему, быки всё ни с места... Ужасные плуты! А что с них возьмёшь?.. Любят деньги драть с проезжающих... Избаловали мошенников! Увидите, они ещё с вас возьмут на водку. Уж я их знаю, меня не проведут!


He smiled wisely, casting a glance at me as if to size me up.
"I bet you haven't been long in the Caucasus?"
"About a year," I replied.
He smiled again.
"Why do you ask?"
"No particular reason, sir. They're awful good-for-nothings, these Asiatics! You don't think their yelling helps much, do you? You can't tell what the hell they're saying. But the oxen understand them all right. Hitch up twenty of the animals if you want to and they won't budge as soon as those fellows begin yelling in their own language. . . Terrific cheats, they are. But what can you do about them? They do like to skin the traveler. Spoiled, they are, the robbers! . . . you'll see they'll make you tip them too. I know them by now, they won't fool me!"


In a letter of May 15, 1889, to Suvorin Chekhov, answering Suvorin's letter about Paul Bourget, calls the radical critic Pisarev "a belligerent Spanish monk:"


Воюют же не знания, не поэзия с анатомией, а заблуждения, т. е. люди. Когда человек не понимает, то чувствует в себе разлад; причин этого разлада он ищет не в себе самом, как бы нужно было, а вне себя, отсюда и война с тем, чего он не понимает. Во все средние века алхимия постепенно, естественным мирным порядком культивировалась в химию, астрология — в астрономию; монахи не понимали, видели войну и воевали сами. Таким же воюющим испанским монахом был в шестиде<сятых> годах наш Писарев.


In the middle ages alchemy was gradually in a natural, peaceful way changing into chemistry, and astrology into astronomy; the monks did not understand, saw a conflict and fought against it. Just such a belligerent Spanish monk was our Pisarev in the sixties.


In a letter of March 11, 1892, to Suvorin Chekhov criticizes Pisarev's attitude to Tatiana's letter to Onegin (in Chapter Three of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin):


Прочел опять критику Писарева на Пушкина. Ужасно наивно. Человек развенчивает Онегина и Татьяну, а Пушкин остается целехонек. Писарев дедушка и папенька всех нынешних критиков, в том числе и Буренина. Та же мелочность в развенчивании, то же холодное и себялюбивое остроумие и та же грубость и неделикатность по отношению к людям. Оскотиниться можно не от идей Писарева, которых нет, а от его грубого тона. Отношение к Татьяне, в частности к ее милому письму, которое я люблю нежно, кажется мне просто омерзительным. Воняет от критики назойливым, придирчивым прокурором.


It is not Pisarev's ideas that are brutalizing, for he has none, but his coarse tone. His attitude to Tatiana, especially to her charming letter, which I love tenderly, seems to me simply abominable. His criticism has the foul aroma of an insolent captious public prosecutor.


Zina Mertz's step-father in "The Gift," Boris Shchyogolev was a public prosecutor in Russia. He tells Fyodor that, if he had time, he would write a novel about a man who falls in love with a little girl and marries her mother.