Nabokov envisioned his own life as a colored spiral within a glass ball (Speak, Memory, Chapter Fourteen, 1). The spiral is, in his word, “a spiritualized circle.” The life of the poet Derzhavin (1743-1816) seems to present itself as a broken circle. It is believed that the first word he pronounced was “God.” But the poet’s last thought (for which, as Khodasevich writes in his book about him, Derzhavin could not find words) was also about God. On July 6, 1816, two days before his death, Derzhavin began to write, with chalk on a slate, the poem that would have become his best ode, if he had had the chance to finish it:
The river of time in its rush
Carries away all human cares
And drowns in the abyss of oblivion
Peoples, kingdoms and kings.
And if something remains
Through the sounds of lyre and trumpet,
Then it will be devoured by eternity’s maw
And will not escape the common fate.
Na tlennost’(“On Decay”) serves as its own refutation. The letters on the slate can not be read anymore, but the river of time turned out to be helpless to wipe away these very lines. Kapnist was right when he said that “this sound will flow from century to century,” and Derzhavin himself, in his Pamyatnik (“Exegi munumentum,” 1795), wrote that “I will not die whole, but a greater part of me, having escaped decay, will live after death.” As did Pushkin, Derzhavin “did not die whole,” and managed to escape the common fate. And, although Catherine’s bard renounces historical immortality in his last verses, he, it seems, believes in a certain personal immortality which is found in God (in Khodasevich’s opinion, there must have been talk of this in the unwritten lines). As Yuli Aikhenvald noted in his essay on another poet, Lev Mey, “poets are resurrected.” It seems to me, that Nabokov believed in this deep in his heart. In this article I will attempt to show that Ada is Nabokov’s polemical response to Derzhavin’s last poem, and, at the same time, an attempt to finish it.
After several unsuccessful attempts of Maikov and Bryusov, Vladislav Khodasevich (1886-1939), the Russian poet of genius, more or less successfully completed several of Pushkin’s fragments (“Nado mnoi v lazuri iasnoi…,” “Noch' svetla; v nebesnom pole…”). In Dar (The Gift, 1937) Nabokov himself could not resist the temptation to “resurrect” Pushkin and thought up another ending for Pushkin’s eight-line poem “Oh no, my life has not grown tedious.” Later, Nabokov wrote an ending to Pushkin’s Rusalka (“The Mermaid”), which must have been entered into the continuation of Dar. But none of the new poets, who were masters of stylization, would come near the well-known fragment by Derzhavin (if we don’t count Vl. Solovyov’s parody “Unosit vsyo reka vremyan…”). And only Osip Mandelshtam, whom Nabokov considered the most talented of those poets who did not emigrate and tried to survive in Soviet Russia, in his poem “The Slate Ode” (1924), dared, if not finish, then at least, to “continue” Derzhavin (by joining him with motifs from one of Lermontov’s last poems, “Vykhozhu odin ya na dorogu…”). Mandelshtam’s tragic fate—death in Stalin’s camps—deeply moved Nabokov. In Ada he did everything possible to save at least Mandelshtam’s fragile verses from an ignorant translator, who would horribly distort their meaning. I think that Mandelshtam’s poetry plays a much greater role in Ada than it seems, and that Nabokov conducts a hidden dialogue with the author (who, like Nabokov, was a graduate of St. Petersburg’s Tenishev School) of “The Wolfhound Century,” “The Eight-Line Poems” and “Verses on Russian Poetry.”
Mandelshtam spent the last several years of his life, before his second arrest in 1938, in exile in Voronezh, the birthplace of the poet Koltsov. Here, amidst the young Voronezh hills, he yearned for the “all-human” Tuscan hills, and composed a number of heart-rending poems, contained in the posthumous collection “The Voronezh Notebooks:”
Pusti menya, otday menya, Voronezh, –
Uronish’ ty menya il’ provoronish’,
Ty vyronish’ menya ili vernyosh’ –
Voronezh – blazh’, Voronezh – voron, nozh! Let me go, Voronezh, give me away.
Another poem from this collection, which is also constructed on assonance and alliteration, begins thus:
Ya okolo Kol’tsova
Kak sokol zakol’tsovan… Near [the poet] Koltsov
I am ringed like a falcon…
The raven and falcon are two birds which play an important role in Ada, being contrasted with each other. The main character, Van Veen, is associated with a raven, and his antagonist, Ada’s husband Andrey Vinelander is associated with a falcon. The bright falcon, the bird of Russian tales (see my “Ada as a Russian Fairy Tale Spun by the Phoenix and Sung by the Sirin” in The Nabokovian, #55), is often met in the pseudo-folksongs of Alexey Koltsov (1809-1842). The maiden usually refers to her beloved thusly in his poems, including his best known piece “Separation,” 1840:
At the hazy dawn of youth,
I loved my dear with all my soul,
There was a heavenly light in her eyes,
Her face shown with the flame of love.
What is, compared to her, you, May morn,
You, the green leafy grove.
The grass-steppe—silken brocade.
Or Eve’s twilight, night-enchantress?
You are good—when she is not here,
When one can share one’s sorrow with you.
But one doesn’t even notice you, when she’s around.
She turns winter into spring, night into a bright day!
I can not forget how I told her
At the moment before the last separation: “Good-bye, dear!
It must be Heaven that wants us to part
But may be we shall see each other again…”
Instantly her entire face flushed,
Becoming snow-white the next moment.
Sobbing like mad,
She couldn’t be torn away from my breast.
“Don’t go away! Stay but a moment! Give me the time
To stifle my grief, to sob out my sorrow,
At you, my bright falcon…”
She lost her spirit, gulping down the last word.
The first line of this poem, Na zare tumannoy yunosti (“At the hazy dawn of youth,” or “At the dawn of a hazy youth”), appears as the title of a short autobiographical story (1892) by poet-philosopher Vladimir Solovyov (1853-1900). In it the author describes an event which occurred during a trip from Moscow to Kharkov to visit one of his cousins, with whom he felt a tender and heightened feeling of love. On the trip he met a young woman, Julie (as she asked to be called), with whom he had a passing romance and to whom he experienced a moment of deep infatuation—that led to a break in his entire outlook on life. In Kharkov an explanation occurs between the young philosopher and his cousin: he suggests to Olga that she unite her fate with his, but she answers in refusal, having pleaded that she was too worldly for him. Solovyov’s story ends with the following words: “Four years later I met Julie in Italy on the Riviera, but it was that kind of meeting, which one can tell friends on Christmas Eve.”
Solovyov’s biographer S. M. Lukyanov, as well as K. V. Mochulsky, author of the book Vladimir Solovyov: Life and Teaching (Paris, 1936), believe that the Julie in the story is Nadezhda Auer, with whom fate joined Solovyov two more times: in Sorrento in 1876, four years after their first meeting, and at Lake Saima in Finland in 1895 (during the latter meeting, Auer’s 19-year old daughter, Zoya, reminded Solovyov of Katya Romanov, who had served as the prototype for the cousin in the autobiographical story). Thus Solovyov had three meetings with Julie, which correspond to the three rendez-vous which he had with the “Eternal Beloved,” that certain ideal image of the Eternal Feminine. Solovyov considered these the most important thing that happened to him in his life and described them in the autobiographical poem “Tri svidaniya” (“Three Rendez-vous,” 1898):
Triumphing over death from the start
Stilling time’s unyielding wheel with love’s art,
Eternal Beloved, your name is held hid in my heart,
But please hear my timorous song.
The Eternal Beloved first appeared to Solovyov, when he was nine, during a church service in Moscow:
Flooded with golden azure,
And Your hand holding a strange flower from a strange land,
You were there, smiling a radiant smile.
You inclined Your head, then faded into mist.
The second time Solovyov saw the face of the Eternal Beloved in the library of the British Museum in 1875; and the third rendez-vous occurred in 1876 in the Egyptian desert, where Solovyov went with the special purpose to see not just the face but the wholeof the Eternal Beloved (as she had promised him during the second rendez-vous). At the moment she appeared to him, Solovyov experienced the feeling that he could embrace and sense the whole universe:
Agown in heavenly purple glow you stood,
Eyes full of azure fire,
Your gaze was the first blaze
Of world-filling, life-giving day.
What is, what was, what shall forever be –
All, all was held here in one steady gaze...
The seas and rivers blue beneath me,
Distant woods, snow-capped peaks.
I saw all, and all was one –
A single image of womanly beauty
Pregnant with vastnesses!
Before me, in me – only You.
Radiant One! You can't fool me:
I saw all of you there in the desert.
In my soul those roses won’t wither,
Whichever way the day may whirl.
Yet but an instant! And the vision veiled.
The sun climbed the sky’s dome.
Silence, desert silence. And so my soul prayed;
While within: an endless celebration of bells!
Still the slave of the vain world's mind,
But beneath rough matter’s rind,
I've clearly seen eternal violet, rich royal purple,
And felt the warm touch of divine light!
As Solovyov himself wrote in the notes, the line “Ochami, polnymi lazurnogo ognya” (“Eyes, full of azure fire”) was borrowed from Lermontov (Lermontov’s line reads “Glazami, polnymi lazurnogo ognya”), from the poem “Kak chasto pyostroyu tolpoyu okruzhyon…” (“How often surrounded by a motley crowd…”). As a poet, Solovyov continues the Lermontov line in Russian poetry. In many respects, Aleksandr Blok, on whom Solovyov’s philosophy, especially his idea of the “Eternal Feminine” turned out to have a huge influence, also became a representative of this line. The image of the “Woman robed with the Sun” which plays such a large role in the poetry of the early Blok and the symbolists, is borrowed from Solovyov, from the ending of his “Short Tale on the Antichrist” (the full title of this work is Tri razgovora o voyne, progresse, i kontse vsemirnoy istorii, so vklyucheniem kratkoy povesti ob Antikhriste; “Three Conversations on War, Progress and the End of World History, with the Inclusion of a Short Tale on the Antichrist,” 1899).
Solovyov was not only a poet and religious philosopher-mystic, but also a prophet (whose character and way of life reminded the contemporaries of Lermontov’s Prophet). In “A Short Tale on the Antichrist” (the authorship of which is attributed to a monk named Pansophius), Solovyov attempts to foretell how history will develop over the next two centuries. It is curious to compare the philosopher’s prophecy with what really happened in the 20th century, and also with what we see on Antiterra—the twin planet of Earth, on which Ada is set. According to Solovyov, “the 20th century A.D. was the epoch of the last great wars, civil strives and Revolutions,” and in the 21st century Europe would be a union of more or less democratic governments—a United States of Europe. The largest of the external wars of the 20th century would be connected with the new Mongol yoke, which would last 50 years. It is not accidental that Solovyov took for the epigraph to his “Tale of the Antichrist” the first quatrain of his 1891 poem “Pan-Mongolism” (the first two lines of which Blok would subsequently take as his epigraph to “The Scythians”).
Pan-Mongolism! The name is monstrous
Yet it caresses my ear
As if filled with the portent
Of a grand divine fate.
Solovyov had seen the danger which threatened Russia from the East long before and would inevitably lead to a war with Japan:
From the Altai to Malaysian shores
The leaders of Eastern isles
Have gathered a host of regiments
By China's defeated walls.
Countless as locusts
And as ravenous,
Shielded by an unearthly power
The tribes move north.
O Rus! Forget your former glory:
The two-headed eagle is ravaged,
And your tattered banners passed
Like toys among yellow children.
Alas, the philosopher could not know that the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905, in which Russia, indeed, would be defeated, would only be an episode in her history during the twentieth century. He could not know that the real danger threatening Russia like a new Tartar yoke would come in 1917, soon after the destruction of the Imperial double-headed eagle, and would last not fifty, but a whole seventy years—that this danger was concealed in Russia herself.
Two echoes of Pushkin in the above-quoted excerpt are worth noting. Its first line is an allusion to the poetic formulas which Pushkin used in such verses as “Nedvizhnyi strazh dremal na tsarstvennom poroge…” (“A motionless guard slumbered at the royal threshold…”, 1824) and “Klevetnikam Rossii” (“To the Slanderers of Russia,” 1831).
These lines also seem prophetic, foretelling distant events of the mid-twentieth century, when Stalin transformed Soviet Russia into a “steel hedgehog.” Nabokov parodies in Ada Pushkin’s “geographic flourishes” (“geograficheskie fanfaronady,” Vyazemsky), describing the map of Europe: “from Scoto-Scandinavia to the Riviera, Altar and Palermontovia…” and of both Americas: “from Estoty and Canady to Argentina” (1.3). It is curious to note that “Altar” (which corresponds to our Gibraltar) differs from “Altai” only in the last consonant, and its two middle consonants appear in the middle of “Yalta” and “Altyn Tagh,” mentioned below in the same paragraph of Ada. All three geographical names with the consonantal combination “-lt-” in the middle should suggest to the reader a fourth name—Altai, reminding him of Solovyov’s poem.
Another Pushkinian echo in this poem is connected with the locust. This insect figures in Pushkin’s famous dispatch to Count Vorontsov (one should note voron, raven, in the name), the governor-general of Novorossiya, who had sent the poet into the steppe north of the Crimea to study the results of the battle with the two-winged pest: Sarancha letela, letela / i sela; / sidela, sidela, vsyo s’yela, / i vnov’ uletela (“The locust flew, flew / and settled; / sat, sat, ate everything / and flew on again”). Four and а half years later, in Poltava (1829), Pushkin again remembered the locust, when he compared them to the mass of Swedes who lay dead on the field of battle:
And the entire field was covered with the fallen,
Like with the swarms of black locust.
(“Poltava,” Canto Three, 299-300)
Thus Solovyov was not the first Russian poet to compare enemy troops with locust. But, it seems that he was the first to liken the insects to an enemy and to declare war on them not in life, but in death. In the jocular poem “The sultry city grew intolerable” (1892) Solovyov wages war—and, with the aid of his beloved turpentine, vanquishes––first red bugs (“the favorites of Lev Tolstoy”), and then German cockroaches (Blatta Germanica):
Ah, I too happened to burn
With a military ardor,
When I poured French turpentine
Over German cockroaches.
All died a sorry death,
The fight is over.
The entire izba
Smells of turpentine and violets.
But the most popular (and most “mystical”) insect for Russian poets was certainly the mosquito. Derzhavin wrote the enormous, semi-comical poem, “In Praise of the Mosquito” (1807), in which the locust is also mentioned. In this poem he compared the mosquito to a sandpiper with six feet, to a prince of the Golden Horde, to a tribe’s first chief, and even to the soul, hovering in paradise. Derzhavin ended it with the thought that he himself desired to be transformed into a mosquito after death. We meet the even more picturesque and masterful comparisons to the mosquito in Pushkin. In “Advice” (1821) he compared magazine critics to horse flies and mosquitoes, with whom it was otherwise impossible to deal with—one could only swat them with a quick epigram. In “The Tale of Tsar Saltan” (1831) with whose heroine, the Beautiful Swan Princess, Lucette is linked in Ada, Prince Gvidon is transformed into a mosquito that hides in a cranny of a ship sailing to his father Saltan's kingdom, and in his court he stings the eye of the evil aunt. Finally, in “Ezersky” (1832) Pushkin compared one of the hero's ancestors to a squashed mosquito, and a second—implicitly—to a mosquito that is drunk with human blood:
Near the Kalka
One of them was taken captive in a scuffle
And then squashed, like a mosquito,
By the Tartars’ heavy buttocks;
But to make up for it, another Ezersky, Elizar,
With glory, although with losses,
Drank the blood of the Tartars
Between the Nepryadva and the Don,
When he attacked them from the rear
With an armed force of his Suzdal men.
It’s worth clarifying that the Tartars punished their Russian captives by building benches over the bodies of the unfortunate on which they then feasted. This occurred especially after the victory on the Kalka River in 1223. Elizar Ezersky took vengeance on the Tartars (whom he attacked from the rear, like a mosquito stinging one in the backside) for the death of his ancestor at the Battle of Kulikovo (Nabokov must have noticed the mysticism of Derzhavin’s comparison of the mosquito to kulik, a sandpiper), which took place between the Don and Nepryadva Rivers in 1380.
Nabokov also dedicated several “heart-felt” lines in the English version of his memoirs, Speak, Memory (1965), to the mosquito. In the book he described the winter gnats that bit him mercilessly at night in the Mentone boardinghouse, where he lived with his wife and son at the end of thirties. It would have been impossible to swat them in the darkness; but Nabokov was able to catch the insects, replete with his blood, with the aid of a butterfly net in the morning. At the end of Chapter Eleven, dedicated to his first poem (this chapter is not found in the Russian Drugie berega), Nabokov remembers a mosquito that he squashed on his cheek by chance on a July evening in 1914, at Vyra, while reading his newly-composed poem to his mother.
But what a far greater role mosquitoes play in Ada! Pushkin, whose blood they drink in Yukonsk, exclaims “Sladko!” (“Sweet!” 1.17); Ada ecstatically scratches the bites of the culex chateaubriandi in “Ardis the First,” and many years later, voluptuously rubs a mosquito bite on her thigh in a hotel in Mont Roux (Part Four); Russian peasants damn the French and their Kamargsky Komar—while the French damn the Russians and their moustique muscovite (1.12). The mosquito even penetrates into the characters' conversations about the afterlife: “Only a Chinaman or a retarded child can imagine being met, in that Next-Installment World, to the accompaniment of all sorts tail-wagging and groveling of welcome, by the mosquito executed eighty years ago upon one’s bare leg, which has been amputated since then and now, in the wake of the gesticulating mosquito, comes back, stomp, stomp, stomp, here am I, stick me on” (5.6).
Van uses the mosquito to refute eternal life; but, however strange it may be, it is the mosquito which can serve as a proof of its existence. In the article “Ada as Nabokov’s Anti-Utopia Set on Antiterra” I showed that the word komar (mosquito) hints at Komarovskiy, the seducer and villain of Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago (1957). Pasternak was subject to persecution by the government and received the Nobel Prize for this novel, which he was forced to refuse. As a result, Pasternak wrote the poem “Nobel Prize” (1959), whose third stanza reads:
Am I a gangster or murderer?
Of what crime do I stand
Condemned? I made the whole world weep
At the beauty of my land.
Nabokov, who considered Doctor Zhivago a mediocre novel, which should never even be placed next to his Lolita, wrote these lines in parody:
What is the evil deed I have committed?
Originally, the second line of this parody looked differently: “i ya l’ ideynyi vodoley?” (“am I an ideological Aquarius?” “Perepiska s sestroi,” Ann Arbor, 1985, p. 97). Besides many other meanings, there is an allusion to horoscopes as well. Pasternak, born on February 10, 1890, was Aquarius. So was Solovyov, who was born on January 28 and writes about it in his “Inscription on the Book The Justification of the Good:
I was born under the sign of Aquarius.
Reader! Don’t be afraid of drinking water:
It is not from me, I found it in a rock,
From under the stone of truth flows this stream.
By the “stone of truth” Solovyov means the philosopher's stone, which he considers lucky enough to have found. Alas, it is impossible to say this of Pasternak, so the reader must drink the proffered water (i.e., read Doctor Zhivago) with great care (just as, in Van's words, “the Ardis tap water is not recommended:” 1.38). While Solovyov’s book, The Justification of the Good (1895),can be compared to“living water” (“zhivaya voda” of Russian fairy-tales) Pasternak’s novel should be considered its counterpart, “dead water” (it is not accidental that on Antiterra this novel is known as Les Amours du Docteur Mertvago and Mertvago Forever, mertv being Russian for “dead”). Therefore, the fourth and final stanza of “Nobel Prize” does not sound very convincing:
Even so, one step from my grave,
I believe that cruelty, spite,
The powers of darkness will in time
Be crushed by the spirit of Good.
It’s all the more remarkable that the last line echoes with the title of Solovyov’s book. Nabokov, as was Pasternak, was an optimist and believed in the final triumph of Good on Earth. Despite the fact that the present seemed to be hopeless, he believed that one day Russia would become a free country and that in the new Russia he would receive his deserved recognition. Therefore, the optimism that occurs in the last lines of his parody of Pasternak has a much firmer foundation beneath it:
Amusing, though, that at the last indention,