Numerous critical studies have been written on the theme “Pushkin and Nabokov,” exposing the powerful substratum of diverse Pushkinian citations, reminiscences, allusions, and parallels that appear in nearly all Nabokov’s Russian works.1 Much of the attention of specialists has focused on The Gift, the heroine of which, according to Nabokov himself, is Russian literature. In the aesthetic education of the protagonist, the budding poet and prose-writer Fyodor Godunov-Cherdyntsev, Pushkin plays a defining role: Fyodor “feeds” on Pushkin, “inhales”2 him, absorbs him into his creative circulatory system (“Pushkin entered his blood” [G 98]), shows him filial love (“With Pushkin’s voice merged the voice of his father. He kissed Pushkin’s hot little hand, taking it for another, large hand smelling of the breakfast kalach (a blond roll)” [G 98]); he continually refers to Pushkin in his writing, cites him (sometimes without quotation marks) and even attempts to complete one of Pushkin’s unfinished poems, “O, net, mne zhizn’ ne nadoela….” [Oh no, my life has not grown tedious…]. In fact, the entire history of Russian literature is presented in the novel as the struggle, continually renewed in fresh forms, of two primordial principles: a Pushkinian untrammeled and inspired “service of the Muses” and a Chernyshevkian-Dobroliubovian service of “general ideas.” In the biography of Chernyshevkii that constitutes the fourth chapter of The Gift, the hero is explicitly and implicitly contrasted with Pushkin in everything—from the stamp of his character as a man, made apparent by his unhappy marriage, to the stamp of his artistic and critical thought.
Given that Invitation to a Beheading was composed while Nabokov was working on The Gift, and, as has been heretofore pointed out more than once, shares with the latter a distinctive thematic kinship,3 it is easy to see clear parallels with Chernyshevskii’s fate (an unfaithful wife who deceives her husband right before his eyes, imprisonment in a fortress, public execution in a square, etc.). Starting from these more or less obvious thematic correspondences, two specialists, Nora Buhks and A. Danilevskii, in recent works on Invitation to a Beheading, arrive at the conclusion (apparently independently), that the image of Cincinnatus C., the novel’s main character, is a parodic reflection of Chernyshevskii and his Utopian dreams. According to this extremely doubtful interpretation, Nabokov realizes, as it were, the Utopia depicted by Chernyshevskii in the novel “What Is to Be Done?” and places in it a most luckless “dreamer.”4
Although the grotesque image of a future world in Invitation to a Beheading certainly has evident dystopian features and thus can be compared to the “New Russia” from Vera Pavlovna’s fourth dream, identifying Nabokov’s Cincinnatus with Nabokov’s Chernyshevskii is fundamentally incorrect. In his cast of mind, the “nearsighted” Chernyshevskii—a militant doctrinaire with “eyes like a mole” (G 208), an apologist for vulgar, platitudinous “common sense” in which a “fatal flaw” lurks (G 207), an ungifted graphomaniac, to whom an understanding of poetry is inaccessible—is the complete antithesis of the “lawlessly lucid” dreamer Cincinnatus, who is gifted with secret knowledge, genuine gnosis, and who sees the “fatal flaw”5 in the world surrounding him.6 In terms of the central historico-cultural dichotomy of The Gift, Cincinnatus belongs not to the lineage of Chernyshevskii, but to the lineage of Pushkin; it is for this reason that Nabokov himself in an interview bluntly refers to Cincinnatus as a poet.7 He insists on this conception of Invitation to a Beheading in his recommendations to the author of a stage adaptation of the book: “C. must be seen as a poet, a creator,” Véra Nabokov wrote to the playwright on behalf of her husband. “This characterizes his thought, his approach to life and to his compatriots, and, of course, to his wife. My husband thinks there should be some samples of what C. thinks or writes.”8
Not having written a single line of poetry, but by means of his “criminal intuition” (I 93) sensing “how words are combined, what one must do for a commonplace word to come alive and share its neighbor’s sheen, heat, shadow” (I 93), Cincinnatus is a poet in the Blokian sense: he is a “son of harmony” who feels a secret connection with a “native realm” and who wishes to express it “in spite of the world’s muteness.” He recognizes in himself “a force which urges [him] to express [himself]” (I 95); he is moved by a desire to “to record, to leave something” (I 52); he writes his untrammeled lyrical prose with no hope at all of being read and understood, for, besides himself, “there is in the world not a single human who can speak [his] language” (I 95), but only to embody his vision of the world: “all that impossible, dazzling freedom” (I 122). When Nabokov speaks of the impulse of his hero for freedom, of his almost incorporeal lightness, calling imagination his “secret life” (I 75) his “secret medium” (I 32), wherein he creates “freely and happily” (I 32), he is clearly referring to the central thesis of Blok’s well-known article “On the Poet’s Calling,” in which Pushkin’s poetical consciousness takes shape through the notion of light, happy creative will and “secret freedom,” which is stripped from the poet by a militant mob.9
Echoing Blok, Nabokov himself in an article on Pushkin notes that “a poet must be as free, savage, and solitary as Pushkin intended a hundred years ago,”10 and this trait he allots in full measure to the hero of Invitation to a Beheading. It is precisely because of the “secret freedom” they despise in him that Cincinnatus is persecuted by his watchful fellow citizens—the same mob, which, as defined by Nabokov always “requires death for those who rise above platitudinous equality”11 that destroyed Pushkin.
But in the novel Cincinnatus is not merely the persecuted, hounded, castigated poet, sent to the scaffold by an exultant mob. He is also in the most literal sense the last poet, like the hero of Baratynskii’s “The Last Poet,” who finds himself in an “enfeebled world,” from which “all childish dreams of poetry … have vanished,”12 or in the formulation of Cincinnatus himself: “the ancient inborn art of writing is long since forgotten […] today it seems just as incredible as the music that once used to be extracted from a monstrous pianoforte” (I 93). If we recall Pushkin’s “Pamiatnik” (Monument, or, in Nabokov’s own translation, “Exegi Monumentum”), then Cincinnatus is that “one last bard” in the sublunar world,13 in which the spirit of Pushkin, his “sacred lyre,” endures. Placed in a situation that recalls Chernyshevskii’s fate, Nabokov’s hero reveals a secret kinship not with the author of “What Is to Be Done?” but with Pushkin, to whom his creative genealogy can be traced.
The blood ties between Pushkin and Cincinnatus are hinted at even by the latter’s odd Latinate name, which in the critical literature is either left without explanation or traced to the historical commander and ploughman Cincinnatus, the model of Roman civic virtue, and to his son, also Cincinnatus, exiled from Rome.14 But this association with the Roman heroes is a false trail, a snare deliberately laid by Nabokov. It is disproved in the scene of the pre-execution banquet, in which the legend of Cincinnatus, who consistently refused power and honors in favor of the modest joys of country life, is forthrightly projected not onto the hero-martyr, but onto his executioner, M’sieur Pierre.15 “It may seem odd to you”—says the executioner to the “sated guests, their bellies gurgling”—“but fame and honor are nothing to me compared to rural quiet. […] The love of nature was bequeathed to me by my father, who never lied either” (I 186). The legend of the Roman Cincinnatus is here ironically combined with the legend of General George Washington—the “Cincinnatus of the West” as Byron referred to him in his “Ode to Napoleon”16 —who, according to the widely known myth, “cannot tell a lie.”17 The “civic” line originating with the historical Cincinnatus (and, undoubtedly, implicitly including Chernyshevskii18), leads, in Nabokov’ view, to the executioner; for the hero of Invitation to a Beheading, the very semantics of his name are timely, since it signifies “curly-headed,” “frizzy-haired,” thereby referring us to the stock description of Pushkin’s visual appearance.19
Gathering material for The Gift, Nabokov
carefully studied Vikentii Veresaev’s compilation Pushkin in
Life,20 and certainly could not have failed to notice the selection
of uniform descriptions of the poet’s outward appearance tabulated
Pushkin’s curly hair, invariably emphasized by both memoirists and in the iconographical canon, gives a stable epithet to his name in the literature, which eventually developed into the antonomastic phrase “curly/frizzy poet.”22 The first person to use the epithet “frizzy” in relation to Pushkin seems to be F. Glinka in the poem “Recollections of Pushkin’s Bardic Life” (1837), who sets off the epithet as an innovation with italics and explains in a footnote: “In a portrait of Pushkin as he appeared for the first time as a captive in the Caucasus, he is depicted with a cheerful countenance, with frizzy hair.”23 The new term quickly became a poetic cliché. In the work of Apollon Grigor’ev, for example, Pushkin is the songster “with frizzy head crowned by laurels”; in Benediktov, “black-frizzed, fiery-eyed”; in Apukhtin, a “curly[-headed] boy”24 in Nekrasov’s poem, “Russian Women,” Mariia Volkonskaia “rushed past with the curly[-headed] poet.” In the 20th century, the formula crossed over to historical and biographical prose. Tynianov in Kiukhlia first uses it in the scene of the hero’s entrance to the Lyceum, when the “curly-[headed], sharp-eyed boy” Sasha approaches him, and later is “estranged” in the final episode of Kiukhel’beker’s dying vision: “Directly above him was a frizzy head. It laughed, bared its teeth, and, in jest, tickled his eyes with its reddish curls. The curls were fine and cold.”25 It is curious that in Ivan Lukash’s story “The Bad Negro Child,” the newborn Pushkin already has “curly hair.”26 Even Nabokov himself, who habitually shunned clichés, mentions in The Defense a large volume of Pushkin with a “portrait of a thick-lipped, curly-headed boy.”27
The traditional epithet continues to be used by many poets—Sasha Chernyi, for example, in whose “Pushkin’s Nanny” we glimpse the “shadow of a poet with a curly head,”28 or Marina Tsvetaeva in the early “Meeting with Pushkin,” in which he is called a “curly[-headed] magus.”29 In the late poem by Tsvetaeva “Peter and Pushkin,” frizzy hair is a symbol of Pushkin’s love of freedom and rebelliousness:
And having smacked his
Since Nabokov, as a rule, carefully considered the semantics and associative aura of the names of his characters, it is difficult to imagine that he did not take into account the connection between the name Cincinnatus and the “curly[-headed] magus.” The kinship of the hero of Invitation to a Beheading with Pushkin is also obliquely pointed to by his distinctive physical characteristics—small stature, unusual lightness, bright curls. The key that compels us to see in these parallels not chance coincidence but a disguised Pushkinian code is served in the novel by the “rag dolls for schoolgirls” (I 27) the manufacture of which Cincinnatus is engaged in prior to his arrest. Their enumeration reveals a “little hairy Pushkin in a fur carrick” (I 27)31 —in a way, the model after which the slight, curly-headed Cincinnatus has been fashioned.32 Even the deliberately inaccurate epithet “hairy” here clearly replaces the implied (and anticipated, in accordance with tradition), “curly[-headed],” a device typical of Nabokov for concealing an especially significant word that is easy to restore from the immediate context.
The clothing worn by the doll-like Pushkin was chosen with equal care by Nabokov. The mention of the “fur carrick” should be seen as a reference to very important testimonies included in Veresaev’s book. First, a carrick (bekesh’) occupies a central place in a fragment from the recollections of N.M. Kolmakov: “Amidst the public strolling along the Nevsky it was often possible to glimpse A.S. Pushkin, but he, arresting and attracting the attention of each and everyone, was not startling because of his dress, on the contrary, his hat was far from being distinguished by its newness, and his long carrick was also old-fashioned. I will not be sinning against posterity if I say that his carrick was missing a button on the waist at the back. The absence of this button embarrassed me every time I met A. S-ch and saw it.”33
Nabokov, seeing this missing button as a kind of symbol of poetical disdain for the “full-dress uniform of worldly existence,” is undoubtedly alluding to this very story, for he juxtaposes this figure of Pushkin with the doll of Dobroliubov, “all buttoned up” (I 27). The pair of dolls reproduces in miniature, as it were, the central antithesis in The Gift, thanks to which Cincinnatus’s undisciplined nonconformity, his “unbuttonedness,” is endowed with a cultural-typological motivation.
No less significant for Invitation to a Beheading is the carrick mentioned in Zhukovskii’s notes on Pushkin’s preparations for his duel with Dantès: “Began to dress; thoroughly washed, everything clean; ordered he be given his carrick; went out to the stairs – came back – ordered he be given the large fur coat in his study and went on foot to the cab driver. – This was at 1 o’clock sharp.”34
Pushkin in a fur carrick is thus Pushkin at the fatal moment when his destiny will be definitively decided, Pushkin on the eve of his duel and of death. Pushkin’s death, the almost sacred archetype of the theme of the death of the poet in Russian literature—a theme that lies at the foundation of Invitation to a Beheading—is reflected in a series of key episodes in the novel. Sentenced to execution, Cincinnatus is not given a moment’s peace from the same question which the dying Pushkin addressed to Dal’: “Dal’, tell me the truth, will I die soon?”35 Cincinnatus addresses Emmie, who has promised him escape, using almost exactly the same words “Tell me, when shall I die?” (I 47). As Gavriel Shapiro has shown, another of Pushkin’s dying exclamations, brought out in Dal’s notes, is echoed in the novel: “Ah, what anguish! My heart is tormented!”36 A similar phrase first crops up as a refrain in the “speech zone” of the narrator, who seems to address his character (“What anguish! Cincinnatus, what anguish! What stone anguish, Cincinnatus…” [I 48]),37 and is then transposed into the hero’s interior monologue (“What anguish, Cincinnatus, how many crumbs in the bed! […] Anguish, anguish, Cincinnatus. Pace some more, Cincinnatus, brushing with your robe first the walls, then the chair. Anguish!”) and, finally, repeated in his first authorial experiment: “Oh, my anguish—what shall I do with you, with myself? […] What anguish, oh, what anguish…” (I 48-53).38 Alluding to Pushkin’s demise, this exclamation, on the one hand, foreshadows Cincinnatus’s imminent agonizing death, but on the other, points him toward his destiny, impelling him to begin reading the books and newspapers of “a barely remembered age” (I 50), and then to begin to write.
But Pushkin’s dying words are not the only subtext of the Nabokovian refrain. According to the account of N.M. Smirnov, when Pushkin was in low spirits, he would “walk mournfully around the room, pursing his lips, his hands thrust into the pockets of his wide trousers, and dejectedly repeat ‘Sad! Anguish!’”39 Finally, in “Fragments of Onegin’s Journey” and in the emphatic “Anguish, anguish” in the stanzas removed from them, just as in Nabokov’s work, a refrain expressing the hero’s frame of mind “dimmed by sadness” remains. Commingling all these sources, Nabokov in a lecture on Pushkin places Onegin’s formula in the mouth of the poet himself, who, as he writes, triumphs over anguish and despair: “Let misfortune nip at his heels, let slanderers scribble lampoons and denunciations, let all life be barbarous and dulled, like a feverish night in a sordid cook-shop beside a washed-out road […] – and so burdensome is it to live that one can only sigh ‘Anguish, anguish’ […] – but what does it matter – wrongs irresistibly retreat as soon as lines of verse, along with the country drizzle, begin to sputter forth.”40
The subtexts are commingled in precisely the same way in Invitation to a Beheading, in which Cincinnatus—as a poet overcoming anguish and the fear of death—is correlated with the high standard set by Pushkin’s biographies, but—as a conventional literary character originating in the consciousness of an all-seeing and omniscient author—is correlated with the forms and hero’s of Pushkin’s works. In the fourth chapter of the novel, for example, after Cincinnatus’s question “tell me, when shall I die?” (I 47) and the repeated exclamation “What anguish!” which introduces the theme of the death of the poet, there follows the phrase “He lamented for a while, groaned, cracked all his joints, then got up from the cot, put on the abhorred dressing gown, and began to wander around [poshel brodit’]” (I 48-49). The expression “poshel brodit’,” which Nabokov in his commentary to Eugene Onegin renders as “began to roam,” immediately evokes three of Pushkin’s texts: the lines from Onegin’s Journey devoted to the poet Tumanski (“Upon arriving, he, like a true poet / went off to roam [poshel brodit’] with his lorgnette / alone above the sea; and then / with an enchanting pen / he glorified the gardens of Odessa”41); “The Bronze Horseman” (“He stood; began to roam and suddenly / Stopped – and all around / Quietly cast his gaze / With wild fear on his face”); and to “The Wanderer”:
I began to roam anew, -- tormented by dejection
As surprising as it may seem, all three Pushkinian subtexts turn out to be thematically relevant for Invitation to a Beheading. The lines from Onegin’s Journey—a tribute of friendship to an obviously less gifted, but aesthetically not dissimilar poet—models the relationship of the author to the hero in the novel (cf. also the important motif of the Tamara Gardens, which “glorify” Cincinnatus). The terrible clarity of thought and the seditiousness of the “poor madman” in “The Bronze Horseman” recalls the clarity of thought and seditiousness of Cincinnatus (it is hardly by chance that the narrator of the novel addresses his hero exactly as Pushkin does Onegin: “My poor little Cincinnatus” [I 65]; “But my poor, poor Eugene…”). Finally, the allegory of “The Wanderer,” in which deliverance from the worldly, overcoming fear of death, and spiritual enlightenment are depicted as escape from a city that is doomed to “flames and winds” (cf. the whirlwind that demolishes the city in the finale of Invitation to a Beheading) and equated with the escape of a prisoner from prison, finds itself a close parallel to the novel’s poetics and to the hero’s existential situation.42 The lament of Pushkin’s “spiritual toiler”:
…I am condemned to death and summoned to a postexistent court –
corresponds directly with what Cincinnatus writes before his execution:
It makes me ashamed to be afraid, but I am desperately afraid. […] For I know that horror of death is nothing really, a harmless convulsion—perhaps even healthful for the soul […] nevertheless, look, dummies, how afraid I am, how everything in me trembles, and dins, and rushes—and any moment now they will come for me, and I am not ready… (I 192-193).
Especially distinct references
to “The Wanderer” (as well as his lexically similar “The
Prophet”) are to be found in the passage in which Cincinnatus uses
the image of a “third eye” as a symbol of his secret knowledge:
“a mad eye, wide open, with a dilating pupil” (I 92-93; cf.
in “The Wanderer”: “With painfully open eye began to
stare”; in “The Prophet”: “Prophetic pupils opened”
and “stirred in my opened breast”).
Save these jottings [eti listy, literally, these sheets]—I do not know whom I ask, but save these jottings [eti listy]—I assure you that such a law exists, look it up, you will see!—let them lie around for a while—how can that hurt you?—and I ask you so earnestly—my last wish—how can you not grant it? (I 194)
paraphrases the pre-death monologue of Pushkin’s Chénier:
Fulfill my last wish:
By placing Cincinnatus on the same footing as André Chénier and Lenski, Nabokov accentuates and sharpens the most important aspect of the theme of the death of the poet—the question of the immortality of his works, in which he will remain alive for the ages, or, in the classical formula of Horace, Derzhavin and Pushkin, “not wholly die” (non omnis moriar). Pushkin’s Chénier sets out to be executed, certain that oblivion, rather than immortality, awaits his “sheets”:
…the austere world, lofty renown
But this law of the poet’s fate, to which Cincinnatus appeals, gathers these “sheets” into the cultural memory, as evidenced by Pushkin’s verses devoted to Chénier, framed by the epigraph and commentary with citations from the poems he wrote on the eve of his death.
The youth-poet in Eugene Onegin (whom the author, incidentally, calls “my poor Lenski” and treats with the same gentle, affectionate irony with which the narrator of Invitation to a Beheading speaks of Cincinnatus) also foresees oblivion for himself:
Whilst I, perhaps—I shall descend
But as the author emphasizes, Lenski’s dying elegiac verses “chanced to be preserved,”45 and the author includes fragments of them in his novel, thanks to which even the naïve and unskilled “young bard” does not wholly die.
Although Cincinnatus dreams that “Some day someone would read it and would suddenly feel just as if he had awakened for the first time in a strange country” (I 51-52), his absolute solitude in a world that has forsaken the creative spirit leaves him no hope of repeating the posthumous fate of André Chénier. At the very end, even he himself understands that to await recognition from the world of “here” is senseless, and that he is destined for “dust and oblivion” (I 211).
My papers you will destroy, the rubbish you will sweep out, the moth will fly away at night through the broken window, so that nothing of me will remain within these four walls, which are already about to crumble (I 211).
Cincinnatus is compelled to write only by the feeling that the “force which urges [him] to express [him]self” (I 95), having endowed him with the “guilty flame” (I 75) of imagination and freedom, is not of this world and that he is addressing not the imaginary transient “here” but the eternal “there,” where “the freaks that are tortured here walk unmolested” (I 94) and where their works are preserved.46 He realizes that the artist’s task (the same as “the poet’s calling” according to Blok), is “a task of not now and not here” (I 93), and this is why, comparing his prose with the timeless forms of “ancient verse,”47 he falls to despairing over his own creative inferiority. In fact, one of the fundamental themes of his notes is their inadequacy to express his secret knowledge. Cincinnatus speaks continually of his zavist' k poetam (envy of poets; cf. I 194), of his lack of skill in combining words, of his inability to express thought and attain harmony. But his self-reflection is itself poetic in nature, and in it a Pushkinian voice distinctly sounds:
Or will nothing come of what I am trying to tell, its only vestiges being the corpses of strangled words, like hanged men… evening silhouettes of gammas and gerunds, gallow crows— (I 90).48
Cincinnatus’s metaphors and the musicality of his sentences hearken back to Pushkin’s last major poem, “Alphonse on Horseback,” which remained unfinished:
Encircled by wasteland, desolation, the destitute
Cincinnatus’s lyrical prose, to use the formula from The Gift, “feeds on Pushkin,” absorbs and transmutes Pushkin’s forms, thereby demonstrating it own participation in timeless tradition.
It is precisely this tradition with which the godlike author, preserving Cincinnatus’s writings in the novel, identifies, just as the author of Eugene Onegin preserves Lenski’s poems. The name itself, what Blok called “the cheering name Pushkin,” becomes his secret watchword—a sign that he gives both to the hero and to readers in those key moments in which the theme of poetic immortality is touched upon. An anagram of “A.S. Pushkin” is easy to discern in the Russian original in the first description of “litsa tsinitsINnatA, S PUSHKom na upalykh shchekakh” (“Cincinnatus’s face […] with fuzz on its sunken cheeks” [I 120]), which underlines not the outward, but the internal indications of the hero—those to which his “fleshy incompleteness” (I 120) points, the transparency of his skin and hair, the radiance of his eyes, as if “one side of his being slid into another dimension” (I 121). The “real life” of Cinicinnatus, about which Nabokov speaks in this passage, is an emanation from the immortal creative spirit, a “draft” from the otherworld, and Pushkin’s name, concealed in the portrait, reveals the dual significance inherent in Nabokov’s plan.
Analogous anagrams are to be found in the novel’s culminating scene, when the hero, having just written on the last sheet of paper the word “death” and then immediately crossing it out, notices “korIchNevyi PUSHoK” (“little brown fuzz” [I 206])49—the trace left in his cell by the mysterious moth—and soon discovers the moth itself, with “visionary wings” (I 206): “…vot tol’ko zhalko bylo mokhnatoi spINy, gde PUSHoK v odnom meste stersia […] no gramadnye temnye kryl’ia s ikh pepl’noi oPUSHKoi I vechNo otverstymi ochami, byli neprikosvenny…” (“…only he was sorry for the downy back where the fuzz had rubbed off leaving a bald spot […] but the great dark wings, with their ashen edges and perpetually open eyes, were inviolable…” [I 206]).
The expression vechno otverstye ochi (“perpetually open eyes”), which again refers us to the open pupils of “The Prophet” and the painfully open eye of “The Wayfarer,” is evidence that the echoes of Pushkin’s name in the description of the moth are by no means chance coincidences or a researcher’s fantasy. In Nabokov’s view, Pushkin’s “divine spirit”50 is eternal, and the authorial consciousness in the novel is but one of its embodiments. It is Pushkin’s heir, and bequeaths, in its turn, “open eyes” and a gift for language to the novel’s hero, who vanquishes (“crosses out”) death. The Pushkinian moth seen at that moment by Cincinnatus (and be it noted, only by Cincinnatus) is a sign granted to the hero of parental benevolence, recalling that for heirs to the eternal spirit of poetry, death is only a stage of metamorphosis.
In an especially important episode in the novel, when Cincinnatus attempts to learn from his mother who his mysterious father is, she utters the deeply significant phrase “‘Tol’ko golos, -- litsa ne vidala’” (“‘Only his voice—I didn’t see the face’” [I 133]). It is impossible not to notice that this phrase (like his mother’s other reply, “‘Bol’she vam nichego skazhu’” [“‘I am not going to tell you anything more’” (I 134)], a paraphrase of Fet’s “I will tell you nothing”) takes the form of a line of verse—anapestic trimester, which in and of itself discloses Cincinnatus’s secret lineage. He is a son of the poetical word, the divine Logos,51 referred to in Eugene Onegin as a “life-creating voice,” and the story of his conception is but a concretization of Pushkin’s metaphor. If we recall that the mother of the “curly-headed” hero bears the sacred name Cecilia, revered in Romantic literature as the patroness of harmony,52 his genealogy acquires the features of the universal myth about the birth of poetry as the union of language and music. This is confirmed by yet another line (this time, amphibrachic), with which Cecilia C. responds to her son’s questioning about his father: “On tozhe, kak vy, TSintsinnat” (“He was also like you, Cincinnatus…” [I 133]). At issue, of course, is the essential intrinsic affinity of all creative intelligences, the blood ties between all genuine artists in world culture—right down to the imaginary last poet in a future world. Taking leave of Cincinnatus, Cecilia C. (or, more accurately, the godlike author pulling the strings of his obedient marionette) gives him a veiled sign of his immortal stock, “delaia neveroiatnyi malen’kii zhest, a imenno stavliaia ruki s protianutymi ukazatel’nymi pal’tsami, kak by pokazyvaia razmer, --dlinu, skazhem, mladentsa…” (“making an incredible little gesture, namely, holding her hands apart with index fingers extended, as if indicating size—the length, say, of a babe…” [I 136]). Nabokov uses here to good effect not only the Biblical aphorism “...and the measure with which you measure will be measured out to you” (Matthew 7:2)53 but also the musico-literary meaning of the word razmer (measure, implied rather than explicit in the English version) as the basis of harmony, of rhythmic structure. The word takes us back to the theme of the poet’s immortality, insofar as in an ode that serves as a model for poems entitled “Monument” by Derzhavin and by Pushkin, Horace calls his chief merit, thanks to which “the best part of [him] evades burial [literally, ‘escapes the goddess of death’” (“multaque pars mei vitabit Libitinam”), bringing “Aeolian song” into Italic “measures” (“ad italos… modos”).54 The maternal farewell gesture thus promises immortality to the “best part” of Cincinnatus55—his poetical voice, which, like the voice of his primogenitor, belongs not to time, but to eternity.
In Baratynskii’s “The Last Poet,”56 the hero, like Cincinnatus the “unheralded child of Nature's dying strength,” “Apollo’s heir,” a solitary rebel, rejected by humankind, which has degenerated into a “lifeless skeleton”—casts himself into the sea, in which he buries “his vision and his futile gift,” while the world continues to shine with “heartless splendor.” In the finale of Invitation to a Beheading, Nabokov inverts Barantynskii’s gloomy prophecy. When the head of his “last poet” is chopped off, not the poet, but the “sublunar world,” having lost the last reason for its existence, dies.
Everything was coming apart. Everything was falling. A spinning wind was picking up and whirling: dust, rags, chips of painted wood, bits of gilded plaster, pasteboard bricks, posters; an arid gloom fleeted; and amidst the dust, and the falling things, and the flapping scenery, Cincinnatus made his way in that direction where, to judge by the voices, stood beings akin to him (I 223).
As is the case with Cincinnatus’s invisible father, the sole attribute of the beings “akin to him” who meet him in the otherworld is their voices: borne of voice and having found his own voice, the hero “does not wholly die,” and his “best part” returns to its “native realm.” The voice motif compels us to see in the novel’s finale a variation on the classical theme of the meeting of poets in the hereafter, which had undergone a wide diffusion in the Russian poetry of the first half of the 19th century.57 It is paid tribute by, among others, Pushkin, who in the first stanza of “André Chénier” responds to Byron’s death, placing his shade in a poetic Elysium, where it hearkens to a “choir of European lyres / near Dante.” Nabokov himself uses the archaic topic of an Elysian meeting in early, rather unsuccessful poems on the deaths of Blok and Gumilev: his Blok finds himself in paradise, where he is welcomed by the shades of the “divine bards” Pushkin, Lermontov, Tiutchev, and Fet, while his Gumilev “in the Elysian silence” converses with Pushkin of “bronze Peter and of the wild African winds”58
But the main subtext of the concluding sentence of Invitation to a Beheading must be sought not in “André Chénier” and not in Nabokov’s early verse, but in the Dante referred to by Pushkin—more specifically, in the fourth canto of “Hades,” in which a meeting with the spirits of the great poets of antiquity is recounted. Making his way toward them after awakening from a dream, Dante at first cannot clearly discern the noble inhabitants of Limbo and only hears a certain voice (voce), addressed to his guide Virgil:
Intanto voce fu per me udita:
Immediately after this, Virgil explains to Dante that the shades of Homer, Horace, Ovid, and Lucien are greeting him, since they are all linked by a common name, uttered by a “lone voice” (“la voce sola”)—or, in other words, they all share the lofty title of poet and possess a voice conferring immortality upon them.
The finale of Invitation
to a Beheading, in which the hero-poet, having awoken from a worldly
dream, approaches an assembly of beings akin to himself and hears their
voices, is a clear parallel to the episode from “Hades.” Throughout
the novel, his author does not conceal the fact that Cincinnatus is no
more than a fiction borne of his fantasy,59 and therefore we cannot know
exactly what kind of Elysian meeting has been prepared for him—that
same meeting with Pushkin, which Nabokov imagined for Blok and Gumilev
(and, perhaps, for himself), or a gathering of other literary character-poets
like Pushkin’s André Chénier and Lenski. Only one
thing can be said with certainty: whatever the case, at that meeting it
is not the “high, edifying voice” of Chernyshevskii, but the
“life-creating voice”60 of Pushkin that must surely resound.
1. See especially the works of S. Davydov: S. Davydov, “Nabokov and Pushkin,” in Transactions of the Association of Russian-American Scholars in the U.S.A., 1987, Vol. 20, pp. 190-204; S. Davydov, “‘Pushkinskie vesy’ V. Nabokova,” in Iskusstvo Leningrada, 1991, No. 6, pp. 39-46; S. Davydov, “Weighing Nabokov’s Gift on Pushkin’s Scales,” in Cultural Mythologies of Russian Modernism: From the Golden Age to the Silver Age, ed. by Boris Gasparov et al. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), pp. 415-439; S. Davydov, “Nabokov and Pushkin,” in The Garland Companion to Vladimir Nabokov, ed. by V. Alexandrov (New York: Garland, 1995), pp. 482-495.
2. V. Nabokov, The Gift, trans. by Michael Scammell with the collaboration of the author (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1963), p. 97. Subsequent page references, preceded by G, are to this edition.
3. On this topic see B. Boyd, Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton UP, 1990), pp. 416-417; A. Dolinin, “The Gift,” in The Garland Companion to Vladimir Nabokov, pp. 136-137; J. Connolly, “Invitation to a Beheading: Nabokov’s Violin in a Void,” in Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading: A Critical Companion, ed. by Julian W. Connolly (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press : American Association of Teachers of Slavic and East European Languages, 1997), pp. 32-33.
4. See N. Buhks, Eshafot v krustal’nom dvortse. O russkikh romanakh Vladimira Nabokova (Moskva: Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 1998), pp. 115-137 (the chapter referred to was published earlier, twice, in article form: Cahiers du monde russe et sovietique, 1994, Vol. XXXV, No. 4, pp. 821-838; Zvezda, 1996, 1996, No. 11, pp. 157-167); A. Danilevskii, “N.G. Chernyshevskii v ‘Priglashenii na kazn’’ V. Nabokova (Ob odnom iz podteksta romana),” in Trudy po russkoi i slavianskoi filologiii. Literaturovedenie (Tartu: Tartu Ülikooli Kirjastus) 1996, T. II (Novaia seriia), pp. 209-225.
5. V. Nabokov, Invitation to a Beheading, trans. by Dmitri Nabokov in collaboration with the author (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1959), p. 205. Subsequent page references, preceded by I, are to this edition. Page references to Priglashenie na kazn’ are to Sobranie sochinenii russkogo perioda v piati tomakh (Sankt-Peterburg : Simposium, 1999-2000), t. 4, and are preceded by P.
13. The important theme in Invitation to a Beheading of the moon, linked to the hero’s exits—both imaginary and real—beyond the confines of the enclosed space can probably be traced to the line from “Pamiatnik” “I slaven budu ia, dokol’ v podlunnom mire / Zhiv khot’ odin piit” (which Nabokov once translated as “And my sublunar fame will dwell / As long as there is one last bard alive”). Cincinnatus’s first fantasy of escape includes a reference to a poet’s monument: “Cincinnatus ran out into a circular plaza where the moon stood watch over the familiar statue of a poet” (I 19). Cincinnatus’s departure from the fortress to the banquet before the execution, to which he is led along “kremnistiymi tropami” (“a flinty path” [I 181]—an obvious allusion to Lermontov’s image of a “kremnistyi put’” [stony path]), also comprises the moon motif: the episode concludes with the ambiguous phrase “The moon had already been removed” (I 191), which presages the imminent destruction of the “sublunar world.”
15. Characteristic signs accentuated in descriptions of the executioner—his “wonderfully white skin” (I 114) and “white biceps” (I 219)—as well as a series of details in the episode of the execution (heavy axe, jovial executioner, buzz of the crowd) recall the execution scene in Pushkin’s “Poltava”:
In the middle of the field the fatal stage,It should be noted that the words topor (axe) and ropot (murmuring) appear in close proximity in Pushkin’s text and constitute a palindrome that is actualized in Invitation to a Beheading. Cf. “Voz'mi-ka slovo "ropot", -- govoril TSintsinnatu ego shurin, ostriak, -- i prochti obratno. A? Smeshno poluchaetsia? Da, brat, -- vliapalsia ty v istoriiu” (P 108) (literally, “Take the word ropot [murmur],” Cincinnatus’s brother-in-law, the wit, was saying to him. And now read it backwards. Eh? Comes out funny, doesn’t it? Yes, friend, you’ve really got yourself in a mess.” The palindrome being lost in English, Nabokov settled for wordplay that retains the reference to axe: “Take the word ‘anxiety,’” Cincinnatus’s brother-in-law, the wit, was saying to him. “Now take away the word ‘tiny’, Eh? Comes out funny, doesn’t it? Yes, friend, you’ve really got yourself in a mess” [I 103-104]; Translator's note).
17. The apocryphal phrase “I cannot tell a lie” derives, of course, from the legendary incident in which the young Washington, when asked by his father who chopped town his favorite tree, acknowledges his guilt.
18. It is interesting that in an article dedicated to memory of the Kazan jurist D.I. Meier, Chernyshevskii writes: “The characters of ancient heroes, with poetical embellishments, have come down to us—the Reguluses and Cincinnatuses, who ploughed the soil of their tiny plots with the same zeal as they worked for the salvation of the motherland—we do not believe that they were thus in reality. But such natures are to be encountered in our midst.” Among contemporary Cincinnatuses he counts “heroes of civic life, all of whose powers are dedicated to the realization of the ideas of truth and goodness”—and that such men, like the “inflexibly upright” Meier, thereby recall the “great commander and ruler” George Washington as the epitome of “civic valor” (See N.G. Chernyshevskii. Polnoe sobranie sochinenii v piatnadtsati tomakh [Moskva: Gosudarstvennoe izd. "Khudozh. Lit-ra,"1939-], t. 4, Stati i retsenzii 1856-1857, pp. 670-672. A question arises: was it this article that prompted Nabokov to give the “civic” name to his hero-poet and thereby invert the opposition poet/citizen common in the 1860s?
19. In the literature on Invitation to a Beheading the meaning of the Latin adjective cincinnatus has previously been noted, but the explanations offered for the theme of “curly-headedness” cannot be considered fully satisfactory. Nora Buhks avers that Cincinnatus is a fallen angel and that his golden curls mimic an angel’s halo (See N. Buhks, op. cit., p. 133, note 18), whereas Gavriel Shapiro sees in the hero’s significant name an allusion to Lenski’s “shoulder-length black curls” in Eugene Onegin (See G. Shapiro, Delicate Markers: Subtexts in Vladimir Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading [New York: Peter Lang, 1998], p. 135, note 21).
22. The prototype for this formula appears to be a line about Korsakov from “19 oktiabria” (19 October) by Pushkin himself: “He did not come, our frizzy songster”— and the fact that Pushkin applies the term to someone else (as if forwarding mail originally addressed to him) heightens its significance. I am indebted for this observation to B.A. Kats, with whom I discussed the basic ideas of this article to great benefit and to whom I am grateful for advice and encouragement.
31. The Russian word Nabokov chose to render as “fur carrick” is bekesh’, defined in Dal’s dictionary as a “siurtuk, kaftanchik ili chekmenek na mekhu” (frock-coat, short caftan or chekmen of fur). A more recent Russian dictionary, Slovar’ russkogo iazyka v chetyrekh tomakh (Moskva: Gos. izd-vo inostrannykh i natsional’nykh slovarei, 1957-1961) gives the term in an alternate form, bekesha, defines it as a “muzhskoe pal’to starinnogo pokroia so sborkami v talii” (a man’s overcoat of old-fashioned cut with gathers at the waist), and cites an example of its usage from Lev Tolstoy’s Detstvo (Childhood). The word derives from the Hungarian bekeš. Elsewhere Nabokov uses “carrick” to render the Russian word shinel’ (overcoat, greatcoat), the original title of Gogol’s famous short story “The Overcoat.” For Nabokov’s sketch of a “furred carrick,” see his Lectures on Russian Literature (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich/Bruccoli Clark, 1980), p. 56. The carrick coat, named after English actor David Carrick, supposedly the first person to have had one made, features a deep cape and ample sleeves and is akin to the Inverness cloak or overcoat worn by coachmen to protect them from inclement weather (Translator's note).
32. If Cincinnatus’s physical features can be seen as equating him with the Pushkin doll, the original Russian text of this article allows Dolinin to extend the metaphor further by seeing Cincinnatus as poetic genius in its pupal form: the original Russian for “rag dolls for schoolgirls” is “miagkikh kukol dlia shkol’nits.” The word kukol’ka (diminutive of kukla, doll) means both “dolly, little doll” and “chrysalis, pupa.” The same etymological kinship exists in English: both puppet and pupa ultimately derive from the Latin pupa meaning girl, doll. Note too that if Cincinnatus is destined to pass, in the novel’s final paragraph, from the third to the final stage of metamorphosis (pupa to imago), his officious inversion, M’sieur Pierre, now nameless, is destined to move in the opposite direction: “The last to rush past was a woman in a black shawl, carrying the tiny executioner like a larva in her arms” (I 223) (Translator’s note).
33. V. Veresaev, op. cit., p. 251. Gavriel Shapiro groundlessly traces the image of Pushkin in a fur carrick to a well-known drawing by Pushkin, in which he depicts himself and Evgenii Onegin on the embankment of the Neva (see G. Shapiro, op. cit., pp. 132-133). Shapiro’s assertion notwithstanding, both figures in the drawing, illustrating stanzas XLVII-XLVIII of the novel’s first chapter, are not in fur carricks, but in frock-coats, which is entirely natural given the “summer-tide” being described by Pushkin.
37. It should be noted that the chief themes of the two preceding retorts are libraries and books, both of which can be linked to Pushkin’s dying vision, which he succeeded in relating to Dal’: “I dreamt that I was clambering with you upon these books and shelves, high up—and my head began to swim” (V. Veresaev, op. cit., p. 426). In the early poem “The Death of Pushkin,” Nabokov accentuates precisely this moment: “On the wound – ice. In his delirium he climbed / Bookshelves – higher, to the skies… / Ah, higher!... Sweat glistened on his brow. In short, -- / He died; but for a long time from the earth / could not part…” (cited in Pushkinu : iz poezii pervoi emigratsii, p. 46; translation by JE).
38. The theme of anguish arises again in the scene of Cincinnatus’s second meeting with his wife, the Pushkinian subtext being introduced in this case by means of a reference to the second part of his dying exclamation: “My heart is tormented,” and also by means of the repeated “’Tis time, ‘tis time,” characteristic of Pushkin’s poetry. Cf. “At the same time his heart was aching […] but it was time, it was time to wean himself from all this anguish” (I 199). Khodasevich writes of Pushkin’s “exceptional fondness” for the exclamation “’Tis time!” in “Pushkin’s Poetic Economy” (see the most recent edition: V. Khodasevich. Pushkin i poety ego vremeni: v trekh tomakh, pod redaktsiei Roberta Kh’iuza (Berkeley, CA: Berkeley Slavic Specialties, 1999- ), T. 1, Stat’i, retsenzii, zametki 1913-1924 gg., p. 126).
43. On this topic, see, for example, S. Davydov, Nabokov and Pushkin, p. 488; A. Dolinin, “Thriller Square and The Place de la Révolution: Allusions to the French Revolution in Invitation to a Beheading,” The Nabokovian, No. 38 (Spring 1997), pp. 43-49. It cannot be ruled out that also reflected in Invitation to a Beheading is the “Andrei Shen’e” (André Chénier) of Marina Tsvetaeva. In any case, the stanza “Hands drop the notebook, / Touch the thin neck. / Morning sneaks in, like a thief. / I cannot finish writing” (M. Tsvetaeva, Stikhotvoreniia i poemy, p. 376; translation by JE) correspond to two passages in the novel—the scene in which Cincinnatus mechanically touches his “awfully thin” neck, which M’sieur Pierre examines carefully (I 109), and the hero’s statement, “To finish writing something” (I 209), uttered just before he is led off to his execution.
46. From a whole series of possible subtexts for Nabokov’s play on the oft-repeated tam (there), Pekka Tammi specifies lines about the theater from the first chapter of Eugene Onegin: “there, there, beneath the shelter of coulisses / my young days sped” (XVIII, lines 13-14; see Pekka Tammi, Russian Subtexts in Nabokov’s Fiction: Four Essays [Tampere, Finland: Tampere University Press, 1999], p. 53). But the anaphoristic and emphatic repetition of tam in various positions is encountered so often in Russian poetry (including Pushkin’s) that in the given case it seems impossible in principle to establish any concrete subtext. Nabokov, it might be said, is quoting the language of poetry rather than a specific poetic text. It should be noted in this regard that tam in the novel signifies an imaginary other world, and therefore its repetition, if one were to choose from the dozens of analogous cases in Pushkin, one should sooner recall the Prologue to Ruslan and Liudmila, in which tam is repeated fourteen times. In an unpublished lecture on Pushkin, Nabokov singles out this prologue and writes, in part: “‘Tam na nevedomykh dorozhkakh / sledy nevidannykh zverei’ (‘There on unfamiliar paths / The tracks of unknown beasts’)—these are two of the most magical, most enigmatic lines penned by him” (translation by JE).
47. In Invitation to a Beheading the English translation of this phrase is singular, “an ancient poem” (I 53), whereas the Russian original is plural, drevnikh stikhov, literally “[of] ancient poems”; in the context of Dolinin’s argument, the term “verse” has been supplied (Translator’s note).
48. In the English translation, as if to point more explicitly to Pushkin’s unfinished poem by linking the letter “G,” (corresponding to the Russian letter shaped like a capital Greek gamma) with a gallows, Nabokov adds the words gerund and gallow, both lacking in the Russian original: “Ili nichego ne poluchitsia iz togo, chto khochu rasskazat’, a lish’ ostanutsia chernye trupy udavlennykh slov, kak visel’niki… vechernie ocherki glagolei, voron’e…” (literally, “Or will nothing come of what I am trying to tell, only the black corpses of strangled words remaining, like hanged men… the evening outlines of gammas [glagolei], crows”). While the evening silhouette of a gamma is easy to visualize, the silhouette of a gerund is not. Aside from its initial “g,” gerund—a verb form—may have been suggested to Nabokov by the similarity of glagol’, an antiquated name for the Russian gamma, to glagol, meaning verb, or more broadly, in obsolete usage, word (Translator’s note).
49. Note too that the Russian phrase is immediately followed, set off by commas as if for emphasis, by the “otherworldly” tam: “korinevyi pushok, tam, gde ona nedavno trepetala….” Cf. note 45 above (Translator’s note).
52. See especially the poem about Cecilia included in the well-known book by Wilhelm Heinrich Wackenroder and Ludwig Tieck, Herzensergiessungen eines kunstliebenden Klosterbruders [Outpourings of an Art-Loving Friar] (Berlin: Bei Johann Friedrich Unger, 1797), translated into Russian by S.P. Shevyrev as Ob iskusstvie i khudozhnikakh. Razmyshleniia otshel’nika, liubitelia iziashchnago (Moskva: B Tip. S. Selivanovskago, 1826, republished in 1914). In the Platonic excerpt by V.F. Odoevskii “Cecilia” from the book Russkie nochi (Russian Nights), the hero is likened to a prisoner attempting to catch, through the iron bars, the sounds of gilded organs, “playing in a temple, dedicated to the patroness of harmony,” but “only vague reflections and confused echoes” reach him (V.F. Odoevskii, Russkie nochi [Leningrad: Nauka, Leningr. otd-nie, 1975], p. 59; translation by JE).
53. Cf. the inscription left on the wall of Cincinnatus’s prison cell by his anonymous predecessor: “Smer’te do smerti, -- potom budet pozdno” (“Measure me while I live—after it will be too late” [I 26]).
55. It should be noted that Nabokov anticipates the portrait of Cincinnatus in which Pushkin’s name is anagrammatically embedded with the authorial explanation that defines his creative consciousness as his “greater part” which finds itself “in a quite different place” (I 120)—in my view indisputably a reference to Horace’s “best part.”
57. It is appropriate to recall here, in connection with the scene of the action and the plot of Invitation to a Beheading, that this theme is treated in a whole series of poems by Kiukhel’beker, written in a fortress and in exile: in “My Mother,” in which the poet prophecies for himself an Elysian meeting with Dante, Tasso, and Homer; in “Elizaveta Kul’man,” with its image of an otherworldly “there” (tam), a land “where poets suffer not”; in “October 19, 1937,” depicting Pushkin in a circle of “transcendental friends” (literally, “friends beyond the clouds”), etc. (cf. V.K. Kiukhel’beker. Izbrannye proizvedeniia v dvukh tomakh [Moskva; Leningrad: Sov. Pisatel’, 1967], t. 1, p. 249, 281, 296). The line from Kiukhel’beker’s “Three Shades,” “Vse obmanulo, krome vdokhnoven’ia” (“All deceives, except inspiration”) (Ibid., p. 303) seems to be echoed by a phrase in the last fragment written by Cincinnatus: “Vse obmanulo, soidias’, vse” (“Everything has duped me as it fell in to place, everything” [I 205]).
59. The relationship of the author and character in the novel has been studied in detail and convincingly interpreted in Julian W. Connolly’s remarkable book on Nabokov’s Russian prose (Julian W. Connolly, Nabokov’s Early Fiction: Patterns of Self and Other [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992], pp. 166-184).
60. The contrast between the two phrases is more pronounced in Russian, making Dolinin’s juxtaposition more striking. The first (“tonkii, nazidatel’nyi golos”) is taken from Dar; the second (“zhivotvoriashchii glas”) from Evgenii Onegin. In The Gift, the former was rendered by Michael Scammell (presumably with Nabokov’s approval, since he collaborated with Scammell on the translation) as “high, edifying voice.” Nabokov translated the latter quite literally for his Eugene Onegin as “life-creating voice.” These renderings have been retained. The translator would like to have captured more of the contrast inherent in the original, particularly the distinction between the terms golos (the common Russian word for voice, which, when spoken, causes the speaker to round the lips) and glas (the poetical word for voice, a more regal and resounding term, the utterance of which causes the speaker to sketch a smile) by rendering the former as “shrill, didactic speech” while retaining Nabokov’s literal rendering of the latter: “life-creating voice” (Translator's note).
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