Five Notes on Nabokov's Works
by Yuri Leving

1. Zina's Dress: Made in...

Although an entire book has recently been published on "Zina's paradox," up to now no scholars have commented on why, after all, Fyodor is so mysteriously "hooked" by the charming dress of his landlord's daughter in the episode in which he rents the Berlin room in The Gift. This dress forces him to accept not only an inappropriate rental fee, but also the torturing presence of the repulsive philistine Shchyogolev. In fact, it is not only the aura of his future love that Fyodor feels in the gauze dress. In Nabokov's case the situation is additionally reinforced by the strong literary allusion, which Godunov-Cherdyntsev probably guesses, while still failing to realize clearly its true origin. The author, however, incorporates the hint, saying that such dresses were worn "then at dances" [togda na balakh]. Here is the passage:

'Here is my daughter's room, here is ours,' [Shchyogolev] said, pointing to two doors on the left and right. 'And here's the dining room,' and opening a door in the depths, he held it in that position for several seconds, as if taking a time exposure. Fyodor passed his eyes over the table, a bowl of nuts, a sideboard... By the far window, near a small bamboo table, stood a high-backed armchair: across its arms there lay in airy repose a gauze dress, pale bluish and very short (as was worn then at dance), and on the little table gleamed a silvery flower and a pair of scissors. (The Gift, 1963, 140. Italics mine)
The perspective which opens to the lodger's view turns out to focus on the enfilade of a Petersburg mansion of the 1830s from Gogol's "The Diary of a Madman" (the optical comparison, tossed in as if in passing, by the unidentified photo camera - represents an eye smuggled into the text as contraband). Fyodor himself as it were only tries on the setting, prior to resolutely entering this cramped apartment inhabited by the Russian classics, with The Gift tucked under his arm, in order there to occupy the space assigned him by Nabokov's writ.
I should like to peek into the drawing room into which one only sometimes sees the open door, and through the drawing room into another room. Oh! What sumptuous furniture! Such mirrors and porcelain! I'd love to get a peek in there, into that half where Her Excellency lives - that's the place for me! Into her boudoir: there are so many little jars standing there, and little bottles, such flowers that one is afraid to breathe on them; see how her dress lies thrown, and looks more like air than a dress. I'd like to get a glimpse inside her bedroom… what wonders, I feel, must be in there, such paradise, I feel, as doesn't even exist in heaven. (Arabesques. Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1982, 244. Translated by A. Tulloch. Italics mine)
And, no wonder, the page--which is the very end of the Second chapter--concludes with: "The distance from the old residence to the new was about the same as, somewhere in Russia, that from Pushkin Avenue to Gogol Street."

2. The William Tell Complex in Literature

It is common today among Nabokov scholars to quote the apocryphal line by Bunin, who allegedly exclaimed after reading Sirin's The Defense: "This kid has snatched a gun and done away with the whole older generation, myself included" (quoted in Lev Lyubimov, Novy Mir, 3, 1957; then re-introduced by Boyd, I, 343). However, the Chekhovian dramatic touch is false here. In his letter to N. N. Strakhov dated by May 28, 1870, Dostoevsky recalls that while he dropped in to see Kraevsky when Vanity Fair had just appeared in England, he said that perhaps Dickens would write something now and it could be translated into Russian by the New Year. But Kraevsky suddenly responded: "Who? Dickens? Dickens is done for! Thackeray has appeared there now; he's finished him off completely [Dikens ubit! Teper' tam Tekkerei iavilsia, ubil napoval]; nobody even reads Dickens now!" (Dostoevsky, F. Complete Letters. Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1990, Vol. III, 257. Transl. by D. Lowe). Who exactly invented Bunin's lamentation remains obscure, but it is unlikely that bitter I. A. could state that in the presence of a third person. Nevertheless, the literary source of this quote with its precise projection of the situation of rivalry between the two writers of different generations leaves no doubt.

3. "Come serve the Muse and merge in verse..."

In childhood Nabokov asked his drawing master to outline an express train for him and watched "his pencil ably evolve the cowcatcher and elaborate headlights of a locomotive that looked as if it had been acquired secondhand for the Trans-Siberian line after it had done duty at Promontory Point, Utah, in the sixties." (See, "The Library of America" edition of Nabokov's Novels and Memoirs, 1996, 436; Cf. the excursus in the industrial history of machine-making in America of the 19th century that Nabokov unfolds in the commentary to part I on Anna Karenina in Lectures on Russian Literature). However, the five plain carriages that followed had disappointed the future memoirist. Probably the very same locomotive appears for a moment in Lolita at the more trained painter's sketch displayed in the busy window of a Parisian art dealer: "a splendid, flamboyant, green, red, golden and inky blue, ancient American estampe - a locomotive with a gigantic smokestack, great baroque lamps and a tremendous cowcatcher, hauling its mauve coaches through the stormy prairie night and mixing a lot of spark-studded black smoke with the furry thunder clouds" (Novels 1955-1962, 1996, 23). In his American period Nabokov goes far beyond the simple depiction, using the picture as a flash to switch the narrative mode and to throw light upon the new plot perspective: "These [clouds] burst". This "burst" appears to refer to the death of the oncle d'Amérique, who leaves Humbert the fortune worth a few thousand dollars.

In a novel packed with reminiscences from world literature one should look intently at the old American estampe. Thus it is no surprise that another examination shows that this is not just another of Nabokov's fantasies, but the next hypogram in turn: Walt Whitman's poem "To a Locomotive in Winter" from the celebrated Leaves of Grass (1891-92) retold in prose closely to the original text (Nabokov's uncle, K. D. Nabokov, had extensively translated Whitman into Russian):

Thee for my recitative, / Thee in the driving storm even as now, the snow, the winter-day declining, / Thee in thy panoply, thy measur'd dual throbbing and thy beat convulsive, / Thy black cylindric body, golden brass and silvery steel, / Thy ponderous side-bars, parallel and connecting rods, gyrating, shuttling at thy sides, / Thy metrical, now swelling pant and roar, now tapering in the distance, / Thy great protruding head-light fix'd in front, / Thy long, pale, floating vapor-pennants, tinged with delicate purple, / The dense and murky clouds out-belching from thy smoke-stack, / Thy knitted frame, thy springs and valves, the tremulous twinkle of thy wheels, / Thy train of cars behind, obedient, merrily following, / Through gale or calm, now swift, now slack, yet steadily careering; / Type of the modern--emblem of motion and power--pulse of the continent, / For once come serve the Muse and merge in verse, even as here I see thee.
Following Whitman, who weaves the locomotion into the industrial fabric of his poetry ("Roll through my chant with all thy lawless music, thy swinging lamps at night"), Nabokov elucidates the text of Lolita by a strange word: the strong visual image gives a clue as to where to look for its initial artistic embodiment. In Lolita "the stormy prairie night" and "the furry thunder clouds", the transformation of Whitman's "launch'd o'er prairies wide" and "storm and buffeting gusts of wind and falling snow," prove the old locomotive's literary itinerary. In essence, Nabokov merely fulfils Whitman's programmatic imperative, laying the train's way into the lines of his English prose, continuing in that way to serve the very eternal Muse.

4. The Dead Can Dance

The hero of The Defense fails to breathe life into the marionette machine on a railway platform the very day he has declared that "from Monday on he will be Luzhin":

Finding himself alone on the station platform, Luzhin walked toward the glass case where five little dolls with pendent bare legs awaited the impact of a coin in order to come to life and revolve: but today their expectation was in vain for the machine turned out to be broken and the coin was wasted. (The Defense, Vintage, 1990, 20).
Nabokov as always is extremely precise in his description of the most marginal details, including the exact price, in the Russian version, a grivennik (a silver coin worth 10 kopecks). Compare this with the record of the memoirist of his age, P. A. Mansurov (1896-1983), an Avant-Garde artist who lived in Petersburg: "I composed The Upmann [ballet based on A. Lurie's music and stage design by Mansurov] in 1915 in ink for the musical box, like the one I saw on the railway station in Pavlovsk near the chocolate kiosk. It was constructed of a mechanism and 'dolls' (kukolki), dressed in 18th century costumes--ladies as well as cavaliers. One would put into that casket (shkatulka) a grivennik, the music would begin to play, and the toys to dance very elegantly" (See Povelikhina, A. and Kovtun, E., Russian Painted Shop Signs and Avant-Garde Artists. Leningrad, 1991, 147).

5. Some Reasons for Prof. Pnin to Hate Dr. Bogolepov

G. Barabtarlo consistently draws attention to the urgent need for a referenced Nabokov onomasticon, since "this area [of naming of characters is] so important that it begs to be studied in earnest" ("Name strings," The Nabokovian 47, 2001, 29). The present note points out one of several possible "strings" that resonate in the last name of Professor Pnin's unfaithful wife, Liza Bogolepova.

One may suspect that it is a deliberate hint by Nabokov when he establishes a connection to Soviet medicine via Pnin's definition of psychiatry as "a kind of microcosmos of communism" (Novels 1955-1962, 1996, 333) in the sarcastic portrayal of Liza's pseudo-scientific pursuits. Nabokov could have been perfectly aware of the existence of the reputed neuropathologist and Stalin Prize winner (1951), Dr. Nikolai Bogolepov (his name could be easily found in contemporary encyclopedias and, of course, in the psychiatric professional journals). Almost of Nabokov's age (b. in 1900) Bogolepov published some 140 works up to the 1950s and co-edited the Neuropathology section of "Large Medical Encyclopedia"; his name decorated the cover of the Korsakov Journal of Neuropathology and Psychiatry, where he served as a Dep. Ed. (One must also bear in mind that the writer's own maternal great-grandfather Nikolai Kozlov was the first president of the Russian Imperial Academy of Medicine and the florid titles of his scientific articles constantly fascinated Nabokov). It is in December 1951 that Chateau supplies his friend Pnin an issue of a journal of psychiatry with the article "Group Psychotherapy Applied to Marriage Counseling" by Dr. Eric Wind and Dr. Liza Wind. The title echoes the subject of some parallel researche conducted by their real-life Soviet colleague, for instance, "Problems of Neuropsychiatric Outpatients Practice" in the late thirties. One of Bogolepov's late works, "Disorders of the Motor Functions in Vascular Lesions of the Brain" (1953), sends us to Lolita--where Valechka, an additional adulterous émigré character, is treated in a year-long experiment "deal[ing] with human and racial reactions to a diet of bananas and dates in a constant position on all fours" (Novels 1955-1962, 1996, 27).

[I would like to thank Thomas Seifred for his valuable comments on these notes.]

These notes first appeared in The Nabokovian, 48 (2002), pp. 8-14. They are reprinted here by kind permission of the editor.

Zembla depends on frames for navigation. If you have been referred to this page without the surrounding frame, click here.