Mon zemblable! Mon père!
Characters and verbal props move from book to book. Lang paints a mural in Pnin and a portrait in Pale Fire. Podtyagin returns from Mashenka to serve as an extra in The Gift. Pnin shows up in Pale Fire, Delalande in The Gift and the Foreword to Invitation to a Beheading. The intoxicating sob from Mallarmé mentioned once in The Gift haunts Bend Sinister. The "macédoine of accents" in Ada summons up not only the description of Humbert, that "salad of racial genes," but also the "kompot slov" of Pomyalovski in Dar. The servile fairy-tale gardener of Dar putters around the platbands along the Chemin de Mustrux in Ada.3 The Gift and Pale Fire are two corymbs of consonants held together by a sprig of Turgenevian heliotrope (from the same bush that supplied Anna Kern's bosom?).
In Ada we find again vase and parapet and pillared porch, rainbows and nightmares, intolerable bliss and the mauve glans, the trumped catopticks of dappled dawns, and those unmistakable eyeplusenems: grim, limp, limpid, ultimate, dim, whim, megrim, akin (and its Caribbean cousin, akimbo). And all of this, from theme to phoneme, is blent in the alkahest of his art.4
The diffident may turn to the serviceable standby, Influence. It is not hard to do.5 Like Proust, who built on a droplet and a crumb the edifice of Memory, Nabokov has been occupied with Time and the evocation of the Past. He has walked widdershins on the wabe. Like Gogol, he is a master of unnecessary (necessary!--A.B.) digression. And he has read the late great Irish philologist, who put old books to sly uses.6
But his words, not his kinship to past masters, are what most enchant this reader. Begat by that enchantment, these pages are offered, dim inklings, slim synecdoche (Schenectady for New York).
"Why do you speak of words,
He is precise, as we expect him to be, that once curator of lepidopotera, in his use of technical terms ("the parallel rail line all at once committing suicide by anastomosis"). But he is equally precise with the nontechnical. Take the honest kersey fey, a wordlet with an old and venerable history. From the Anglo-Saxon faege, it means fated or doomed to die, dying, having the air of one under a doom or spell. ("Ocymore, dyspotme, oligochronien," as Ronsard glossed it.) It is a common epithet for the kemps and menskful kings struggling on a field, gules, in the old battle poems of Maldon and Brunanburh and, later, in Layamon. Through contamination with fay it may also mean "able to see fairies, be clairvoyant, have an unworldly air or attitude." Latterly fey has been stretched to cover "bizarre, strange, coy, whimsical," and is even applied to male pale fires and outlandish dress. But Nabokov naturally uses it exactly as it should be used. We recall a passage in Pale Fire, perhaps the best use of the word anywhere: the consonne d'appui/Echo's fey child," one instance of his noble rescue and resurrection of a word that was slowly being put to death by other writers.
The very precision we applaud annoys others. Certain critics are offended, in particular, by "obscurities" in the Onegin translation.* One example cited is shippon, the translator's rendering of the Russian xlev. Nabokov's reply is that there is no acceptable alternative--he rules out byre as too Vermontish. (Perhaps he would allow us to suggest that barn is too general, cow barn too specific, linney too lean-to, vaccary too lactic, and mistal too Midlands.)** Such rarities appear only in the translation, however, and when they do, it is not lexiphanic swank but humble submission that dictates their use. He fits his shadow to that of his author. He does not add the slightest flourish to the noble-winged serifs of Pushkin's paraph.
His passion for exactitude is necessarily coupled with a love of synonymy. Without a large bag of words, the wordman is incapable of providing the right word for the right occasion. When there are semantic equals, rhythm and sound determine choice. If whin won't fit, gorse or furze might do. If it is a time for Elizabethan flyting and digladiation, one may grow wrathful with an unctuous mome and let fly cudden and dawkin and mooncalf. If it is a matter, say, of Kinbote's catamites and urning-yearnings, it helps to have ingle and gunsil, bardash and pathic, in verbal reserve. Most of Nabokov's resources, of course, are not at all rare or recherché. He is a master of the familiar word. But when he does embrace a neglected one, "it lives again, sobs again, stumbles all over the cemetery in doublet and trunk hose, and will keep annoying stodgy gravediggers" as long as literature itself endures.
His words delight us not only because of their splendid fit, but because they are splendid words. Pale Fire gives us marrowsky and stillicide. The first (Medical Greek, Gower Street dialect, "distant metathesis"--in short, Spoonerism avant le maître) is accorded a spurious etymology in the Index, and this sanctions our own etymology for stillicide, as a word derived not from the Latin for a "dropping drop" (stilla plus cadere) but from the Anglo-Latin for "killing the stillness." The list continues. Borborygmic (used twice in Ada, high frequency for a word seldom met outside the pages of Anthony Burgess or Valéry Larbaud)--the stomach rumble-and-grumble. Woodwose, the tawny faun who romps with the mays and the fays of Middle English ferly-tales. Grimpen, thumbkin, peba, stang, gowpen, versipel, laund, arval, dudeen, ignicolist, menald, inenubilable, rizzom, nenuphar, ackers, barleybreak ...7
Nabokov's neologisms vary in their eligibility for English adoption.8 His best is the celebrated nymphet--no longer merely "a young nymph, Poetic" but with a new unforgettable meaning, also Poetic. A word completely his own, and akin to nymphet and its formation, is iridule, created by the addition of a hypocoristic diminutive to iris. Iridule emblematically evokes Nabokov's vibgyoric passion, his spotting of beauty in ugliness, the peacock feather on the dismal plain. This I think of as the "rainbow-in-the-puddle" theme, and it applies not only to the pied beauty of nature but also to the magic discovered in the dun mundane (a sports headline; the nacreous buttons on a tobacconist's vest; a paragraph in some little known book by Lane or Longinov). Browning's door is preserved in the library of Wellesley College.
Some of them will not last. The Zemblan coramen, a sweet parliament of vowels, is phonetically winning but neither fills a vacuum nor has evident motivation in the language. Similarly, those words which are invented to serve as props on Antiterra--dorophones, jikkers, ivanilich--are parts of that world and it would be unfortunate if, as with Tolkien's boring hobbits, a cute little cult of Antiterra developed (with maps, and vocabulary, and sinchilla mantillas). That is not likely to happen.
Then there are the words in other tongues which cry out (we think they are crying out) for incorporation into our own incomparably rich wordhoard. In the Free City of English, residents do not as often experience that sense of lexical lacunae, of sad lacks, that subjects of other languages do, and we can rightly glory in the butterfly of an open unabridged Webster. Somewhere in those alternate layers of Anglo-Saxon and Latin and other tongues, in that happily imperfect palimpsest, there are words for almost everything. They may be archaic, or Scottish, or slang, or nonce-words from Heywood or Middleton, but they are words in an English dictionary nonetheless. Still there are gaps, and Nabokov fills such troublesome chinks whenever he has the chance. Kurortish (occurring once in Bend Sinister, twice in Lolita) is the stolid German Kurort (a general term for a balneological resort) plus the likable English ish. Better is sun blick (in Ada), which anglicizes and sublimes its source--not Russian solnecnij blick, but rather their common stirps, German Sonnenblick. And here we are immediately offered an additional gift of zajchik for the same sun-bunny ray of reflected light.9
The loan blend otsebyatinate differs from the above examples in that it involves not only the addition of an English suffix, but also the turning of a Russian noun (otsebyatina--defined miserably in my Soviet dictionary as "one's own concoction") into an English verb.*** It is the action of putting in something from one's self. Thus the word can be applied to the padlibbing paraphrast or translator, the gay betrayer of a hapless and helpless original.
Carpalistics, like otsebyatinate, is born of a need peculiarly Nabokov's. It was defined in Pnin as the sum of the "Russian shrugs and shakes...the movements underlying such Russian verbs--used in reference to hands--as mahnut', vsplesnut', razvesti." It is more specific than kinesics, the generalized study of gesture, and does not overlap pasimology, the science of the gestures that do not accompany and enrich speech but clumsily substitute for it. Carpalistics may even subsume the most common Soviet gesture, the vetitive waggle of forefinger. The word is not necessary, of course, to describe hands-in-pockets amerikantsï.
Suctorialist was first and last used (by Nabokov) in an April 24, 1949, review of a French novel for one who "reads and admires such remarkably silly nonsense as the 'existentialists' rig up." An ugly word, an ugly idea, and we may leave it, along with that novel, back in 1949.
It is enticing, this game of foreign exactions and domestic inventions. Anyone can play. For immediate enrollment in English I suggest capicue (from Spanish capicúa), the numerical equivalent of a palindrome. It has a clean etymology, coming from caput (head) and cola (tail). 14,841 (the number of books in Ardelion Veen's library) is a capicue. So is 343 (a perfect cube of a number!), the sum of humdrum days, budni, full of hectic vacancy, of tohu-bohu and carpediurnal carnality, that are left in a leap year if we remove the 23 that lie between April Fool's Day and Shakespeare's Birthday.
As a neologism I proffer the portmanteau vendective. The good lexicogenist will see at once that the father, stepfather, and father-in-law of this word are vendetta, vindictive, and invective. That Ephraim Blueprint, incorrigible word-coiner, proposed it as the only appropriate epithet for the articles in the transatlantic journal La Révue des Bévues, or Malice in Blunderland (Founding editor: A. E. Housman; Present editors: V. V. Nabokov and A. Z. Vozdam). Fierce wielders of the obelus, enemies of pushpin traductions, lovers of the dim detail, for better than half a century the editors have been the scourge of careless scholiasts and degenerate grammarians.10
This essay originally appeared in Triquarterly #17 (Winter 1970). It is reprinted here by permission of the author.
1. His revamping of traditional themes (the "double," the love-triangle) and forms (the work-of-art-and-its-commentary) has been marked and remarked. Perhaps too much remarked.
2. Twins, doubles, and enantiomorphs: Floyd and Floyd ("Scenes from the Life of a Double Monster"), Felix and Hermann (Despair), Wynn and Twynn (Pnin), Pauline and Paul ("The Ballad of Longwood Glen").
Onymic twins: the unnamed narrator and his namesake ("Conversation Piece," 1945), two Walter D.Veens and two Van Veens (Ada). Symmetrical threatening cretins and caryatides: Rodion and Rodrig (Invitation to a Beheading), Ekwilist operatives (Bend Sinister), Gustav and Anton ("Korolëk").
All of whom demonstrate, as Dobchinsky and Bobchinsky and Tweedledum and Tweedledee before them, that reduplication is the essence of farce.
Audition colorée and anagrams: Nabokov's works, passim. "Mc-" names (favored by Nabokov as the Gaelic equivalent of the Russian patronymic?): Charles McBeth and Mrs. McCrystal (in Pnin), Jim McVey and President McAber (in Pale Fire), McCoo, McCrystal, and McFate (in Lolita), Mr. McMath (in The Real Life of Sebastian Knight). And at Cornell (in the equally real life of the Nabokov's) a house was rented from the MacLeods (McCloud) at 957 East State Street.
3. "Must Trucks-Must Rux" punplay on the Chemin de Mustrux in Ada. "Mak-s, luk-s," says the "skazochnij ogorodnik" in Dar, sounding the name of the Berlin emporium Max Lux.
4. We might list a few more of the many "bits of colored glass" that Nabokov reconfigures in his kaleidoscope with each new vstryaska. The Estotiland of the ingenious Zenos and Milton is the latest in his appropriations of fabulous and frigid holarctic lands (Ultima Thule, Nova Zembla) in the distant northern corners (v uglu, in the igloo) of our globe. The unbroken apple peel that emblemizes genius in "Restoration" recalls Dar: "Ochistit' moë yabloko odnoj polosoj, ne otnimaya noa." Favored adjectives appear again and again with unexpected partners. Animated, for example, invigorates merkin (in Lolita), mutton (notes to A Hero of Our Time), and mysteries (The Real Life of Sebastian Knight).
Luck may assist the shake. A cooperative muse permits Nabokov to link all three of his past epigraphs (the oak from The Gift, the cat from Pale Fire, the author of the Mashenka motto) in one pun. Quercus ruslan chat. is planted for friends of Ruslan and Lyudmila in Ada. A heliotropic shrub, the Uncommon Laburnum, is sometimes found under this tree.
5. It may be difficult with Nabokov for he does not limit himself to the pets of the seminar and the review. His crochets and carriwitchets lead him to the farthest stacks in the Library of Serendip. We find the exploratory prose of Grigorij Efimovich Grum-Grmajlo (Opisanie puteestvija v zapadnij Kitaj; Zapadnaja Mongolija I Urjanxajskij kraj) lifted into The Gift, and the epistolary prose of F. K. Lane (Wilson's Secretary of the Interior) pilfered for Pale Fire. Also, we should be mindful of Mikhail Nikolaevich Longinov, author of True Anecdotes from the Life of Price Repnin (St. Petersburg, 1865), mentioned by Nabokov in class on April 2, 1957, and alluded to elsewhere.
6. With Proust he shares a fondness for cattleyas and faded, rather than sempiternal, roses.
From Gogol's Nevskij Prospekt he borrows the trick that twins Kraevich (The Gift), Conrad (Laughter in the Dark), and Anderson (Pnin). In Pnin there is the digression following a telephone ring:
Technically speaking, the narrator's art of integrating telephone conversations still lags far behind that of rendering dialogues conducted from room to room, or from window to window across some narrow blue alley in an ancient town with water so precious, and the misery of donkeys, and rugs for sale, and minarets, and foreigners and melons, and the vibrant morning echoes.A problem is posed--the verisimilar rendition of a Belled chat--and before we realize it we are taken from the telephone to a "blue alley in an ancient town," then at last to those succulent, plump, irrelevant melons. This recalls Gogol's vprochem device. Similarly, those quick fictions that live and die between commas--the Aeolian harps in Lolita, the Egyptologist Samuel Schonberg in Pnin--are akin to Gogol's bootophilic soldier and his other everlasting ephemera. Nabokov's lyrical digressions (e.g. the moment of punning tenderness when Fyodor onymically apostrophizes Zina in Dar) may also be linked to Pushkin and to Sterne, that aposiopetic tease and master of the dash--whose sentimentally jailed bird, by the way, is recaptured by Humbert.
Joyce is to be detected in the obvious spots (the three or four passages in Lolita similar to passages in Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, the "Winnipeg Lake" rivermaid in Bend Sinister, the gloss to 1. 615 of Pale Fire). From Bloomsday, too, may come "seasand" (Ada), "Leopold O'Donnell" (Pale Fire), the helbeh for fenugreek (Pnin), and even the "clip and kiss" in Lolita and Ada. This last formula, while very old, is probably borrowed from the song of Romany chib in Ulysses. (Nabokov might also have found it, though, in Chaucer's Merchant's Tale, or earlier, at 1. 42 of the Anglo-Saxon poem "The Wanderer," a tale of silence, exile, and kenning.) And when Humbert, lying beside his sleeping nymphet in the "tremors and gropings of that distant night," says
And so, in between tentative approximations, with a confusion of perception metamorphosing her into eyespots of moonlight or a fluffy flowering bush, I would dream I regained consciousness, dream I lay in wait. (Lolita, p. 121)his "tentative approximations" indicate another bedroom scene, another logodaedal weave of words:
The visible signs of antesatisfaction?But the tracing of parallels can be "a form of insanity," as the EO Commentary puts it, so I will slip out of the ruelle and terminate here these notes-to-my-own-queries.
* Occasionally Nabokov does go overboard in that exegetical monument, his palmary and omnianic commentary. One would practically have to be the Negus Professor of Geez or at least an Associate in Amharic to decipher "Pushkin, griffado Pushkin, whose quatrayle had hunted ashkokos and kaberus across the zimb-infested ambas of Ethiop."
** The Russian lines (EO, IV, 41) are "na utrennej zare pastrux/ne gonit uz korov iz xleva" which become "no longer does the herdsman drive at sunrise/the cows out of the shippon." Cow barn would not only call forth an unseemly echo but would lose the sense (latent in shippon through usage and false etymology) that the xlev may just possibly be used for other animals. Dahl says there are "cow, calf, and sheep" xleva. A xlev is also a pigsty.
7. The notarikon continues ...orbicle, kinbote, phidian, vagitus ...but back to grimpen, one of the three words that puzzle Hazel Shade. (The other two are sempiternal and chtonic--a wayzgoose version of chthonic.) Her text is "some phony modern poem," and with "Toilest" as a hint, we recall the pastiche of "Gerontion" and parody of "Ash Wednesday" in Lolita, and the rebuke in the EO commentary. We seek and find all three in "Four Quartets," grimpen in "East Coker," sempiternal in "Little Gidding," and chthonic in "The Dry Salvages." Unlike the last two, grimpen is not a websterword. Allusive Nabokov! Persevering, we discover clues that lead us to Doyle and the Baskerville Hound: Sherlock Holmes at 1. 27, and Eliot's "Lines to Ralph Hodgson Esquire" (which echoes Johnson's epigraphic cat and contains 999--the number of Pale Fire lines--canaries). And in that masterpiece about a modern descendant (or so it seems at first) of the barghests and guytrashes that once haunted the heath and moor of the mind, we come upon the Great Grimpen Mire. But Goethe, too, whose Erlking rides ominously into the poem, can be linked to grimpen. Hazel Shade's suicide takes us back to another famous literary self-slaughter, Young Werther's. In the second edition of the Sorrows, Goethe prefixed an admonitory verse motto with the line "Warum quillt aus ihm die grimme Pein?", and thereby he joins Doyle and Eliot in the darkling grimpen.
A pleasing gloss on grimpen can be found in the work of the great toponomasiologist Eilert Ekwall. Had Nabokov read "Some Notes on English Place-Names containing Names of Heathen Deities" (Lund Studies in English, XXXIII), he would have found that in Grimsby or Grim's Dyke or Grimthorpe the "grim" element comes from the Old Norse for Othinn or Odin, Grimr, "a person who conceals his name, literally, a masked person, and refers to Othinn's well-known habit of appearing in disguise." And the Russian for make-up is grim. Thus the mummery of Kinbote's king, as well as the torment of Hazel Shade, is suggested by grimpen.
8. The laws for neoterisms are few. Does the new word answer a felt need, snugly filling a verbal vacuum? Has it been well defined by the wordsmith? Is it suspended in a solution of chaste, eminently respectable, even venerable vocables? Because of this last requirement the mortality rate is very high. Hence, in the dictionary of hapax legomena I am indolently compiling I rarely admit entries from Finnegans Wake or from such inkhorn cacozealots as Gomberville and Urquhart. Urquhart, incidentally, who turned into English the immense tools and stools of the puny rhypographer, also presciently provided us with a remarkable parody of Joyce:
Thus for a while their eloquence was mute, and all they spoke, was but with the eye and the hand; yet so persuasively, by virtue of the intermural unlimitedness of their visotactile sensation, that each part and portion of the persons of either, by ushering the tacturiency of both, made the attrectation of both consequent to the inspection of either, here was it that passion was active, and action passive, they both being overcome by other, and each the conqueror.
9. Stingles, like sun blick, is an Antiterran word (for the sensation of tactile chromesthesia) that should be in our sublunar vocabulary. It conjures up Nabokov's fascination with rainbows, iridules, audition colorée, his little essays on the retinas of other poets (Lermontov, the Igor Tale minstrel), his own attempts to rouse us from our minuthetic stupor. While on the subject of colors, we could mention two color words, vair (Fr,) and izumrud (Russ.), both outside the traditional polarities of White-Black (white the tint of innocence, black the taint of sin) and White-Red (Pure-Wanton, with its accompanying poetic botany: "So chaste was she that lilies were her roses.")
Vair (fr.Latin varium, variegated) describes Lolita's eyes in Humbert's plaint. It is frequently used in medieval French literature. In the Chanson de Roland, in the chantefable of Aucassin et Nicolette, in the lays of Marie de France, the pucelle's eyes are always vair. The meaning has vacillated between blue, grey, and blue-grey (in Ronsard it even comes out a homonymic green) and at times it is no more than a counter for "bright, sparkling, radiant." In the Nabokov-Kahane French edition of Lolita her vair glims become gris.
Frédéric Godefroy's Dictionnaire de l'ancienne langue française contains the illustrative example " La nature des mauvais est tozjors vaire et movable. " " Vaire et movable " is, of course, Virgil's " varium et mutabile semper femina " (perhaps better known in the Gershwin version : "A Woman Is a Sometime Thing "). François Ier translated this as "Souvent femme varie/Bien fol est qui s'y fie, " which line is then borrowed by Humbert for another part of his song to fickle Lolita.
Vair is also a squirrel fur. It covers a pair of slippers in Ada and the shoes of Cendrillon in Pnin's contribution to the corrected fairy tale (to be found in Littré and elsewhere). They "were not made of glass but of Russian squirrel fur--vair in French ... which ... came not from varius, variegated, but from veveritsa, Slavic for a certain beautiful pale, winter-squirrel fur." Pnin's loyal etymology reinforces the sciurine theme of the book.
Finally, vair is a party-colored fur of heraldry, properly azure and argent. It recalls the very title Bend Sinister, the "gules and purpure" of "Spring in Fialta," the Zemblan sampel.
Aquiver with sense, vair becomes more than a verbal eyespot.
Izumrud (Russ. for emerald) is one frequently repeated "lapidary epithet." Gerald Emerald unpleasantly mocks Kinbote's maxillary russet, and the orarian Izumrudov, Gerald's skiagraphic projection in the camera obscura of Kinbote's mind, assigns Gradus his victim. Izumrudnja (adjectical form) is the trial bench on which Cincinnatus "did not dare sit"; izumrudnïe the gloves of the poet-narrator, a "magician with a bird's head," of Slava; emerald are the slippers--no, I mean earrings--that dying Martha demands of Dreyer. In a more recent poem a similitudinous izumrud contains poison (aqua tofana?): "I kak ot yada v polom izumrude,/Mrut ot isskustva moego." And the cigarette case Lucette carries on her deathday is studded with emeralds.
Emeralds, emerald green, and green do not in general wear an associational halo of exotic, threatening, funest, though there is that famous example of a grim green in another, earlier invitation to a beheading, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. An English-speaking, Russian-knowing reader might notice the mru-mru stammer (izumrud, mrut) in the quoted lines above, might supply by subaudition both the similar consonantal collocation (s-m-r-t) in smert' (death) and smaragd (the other Russian word for emerald), and the initial echo of izumrud with izumrit' (to astonish, amaze), and thereby draw some easy conclusions. Izumrud, however--according to my Russian informants-does not send such a message from Russian tympanum to Russian brain. Not that writers do not associate particular letters or sounds with particular colors, or themes, or even precious metals. A gold star essay could be written, for example, on zetacism in Fet. But it is clear that the American sesquilinguist must be wary of that mysterious entity, the Russian Word.
*** The same dictionary unwitingly alludes to Joyce's "comedian Capuchin" when it defines "polnolunie" as "fool moon."
10. In a similar vein, we might submit ambiamb for the false spondee of iambic poetry (if we agree with Nabokov that in metrical verse there are no true spondees). The reduplicative nym nicely mimics the dizzyrambic daze of prosodists on this very point.
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