Aleksandr Blok's Dreams as Enacted in Ada by Van Veen--and Vice Versa
by Alexey Sklyarenko

Dreams are very important in Ada. The protagonist, Van Veen, is a talented dreamer endowed with the gift of having bright, colorful dreams. Interestingly, the most intricate and vivid of them he has not while sleeping, but in waking life, without realizing that he is dreaming. A good example is his dream of the floramors, the palatial brothels that elderly architect David van Veen builds throughout Demonia (except Tartary), thereby fulfilling the dream of his deceased grandson, Eric (2.3). As I have shown in a series of earlier articles, both David van Veen and young Eric, author of the essay “Villa Venus: an Organized Dream,” are but characters in Van’s dream. The “Organized Dream” of the erotomaniac Eric thus turns out to be a dream within a dream. This complex dual dream appears to Van to be “real life”—and in some sense it is real, forming, as it were, a new reality. The hero of that reality, however, turns out to be not Van Veen, an invented character, but a real person—Aleksandr Blok, the Russian poet of genius (1880-1921).

Blok’s entire oeuvre—like no other poet’s, perhaps—has an oneiric origin. Many of his poems, and nearly all of his best, are either a description of a dream had by the author, or a dream that is inseparably intertwined with reality. To the former category belongs the long poem «Ночная фиалка» (“Wild Orchid” [literally, “night violet”], 1906) subtitled “A Dream”; to the latter, a wonderful short poem, one of the best in Russian literature, «Незнакомка» (“Incognita,” 1906). The lyrical hero of the poem, who spends his evenings at the bar of an inn, dreams that every evening, at the same hour, a girl enters the tavern, unescorted, passes between drunks with the red eyes of rabbits shouting “In vino veritas!,” and sits down at the window:

И каждый вечер в час назначенный
(Иль это только снится мне?)
Девичий стан, шелками схваченный,
В туманном движется окне.

И медленно пройдя меж пьяными,
Всегда без спутников, одна,
Дыша духами и туманами,
Она садится у окна.  

И веют древними поверьями
Её упругие шелка,
И шляпа с траурными перьями
И в кольцах узкая рука.

And every evening at a fixed hour
(Or am I just dreaming it?)
A girl’s figure, wrapped in silks,
Stirs in the misted window.

And having slowly passed through the drunks,
Always companionless, alone,
Exuding perfume and mist,
She sits down at the window.

And redolent of ancient creeds
Are her resilient silks,
And the hat with mournful plumes
And the ringed slender hand.

What the hero of the poem only dreams of happens to Van Veen in waking life, several times: “He headed for the bar and as he was in the act of wiping the lenses of his black-framed spectacles, made out, through the optical mist (Space’s recent revenge!), the girl whose silhouette he recalled having seen now and then (much more distinctly!) ever since his pubescence, passing alone, drinking alone, always alone, like Blok’s Incognita” (3.3). On this occasion the strange girl in a hat whom Van approaches and stands as close behind as physically possible turns and proves to be none other than his half-sister Lucette. No less surprised than Van at the unexpected meeting, she says: “I didn’t expect you to wear glasses. You almost got le paquet, which I was preparing for the man supposedly ‘goggling’ my hat.” It is interesting to compare this scene, and Lucette’s words, to lines from another poem by Blok, «Женщина» (“The Woman,” 1914). The poem is written in a woman’s voice:

Но чувствую: он за плечами
Стоит, он подошёл в упор...
Ему я гневными речами
Уже готовлюсь дать отпор, –

But I feel: at my back he
Stands, he approached and froze…
Already with angry words I
Prepare to rebuff him, –

The meeting of Van and his half-sister happens in Paris in 1901, a few days before Lucette’s suicide. But at least twice before—in the railway station café at Brownhill in 1884 and in a Kalugano restaurant in 1888—Van sees girls similar in appearance, similarly clad, at a bar. On the first of these two occasions “a thought brushed him that she was a cocotte from Toulouse” (1.27); describing the second girl Van calls her “a graceful harlot” (1.42). Thus, in both instances it is a matter of “hired love.” And even “to a quarter virginal” Lucette, in one of her conversations with Van, calls herself “a kokotische virgin, half poule, half puella” (2.5).

The mysterious girl dreamt of by the hero in Blok’s poem also turns out to be, in the dull but sober light of everyday reality, a prostitute. This fact only strengthens the connection between Van’s odd vision and the heroine of Blok’s poem. But what does this connection imply? In my opinion, it can only mean one thing: the lone girl at a bar whom Van believes he sees several times in his life is only a dream—a recurrent dream that seems to be reality to Van.

The series begins one summer day in 1884 when Van, traveling to Ardis for the first time, gets off the train at a little rural station. “Suddenly a hackney coach drove up to the platform and a red-haired lady, carrying her straw hat and laughing at her own haste, made for the train and just managed to board it before it moved” (1.5). We might suspect from the very beginning that this red-haired lady is only a charming vision. To reach Ardis Hall from the station, Van takes the hackney coach that has brought the woman to the station. But in the following sentence the hackney coach turns into a calèche, then into a runabout and, at the end of the paragraph, into “an old clockwork taxi.” Such transformations are possible only in dreams. Our suspicions about the oneiric origin of the entire episode are later confirmed when we see the strange similarity between the red-haired lady and Lucette’s outward appearance in 1899, fifteen years later. At the same Parisian bar, after Van and Lucette have recognized each other, he says: “The last time I saw you was two years ago, at a railway station. You had just left Villa Armina and I had just arrived. You wore a flowery dress which got mixed with the flowers you carried because you moved so fast—jumping out of a green calèche and up into the Ausonian Express that had brought me to Nice” (3.3).

The woman with a straw hat in her hands boarding the train in haste looks like the grown-up Lucette will look in 1899; and, similarly, the women in decorative hats whom Van sees several times sitting and drinking at bars (whom he believes to be whores) look like Lucette will look in 1901, when Van meets her in a Parisian bar. If Van only dreams these girls (and we have sound reason to believe this is so), they obviously belong to one and the same category. In other words, we are faced here with a recurrent dream that Van has over the course of several years, a dream that he cannot quite distinguish from reality. Apparently, the dream is sent to him from Terra by Aqua, his putative mother. Poor Aqua commits suicide in 1883, about a year before Van visits Ardis for the first time and sees the mysterious Incognita at the little railway station. In her last note addressed to Van and his father Demon (Aqua’s husband), Aqua mentions Ardis and promises Van that he will ramble in its magnificent Park (1.3). Later we learn that the decision that Van will spend the summer of 1884 at Ardis was made by Demon and Marina (Aqua’s sister and Van’s real mother) on April 23 of that year, which is the anniversary of Demon’s and Aqua’s marriage (the first after Aqua’s death) (1.38). But perhaps the strongest evidence that Van’s dream of the charming Incognita is sent to him by the spirit of Aqua, whom as a child he believed to be his mother, is the pseudonym with which she sometimes signs the short letters to her husband written from the various madhouses to which Demon bundles her off (1.3).

The fanciful though not completely improbable “pen name,” Madame Shchemyashchikh-Zvukov (‘Of Heart rending-Sounds’), is reminiscent of the funny names that Chekhov bestows on some of his characters. However, it turns out to be a reference not to Chekhov, but to Blok, the author of Incognita. The expression щемящий звук (a heart-rending sound) is his invention and occurs at least twice in his poetry. The poem “Приближается звук...” (“A sound draws near…”), written in 1912, begins thus:

Приближается звук. И, покорна щемящему звуку,
И во сне прижимаю к губам твою прежнюю руку,
Не дыша.

Снится снова я мальчик и снова любовник...

A sound draws near. And, submitting to the heart-rending sound,
The soul grows young.
And in a dream I press to my lips your former hand,
Holding my breath.

I dream that again I'm a boy and again a lover…

And in one of Blok’s poems from his cycle «Заклятие огнём и мраком» (“Incantation by Fire and Darkness,” 1907), which opens with the four lines: “О, что мне закатный румянец, / Что злые тревоги разлук, / Всё в мире кружащийся танец / И встречи трепещущих рук!” (“Oh, what is the sunset’s blush to me, / What the evil pangs of being parted, / All the world a reeling dance / And the meetings of trembling hands!”), heart-rending sounds are paired with “free Russ”:

Чьи песни? И звуки?
Чего я боюсь?
И вольная Русь?

Whose songs? And sounds?
What do I fear?
Heart-rending sounds
And free Russ?

While in the first of these two poems the “heart-rending sound” heard by the author inspires in him a dream of first love, in the second, “heart-rending sounds” are associated with his native land, “free Russ.” Thus, the two notions, first love and free Russia (sacred to both Blok and Nabokov), become inseparably linked thanks to Blok’s “heart-rending sounds.” Aqua’s quaint pseudonym, like “Palermontovia” in the same paragraph of Ada, seems at first a mere fancy of Nabokov, but turns out to be an important key to the novel. A covert reference to Blok, author of the long poem «Возмездие» (“Retribution,” 1910-1921) and the collection of verse «Родина» (“Motherland,” 1907-1916), the pseudonym also allows us to cast light on some peculiarities of Antiterran geography.

On Antiterra, the entire territory of Russia (not a free country at the time Nabokov wrote Ada), “from the Baltic and Black seas to the Pacific Ocean,” is occupied by Tartary, an independent inferno. The very word “Russia” on that planet is “a quaint synonym of Estoty, an American province extending from the Arctic no longer vicious Circle to the United States proper” (1.3). This strange fact has at least two possible explanations: one humorous, one historical. The humorous is that православная Русь (“orthodox Russia”) провалилась в тартарары (“has gone to hell”)—a hypothetical possibility suggested by Potugin in Turgenev’s novel «Дым» (“Smoke,” 1867, Chapter XIV). And the only “historical” explanation possible is that, in the course of Antiterran history, the Russians lost the Battle of Kulikovo (1380) to the troops of the Golden Horde led by Khan Mamay. Presumably, on Antiterra it was Mamay who gained the victory, which allowed the Tartars to invade the territory “from Kurland to the Kuriles.” The Russians evidently had to move to North America.

Interestingly, just such an outcome of the Battle of Kulikovo seems to be vaguely suggested by Blok in his cycle «На поле Куликовом» (“On the Field of Kulikovo,” 1908) from the collection “Motherland.” Indeed, Blok saw the autocracy of the tsar as “the Tatar yoke.” The struggle against it hasn’t yet ended, and the invisible Battle of Kulikovo continues. As the famous line from the opening poem of the “On the Field of Kulikovo” cycle goes: “И вечный бой! Покой нам только снится...” (“And the eternal fight! Repose is what we only dream of…”). We cannot tell who will come out a victor in the battle. But, as epigraph to the fifth and last poem of the cycle, “Опять над полем Куликовым...” (“Again above the Field of Kulikovo”), Blok chose the gloomy and prophetic lines by Vladimir Solov’iov: И мглою бед неотразимых / Грядущий день заволокло (And the mist of irresistible disasters / has clouded the days to come). Blok had a presentiment of the impending catastrophe that would befall Russia, and we can only be puzzled by his failure to see that, with the Bolsheviks' seizure of power in 1917, Solov’iov’s prophecy was realized and Russia found herself under their Tatar yoke.

Whatever the case, Blok’s point of view is not unlike, in certain respects, Nabokov’s own perception of the historical process. One of Nabokov’s rare “political” poems, «О правителях» (“On the Rulers,” 1944), includes the lines: “Умирает со скуки историк: / За Мамаем всё тот же Мамай.” (“The historian dies of sheer boredom: / on the heels of Mamay comes another Mamay.”) He regarded the Soviet Union, with its totalitarian régime, as the new Tatar yoke, a modern Golden Horde. Accordingly, in Ada, Tartary (or, to be more precise, the “ruthless Sovietnamur Khanate”), is a country concealed from the rest of the world by the Golden Veil (a lighter variety of the Iron Curtain) and ruled by Khan Sosso (2.2). “Khan Sosso” is an obvious allusion to Sosso Dzhugashvili, also known as Joseph Stalin (1879-1953), the Soviet dictator, who is compared to Mamay in the poem “On the Rulers.” It is also worth noting that a certain “colonel St. Alin, a scoundrel” is one of Ada’s countless incidental characters, a second in the Demon-d’Onsky duel (1.2).

Blok failed to see in Lenin and the Bolsheviks a new Tatar yoke and did not live to see the accession of Khan Sosso. However, it is most interesting that he imagined the future Russia as “a New America.” One of his poems from the collection “Motherland” is entitled «Новая Америка» (“The New America,” 1913). “The new America” (a free industrial Russia) is opposed in it to половецкий стан (“the camp of the Polovtsy”), татарская буйная крепь (“the wild host of Tartars”). By the latter Blok means political chaos associated with an absence of fundamental political freedoms. The poem concludes with the following optimistic lines: То над степью пустой загорелась / Мне Америки новой звезда (“Above the deserted steppe blazed / For me the star of a new America”). Alas, this star was soon to be concealed by the heavy thunderclouds of war and then by the bloody mists of revolution. And yet, in his foreword to “Retribution,” Blok again speaks of Russia turning into a new America.

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