Aleksandr Blok's Dreams as Enacted in Ada
by Van Veen--and Vice Versa
Dreams are very important in
Её упругие шелка,
И шляпа с траурными перьями
И в кольцах узкая рука.
And every evening at a fixed hour
And having slowly
passed through the drunks,
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:
But I feel: at my back he
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:
звук. И, покорна
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”:
песни? И звуки?
Whose songs? And sounds?
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
On Antiterra, the entire
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
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
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
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