An additional source for a Central Asian episode in “The Gift”

The second chapter of The Gift is forever dear to all whose life and research is connected to Central Asia, this author being no exception. One of the most memorable moments of this chapter is the ghost-like image of two Americans crossing the Gobi desert on bicycles, met by Konstantin Godunov-Cherdyntsev in 1893 in their “Chinese sandals and round felt hats.”
Real-life travel sources for The Gift are revealed in Dieter E. Zimmer’s wonderful 2006 book (Nabokov reist im Traum in das Innere Asiens, Rowohlt), as well as the earlier article by Zimmer and Hartmann (The Amazing Music of Truth: Nabokov’s Sources for Godunov’s Central Asian Travels in The Gift; Nabokov Studies, 2002/2003, 7: 33-74). This work painstakingly demonstrated how Nabokov—in a manner reminiscent of Jules Verne—incorporated in his novels, often verbatim, documentary information from famous travelers’ books, resulting in “some of the finest, most evocative prose Nabokov ever wrote” (Zimmer and Hartmann, p. 33).
Among many others, Zimmer and Hartmann (p. 52) uncovered the very real background of the bicycling Americans episode, which is completely authentic. Thomas Gaskell Allen and William Lewis Sachtleben, two 1890 graduates of Washington University, St. Louis, “decided to put a practical finish to their theoretical education.” In 1890-1892, Allen and Sachtleben rode over 15,000 miles through Europe, Asia, and North America, at that time the “longest continuous land journey ever made around the world.” Their travel included almost 7,000 miles trek across Turkey, Persia, Turkestan and northern China, described in their charming small book, Across Asia on a Bicycle: The Journey of Two American Students from Constantinople to Peking, published in 1894 by The Century Co., New York. This book is also now available in a new edition with additional notes and materials (Inkling Books, Seattle, 2003, ed. Michael W. Perry).
Zimmer’s 2006 book gives a German translation (pp. 101-110) of several pages from Allen and Sachtleben (1894, pp. 181-194, or pp. 121-130 in 2003 edition), specifically dealing with the Gobi portion of their journey in summer 1892. A spectacular photograph from the frontispiece of their 1894 book is reproduced in both Zimmer and Hartmann (2003, fig. 5) and Zimmer (2006), featuring Allen and Sachtleben with their bicycles on their arrival in Peking. The travelers are clad in “Chinese sandals and round felt hats” as mentioned by Nabokov. The picture is available online (“Bilderalbum” slide 7). The same photograph is found on the cover of 2003 Allen and Sachtleben edition as well as on its page 12.
There is, however, another source for the Allen and Sachtleben episode, not mentioned by Zimmer. It can be found on an important website Zerkala, the database of sources on Central Asia maintained by the University of Halle (Germany) (Dr. Juergen Paul). The website features a small article from the popular Russian journal Niva dated 1893, No. 3(1): 66-68, which is a correspondence from China about Allen and Sachtleben’s arrival in Peking. The travelers’ passage through Russian territory is briefly described, including their visit in Askhabad (now Ashgabat, Turkmenistan) to the military governor General Kuropatkin (the same Kuropatkin mentioned in the famous match episode in both Speak, Memory and Drugie berega).
Most important, the Niva article mentions the travelers’ “Chinese sandals” (“kitaiskie sandalii”) and “round felt hats” (“kruglye kitaiskie fetry”) in the exact same words used in Dar. This is hardly a coincidence; therefore Nabokov’s direct source for the Allen and Sachtleben episode was neither their 1894 book nor any other, but, obviously, the 1893 Niva article, which also features an engraving (“by Chelmicky,” a well-known engraver in Russia) made from the same photograph that was presented in Allen and Sachtleben’s book (1894, 2003) and reproduced in Zimmer and Hartmann (2003) and Zimmer (2006). The photograph was taken on their arrival in Peking (now Bejing) on 22 October 1892.
Zimmer and Hartmann (2003, p. 37) note “Chinese sandals, felt hats” in their list of “highly specific details.” Further, Zimmer (2006: 263) suggests that Allen and Sachtleben donned these “chinesischen Sandalen und runden Filzhüten” specifically for this photograph. From the Niva 1893 article, however, we can see that it was not so. We are told that travelers changed into this Chinese attire in Manas (East Turkestan), on their way from Kuldja to Urumchi (today’s Yining and Ürümqi in Xinjiang Autonomous Region of China), soon after they crossed the Russo-Chinese border into Northwestern China. The Niva article specifically mentions how, in Manas, the travelers “zamenili svoyu obuv’ kitaiskimi sandaliyami i noskami, a furazhki kruglymi kitajskimi fetrami” (“exchanged their shoes for Chinese sandals and socks, and their caps, for round Chinese felt hats”). Allen and Sachtleben not only mention the Manas footgear change in their book but explain the reason for it: “With constant wading and tramping, our Russian shoes and stockings, one of which was almost torn off by the sly grab of a Chinese spaniel, were no longer fit for use. In their place we were now obliged to purchase the short, white cloth Chinese socks and string sandals, which for mere cycling purposes and wading streams proved an excellent substitute, being light and soft on the feet and very quickly dried” (2003, pp. 113-114). (This author, with years of wading experience across Central Asian streams, wholeheartedly seconds the preference of sandals over Russian shoes.)
Thus Allen and Sachtleben’s appearance on crossing the Gobi desert indeed included this exotic foot- and headgear, exactly as seen by Konstantin Godunov-Cherdyntsev in Dar. The latter followed the same—and the only available—route of crossing from Russia to northwestern China (Kuldja – Manas – Urumchi), as reconstructed by Zimmer (2006).
Note that Nabokov confused the year of Allen and Sachtleben’s travel. Konstantin Godunov-Cherdyntsev meets them in 1893; however, in reality the travelers crossed the Gobi in August 1892. There is no obvious reason why the correct year should not have been given; it could be that Nabokov used the Niva journal date (1893) rather than details of the original 1892 itinerary.
Further, a very Nabokovian time- and theme-bending surprise comes from investigating the identity of the author of Niva 1893 article, signed just “I. Korostovets.”
This person is hardly a no-name: 27-year-old Ivan Iakovlevich Korostovets (1866-1933) was then a “second dragoman [translator]” in the very first Russian Imperial Embassy in Peking, mentioned as such by the famous geologist and traveler V. A. Obruchev in his well-known book, Ot Kiakhty to Kuldji. Both Obruchev and G. E. Grum-Grzhimailo met Allen and Sachtleben (Zimmer and Hartmann, 2003, p. 52).
A graduate of the famous Alexandrovsky Lyceum (Pushkin’s school, since 1882 under military authority), I. Ia. Korostovets went into diplomatic service in Asia, and was to become one of the last Imperial Ambassadors in China (1910-1912). He was also a well-known Orientalist, and wrote many books on Asia, among them Kitaitsy i ikh tsivilizatsiia (St. Petersburg, 1896), Pre-War Diplomacy: The Russo-Japanese Problem (London, 1920), and Von Cinggis Khan zur Sowjetrepublik (Berlin, 1926).
Most interestingly, 12 years after Allen and Sachtleben’s journey Ivan Iakovlevich Korostovets was to become one of the two secretaries to Count Witte, the Russian Secretary of State, during the Portsmouth, New Hampshire peace treaty talks (1905), mediated by Theodore Roosevelt, which ended the Russo-Japanese war. The second secretary of Witte’s mission was Konstantin Dmitrievich Nabokov (also spelled Nabokoff) (1872-1927), the writer’s uncle.
Witte’s mission is depicted at the commemorative mural by William Andrew Mackay in Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Hall of the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), New York. There is a wonderful hallucinatory episode in both Speak, Memory and Drugie berega, in which V.V. Nabokov, in 1940, observes his surname written in Cyrillic characters as he goes down in the elevator in AMNH. The vision is immediately decoded for the reader: the name refers to K.D. Nabokov. Two other Cyrillic names on the mural are Witte and Korostovets. The name of Korostovets as the member of Witte’s mission on the AMNH mural appears in Drugie berega (Chapter 4): “on uchastvuet, vmeste s Witte, Korostovtsom i iaponskimi delegatami, v podpisanii Portsmutskogo mira” (“he [K.D. Nabokov] participates, along with Witte, Korostovets, and Japanese delegates, in signing of the Portsmouth Treaty.”). Korostovets, however, was not mentioned in the matching text of Speak, Memory.
Judging from this context, the name of Ivan Iakovlevich Korostovets, his diplomat uncle’s colleague, was well known to Nabokov. Ivan Iakovlevich, however, should not be confused with another Korostovets, Vladimir Konstantinovich (also spelled “de Korostovetz”), a journalist and a political figure in the London emigration, who is mentioned by both Brian Boyd in Russian Years and Andrew Field in Life in Part as having employed both Vladimir and Véra Nabokov for translation work in 1924.
I would also like to comment on a very unusual use of the term “fetry” (“felt hats”) by Korostovets, reproduced by Nabokov after him. The modern Russian always uses the word “voilok” for traditional thick-felt products, and a felt hat of Central Asians is called “voilochnaia shapka.” Thinner and softer “fetr” (from French feutre) is a term reserved almost exclusively for the European-style, brimmed man’s hat, “fetrovaya shliapa” (such as worn by Busch when Fyodor meets him in the third chapter of The Gift).
Plural “fetry” for “felt hats” is never used in modern Russian (one dictionary even insists that “fetr” has no plural). It appears to have been used, however, in the 19th-early 20th century. Innokentii Annenskii (1855-1909), in his translation of Eurypides’ Iphigenia in Tauris, added a remark that Orestes and Pylades are dressed “po-dorozhnomu, v korotkikh plashchakh i fetrakh” (“travel-style, in short capes and felt hats”). Those are chlamys, a short traveling cape, and petasos, a brimmed felt hat with a low crown, so common among Ancient Greek travelers. In his own tragedy, Laodamia (1906), Annenskii also has a “Germes v fetre” referring to the winged petasos of Hermes. As M. L. Gasparov noticed, Valerii Briusov criticized Annenskii for his use of incongruent modern words, “fetr” specifically listed among them, in a Greek setting. The East Turkestanian hats worn by Allen and Sachtleben on their 1892 photograph are, however, not of the Orestes and Pylades style but brimless, flat-top, high-crowned affairs. Allen and Sachtleben’s headgear, documented in many photographs, varies throughout their book; they started with European colonial-style helmets, but “felt caps” are briefly mentioned on p. 112 (2003 edition) as not giving much protection against the July sun.
Thus there is another precious reality thread woven in the rich tapestry of Dar. The forgotten 1893 words of the young Ivan Korostovets, the future witness of many great Asian events, have been pinned by Nabokov, as a brief scientific diagnosis by Konstantin Godunov-Cherdyntsev, on two remarkable young Americans, describing them from head (round felt hats) to toe (Chinese sandals), and preserving their image in a mirage of the Gobi Desert.
I thank Don Barton Johnson and Stephen H. Blackwell for their suggestions on this note.

The Nabokovian (Lawrence, Kansas), 2007, 57: 31–37.

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