Part One, Chapter 10
I.10 shows a meeting, if not yet a marriage, of true minds. Van and Ada first gingerly touched hands and shared interests in I.8; Van’s longing for Ada mounted as he watched her and brooded over her image in solitude in I.9; now I.10 places them together again, but this time in the presence of others, especially Marina. Unaware as yet that she is mother to them both, Van and Ada regard her as an impediment to their cognitive kinship which their intelligence gives them the right to sweep straight over.
For the first time, Van has met his match and mate. Still in tender adolescence, he and Ada both know by heart Rimbaud’s “Mémoire” and Marvell’s “The Garden” and by implication much, much more. Yet for all their uncanny similarity, they have their differences: where Van can point only to a “thingum” painted on a plate, Ada knows not only the common and scientific names of natural objects but how to refer to them in standard and dialect English, Russian or French.
At first disconcerted by Ada’s precocity, Van is now simply agog, and happy to help her hold her mother’s boring reminiscences at bay. The chapter lives in the color of the children’s brilliance and the comedy of the gap between that vivid flow and Marina’s floundering incomprehension. Van may not know taxonomy as Ada does, but he can quip and quote to keep up with her in every other way, where Marina can only blunder or misconstrue. Van and Ada seem to remember “Mémoire” and everything else; Marina can barely remember her own romantic past.
The chapter sounds several of Ada’s pervasive themes: the theme of translation, broached in the opening lines of the first chapter; the theme of the relationship between nature and art, in the flower-painting on a plate that occasions Ada’s diatribe against the mistranslation of the name for that flower--the failure, even, to see a flower was there--in a version of Rimbaud’s poem; the theme of memory, in “Mémoire” and the children’s prodigious powers of recall.
61.02-06: Dack, . . . gamey breath). MOTIF: dackel.
61.04: secretly: corrected from 1969, “secretely.”
61.04-06: secretly disliked dogs, especially at meals, and especially that smallish longish freak: Cf. 233.18-19: “ ‘I could never stand that breed,’ remarked Van. ‘Dackelophobia.’ ” The Nabokovs by contrast were fond of their dachshunds, Trainy, Box I and Box II (SM 48, 101), and Elena Nabokov would be reassured by seeing her dackel under the table (SM 31).
61.06-09: Arch and grandiloquent, Ada would be describing . . . a natural history wonder, a special belletristic device—Paul Bourget’s “monologue intérieur” borrowed from old Leo: Darkbloom: “the so-called ‘stream-of-consciousness’ device, used by Leo Tolstoy (in describing, for instance, Anna’s last impressions whilst her carriage rolls through the streets of Moscow).” (See Anna Karenin, VII.28-30.) In his Cornell lectures on Tolstoy, Nabokov declared: “The Stream of Consciousness or Interior Monologue is a method of expression which was invented by Tolstoy, a Russian, long before James Joyce” (the published text of Lectures on Russian Literature, p. 183, becomes defective at this point). In 1967, while he was writing Ada, Nabokov wrote in his foreword to King, Queen, Knave, his and Dmitri’s translation of the 1928 Korol’, dama, valet: “Speaking of literary air currents, I must admit I was a little surprised to find in my Russian text so many ‘monologue intérieur’ passages—no relation to Ulysses, which I hardly knew at the time; but of course I had been exposed since tender boyhood to Anna Karenin, which contains a whole scene consisting of those intonations, Eden-new a hundred years ago, now well used.” (x): MOTIF: Ada--arch
French novelist and critic Paul Bourget (1852-1935) introduced the term in his novel Cosmopolis (1893), shortly after Édouard Dujardin based a novel on the method, Les Lauriers sont coupés (1888). (Although forgotten now, Bourget is represented by 21 works, including Cosmopolis, in the catalogue of Nabokov’s father’s library.) Richard Ellmann reports James Joyce discussing with Valéry Larbaud “the method of what Larbaud, borrowing a term from Paul Bourget’s Cosmopolis (1893), called the ‘monologue intérieur.’ ” (James Joyce [New York: Oxford, 1959], 534).
Van recalls Ada’s taxonomy and her literary observations in a passage of interior monologue as he leaves Ardis for the last time, 299.31-300.08: “She walked to the end of the platform in Tolstoy’s novel. First exponent of the inner monologue, later exploited by the French and the Irish. . . . Never, never shall I hear again her ‘botanical’ voice. . . . ” Lucette has a brief passage of interior monologue before her death, at 493.20-25. MOTIF: Ada’s taxonomy.
61.07: a dream: MOTIF: dream.
61.10: Elsie de Nord: In part a reference to Elsinore, the site of Hamlet (as suggested by the Kyoto Reading Circle, Krug 3:2, 29), especially in view of the reference to another person from the literary demimonde, the reviewer of Van’s first book, as “the First Clown in Elsinore” (343.29). Nevertheless the name invites or tantalizes us with the promise of a particular identification, even if there is no specific reference intended. Perhaps a reference to American poet and translator Babette Deutsch (1895-1982), married to Avrahm Yarmolinsky, with whom she translated Pushkin and other Russians (see 64.16n.), perhaps with a dash of the Russian-born French novelist Elsa Triolet (née Ella Kagan, 1896-1970), who in 1965 edited an Anthologie de la poésie russe?
61.11-12: Lyovin went about Moscow in a nagol’nïy tulup: The hero of Anna Karenin, who, although he spends a day harvesting in the fields with his peasants, is a nobleman and when in Moscow dresses not like a peasant but in the manner of his class.
61.12-14: “a muzhik’s sheepskin coat, bare side out, bloom side in,” as defined in a dictionary . . . never to be procurable by Elsies: MOTIF: dictionary.
61.14-17: Her spectacular handling of subordinate clauses, her parenthetic asides . . . : Cf. Ada’s first speech in the novel, 8.21-9.05, and her star turn in the present chapter, 64.07-65.05. Earl Sampson suggests (private communication) that 41.02-11 also records Ada’s speech, although presenting it as report.
61.16-17: sensual stressing of adjacent monosyllables (“Idiot Elsie simply can’t read”): Cf. 62.05-06: “her daughter’s spondaic sarcasms.”
61.18: artificial excitements and exotic torture-caresses: Cf. another kind of arousal by Ada, “what used to be termed in the jargon of the torture house ‘the angle of agony’ ” (87.08-09).
62.01: “My precious,” her mother called her: Demon, her father, although he is supposed to be merely her uncle, calls her “my precious” at 245.31. Marina recycles the endearment at 62.04, 62.14.
62.08: the dream or adventure: MOTIF: dream.
62.10-11: all elbows: In TS, “all elbows, my lovely octopussycat.”
62.15-16: The rope for the fakir’s bare-bottomed child to climb up in the melting blue?: Ada normally wears no panties in summer (95.14-15).
In a celebrated passage at the end of the first chapter of Speak, Memory, Nabokov recalls his father being called from the family lunch to be tossed in the air by peasants and seeming to be suspended “on his last and loftiest flight, reclining, as if for good, against the cobalt blue of the summer noon” (SM 31). Here the blue may be that of Ardis’s “blue spring sky” in one of its famous “painted ceilings” (36.08). MOTIF: gravity; painted ceiling.
62.20: No: enormous purple pink plums . . . : In other words, Marina’s unfinished “oh, Price, bring the—” refers to these, not to Van’s extravagant suggestions as narrator and perhaps as witness.
62.24-25: then a sudden peal of rough-rippled laughter ending in a moist cough: Cf. grandfather Ivan Durmanov’s laugh, 4.11-13: “a controlled belly-laugh, followed by a small closing cough of feigned detachment.”
62.27: screaming speechlessly: Cf. MOTIF: whisper . . . cry.
62.31-63.06: to prevent Marina . . . Stanislavskiana): MOTIF: actress.
62.31-32: to prevent Marina from appropriating the conversation and transforming it into a lecture on the theater: Ironically, Ada herself will become an actress (she will even act with Marina), write to Van of her “Dreams of Drama” (336.21), and bore him with her discussions of the theater and of Marina’s acting: “‘Of course, the cinema has no language problems,’ continued Ada (while Van swallowed, rather than stifled, a yawn). ‘Marina and three of the men did not need the excellent dubbing which the other members of the cast, who lacked the lingo, were provided with’ ” (427.25-29). MOTIF: generations.
63.05-06: some choice Stanislavskiana: presumably anecdotes about Marina’s own encounters with Konstantin Sergeevich Stanislavsky (1863-1938), the Russian actor, co-founder and director of the Moscow Art Theater, and acting teacher whose ideas laid the foundation for method acting. Seven years hence, in 1891, Marina will play with Ada in a production of Chekhov’s Four Sisters (427.02-430.27); Stanislavsky was the first producer of the real Three Sisters (1901), in which he also took the role of Vershinin. Marina plays the part of the fourth (non-Chekhovian) sister, Varvara. Ada will take “private lessons of drama, despair, hope” from “Stan Slavsky (no relation, and not a stage name)” (426.04-06).
63.06-07: to launch Ada upon the troubled waters of Botany Bay: A near play on the expression “to pour oil on troubled waters”? MOTIF: Ada’s taxonomy.
63.07: Botany Bay: a harbor on the east coast of Australia, just south of Sydney, “proposed site of an English convict settlement; --so called from the number of new plants found on its shore at its discovery by [James] Cook in 1770. . . . Hence, any distant penal colony or place to which desperadoes are sent” (W2). In “the troubled waters of Botany Bay” Van is playfully thinking of Ada’s tendency to cause him mental trouble by expatiating, too much for his liking, on the complexities of botanical taxonomy. He is also probably—and Nabokov is almost certainly—thinking of the troubles between the Australian Gweagal aboriginals and the forces of Captain James Cook (1728-1779) (his ship, the HMS Endeavour, first landed in Australia on his voyage of circumnavigation on 29 April 1770), and the additional troubles implied in the shipping of convicts there from the United Kingdom in 1788. Even after the almost immediate move to Sydney Cove, the Australian penal colony would for many years be referred to in England as “Botany Bay.”Cook first named the bay Stingray Bay, but then changed it in his journal to Botany Bay because of the “great quantity of plants Mr. Banks and Dr. Solander found in this place.” The naturalist Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820) was responsible for the discovery by Western science of many new genera of plants, including Banksia and Eucalyptus on Botany Bay.
63.09: his girl: The first time in the narrative present that Van thinks of Ada in the possessive. Cf. 64.09-10 and n.
63.14: her famous Diamond Necklace: “La Rivière de Diamants”; as will become apparent (83.06-22, 87.16-31), this is an Antiterran version of the famous story “La Parure” (“The Necklace,” 1884) by French novelist and short-story writer Guy de Maupassant (1850-93). MOTIF: diamonds; La Parure.
63.15-18: memories of Van’s early boyhood such as those eminently acceptable ones . . . : Cf. 36.17-19 for Mlle Larivière as Van’s former governess and 66.01-06 for her recollections of young Van, which suggest, as here, her nostalgic blurring of or failure to see the truth.
63.16-17: his beloved Russian tutor: Andreey Andreevich Aksakov (149.12-13).
63.18: sprung rhythm: The name English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1888) gave to a new kind of verse rhythm he had devised (on Welsh models), requiring only a fixed number of stresses per line. It influenced later English-language poets, but not Russians. Cf. Lolita 286: “we would become strangely embarrassed whenever I tried to discuss something she and an older friend, she and a parent, she and a real healthy sweetheart, I and Annabel, Lolita and a sublime, purified, analyzed, deified Harold Haze might have discussed—an abstract idea, a painting, stippled Hopkins or shorn Baudelaire, God or Shakespeare, anything of a genuine kind.” Russian poets of the early twentieth century, often regarded as decadent, did indeed however experiment with accentual verse.
63.19-65.22: Van: "That yellow thingum . . . does not matter now": MOTIF: flowers.
63.19-65.13: Van: "That yellow thingum . . . the Oke, or Bayes!" shouted Van: Nabokov’s strong views on the translation of natural objects are most eloquently expressed in his proposal, in his commentary to Eugene Onegin, to call the Russian cheryomuha (Padus racemosa) “racemosa” in English (EO III,9-13, first published in “The Servile Path” in Reuben A. Brower, ed., On Translation [Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1959], 103-07). He introduces the subject thus: “Among some fifty college students whom I once happened to ask (in planned illustration of the incredible ignorance concerning natural objects that characterizes young Americans of today) the name of the tree, an American elm, that they could see through the classroom windows, none was able to identify it: some hesitantly suggested it might be an oak, others were silent; one, a girl, said she guessed it was just a shade tree. The translator, when tackling botanical names in his author, should try to be more precise.” (EO, III,9)
On his own copy of the first edition of Ada, on which he marked and sometimes glossed potential difficulties for translators, Nabokov wrote: “La première exigence à poser au traducteur: qu’il sache à fond la langue de laquelle il traduit. La seconde: qu’il soit un écrivain dans la langue dans laquelle il traduit. La troisième: qu’il connaisse dans toutes les deux langues les mots qui désignent les objets concrets (naturels et artificiels, la fleur et l’habit). VN, Oct. 19, 1969” (“The first demand to make of the translator: that he know thoroughly the language from which he translates. The second: that he be a writer in the language into which he translates. The third: that in both languages he know the words designating concrete things (natural and artificial, flowers and habitus).” MOTIF: translation
63.19-22: Van: "That yellow thingum . . . palustris: MOTIF: flower drawing/painting.
63.19-20: (pointing at a floweret prettily depicted in an Eckercrown plate): Cf. 38.09-13, a ladybird painted on another Ardis plate.
63.20: Eckercrown: From German Ecker, “acorn”? Significance unknown.
63.20: buttercup: Plant of the genus Ranunculus, with flowers of bright yellow.
63.21-65.05: That yellow flower is . . . whatever those are: MOTIF: Ada’s taxonomy.
63.21-23: the common Marsh Marigold, Caltha palustris. In this country, peasants miscall it ‘Cowslip’: W2: “marsh marigold A perennial swamp plant (Caltha palustris) native to Europe and North America, with simple, nearly orbicular leaves, and bright yellow flowers resembling buttercups; -- called often cowslip in the United States.” This plant will become important (see Afternote), its significance being marked by the fact that Veen means “peat, bog, marsh” in Dutch (see 4.16n). MOTIF: peat, bog, marsh.
63.22-30: peasants miscall it ‘Cowslip’ . . . Kuroslep (which muzhiks in Tartary misapply, poor slaves, to the buttercup): The surprising match in two languages of “Cowslip” and “Kuroslep” (and its mismatching misapplications) recalls the Russian English verbal coincidence pointed out in PF 260 of korona (crown), vorona (crow) and korova (cow).
63.22-23: peasants miscall it ‘Cowslip’: Cf. Defense 230-31: at an émigré soirée Luzhin’s wife is impressed by a quiet, externally unremarkable man named Petrov, whose “sole function in life was to carry, reverently and with concentration, that which had been entrusted to him, something which it was necessary at all costs to preserve in all its detail and in all its purity, and for that reason he even walked with small careful steps, trying not to bump into anyone, and only very seldom, only when he discerned a kindred solicitude in the person he was talking to did he reveal for a moment—from the whole of that enormous something that he carried mysteriously within him—some tender, priceless little trifle, a line from Pushkin or the peasant name of a wild flower.”
63.23-24: the true Cowslip, Primula veris, is a different plant altogether: W2: “cowslip 1. a In Great Britain, a common primrose (Primula veris) having umbels of fragrant yellow flowers appearing in early spring. b In the United States, the marsh marigold.”
63.26-27: when I was playing Ophelia, the fact that I had once collected flowers: In her madness Ophelia distributes herbs and wildflowers to Claudius, Gertrude and her brother Laertes, in Act 4 Scene 5 of Hamlet: rosemary, pansies, fennel, columbines, rue, and a daisy (4.5.175-84). In Act 4 Scene 7 Gertrude reports that Ophelia has drowned after making herself “fantastic garlands . . . / Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples / That liberal shepherds give a grosser name / But our cold maids do dead men’s fingers call them” (4.7.168-71). In Bend Sinister Nabokov has his character, the poet Ember, translate the latter passage accurately into the language of the novel’s invented central-European state (here, pure Russian), and, to show what a tour de force this is, retranslate it into English with minimal loss of detail (BS 118); he also plays on the names of these flowers at BS 113-15.
Marina pasted flowers she had “picked or otherwise obtained” (in other words received from lovers or admirers) in an album at Ex, Switzerland, in late 1869 and early 1870, while in seclusion because though unmarried she was pregnant with Van (see 7.07-9.05). Cf. also 65.20-22. When Van first sees Ada at Ardis, she carries “an untidy bunch of wild flowers” (37.13-14) she has evidently picked herself. MOTIF: actress; generations; Ophelia.
63.28-30: the Russian word for marsh marigold is Kuroslep (which muzhiks in Tartary misapply, poor slaves, to the buttercup): Kuroslep is used for many plants, including Caltha palustris and many species of Ranunculus (the buttercup).
63.29-30: muzhiks in Tartary misapply, poor slaves: Cf. 18.02-03n.
63.30-31: Kaluzhnitsa . . . Kaluga: Kaluzhnitsa correctly refers to “marsh marigold”; the city’s name means “marsh, bog.” MOTIF: peat, bog, marsh.
63.31: Kaluga: MOTIF: -uga.
63.33-65.13: MOTIF: translation.
63.33-64.02: As in the case of many flowers . . . . Flowers into bloomers: MOTIF: deflower.
63.33-34: with a mad scholar’s quiet smile: Cf. 267.01: “Speaking as a botanist and a mad woman, she said, . . . . ”
64.01: traduced or shall we say transfigured: An allusion to George Steiner’s “To Traduce or to Transfigure: On Modern Verse Translation”: cf. 3.04 and n. MOTIF: metamorphosis, trans-; transfigure.
64.02: Flowers into bloomers: Cf. 578.09-10: “by having the bloomers of inept scholarship blend with the whims of flowery imitation.” Van also confronts Mlle Larivière with “such atrocious bloomers in French translations from the English as for example--” (270.27-29). After sitting on Van’s knee on the way home from the picnic on Ada’s sixteenth birthday, Lucette wants “to know, after her whimsical fashion: could a boy bee impregnate a girl flower through something, through his gaiters or woolies or whatever he wore?” (289.07-10).
Perhaps a subsidiary echo of Joyce’s Ulysses, where Leopold Bloom uses the pseudonym Henry Flower to conduct a clandestine postal relationship with another woman.
Ardeur 55: “Ou bien ‘défleuré’ ” (“Or else ‘deflowered’”).
64.03: Je vous en prie, mes enfants!: “Please, children!”
64.08-15: our learned governess, who was also yours, Van . . . as you call them, Van: Echoes Ada’s first speech in the novel (which this precedes in story time): “to whom you, Van, have referred . . . . your father, who, according to Blanche, is also mine” (8.26-32).
64.08-14: our learned governess, who . . . is pretty hard on English-speaking transmongrelizers . . . though I suspect her reasons are more chauvinistic than artistic and moral: See Mlle Larivière’s diatribe against England and its translators, 270.14-26.
64.10: (First time she pronounced it—at that botanical lesson!): In TS, VN deletes the following sentence, “The furniture movers have come as in the beginning of ‘Poison,’ that German play.” Since the German for “poison” is Gift, presumably an allusion to Nabokov’s novel The Gift, set in Berlin, which opens with a scene involving a furniture van; this eventually turns out to have been fate’s first move to get the narrator, Fyodor Godunov-Cherdynstev, and his fiancée Zina Mertz, together. MOTIF: first time.
Cf. 63.09 and n.
64.11: transmongrelizers: MOTIF: trans-.
64.12: monkeys called ‘ursine howlers’: A play on “howler” as blunder (especially in translation) and the neotropical genus of “howling monkeys” (Alouatta); the well-known species of the ursine howler (Alouatta ursina) of Brazil is a kind of mongrel in itself (since it combines as it were the bear in “ursine,” and its expected “growl,” with the canine “howl”).
Probably a reference to another neotropical monkey in an alleged mistranslation. In his review of his former friend’s 1964 translation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegini, Edmund Wilson attacked Nabokov (New York Review of Books, July 15, 1965) for translating obez’yan (EO, IV.vii.10) as “sapajous” rather than the expected “monkeys,” to which Nabokov replied in January 1966, as he was just about to begin Ada: “In Mr. Wilson’s collection of bêtes noires my favorite is ‘sapajou.’ He wonders why I render dostoyno staryh obez’yan as ‘worthy of old sapajous’ and not as ‘worthy of old monkeys.’ True, obez’yana means any kind of monkey but it so happens that neither ‘monkey’ nor ‘ape’ is good enough in context.
“ ‘Sapajou’ (which technically is applied to two genera of neotropical monkeys) has in French a colloquial sense of ‘ruffian,’ ‘lecher,’ ‘ridiculous chap.’ ” (“Nabokov’s Reply,” Encounter, February 1966, rpt. SO 255) Nabokov goes on to show that Pushkin’s obez’yan (he translates the whole phrase as “worthy of old sapajous of our forefathers’ vaunted times”) echoes a phrase in a letter the poet had written to his brother: “Moins on aime une femme et plus on est sur de l’avoir . . . . mais cette jouissance est digne d’un vieux sapajou du dix-huitième siècle” (“The less one likes a woman and the surer one is of having her . . . but that enjoyment is worthy of an old eighteenth-century lecher”).
64.15: bloomers, as you call them: Ardeur 55: “ ‘défleuraisons’ comme tu les appelles” (“ ‘deflowerings’ as you call them”).
64.15-65.02: a Mr. Fowlie’s soi-disant literal version . . . of Mémoire, a poem by Rimbaud: Darkbloom: “Mr. Fowlie: see Wallace Fowlie, Rimbaud (1946)”; “soi-disant: would-be.” Wallace Fowlie (1908-1998), writer, critic, and from 1950 to 1970 foreign editor of Poetry magazine, translated “Mémoire” (“Memory,” written 1872, published 1895) twice, in his Rimbaud: The Myth of Childhood (New York: New Directions, 1946) and again in Wallace Fowlie, ed., Rimbaud, Complete Works and Selected Letters (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1966, pp. 123-125).
Over the next twenty lines, Ada and Van echo at various points the first four of the ten stanzas of “Mémoire,” one of the most famous poems of Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891), which I quote in the original and with Fowlie’s generally very accurate 1966 translation presented with the English translation after each section:
L’eau claire; comme le sel des larmes d’enfance,
L’assaut au soleil des blancheurs des corps de femme;
la soie. en foule et de lys pur, des oriflammes
sous les murs dont quelque pucelle eut la défense;
l’ébat des anges; – Non…le courant d’or en marche,
meut ses bras, noirs et lourds, et frais surtout, d’herbe. Elle
sombre, ayant le Ciel bleu pour ciel-de-lit, appelle
pour rideaux l’ombre de la colline et de l’arche.
Clear water; like the salt of childhood tears;
The assault on the sun by the whiteness of women’s bodies;
the silk of banners, in masses and of pure lilies,
under the walls a maid once defended.
The play of angels – No...the golden current on its way
moves its arms, black and heavy, and above all cool, with grass. She,
dark, having the blue sky as a canopy, calls up
for curtains the shadow of the hill and the arch.
Eh! l’humide carreau tend ses bouillons limpides!
L’eau meuble d’or pâle et sans fond les couches prêtes;
Les robes vertes et déteintes des fillettes
font les saules, d’où sautent les oiseaux sans brides.
Plus pure qu’un louis, jaune et chaude paupière
le souci d’eau – ta foi conjugale, ô l’Epouse!
– au midi prompt, de son terne miroir, jalouse
au ciel gris de chaleur la Sphère rose chère.
Ah! the wet surface extends its clear broth!
The water fills the prepared beds with pale bottomless gold.
The green faded dresses of girls
make willows out of which hop unbridled birds.
Purer than a louis, a yellow and warm eyelid:
the marsh marigold – your conjugal faith, O Spouse –
At prompt noon from its dim mirror, vies
with the dear rose Sphere in the sky grey with heat.
Madame se tient trop debout dans la prairie
prochaine où neigent les fils du travail: l’ombrelle
aux doigts; foulant l’ombelle; trop fière pour elle;
des enfants lisant dans la verdure fleurie
leur livre de maroquin rouge! Hélas, Lui. Comme
mille anges blancs qui se séparent sur la route,
s’éloigne par delà la montagne! Elle, toute
froide, et noire, court! après le départ de l’homme!
Madame stands too straight in the field
nearby where the filaments from the (harvest) work snow down; the parasol
in her fingers; stepping on the white flower, too proud for her;
children reading in the flowering grass
their book of red morocco. Alas, he, like
a thousand white angels separating on the road,
goes off beyond the mountain! She, all
cold and dark, runs! after the departing man!
Regret des bras épais et jeunes d’herbe pure!
Or des lunes d’avril au cœur du saint lit! Joie le
des chantiers riverains à l’abandon, en proie
aux soirs d’août qui faisaient germer ces pourritures!
Quelle pleure à présent sous les remparts! l’haleine
des peupliers d’en haut est pour la seule brise.
Puis, c’est la nappe, sans reflets, sans source, grise;
un vieux, dragueur, dans sa barque immobile, peine.
Longings for the thick young arms of pure grass!
Gold of April moons in the heart of the holy bed; joy
of abandoned boatyards. a prey
to August nights which made rotting things germinate!
Let her weep now under the ramparts! the breath
of the poplars above is the only breeze.
After, there is the surface, without reflection, without springs, gray:
an old dredger, in his motionless boat, labors.
Jouet de cet œil d’eau morne, je n’y puis prendre,
ô canot immobile! oh! bras trop courts! ni l’une
ni l’autre fleur: ni la jaune qui m’importune,
la ni la bleue, amie â l’eau couleur de cendre.
Ah! la poudre des saules qu’une aile secoue!
Les roses des roseaux dès longtemps dévorées!
Mon canot, toujours fixe; et sa chaîne tirée
Au fond de cet œil d’eau sans bords, – â quelle boue?
Toy of this sad eye of water, I cannot pluck,
O motionless boat! O arms too short, either this
Or the other flower: neither the yellow one which bothers me
There, nor the friendly blue one in the ash-colored water.
Ah! dust of the willows shaken by a wing!
The roses of the reeds devoured long ago!
My boat still stationary, and its chain caught
In the bottom of this rimless eye of water – in what mud?
64.17-19: a poem by Rimbaud . . . though I suspect she prefers Musset and Coppée: Cf. “Mademoiselle O”: “ ‘Le Vase brisé’ de Sully-Prudhomme—le vase où meurt cette verveine . . . –et les Nuits d’Alfred de Musset avec leur lyrisme sanglotante et débraillé sont des exemples typiques de ce que ce genre de lecteur russe aimait fait de poésie française. Par contre dans le milieu où j’ai grandi, la tendance littéraire était d’un autre ordre, et ce n’est pas Coppée ou Lamartine, mais Verlaine et Mallarmé qui prirent soin de mon adolescence. Ainsi, le rôle de l’institutrice française concernait plutôt la forme que la substance même, la grammaire plutôt que les lettres” (Mesures, 15 April 1936, p. 166: “ Sully-Prudhomme’s ‘The Broken Vase’—the vase where that vervain dies . . . –and Alfred de Musset’s Nights with their sobbing and unbuttoned lyricism are typical examples of what this kind of Russian reader liked in the way of French poetry. In the milieu where I grew up, on the other hand, the literary bent was of another order and it wasn’t Coppée or Lamartine but Verlaine or Mallarmé who took care of my adolescence. So the role of French governess affected form more than content, grammar rather than Letters”).
64.18: and farsightedly--made me learn by heart: Van and Ada will use this poem (and Marvell’s “The Garden,” which they will allude to on the next page) for their clandestine correspondence from July 1886 to early 1888 (161.23-162.14). Of course Ada could not realise this at the moment she speaks here.
64.19: Musset: Alfred de Musset (1810-57), French Romantic poet, novelist and dramatist. Nabokov refers to the poet Marceline Desbordes-Valmore as “a kind of female Musset minus the color and the wit” (EO II,392). In March 1977 he would bring on his last illness by taking his son Dmitri, who was suffering from a cold, a tray of food and a volume of Musset to read (“On Revisiting Father’s Room,” in Peter Quennell, ed., Vladimir Nabokov: A Tribute [London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1979], 134).
64.19: Coppée: François Coppée (1842-1908), middlebrow French poet and dramatist of whom Van says “Our great Coppée . . . is awful, of course” (246.17). Ada and Van will translate some lines from his poem “La Veillée” at 127.25-128.06 and 247.10-26.
64.20-27: les robes vertes...green nightgown: MOTIF: green [Lucette].
64.20: les robes vertes et déteintes des fillettes: Darkbloom: “the green and washed-out frocks of the little girls.” See 64.15-65.02n., l. 11.
64.20-21: quoted Van triumphantly: Cf. his and Ada’s father quoting Coppée triumphantly at 246.12-14 and 247.13-16. MOTIF: generations.
64.22: Larivière: Named for the first time in this conversation, Mlle Larivière’s name chimes oddly here with the river which flows through and almost is “Mémoire.”
64.22-23: allows me to read him only in the Feuilletin anthology: Because in his complete works she might encounter such frankly obscene poems as “Remembrances du vieillard idiot.” Feuilletin is presumably a play on feuilleton, a supplement issued with a newspaper.
While Nabokov could easily have encountered Fowlie’s 1946 New Directions translation when it was first published, since he himself had also translated Three Russian Poets for New Directions two years previously and would publish another volume with New Directions in 1947, he certainly came across it (with the French original) in an anthology edited by Huntington Cairns, The Limits of Art: Poetry and Prose Chosen by Ancient and Modern Critics (1948) in a reprint (New York: Pantheon, 1960, Bollingen Series XII) given him by the publishers of his Eugene Onegin. Pages 1346-48 of his copy bear his indignant marginalia, including beside an underlined “care of the water”: “!! yellow flower le souci d’eau C. palustris !”
64.23-24: in the Feuilletin anthology, the same you have apparently: In TS, “in the same anthology, which apparently you possess.”
64.24: oeuvres complètes: complete works.
64.26-27: Lucette, our darling copperhead who by now should be in her green nightgown: MOTIF: red-green.
64.26-27: copperhead: Cf. another reference to Lucette at 406.13: “a copperhead of eight was also ambushed in the brush.” MOTIF: copper.
64.27-29: green nightgown . . . Lucette’s nightdress: Cf. 414.34 “her [Lucette’s] pale green nightdress.”
64.27-30: green nightgown . . . the nuance of willows: An echo of “Mémoire,” ll. 11-12 (see above, 64.15-65.02n.). Cf. 198.10-12: “Lucette . . . . in willow-green shorts”; 417.25, “Lucette, still in her willow green nightie.”
Especially in view of Marina’s “when I was playing Ophelia, the fact that I had once collected flowers--” on the previous page (and “Elsie de Nord” as an allusion to Elsinore at the beginning of the chapter), the willow also evokes Gertrude’s description of Ophelia’s death, in the speech beginning “There is a willow grows aslant the brook . . . ” (Hamlet 4.7.167), with its description of Ophelia’s clothes that “spread wide, And mermaid-like awhile they bore her up” (4.7.175-76). The willow was a conventional symbol of a rejected lover (cf. John Webster, The White Devil, ed. Elizabeth M. Brennan [London: Ernest Benn, 1966], 4.2.34 and n.). MOTIF: willow green.
64.28: Angel moy: Darkbloom: “Russ., ‘my angel.’ ”
64.30: MOTIF: willow.
64.30-31: the little sheep on her ciel de lit: Lucette reports at 374.30-31: “even if I did not put out the pink night-light of porcelain with the transparency picture of a lost lamb.”
64.31-32: her ciel de lit which Fowlie turns into ‘the sky’s bed’ instead of ‘bed ceiler’: L. 7 of “Mémoire”; see 64.15-65.02n. above. In 1946 Fowlie translated the line as “Dark, having the blue sky for the sky’s bed, calls up.” A clumsily lexical translation of ciel de lit would be “sky of bed.”
Cf. 418.33-419.04: “Thus seen from above, as if reflected in the ciel mirror . . . we have the large island of the bed illumined from our left (Lucette’s right)”; on this occasion Lucette is wearing her “willow green nightie” (417).
64.32-65.13: to go back to our poor flower. . . . the Palme, the Oke, or Bayes: MOTIF: deflower.
64.32-65.02: The . . . louis d’or . . . is the transformation of souci d’eau (our marsh marigold) into the asinine ‘care of the water’: In 1946 Fowlie translated ll.13-14 of “Mémoire” as “More golden than a louis, pure and warm eyelid, / The care of the water--your conjugal faith, O Spouse!--” As at 64.31, “care of the water” is a lexical translation (and even so, not quite accurate) of the French souci d’eau, “marsh marigold.” MOTIF: metamorphosis; trans-; water.
64.32-33: The forged louis d’or in that collection of fouled French: Playing on l. 13 of “Mémoire,” “Plus pur qu’un louis,” and Fowlie’s name. MOTIF: gold dollars.
65.02: ‘care of the water’: Ardeur 56: “ ‘care of the water’, ‘sollicitude de l’eau.’ ”
65.02-03: although he had at his disposal dozens of synonyms, such as mollyblob, marybud, maybubble: According to W2, May blob is an English dialectic term for “marsh marigold,” and marybud for “marigold.”
Cf. EO III,11: “I do not think that it is the translator’s duty to trouble much about the rendering of associations in his text, but he should explain them in his notes. It is certainly a pity that the euphonious French name of some plant, say, l’alidore (to invent one), with its evocations of love philters and auroral mists, should become in England hog’s wart (because of the singular form of its flowers), or cotton bud (because of the texture of its young leaves), or parson’s button (allusion untraceable). But unless a name of that kind might puzzle or mislead the reader by referring to a dozen different plants (and then the Latin specific name should be given), the translator is entitled to use any available term as long as it is exact.”
65.03-05: maybubble, and many other nicknames assocated with fertility feasts, whatever those are: Cf. EO III,6: “those enthusiastic but repetitious May-Day pagan rites and Floralian games that are so dull to read about in anthropological works.”
65.06-08: “On the other hand,” said Van, “one can well imagine a similarly bilingual Miss Rivers . . . : Cf. the similar intonations of Van’s counter-example at 379.17-21.
65.07: similarly bilingual Miss Rivers: an imagined English equivalent of Mlle Larivière; see 64.22n, but there is the added joke that Ada’s translation actually turns the leaves of three trees in Marvell’s poem into a river and a bay. MOTIF: body of water.
65.08: Marvell’s Garden: “The Garden” (c. 1650), by Andrew Marvell (1621-1678). With Rimbaud’s “Mémoire,” it becomes the basis for Van’s and Ada’s coded correspondence in 1886-1888 (see 64.18n.).
65.09-10: I can recite ‘Le jardin’ in my own transversion: Cf. PF, ll. 677-78: “You went on / Translating into French Marvell and Donne.” W2 lists transversion as two distinct words: the first, “A making or becoming transverse . . . ; hence, a corruption or perversion,” and the second, “A turning into verse; also, a metrical version.” MOTIF: trans-.
65.11-13: “En vain on s’amuse à gagner / L’Oka, la Baie du Palmier . . . ” “ . . . to win the Palm, the Oke, or Bayes!”: Darkbloom: “en vain, etc.: In vain, one gains in play / The Oka river and Palm Bay . . . ” Marvell’s original begins: “How vainly men themselves amaze / To win the Palm, the Oke, or Bayes.” (H.M. Margoliouth, ed., The Poems and Letters of Andrew Marvell, 3 rd ed., rev. Pierre Legouis with E.E. Duncan-Jones, vol. 1, Poems [Oxford: Clarendon, 1971], p. 51) The leaves of the garlands for, respectively, military, civil and poetic honors have been lost, and replaced with these place names (the Oka River is a major tributary of the Volga; there is no Baie du Palmier or Palm Bay, but it could be a name for almost any gentle tropical or subtropical coast). Ada’s later translation of Coppée will also displace the leaves on the trees she tries to transpose, or imply the trees have been chopped down (127.26-128.02). MOTIF: body of water; water.
65.14-19: You know, children, . . . when I was your age . . . we talked about croquet, and ponies, and puppies . . . and--oh, millions of nice normal things, but never, never of old French botanists and God knows what: Cf. 56.01-05: “I think Marina would stop scolding me for my hobby ( . . . ‘Normal young ladies should loathe snakes and worms,’ et cetera) if I could persuade her to overcome her old-fashioned squeamishness and place simultaneously on palm and pulse . . . the noble larva of the Cattleya Hawkmoth.” Cf. also SM 130: “a ‘lepist’ . . . was apt to provoke strange reactions in other creatures. . . . ‘Can’t you enjoy yourself like a normal boy?’ ”
65.20: But you just said you collected flowers?: See 63.26-27.
65.21-22: Oh, just one season, somewhere in Switzerland. I don’t remember when: Between August 1869 and March 1870, at Ex, Switzerland, where Marina had come to remain secluded while pregnant with Van (7.07-8.13). Marina’s memory is very different from the memory of her two children by Demon (who himself has an excellent memory). Cf. 252.21-254.03 for her memory. MOTIF: generations.
65.23: The reference was to Ivan Durmanov: i.e. 65.16, “my brother.” Cf. the matching awkward transition, after discussion of the flowers Marina collected, to another member of the family, at the end of another chapter, at 9.13: “Re the ‘dark-blue’ allusion, left hanging.”
65.23-24: died of lung cancer years ago in a sanatorium (not far from Ex: Cf. 347.18-19: “Ex-en-Valais, whose crystal air was supposed at the time to strengthen young lungs.” MOTIF Ex; sanatorium.
65.25: where Van was born eight years later: In TS, “where Van had happened to be born a quarter of a century later.” Ivan died in 1862, Van was born in 1870.
65.29-32: a sudden flood of tears (maybe some allergy to flat dry old flowers, an attack of hay fever, or gentianitis, as a slightly later diagnosis might have shown retrospectively): In other words, Marina may have been thinking of the time when she collected those flowers at Ex, and perhaps especially of the flower she gathered in the garden of Dr. Lapiner and the gentians he brought her (7.25, 8.05-06). “Slightly later” because Van and Ada discover the herbarium a few weeks later, in late August 1884; “diagnosis,” partly because Lapiner is a doctor. Cf. 384.23-25: “ ‘But Van, why are you--’ ‘Hay fever, hay fever!’" MOTIF: flowers.
66.01-04: Mlle Larivière . . . recollections of Van as a bambin angélique . . . : Cf. 63.15-18.
66.02: bambin angélique: Darkbloom : “angelic little lad.”
66.03-05: adored . . . . release the adoration: MOTIF: adore.
66.03: à neuf ans: At nine.
66.03: Gilberte Swann: Swann’s daughter in A la recherche du temps perdu, with whom Marcel as a child falls in love. This love prefigures Marcel’s love for Albertine, the major story of the novel, as Van’s love for Gilberte also prefigures his love for Ada.
J.E. Rivers reports: “Nabokov told me in private conversation that, while he regards Albertine as an utterly unconvincing character, he views the young Gilberte as one of the most skilfully drawn characters in literature.” “Proust, Nabokov, and Ada,” in Phyllis Roth, ed., Critical Essays on Vladimir Nabokov (Boston: G.K. Kall, 1984), p. 156, n. 34.
66.03-04: la Lesbie de Catulle: Lesbia is the name Gaius Valerius Catullus (84?-54 B.C.), Rome’s greatest lyric poet, gives in his Carmina to his mistress, in real life named Clodia. Catullus chose the name for its echo of Sappho, the Greek poet from Lesbos; Nabokov seems to have chosen it for its association with “lesbian.” Gilberte in Proust will be succeeded by Albertine, whom Van and Nabokov both see as more male, in reflection of Proust’s homosexuality, than the female she is supposed to be: “the good fat cheeks of Albertine are the good fat buttocks of Albert,” 169.03-04. Van suspects Cordula de Prey might be lesbian, the girl who has had a crush on Ada at her school (158.32-34, 164.27-165.14), denies to her that Ada could have been in love with him (she is “much too young to fall in love with anybody, except people in books,” 165.16-17), and denounces Albertine as a character before Ada and Cordula (168.32-169.14). Cordula is no more lesbian than the Lesbia/Clodia of Catullus, as Van subsequently discovers at first hand.
66.04-06: to release the adoration as soon as the kerosene lamp had left the mobile bedroom: Cf. another image of Van’s masturbation: “and call forth the image he had just left behind, an image still as safe and bright as a hand-cupped flame--carried into the dark, only to be got rid of there with savage zeal.” (100.16-19)
66.06: his black nurse’s fist: his “very young wet nurse, Ruby Black, born Black” (20.13-14), “his tender young nurse, Ruby, who was born in the Mississippi region where most magistrates . . . and other honorable and generous men, had the dark or darkish skin of their West-African ancestors” (241.22-27). Cf. also 583.09-10. MOTIF: black.
Afternote to Part One, Chapter 10