Part One, Chapter 11
With its straightforward comedy of character and action, this short, breezy chapter comes as a sorbet, a light palate-freshener, between two richer courses.
Van meets his Uncle Dan perhaps for the first time since early childhood, and is not impressed. Dan is after all Durak Walter (4)--in other words, Walter the fool--as distinguished from Van’s brilliant father, Demon or Dark Walter. Both within the scene, as a young family guest, and later, as an aged narrator, Van displays a disdain towards his uncle that underscores Dan’s perplexity and marginality, despite his position as the nominal patriarch of Ardis and Ada’s nominal father. As a boy, Van thinks Dan dense for suggesting seriously the rain will take half an hour to come from Ladore, though Dan proves to be right; as narrator, he imagines Dan confronted with easy Dutch words like oosters and groote that despite his own Dutch surname he has not the wit to guess.
The chase after Dack, scurrying off with Blanche’s menstrual wadding in his mouth, is part pure physical farce, part comedy of social discomfort that in its rapid course reveals the character of uncomprehending Dan, loose Blanche, priggishly resentful Mlle Larivière, conventional Marina, caressive Ada. Readers of Speak, Memory will recognize Dack as a hilarious homage to the dachshunds on the Nabokov family estates.
67.02: his habitual weekend stay: Cf. 5.04-06: “Confessing that he did not much care for the countryside, he spent only a few carefully shaded summer weekends at Ardis.”
67.04-08: The butler very charmingly (thought Van) signaled to his master who the tall boy was . . . alone understood: Bouteillan was Demon’s butler when Van was a child, but Dan seems rarely to have encountered his nephew as a little boy.
67.08: the little red-haired gentleman: Cf. 4.26, “Red Veen.” MOTIF: red hair.
67.17-18: the rain, he said, “took about half-an-hour to reach Ardis”: Cf. 5.10-12: “that large, oddly rectangular though quite natural body of water which a perch he [Dan] had once clocked took half an hour to cross diagonally.”
68.02: Red Cross: Cf. 19.30-32: “thickly prickled with enameled red-cross-flag pins, marking, in her War of the Worlds, Aqua’s bivouacs.”
68.04-05: “I have enough of my own lotteries”: Van’s rudeness is clear, but why does he put it this particular way?
68.11: liriodendron: corrected from 1969, “lirodendron.” W2: “A genus of North American and Asiatic trees of the magnolia family (Magnoliaceae) having only two species, L. chinense and the common North American L. tulipifera, known as the tulip tree.” These specimens are tulip trees (53.01, 72.18, 115.03, 202.30), also known as Yellow-Poplar.
68.11: imperialis: “Paulownia” (A1). Cf. 43.15-20.
68.11-12: the conversation became general: Cf. 271.16-17: “ ‘The conversation became general,’ as Monparnasse liked to write.”
68.13-14: Not long did the rain last—or rather stay: it continued on its probable way to Raduga . . . or Luga: Dan’s estate of Radugalet, where he times the perch that takes half an hour to cross Lake Kitezh, is near Luga.
68.14-15: Raduga . . . rainbow: For Raduga, see 4.01-02 and n. MOTIF: rainbow.
68.14: Raduga or Ladoga or Kaluga or Luga: MOTIF: -uga.
68.14: Kaluga or Luga: MOTIF: place-names: additional syllable.
68.16-19: to read, with the aid of one of the dwarf dictionaries for undemanding tourists . . . an article apparently devoted to oystering: MOTIF: dictionary.
68.18: foreign art catalogues: Before his death Dan bequeaths his nurse Bellabestia “a trunkful of museum catalogues” (438.27)
68.19: apparently devoted to oystering: apparently devoted to oystering: In light of Van’s scorn for Dan’s intelligence, and in light of Dan’s shortly consulting his “vestpocket wordbook . . . to look up groote” only to find that “The simplicity of its meaning annoyed him” (69.-3-05), this seems to be Dan’s incomprehension of Dutch oosters, “eastern, oriental.” But in fact as an art dealer he may indeed be reading about oystering. W2 glosses the English word, in its fine furniture sense: “2. Furniture. a The matching, as on two side-by-side doors of a bookcase, of two oval-grained pieces of wood which are split from one piece and suggest the shape of an opened oyster. b A kind of veneering, as on a table top, consisting of closely fitted pieces of attractively grained wood cut in diagonal section.” Or the online English Dictionary: “Oystering or oyster veneer is a decorative form of veneering, a type of parquetry. This technique is using thin slices of wood branches or roots cut in cross-section, usually from small branches of walnut, olive, kingwood and less commonly laburnum, yew and cocus. The resulting circular or oval pieces of veneer are laid side by side in furniture to produce various decorative patterns. Because the shape formed resembles an oyster shell the technique acquired the name of oyster veneering.” http://englishdictionary.education/en/oystering, accessed 21 October 2017. Andrei Babikov, who noted this sense, adds that Dack’s “skidding on the parquetry” at 68.25 links with “oystering” as a kind of parquetry (and perhaps the reader skids on oystering, as I did, seeing only the play on oosters).
68.21-69.20: abominable tumult . . . “bad dog”: The chase after Dack running away with Blanche’s “blood-soaked cottonwool” will be echoed by another chase after the dog, as he carries away Blanche’s slipper, in 1888: cf. 248.20-34.
As was first noted by Philostrate (Rodney Welch) in the New York Times Forum (nytimes.com), January 24, 2000, Nabokov pays a tribute in Dack’s running away with objects to the motif of Jupiter, the black retriever, in the short story “The Country Husband” (1955), by John Cheever (1912-1982). Nabokov regularly read and enjoyed Cheever’s stories in the New Yorker, and in his essay “On Inspiration” singled out as one of six examples of inspiration in modern American short stories the following: “John Cheever’s ‘The Country Husband’ (‘Jupiter [a black retriever] crashed through the tomato vines with the remains of a felt hat in his mouth.’ The story is really a miniature novel beautifully traced, so that the impression of there being a little too many things happening in it is completely redeemed by the satisfying coherence of its thematic interlacings” (SO 312-13). Francis Weed, the country husband of the title, has a roving eye, and is attracted to a maid at a party and then a schoolgirl babysitting his children. He thinks himself in love with her, and envisages breaking free from his commuter existence, but although his life seems on the verge of disintegrating, a week or so later all is back to the calm of routine. One instance and emblem of the tight interlacement of lives in their wealthy neighborhood, but at the same time a contrast in its disrespect for boundaries and its open helping itself to what is not his, is Jupiter, a neighbor’s retriever with a knack of absconding with items of food or interest from any of the nearby properties. Its first occurrence in the story includes the sentence Nabokov cites: “ ‘Here, Jupiter, here, Jupiter,’ Francis called to the Mercers’ retriever. Jupiter crashed through the tomato vines with the remains of a felt hat in his mouth. Jupiter was an anomaly. His retrieving instincts and his high spirits were out of place in Shady Hill. He was black as coal, with a long, alert, intelligent, rakehell face. . . . Jupiter went where he pleased, ransacking wastebaskets, clotheslines, garbage pails, and shoe bags . . . ” (The Stories of John Cheever, New York: Ballantine, p. 389). At the end of the story, Francis’s life has returned to normal. A child has dressed a cat in a doll’s dress and straw hat; Francis’s wife calls to it:
“ ‘Here, pussy, pussy, pussy!’ Julia calls.
“ ‘Here, pussy, here, poor pussy!’ But the cat gives her a skeptical look and stumbles away in its skirts. The last to come is Jupiter. He prances through the tomato vines, holding in his generous mouth the remains of an evening slipper. Then it is dark: it is a night where kings in golden suits ride elephants over the mountains.” (Stories of John Cheever, p. 410)
The tribute to “The Country Husband” also reflects the fact that this chapter introduces Dan onto the Ardis stage, a country husband who like Francis Weed comes home (weekly, rather than daily) from Manhattan. Like Francis Weed, Dan too has his thwarted fancies of sexual escape.
68.23-69.20: The sportive dackel, . . . "bad dog." MOTIF: dackel.
68.26-34: carrying away . . . a sizable wad of blood-soaked cottonwool . . . “somebody must have chopped off a thumb!”: Cf. Dan’s failure to recognize Blanche’s menstrual rags in another situation, 84.24-25.
68.27-28: blood-soaked cottonwool: Cf. 25.30-31, “blood-soaked cottonwool” (in which the newborn Van is wrapped).
68.28: snatched somewhere upstairs: From Blanche’s room, where Dack is sometimes locked up (78.17-19; 248.24-26: “The slipper belonged to Blanche, who had been told to whisk Dack to her room but, as usual, had not incarcerated him properly”).
68.28-29: two maids: Blanche and French.
69.01-05: retrieved . . . the vestpocket wordbook . . . to look up “groote” . . . annoyed him: MOTIF: dictionary.
69.02: vestpocket wordbook: Dutch vestzakwoordenboek.
69.03-05: had to look up “groote” . . . . The simplicity of its meaning annoyed him: Darkbloom: “Dutch, ‘great.’” Rivers and Walker 270-71 note that this is the pre-1947 spelling of the word.
69.07: on the third lawn: Cf. 128.21: “Van reached the third lawn.”
69.08-09: “American football,” a kind of Rugby game: The game of rugby, originating at the English public school of Rugby in 1823, was played in American colleges in the mid-nineteenth century and evolved into American football in the 1860s and 1870s. Rugby is played at Van’s “public school,” Riverlane (32.30); his fellow pupil and rival Percy de Prey is “a crack Rugger player” (273.25). MOTIF: transatlantic doubling.
69.09-10: cadets played . . . on the wet turfy banks of the Goodson River: The Hudson River, transliterated into Russian, would become “Gudson”; West Point, the United States Military Academy, is on its banks. Goodson is a genuine if not particularly common English surname.
69.10-15: Mlle Larivière . . . accused the young slattern . . . : For her irritation at Blanche’s sloppiness, see 49.04-06. Blanche has dropped a tortoiseshell comb, probably on Van’s first morning at Ardis, 53.19-21. Despite the subject matter of the scene, there seems to be an atmosphere of fairytale here, apart from Blanche as the abused servant-girl Cinderella: the white of the cottonwool, and Blanche Neige (French for “Snow White”); the red of “blood-soaked,” and Little Red Riding Hood (cf. Kinbote’s quotation from Freudian Erich Fromm, “ ‘The little cap of red velvet in the German version of Little Red Riding Hood is a symbol of menstruation’ . . . Do those clowns really believe what they teach?,” PF 271); Sleeping Beauty, who is pricked by a needle; and The Princess and the Pea, a princess whose identity is discovered because she is so delicate that she cannot sleep comfortably over the thickest padding even when there so little as a single pea on the bed. MOTIF: fairy-tale.
69.14-15: un machin long comme ça qui faillit blesser l’enfant à la fesse: Darkbloom: “a thing as long as this that almost wounded the child in the buttock.” Cf. 129.19: “the machine which our forefathers called ‘sex.’ ” MOTIF: behind.
69.16-18: Marina, who had a Russian noblewoman’s morbid fear of “offending an inferior,” declared the incident closed: Cf. 128.01-02: “rather like that Russian nobleman who chucked his coachman to the wolves.” MOTIF: Marina’s Russianness.
69.18: Nehoroshaya, nehoroshaya sobaka: “Bad, bad dog.”
Afternote to Part One, Chapter 11