Part One, Chapter 15
In I.8, when Mlle Larivière told Ada to play with her cousin, both children had felt highly constrained, and as they strolled together under the trees Van soon found a pretext to disengage his hand from Ada’s. Now, a few weeks later, they need no prompting to leave Mlle Larivière and Lucette and clamber together into the shattal tree. In a moment of pure sexual slapstick, Ada’s foot slips on the smooth bark, and as she falls, Van topples too, his lips ending up planted firmly on Ada’s pantyless crotch, in an explicit parody of the Biblical Fall and especially of the Christian idea of the Fortunate Fall (see 94.14-19n). Notice that Ada is the first to fall, dislodging Van as she slips herself, as Eve is the first to “fall,” to eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, before causing Adam’s “fall” when she passes the fruit on to him. But where Eve and Adam seem all innocence, even after eating the fruit, Ada and Van seem absurdly, impossibly knowing.
The Garden of Eden and the Fall have been evoked twice before, in the Marina-like Parmigianino sketch of Eve in I.2, which gives Demon a taste of “the apple of terrible knowledge” (16), and in I.9, where Van, climbing behind Ada, as here in I.15, notices something wrench up her skirt “and he saw—as one sees some sickening miracle in a Biblical fable or a moth’s shocking metamorphosis—that the child was darkly flossed” (59), then the next day catches a glimpse of her washing her arms and face over an old-fashioned basin: “A fat snake of porcelain curled around the basin, and as both the reptile and he stopped to watch Eve and the soft woggle of her bud-breasts in profile, a big mulberry-colored cake of soap slithered out of her hand” (60; see Afternote I.9). But that sudden advance in Van’s “sentimental education”(60), that fall of a fruit-colored soap, is nothing compared with this fall in the Tree of Knowledge.
Throughout Ardis the First there runs a tension between, on the one hand, the rapid if uncertain rhythm of Van and Ada’s first approaches to each other, the tentative advances in their feelings and fondlings, and, on the other, their confident, familiar, endlessly repeated recollections of those first surprises. And nothing is more of a surprise than the tumble in the tree, an advance in intimacy so sudden, indeed, that it jars Van at the time and still seems to jangle even his and Ada’s memories, as they agree and disagree in an overlapping series of retrospections. Not until the next chapter, indeed, will “the first contact, so light, so mute, between his soft lips and her softer skin” (98) seem a tender turning-point.
The first movement of this short chapter appears to imply the inevitability of Van and Ada’s coming together, as if fate impatiently hurries them closer. But Nabokov likes to balance apparent inevitability with evidence of openness. In the second movement of the chapter, the coincidence that Van and Ada both think they have left their diaries accessible in their rooms, leads them both back to the manor, but not into another new phase of their love—although it does introduce a new twist of parody, a shift from ancient myth to modern romance: “Van and Ada met in the passage, and would have kissed at some earlier stage of the Novel’s Evolution in the History of Literature.”
94.01: glossy-limbed shattal tree: Cf. 78.05: “the cool limb of a Shattal apple tree.”
94.01: shattal tree: Invented, although defined as coming from “the Eden National Park” in Iraq (95.19-23), and as being “a Shattal apple tree” (see 78.05 and n.), although “not a true apple tree” (95.24). From “Shatt al Arab,” the tidal river, flowing into the Persian Gulf, formed on the Iraq-Iran border by the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates, two of the four rivers of the Biblical Eden. Shattal is probably also in part a play on the shittah tree (Hebrew for “the thorny,” presumed to be acacia) in the Bible, Isaiah 41:19 (King James Version): “I will plant in the wilderness the cedar, the shittah tree, and the myrtle, and the oil tree; I will set in the desert the fir tree, [and] the pine, and the box tree together:”
“Shattal tree” therefore recalls Genesis 2: “10 And a river went out of Eden to water the garden; and from thence it was parted, and became four heads. 11 The name of the first is Pishon; that is it which compasseth the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold. . . . 13 And the name of the second river is Gihon; the same is it that compasseth the whole land of Ethiopia. 14 And the name of the third river is Hiddekel; that is it which goeth toward the east of Assyria. And the fourth river is Euphrates. 15 And the Lord God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it. 16 And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat; 17 But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it; for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die” (King James Version: Hiddekel is an ancient name of the Tigris).
As Eric Naiman notes (Nabokov, Perversely [Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2010), 253), Nabokov is also punning on chatte, vulgar French for the female pudendum (Ada’s will rub up against a limb of the tree in the course of the chapter).
Robert Alter (who happens to have noted the “fortunate Fall” in this scene of Ada in his August 1969 Commentary review of the novel) provides the best English translation: “Now a river runs out of Eden to water the garden and from there splits off into four streams. The name of the first is Pishon, the one that winds through the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold. . . . And the name of the second river is Gihon, the one that winds through all the land of Cush. And the name of the third river is Tigris, the one that goes to the east of Ashur. And the fourth river is Euphrates. And the Lord God took the human and set him down in the garden of Eden to till it and watch it. And the Lord God commanded the human, saying, ‘From every fruit of the garden you may surely eat. But from the tree of knowledge, good and evil, you shall not eat, for on the day you eat from it, you are doomed to die’ ” (Genesis: Translation and Commentary, New York: Norton, 1996).
MOTIF: Eden; Shattal.
94.02: little Lucette: MOTIF: little Lucette.
94.02-08: Lucette . . . just within earshot . . . squirrel: Cf. 98.10-12: “After the first contact, so light, so mute, between his soft lips and her softer skin had been established—high up in that dappled tree, with only that stray ardilla daintily leavesdropping.” MOTIF: eavesdropper.
94.04-06: grace hoops. . . . above or through foliage, the skimming hoop passing from one unseen sending stick to another: Grace hoops (W2): “A hoop used in the graces.” Grace (W2): “16. Games, pl., with the. A game in which two or more players throw to each other and catch a small hoop by means of one or two sticks held in the hands of each; called also grace hoop or hoops.” W2 provides an illustration of “Grace Hoop and Sticks.” MOTIF: games.
94.06: The first cicada of the season: Cf. 266.16: “The smallest pine had its cicada” (earlier in the season in 1888; did the 1884 summer have a cool start?). For another prominent Nabokovian cicada, see Pale Fire, poem ll. 181, 236-44, commentary, nn. 181-182, 238.
94.07: silver-and-sable: An echo of Hamlet: when Horatio informs Hamlet he has seen his father’s ghost, Hamlet asks: “His beard was grisl’d, no?” and Horatio answers: “It was, as I have seen it in his life, A sable silver’d.” (1.2.239-41) MOTIF: black-white.
94.07: silver-and-sable skybab squirrel: A1: “Kaibab (in Arizona)”; VN explained to a query from McGraw-Hill editor Anthony Velie (January 20, 1969, VNA): “Skybab squirrels are Kaibab squirrels.”
The Kaibab squirrel (Sciurus aberti kaibabensis), a genuine species marked by a black belly and a white tail (hence silver-and-sable), found only in the ponderosa pine of the Kaibab Plateau on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. Its mention here reflects Nabokov's own discovery of the Kaibab race of the Blue butterfly Icaricia icarioides, of which he caught a series in July 1956 on the Kaibab Plateau, on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon (on the South Rim in June 1941 he had caught specimens of a species he named Neonympha dorothea, now Cyllopsis pertepida dorothea): see photograph, "Nabokov's Butterflies," The Atlantic Monthly, April 2000, 51.
94.07-08: squirrel sat sampling a cone on the back of a bench: Cf. “high up in that dappled tree, with only that stray ardilla daintily leavesdropping” (98.11-12); and therefore, cf. Lucette “picking her nose and examining with dreamy satisfaction her finger before wiping it on the edge of her bench. Van decided she must be ‘Ardelia’” (36.21-24). MOTIF: ardilla.
94.09: blue gym suit: Teasingly reminiscent of the blue sailor suits of Nabokov’s childhood, but with a dash of more modern gymnastics or athletics gear, perhaps even of a track suit?
94.12-13: by taking her ankle . . . as she would have a closed butterfly: MOTIF: butterflies.
94.14-19: Her bare foot slipped . . . shower of drupes and leaves . . . last fruit fell with a thud: In view of the Edenic associations of the shattal tree, which become comically explicit at 95.18-20, Ada’s fall, Van’s fall, and the fall of the fruit are a comic echo of the Biblical Fall, Eve’s and Adam’s taking and eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, despite God’s injunction (Genesis 3.1-7), combined perhaps with an echo of the legend of Isaac Newton’s being inspired to formulate his theory of gravity when an apple fell on his head.
St. Paul saw Christ’s resurrection as a contrast to and compensation for Adam’s fall into mortality: “But now is Christ risen from the dead and become the first fruits of them that slept. For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15: 20-22; cf. also Romans 5.14-19). The Pauline vision of Christ as the second Adam, who can usher us to eternal life, as Adam ushered us into death, finds its expression in the Christian tradition of the Fortunate Fall: “O felix culpa, quae talem ac tantum meruit habere Redemptorem,” “O happy fault, which has deserved to have such and so might a Redeemer” (from the Missal, the “Exsultet” on Holy Saturday). MOTIF: Fall.
94.15: drupes: A drupe is a “fruit consisting of a pulpy, coriaceous, or fibrous epicarp without valves, a usually fleshy mesocarp (often called sarcocarp), and a hard endocarp (the stone) enclosing a single seed. The epicarp is succulent in the plum, cherry, apricot, peach, etc., and dry and subcoriaceous in the almond” (W2). As Ada notes at 95.24, the shattal is clearly not a “true apple tree.”
94.19: the dropped dot of an inverted exclamation point: Cf.: “the lights burned on the pier, casting long reflections on the tinted water, and these bright dots and inverted exclamation marks seemed to be shining translucently in his own head” (“Lik,” Stories 474) and “And as I looked up at the eaves of the adjacent garage with its full display of transparent stalactites backed by their blue silhouettes, I was rewarded at last, upon choosing one, by the sight of what might be described as a the dot of an exclamation mark leaving its ordinary position to glide down very fast—a jot faster than the thaw-drop it raced” (“The Vane Sisters,” Stories 615) (Kyoto Reading Circle).
94.19-20: She was wearing his wristwatch: She is still wearing it weeks later (142.20-143.02).
95.01-06: (“Remember?” . . . support”): MOTIF: Composition: Ada, Van.
95.01: “Remember?”: MOTIF: remember.
95.04: you started to strangle me with those devilish knees: MOTIF: devil.
95.09-17: Van removed a silk thread of larva web from his lip . . . Ada, straddling her favorite limb . . . “Mlle La Rivière . . . has nothing against a hysterical little girl’s not wearing pantalets during l’ardeur de la canicule. . . ” “I refuse to share the ardor of your little canicule with an apple tree. ”: Ada later takes the “silk thread of larva web” literally (“no caterpillars bred on that tree,” 95.30-31), but what Van removes from his lips seems to be a strand of “stickiness” from Ada’s “soft arch,” as the very close echo here of the following passage confirms: “the omission of panties was ignored by Ida Larivière . . . who was not above making secret concessions to the heat of the dog-days herself. . . . The child tried to assuage the rash in the soft arch, with all its accompaniment of sticky, itchy, not altogether unpleasurable sensations, by tightly straddling the cool limb of a Shattal apple tree, much to Van’s disgust as we shall see more than once” (77.17-78.06). Cf. also 265.01-08: “I really think you should wear something underneath on formal occasions. . . . perhaps it’s a kind of jealousy on my part. Memoirs of a Happy Chair.” MOTIF: pantyless Ada.
95.09-10: removed a silk thread of larva web from his lip: MOTIF: insect/incest; lip.
95.11-14: hysteria . . . “a hysterical little girl’s”: Quick Ada mockingly echoes Van’s complaint.
95.12-13: as we all know by now: As if Ada at twelve has, impossibly, already read Ada I.13: a kind of forbidden knowledge, as she straddles “her favorite limb” of “the Tree of Knowledge.”
95.13: Mlle La Rivière de Diamants: Cf. 83.06-07: “Finally Mlle Larivière read her La Rivière de Diamants, a story she had just typed out.” MOTIF: La Parure; diamonds; Rivière de Diamants.
95.14: pantalets: W2: “In women’s and girls’ costume about 1830-50, long loose drawers with a frill or ruffle at the bottom of each leg; also, a detachable frill or ruffle showing below the skirt; humorously, women’s drawers, bloomers, or the like.” Cf. 378.22-24, Van to Lucette: “you do resemble Dolly, still in her pretty pantelets” [sic].
95.15-16: l’ardeur de la canicule . . . the ardor of your little canicule: MOTIF: ardor; canicule.
95.15: l’ardeur de la canicule: “the heat of the dog-days” (cf. 78.01).
95.16-17: I refuse to share the ardor of your little canicule with an apple tree: Although “canicule” is English and apt (W2: “the dog days”; it is indeed a hot July day), Van’s “ardor of your little canicule” contains a double pun, on (1) English cunny, French con, or Latin cunnus (vulva), as in cunnilingus (since the fall has brought Van’s lips and Ada’s labia into contact: cf. also the pun on “snatch” at 95.28); and (2) cuniculus, Latin for “rabbit” (W2), since as Ada’s next speech discloses, the son of Dr. Krolik (whose name means “rabbit” in Russian) has imported the web-producing “larva” from Eden National Park, and since Krolik himself is one of a series of physicians with pointedly rabbity names, including “Dr. Nikulin (grandson of the great rodentiologist Kunikulinov,” 433.17-18 (see 7.25n. and Afternote below). MOTIF: Krolik.
95.18: It is really the Tree of Knowledge: Cf. 94.01 and n. MOTIF: Shattal.
95.18-24: the Tree of Knowledge . . . no apple trees . . . not a true apple tree: Cf. 16.21: “the apple of terrible knowledge.” MOTIF: apple.
95.18-20: the Tree of Knowledge—this specimen was imported last summer wrapped up in brocade from the Eden National Park where Dr. Krolik’s son is a ranger and breeder: Dr. Krolik’s son (not otherwise mentioned in Ada) echoes his father, who imports not only specimens of lepidopteral larvae for Ada, but also the trees that serve as their food plants: “Dr. Krolik received from Andalusia and kindly gave me five young larvae of the newly described very local Carmen Tortoiseshell. They . . . . breed only on a semi-extinct species of high-mountain willow (which dear Crawly also obtained for me)” (55.24-29). Nevertheless, although “this specimen” seems sequentially and syntactically to refer to the Tree of Knowledge, even in extravagant Ardis it seems hardly likely that one would import from across the Atlantic a tree, wrapped in brocade, large enough for two teens to be able to climb and fall within it only a year later. Semantically and scientifically, the “specimen” must refer to the caterpillar which spun the supposed “silk thread of larva web” Van refers to at 95.09. Almost certainly (in view of the puns fore and aft on cunt at 95.15-16 and 95.28) this is closely related, textually if not taxonomically, to the Carmen Tortoiseshell (with its "very local" sense of cunt, 55.24-29n.)
95.19-20: Eden National Park: Invented, but in view of the Arcadian and well as Edenic overtones of Ardis, perhaps plays also on the real Acadia National Park in Maine. Cf. 94.01 and n.; SM 24: “my earliest impressions . . . . led the way to a veritable Eden of visual and tactile sensations”; Lolita 59-60: “she had painted lips and was holding in her hollowed hands a beautiful, banal, Eden-red apple.” MOTIF: Eden.
95.21-22: her natural history had long begun to get on his nerves: Cf. 43.21: “I’m going to scream, thought Van.”
95.25-32: “Right and wrong,” commented Ada, again much later . . . . past history by that time: Cf. 95.07-08: “according to a later (considerably later!) version. . . . ” If Ada’s “eighty years ago” is precise, this exchange would be dateable to 1963. MOTIF: Composition: Ada, Van.
95.28: to snatch, as they say, a first shy kiss: Pun. Cf. Boyd 1985/2001: 243: “seems to allude to a stock expression—but the actual idiom is ‘steal a kiss.’ Why then that ‘as they say’ just after snatch? Because, of course, there is one colloquial use of ‘snatch’”: vulva. Actually, “snatch a kiss” is an idiom in its own right, though much less common than “steal a kiss.” Gennady Kreymer (private communication) notes an example from The Scarlet Letter (1850), by the American novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864), ch. 22: “"One of these seafaring men ... attempted to lay hands upon her, with purpose to snatch a kiss."
95.29-32: “no National Park . . . And no caterpillars bred on that tree in our orchard.” “True, my lovely and larveless.” Natural history was past history by that time: In 1922 Ada donates “her collections to a National Park museum” (532.26-27), and by this time “did not breed or collect butterflies any more, but . . . loved to film them in their natural surroundings” (567.17-19).
95.31: lovely and larveless: The pun here on near-homophone “loveless” seems to confirm a general implicit pun on “larva” and “lover” in the description of Ada’s larvarium—“a glorified rabbitry” (54.13), after all—and Krolik’s involvement in it (“ ‘Je raffole de tout ce qui rampe (I’m crazy about everything that crawls)’ . . . dear Crawly,” 54-55).
95.32: Natural history: Echo of 95.21-22. Cf. 71.17-18: “Natural history indeed! Unnatural history. . . . ”
95.33-96.17: Both kept diaries . . . to a safer place: Cf. 109.06-10: “She had kept only a few—mainly botanical and entomological—pages of her diary, because on rereading it she had found its tone false and finical; he had destroyed his entirely because of its clumsy schoolboy style combined with heedless, and false, cynicism.” Three of Ada’s entomological entries are preserved at 55.17-56.10. MOTIF: diary.
95.33: foretaste of knowledge: Play on the obsolete sense of “knowledge” in the sense of “sexual intercourse” (W2), as in the phrase “carnal knowledge.” (Cf. Lolita 174: “the unintentionally Biblical title Know Your Own Daughter.”) “Foretaste” also plays on the tasting of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. Puns on “fruit,” “taste” and “sap/sapience” recur in Milton’s Paradise Lost, as in the opening lines, with its allusion to Christ as the second Adam (and hence the ultimately fortunate Fall):
Of man’s first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste
Brought death into the world, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater man
Restore us, and regain the blissful seat,
Sing heavenly Muse. . . . (I.1-6)
Just after the fatal transgression:
that false fruit
Far other operation first displayed,
Carnal desire inflaming, he on Eve
Began to cast lascivious eyes, she him
As wantonly repaid; in lust they burn:
Till Adam thus gan Eve to dalliance move.
Eve, now I see thou art exact of taste,
And elegant, of sapience no small part,
Since to each meaning savour we apply. . . . (IX.1011-19)
96.03: chort!: Darkbloom: “Russ., ‘devil.’” Cf. 139.10-11: “Van, flipping through a magazine, heard Ada scream and say ‘chort’ (devil) in the next room, which he had never heard her do before.” MOTIF: chort; devil.
96.04-06: for a bit of shooting practice in a nearby pavilion . . . once much used by other Veens: Cf. 148.01-11: “on their way to the Gun Pavilion alias Shooting Gallery”
96.04: shooting practice: Cf. Van to his father, Demon: “You still beat me at fencing, but I’m the better shot” (255.23).
96.07-09: Then, by a nice coincidence, both went tearing back to the house to hide their diaries which both thought they had left lying open: A parody of the role of coincidence, and of diaries as a means of discovery, in nineteenth-century fiction. Cf. 287.21: “The novelistic theme of written communications has now really got into its stride.” Cf. also Nabokov on his relationship to his homosexual brother Sergey, when they were in their mid-teens: “a page from his diary that I found on his desk and read, and in stupid wonder showed to my tutor, who promptly showed it to my father, abruptly provided a retroactive clarification of certain oddities of behavior on his part” (SM 257-58).
96.10-11: the curiosity of Lucette and Blanche (the governess presented no threat, being pathologically unobservant): For Lucette’s curiosity, see especially I.23; for Blanche’s, see 191.11 and after; for Mlle Larivière’s failures to observe, see MOTIF: Larivière unobservant.
96.13-15: discovered Blanche in his room feigning to make the unmade bed, with the unlocked diary lying on the stool beside it: Cf. Van’s first arrival at Ardis: “Would Van like him [Bouteillan] or a maid to unpack? Oh, one of the maids, said Van, wondering briefly what item in a schoolboy’s luggage might be supposed to shock a housemaid. The picture of naked Ivory Revery (a model)? Who cared, now that he was a man?” (36.09-13). Cf. also Blanche’s eventual role in spreading the story of Van and Ada’s love as “a sacred secret and creed, throughout the countryside” (409.04-05).
Just as Blanche seems to be doing what is expected of her when Van returns, although she has in fact taken her fill of the diary, so Lucette after being tied up by Van and Ada when they rush off to make love for the first time in her proximity unties herself, spies on them, rushes back and has almost retied herself when they return, although to them “Writhing Lucette had somehow torn off one of the red knobbed grips of the rope and seemed to have almost disentangled herself when dragon and knight, prancing, returned” (142.20-22).
96.15-16: slapped her lightly on the behind: MOTIF: behind.
96.16: shagreen-bound: W2, shagreen: “A kind of untanned leather prepared in Russia and the East, from the skins of horses, asses, camels, etc., and covered with small round granulations by pressing small seeds into the grain or hair side when moist, and when dry scraping off the roughness. Soaking then causes the compressed or indented portions of the skin to swell up into relief. It is dyed various bright colors, chiefly green.” Pun on slang shag, “to copulate with” (OED), on green (with envy), and on chagrin: Blanche “adored Van, adored Ada, adored Ardis’s ardors in arbors” (409.06-07), but she also offers herself to Van more than once (49.18-20, 293.13-15), and here may have gone “to weep in her bower” (96.21-22). Probably also a pointer to Lucette, always associated with green (including green with envy), and also anxious, within a few weeks, to spy as much as she can on signs of Van and Ada’s feelings for each other (see 96.13-15n. above).
96.17-19: met in the passage, and would have kissed at some earlier stage of the Novel’s Evolution in the History of Literature: “Would have,” presumably, in some novel from an earlier epoch, after the preparation of such a coincidence. MOTIF: novel.
96.20: Shattal Tree incident: MOTIF: Shattal.
Afternote to Part One, Chapter 15