Part One, Chapter 33



After the crowded poolside scene of I.32, I.33 shows us Ardis almost emptied of its owners and attendants yet Van still repeatedly, irritably frustrated by his impatient desire for Ada: first by Philip Rack, searching for Ada to say his farewells; then by his need to wash his hands, in disgust at the touch of Rack’s handshake, before he caresses Ada again; then by finding Lucette has arrived in his absence, and by Ada’s refusing to send her away immediately, caught up as they both are in Ada’s peeling an apple for her sister in a spellbinding uninterrupted spiral; then by Van’s ancillary frustration, after retreating in irritation to the library, of searching for a misplaced book, a frustration compounded by finding once he locates it that he no longer needs it, and by the fact that his trying to cool off on the divan, scene of their first love-making, only heats up his desire again; then by his ascending the staircase back toward Ada, reliving with fondness and amplified eagerness memories of that first night of conjoined ardor, only for him now to find the door at the top latched from the outside and to have to redescend, “memories now blotted out by trivial exasperation” (209); and then by discovering Ada still engaged with Lucette. Only at the end of the chapter is Ada, too, ready to dismiss Lucette and leave the stage free for her and ardent Van—and there the chapter breaks off.
The chapter adds to its comedy of frustration the comedy of Van’s hostility to Rack, a hostility that compounds and complicates the mood of the chapter because it persists even now, almost eighty years later, as Van as narrator relives and resavors his angry disdain for the music teacher who has such an obvious crush on Ada.


207.02-03: her last piano lesson with gloomy Herr Rack: Rack has to return to his and his wife’s home town, Kalugano, since his Elsie is pregnant and only three weeks from term, 202.10-16.

207.03: repetitive tinkle-thump-tinkle: Lucette here manages to mangle Mozart (208.13). Perhaps with a nod in “tinkle . . . tinkle” to the English nursery rhyme, “Twinkle, twinkle, little star” (1806) by Jane Taylor (1783-1824), which, as a nursery song, is sung to the tune of the French “Ah! vous dirai-je, maman” (first published 1761), a tune on which Mozart wrote the famous “Variations on ‘Ah, vous dirai-je maman,’” K. 265 / K. 300e (1781 or 1782).
175: “Le martèlement monotone du la-do-ré” (“The monotonous hammering of the lah-do-re.”)

207.05: Marina had fluttered away to Ladore: Where Pedro stays at a hotel at Marina’s expense (197.06-10).

207.09: a cretonne-covered divan: Not to be confused with the black velvet divan in the Ardis library. Cretonne (W2) is now “a strong unglazed cotton cloth, printed on one or both sides, often used for covering furniture.” MOTIF: divan.

207.09-11: the child’s old “untouchable” treasures among which was the battered anthology: Ada 1968 (the Yale typescript), p. 306, reads here “the child’s old ‘untouchable’ treasures among which was the doll Van had saved from drowning, and the battered anthology.”

207.10-11: the battered anthology he had given her four years ago: See 145.12-146.33: “a collection of the most beautiful and famous short poems in the English language” (145.16-17), “the anthology you once gave me” (146.17-18).

207.12-13: the music would surely endure: The verb, rather than, say, “last,” suggests both Lucette’s dogged persistence and the need to “endure” the sounds her playing produces.

207.14: nuque: W2: “The back of the neck; nape.”

207.16-17: Chort (hell): MOTIF: chort.

207.19: gums exposed: Cf. Rack “showing his awful gums” (200.11); Van contemplating attacking Rack, since he is not born a gentleman and therefore not duellable: “you could make his gums bleed with repeated slaps or, still better, thrash him with a strong cane” (294.28-29); “I was asking about Herr Rack, who has such delectable gums” (296.25-26).

208.01-02: while the music continued to play on its own as if by some mechanical device:  As Ada shows Van around the Ardis manor in 1884, they pass “some playroom or nursery” out of which Lucette peeps; as they pass “by that open door a toy barrel organ invitingly went into action with a stumbling little minuet” (42.28-34). A little later, “A dwarf Haydn again played a few bars as they walked on” (44.16-17). Cf. Van’s dream-experience of “one last Villa Venus” (356.29): “The grand piano in the otherwise bare hall seemed to be playing all by itself but actually was being rippled by rats in quest of the succulent refuse placed there by the maid who fancied a bit of music when her cancered womb roused her before dawn with its first familiar stab” (358.17-21).

208.04-05: stomach cramps or nausea: Rather than some milder need to use the lavatory. Van as narrator vindictively introduces here what he only finds out much later, that Rack will be poisoned by his wife (313.16-23). From his hospital bed in Kalugano, Rack will say to Van: “I must vomit now. I ring myself” (316.21-22).

208.06-07: Ivan Demonovich (accented miserably on the second “o”): Should be accented on the second syllable, DemOnovich, and in Russian speech would be slurred to DemOnych, so that the syllable Rack stresses disappears altogether. In any case, the patronymic is incorrect: it should be Dementievich, after Van’s father’s baptismal first name, not his society nickname. Cf. 271.18-19: “Count Percy de Prey turned to Ivan Demianovich Veen: ‘I’m told you like abnormal positions?’”; 399.23-24: “’Zdraste, Ivan Dementievich,’ said Van, greeting his fourteen-year-old self,” a photograph of an 1884 scene that itself foreshadows the 1888 rival theme (see 50.16 and n. and Afternote to I.8); 518.09: “Ivan Dementievich explained . . . ” MOTIF: Ivan Dem---vich.

208.08-10: Alas, Van’s cousin and aunt were in town, but Phil might certainly find his friend Ida writing in the rose garden. Was Van sure? Van was damned well sure: Van’s free indirect discourse here invites us to reconstruct the actual words and Van’s attitudes to what Rack says, both in his own immediate response and in his much later report. Van’s reply presumably began: “Alas, my cousin, and aunt,” as he places a protective distance between himself and Ada. His familiar “Phil” and “your friend Ida” (neither, presumably, said in live speech, but only inserted here in this report?) show the fastidious, class-conscious and hostile Van mocking a tutor’s offensive overfamiliarity (by the conversational decorum of the day, Rack should have said “Fräulein Veen” and “Mademoiselle Larivière”). In “Was Van sure?” Van renders, presumably, what he construes as the rude insistence of Rack’s actual “Are you sure?” with an extra touch of familiarity. “Van was damned well sure” expresses both Van’s determination to keep Rack from Ada and to have a chance to return to complete their love-making without further interruption. The whole exchange shows free indirect discourse used as an instrument of retrospective narrative vindictiveness. For a superb brief essay on Nabokov’s handling of speech, direct, reported, free indirect, and in a new fourth mode, see Clarence Brown, “Oratio Nabokoviensa,” Stanford Slavic Studies 4: 2 (1991), 323-27.

208.09: Ida writing in the rose garden: Perhaps rewriting parts of her novel Les Enfants Maudits, in response to its deformation by the film team in I.32? MOTIFS: Enfants Maudits; rose.

208.11: looked up, looked down: He looks up, perhaps, on the alert to hear Ada, whom he is sure (and with good reason) he has heard somewhere upstairs.

208.12: his mysterious pink-paper tube: Presumably the text of what will turn out to be Rack’s last composition, “my last flute melody” (316.20), which he later sends to Ada, but wants here to give to her in person. Presumably, too, it has a dedication to her, or some other hint of their relationship: Blanche, telling Van of Ada’s affair with Rack, reports that “he made songs for her, a very pretty one was once played at a big public ball at the Ladore casino” (293). The “pink-paper tube” may suggest not so much a flute as a phallus to Van, conscious already, but so far only scornful, of Rack’s attraction to Ada.

208.13: where Mozart had begun to falter: Cf. 207.03 and n.

208.16-17: I must wash my right hand before I touch you or anything: Cf. 199.30-31: “Our young man, being exceptionally brezgliv (squeamish, easily disgusted), had no desire to share a few cubic meters of chlorinated celestino . . . with two other fellows.” But this particular fastidiousness is associated with jealousy. When Van shakes the hand of the film director Yuzlik, but thinks he is shaking hands with Ada’s husband Andrey Vinelander, his “strong honest clasp made Van crave for a disinfecting fluid to wash off contact with any of her husband’s public parts” (511-12). Limp or firm, the handshakes of his possible rivals make Van recoil.

208.18-20: nervously, angrily, absently flipping through the pages of what happened to be that old anthology: “What happened to be” indicates that it is not the anthology that has wound Ada up. She is “nervous” lest Rack somehow discloses anything of her relationship with him, and presumably “angry” because of Van’s ill-concealed hostility to Rack.

208.19-20: that old anthology: Cf. 146.17-18, 207.10.

208.20-23: book . . . “from the book’s brink” . . . brook: Is there any connection with Van and Ada dying, “as it were, into the finished book, into Eden or Hades, into the prose of the book or the poetry of it blurb” (587.25-27)? MOTIF: brook-brink.

208.24: forelimb: Van’s word choice makes Rack seem a quadruped. Cf. dying Dan’s recurrent Boschean image of being ridden by “a devil combining the characteristics of a frog and a rodent . . . with a knife in his raised forelimb” (435.23-28).

208.33: privet: A1: “Ligustrum.”W2: “An ornamental Eurasian and north African shrub (Ligustrum vulgare), with half-evergreen leaves and small white flowers; also, any of various other species of the same genus; as, the California privet, ibolium privet, etc. The privets are widely planted for hedges.”

208.34-209.01: sick or drunken musician: Van imagines Rack as he might look to an observer? Perhaps a hint that Rack is crying with the disappointment of not seeing, or being turned away from, Ada?

209.01: who, thank goodness: Van is relieved not so much for Rack’s sake as because he no longer need feel compelled to “go down to his aid” (208.33).

209.06-12: peeling an apple . . . her “ideal peel,” a yellow-red spiral: Cf. Gift 200: “And most essentially, there must be a single uninterrupted progression of thought. I must peel my apple in a single strip, without removing the knife”; the poem “Restoration” (1952): “I know a poet who can strip / a William Tell or Golden Pip /in one uninterrupted peel / miraculously to reveal, / revolving on his fingertip, // a snowball” (PP 167). MOTIF: apple.

209.15-32: Shall be in the library . . . down to the library: MOTIF: library (Ardis).

209.21: black divan: This time, the black divan in the library where Van and Ada first made clumsy love. Hence Van’s lying here “seemed only to increase the pressure of passionate obsession.” MOTIF: divan.

209.23: by the cochlea: W2: “1. A winding stair. Rare.” Cf. 42.02-03: “a semi-secret little staircase spiralled them from behind a rotatory bookcase to the upper floor.” A1: in the margin beside “cochlea” Nabokov has drawn a small spiral. With a pun on cock, in view of Van’s impatience?

209.25-30: her hurrying up with her candlestick . . . along the yellow wall: Cf. 121.33-122.03.

209.25-26: on the night of the Burning Barn, capitalized in his memory forever: Cf. the first mention, 113.34, “the Night of the Burning Barn,” and the prompt echo, 114.02-03, “did the Burning Barn come . . . first.” MOTIF: Burning Barn.

209.27: hurdies: W2: “The buttocks; rump; hips. Scot., N. of Eng., & Ir.

210.01-03: It was something amusing, it had to do with—I do not remember and cannot invent: Seems designed by Van to demonstrate his reliability, but it suggests than he often does invent when he cannot remember. MOTIF: Composition—Van.

210.03-09: Ada had a way of hastening . . . cosy laughter: Cf. the description of Ada’s laughter on the phone, “the bright vibration, of her vocal cords, the little ‘leap’ in her larynx, the laugh clinging to the counter of the phrase, as if afraid in girlish glee to slip off the quick words it rode,” 555.22-25.

210.10-11: kissing Lucette on her dimpled cheek: Cf. 156.06: “Van kissed Lucette on each dimple.”

210.12: petit-beurre: Darkbloom: “a tea biscuit.” Cf. SM 46: "a couple of broken petit-beurre biscuits."

Afternote to Part One, Chapter 33

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