Part One, Chapter 7
On his arrival at Ardis in I.5 and I.6 Van had felt ill at ease, a stranger who had to be shown where to sit and whose lead to follow. Now he wakes up after a night of dreamless sleep, fresh, fit and eager to explore on his own the freshness of the morning, the manor, the maid.
A more conventional story of ardent “first” love would skip the preamble and jump straight to the main story. But Nabokov (like Shakespeare, for that matter, who has Romeo fixated on Rosalind before he sights Juliet) knows it is more honest to admit that the arrows of desire must exist before any can hit its target.
Nabokov describes the magic of first love vividly in the “Tamara” chapter of Speak, Memory, but before Tamara, there was Polenka, and before Polenka, “First Love” and Colette, and before Colette, Zina, his pretty cousins, and his governess Miss Norcott. . . . Love, he knew, has much to do with a state of readiness; he liked to stress “the lust that nature, the grand cheat, puts into us to inveigle us into propagation.” (PF 253) In I.7 he prepares for Van’s love for Ada by showing him sexually primed from the day of his arrival at Ardis.
Van is young, healthy, wealthy, independent, not altogether inexperienced in sex (with Mrs Gimber’s helper) or in love (for Mrs Tapirov’s daughter). It is summer, and Van for the first time is at Ardis, which itself seems all Eros: nowhere more so, in the early summer of 1884, than in Blanche, whom Van accosts just a few moments before her tryst with Bouteillan.
Nabokov fills Ardis the First with foreglimpses of Van and Ada fulfilled in love, even at a stage when to Van himself fulfilled love seems an impossibly remote prospect. But Nabokov nevertheless objects to inevitability as a feature of fiction or of life. Not only does he foreshadow, but in Gary Morson’s apt term (Narrative and Freedom: The Shadows of Time, 1994), he also sideshadows, he sketches in other lines of possible development.
If Van is ready for sexual adventure, Ada, twelve years old and his cousin, does not yet even come to mind. But Blanche is another story. She may be much older than Van, nineteen to his fourteen, but he is a nobleman, she a serving wench, and he has long seen his father pursuing one pretty maid after another. He glimpsed her on the eve “and promised himself to investigate.” She turns out to be already taken, for the moment, and she puts him off by the emotional ponderousness she recycles from the romances she reads.
By placing her in Van’s way here, Nabokov introduces other options than Ada that might have stirred Van this summer. Yet it is Ada Van will fall in love with. His quick appraisal of Blanche and his brusque directness toward her will offset by contrast his slowly rising passion for his young cousin, his gradual recognition of her interest in him, and his tentative moves toward a consummation he had thought was only devoutly to be wished.
47.01: sandpaper-eyed: Cf. Webster’s Second, sandman: “The genie of folklore who makes children sleepy; —in allusion to the rubbing of their eyes as if there were sand in them.
47.01: evening tea: Cf. 154.27.
47.06-07: prostokvasha (translated by English governesses as curds-and-whey, and by Mlle Larivière as lait caillé, “curdled milk”): MOTIF: translation.
47.06-15: curds-and-whey . . . coarse black peasant bread; dusky klubnika (Fragaria elatior), and huge, bright-red garden strawberries (a cross between two other Fragaria species): Cf. Pnin recalling, from America, evening teas in the summer of 1916 or 1917 in a Russian resort on the Baltic: “Two kerosene lamps cozily illuminated the porch. . . . Madam Belochkin had the maid serve them there . . . their glasses of tea in silver holders, the curd and whey with black bread, the Garden Strawberries, zemlyanika, and the other cultivated species, klubnika (Hautbois or Green Strawberries)” (Pnin 132); or this reminiscence from the narrator of “The Admiralty Spire”: “Katya and I would make for the kitchen garden, and, squatting there, gorge ourselves on two species of strawberry--the bright-crimson ‘Victoria’ (sadovaya zemlyanika) and the Russian hautbois (klubnika), purplish berries often slimed by frogs” (Stories 348). For a different attitude to natural objects (not Nabokov’s own), as symbols rather than real particulars, see the “fraise-like” cherry of Ada 363.20-23; for something very close to Nabokov on art’s particulars, see the strawberry at 437.08-15. Cf. also 375.14-16.
47.06-08: curds-and-whey . . . little Miss Ada: Echoing the nursery rhyme, first recorded in 1805, “Little Miss Muffet / Sat on her tuffet / Eating her curds and whey. / There came a big spider / Who sat down beside her / And frightened Miss Muffet away!” (Iona and Peter Opie, Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, Oxford: Clarendon, 1951, 323-24). MOTIF: nursery rhyme.
47.09: avidly (Ada, those adverbs qualified many actions of yours!): Note the a-d-v play in avidly and adverbs. Not only is there is a hint not only of Van and Ada, but also of Demon, their decidedly avid father. MOTIF: Ada.
47.10-11: special monogrammed silver spoon: For “Ada Veen.” MOTIF: A; Ardis . . . arrow; V.
47.16-18: a clamorous caroling--bright warbles . . . tender chew-chews: Cf. 54.16-18, where Van implies that the birds screech so much because Ada has collected so many insects that the birds can’t have; cf. the birdcalls on Van’s first morning at Ardis the Second, 191.30 (“thrushes were sweetly whistling”), and on his last morning there, 294.10-14 (“where thrushes were singing so richly, with such sonorous force, such fluty fioriture”).
47.18-19: which he assumed, not without a non-Audubon’s apprehension: John James Audubon (1785-1851), U.S. ornithologist and painter of the celebrated Birds of America (4 vols., 1827-38). Nabokov’s 1952 review of Audubon’s Butterflies, Moths and Other Studies begins: “Anyone knowing as little about butterflies as I do about birds may find Audubon’s lepidoptera as attractive as his bright, active, theatrical birds are to me.” (SO 329)
47.18-20: which he assumed . . . Ada . . . could, and would, break up into the right voices of the right birds: MOTIF: Ada’s taxonomy.
48.02: the brook he had observed on the eve: Cf. 44.06-07: “an artificial cascade borrowed from some brook or book.”
48.04: the snore coming from the governess’ room: Cf. 122.07-08: “Larivière stopped snoring but a moment later went on shaking the house.”
48.06-07: He was quite well, quite well!: This may seem just a sourceless shiver of ecstasy, but his urinating without difficulty in fact reassures him that he does not have the gonorrhea he was anxious about at 33.31-35 (a connection confirmed in A1: "see p. 33").
48.08-09: General Durmanov’s father acknowledged Van with grave eyes and passed him on to old Prince Zemski and other ancestors: Cf. 43. 01-11 and 124.20-22: “past a pleased-looking Prince Zemski and a grim Vincent Veen, Bishop of Balticomore and Como."
48.14-17: Being still unaware that under the stairs an inconspicuous recess . . . communicated through a toolroom with a secluded part of the garden: On Van’s first night at Ardis the Second he and Ada meet in the toolroom and see the morning in together there (190.32-191.17); it is in the toolroom that Blanche on his last morning at Ardis the Second will tell him of Ada’s infidelity (292.34-293.23).
48.15: an inconspicuous recess concealed an assortment of spare keys: Cf. 53.12: “the key was concealed in this hole here” (Kyoto Reading Circle, Krug 3:2, 27).
48.20-33: a young chambermaid whom he had glimpsed (and promised himself to investigate) on the preceding evening. . . . he could not resist clasping the wrist of her raised tight-sleeved arm: In 1892 Ada reports of Blanche: “She tells me you made a pass at her on the first morning of your first arrival.” (408.24-25)
48.22-23: what his father termed with a semi-assured leer “soubret black and frissonnet frill”: A soubrette (from French soubret, “affected, coy”), in stage comedies, “a lady’s maid who acts the part of an intrigante; a coquettish maidservant or frivolous young woman” (W2). A frissonnet is presumably a small frisson (perhaps influenced by frisure, a style of curling the hair). On arriving at Ardis in July 1888, Demon passes Blanche and tells Van: “A moment ago, in that gallery, I ran into a remarkably pretty soubrette. . . . Do you like the type, Van--the bowed little head, the bare neck. . . . ” (244.04-10)
48.23: tortoise-shell comb: It will have come off Blanche, in the toolroom, by the next chapter: cf. 53.19-21.
48.24: caught the amber light: MOTIF: amber.
48.25-26: starred with a tiny aquamarine: MOTIF: aquamarine.
48.27-28: baby-toed biscuit: the outer edge of a petit-beurre (see 210.12 and n.). In the margin of A1 Nabokov has drawn a petit-beurre with five little semi-circular indentations (the “baby toes”) per side.
48.28-29: Her cameo profile, her cute pink nostril: Cf. “‘little Violet’’s cameo neck, pink nostrils” (576.13-14) and “ Ada, her keepsake profile inclined.” (204.28) MOTIF: profile (woman’s).
48.29: long, French, lily-white neck: Jurgen Bodenstein (Appendix 7.8) suggests the “French, lily-” combination is a play on the fleur-de-lys (literally “flower of the lily”), the stylized iris in France’s coat of arms.
49.04-06: Blanche--but Mlle Larivière called her “Cendrillon” because her stockings got so easily laddered, see, and because she broke and mislaid things . . . : “Blanche-Neige” is the French “Snow White,” and “Cendrillon” “Cinderella.” For Mlle Larivière’s irritation with “the young slattern,” cf. 69.13-15. Among the things she mislays are a comb, a novel, a tampon, a hairpin, slippers and garters (53.19-23, 68.27-28, 69.14-15, 292.19, 401.20-25); among those she breaks, the flower vase at 242.28. Blanche interrupts Van and Ada on Van’s first morning at Ardis the Second in a Cinderella-like costume (“she wore a miniver cloak that Ada had lost in the woods,” 191.09-10: Dack also scampers in with her “miniver-furred slipper” at 248.23-24); on Van’s last morning at Ardis the Second, she comes to him with “no slippers” (292.19) and he kisses “Cendrillon’s shy hand” (299.23-24). MOTIF: Cinderella; fairy tale.
49.06: and confused flowers: MOTIF: flowers.
49.07-08: even if color-blind: As Van pretends she must be if she confuses flowers. Blanche’s child will eventually prove blind (cf. 408.22-23). Cf. also 397.19-20: “Home for Blind Colts or Aging Ashettes” (“Ashette” would be another way of rendering “Cendrillon” in English). Cf. 131.34: “Braille Club in Raduga” (since raduga means “rainbow”).
49.08-09: while looking over her head for a suitable couch to take shape: In fact there is one behind the screen: 49.25-26.
49.10-12: where any place, as in Casanova’s remembrances could be dream-changed into a sequestered seraglio nook: Extracts of the Memoirs of Giacomo Girolamo Casanova de Seingalt (1725-1798), Italian adventurer, were published in 1788; a multi-volume abridged and bowdlerized edition appeared in French in 1826-38. Van refers to Casanova on his first morning with Ada in Ardis the Second (196.10-11, 198.19); see also 136.29.
The text should be corrected to read “remembrances, could.”
49.14-28: Monsieur . . . her strange, tragic tone: Cf. Blanche’s French and her tragic tones on Van’s last morning at Ardis, 292.20-293.15.
49.14-17: Monsieur a quinze ans . . . De plus: Darkbloom: “You are fifteen, Sir, I believe, and I am nineteen, I know. . . . You, sir, have known town girls no doubt; as to me, I’m a virgin, or almost one. Moreover . . . ” Van is not fifteen but a six-foot fourteen-year-old.
49.15-16: a poor peat-digger’s daughter: Blanche comes from La Tourbière, or Torfyanka (“Peat” in French and Russian). At 407.09-10 Blanche’s father is “the fat, flour-pale cook” at Ardis, in a photograph taken in 1884, the year of this scene. Nabokov’s mistake? Blanche’s romanticization of her origins?
49.19: rien qu’une petite fois: Darkbloom: “just once.” Cf. Lucette’s conviction that if Van possessed her “even once” she would somehow “transform a brief tactile event into an eternal spiritual tie” (485.02-27).
49.20: infernal fire: MOTIF: infernal.
49.21-22: I have the whites and must see le Docteur Chronique, I mean Crolique: She has the whites (leucorrhea), appropriate for a young woman whose name means “white”; she may have a “chronic” case, in fact, as her Nabokovian slip for “Krolik” suggests; but in fact her condition is probably already gonorrhea (which will later blind her child, 408.22) rather than mere leucorrhea, as is suggested on both Van’s first morning at Ardis the Second, where she has been trysting with “old Sore the Burgundian nightwatchman” (191.06: and later we discover “Nightwatchmen fought insomnia and the fire of the clap with the weapons of Vaniada’s Adventures,” 409.15-16), and his last morning there: “quite aside from the fear of infection (Bout had hinted at some of the poor girl’s troubles)” (293.06-08); cf. also 300.12-17. So much for her being “almost” a virgin.
49.24-32: and Monsieur Bouteillan has entered the next room. . . . The butler’s hand in the mirror . . . : Just as Van intrudes on Blanche and Bouteillan here on his first morning at Ardis the First, so first Blanche (returning from a rendezvous with another servant, old Sore) and then Bouteillan intrude on Van and Ada on Van’s first morning at Ardis the Second (191.02-08, 195.15-19).
49.28-30: as if he were taking a part in a play in which he was the principal actor, but of which he could only recall that one scene: Cf. Rack’s “ ‘One feels . . . One feels,’ he said, ‘that one is merely playing a role and has forgotten the next speech.’ ‘I’m told many feel that,’ said Ada.” (202.22-24)
49.31-34: the mirror . . . the green reality of the garden: Cf., on Van’s first morning at Ardis the Second: “in the bright-green garden as the dark-green shadows drew in their claws.” (191.30-32) Cf. also LATH 54: “the glass also held, at arm’s length as it were, the green reality of the garden.”
49.31-32: The butler’s hand in the mirror took down a decanter from nowhere and was withdrawn: Cf. another morning scene between Blanche and another servant, Bout (the butler’s son), which Van also interrupts: “A bottle was audibly uncorked (drinking hock at seven in the morning!) and Blanche took over.” (179.17-18)
49.33-34: the green reality of the garden: In view of the prominent later echoes of Andrew Marvell’s “The Garden,” this seems to recall Stanza 6 of the poem: “Meanwhile the mind, from pleasures less, / Withdraws into its happiness: / . . . / Annihilating all that’s made / To a green thought in a green shade.” (ll. 41-48) MOTIF: green [Ardis].
Afternote to Part One, Chapter 7